(Animated by Jared D. Weiss)
Torches and pitchforks clutched tightly in hand, the frenzied mob reach the pinnacle of the great cliff summit. The lumbering brute they have driven here cowers and recoils from the countless looming forks and flames. The creature wails with anguish before its gaze is momentarily drawn to the seemingly all-encompassing ocean below, and beyond. A grim realization dawns, here where the land meets the sea. The end of the line has been met, as the waves relentlessly break against the jagged rocks so far below.
One or two fiery and frantic lunges later, the aroma of singed flesh is swiftly consumed by the smell of the ocean, frightened, confused, the creature falters, losing its footing. He falls, driven over the edge. His shrieks and wails softening as his deformed limbs flail fearfully, the crowd cheer and applaud his fateful descent. Until finally, a peculiar corpse lay in bloody ruin, waiting to be claimed by the clutches of the sea.
Only some are not rejoicing. For even those who aid in the slaying of monsters know all too well, that “there but for the grace of God go we”. A mere turn of fate decides who shall hold the torch and pitchfork and who shall be scorned and shunned, as the monster.
Unbeknownst to most, is that the greatest monster of all, does not lurk in the shadowy deep places of this world, nor is it lying dead at the oceans grip. The greatest and most triumphant monster is the mob, the cruelty that lurks in the heart of every man, woman and child, waiting ever patiently to be awoken.
“Monster derives from the Latin Monstrum, itself derived ultimately from the verb moneo (“to remind, warn, instruct, or foretell”), and denotes anything “strange or singular, contrary to the usual course of nature, by which the gods give notice of evil,” “a strange, unnatural, hideous person, animal, or thing,” or any “monstrous or unusual thing, circumstance, or adventure.”
—Joseph Esmond Riddle, 1870
But what is the archetypal monster of our collective human imagination?
As you may have already noticed, there are a great many similarities among the monsters of mythology and literature. These traits and commonalities, across numerous cultures say a great deal more about human nature than they do about fictional beings.
In the Greek mythological stories of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur, the creature’s origin came about by Poseidon using magic to cause Queen Pasiphaë (Wife of King Minos of Crete) to mate with a white bull. The offspring hybrid creature is so unruly and ferocious, the artificer Daedalus is tasked with constructing the Labyrinth to keep the Minotaur effectively segregated from society. Some variations of the myth note that seven young men and seven young women would be lowered into the Labyrinth as offerings from the Athenians to Crete. Despite this unfortunate origin and abysmal existence, the Minotaur is eventually slain by the hero, Theseus.
There are countless meanings, metaphors behind the legends but antiquity had little sympathy for beasts, outcasts or anyone who didn’t conform to the popular governing way of life. Some have suggested that the Minotaur, symbolized the act of unethical forced tribute/extortion. That the monster was an evil emphasis of the sigil of Crete, the embodiment of a nation’s (perceived) injustice. Personified as some monstrous creature, because ultimately, that is easier to hate. If you were beautiful and graceful, you had the blessing of the gods. If you were ugly, deformed, then you bore their hatred, their curse and you were a living reminder of a god’s malice towards those they did not favor.
Across vast periods of time and all around the world, it seems as though these basic principles can be applied to countless monsters of stories, myth and legend. The Judeo-Christian Demon, Oni (Demon of Japan), Ogres & Trolls, Goblins, Witches & Warlocks, Godzilla, The Kraken, The Werewolf, The Beast of Gévaudan, Frankenstein’s Monster(s), Dracula, Nosferatu, Count Orlok, Chupacabra, Zombies. The list could go on and on.
Some of the primary traits required to constitute the archetypal monster are:
⦿ Power. Be it great strength, secret knowledge, magic, the monster is in possession of something that threatens the desired state of the group that fear/despise/resist it.
⦿ Isolation. By a variety of means, the monster is capable of sustaining its existence either without the aid of the group that fear/despise/resist it. Alternatively, by a means that results in harming that group (feeding on them), or implicating their quality of life for the worst. Restricting their access to some place, or desired outcome (example: Smaug, the Dragon —The Hobbit).
⦿ Chaos. There can be no harmonious co-existence of the monster and those who fear/despise/resist it. The reputation of the monster grows and grows until it reaches a state of heightened notoriety. Only once the belief of the monster’s existence and its indisputable undesirable nature is clear, will a “champion of the people” set out to “slay the dragon”.
Ultimately, a monster is not truly a monster until it is called so. The title of monster, is not so much a physical, psychological or metaphorical description, but rather a means to facilitate the destruction of whomsoever/whatsoever the title befalls. It is saying this being is not worthy of empathy. This creature is condemned, it is morally irredeemable and for all intents and purposes, lost from human decency. It brings mayhem and suffering wherever it should go and only through its destruction, will peace ever be achieved.
Once you can convince enough people that someone or something is a monster, they will set out against it, and eventually rejoice in its destruction. That is precisely how the most ferocious monsters of all, have held dominion over this world for thousands and thousands of years. Unfortunately, despite how enticing it is to simplify morality and the complexities of good and evil, no matter the justification, no living being is undeserving of empathy. In the end, only through empathy and a willingness to look at the bigger picture, will this archetypal monster of our collective imagination truly be slain.