“In my experience, there are two types of monster. The first can be redeemed, or more importantly, wants to be redeemed. The second is void of humanity… cannot respond to reason or love.” - Giles, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Bear with me, and we’ll get to blood and monsters.
Metaphors don’t work the way we’re taught in English classes. Every student rolls his or her eyes when told in no uncertain terms that Ahab’s quest symbolizes man’s struggle against fate, or that the suckage of Santiago’s life is an allegory of the suffering of Christ. Every student but the future English majors that is, but there is little we can do for their sort of degeneracy. If a metaphor must be explained, it is no longer a metaphor. Metaphors are not intellectual beasts, but emotional ones. They either punch you in the gut or they don’t.
Monsters are the original metaphor.
If god is the reason that cavemen made up for why the sun rises and sets, then monsters are the shadows flickering beyond the fire. They are the devil. It’s the terror of the unknown more than anything, and because we can’t see it, it can wear the faces we most fear. We map our fears onto the monsters. That’s why the monsters from decades past are so comical to us: the metaphors don’t resonate with our fears so it’s all just rubber masks and corn syrup blood. Our monsters would probably make them laugh too.
But don’t say that fifties horror films about pod people and giant insects are just about communist infiltrators and nuclear experiments. That’s like describing an orgasm as a spontaneous muscular spasm coupled to a spike in the brain’s serotonin levels. Yeah, you’ve got the definition down, but you left out the soul. To understand someone else’s horror, to understand any metaphors that don’t kick your soul in the same place, you have to work backwards from the solution. Don’t dismiss their horror as naive. Don’t just try to will yourself to be scared of pod people. Don’t think of communists, or McCarthy. Just imagine a society in which the concept of pod people is relatable on a visceral level. A society where you don’t trust your co-workers, your friends or family. A society in which anyone at any time could be accused of being a monster. A society in which everyone so constantly wears a mask, that you never know anyone’s true face. Anyone at any time could be replaced, and you would never know the damned difference because the mask is still smiling back at you. Even the mask you see in the mirror. Now that’s fucking horror.
Charlie Stross wrote once in one of his forwards that Cold War thrillers weren’t really thrillers: they were horror stories with the layers of metaphor stripped out. They were never really about the spies running around shooting and shagging, they were about the mushroom clouds popping cities like zits.
Horror isn’t about what is terrifying in the world; it’s about what is terrifying in us.
Now bite into this twist: When Star Wars came out, the best selling Halloween costume wasn’t Han or Luke or Leia. It was Vader. We want to be monsters, even as little kids.
I went through a phase (no not that one, I told you I was just curious) in which I was obsessed with monsters. Cartoons, books, movies: I suctioned onto anything that had monsters. I cobbled together armies of six inch tall monsters out of the chemical reeking cardboard of laundry detergent boxes, reams of form feed paper, tape and crayons.
From age five I had haunted the town library, all thousand square feet of it, and for this particular obsession found an enabling set of books that went on the permanent rotation. I was about seven, so “permanent” is a relative term. It was a set of old hardcovers that retold famous horror movies, with full page stills from the films and a few bits of text here and there to fill out the story. Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman … I knew Boris Karlof, Bela Lugosi and Lon Cheney by sight at age seven without ever having seen them in a film, or even knowing that they were actors. They were just the monsters.
I wanted to be the Wolfman. I sprinted through the bushes at the park across the street from my house, growling and snarling and doing my best imitation of stalking prey. I dug up wet sand in the playground and rubbed it on my arms because I thought it looked like fur the way it stuck to my skin. I’d imitate fangs by biting my upper lip with my lower teeth, because after careful practice in the mirror, I’d determined this was decidedly more fierce than top teeth biting the bottom lip.
It’s nothing short of a miracle that I didn’t end up in a juvenile psychiatric clinic.
Those shadows flickering beyond the fire don’t just scare us, they tempt us. We envy their freedom. We envy the ability to walk in the darkness untouched, even if the price is our souls.
It’s a hard wiring of the brain: metaphors are empathy. Neuroscience research of the last twenty years has revealed something technical that philosophers and poets have known for millennia: we experience what we see other people experience. Literally. When you see someone hurt, the pain center of your brain fires as if you yourself were in pain. When you see someone smile, you feel pleasure. But you don’t feel that way about an ant: they’re too alien, their pain is not your own. That connection is the basis of metaphor. We understand the world by mapping it onto what we can viscerally understand. Other people are us. Movies matter because we directly empathize with the characters and events. They lose us when the visceral connection is broken, when the collective metaphor of their fiction no longer sparks that fire in our brain.
But the grotesque twist of modern horror emerges from the fact that there are two sides to every horror movie: the monster and the victims. If it says something about us that we find horror in certain metaphors, it says even more that we find allure in certain horrors.
In fighting evil, you become evil. When you stare into the abyss, it stares back. We use that as a psychological crutch for why we identify with monsters. Dexter only kills killers. Jason, Freddie, and Lil’ Mikie Myers kill the sinners, assholes and idiots. Hannibal kills the rude and uncultured. Edward Cullen is the apex of this: the monster that isn’t a monster at all, the darkness not just dispelled but filled with teenage love, tofu and something to do with sparkles. The stories in which we identify with the monster always give us an out, an excuse for putting on the mask.
The torture porn genre is much maligned, but it has a fundamental and brutal honesty. It gives you the most terrible of both worlds: the identification with the monster without the tattered ethical excuse.
It’s all about empathy in the end. What terrifies us. Who we wish we were like. What we are scared of becoming.
Vampires, cold and calculating, charismatic as kings and dripping with the lust of eternal adolescence. Werewolves, their polar opposite, all animal fury and explosive violence, slaves to the moon.
My first memory is a dream of death. I’m three years old, sitting at the sliding glass door of the house where I grew up. I am alone in the house. Through the glass door I see not our back yard, but an endless plain of smoking hot sand. The ground shifts here and there, churning, and I know that if I open the door and go out, the invisible monsters beneath the sand will pull me under and I will become one of them.
I open the door anyway.
Stipe42 is the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. He is a hopeless romantic who can be found wandering San Diego’s strip malls and suburbs looking for his mislaid soul and waiting for the revolution to come.
The Weekly Burning Violin Column / Stipe42
Film | February 25, 2009 | Comments ()