Preface: The Modern Monster, a Working Definition

The definition of a modern monster and an explanation how it evolved and what it means today. Do all members of a society fear monsters in the same way and to the same extent?

Monsters and Masters

As you read the following chapters about modern monsters, it might be helpful to keep these questions in mind: What does it mean to control society’s monsters? Are those who control society’s monsters better able to control society? What is the relationship between monsters and masters? Who defines whom?

ModernFolktales.com Definition of Monster

A being that has the power to terrify, is able to produce great harm, and possesses the explicit intent to harm. Moreover, the monster must be accepted by society as a being with the animus and capability to harm everyone or, at least, each member individually, in a direct and profound way.

Summary of the Modern Monster on ModernFolktales.com

The rest of this chapter will explain how we arrived at the definition of monster offered above. But first, let’s summarize some things about the chapters that will compose the monster category on this web site. First of all, the word monster has become so colloquialized and commercialized that it almost has no meaning any more. When we hear it next to a noun most of us automatically think of it as a modifier adding emphasis. But the concepts to which the word historically pointed, are very powerful, still very much alive, and are constantly used to influence contemporary people every single day—especially in Western societies with highly developed communication systems. Especially in the United States.

The word monster and its rich etymology seems to be the best word to signify ideas that the mass media uses to exploit certain types of fear—fears that influence people and shape their views in profound ways. Apparently, there is a great need for monsters in the world today. The definition provided above is therefore an attempt to rescue the word monster from the colloquial morass in which he currently finds himself. He will be useful in giving form and meaning to other words that, like certain elements in the periodic table, have proven themselves to be rather unstable.

These words, (and we won’t name any just yet), may first appear quite solid and definite. Yet, as we’ll soon see, the way they’ve been used in recent years (especially in the West), indicates quite the opposite. These words may refer to this one day and that on another. Hopefully the monster category in ModernFolktales.com will clear up some of this ambiguity. By the end of all this, perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to get a clear and steady picture of who or what these lurking monsters really are. And they—be quite sure about this—are out there. You and I and everyone else are warned about them all the time. You may even be surprised to learn just how many monsters there are in this our modern world.

The Colloquial Monster

Didn’t monsters go out with the Middle Ages? Weren’t they extinguished by the cool blast of science and technology? Relegated to the domain of comic books and made-for-teenager-TV?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Monsters are more prevalent (and, in some ways, even more necessary) today than ever before. The main difference is that, at least for most of the adult population, the contemporary monster does not have the neck of a brontosaurus and breath fire. He could be a regular guy; may even look like you or me. Truth be told, he could become, lickety-split, you or me.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. So let’s first lay some basic groundwork.

What is meant when we say monster? In colloquial usage, monster can refer to many different things. It may refer to one’s actions. He or she does evil or perverse things. In this sense, we usually hear that Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer or Ted Bundy were monsters.

Or it could refer to the way one looks. People were repulsed by the Elephant Man. Used this way, monster points to a physical condition. Size or other characteristics are not normal—usually grotesque. When we combine physical characteristics that normally belong to two different species or genera, we create what is traditionally seen as a monstrous aberration. An interference with the natural order of things enters the picture. Possessing characteristics of both man and animal, he is neither and consequently defaults into the monster category. The very name Elephant Man captures this meaning perfectly.

The idea of centaurs, minotaurs, and one-eyed giants (i.e., cyclops) are all based on this conception of monster: a beast that is part man, part animal. Their appearance is repulsive because it assaults our expectations. We see depicted in them a strange marriage of order and chaos—a balance that is not condoned by nature. The colloquial monster is primarily a visual or sensory construct.

Of course, informal usage of monster may not even refer to man or beast. It could point to a virus, maybe even a computer virus, or evil propaganda, or an imminent natural disaster. On the other hand, if you’re a surfer, a monster could be a good, albeit, extraordinary thing. As in the case of that monster wave, dude.

Origins of the Monster-Concept

Looking for the etymological roots of the word monster on http://www.wordinfo.info, we learn that it descended from the Latin monstrum, “meaning an evil omen”. This, in turn, probably derived from monere, which means to warn or to remind. The general idea was that a strange or frightening appearance meant that the gods were upset and were signaling that the community was about to experience disaster. In this sense, the omen has to do with the unfolding of the future. It is the fear of the inharmonious, with something that disturbs the normal conditions upon which society depends.

