Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for Monsters

There have been plenty of science fiction TV shows and films that have depicted alien creatures as monsters.  You sometimes hear alien threats in sci-fi TV shows described as “the monster of the week.”  Sometimes they come with the intention of conquering our world.  Sometimes they invade our bodies and use them for nefarious purposes.  In these scenarios, these creatures are monsters, at least from our perspective.  I contend that perspective and motivation play a crucial role in determining who is a monster and who is not. 

Let’s start with the basics.  When you hear the word “monster,” what image do you see in your mind?  According to Merriam-Webster, a monster can be a “strange or horrible imaginary creature” or “one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character.”  When I read these definitions, I am struck by how subjective these indicators are.  What makes a creature strange or horrible?  What is normal or acceptable behavior?

Anything that differs from ourselves is at risk of being classified as a monster or as having a monstrous nature.  We have a natural inclination to distrust anything that we don’t understand.  The realm of science fiction is filled with creatures that have different cultures, biologies, belief systems, etc.  When you encounter someone from an entirely unfamiliar background, there is bound to be some trepidation.

Granted, when you encounter an alien that is trying to harm you in some tangible way, it’s easy to classify them as a monster.  I’d even say you would be somewhat justified in doing so, but in dismissing them as merely being a monster, you might be missing out on an opportunity to understand them.  What is their motivation?  Why are they attacking you?  Is there a way to ensure that you can both get what you want without anyone being harmed?

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, we see the crystalline entity.  It has killed thousands of people, but the widespread destruction is part of its feeding process.  We see something similar in the Star Trek Voyager episode “Bliss.”  That creature uses a form of mind control to make people in passing ships see what they want to see, enabling it to lure the ship into its trap.  It isn’t killing vindictively though.  It’s merely feeding.  Humans kill animals all the time, and not always for food.  Does that make us monstrous?  Human beings are certainly capable of committing monstrous acts.  What kinds of acts make a human being a monster?

The story of Frankenstein comes to mind.  People refer to Frankenstein’s monster all the time, but I have to ask, who in that story was more of a monster?  Frankenstein’s creation certainly did some terrible things, but what brought him to that point?  Frankenstein had envisioned something far different from what his creation turned out to be.  He was repulsed by the sight of the creature, who had done nothing wrong at that point.  Frankenstein brought him into the world and abandoned him, though he arguably had a responsibility toward him.  With no guidance and shunned by his creator, Frankenstein’s creature had to figure out the world on his own.

Monstrosity is not an objective classification.  What do you deem to be monstrous?  Are there any creatures you feel have been unfairly labeled as monsters?


  1. I would definite real monsters as those who cause harm deliberately for gain that is not necessarily about survival. Daleks are monsters, Cybermen are monsters, The Emperor is a monster etc. Then there is the other classification of monstrous beasts which cause destruction mindlessly, sometimes for food, sometimes just from fear, but still destruction. At least that's how I think about it.
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  2. I suspect that in "Monster of the week" the word is also a comment on the type of character involved and their role. It's a reminder that in this form of sci-fi, it's just something to fight, rather than a real developing character.

  3. Frankenstein's Monster is the best example of this. He's always portrayed as angry and cruel, but in the book he's quite thoughtful and introspective. Lots of great monsters out there.