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The Twenty-First Century Monster

Chris Lawson: Rob, I may be over-simplifying, but it seems to me that witches are mediaeval, werewolves are late feudal, vampires are Victorian, and apocalyptic flesh-eating zombies are late 20th century consumerist. What new monsters are in store for this coming century?

I’m not sure about the classification of werewolves as late feudal; the metaphor doesn’t really work for me. Moreover, though werewolves appear in medieval and later literature, they’re not really the werewolf as we’ve come to know it, and the first significant werewolf fiction, Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris (1933), is set in 19th Century France. Hammer translated it into a semi-feudal Spanish setting in 1961 — but it was the film The Wolf Man (1941), along with the earlier Werewolf of London (1935), that established much of the currently perceived lore. The Wolf Man, The Curse of the Werewolf and later films tend to exhibit a strong sexual undercurrent — releasing the Beast in Man, as it were (essentially a thematic import from cinematic versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). I guess you could argue that The Wolf Man engages in the same sort of social dialogue as undertaken by Curse of the Werewolf director Terence Fisher, examining the tensions that arise between the New World and the Old and the rise of the middle class. Social class plays a big part in these, as it does in Fisher’s Dracula and Frankenstein sequences.

Likewise, zombies. To understand the current approach to the living dead, we have to essentially ignore its folkloric origins and go straight to modern fictional sources – though “outsider” or racial conflict still plays a big part. But just as the prevalent view of vampires was “created” by Bram Stoker in his novel Dracula, despite earlier literary examples and despite its occurrence in folktales and in a wide variety of cultural beliefs, the zombie has moved away from its origins. The modern zombie — viewed as a walking corpse with cannibalistic tendencies — was “created” by George Romero in his Night of the Living Dead and the subsequent films in his quadrilogy, and elaborated by endless imitators. The zombie film depicts the apocalyptic triumph of an unnatural death state, along with a graphic contempt for the flesh displayed via dismemberment and the excess of gore that has become its defining characteristic. Certainly in Romero’s zombie films, however, there is a strong social commentary, one that changes in response to the concerns of each of the decades that produced the films. Consumerism plays its biggest part in Dawn of the Dead (1978). Beyond that, however, I would see the zombie as being about consumerism in the sense that it depicts a sort of non-spiritual materialism — an abandonment of spirit in favour of the flesh. Clive Barker once described the modern zombie as immortality without religious belief. The zombie subgenre also contains a concern that is prevalent in modern horror generally: a fear of viral contagion. Vampires have a viral aspect, but it tends to be played down in favour of other themes. In zombies the fear of an unstoppable plague has achieved some sort of apotheosis. Films such as 28 Days Later..., which use the zombie tropes but do not feature the living dead as such, are all about uncontrolled infection.

To get closer to addressing the base question, however, we have to go further than the living dead. It seems to me, despite the contemporary upsurge in zombie films, that there are two other iconic monsters vying for rule of monsterdom in the post-millennial period. One is the serial killer, a real-life phenomenon that has been thoroughly mythologised on film and in literature over the years. As a monster, the serial killer/slasher goes back many decades — in its modern form, probably to the later films of Bava and then to Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), which fuelled the main escalation in slasher films, even if the tropes appeared earlier. The 1990s were full of them. Now we’re seeing resurgence in the form of both remakes and originals. Silence of the Lambs and Thomas Harris’ subsequent Hannibal Lecter novels and films introduced a level of malevolent intelligence into an image of “the serial killer” that had previously been merely physical and rather mindless. Now we have a whole slew of high profile “killers” that range from Hannibal Lecter through to the mutant cannibals of the The Hills Have Eyes remake, the clownish maniacs of Rob Zombie’s films and the sadistic torture pornographers of Saw and Hostel. Apparently they’re everywhere. It will be interesting to see how politically motivated fearmongering in regards to terrorists affects this “monster in our midst”. At the moment, however, despite its box-office ubiquity I don’t feel that the serial killer/slasher is capturing our time with any great originality. Most of the films feel like earlier exploitation films with high-tech upgrades.