Joseph Campbell states it well in his great work, “The Power of Myth” (Doubleday, 1988).”

“By monster I mean some horrendous presence or apparition that explodes all of your standards for harmony, order, and ethical conduct.”

This conception ultimately rests on a number of creation myths, among the oldest stories known to man. Order implies an opposite: chaos. Harmony implies discord. To appreciate and accept the blessings of order means that we must fear its absence. Our most ancient ancestors were profoundly aware of this dilemma. “The “myth of a combat between the creative diety and the chaotic monster appears in several forms in both Babylonian and Canaanite literature.” 1)John McKenzie, S.J., Myths and Realities, The Bruce Publishing Company, 1963.

The idea of Yahweh as warrior-hero is not so much based on helping the Isaelites , but rather on His victory over chaos in the ancient Hebrew creation myths, which conceive of creation not as a completed task but an ongoing process.

“In the myth, the monster of chaos is identified with the sea or primeval abyss, which is sometimes said to be slain (Ps 73:13-14; 89:11; Is 51:9-10; 27:1), sometimes said to be bound (Ps 89:10; 104:6-8; Job 26:12; 38:8-11). In the latter conception, the monster is kept under constant restraint; were Yahweh to relax it bonds, the world would relapse into chaos.” 2)Ibid.

While creation is borne out of Yahweh’s love, the order and harmony of nature is directed through His wisdom. In this sense, wisdom is “a directive intelligence, which maintains order and harmony among so many conflicting and divergent agents.” 3)Ibid.

As McKenzie goes on to point out, Yahweh’s wrath, on the other hand, is anything but harmonious:

“The earth quivered and rocked,
And the foundations of the mountains trembled,
And rocked when He was angry.
Smoke arose from His nostrils,
And fire devoured from His mouth;
Coals were set ablaze from it.” 4)Psalm 18:8-16

In the Gilgamesh Epic, “Adad rides upon the storm and the hurricane…the hailstones are in his hand, and he sends forth the lightning as his messenger.” 5)John McKenzie, S.J., Myths and Realities, The Bruce Publishing Company, 1963

While the power of the destructive forces signified that the omen signified are terrifying in their own right, an additional, if not greater, power inherent in the gods’ warnings is the fear of a future event. The fear inherent in the omen does not concern what has happened but what will happen. Furthermore, the warning is usually intended for a whole group, as in a particular city or village, rather than an individual. It is an existential threat directed at the group’s survival or way of life.

Once known, it therefore becomes a symbol that everyone in the group agrees is very bad and very destructive to all members. It is not simply bad; it is universally bad. Furthermore, the idea of threatening the entire group underscores the fact that it also threatens the present order of the group—the structure, way it works, etc.

As societies’ developed and became increasingly complex, the order of the village or town became increasingly important. Grendel, the monster in Beowulf and a descendant of Cain represents the dark forces that lead to chaos and must be kept beyond the pale of society. Beowulf ultimately triumphs over Grendel in the primordial and murky depths of his lair, an analogy for the chaotic sea from which the universe was created.

It stands to reason that the more prosperous and powerful a society becomes, the more it will lose should something happen to upset that order (i.e., status quo). This raises the question whether more developed societies have more and/or greater fears about destructive forces compared to less developed societies. This question can also be extended to classes within society. For example, do the upper classes have more and/or greater fears compared to lower classes? Or do they feel more empowered because they command greater resources?

The Monster Animus

The evolution from omen (thunderbolt) to monster (Grendel or dragon) to modern monster has to do with the intent of the agent that calls forth the chaotic forces. The created world depends on the harmonious order of the various natural forces. Chaos is the antithesis that seeks to dispatch the world back into discord. The power to create and destroy grows alongside the development of Man and Civilization. Thus the cosmic battle between Good and Evil that the ancients often represented in the passions of nature or beasts makes more sense to depict through the visage and actions of modern man.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein offers a good example of a modern monster. An omen by itself is impersonal. It’s only purpose is to symbolize destructive or chaotic forces. The hideous Grendel is a good symbol for this, a grotesque combination of human and dragon features, he is an evolutionary link from the old monster to the new. But something that approximates modern man’s idea of monster requires a being that more accurately expresses the imbalanced actions and nefarious intent of a self-conscious being. Although the Hollywood version of Frankenstein portrays a monster in the colloquial sense described above (i.e., it shows a physically abhorrent creature), the true horror of Shelley’s story has more to do with the creature’s intent than his appearance.

