A Brief History of Monsters

Theodora Goss was born in Hungary and spent her childhood in various European countries before her family moved to the United States. Although she grew up on the classics of English literature, her writing has been influenced by Eastern European literary traditions. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, Crawford, and Mythopoeic Awards, as well as on the Tiptree Award Honor List, and has won the World Fantasy and Rhysling Awards. The following is the first web appearance of a column originally slated for Realms of Fantasy Magazine. Her latest book is Thorne & BlossomThe Editors


If you happened to be in New York City in the summer of 1842, you could see a rare and wonderful creature: a real mermaid. She had been caught by a naturalist named Dr. Griffin off the coast of the Feejee Islands. Dr. Griffin himself had been reluctant to display her, but his friend P.T. Barnum had persuaded him that the public should be allowed to see such a marvelous sight. He had offered the newspapers a woodcut of a beautiful woman with the tail of a fish, and they had printed it. He had also distributed copies of a pamphlet with her picture on it throughout the city. Anticipation ran high: the crowds to see the mermaid were enormous.

            Those allowed into the exhibition hall were given a lecture by Dr. Griffin detailing how he had found the mermaid and explaining that since there were sea-horses and sea-lions, there must certainly be sea-humans as well. And they were shown the mermaid herself. I wonder how many of them realized that they were looking at a clever hoax: the dried head and torso of a monkey sewn onto the tail of a fish. A reporter from the Philadelphia Public Ledger who seems to have been fooled wrote,

The monster is one of the greatest curiosities of the day. It was caught near the Feejee islands, and taken to Penambuco, where it was purchased by an English gentleman named Griffin, who is making a collection of rare and curious things for the British Museum, or some other cabinet of curiosities. This animal, fish, flesh or whatever it may be, is about three feet long, and the lower part of the body is a perfectly formed fish, but from the breast upwards this character is lost, and then approaches human form—or rather that of a monkey.(1)

Dr. Griffin was as much of a fake as the mermaid herself. He was actually Levi Lyman, Barnum’s collaborator. Both men had conspired to fool the public. But the public seemed to enjoy being fooled. After the initial exhibition, the Feejee Mermaid was displayed at Barnum’s American Museum, where she significantly increased ticket sales. She remained a popular attraction, both in museums and on tour, until she was destroyed in a museum fire in the 1880s.

The Philadelphia Public Ledger reporter was right to call the Feejee Mermaid a “monster.” We often think of monsters as large, frightening creatures, such as Polyphemus from the Odyssey or Frankenstein’s monster. The Feejee mermaid was neither large nor frightening. But monsters come in all sizes, and some of them are attractive—at least initially. The vampire Carmilla is beautiful and seductive before she sucks your blood. What separates monsters from ordinary creatures is something more subtle, having to do with the way we perceive the world. As we grow up, we learn to place the phenomena around us into categories. Monsters are what do not fit into those categories. They are giants with one eye, assemblages of corpses, beautiful women who can turn into cats—or monkeys with the tail of a fish. Because they do not fit, monsters make us feel what Sigmund Freud has described as the unheimlich, which is usually translated as the uncanny, a sensation that can range from discomfort to outright fear. And yet, as the New Yorkers who paid to see the Feejee mermaid demonstrate, we are also fascinated by monsters. They inhabit the myths and legends of our earliest history as well as Hollywood blockbusters. There is a direct line of descent between Polyphemus and the Terminator.

 1. Monsters of Myth and Legend

Why are we so fascinated by monsters? They seem to produce a simultaneous and paradoxical mixture of pleasure and fear. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a monster is “a mythical creature which is part animal and part human, or combines elements of two or more animal forms, and is frequently of great size and ferocious appearance.” As examples, the OED lists the centaur, sphinx, and minotaur—all monsters from classical mythology. Myths and legends contain a number of such hybrid creatures: a partial list would include the manticore (a lion with a human head and the tail of a scorpion), the chimera (a lion with the tail of a snake and the head of a goat), the cockatrice (a dragon with a rooster’s head), the griffin (a lion with the head and wings of an eagle), the echidna (half woman, half serpent), and the siren (half woman, half bird or fish). Even the dragon is a hybrid: a reptile that is winged, like a bird. However, monsters can also be creatures with exaggerated traits, such as giants, who are like humans but significantly larger.

