What exactly constitutes a monster? From childhood, we often learn to fear monsters, even if we don’t know exactly what they are. Do they live under our beds and in our closets? Do they stalk graveyards looking for prey? Are they just average people who look different from ourselves? Or are they merely those around us who intend to do us harm? Sure, they’re cute and cuddly on Sesame Street. But generation after generation have grown to fear such entities as vampires, zombies, and the Bogeyman (not to be confused with John Travolta, the “Boogie Man”). Every generation looks for an explanation for the unknown and the things that go bump in the night.
But can monsters really exist as we know them from classic horror? Before I do with monsters like I did with superheroes, let’s look at some of the legends that shaped our view of monsters.
Some people are born different. I mean very different. No, not like Gary Busey. I mean even weirder! These are the oddities once referred to as “freaks” and paraded around in side shows.
People normally have distinguishing features. Some are odder than others. But not all are deserving of their own specific medical categories. Even those that do don’t necessarily qualify to be called “freaks”. Not very many people would be interested in paying money to buy a ticket to see someone with an extra finger, an extra toe, or a third nipple.
But bearded ladies, The Elephant Man, Lobster Boy, Dog Boy, pinheads, and the like appealed to the curiosity of the general public. They attracted visitors to sideshows and the circuses or other events they often accompanied, as well as to established locations such as P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. A lot of people went to satisfy their curiosities. Because of this, freaks tended to be paid very well. In fact, there were even a few that lived in mansions and had yachts.
When questions of exploitation arose surrounding freak shows, the accusations were opposed by the freaks themselves. Their argument was that if anyone thought they were being exploited, those people should see their paychecks. The shows were often family entertainment. But that didn’t stop countless people from being completely horrified at the spectacle.
Not all freaks, however, are natural. Some are self-made. Many modern freak shows are filled with performers who aren’t born that way. Historically, one of the most notable was the geek. (Do NOT mistake this for the geeks of today! You will be injured. Badly.) The freak show geeks were typically alcoholics or drug addicts who would do things like chase chickens around the middle of the stage before biting their heads off and swallowing them. Their payment? Alcohol and narcotics. This was common in the time of Prohibition. But today, self-made freaks are more eccentric performer than oddity. Lizardman and Enigma are great examples. Both are former members of the Jim Rose Circus, one of the most popular of the modern side shows. Although not quite as spectacular, they often do stunts that would make the guys on Jackass cringe!
Some monsters are inspired by real people who were, for lack of better description, completely and utterly psychotic. Some of them have neurological or chemical problems. Some had toxic poisoning. Some were raised in situations which scarred them for life. Some simply snapped at some strange point.
First of all,there’s the one who inspired Bram Stoker’s version of the vampire. That would be none other than Vlad Dracul, also known as Vlad the Impaler. While he’s still held up as a hero by people in Bulgaria and Transylvania, the nickname came for a very good reason. Vlad liked impaling people, mostly his enemies, as punishment. He was said to have had a miniature forest of dead bodies on pikes. In fact, legend has it that an army of Turkish invaders turned back at the sight of the gruesome carnage. Then there’s the tale that he would occasionally dine at a table set up among the dead bodies. Frankly, if I was ever seated at a table among throes of corpses on sticks, I’d be having some words with the matre d’!
Next, there’s good ol’ Jack the Ripper. Nobody really knows the true identity of Jack the Ripper. Some think they do, but they’re just guessing. This killer was known for murdering and surgically gutting women, primarily prostitutes, in London’s Whitechapel district in 1888. Although there were reports of similar crimes in America shortly after the killings stopped, there are no known kills by Jackie Boy beyond the five confirmed ones. But wasn’t that enough?
It doesn’t end there. We need to include all those who had a neurological problem, chemical poisoning or imbalance, or were just plain loony. I don’t mean Daffy Duck loony. I mean Charles Manson loony! History is full of various insanities. So are the insane asylums.
Some people are just wired differently than others. For a lot of crazies, it is a mis-wiring from birth, or even sooner. For others, it’s something that occurs later. Typically this is caused by some kind of trauma, such as a concussion, a stroke, or Gage Syndrome. Put a railroad spike through your brain, and suddenly your personality changes and you have no more conscience. Or perhaps just being born with a few screws loose would do the trick. It’s a recipe for mass disaster. With what is known about human neurology, what we don’t know puts it to shame. That’s why the effects of a stroke are unpredictable. Pretty much the only thing predictable about a stroke is that a person will be different afterward, even if we can’t explain how or why. Could neurological issues cause a person to go completely nutty and psycho. Yup, it’s happened. A lot.
Chemical poisoning makes for a nasty psycho. A little PCP can make someone who is 85 lbs. soaking wet into a nearly unstoppable juggernaut. Ingest a few bath salts and one ends up gnawing off the faces of innocent bystanders. Have you ever heard the phrase “mad as a hatter”? Hat makers used to use mercury to soften leather. They then suffered the psychological effects of mercury poisoning. Have you ever been trapped in an elevator with someone wearing one of those nasty designer perfumes or aftershaves? Tell me that didn’t make you want to go on a murderous rampage.
So there is inspiration from those who are separated from the norm by physical and psychological attributes. That brings us to …
Legends, tall tales, religions, and creative stories are probably the most influential sources of monsteresque inspiration. They tend to be quite imaginative and bizarre. Much of it is based in superstition, overactive imagination, and fear of the unknown. Almost all of it is geared toward the fear of one’s own injury or death. After all, wouldn’t you be afraid of something that would suck your blood and brains out, devour your flesh, steal your soul, take over your body, or force you to watch endless reruns of Jersey Shore? I sure would.
Typically, such monsters would involve pseudo-science, magic, or “dark powers from beyond”. But rather than debunk such ideas, I’ll do what I did with superheroes in a series of articles a while back and figure out how a few could be made to exist in the real world.