Are We Running Out of Monster Metaphors for the Disasters of the Real World?
Erika Swyler on Surviving Our Fears By Creating More of Them
Loving monster movies began with my family, with searching for the zipper on Godzilla’s rubber suit, and watching a terrible yet somehow lovable creature wreak havoc on an unsuspecting Tokyo. For me, Godzilla is intertwined with the faded haze of childhood, with a TV that changed channels via clunky plastic dial, with a green-and-blue-flowered quilt, and with the savory-sweet smell of corn fritters for breakfast. Cuddled on a bed, we laughed as on-screen scientists pondered how to communicate with and control a lumbering metaphor for nuclear apocalypse. Monster movies are a kind of fear that’s as safe and sanitized as my memories of childhood Saturdays.
The fun of a giant mutant dinosaur destroying a city was in finding the human in the monster suit. It still is. While I’ve seen nearly every modern reboot, the old Toho films are the ones I enjoy the most. Spotting the zipper, the seam on the suit, is as satisfying as figuring out a magic trick. Is there a better feeling than being in on a secret? If there is, I don’t know it. Monster movies let me do that.
What started with Godzilla quickly spread to searching for Boris Karloff beneath the makeup in The Mummy and Frankenstein, trying to figure out what Lon Chaney really looked like, and inevitably led to zombie movies, vampire movies, and yes, werewolf movies. Obvious metaphors for puberty aside, werewolves are a tricky kind of deliciousness, because the monster lurks within the human, then the human lurks within the monster. There’s a playfulness to werewolves, as you’re allowed glimpses of whatever nature is hidden. Though not strictly a monster movie, the 1984 Angela Carter adaptation, The Company of Wolves, remains for me the gold standard in finding beauty in the dark and twisted.
As I grew, so did my love of monsters. In junior high, I used ebony pencils to reproduce the gargoyle poster art for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which I then hung in my bedroom. I’ve seen Hellboy six times in the theaters (Ron Perlman only, please), 28 Days Later three times, Warm Bodies twice, The Shape of Water three times, and forced everyone I know to watch Penny Dreadful. I’ve been picking these things apart trying to figure out this fascination. Why monsters? Monsters are stand-ins—for the atomic bomb, natural disasters, the evil nature of other humans, or the raging hormones of adolescence—for all the things we cannot control. I’ll never outgrow them the way one can never outgrow the outside world.
My fascination isn’t only nostalgia for sprawled-out childhood Saturdays, it’s rooted in a need to understand what can kill me and how to bend it to my will. We introduce children to monsters early, with the works of the Brothers Grimm, with mythology, with folklore. Our favorite vehicle for understanding and unmasking fear is Beauty and the Beast. If you don’t already view Beauty and the Beast as classic monster fodder, I beg you, look again. I’ve collected a small library of Beauty and the Beast retellings, and enough analyses of it exist that it’s impossible to say anything new. There are feminist readings for and against it, deep dives into the role disfigurement and ableism play in its origin, and endless tired college dorm room takes on its use as a tool for teaching women to tolerate bad men. All these readings are valid, yet I tend to ignore them in favor of that thing I can’t shake, an obsession not only with monsters, but the monstrous, and how to survive. We keep revisiting Beauty and the Beast to examine a mode of survival.
How to survive Godzilla: Pull down the zipper on the rubber suit. If that fails, summon Mothra. Mothra will get it done.
How to survive vampires: Sunlight, garlic, silver, crucifixes, holy water, stake to the heart, cut off the head, fire. Or just don’t mind being a vampire. (To be honest, I’ve never understood why being a vampire would be so terrible.)
How to survive The Mummy: Burn the Scroll of Thoth, turning Imhotep to dust, or read from The Book of the Living, making him mortal, then either fall in love with him or stab him. Your choice.
How to survive zombies: Dismemberment, fire, a shot to the head, or if you’re feeling romantic and they don’t look too sticky, try to rekindle their humanity and see if that perks them back up.
How to survive The Beast: Be a decent human, side with the working class, and remind the Beast it’s pretty easy to be a good person too. That’s it. He just has to break free from toxic masculinity.
Loving monsters is a love of chaos, a longing to dance a little with death to better understand the danger. Cryptid violence is more approachable than human violence. It’s easy to ponder ways to control something that is other, a thing. We’ve built entire political and economic structures based upon just that—imperialism, colonialism, racism, sexism. It’s more difficult to figure out how to survive the things we do to ourselves. There are prescribed ways to survive any monster attack; there are no prescribed ways to survive humans, and so we keep making monsters—Jason Voorhees, Freddy Kreuger, the Demogorgon.
In my twenties, I fell desperately in love with the Hal Hartley film, No Such Thing. I’d just read Beowulf, and if when reading Beowulf you don’t wonder at all about Grendel, you’ve come out on the wrong side of curiosity. No Such Thing equates monsters’ pain with human pain, dissects what’s understandable, what’s unforgivable, and what nature is. Because it’s a Hartley film it’s weird, intentionally stilted, and you’re either the sort of person who loves it unreservedly or you want to set it on fire. Oh, my monster-loving heart awoke.
No Such Thing posits that we’re both human and monster, and that when you pull down the zipper on Godzilla’s suit, inside is another Godzilla. It’s a love story made for a twenty-something nihilist. If this speaks to you, you too might be a person who spots the face of The Creature from The Black Lagoon in the set design of The Shape of Water. You might be the sort of person who reads Mrs. Caliban and The Pisces back-to-back, and you might understand why a woman would want to run off with a fishman. During my college feminist awakening I’d have called that desire Stockholm syndrome; in my current experience of feminism, I call it expanding your options.
