A creature acting on impulse is usually feared. In film and literature, however, the monster gets to become much more than this, transcending definitions of ‘bad’ or ‘evil’.
In a narrative, this can serve a number of purposes. Monsters can represent a multitude of complex and conflicting ideals. In the best of examples, the monster is never truly represented as ‘evil’, but from a different ideology or society that is in conflict with the protagonist’s. There has also been the introduction, occasionally, of an opposing slayer, who is forced to defeat the monster by the narratives close.
One of the classic horror tropes, the internal monster is something that’s rarely been used in cinema lately. In its traditional sense, one can look at vampires and werewolves. These are categorised as internal as they need humanity to survive and can be analysed as a metaphor for seduction and wild nature respectively.
The unique aspect of these monsters is that they spread through humanity, representing repressed urges such as lust and primal anger. This has been discussed in greater discourse elsewhere, and is a separate topic in its own right. None the less, it serves as an introduction to one of the ways monsters represent an asset of humanity, or represent a natural conflict with the nature and interpretation of humanity/society itself.
Likewise, one could look at the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956/1978) for more variants of the internal threat. Whether they show political connotations or more themes of possession, these ‘monsters’ are usually isolated to the horror genre, and differ greatly from those found elsewhere.
Forces of Nature
This is an alternative to the internal threat; an external force that is based on forces that aren’t created from humanity. Various Godzilla-esque films can demonstrate this, where the monster rises from the ocean, or otherwise appears, as a threat that must be defeated.
This can also extend to several science-fiction monsters. Cloverfield (2008), for instance, simply uses its monster as a destructive force. It is not specifically named or understood, and the audience never comes to regard it as anything other than evil and destructive.
Similar themes are found in Monsters (2010), although the closing scenes suggest the beginnings of a ‘repentant slayer’, discussed in further detail later on. Its setting along the American and Mexican border creates an underlying sense of misunderstanding and antipathy, whilst the film draws on themes of immigration and xenophobia. The alien creatures themselves are outsiders, coming from another planet, trapped in a world that doesn’t understand them and which treats them as invaders.
Furthermore, variants of this theme can be seen throughout cinema. In Forbidden Planet (1956), the protagonists are beset by an invisible monster, later shown in red. If these metaphors of communism weren’t obvious enough, it is then revealed to have been created by the subconscious of a man. Whilst this can label it as ‘internal’, it can also be put forward as external since Forbidden Planet is a very anti-communist film, depicting the monster as an invisible, overwhelming, uncontrollable force, separate from the actual human consciousness.
The Repentant Slayer
There is often a protagonist who has to defeat the monster who is essentially its counterpart. This hero is the repentant slayer; a character who comes to understand the monster and everything it stands for. This is one of the few aspects of the monster scenario that is still strong in modern cinema
A prime example of this can be seen in 1998′s Godzilla. The protagonist here is, first of all, an expert on nuclear radiation and its effects on wildlife. To this extent, he’s the only one who understands Godzilla as a force of nature; specifically, a result from mankind’s influence. As the hero understands the monster, he increasingly becomes the only one with the expertise to stop him. This ends the narrative on a more poignant tone as the hero gains respect for the monster and suffers a great cathartic sadness when he has to kill it.
2005′s King Kong follows a similar narrative, but diverts along a few lines. First of all, one could argue that Kong’s status as an ape refers metaphorically to a primitive form of humanity. The film plays up this aspect of the prehistoric ape trapped in the modern world. In contrast to Godzilla, King Kong very quickly establishes Kong’s innocence and character. There is a further change from the normal narrative in that the ‘heroes’ don’t actually kill Kong. They do, however, still come to suggest regret for their actions, and a sense of respect for the monster.
Furthermore, Ripley from the Alien films has an extensive relationship with her monster, which is also an internal threat. Throughout the series she finds her self in several parallels to the Aliens. By Alien Resurrection (1997), she shares their DNA, and even fosters their ‘child’. This ‘child,’ which serves as the cumulative representation of the Alien threat, is then killed in a traditional finale or showdown. Yet the child first kills the Alien Queen, before Ripley in turn kills her own child. This is a perfect example of mixing the boundaries between monster and hero; the child abandoned its alien side for Ripley, yet Ripley’s instincts were to destroy, leaving the audience questioning who the true monster is.
They key similarities here are the conflict with humanity. These various monsters are all, to an extent, ‘natural’. The conflict of the various movies comes when they are coerced or otherwise forced into a situation with humans. Godzilla was born from radiation, Kong was captured, and the Alien only awoke thanks to an investigation of an abandoned ship.
Over the course of the narrative, the audiences support and sympathy gradually shits from the hero towards the monster. We are shown aspects of humanity, be it Kong’s relation with women, or the mothering aspects of Godzilla, that aren’t dominantly displayed in humanity during the narrative. More often than not, the human response is to resort to violence; the same reason the audience fears the monster. The various ‘chase’ shots in Godzilla emphasize this perfectly, with the military causing more damage than the monster.
By the end of the narrative, the audience generally comes to share the perspective of the Slayer; who’s wider view sits somewhere between humanity and the monster. The humans celebrate, besides the Slayer, who in many ways has inherited the monsters sadness and outlook towards humanity. This complex relationship often ends the film with a sense of ambiguity, but this constantly changing and evolving relationship is what keeps ‘monster movies’ so interesting and engaging. There is always the fascinating and intriguing revelation that, when all is said and done, the monster was innocent.