Essay: A Monster's History?
We love monsters. Whether it's the foot pounding destruction from Godzilla or Hannibal Lecter staring into our minds with his red eyes and cold intelligence, we love them. Horror movies make millions and millions of dollars every year, regardless of how shitty most of the films are. Stephen King belches, and hundreds of thousands of copies of his latest fiction fly off the shelves. We have shows like True Blood and Dexter, where the monsters are portrayed in a very sympathetic light. The fantasy of the monster somewhat crumbles under the weight of these narratives.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not a hypocrite. If you're listening to this, chances are you have already sampled some of my Fiends collection, so you know that I take every opportunity to give my monsters their own voices. The narrator in Momma, casually explaining his philosophy to his mother, or the artist in Canvas waxing poetic about his own insanity. I don't think I try and paint these as sympathetic characters, however, although do try and get to why they think the way they think.
But that's not really the point here. I want to talk about our incessant need for origin. If you go back to the earliest mythologies, you invariably find that some deity shat the universe out its ass and then for some reason thought it was a good idea to put us on this planet. Although they believe different flavors of this idea, billions do believe exactly that. And the religion doesn't matter. I call it myth because a myth is universal, not because I'm degrading religion. Before you get pissed, just think about it.
And this relatively universal tale highlights our obsession with origin. We as human beings have a curiosity. We want explanations. Whether it's the first Greek philosophers describing the gods responsible for all that their science could not explain, or the incredibly gifted and intelligent scientists who are today smashing atoms and unraveling our genetic code, humans are obsessed with discovering how they came to be.
This drive, I believe, leads many story-tellers with the urge to write monsters that have a past. Buffy always had her library to describe nearly every creature she ever came in contact with. Stephen King stories usually end up with one or more characters researching and finding out where their monsters came from. We have tons and tons of serial killer novels, Thomas Harris' works might be the best example, where the killer's story is laid before us to explain what they are and how they came to be that way.
In many ways, I enjoy these tales. They give the monster a personality, even if seen from afar. But I always feel as though it cheapens it. HP Lovecraft wrote some stories that hint at obscure mythos, but don't explain them. For several characters, they witness horror and the supernatural, but they don't understand what they're seeing. And in many ways, neither does the reader. Yet we're still chilled by these visions perhaps because we aren't given the backgrounds.
Sometimes monsters just are. Sometimes characters don't have the ability to discover what it is they're facing, only that they are facing it. The don't have some magical tome to tell them a creature's weaknesses and habits. There is no bible of information for them. Even the internet may fail to provide clues. Ha, there's a shock.
We may never get into these monsters' minds. We may never hear them speak, only witness their actions. Our understanding of their motives is cut down to only the most primitive comprehension by what they do, not what they are. These are the monsters I think we fear the most–those beyond explanation.
Horror movies are the most guilty of providing strained and forced sub-plots to explain what these monsters are and why they are. I very rarely see a film where things just are. There doesn't have to be a backstory. You want a sequel, bitches? Have the next damned movie give the backstory from the monster's perspective! John Gardener's "Grendel" is a great example of this, telling Beowulf from the monster's point of view.
The Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises (pre Rob Zombie) scare us and are popular because they focus so much on the murder and mayhem, but not about the deep thoughts of the antagonists. Those monsters have no personality. At all. They don't speak. They don't dialogue about their evil plans or why they kill. They simply are. If the fucking plots of those flicks weren't so tenuous and predictable, I might really get into them. But, sorry, I've grown up. I want protagonists that are three dimensional, regardless of how boogeymanish the monsters might be.
So do we need backstories in horror? How about fantasy? Short stories are a great example of when backstories just cease to be. By and large, they are skimpy at best. You must infer most of it. Phillip K Dick in one of his stories tosses out "The Negro Protection Act," but doesn't explain what it is. You are left to infer what that means and how the world is different from our own.
Tossing out these little tidbits leave readers to use their imaginations and don't take away from the pace of the characters as they try and live their lives, regardless of the trials they face. Think back to when you were a child. Did the Tooth Fairy have a backstory? What of Santa Claus? What of the boogeyman? There are no backstories that I can remember, except those made by television and film. Our parents didn't explain these make believe creatures. Only that they existed (or don't). A child doesn't give a shit about how the boogeyman came to be, only the fear that the fucker is in the closet and ready to pounce on them.
Our most base childish fears come from not knowing what it is. Only that it is. Knowing something's backstory can defang it. It can destroy the dread that is. This isn't to say there aren't stories that do it well. I'm simply saying you don't have to have a backstory for the monster. Sometimes they just are.
Zombies are always tracked back to a plague, a virus, or some kind of alien gas. Shit, these days Vampires don't even need a backstory at all to explain why they're vampires or how vampirism works. We just know. There are exceptions, of course, but rarely do we even give a damn. Unless the main character is some kind of scientist trying to figure out how to save the world, it's often unimportant why things are, only that they are.
I've written monsters who tell their stories, or their stories are told by others. But some of my monsters will just exist. Just plain be there. Be terrifying by their existence, not by how they grew up, were made, or born. They just are.
So the next time you pick up a horror novel or watch a horror film, think about this. Look for the sections where the author or screenwriter spends their time focusing on the why and not the what. Ask yourself: does it need to be there? If it does, then the writer did their job and did it well. If it doesn't, then chalk it up to our morbid need to explain all that is around us. Meanwhile, some of my creatures will be tearing out your fucking throat and they won't tell you what they are, or where they came from. Their sharp talons drawing the blood and rending the flesh from your bones will be the only explanation you need.