How to survive a fishman: Romance him. Stab him if he’s a creep. Wait him out and he’ll return to the water.
Sometimes surviving the threat in a monster movie is too easy (again, being a vampire seems pretty okay to me). Sometimes we need a more complex problem to solve; we want not just a big bad, but the big bad. As a kid who loved looking at the night sky, space movies were the natural evolution of monster movies; sometimes they’re beat-for-beat reiterations. Gravity and Bird Box mine identical territory: Sandra Bullock’s ability to face certain death waiting outside a claustrophobic bubble. While the space movie often has a specific monster within it—the Alien franchise comes to mind—it’s never the only aggressor, nor the deadliest.
Space movies combine physical fear with long-range existential threats in a way monster movies often can’t. Monsters represent current societal fears. Godzilla was imagined as a ramification of nuclear weapons in a Japan both living with—and fearing—their aftereffects. It’s no coincidence that the resurgence of zombie horror coincided with economic recession and an increased attention to a worldwide immigration crisis. Vampires have long been stand-ins for fear of “deviant” sexuality, and, with the rise of AIDS, epidemics. The recent resurfacing of the fishman is our grappling with rape culture and dangerous aspects of masculinity. If monsters are fears of contemporary crises and physical threats, space is a fear of the future. Engaging with contemporary fears inevitably leads to engaging with fear of what lies ahead.As the world warms and regimes change, the monster-trained among us keep looking for the stake to the heart, or the zipper, whatever will be the easy out for us to survive us.
Climate change functions as both current crisis and crisis of the future, and space is our best metaphor for our fears about it. Our understanding of survival is complicated by space, and as with climate change, there is no easy answer to the danger. Space itself is a diffuse threat, there’s no one thing to single out as the enemy the way you can a monster, which makes it trickier to figure out long-term survival. For those who want to dabble with existential future dread and immediate solvable danger, there is the hybrid space-monster movie.
My first space monster was HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a psychotic computer made by humans. It mixed fear of the future with our fear of technology and the control we allow it. Soon came Alien’s Xenomorphs, which combined a contemporary fear of the other with the fear of the future. Like earth monsters, space monsters are survivable provided you can unplug a computer, or you’re gritty like Ripley. Space monsters die like other monsters (fire, shots to the head, being thrown out of an airlock), but what’s outside the airlock is unkillable, universally fatal, and isn’t going anywhere.
Though 2017’s Life had a terrifying creature, what causes the anxiety is the claustrophobic space station, the lack of escape routes, and lack of access to outside aid. What makes HAL frightening isn’t its psychosis, it’s the control afforded it by the isolation of space. The true terror of the space movie is the frailty of the human body in the void. In recent years we’ve seen a marked increase in space movies that separate themselves from monster movies. While some of that is attributable to improvements in CGI allowing us to portray space travel in a more visually realistic fashion, it’s no coincidence that the rise of the space-only movie matches with increasing fears about the climate on Earth.
1972’s Silent Running was an early and highly literal entry into the space movie as climate crisis film, and coincided perfectly with the first widespread concerns about global warming and changes in weather patterns. It was also one of the earliest space movies lacking a non-human aggressor. Bruce Dern had enough dangers in a spaceship as he tried to preserve one of the last human forests. Where on-planet creatures like the Thing, the Predator, Pitch Black’s bioraptors, and the much-loved Blob were once the standard of space-affiliated science fiction fears, we’re seeing the rise of the scarier unkillable foe: an environment incompatible with human life.
The Martian, Interstellar, and Gravity, deal specifically with the fragility of the body, how small humans are when compared to space, and what grit and resourcefulness can and cannot change. They’re inspiring, often terrifying, and what they lack in monsters is compensated for by inhospitable conditions and sudden death outside a very small sphere. If not literally dealing with climate collapse, their plots tackle climate reality metaphorically, no monster needed. At the moment, writing about near future space is writing about climate catastrophe. With no air, no outside sources of water or food, and temperatures incompatible with life, space is less a metaphor and more a translation.
Of late, I am increasingly drawn to space-centric storytelling; it feels necessary to imagine what we do when there are no zippers or seams to look for, no human inside the monster. The questions posed by space movies are complex. How do we treat the alien? Are we capable of recognizing when we are the alien? How do we keep the ship running and what happens if we can’t? What if the things we’ve viewed as possibility are also what close us in? Most importantly, space movies cautiously ask what survival might look like. Are we a handful of survivors on a distant world? 2001’s star child? Are we caretakers of biodomes drifting through space, like Silent Running? Are we a handful of survivors on Earth, using machinery designed for space to keep us alive? Is the survival and proliferation of other life more important than the survival of our species? Can we make that decision?
Loving science fiction, monsters, and space, means engaging with tropes about control and survival. As the world warms and regimes change, the monster-trained among us keep looking for the stake to the heart, or the zipper, whatever will be the easy out for us to survive us. The Scroll of Thoth, garlic, and silver don’t work. Stabbing people is both prosecutable and frowned upon, so our options are limited. The most effective strategy the monster-trained have is of the Beauty and the Beast variety. We try to be decent humans, and demonstrate how simple it is to be decent. We advocate for the voiceless. The space-trained among us know we’ve got to keep the ship running. We show grit, like Ripley. We work on technology. We cooperate. We put sustaining plant life and biodiversity at the forefront, because they sustain us. Everything else gets tossed out the airlock.
And on Saturday mornings, or when we are tired at the end of the day, we huddle together and take comfort in the monsters we understand, and search for the zippers on their suits. That’s how we survive.