The word monster comes from the Latin “monstrum,” meaning a portent or prodigy, from the verb “monere,” to warn. Once, the birth of creatures with congenital deformities were considered portents—warnings of misfortune to come. According to Stephen Asma in On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, a monster is an omen: “a display of God’s wrath, a portent of the future, a symbol of moral virtue or vice.”(2) During the reign of Pericles, a ram with a single horn was born on one of his farms. A seer determined that the monstrous ram was a portent: Pericles would triumph over his political rival, Thucydides. The philosopher Anaxagoras chopped the ram’s head in half and observed that its brain had developed abnormally, resulting in the single horn. He offered a scientific explanation for the monster. But Pericles did indeed triumph over Thucydides, and the prophetic power of the seer was celebrated.(3)

What about the monsters we are most familiar with, not rams with single horns but unicorns and hydras? A number of scientific explanations have been suggested for their appearance. Some monsters may be the result of misinterpretation—of ancient fossils or contemporary natural phenomena. Dragons may have been inspired by the bones of prehistoric reptiles, and medieval unicorn horns usually belong to narwhales. But perhaps it is more important to determine not how monsters originated, but what they mean to us. Why are they so common in our myths and legends? We know heroes by the monsters they fight: Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, Theseus and the Minotaur, Perseus and Medusa, Beowulf and Grendel, St. George and the dragon. Heroes are defined by their monsters: it is their ability to fight monster that makes them heroes. Since monsters are by definition unnatural, heroes restore the natural order. They safeguard civilization, symbolized by places such as Heorot, the great hall that the monster Grendel invades.

In the pagan world, this dichotomy made sense: monsters were ancient, often more ancient than the gods themselves. They represented the forces of primal chaos. Echidna, who had the body of a snake and the head and torso of a beautiful woman, was called the mother of all monsters because she had birthed so many, including Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hades; the Lernaea Hydra; and the Gorgons. Her children presented a continual threat to heroes; they would always have monsters to fight. The forces of primal chaos were always waiting to destroy civilization. But after the spread of monotheism, monsters became more problematic. Why would a benevolent God create such creatures? One answer was that monsters were God’s servants. Since God had created them, monsters such as Behemoth and Leviathan revealed God’s power, which was beyond human understanding. However, what was a medieval theologian to make of monsters such as the Sciopodes (humans with one leg but two feet), Cynocephali (dog-headed humans), or Blemmyae (headless humans with eyes and mouths on their chests), who were believed to live in distant lands? They were not mentioned in the Bible as exemplars of God’s power. One conclusion was that they were outside the divine dispensation, descendants of Cain who, at the Apocalypse, would join forces with the Antichrist to persecute humanity. In Beowulf, Grendel is described as belonging to that line.

Despite its Christian references, Beowulf belongs to a pagan age, when heroes still fought with monsters. In the medieval era, monsters became less important than other enemies of God: witches and demons. Demons were angels who had turned away from God, and witches were the humans they had tempted into worshiping their master, Satan. To fight them, one did not need a hero. One needed piety, humility, and discipline—although the Inquisition could be useful as well. If these were monsters, they were internal ones. They represented not an external chaotic force but personal temptation. Christianity gave us monsters that were within—our own desires, which we had to fight if we wanted to remain pure and holy. Although St. George’s dragon is an external monster, it represents this internal threat. Medieval artists sometimes represented the dragon with female genitalia, to symbolize the lure of sexuality.(4) In Christian legend, the hero was replaced by the saint.

II.  Monsters in the Age of Science

For a while, it seemed as though monsters might go away. The Enlightenment, with its interest in rationality and empiricism, sought to banish monsters, to shed light in the dark corners where they might hide. In the age of exploration, the distant lands where Cynocephali and Blemmyae once dwelt were found to contain unusual animals, but nothing monstrous or outside the natural order. In the early 1700s, a young Carl Linnaeus traveled to Hamburg to see a famous monster: the hydra. It was a stuffed specimen belonging to the burgomaster of Hamburg, who hoped to sell the monster at a profit. Even the king of Denmark was interested. It was a frightening, if not particularly large, beast with seven heads and the body of a snake. Linnaeus immediately detected a fraud: the hydra had been created by a skilled taxidermist, blending the bodies of various animals. It was, in a sense, an early form of the Feejee Mermaid. Linnaeus proposed that it had been created by medieval monks to demonstrate the truth of the Book of Revelations and convince the faithful that the Apocalypse was nigh.(5)