Frankenstein offers a complex picture of the struggle between chaos and order as it plays out within the human heart. On the broadest level, the story is about a character whose consciousness of his growing power lures him to reach beyond his place as a mere mortal into the realm of creator of life. Like the colloquial monster, this presents a combination of two different classes of things that should not, according to our sense of natural order, be put together. The man-god is not ready to be born yet and therefore turns into an abomination, as he is represented in both Victor and the monster.

But the question of monstrosity goes further. What was the nature of the force that drove Victor? The fact that he combines science with black magic to achieve his ends is evidence that it is more than just scientific zeal. (It’s also worth pointing out that here again we have another unholy combination: magic and science are at opposite ends of the spectrum from one another.) There are many interpretations about Victor’s conscious and unconscious desires. For our purposes in understanding the modern monster it’s not as important to determine the exact impulse that motivated him. Whether it was pride or a Freudian desire to destroy is not as important as realizing that Victor knowingly stepped beyond the established boundary. Whatever the specific motivation is, the point is that Victor’s creation is a child of chaos. Like Eve, Lucifer, Faust, or Prometheus, Victor attempted to take what was not permitted to him. Unfortunately, he learns too late that he cannot escape the dark forces his actions have unleashed.

It is the idea of intent that defines the modern conception of monster. Although Victor is not the story’s monster, the consequences of his over-reaching is. Yet the monster is not born a monster. His monstrosity becomes a possibility in the moment that Victor realizes his creative act was an abomination. One of the most interesting and tragic aspects of the story is that Victor’s creature in the beginning represents man in a state of nature , a veritable tabla rasa, ignorant of his shame. He’s also superior to normal man both physically and cognitively. It is only after the creature realizes that he’s been betrayed by his creator and spurned by the world that his breast swells with anguish. But, again, the creature is not born a monster, however grotesque he may be. He only becomes one at the moment his internal discord reaches the point where he unleashes the destructive forces to avenge his pain and despair. Now the ugliness on the outside symbolizes the imbalance within, a state that is achieved through the sustained intent of the subject.

Frankenstein’s creature stands before us a modern monster in its fullest conception:  an individual who intentionally calls forth the chaotic forces within himself and sets them loose upon the world.  Although it’s outside the scope of this chapter, it is interesting to wonder what the story’s outcome would be if Victor had not rejected his creation. Instead of following the path of Lucifer in Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, would he have, given the love he required, become an evolutionary bridge linking mankind to a more enlightened world? Would kindness have given him the power to choose a better way?

Flash forward. Hitler was a monster not simply because he had the power to threaten or terrify, but because the world recognized that he had the means and the intent to inflict great harm on a large scale. To be a modern monster, all of these factors must be present. Understood this way, a natural phenomenon, regardless whether it’s a sign from the gods, cannot be a monster.

Battling the Monster

Let’s back up on the time-line  to get a little insight into how ancient societies traditionally faced monsters.

As a universal bad, a monster cannot be allowed to exist within the confines of the group. Some action must be taken for the survival of all. In antiquity, this might mean appeasing the gods through sacrifice or some other ritual. It may even entail behavior modification. If the warning (or monster), for example, means the gods are angry, it might be necessary for a group to change their ways in order to make them happy again.

As we all know, the gods could mete out punishment in any number of ways. They could choose to scourge nations with war, pestilence, famine, floods, etc. The important thing is to understand the nature of the warning. Merely recognizing it, is not sufficient. One had to learn why the gods were angry. But knowing what the gods are thinking can get a little tricky.

That’s why it’s a lot easier to eliminate the monster somehow, do some sacrificing, and wait to see if the warning returns (or calamity ensues). If it doesn’t, then why not assume the remedy worked?

Given this logic structure, it is possible to interpret the failure to remove the appearance or threat of the monster as an ominous sign in itself. If we can’t get rid of the monster, then we must not be doing something right, for the gods are apparently still angry.

If we’re convinced of our righteousness, the goal shifts from correcting whatever actions may have disturbed the gods to simply removing the threat. The logic loops back around. To battle the monster and succeed is a sign of our virtue and that we’re in the gods’ good graces again.

