Conflict, The Enemy, and Monster Theory
It was only recently that I realised that many of my favourite stories were asking the same,
simple question. That question (as Clopin puts it so succinctly in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame) is this:
‘What makes a monster and what makes a man?’
And it’s a question that comes up again and again and again.
(In Beauty and the Beast, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Frankenstein, and Beowulf,
and Shrek, and Dracula, and The Selfish Giant, and King Kong and The Phantom of the Opera, and Heracles, and Macbeth, and an obscure but marvellous fairy tale that can be
found in Andrew Lang’s Pink Fairy Book called King Lindorm, which I highly recommend; and, of course, many, many more....)
Not that I have any intention of answering that question. That’s what the stories are for.
Instead, I’m going to try and answer the riddle of why that question is quite so fascinating.
What is it about Monsters that makes them the Ultimate Enemy to Man?
(‘Monsters? Pff!’ you say, ‘I’m not an idiot, I know dragons aren’t real, and it’s not like I’m
scared of ghosts either.’
What are the monsters of modern society? How about paedophiles, Nazis, necrophiliacs,
‘hoodies’, members of the BNP, terrorists....)
Luckily for me a nice man called Jeff Cohen has already come up with a fairly robust (or at
the very least, interesting) theory on the subject. You should buy his book. Then again, so should I. However, you are probably just as poor as I am, and our man Jeff does tend to go on
a bit, so below is a handy summary of what makes the Monster so exciting:
1. ‘The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body’
Translation: What we think of as monstrous is based on what think of as ‘normal’. If being
nice is normal, being nasty is monstrous. If being able to read is normal, being illiterate is
monstrous. If being blonde is normal, being redheaded is monstrous. If having three eyes and
five legs is normal, only having two of each is monstrous.
What I’m trying to say is, there is no such thing as essential monstrosity. The Monster is whatever a culture or society decides is a Monster, and it is whatever that culture or society
itself is not.
(Disclaimer: I do not think being illiterate, redheaded, endowed with two legs and two eyes,
or even being nasty makes someone a monster.)
And because society, though it always changes, always has an idea of what is ‘normal’, it
also always has an idea of what is ‘monstrous’. Therefore the Monster is bound by neither time nor place, but can at any time be a threat to any people, any where.
2. ‘The Monster Always Escapes’
Which sounds pretty self-explanatory, but actually means more than it says.
Because the Monster is ‘bound by neither time nor place, but can at any time be a threat to any people, any where’, you can kill him as many times as you like, but he will always come
back. Altered, perhaps, but just as monstrous. Monstrosity (whatever that may be) cannot be
This makes the monster the ultimate enemy, and a never-ending source of that extra-special
3. ‘The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis’
Wikipedia describes The Monster as a ‘freak of nature’. This is sort of another way of saying that a Monster is whatever is thought of as ‘not normal’. Only worse.
Because not only is the Monster a bit of a non-conformist, but he can break the fixed,
scientific laws of nature (or biology, or physics) as well. The Monster threatens everything
man holds as true. If we think that vanishing from one place and reappearing in another is
impossible, the Monster is the being that says but I think you’re wrong. If we think it’s impossible to speak to the dead, the Monster is the thing that does just that. Monsters
represent our self-doubt, and our fears that our carefully constructed vision of what is Order
and Reason will be destroyed. Because if everything we hold to be true turns out to be mass-
held human delusion, where the hell will we be then?
4. ‘The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference’
If the Monster is whatever we are not, then something or someone who is Not Like Us must
therefore be a Monster. This theory creates convenient enemies (and/or scapegoats) of
anything unusual. In fantasy books different races of creatures often don’t get on because they mistrust each others’ differences. War and rivalry come about because of disagreements
over ‘correct’ religions, skin colours, sexualities, and so on and so forth. Difference breeds mistrust breeds tension and ultimately Conflict.
5. The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible
Being monstrous is bad. Right?
To attempt to imitate the monster, even to inquire about the nature of the Monster, is
dangerous. To venture into Monster Land will only get you hurt. Monsters have sharp claws
and sharp teeth. Their breath is like poison. Here be dragons!
Or else, more worryingly still, to risk an encounter with a Monster, is to risk becoming
monstrous oneself. Werewolves and vampires: both possess a kind of contagious monstrosity.
Accidentally befriend one (or worse, fall in love), and you’ll end up monstrous too.
And it’s not only attack you need to fear. Monstrosity is a potential within Man. The figure of the Monster is a warning: act as the Monster acts and become as Monstrous as he. This is a
threat to Man, a fear of Man, and a particularly discouraging obstacle in the quest of your
average ambitious protagonist.
6. Fear of the Monster is Really a Kind of Desire
What is forbidden is always particularly attractive.
What is unusual – abnormal, even – is what escapist fantasies are made of.
It’s why we write fiction in the first place.
And this inner battle, this simultaneous push-pull (To murder a king would be terrible... but
to be a king would be glorious! / Vampires are bad... but oh, so sexy.) is the stuff of great
fiction: the conflict that takes place inside the soul.
7. The Monster Stands at the Threshold... of Becoming
It is man who makes his own monsters. Monsters are products of ourselves; of our own fears
and fantasies. In horror films the scariest Monsters are the ones you don’t see. Human
imagination is too powerful for CGI to compete with. Besides, what is monstrous for one
person, isn’t necessarily monstrous for another.
In this way monsters bring us fuller knowledge of our own natures: our hopes and fears, our
prejudices and secret desires. What monsters do, to quote old Jeff, is, ultimately, to ‘ask us
why we have created them.’
You’re probably sitting there thinking, ‘remind me, how exactly we ended up on the subject of monsters?’
We started with what made stories interesting. Conflict: things going wrong, the desired
withheld, the feared threatened.
We moved on to different types of Conflict: the action-packed ‘Man against Man’ plot, where good fights evil, and (usually) saves the day; the revolutionary ‘Man against the World’ story,
where an individual trapped in an environment he dislikes, decides to do something to change
it; and finally the more introspective ‘Man against Himself’ approach, where the protagonist
has to come to terms with his own inadequacy and either submits to, or triumphs over, his
All Conflict takes place between Man and one of these varieties of Enemy. The Monster is a
universal Other, an Enemy that threatens men, all men (/women, rabbits, aliens), whoever and
wherever they are, whatever they believe and value. The Monster is therefore the Ultimate
Enemy. He can be seen in the people in the next tribe who are Different from you. He can be
seen in the prejudices or the selfishness or even the ugliness of the civilisation you live in.
But mostly he can be seen to come out of you yourself.
Monsters come in many forms. Some breathe fire and fly. Some have fallen out with God.
Some turn old women away from their castle doors on stormy nights. And some want to
destroy anything or one that isn’t exactly like them.
What makes a monster and what makes a man? Write a story and see.
Some of the stuff I’ve been banging on about:
Monster Theory, by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, is published by University of Minnesota Press.
More Information / Free-to-view Extracts / Buy Online
King Lindorm is available free online.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the best Disney film ever, and will comfort you in the bad
times... but it also comes in book form, thanks to Victor Hugo.
Beauty and the Beast also comes in both Disney and many many fairytale forms.
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein and Bram Stoker, Dracula.
The Selfish Giant is an original fairytale by Oscar Wilde, Macbeth is by Shakespeare,
Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, and the author of Beowulf is unknown, so deal.
I also mentioned Shrek, King Kong, and Heracles, a Greek hero who is often misnamed.