The other iconic “monster” is the ghost. Ghosts of all persuasions have undergone a massive renaissance, producing not only significant books, but more films than all the others combined — not to mention TV series such as Medium, Supernatural and — the best of the lot — the UK series Afterlife. Central to the upsurge in major ghost films has been the influence of Asian, and specifically Japanese, horror. When Ring (1998) hit the scene it re-energised horror films generally, and dragged them into the mainstream box-office in a way we hadn’t seen for a long while. Ju-on: the Grudge and its many progeny followed, and brought with them successful ghost films from Hong Kong, Thailand and Korea — the Hollywood remakes inevitably followed. Somewhere in the early inspirational mix, though, there was The Sixth Sense (1999) with its “I see dead people” plotline. The enormous and unexpected success of that film worldwide was as influential as the Ring cycle. These films arguably created an aesthetic than is still functioning, despite signs of stagnation, and has led to the rule of the ghost. And that aesthetic is quite different from that of ghost films of previous eras.

What does it represent? Well, in its Asian form it brought zombiesque viral fears into the ghost story, without that subgenre’s visceral contempt for the flesh. Traditionally ghosts were very limited in their influence, usually seeking revenge on specific guilty individuals or the progeny of those who had brought about their deaths or otherwise wronged them. Either that, or their spheres of influence were localised, restricted to the environment in which they had lived or died (the classic haunted house scenario). There were instances of a wider vengeance, however, especially over time, as well as hints of the possibility of a viral “spread”, as in the conclusion of Stephen Volk’s TV drama Ghostwatch (1992), which had the sort of effect on its audience last seen in Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of War of the Worlds (1938).

The ghost story is also classically about the persistence of the influence of past events. Metaphorically the subgenre explores guilt and the knowledge that the past lingers as an influence we have to deal with – one we may not be able to deal with. The current ghost film has taken this one step further in that in stories such as that of Sadako and The Grudge the vengeance unleashed by past sins is frighteningly indiscriminate. Not only the guilty suffer, but the dire consequences extend to society in general. More widely the prevalence of vengeful spectral women and children in Asian films reflects a feeling that socially we are at a crossroads. In these films, the traditional social (specifically family) structure has broken down and yet lingers on in an inability to find a new way to heal the psychic trauma of the breakdown. Likewise films such as the apocalyptic Kairo (the original Japanese version of Pulse) reflect the alienation caused by urban life and technological advancement. It is here that the most iconic of the ghost films have found a voice for our times.

Of course, the popularity of ghost films also reflects current conflicted attitudes to traditional matters of life, death and the “Eternal Truths”. TV shows such as The Ghost Whisperer perpetually assure the viewer than death is not the end. Ghost films generally offer this re-assurance, of course, but more commonly it is hard to find solace in the knowledge, as the afterlife proves to be as conflicted as life and more often offers hellish vengeance and demonic confrontation as an eternal truth. In Medium the conduit of ghostly communications might have found a legalistic niche as well as a structure of support via the family and the DA’s Office, but in Afterlife seeing the dead only leads to pain, alienation and emotional dysfunction. Not very comforting.

Beyond these monsters, it is hard to predict what stand-ins for our terror might lie in store for the future. Issues of global environmental destruction suggest obvious possibilities (there is evidence of an increasing trend to re-invent the giant monster, for example), with a strong dose of GM paranoia and a plunge into virtual escapism via digital media and cyberspace offering even more possibilities. The ghost has embraced the latter concern with open arms, but I can’t help feeling there is some other monstrous metaphor lurking just over the horizon, waiting to claw its way out of the darkness into the bright light of fiction.

As an aside, being asked this question is interesting insofar as I explore this very issue – from a different perspective – in my story “Flesh and Bone”, which has just appeared in Daikaiju! 3: Giant Monsters vs the World. There I take the premise that Godzilla was given reality as a metaphor for nuclear fear and try to envisage a whole series of giant monsters that encapsulate each period of major technological advancement. The final monster to appear is … well, you’ll have to read the story to find out.

This article appeared on The Talking Squid site on 4th October 2007.

copyright©Robert Hood 2007

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