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The Monster Larger Than the Screen

How Our Deepest Fears Shape the Monstrous

From the dawn of cinema, they’ve fascinated, scared and entertained us. From roaming small towns, possessions, and murderous maniacs chasing teenagers, monsters have possessed both TV and film. But monsters aren’t just terrifying creatures that haunt our screens; they represent our deepest societal fears and anxieties. Each type of monster symbolises something unique about what we fear, while a widespread phenomenon, the most popular type of monster at a given time, always has the most to say about what we fear.

Currently, some of the most prominent monsters in the media are zombies, and this is no coincidence. The zombie genre is rooted in politics, representing generally the fear of a mindless mass operating as one horde and seeking only to increase that horde. It is a fear primarily of the loss of individuality and autonomy in a setting where normal social structures have crumbled, and the individual is hunted.

While still a prominent symbol behind the idea of zombies, in light of recent history, this has shifted. The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic had a paramount effect on our lives and culture, and this didn’t leave the zombie genre unscathed. The TV show adaptation of the video game The Last of Us has swept the internet. It is a story about a world thrust into an apocalypse as a result of a pandemic caused by a fungal infection, the fungus itself mutating as a result of rising temperatures of global warming. Both causes outlined here ring true for us in 2023. We live in a world which for two years (and arguably still) was paralysed by a deadly pandemic, and we are in the throes of a climate crisis. Moreover, the TV show’s lore is rooted in science making it seem like a real possibility in light of the last few years.

But monsters aren't only a reflection of our current societal fears. They evolve to reflect the anxieties of different eras. In the 1950s, monsters inspired by radiation and nuclear power, like Godzilla and The Blob, were popular. Representing the increasing anxieties over atomic power and the potential for destruction that it held. And in the 1980s, slashers were on the rise with Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, representing the fear of violence and the breakdown of societal structures. With the U.S. witnessing an increase in violent crime and the televised aftermath of the Vietnam War, horror took a turn towards a darker direction. Slashers then reflected on the fear of horror entering otherwise idyllic scenarios like summer camp and suburbia.

Another famous manifestation of the monstrous in TV and film are ghosts. The paranormal was always prominent in the media but I would argue that this depiction of the monstrous really came into itself in the late 2000s and early 2010s. With the releases and popularity of the Paranormal Activity franchise, it was clear that society felt haunted. The ghost is an ominous presence, it is always watching, it cannot be touched but it can be felt. This rise in popularity then again, is no coincidence, as society was haunted by the sudden rise in surveillance. Surveillance felt like a harmful omnipresence, one that cannot be physically grasped and so society was left feeling anxious by its watchfulness.

Monsters have generally been popularised by the horror genre but that isn’t to say that they haven't transcended it. They change and adapt. Such is the example of vampires. Originally depicted as grotesque, near translucent creatures of the dark as in the adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula: Nosferatu (1921). This depiction of the vampire was terrifying, it was indeed a creature you would imagine lurking in dark corners of abandoned castles. But then something shifted. As more iterations of the vampire appeared on-screen vampires were no longer scary, rather they became alluring. In the following adaptations of Dracula, he turned into a rather attractive man whose skin, while still pale, no longer inspired terror and his fangs were now confined to his canines, he became more human which was equally comforting as it was terrifying.

A near century later the vampire reemerged wholly new, no longer is he Count Dracula, he is now Louis de Pointe du Lac, Edward Cullen and Damon Salvatore portrayed by the most attractive heartthrobs of our time. But the fears that the vampire represented didn’t change as drastically, vampires still represented our fear of giving into forbidden desires and damnation to a life of immortality.

So, what’s next? In recent cinema the monster has become much more ambiguous, heroes aren’t just facing monsters but rather a larger idea of the monster. Larger social themes which permeate life have taken on the monstrous form, such as the evils of classism in Parasite and xenophobia in Us. While the monstrous changes with time one thing remains constant, they will always haunt us because they evolve with us and our anxieties.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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