A monster is a creature is sole function is to terrify, to devour, to destroy. They are the property of fiction. Mindless brutes that kill without reason, or food, or those that possess a semblance of personality, of cunning that are always more terrifying. One thinks in the first instance of a troll, or a kraken; in the second of a vampire, or something dead, or perhaps ‘The Silence’ from Dr. Who. It is the latter who always the more terrifying.
Monsters inhabit stories, fables, myth. They are not real. It may the case that in our world, in reality, there are no monsters; no true, pure, only monsters, that carry no vestige of humanity. Because perhaps, even the ‘monsters’ of the real world have something human, something… endearing about them. I am reminded of Chinua Achebe’s poem ‘Vultures’, which depicts the Commandant at Belsen ‘stopping at the wayside sweet shop to pick up a chocolate for tender offspring waiting at home for Daddy’s return.’ He can still smell the smell of human flesh clinging to his nostrils.
And then there is a passage in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which the mistress of a camp commander defends her lover. ‘People say he was a monster but he was not.’
Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled, off-key, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of steak. How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. A big child, she would have said to herself. Her heart would have melted, she’d have smoothed the hair back from his forehead, kissed him on the ear, and not just to get something out of him, either. The instinct to soothe, to make better. There there, she’d say, as he woke from a nightmare. Things are so hard for you. All this she would have believed, otherwise how could she have kept on living?’
Margaret Atwood, the Handmaid’s Tale (Vintage, 1996), pp. 155-156
Perhaps there are no monsters, no pure, only-monsters. Monsters without anything human about them, in some way. Nor are there Peoples, groups, cultures, religions that are only monstrous. We know that.
Perhaps the term ‘Monster’ is in some way a boundary, a barrier that denotes the line between acceptable and unacceptable, clean and impure, between human and monster. Monsters, in stories, exist beyond the city walls, and can be kept there, at bay. They can be chained, punished, culled. They are not like us.
Perhaps. It may also be that the things monsters do are so terrible they eliminate their capacity for empathy, for understanding, or finally for repentance. The last petal falls and they remain as monster for ever.
Perhaps. Atwood also writes, ‘How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all.’