The word “monster” has a special place for me. I hope to post something each week of October exploring my experiences with this little bit of language.
This week I wanted to talk about the relationship between the word “monster” and our culture’s notions of “madness.”
There are a lot of misconceptions and prejudices regarding psychological disorders and mental illness in our culture, and before we had any real concept of what these were, we just grouped it all together as “madness” or “insanity” and treated people as mindlessly dangerous or in need of strange treatments. In all of this, we began to tell horror stories with the main antagonist being a “mad” person.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A mad scientist makes something dangerous or does something horrible. Right, how about this one? A psychopathic killer with a large weapon kills a bunch of teenagers. That one too?
Somewhere along the way, we started equating problems with the brain with danger, death, and the horror genre, and we’ve never quite gotten over it.
In contemporary horror, there is usually some level of sympathy for the “mad” character. The serial killer was abused in their childhood. The ghost had a rough time before death and is trying to find peace. There are series like Dexter where our protagonist is a serial killer, loves to kill people, and we love him anyway just because of our point of view and the power of storytelling.
These characters are seen, on some level, as monsters. And on another level, being monstrous is being equated with being “crazy.” I shouldn’t need to say that this isn’t exactly great for social progress in terms of understanding mental illness. And it certainly doesn’t encourage people to seek help, because it makes it sound like going to therapy is confessing to being dangerous or on some level “worse,” or “other.” I am a horror fan, but I do acknowledge this trope as being problematic.
We also have stories where people are accused of being crazy, but in the end they are the ones who are simply seeing more than other people. This often happens in haunting stories, where one character can see the dead when others can’t. Sometimes haunting is tied to one person, and only the haunted will be pursued by demons, spirits, or other intangible apparitions. This idea occurs so often in urban fantasy that it’s pretty much expected. What makes the genre work is that your main characters know all kinds of things about the hidden other world of monsters, but if they told anyone, they would be perceived as crazy.
In Supernatural there is an episode where your protagonists get themselves admitted to an insane asylum by telling the truth about their experiences. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer there is an episode where Buffy thinks she might just be crazy, that maybe that’s more probable than the reality of her life.
We also have another connection in our horror between monsters and madness that I’d call the Lovecraftian Causation Connection. The stories with this sort of connection have monsters that are so terrifying and incomprehensible to the human mind that one instantly goes mad upon encountering them. Lovecraft was big on this kind of monster, and there were stories like this before him and many since. It’s an especially scary idea, because anyone who discovers the monster is mostly unable to convey their discovery to anyone else, and so the enormous threat persists without notice.
And so we have three sorts of relationships between monsters and madness.
- Monsters are the result of madness.
- Knowledge of monsters make us seem mad (or) Madness lets us see monsters.
- Madness is the result of monsters.
With these three relationships, we can understand that our culture relates these two ideas strongly. There is something about monsters that makes us worry about our brains.
I think, at the heart of this kind of horror storytelling, we are getting at a deeper distrust of our minds and of our perceptions of the world. All we truly have in life is ourselves, our sense of identity, our perception, and our senses. It’s natural for our fears to involve terrible situations in which we cannot perceive things we should in order to protect ourselves, or for them to involve sensing terrible things that other people cannot see. We’re scared, on some level, of our reality not corresponding to the reality of those around us. We’re scared of a severed connection to other humans, of not understanding them, of not experiencing the world as they experience it.
There are stories, like The Shining, which are so scary because we can imagine the horror of a loved one suddenly going “mad” and trying to kill us. But scarier than that is the perspective of the father, and losing enough of yourself to try to kill your loved ones. One of the most horrific ideas to us is not being the one killed by the serial killer, but somehow relating to him. We’re terrified of anything that could happen to who we are that would allow us to commit atrocities that horrify us.
The relationship between monsters and madness is that we fear ourselves. This horror reflects a type of deep doubt and existential crisis. It is a fear worse than getting our arms chopped off or being eaten– the fear of losing one’s self, and the connection between that self and understanding the outside world and other people.
Monsters, in this sense, reflect our fears about identity and the mind. And monster stories may be some of the only fiction that allows us to articulate that fear.
Visit again next week for “Monster” (Part IV).