When I taught a creative writing class as part of my Master’s program, I knew that the subject had to be broad and relevant for students of all genres, but I also knew that I was going to end up talking about vampires. And ghosts. And Frankenstein. And the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s not because every piece of writing needs to include an element of horror, but because so much non-horror writing already does. The word “monster” comes from the Latin word “monstrum,” which originally meant “to show” or “to warn” and evolved to mean “an unnatural malfunction of nature.” In fact, when I try to define what makes a monster, I end up identifying things that sound frighteningly… human.
Take Dracula. He’s old and nasty but keeps attracting beautiful, young, unmarried (which in Victorian literature is always code for virginal) women. When he seduces a girl, not only does she make him younger, stronger and more virile (like her), but he in turn makes the girl like him: an undead monster who is now dependent on sucking the life out of other people. On one level, there’s a cultural insinuation about a bloody, highly contagious plague capable of being spread by wanton young girls (plagues like tuberculosis and syphilis). On another level, there’s a warning here about chastity and sex. But from the widest angle, the myth of the vampire is about corruption consuming the virtuous.
In another example, ghosts serve as reminders about something besides themselves. The ghostly King Hamlet is mad that he was murdered, but his function is to alert his son that something is amiss in the House of Denmark. In A Christmas Carol, Jacob Morley is like a really creepy Jiminy Cricket who functions as Scrooge’s conscious. In The Lovely Bones, the departed Susie Salmon starts out longing for all the living stuff she can’t do anymore, but realizes by the end that it’s never been about her, even when everyone was grieving her; it’s always been about the people who are still on earth and their struggle to survive loss. When we see ghosts, it’s not the actual ghost we’re meant to look at, but rather the ghost’s greatest concern.
Both werewolves and Frankenstein’s monster represent the idea that there is both a good and an evil side (or a doppelganger) to a person and you can never, ever separate the two. Werewolves represent two opposite selves sharing one body—whether Jekyll and Hyde or An American Werewolf in Paris, the problem with killing a werewolf is that you also kill a person. Similarly, Frankenstein and his monster are two selves of one soul: As the creature shadows Doctor Frankenstein, it becomes the manifestation of his dark self—which is why, even when he wants to, Dr. Frankenstein can’t kill it. The monster sucks power from the doctor because it’s a piece of the doctor. In any creation—a child, a monster, a piece of art, an idea—that thing is henceforth forever conjoined to its creator.
One of the most head-slapping tropes in horror is the number of sequels that spiral off any remotely successful IP (really, how many times can Mike Meyers get away?). One can never really kill a monster because monsters reproduce, they bite and infect people, they escape at the last minute. Certainly, this is a strategy for selling sequels, but more profoundly, it’s also because whatever the monster represents culturally (terror, wanton sex, the evil half of one’s self, uncomfortable truths…) can never really be killed either. We’re never going to completely destroy the evils of the world, but we can warn people about them.
Monsters are never self-generated, they’ve been created by some external circumstance. Think about the White Walkers in Game of Thrones. They seem like the most wicked characters in the series until we find out that they used to be good humans who cut down too many trees and got icicled in the heart for just trying to survive. Evil isn’t spontaneous, it’s created by circumstance. Monsters come with their own philosophies, motives, beliefs, desires—and those can be sexual, political, or cultural…whatever is most threatening to the status quo. These monsters are physically unnatural because their very existence defies the binaries we use to understand the world in the simplest terms possible.
What I hope students took away from my class is that horror isn’t just about fear, but what that fear tells us about ourselves. There’s fear of losing a true love, a war, a child, and then there’s fear of the unknown—or fear of knowing too much. We are haunted by metaphorical ghosts because we are afraid of the truth. We are preyed upon by vampiric systems because we fear loss of autonomy, youth, and vitality. We are tortured by the threat of our own failures, disasters, or darkest capabilities because the doppelganger is the monster we can’t kill without killing ourselves. Monsters, then, are not to be vanquished but gazed upon. Studied. And for the very, very brave, empathized.
Lindsay Zibach has written for Disney XD, The Hollywood Reporter, and Fast Company, and is a former producer for The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Nat Geo WILD. She won the Grand Prize for the 2016 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest and has an M.F.A. in Writing from Spalding University.