We may therefore take whatever measures are necessary to expel the monstrous threat or even travel beyond the pale of the village, as Beowulf did, to hunt it down and, if necessary, kill it. The mission’s success demonstrates that the good has been restored and life can return to normal. The thinking works whether one fights with swords or F-16s.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways that we have dealt with monsters in the past.

1. We can try to discover what we’re doing wrong as a society, gain the good graces of the gods, and restore things to a healthy state.

2. Or, convinced of our own virtue, we can ignore behavior modification in favor of simply overcoming the monster and prove, if successful, that the status quo is right and good.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that the more powerful and technologically sophisticated a society is, the greater the temptation will be to overlook what could be economically costly modifications in favor of simply destroying the monster.

Under these circumstances, the goal shifts slightly. It is not as focused on protecting all of the people in a particular society as it is maintaining the complex functioning of all the many technologically important parts—human or not. In this sense, the monster is the bad cog in the machine that might cause damage. It must be discovered and expelled. It is the enemy within.

Demonization and Monstrification

Listen to any of talk radio or TV show in the U.S. and it won’t take long to notice a level of vitriol that skates along the hard edge of outright hatred. There’s no point in naming names because any of us who’ve listened to these shows easily recalls how the hosts of these shows sermonize on the iniquity of their foes’, repeatedly warning against their shocking malevolence. With surgical precision, they slice their subject away from his underlying humanity and stitch them on to a prefabricated monster chained in the depths of their media fortresses, only to set them free upon an audience unsuspectingly nursing on their own fear. Despite this situation, it would be somewhat comforting if

As citizens of developed nations become more dependent on impersonal sources of information, such as the various media, to construct and maintain their worldviews, it has become an irresistible temptation to demonize enemies when it seems rewarding to do so. This involves propaganda and although it has been around a long time, it seems is more pervasive now than ever before. As new forms of media develop and become more technologically advanced, it’s not surprising to see that propaganda has also evolved and become more powerful.

If the famous televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy illustrated the power of television to influence politics, Watergate and Richard Nixon demonstrated just how well the media could demonize a politician. One of Ronald Reagan’s strengths was how well he could use television to manipulate the way people perceived him and his version of reality. The Communists were the bad guys and he was the tall, debonair good guy galloping to our rescue.

But perhaps it wasn’t until the impeachment of Bill Clinton that demonization was truly liberated and could be used not just some of the time but all the time and not just on foreign enemies but domestic ones too. This includes people and things. Prior to Clinton, one didn’t really demonize their opponents so much as dehumanize them. Today, it is not uncommon in the U.S. to associate a political opponent with Hitler or bin Laden; with fascists or terrorists. Test this out and do a perform an Internet search combining these words with prominent politicians, like Obama or Bush. The results are endless.

Political demonization is not just widely used. It’s a language that has been codified. Look at the terrorist quotes provided in Chapter 3 and compare the ones from the Clinton Administration in the light 1990’s with those from the Bush Administration several years later. It is striking how closely the words and phrasing resemble one another. Unfortunately, demonization is not just used on political opponents or enemies in faraway countries. Increasingly. it’s used on regular people right here at home in the U.S.A. The targets are endless. It can involve scapegoating, as in the case of Mexican immigrants nowadays (see Prologue for more on this). The reasons are usually the same: to

Beyond Good and Evil

It is important to realize that the monster-threat in the latter scenario has in some ways evolved beyond (or been denigrated below) a purely moral conception of a struggle between good and evil. In complex and technologically powerful societies, such as the great nations of the world today, the idea of good is often communicated as something that offers the most utility to the greatest number of people. This, of course, is an economic conception of good.

The question this poses is how to distribute the good among the people in a group or society? Does it, for instance, merely entail taking a defined good and spreading it out evenly among everyone? But this smacks of communism, a vanquished monster of the past. For most of the world, capitalism is, of course, the prevailing alternative nowadays. Some people receive or obtain more good than others and, according to the philosophical underpinnings of capitalism 6)Although some of capitalism’s fundamental ideas are being seriously re-examined due to the global financial upheavals in recent years. One example is the now discredited but once dominant rational market theory., deserve it more than others. Most of the developed, powerful nations in the world today have chosen various forms of capitalism as a means to create and distribute “good” (i.e., utility) to the people.

