The Politics of Monsters

For the Halloween season Caliban’s Revenge takes a look at the history and politics of monsters. Illustrations by Mark Winters.

Modern Halloween draws on a wide range of traditions, but the timing of the festival corresponds most closely with Samhain, the ancient Celtic celebration of the new year, when the world was said to be on the cusp of darkness and that it became possible for creatures to move between the plane of the supernatural and the mundane realm in which we live.

Monsters trespass into our world across this divide. They are fundamentally transgressive, horrifying to look upon, threatening to our sanity and our understanding of the universe and our place in it. It’s this transgressive property of monsters that this article is going to explore, and in particular how that transgressiveness has related to the struggle for social power. But to start with, I’d like to talk about one of the earliest known literary examples of a story about humans and monsters.

The epic of Gilgamesh is a narrative that was recorded more than 4,000 years ago in a region of modern day Iraq. The epic tells that Gilgamesh was the cruel and despotic ruler of the kingdom of Uruk. So terrible was his rule that the gods sent the wild man Enkidu to teach him to be a good king. Instead the two wrestled and Enkidu was defeated. The struggle bonded the two forever and the legend has it that they were ‘closer than man and wife’.

To celebrate their new friendship they travelled to the Cedar Forest to destroy a creature called Humbaba. Humbaba is described like this:

he had the paws of a lion and a body covered in thorny scales; his feet had the claws of a vulture, and on his head were the horns of a wild bull; his tail and phallus each ended in the head of a snake.

In Humbaba we see many of the characteristics of the classical monster as it manifests in early class societies the world over. A creature that combines the properties of many different animals, that is terrifying to behold, that lives isolated in the wilderness, that is both of nature and yet intrinsically transgresses it. The idea of the horror of witnessing the monster is extremely important to their role in classical mythology; consider creatures like the snake-headed Medusa or the reptilian Basilisk who kill anyone who meet their gaze. The viewer is killed, literally, by the act of looking at them.

Classical monsters are nightmarish visions, they signify a rupture in the natural order. In Stone Age cosmology this can be simply a creature that has grown so big that it threatens ecological harmony, like the aboriginal Tiddalik – a frog that drinks all of the water in the bush, condemning the other creatures to die of thirst. The Ainu people regarded the bears they hunted as sacred beings, what they called Kamuy. If a bear killed a human being, reversing the natural order, then they were believed to become cursed, monstrous entities. In societies with more complex systems of hierarchy the transgression is often about a moral trespass between the animal, human and divine. The Minotaur is created when Zeus, king of the gods, impregnates a human woman in the form of a white bull.

The word itself is derived from the Latin for a warning or portent; the Japanese ‘Yokai’ is written to indicate the idea of an apparition and a calamity. The appearance of the monster is sudden, shocking, both a subversion of the ‘normal’ world and a sign of a more fundamental upset of the usual state of things. Freud would call this ‘uncanny’, terror created by experiencing something we should find familiar as alien. Humbaba has the shape of a human man, but is constructed from a twisted menagerie of ferocious animals. The monster is something we know, but wrong somehow, ‘off’, disturbing to our senses in ways that we cannot accept. Its very existence is threatening, and consequently it must be exterminated.

The antithesis of the classical monster is the classical hero who becomes a hero precisely by exterminating the monster, for which they receive fame and status, but also by which they become symbols for the authority of human civilisation over the unpredictable forces of nature. Gilgamesh convinces Enkidu to hunt down and destroy Humbaba on the basis that it will prove his supremacy to his unhappy subjects, and that, as he puts it, ‘they need no longer fear’. The triumph of the classical hero is the triumph of human order over terror arising from natural chaos, and the power of the status quo, of the warrior king, the state, to protect us from that chaos.

The legacy of this continues in modern monster/hero narratives. Some good examples of this are the square-jawed science hero of the 1950s who faces mutant abominations from the fringes of the atomic era; aliens from outer space who threaten to wipe us out with their superior technology; Godzilla, the colossal radioactive dragon that is both the product of nuclear experimentation and an analogy for the danger it represents. When you watch science fiction and horror films from the early Cold War you can feel that visceral sense of a civilisation in shock, still reeling from the real horror of witnessing the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even in the US which carried out the attack; that feeling that reality itself has been rent asunder and a horrible, mortal uncertainty has been unleashed.

That terror took the form of the stop-motion monstrosities conjured by Tsuburaya Eiji, Willis H. O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen: creatures that represent the fear of the new, expanded scientific understanding of the universe and apparitions that are literally animated by that science. If you’ve ever seen the original King Kong you know how creepily uncanny the movement of a stop motion creature is, the very definition of something that is at once familiar but unsettlingly alien. The science hero emerges in this period as the answer to this crisis. Rational physical laws, certainties, safeguarded by a figure who marshals the resources of the establishment – usually the military – to defeat chaos.

A cliché we still have in movies today but that really begins in this period is the ‘scientific epiphany’, where the hero will notice some behaviour or characteristic of the monster which will expose a mortal weakness which can be exploited by means of a trick of chemistry or engineering. The Blob was destroyed by freezing, The Thing From Another World is disintegrated by electricity and Godzilla is slain using a chemical weapon of mass destruction. In the monster myths of the mid 20th century we see the idea that science and technology threaten the fragile postwar peace. Only by granting the status quo, the military and their aerospace capitalists, monopoly over that technology can security be restored.

But when we look at the science hero himself we can see that the embodiment of the status quo has changed very little. A buff patriarch, a man of action and means, or a golden-haired boy who promises to one day become the former – neither of whom would have seemed out of place in the twelve labours of Hercules. This image of masculine power as the solution to crises is more prevalent today than ever, all the more so because that masculinity is itself in crisis. As a consequence the social imagination is flooded with superhero movies and sword and sorcery fantasy narratives that continue this tradition of masculine heroes vanquishing monstrous antagonists and reestablishing normality.

