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.
When I was growing up, I read a lot of stories about monsters. In a lot of fairytales it was the job of the hero to kill the monster. But, in my household, there was another theme that was present a lot: befriending the monster.
There are a couple particularly notable examples. There’s a Nightmare in my Closet begins with a little boy afraid of the monster hiding in his closet. One night, the monster starts creeping towards his bed in the night, so the boy turns on all the lights and threatens to shoot him (with a toy gun).
Only, then the monster starts crying. The boy’s anger at the monster softens, and he takes it by the hand, calms it down, and tucks it into his bed. The monster ends up being quite peaceful in the end, even though it looked scary.
Another book The Story of Poppyseed Hill was a bit more complex.
In this book, a group of lost children begin living with an old woman named Miss Kessy, who has no children of her own. They can’t remember where they used to live, or when they started walking, or even what their names were, so the old woman names them all after spices and takes care of them. The family is pretty happy, living on the little hill with an old elf man, except the children don’t have any other kids to play with.
Other kids live in the town across the river from them. But in the river lives a terrible monster. This monster will destroy boats when they try to sail across, and prevent anyone on Miss Kessy’s hill from seeing anyone in the town. The children try their best to send cookies over to the other children, tied in cloth bundles to their doves’ feet, but the monster in the river causes storms and the birds never reach them.
One little girl in the family, Poppyseed, gets upset by this and asks the elf man by the river why the monster is so mean. She tells him that all they’ve been trying to do is be nice to everyone, and the monster is being cruel for no reason. The elf man points out to her that she really hasn’t been nice to everyone. Everyone treats the monster like a monster, and so it behaves like one.
So they try to be the monster’s friend. They make it a monster-sized cookie, a crown of pretty flowers, and write it a poem (this is still the best show of friendship to me). To their pleasant surprise, when they call to the monster to give it gifts, it is completely adorable and loves having flowers on its head, eating cookies, and reading poetry. For the rest of the book, the monster gives them rides to go see the other children, and they all hang out together.
The idea behind these stories is clear: different does not mean bad, and sometimes people who seem like monsters are just lonely. They have been treated like they’re bad, and others’ perceptions of them begin to shape their behavior and identity.
You can see the same themes in Beauty and the Beast. Just because someone at first appears one way does not mean that your first impression is completely accurate. You need to look at circumstances to understand behavior.
As I got older, this theme appeared again and again.
A version of it was frequent especially in paranormal romance. Almost every single one of those stories follows the plot: human meets monster, human realizes that the monster is more complex than just a vampire, werewolf, or fairy, and the human and monster fall in love. These stories are largely about diversity and the ability to recognize thoughtfulness and beauty across barriers of culture and background.
Another version of this became very popular in recent years in the form of the anti-hero. This is a protagonist who may do some monstrous things due to their troubled past or misunderstood role in the events currently unfolding.
These characters are capable of saying cruel things (if it means keeping people at a distance), lying (if it means achieving some secret act of good in the long run), thievery (if it means helping someone), and even murder (if it means trying to save an innocent person).
Sometimes these characters start as completely morally pure and then are forced to act in more morally gray ways as their circumstances become more difficult. Sometimes these characters even did absolutely monstrous acts without any hidden kind motive in their past, but now actively try to reform. Other characters don’t trust them at first, often for good reasons, but come to understand and defend them later.
The importance of monsters in these stories is to realize the complexity of identity and human behavior. In these cases, the word “monster” relates to our ability to understand other people. We cannot reduce someone down to one thing, whether that’s our impressions of a few behaviors, their appearance, their background, or their reputation.
And so, this is another reason why books with monsters are so positive for people to read. They teach us to understand the complexity of people, and show us the importance of empathy and understanding. Monsters teach us to be kind.
Visit again next week for “Monster” (Part III).