The economic concept of good supports the idea of infinite growth based on maximum consumption that modern economies currently depend on. This is the belief that perpetuates and facilitates the forces that control capital (i.e., the capitalists or the status quo). And if evil is the corollary of good, what can we reasonably infer about it? It stands to reason that evil must be defined as something that offers the least utility to the greatest number of people. One who intentionally inflicts evil, then (according to the definition provided at the beginning of this chapter), should be classified as a monster. Extending this logic, we can also postulate that a being who creates the least utility for the greatest number of people also inhibits infinite growth and maximum consumption.

Furthermore, does it necessarily follow that the least utility conception of evil impacts the wealthy in the same way that it does poorer members of society? If one’s fears are based on the idea of protecting good from evil, then what? Logically speaking—in keeping with an economic definition of good—we must conclude that a developed, capitalistic society is necessarily predisposed to situations in which the rich will always have more good to protect than the poor. Yet, at the same time, they can lose more and still be better off. Does this mean that the rich should have more ability or rights since they need to protect a greater amount of good? Or should the poor have more since they are least able to lose the little they have?

We can see how the economic conception of good eventually arrives in areas that deal with morality and ethics. If, for example, one possesses more good because he or she is—economically speaking—more deserving, does it also stand to reason that they are necessarily superior in some way to one who has less? If so, what implications does this have? These questions underly the way developed nations perceive, communicate, and deal with many of the problems currently afflicting the world. It is not a true depiction of reality to state that poor nations or people necessarily perceive and communicate these problems in the same way.

What do these questions say about the types of fears and monsters that afflict the rich and poor? Are they the same for each? Is it even possible for the rich and poor to have the same monsters? Or are there, on the one hand, some types of monsters that are specific to each class, while, on the other, different types that affect everyone?

As stated above, the rich and powerful have more to lose should calamity upset prevailing societal structures. It’s been observed that the destitute may even think they have something to gain during a time of great upheaval. Some interesting questions that arise:

1. Does the rich man react to the threat of monsters differently than the poor man? Does he fear them more? Does he hate them more? In general, how does man react?

2. If the modern monster is often a person instead of a beast, is he usually rich or poor?

3. How is the modern monster usually depicted? Are there any common traits or trappings to be identified?

4. What monsters, specifically, do the most powerful countries, such as the United States, fear (or suffer from) the most?

5. Finally, what are the monster archetypes that exist in modern, developed societies?

References   [ + ]

1, 5. John McKenzie, S.J., Myths and Realities, The Bruce Publishing Company, 1963
2, 3. Ibid.
4. Psalm 18:8-16
6. Although some of capitalism’s fundamental ideas are being seriously re-examined due to the global financial upheavals in recent years. One example is the now discredited but once dominant rational market theory.

Author: Jesse Roche

An original thinker, Jesse enjoys writing, asking questions, and creating things. Greatly concerned with the deteriorating condition of public dialogue in the U.S., Jesse started ModernFolktales.com in 2006. He posts essays there in his spare time about topics linked to major forces that are impacting society and require more analysis than they typically receive in the mass media. The modern monster is a focus of some of these essays and represents a developing body of thought about its place in American society and the role it serves. Jesse is currently working on a book.

9 thoughts on “Preface: The Modern Monster, a Working Definition”

  1. I’m using a quote from this web page for an english essay about horror and monsters, and I was wondering if you could give me the actual name of the author of this article? Thanks!

  2. Im in a monster literture class. Which is an english class all about studying monsters. Any more information you can give me on what a monster is will help alot. Thanks

  3. A good while later, I’m doing the same thing and using this page for my research paper on the modern monster. I would love to give the proper credit were due. Was this post the work of a single author or are there many contributors?

    I’m looking forward to finding out!

  4. I finally have some time and will start working on ModernFolktales.com again. The modern monster is definitely something I plan on continuing to develop. I know that’s not much help for your paper. But check back soon.

  5. In the article, it says that the monster was not born a monster and I completely agree with this. The monster doesn’t want to be evil but because of the characters reaction to his appearance, he then acts on those reactions in a negative way because he had no upbringing of how to react.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’d add that regardless of upbringing, a society’s monsters, collectively, mirror aspects of that society. For obvious reasons, these aspects are often pushed to the fringes of consciousness in a form of denial.

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