Constructing a monster

Do enough shopping for little nieces and nephews and you’ll eventually stumble upon a toy kit from the Melissa and Doug line called Make-Your-Own Monster Puppet. The idea is simple enough; you start with a fuzzy, sock-puppet type body that you can adorn with a number of monstrous Velcro-ed arms, legs, eyes, ears, tentacles, fangs, whatever the occasion calls for. In the end, kids love it and good times are had by all.

Funnily enough, it’s not that uncommon to find monster, or even monster-creation, themed entertainment geared towards children these days. The reason? It’s actually pretty easy to understand how monsters work, even at a young age.

There are numerous variations of the pattern but there is one essential, enduring component of any good monster: familiarity. That’s not to say you recognize a monster’s identity but that, in one way or another, the monster is rooted in something familiar, something that makes sense in our reality but at the same time doesn’t. It conflicts with our world-view while simultaneously affirming it.

Think of the classic movie monsters: Count Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s monster, and the mummy. To the audience, these are (essentially) human characters that have been perverted and/or mutated into something abnormal, something that defies convention.

Move over to the sci-fi genre and the principle remains the same; if a villain is going to strike monstrous fear it must somehow resemble something familiar. Fox’s two science fiction franchises, the Alien and Predator variety, follow this rule to a tee.

Both film series create their monster villain by imagining something with two arms, two legs, and one head. Even Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft’s ancient-underwater-dragon-octopus-god, looks fairly anthropomorphic – and this is by design.

In 1967, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek took this understanding of the monstrous to a new level when the show used a goatee to signify the difference between the character Spock and his “evil” alternate-universe counterpart. Since then television shows like South Park and Community have parodied this same trope of the goateed evil-twin.

Granted, an evil-twin is not necessarily a monster, per se, but the same rules apply: if you want something to evoke reactions of fear, suspicion, dread, etc. then you must make it both recognizable and foreign.  In extreme cases, it seems, you don’t even have to be that different from what is considered normal.

Anthropologist Mary Douglas—in her brilliantly ambitious books Purity and Danger and Natural Symbols— illustrates how feelings of discomfort are often tied to a lack of order and/or classification. To be obtusely concise, when something defies traditional order, even in subtle ways, people will tend to treat that thing as an impurity, an anomaly that in some way threatens the order upon which any given society stands.

Of course, anomalies aren’t always cast outward. In fact, in cases like our Make-Your-Own Monster kit we have a clear example of something that has been identified and categorized so it can be (somewhat) appealing to us. Thus, we use the word “monster” so that the critters from Sesame Street can entertain us with their inverted reality, rather than offend our sense of self.

Take a classic, then ad yourself a twist.

Man gets cursed, he’s the hideous Wolf Man. Spock gets a goatee, he’s the evil Spock. Kids put weird eyes and arms all over sock puppet? It’s a monster!