The Horror! The Horror! – An Essay on the Origins of Monster Archetypes in Literature


Before we jump into the myth pool of monsters and the various monster archetypes that became cultural touchstones, we must first ask ourselves what exactly is a monster. The Latin root ‘monere’ speaks of a portent. A monster is a messenger bearing a warning of catastrophe, a herald of the bad things to come. If a monster is a warning, then it is only logical to conclude that there is a party being warned–a culture, a society, and people for whom the monster reflects some aspects immanent to a specific time and place.

A monster is a thing that reveals and the revelation facilitated by monstrosity is not unidirectional. Critical theory has long since championed interpreting monsters as cultural manifestations of abstract and concrete fears, thereby introducing a lens of moral imagination to the critique. J.J. Cohen in Monster Theory: Reading Culture offered “seven theses” to understand the cultural role of monsters, veined as it is with both desire and repulsion. Let us understand them better below.

3 Main Types of Monster Archetypes

To better understand monstrosity – this genre of otherness – let us try to trace a continuum from the hybrid monsters of Antiquity to pulp horror. In order to do so, we have divided this compendium of monsters into three archetypal categories, roughly following the classification provided by Stephen King in Danse Macabre:

The Bestial and the Animal

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Painting of Medusa by Peter Paul Rubens (1618) (Medium: Oil on Canvas)

The non-human monster archetypes in literature range from the Cyclops and the Minotaur of Greek mythology to the mediaeval dragons of Beowulf and the man-beast hybrids of late modernity. A quick skim of the bestiaries of Greek mythology would reveal a collective imagination held in the grip of monsters and their slaying. The chimaera and the gryphon are amalgamations of known animals merged into strange and ferocious combinations.

The Cyclops appears in the works of Homer and Hesiod. Hesiod in his Theogony describes the three Cyclops brothers, sons of Uranus and Gaia, the sky and the earth. Giants with one singular eye on their forehead, the Cyclops brothers were blacksmiths who fashioned for Zeus his iconic lightning-bolt weapons. The Hesiodic cyclopses were named Arges, Brontes and Steropes and played a small but important role in Zeus’ succession myth. The man-eating Polyphemus of Homer’s Odyssey is, however, the more famous Cyclops. In this account, Poseidon’s island-dwelling son lives with his fellow Cyclops herdsmen. They are lawless savages unfamiliar with the markers of civilization–they show no regard for Zeus either.  Odysseus’ encounter with the Cyclops is initiated and marked largely by antagonism and animus on both sides: Odysseus and his men help themselves to Polyphemus’ food without permission. They are, in turn, sealed in a cave and eaten by Polyphemus, who is blinded by Odysseus.

The other great monster archetype of Greek and Roman mythology is Medusa, one of the three Gorgon sisters. Medusa had a head full of venomous snakes for hair, and a gaze that would turn any who looked into her eyes to stone. She was not originally monstrous. She had been transformed from a human woman by Athena and was beheaded by Perseus. Medusa has often been reinterpreted in feminist literature as an expression of female rage and desire.

Another famed man-eater of literature is Grendel from the Old English epic Beowulf, an undescribed monstrosity that dwells at the bottom of a lake and is killed by the titular hero. Like Medusa, Grendel has also been portrayed with greater sympathy in retellings like John Gardner’s fantasy novella Grendel.

An important characteristic of the bestial is its inherent two-faced nature. Either humans turned monsters or beings closer to animals than humans–these monsters toe a fine line between the animal-human dichotomy. This struggle to find equilibrium between contending forces sharing one body is best manifested in the werewolf. The werewolf narrative has been told time and again, though not always under the same name. The Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus, Herodotus in his Histories, Ovid, Pliny and Virgil all mention men changing into wolves. The legends surrounding Lycaon of Arcadia recount his attempt to feed Zeus human flesh. As punishment, Zeus transformed him into a wolf. European folkloric traditions of the lycanthrope are not uniform but were, nonetheless, the primary source of the modern archetype of the werewolf. Transformations ranged from permanent to temporary and methods were equally varied. Anything from wolfskin belts, infectious bites, curses or punishment features as common methods.

Any discussion of the origin of monster archetypes will be incomplete without mentioning the 19th-century fascination with dichotomies of man and animal, most prominently featured in Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The myth of the werewolf haunts the subtext of the story: a shapeshifter attempting to be rid of the second person inhabiting his body, a being who is not a unified whole, living in harmony with all his impulses but rather split into two, compartmentalising morality and action. The common ground Jekyll shares with werewolves is the depiction of Hyde as the personification of his more animalistic and brutal side, expressed through a physical transformation. The modern werewolf is in greater debt to Stevenson than to its folk counterpart.

