What defines a monster?

posted in: Blog | 0
Published: November 30th, 2018
Last modified: February 24th, 2021

“What I really wanted to say was that a monster is not such a terrible thing to be. From the Latin root monstrum, a divine messenger of catastrophe, then adapted by the Old French to mean an animal of myriad origins: centaur, griffin, satyr. To be a monster is to be a hybrid signal, a lighthouse: both shelter and warning at once.”

Ocean Vuong – A Letter To My Mother That She Will Never Read

What makes something a monster? Not just a creature, or a fantasy species, but a true, honest monster?

So I drew this guy. Why is he a monster? He’s not very scary, but he’s unmistakably a monster, because he’s unnatural. And if something like him exists, what else exists? What gap in the natural order allowed him to exist, and what other threats does that gap pose?

One of my favorite definitions of “monster” comes from Wikipedia: “…a hideously grotesque animal or human being, or a hybrid of both, whose appearance frightens and whose powers of destruction threaten the human world’s social or moral order.”

Two key aspects of monstrousness are identified here: a frightening appearance, and a threat human order. They don’t necessarily pose a physical threat – they pose a moral, existential one that might destabilize our society. Maybe this is accomplished by physical means, such as eating people, but it’s not any individual acts that are the really scary thing.

So, the word “monster” is derived from the Anglo-Norman word monstrer which means  “to show, to make see, to make aware of”. It’s where we ultimately get the word “demonstrate” from. The Latin noun Monstrum means  “an unnatural thing; an event regarded as omen, sign, or portent; a divine omen.” The Latin verb mōnstrō means “I show, point out, indicate; I appoint, ordain; I denounce, indict; I advise, teach.”

From this Latin root we get the words “monster”, sure, but also “demonstrate”. In the 14th century, the word “muster”, also derived from monster, meant a large gathering or assemblage, often in a military context – a rousing, inspiring display of strength for a large crowd of onlookers.

So even the definition of the word “monster” itself isn’t exactly bad – it’s just that it means something has great significance. A monster means more than what it is, an indicator of something else to watch out for.

Monsters as a concept do not, and cannot, exist without humans – the direct polar opposite to social, tool-based, and family-oriented, monsters are solitary, chaotic, wild and feral. In almost all monster lore, humans can become monsters, usually as a punishment – almost always for breaking rules, which only exist in civilized human society. In many ways, “monster” is an allegory for “outcast”.

Humans try to forget that we are animals; creatures with wild compulsions, instincts, rage, hunger. We desperately fear losing our minds or losing control over our bodies.

Sure, a monster is probably physically threatening,and it probably does want to eat you. But more importantly, it is a sign that the safety of human order isn’t exactly guaranteed, that there are gaps in our understanding of reality through which things peek at us. How big are those gaps? How long have the gaps been there? What else comes through them? What happens when WE fall through them?

A monster is something that represents or reminds us of the chaos that exists within and around us without the rules of human social order.

Monsters are a sign that you are leaving the territory of normal humanity, physically or metaphorically. You can choose to read that sign as a warning to turn back, or as an invitation.

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