Nowadays, we know Linnaeus primarily as the creator of the Linnaean system of classification. Asma sees Linnaeus’s debunking of the hydra as an indication of the scientific era to come: “Science was on the rise, and monsters were being exposed as hoaxes or were being cleaned up and fit into the new system of uniform natural laws. Linnaeus himself became the great classifier of animal and plant species, genera, families, orders, classes, and phyla. A conceptual grid of hierarchical categories had been laid over the teeming chaos of nature, and a calm order had been imposed on the seemingly infinite diversity of God’s creation.”(6) At least in theory. But nature was not as orderly as such classificatory systems implied. Sometimes it produced creatures that did not fit into an accepted classification. When the platypus was first introduced to English scientists, they rejected it as yet another taxidermic hoax. It was eventually categorized, but scientists still had to grapple with how to classify congenital abnormalities labeled monstrous, such as cases of hypertrichoses or werewolf syndrome, a condition that causes hair to grow all over the face and body.

During the 1830s, Charles Darwin became interested in how such phenomena fit within the evolutionary theories he was developing. Initially, he hypothesized that extreme deviations from a parental type could form the basis for new species. But his research revealed that extreme variations were not passed on to the next generation, either because the offspring reverted to type or because the bearer of such congenital abnormalities could not reproduce. Darwin concluded that only gradual variations could be passed on through natural selection. However, he hypothesizes that such variations could demonstrate where we had come from evolutionarily, because they represented throwbacks to previous states. In The Descent of Man, Darwin “considered cases of werewolf syndrome together with humans who are born with tails and suggested that both kinds of monsters are evidence that human beings are descended from animal ancestors.”(7) Such “monsters” demonstrated the validity of evolution.

Paradoxically, out of this era of scientific advancement came some of the most famous monsters of literary history. In 1818, Mary Shelley created Victor Frankenstein, not a doctor as many of my students initially believe, but a biology student who takes his laboratory work a little too seriously. And Frankenstein created what is perhaps the most famous of all monsters. Rightly so, because Frankenstein’s monster represents an important development in the history of monsters. In Shelly’s novel, the monster speaks for himself. He justifies his actions, explains why he has become monstrous—because he has not received the loving care of his parent, Frankenstein. My students tend to sympathize with the monster, whose story is so much more compelling than his creator’s. It implies that monsters are not born but made. This realization may be the legacy of the nineteenth-century monster story. Dr. Jekyll releases Mr. Hyde because of the repressive conditions under which he must live as a Victorian gentleman, Dorian Gray becomes a monster because his portrait gives him the license to act however he pleases, and Dr. Moreau’s Beast Men are manufactured by yet another nineteenth-century mad scientist. The monsters of myth and legend are monsters by birth. Nineteenth-century literature implied that monsters are created. Which makes us wonder—who are more monstrous, the monsters or their creators?

Nineteenth-century monsters reflected advances in the biological sciences and in new disciplines such as anthropology and archaeology. We can connect the archaeological discoveries made in Egypt during the late nineteenth century to the introduction of a brand new monster: the mummy, found in literary works such as Bram Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars. The end of that century also introduced a monster that would be more fully developed in the twentieth century: the space alien. H.G. Wells’ Martians in The War of the Worlds could be considered precursors of Cthulhu, the fearsome otherworldly monster in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” Lovecraft’s shoggoths and Elder Gods are alien not only because they come from the cold, dark reaches of space, but also because they are inimical to and beyond the understanding of the humans they encounter. In them, we can see a new world view associated with advances in astronomy and physics: the view that within the cosmos, human beings are insignificant actors subject to forces they cannot understand. Unlike the monsters of myth and legend, these monsters could not be fought. No hero or saint could save us from them.

III. Our Monsters, Ourselves

Literary monsters make us shiver with pleasurable fright, but whom we call a monster, and why, has consequences. According to Asma, “During the nineteenth century ‘freak shows’ and ‘monster spectacles’ were common; such exploitation of genetically and developmentally disabled people must be one of the lowest points on the ethical meter of our civilization.”(8) Barnum himself employed Tom Thumb, who was billed as the smallest man in the world; Chang and Eng, the original Siamese Twins; and Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, who had hypertrichosis. Many of Barnum’s performers were well-compensated and went on to live ordinary lives: Chang and Eng married a pair of sisters, became naturalized American citizens, and settled down on a farm they had bought with money earned from exhibiting themselves. However, in a society that did not accept physical differences, they had few choices other than to become sideshow performers—spectacles for an audience eager to see a real “monster.”

