Some of my favourite Gothic books are books that feature monsters in one way or another. Even outside of Gothic, I still love monsters no matter the genre. I love monsters in horror, sci-fi, comedy, cartoons, and even in YA. As long as it’s not paranormal romance because I feel like I’ve moved very far away from that genre.
Originally, my plan for this post was to delve into Jeffrey Cohen’s monstery theory, but when I looked back through my own notes, it looked to be a bit much for a “beginners guide to Gothic”, so I’m going to try to talk about monsters in an analytical way but hopefully one that isn’t too dense and confusing. I’m trying to find a safe balance between informative and entertaining, so I can’t bring all of my university notes into this.
*note: anytime that i refer to frankenstein, i’m specifically talking about the original 1818 version of the book and not any other revisions or adaptations.
WHAT MAKES A MONSTER A MONSTER?
When we first think of a monster, our thoughts usually go to a strange creature that is neither a human or a normal animal and one that is usually evil of some sort. But if we really think about it, do those things really make a monster a monster?
Can a monster be good or friendly? Arguably, this is what separates the Creature from his creator in Frankenstein, as he only wanted to be loved and make friends, but was rejected by everyone around him just because of his appearance. Whereas Victor Frankenstein – who is not a doctor, by the way, he didn’t even have a Bachelors degree – made his Creature for his own selfish reasons, then abandoned it, left it to die, and tried to kill it because he was disgusted by his own actions. And somehow, he doesn’t even blame himself. Our “hero”, friends.
This leads me into another question I want to pose: is evil an innate thing or is it something that develops? Going back to the Creature, he only became “evil” through the awful treatment he received. He was abandoned and cast out by his creator, was physically harassed by the townspeople in Ingolstadt, made his only friend only to be abandoned by his friend’s family, and then became so angry and jaded that he murdered Victor’s brother and framed his nanny. Oh, and then he strangles Victor’s fiancee to death. All because people thought he was so ugly that he deserved to have things thrown at him.
We could argue that this awful chain of events wouldn’t have happened if Victor Frankenstein wasn’t a selfish spoiled brat who wanted to play God and then couldn’t face the consequences of his actions. Or, you know, he could have been a non-abusive father and treated the Creature normally. Then he would have had two living brothers, instead of one, and a wife. It’s really not easy for me to feel sorry for him.
CAN MONSTERS REPRESENT THINGS?
Personally, I think that monsters can definitely represent things other than just coolness or scariness. If I may be egotistical and pretentious for a moment, when I was writing my final thesis for my master’s degree, I decided to explore what societal fears vampires can represent and I chose three things: substance abuse, female sexuality, and colonialism.
With substance abuse, I used blood as an addictive substance, similarly to alcohol or harder drugs like heroin. While vampires may need blood, they don’t need enough to knock themselves out or to act as a sedative. Female sexuality sounds pretty obvious, so I’ll move onto colonialism because that’s a little tougher to think about.
A lot of vampires in fiction now are directly inspired by Dracula, which features a foreign nobleman who comes to a new country where he will have fresh victims. You could liken this to rich people travelling off to new “undiscovered” lands to take for themselves while violently getting rid of anyone and anything that stands in their way. Because Dracula was written at the height of the British Empire, which was when the population in England soared due to people from other parts of the Empire migrating, the title character of the novel could be seen as a very old version of the same old right-wing fear that we still hear today: “those dirty foreigners are going to come over here, steal our jobs and houses, and harm our women”. Which is exactly what the characters fear he is going to do.
I do want to give Bram Stoker the benefit of the doubt and hope that he didn’t really think things like that, but he could only be a man of his time. And we can also read into a novel however we choose to, especially with Dracula, because there are a lot of different readings. Trust me, I’ve looked at a lot of them and a lot of them make sense.
ROOTING FOR THE MONSTER?
We’ve all rooted for the bad guy at some point, especially when their motives are somewhat understandable. Sometimes a monster that’s more animal than human is only doing bad things out of instinct or to protect itself, so it can be kind of hard to want a monster like that to be defeated. A monster that is a being of pure evil and is aware of the things that they’re doing (and also doesn’t care that what they’re doing is wrong) is a lot harder to feel sympathy for, but there are always people who will find a way to feel sorry for them. Being particularly good looking usually helps those kinds of monsters.
Going back to Frankenstein, it is a very common reading for people to feel sorry for the Creature because everything that he goes through is so awful that his feelings towards other people can be seen as justified. In the real world, being abandoned and harassed for being ugly is not a good reason to want to kill your father and other people, but this is a book. Gothic fiction doesn’t really care for real-world laws, and if it did, things would be very boring.