In patriarchal societies the cis male body is the physical manifestation of the established order, and in white supremacy, the white body. This is why what we might call the ‘monsterisation’ of nonwhite male bodies has been such a prevalent feature of Western culture. The dehumanisation of the other is a well explored aspect of mythology and has deep roots. The half horse, half human ‘Centaur’ has long been believed to be the legacy of early Greek encounters with horse-riding cultures from a time when they were yet to domesticate horses themselves. But a distinction needs to be drawn here – Centaurs are not monsters, even though they have animal characteristics. They are as likely to be benevolent creatures as malign, are credited with teaching heroes arts of healing and natural science. The Centaur is exotic, definitely other, but they are not horrifying, they do not portend disaster.

The monsterisation of real human beings takes place only when the relationship between people involves a struggle for power. We are all familiar with the tendency to treat wartime enemies as inhuman: the ancient Gaels turned their sea raiders into the mutant Fomori, Israelites turn the Philistines into the monstrous Goliath, and during the First World War British propaganda represents the German ‘Hun’ as not only ethnically un-European, but as physically brutish, bestial even. The destiny of the monster is to be exterminated by the hero; it is not only okay to slay the brute but morally virtuous. The monster is coming for you and everyone you love, it is Us or Them.

The advantage to the ruling class of characterising entire cultures as monstrous and subhuman has had catastrophic consequences for our entire species. Early colonial adventurers came back with wild, even comical stories about the people of distant lands. The dog-faced men of Patagonia, the Anthropophagi whose facial features grow on their chests, sub-Saharan Africans who were said to hop around on one gigantic foot which they also used to shade themselves from the sun. These stories won the adventurers fame and renown, but also patronage and the resources to expand their mercantile ambitions into these new territories.

The image of colonised people as monstrous coincides with the need for early capitalism to suppress and eventually erase their way of life. Colonialism needs to capture resources, materials, flesh, trade routes, but the heroic ideology says that outside the circle of enlightenment the world is full of terrifying ghosts and demons. It must be captured and broken by the authority of the just. Colonialism is a moral and an economic project, the two are not in contradiction, but essential to each other. After Gilgamesh slays Humbaba in the cedar forest, his warriors cut down the trees for lumber, enriching the kingdom. Likewise this monsterisation of the Other disciplines the colonisers’ own masses. It separates the serf and the labourer from the slave, and as the intimacy between the colonised and the coloniser increases, and the extreme dehumanisation of the indigenous populace becomes impossible to sustain, it instead becomes the basis for a racial hierarchy that prevents these groups from uniting against their common exploiter. Further it gives the wage slave a sense of superiority over the literal slave, and enshrines a sense of common interest between the labourer and their ruling class.

But there are limits to even the most perfect enchantment, and the perpetual terror of the ruling class for the poor is never much concealed, particularly in periods of social unrest. In fact, much of the language used to describe the terrifying indigenous strangers encountered by European adventurers was also being used to describe the urban masses. As enclosure filled London’s streets with itinerant labourers, anxieties about overpopulation and the extreme poverty of the newcomers lead to hysterical fears that these monstrous beings would eat their own children- become ‘cannibals’ like the native Kalinago of which the word is a bastardisation.

That terror of the masses is splattered in gory streaks across contemporary fiction: Tolkien’s orcs who speak in Cockney accents and march at the head of a mechanised army threatening to crush the rural idyll with hideous modernity; the zombie hordes that swarm through the pristine suburbs bringing chaos and disease. But that terror is not one-sided. Monsters have often reflected the terror of the downtrodden and disenfranchised for the everyday horror of life under the rich, either as a sublimated fear or as a way to satirise a real tyrant. Vampires, ghouls, ogres, giants, medieval dragons have all been ways of portraying power that is illegitimate, that takes without consent. A way of portraying supreme, individual power as the real transgression. And what awaits the monster but an angry mob and a sharpened stake?

However, just as much as people have been ready to celebrate the extermination of the beast, they have always been just as ready to embrace the horror and the transgression and to draw both pleasure and power from it. Halloween, the day of the dead, and carnival have always involved people taking on the shapes of devils, goblins, monstrous apparitions. This gives them an opportunity to own their own terror and to confront their mortality in a joyous, exalting way but also, behind the face of the monster, to experience the kind of anarchic abandon only possible by crossing the narrow boundaries created by the established order. One of the best examples of this is the way that the LGBT community in America, particularly in New York, has embraced the holiday as their own.

In 1912, Pittsburgh police would regularly troll the streets on Halloween looking for ‘cross dressers’. At the time it was still an arrestable offence to appear in public wearing ‘three or more items of clothing of the opposite gender’. But the practice was so widespread that, on Halloween at least, the law became untenable and two years later the Pittsburgh filth publicly announced that they would no longer be arresting people for the offence during the festival. This created a space in which LGBT people were able to establish themselves in the public sphere, a space for which they would fight, and continue to fight to protect to this day.

Finally, there is undoubtedly a real power in the capacity of the monster to terrorise the powers that be, to make the rich fear the shock and awe of the mob, to transgress the prevailing order and turn the world on its head. We see this everywhere in the world today where masses in open revolt have donned the clown makeup of Hollywood’s latest transgressive scion of terror. This could never have been the intention of the director of Joker, but it is not the author, not the paid pundit, the anxious commentator, not even the great media conglomerates that ultimately determine the meaning of these spectres, these disastrous apparitions, but rather the very mob for which they signify.

We call revolution the festival of the oppressed, and what’s a festival of the poor, Halloween, carnival, the day of the dead, without a few monsters?



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