Nine Worlds: Classical Monsters in Popular Culture

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Greek and Roman mythology has given us some of the most memorable monsters and creatures – centaurs, harpies, the Minotaur, etc. But what do those monsters mean when reused in modern popular culture? What can we say about how they are depicted? These questions and more will be discussed by three experts on classical monsters.
Panellists: Dr. Tony Keen, Dr. Liz Gloyn, Dr. Amanda Potter, Dr. Nick Lowe

I heard Nick Lowe talk last year and thoroughly enjoyed his style, so I was keen to see him in action again. I have to confess, though, that I didn’t stay to the end of this session – partly because the room was freezing, and partly because the conversation wandered off into the realm of Monstrous Barbies which is distinctly less interesting to me. There were some good ideas before I left though.

The Evolution of Monsters

Monster Theory states that they are a personification of contemporary fears. The trouble with that otherwise-attractive theory is the pervasive popularity of classical monsters like Medusa, the sirens, etc. They can’t be called contemporary by any stretch of the imagination, so why do they persist?

The panel likened monsters to orchid root systems – something that goes underground and spreads, surfacing in receptive environments. They then adapt a little to those new environments. This requires less evolution than if they remained culturally pervasive and changed constantly. It also means that you get a wide range of regional variations on what is essentially the same monster.

They theorized that it’s not really the monsters which are changing – it’s what they’re being used for. In classical myth, monsters were there as something for the hero to overcome – they weren’t creatures of horror stories, but of action stories. It’s only in recent times that we’ve given them a metaphorical role. Basically, the Monster Theory is a new idea that only applies to new interpretations.

There’s been a couple of other takes on monsters, aside from horror:

  1. Rationalized – they aren’t monsters, they’re aliens / humans acting horrifically / exaggerations of what actually happened
  2. Sympathetic – we misunderstand the monsters’ drives/nature or they are cursed and therefore pitiable (and potentially rescuable)
  3. Eroticized – this applies particularly to female monsters, on which subject a bit more later
Ulysses and the Sirens, 1909 (oil on canvas)

Ulysses and the Sirens, Herbert James Draper, 1909. Sirens were creepy bird-women, Herbert, not sexy fish-women.

The Portrayal of Monsters

Nick Lowe pointed out that there’s very few canonical texts which deal with actual monsters, or put them directly on the page. They exist on the fringes of literature, especially in the Greek epics, where it’s just heroes retelling monster stories or vague references to challenges overcome. This may well be where the horror element first crept in – as soon as you can see the monster, it ceases to be scary so it seems logical that much of its power to horrify came from its original vagueness.

When media became visual, monsters had to change as a result. Ray Harryhausen, the movie SFX stop-motion pioneer, completely transformed the way we see monsters. For a start, he domesticated them. Universal’s monster films in 1960s America, combined with the popularity of Dr. Who in the UK, sparked renewed interest in monster culture and presented them in stories targeted at children. The narratives weren’t there primarily to terrify, but to entertain. In a way, it was a return to the monster’s original role.

Technology has driven the way monsters are seen in modern narratives, moving from make-up and suits, through stop-motion animation and puppetry, to CGI. The monsters with enduring power are the ones all forms of tech were able to portray convincingly. And as the tech has evolved, so the power to terrify has returned. Visual media is very powerful for getting inside our heads, and glimpses of a CGI predator are way more terrifying than glimpses of a bad prosthetic in a Welsh quarry.

The_Ice_Warriors

*hides from irate classic Whovians*

The Gender of Monsters

The majority of classical monster are female in some way. Charybdis, of Odyssey fame, was a whirlpool – notably lacking in either gender or genitalia – but she still gets firmly defined as female. This is a result of the classical framework of the world, whereby civilization was considered male and the wild was female. There’s also a whole bunch of things around power dynamics, which the panel didn’t touch and deserves its own blog post at another time.

Modern problems with gender characterization of the monstrous has encouraged us to make monsters more sympathetic (but not, you’ll note, to change their gender). There’s also ways of talking about gender issues that express themselves through sympathetic monster origin stories – such as the rape of Medusa – which has resulted in a certain amount of reclaiming the female monster. Examples cited included Maleficent and Wicked, where a central message is that ‘it’s alright to be yourselves’. This has led to reopening the discussion on defining what is monstrous – something Mary Shelley began with Frankenstein back in 1818.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley, still ahead of the curve 200 years on

And that’s where I got too cold to stay. Next week: women write about war

 

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