The greatest and the most enduring of the monstrous beasts is perhaps the Dragon. From the Bible to popular genre fiction, dragons have come in many shapes and forms. Hesiod recounts Zeus’ battle with the hundred-headed Typhon. Satan appears as a great red dragon in the Book of Revelations. The Old Norse Völsunga saga depicts the capture and killing of Fafnir by the hero Sigurd. More recent draconic portrayals range from J.R.R. Tolkien’s gigantic Ancalagon the Black to the small, stunted, smoke-breathing Goodboy Bindle Featherstone (aka Errol) from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

Also Read: Exploring The Different Depictions of Dragons through Mythologies in The Hobbit and The Inheritance Cycle

The Undead

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Cristopher Lee as Count Dracula in one of the many Dracula movies between the 1950s and 1970s

Of the undead, there are many classic monster archetypes. The vampire, for one, has its roots in the Hungarian word ‘vampir’. Creatures of the vampiric tradition are generally recognised as those which feed on a vital essence of human life, most commonly blood. Examples abound in Eastern European folklore of a ruddy, bloated monster repelled by garlic, exterminated by staking, and compelled to count every grain of seeds scattered in its path to distract it. However, the first work of literature that depicted the vampire in its present pallid form is John Polidori’s The Vampyre, published in 1819. This short story was coincidentally written for the same contest devised by Byron, Mary and Percy Shelley and Polidori himself that produced the novel Frankenstein.

This is the first representation of the suave and aristocratic vampire popularised by Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Stoker’s introverted Count is, however, a far cry from Polidori’s Lord Ruthven. Dracula himself is far less bloodthirsty than his royal Wallachian namesake Vlad the Impaler. The association of Transylvania with vampirism comes from this book. Bram Stoker’s infiltrating intellectual outsider capitalised on anxieties generated by imperialism and colonialism, as well as popular literary traditions of the day–the Gothic and Travel genres. Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania and perceives little beyond what is understood through the lens of his universalised Victorian English culture. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla predates Stoker’s Dracula by nearly 20 years, and is the prototype of the lesbian vampire, mingling the erotic and the taboo. Dracula and Lord Ruthven were sexually attractive beings but their eroticism remained confined to the subtext of blood drinking. Carmilla, on the other hand, is shown to have a strong emotional and sexual bond with her victims. Instead of the insidiously parasitic Count, Carmilla represented for her victims an unholy liberation from the repressive mores of Victorianism.

Another popular representation of the vampire comes not from literature but rather from social theory. Karl Marx in Das Kapital compared capital to an undead vampiric thing that prolongs its survival only by sucking out the living labour of the working class. It’s worth keeping in mind this association with vampirism and all things pecuniary. Dracula was after all a being of ancient and powerful origins, and vampires as a general trend feature as shadowy aristocrats or the obscenely wealthy.

The other undead monster that has entered popular parlance related to workplace exploitation is the zombie. A colonial export from Haiti, the zombie is more commonly depicted on the silver screen than on the page. It has its traditional roots in Haitian Vodou folklore as the dead reanimated through witchcraft, not quite the mindless brain-eating monster of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The zombie in literature emerged only in the 1990s, after the proliferation of zombie films, and was a distinctive plot device to examine moral dilemmas. After all, who hasn’t considered their chances of surviving a zombie apocalypse, and just how many lines they are willing to cross for survival? The 2000s were marked by a drastic change in zombie fiction, which can be partly credited to Max Brooks. In The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), he parodies to great success the vigilantism and paranoia common to zombie fiction with tongue-in-cheek humour. “The goal” he said in a mock-serious interview, “is to be prepared, not scared, to use our heads, and cut off theirs.” Neil Gaiman’s American Gods even depicts a zombie-human romance.

Also Read: The Dynamic Duo and the Art of Humour in Good Omens: A Fantastic Neil Gaiman (and Terry Pratchett) Adaptation

The Concocted and The Nameless

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Pennywise from the IT movie; originally a character written by Stephen King

The reanimated patchwork corpse-child of Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is one of the icons of horror literature. He disrupts the natural order of creation being the unfortunate byproduct of humanity’s attempt to play god. The first in the genre of misunderstood monsters, Shelley’s creation is noticeably different from its inarticulate shuffling reel counterpart. Shelley’s monster archetype is educated, poetic and philosophising. He pleads with his creator for a mate and a companion in the face of its pre-adamite loneliness. We feel pity for him, for the wretched act of his birth, abandonment and subsequent humiliations. Shelley was writing in a society where socialisation was divided according to gender, as was education, despite the prevalence of theories of education championing the development of scientific as well as humanistic tendencies.

