Our Reading Lives

Why Are We Attracted to Fictional Monsters?

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I’ll be the first to admit that I’m comically ignorant of the movie world. The only reason I know that Guillermo del Toro is directing The Shape of Water is because of Tumblr rumblings—something, something, banging a fish dude?

The Shape of Water trailer screencap

The Shape of Water title screen via FoxSearchlight on Youtube

IMDb says that the movie is “An other-worldly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962. In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation. Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment.

This was news to me, seeing as my first impression of the movie consisted of Tumblr text posts ruminating on the appeal and dateability of the movie’s aquatic monster/fish man. While I don’t plan on seeing the movie—too faint of heart, I admit—all the hubbub did make me think of the monsters I’ve read in fiction. Specifically, sympathetic monsters. Hot monsters. Monsters you’d maybe wanna hook up with?

Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley

A classic example would be the Beauty and the Beast. (Sidenote regarding the movies: Isn’t it a universal experience at this point to be disappointed when the Beast transforms into some surfer dude in a medieval Henley shirt? I’m looking at you, Disney.) My personal favorite retelling is Rose Daughter by Robin McKinley. It follows the familiar tale, but with filled-in details and a number of character and plot twists that make it new.

But still, sometimes, a monster should just stay a monster. One book that leans into this is Sunshine by (surprise, surprise) Robin McKinley. Sunshine is, if you boil it down, a vampire book. But it’s a vampire book that embraces the idea of a vampire as a monster—not a sanitized, sparkly entity. When the book’s heroine, Sunshine, is captured alongside a vampire and must team up with him to escape, you get a glimpse of someone who is undeniably not human—dangerous, truly sun-averse, and in possession of mushroom-y skin. Not conventionally attractive, by any means. And yet…

I could go on for days listing books with strangely appealing monsters. (Here’s a list of 100 books about monsters. ) The real question is why are they so appealing? Why do we like stories about monsters? Why do we like specifically love stories about monsters? What’s the deal here?

This is where I point you to Jeffrey Cohen’s seven theses of monster culture. (Definitely check out the essays in Monster Theory: Reading Culture.) I love this shit, and yes, I do take every opportunity to bring it up. In his seven theses, Cohen discusses how monsters are strange and different, but not so different that we can’t recognize ourselves in them. Monsters represent the fears and desires of society and, most tellingly, that fear is really just desire in disguise. See? Cohen gets the whole hot monster thing.

Monsters embody the allure of danger, transgression, power, and much more. They can also shine a stark, unyielding light on injustice. For me, this theme was particularly present in Asian folk tales about monster women. Whether the story was about mountain hags or demons or serpent women, there was always two layers to it—the initial horror of the monster woman, and then the question of: Why is she a monster? What drove her to it? Who is really at fault here? (Answer: Society.) And isn’t she justified in [insert gory revenge here], after what happened to her? TBH, these ladies are kinda badass.

Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho

If you want to read more on that, there’s plenty of folk tale and myth anthologies out there (e.g. Japanese Tales). BONUS: Zen Cho’s short story House of Aunts, which can be found in her short story anthology Spirits Abroad, illustrates this whole thing pretty well and is an incredible read.

Monsters embody what’s missing in our lives—whether that’s agency or justice or a really sick set of talons. Maybe that’s why they’re so appealing. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it, and it’s really not that deep. Why do you think monsters have so much power over our imagination? What’s up with hot monsters? And most importantly, what’s your favorite monstrous book?