THE TRUE MEANING OF MONSTERS
Whenever the Halloween spirit moves us, we often write in this space about “monsters”: werewolves, vampires, gargoyles, and even other, less identifiable figures.
But have you ever wondered exactly what that word means? The answer is not pretty, unfortunately, and unlike a lot of fictional monstrousness there’s no easy means to break this curse. In fact, you could say it’s sort of built-in.
If we prod at the history of the word, we find first that real life “monsters” are victims: of fate, of the human condition, and particularly of rabid religious zeal layered on top of primeval prejudices, like a s’more of shitty beliefs.
And we also find needs: For compassion, for empathy, for wisdom, and other pillars of Satanic thinking.
According to Erica Brozovsky, a postdoc at the University of Austin, “monster” derives from the French “monstre” (okay slow down, I can’t keep up with all this complicated terminology…), transported from France to England by William the Conqueror, along with other classic French medieval imports like the deaths of entire English family lines.
Like pretty much everything else in France, “monstre” derives from Latin–“monstrum,” meaning “evil omen.”
A “monster” was not a creature from myth or legend, but rather this term referred mostly to so-called “monstrous births”–livestock or children born with anatomies that shocked, frightened, or disturbed their elders.
Writing for Lady Science, doctoral candidate Sara Ray explains, “Prior to 19th century horror novels […] ‘monster’ was a scientific designation meaning outside of the ordinary course of nature. Monstrous births were those born with a broad spectrum of bodily forms that defied systematic explanation.”
Hannah Johnston, writing for the Center For the History of Medicine and Public Health, explains that “monsters” were subject to quite a lot of gossip and public scrutiny.
“Narratives of ‘monstrous births’ could be found in pamphlets, balladry, and even medical books, and the infants in question ranged in these texts from frightening spectacles to prodigal symbols,” Johnston says.
You can still dig up archaic accounts of women giving birth to all manner of creatures: snakes, goats, fish, birds, etc, and other, less identifiable offspring, not to mention ye olde two-headed calf stories known to seemingly every desperate dirt farmer since Adam.
Naturally, these “monsters” were not actually snakes or bats or anything else, but simply children who happened to inherit rare medical conditions, often ones that caused miscarriage or proved fatal more or less immediately after birth.
(Well, either that or they were just frauds and rumors, of course: “Woman Gives Birth To Cherub” just made the front page of Weekly World News in June.)
Such children posed a theological conundrum : What did it mean that god (or the gods, depending on the period) visited such outcomes on families? Per the word “monster,” perhaps it was a warning.
Many opportunistic holy men took advantage of tales of “monstrous births” to preach against sin or in favor of the End Times or whatever else freed up the tithing that week.
Others blamed it on some perceived fault of the parents, and by parents I mean the mother because fucking of course.
Often, such tales could act as a scourge against a particular woman’s reputation: Outlaw 17th century New England preacher Anne Hutchinson supposedly gave birth to 30 offspring, “none at all of them of human shape.”
Or at least that’s what the men who built a cottage industry around ruining her life (she was the Anita Sarkeesian ala 2012 of her day) wrote. And why would we have any reason to doubt them?
Breathless rumors persisted of entire “monstrous races” inhabiting obscure and far-off lands, countries where everyone had one eye, or one foot, or goat’s feet, or no head, etc.
“Medieval scholars asked themselves show such transformations could have taken place: A common answer was that the devil had so perverted the souls of some pagans that their appearance had also degenerated,” Annemarie de Vaal Malefijt wrote in Scientific American in 1968.
Others went one step further and proposed that Satan had created such monsters wholesale from the beginning of time to compete against “normal” humans.
This of course dovetails with the then-contemporary idea that ALL indigenous people were the children of the devil–quite literally in some cases.
In some myths, monsters descended from the Biblical Cain–you even find a reference to this in Beowulf, in which we learn “from Cain there sprang misbegotten spirits, among them Grendel, the banished and accursed.” (This is where Old English poetry comes dangerously close to intersecting with the Emo revival.)
In all of these cases the gist is the same: Whether the product of god or Satan, “monstrousness” served as a marker for sin, for evil, for imperfection or perceived spiritual inadequacy of some kind.
People have always liked to imagine that moral deficiency will also manifest anatomically–because hey, that would be incredibly convenient, right? Makes those police lineups a hell of a lot easier, for one thing.
This is a byproduct of the ableist belief in “perfection” as holiness, and thus also with perceived deficiency as being “unholy.”
What is “monstrousness” really? It’s a moral judgment; it’s bigotry; it’s superstition; it’s a bid by ignorant people to wall themselves off from their human vulnerabilities by taking it out on those who embody that vulnerability in the most literal fashion.
As a kid I read the1946 Ray Bradbury story “The Homecoming,” all about Timothy, an ordinary little boy who doesn’t fit in with the rest of his special family: He can’t fly, he doesn’t drink blood, he can’t change his shape or read anyone’s mind or live forever, and in fact he can’t help but be a little scared by many of his relatives.
But he very much wants to be a monster; that is to say, he wants to be normal.
To which I would say: It’s okay, Timothy. You can be monstrous, or not; you can be abnormal, or not. However you’re born or made or make yourself, you have that right, and you matter, and we love you.
And all of us deserve somewhere to come home to.