As far as Victor is concerned, he is given a scientific education—he is drawn by nature towards science, while Elizabeth is drawn by nature towards poetry and the pursuits of what is called humanities today. In his scheme of things, it was the mechanics and the underlying science of life that was important to him—mastery over nature, and not an understanding of it. When he finally creates this animate object, he is able to replicate the outer faculties of a human being—the creature’s arms and legs move. In fact, he makes a being that is superior to humans in strength and proportions. But he is unable to replicate the inner functioning of a human being—the heart and the mind. While science helps him make the outer shell of a human, and make it better than any human being, it cannot create a completely functioning human. It becomes a monster partly because it lacks certain fundamental human qualities that science is unable to provide. This conflict can, again, be linked to Victor’s own upbringing, where he essentially ignored emotional and moral maturity in his relentless pursuit of scientific discovery. In addition to the social condition, Mary Shelley’s private life was also steeped in ideological struggle–the conservative philosophy of her father, her personal tendency towards iconoclasm, and the Romantic reactions against the satanic mills of industrialisation. It is easy to see how Shelley’s work became one of the first texts of the English canon to render the monstrous in a sympathetic light, where the anxieties of torment and exclusion are projected onto this ostracised body.

Of the more recent literary horrors that fall under the category of monster archetypes but have no easy identifiers, the most terrifying ones happen to be far less sympathetic than Shelley’s creation. Neil Gaiman’s Other Mother from Coraline and Stephen King’s Pennywise the Clown from IT, among others. The Other Mother, with black buttons for eyes, growing taller, thinner, and paler as the book progresses, speaks to the endless possibilities of uncanny horror, the fear of something that’s “just a little bit wrong.” Pennywise is an ancient nameless evil that can transform into whatever frightens you the most. Why, then, does Pennywise manifest most commonly as the clown? Beyond reasons necessary to the plot, imagine the utter irrationality but the ubiquitousness of the fear of clowns. Whether or not it speaks truth to power about clownery is perhaps unimportant; what is important however is the fact that irrational fears are decidedly unfunny. Part of the reason is that it reveals a preoccupation with vulnerability. It is telling then, that the personification of shapeless fears is a clown.

Also Read: More than Blood and Guts: Symbolism in Horror

The Enduring Appeal of the Monster Archetypes

If we are to analyse the monster archetypes in chronological terms, we can narrow down certain preoccupations to certain epochs. The Middle Ages, for example, provided the bestial human. With Victorian modernity came the dichotomy of law and nature, and the monsters situated outside its framework. In each case, the monster archetypes seem to blur the lines between human and animal, man and woman. They are not simply literary manifestations of anatomical or psychological irregularity. Monsters, old and new, threaten to destabilise rigid social norms and distinctions. They are subjected only to violence and not accommodated within these legal/social structures. In effect, they represent a double failure: one of imagination and the other of morality.

Our understanding of monsters is deepened by an examination of their cultural and geographic origins. Each culture harbours in its institutions and traditions its formative fears–whether it originates from xenophobia, oppression or marginality. The monster is, in a manner of speaking, born in the break between neatly classifiable categories. With modernity has come greater recognition of and sympathy towards flaws and imperfections as unique particularities of human experience, thereby shaking off the overwhelming antagonism directed at the not-normal. The liberal argument–which weakens itself by eschewing the essential difference of monsters and bringing them into the fold of normality–promises that the end of difference will bring about an end to bigotry and in turn, monstrosity.

It aims just as much as conservative arguments to homogenise, to reduce into normality. The radical edge of the monster archetypes lies in its difference, in the acknowledgement that the monstrous is often unconsciously desirable, pleasurable even, precisely because of its extremity. The monstrous in this reading is not a deviation from the norm but its negation. If we are equal parts attracted and repulsed by what is ostensibly undesirable and alien, then perhaps it is time to reconsider normality that requires constant internal policing. Beyond the simple act of ideological projection, truly transgressive acts of acceptance of the monster archetypes come hand in hand with the knowledge that what we understand as truly and inherently universal ways of existing are merely structures devised by humanity. Instead, they appear just as alien and incomprehensible to an outsider as unfamiliar customs seem to us.


  • Oindri Das

    Oindri is a bookworm and an eternally relapsing fantasy addict. After completing an MA in Literary and Cultural Studies from EFLU, she took the opportunity to turn her reading habit into a profession by writing primarily about the books that catch her fancy.

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