Employment as a sideshow performer was certainly better than the ancient practice of putting children with congenital disabilities to death. Roman law specified that a father “shall immediately put to death a son recently born, who is a monster, or has a form different from that of members of the human race.”(9) Historically, there have been arguments for more compassionate treatment. Aristotle, from an early scientific viewpoint, argued that congenital abnormalities were the result of problems during the reproductive process, with no particular meaning. Monsters were not portents but natural phenomena. In Generation of Animals, he states, “Even he who does not resemble his parents is already in a certain sense a monstrosity,”(10) a statement that includes us all. From a religious point of view, Saint Augustine argued that since God had decided to create monsters such as the Sciopodes, “we should not suppose that the wisdom with which he fashions the physical being of men has gone astray in the case of the monsters which are bound to be born among us of human parents; for that would be to regard the works of God’s wisdom as the products of an imperfectly skilled craftsman.”(11)

Unfortunately, Augustine’s view that we are all human beings created by a loving deity has not always prevailed: throughout human history, certain individuals and groups have been identified as monstrous. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian identifies the Jewish theater manager who employs his love interest, Sybil Vane, as a monster. As Judith Halberstam points out in Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, Jews in particular have been marginalized and treated as monstrous throughout European history. But Dorian is the one whose callousness and cruelty is responsible for Sybil’s death. Oscar Wilde, a member of other historically marginalized groups (both Irish and homosexual), makes clear the danger of calling an individual or group monstrous. It gives society permission to do what the villagers do to Frankenstein’s monster in the movie version: come after them with pitchforks, or worse.

Why do we have a tendency to assign such a designation? According to Asma,

Experiments demonstrate that animals and humans respond to their earliest experiences by internalizing a cognitive classificatory system based on the creatures they regularly encounter. After a certain time, however, the classification system “solidifies” into a cognitive framework, and any subsequent strange and unclassifiable encounter produces fear in the knower. Categorical mismatch makes the knower very uncomfortable.(12)

This fearful response to a categorical mismatch is similar to what Freud describes in “The Uncanny.” Freud never quite succeeds in defining what causes the feeling of the uncanny, when the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up or we scream with terror. But his examples often involve categorical mismatch: automata that seem to be alive, limbs that move by themselves, doubles such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or Siamese Twins. What these phenomena have in common is that we can’t categorize them. What, after all, do we call Thing from The Addams Family? Or the replicants from Blade Runner? Monster becomes a sort of catch-all category for what we can’t name.

Freud also implies that the feeling of the uncanny is caused by the emergence of what we have repressed in the process of individual growth and our development as a society. According to Halberstam, monsters are produced out of those parts of our individual or social selves. In other words, if we define ourselves as proper English gentlemen, our monster may be shorter, more primitive, perhaps like an ape. He might slink along the London streets, violently assaulting innocent passers-by. That sounds like Mr. Hyde, doesn’t it? For Halberstam, monsters are made up of what we have abjected. The abject, a term used by the philosopher Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, refers to what we reject in the process of becoming ourselves. It is the not-self, the other. Monsters are the abjected parts of ourselves; according to Halberstam, they “have to be everything the human is not.”(13)

Scholars often identify the monster with the other, but monsters are more complicated than that. In Lovecraft’s “The Outsider,” the unnamed narrator escapes from the benighted castle where he has been imprisoned for years. He stumbles along a road he vaguely remembers and finally approaches another castle where a party is in progress. He enters—the partygoers scream and flee. Then he sees what they are fleeing from: “a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable.” He draws closer, touches it with his hand—and realizes that he is touching a mirror.(14) This is the monster as abject, but also as the self. Monsters are always most frightening when they are inside us, when we realize that we were the monsters all along. In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Donna Harraway argues that is exactly what we have become: “By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.”(15)  Seeing my students walk around campus talking on cell phones and realizing how dependent I have become on my own electronic resources, I have to agree. Skynet has not yet won, but we have changed. Online, we are connected in ways that previous generations could not have imagined, as though we were a collective hydra—one creature with a billion heads. We have become hybrid creatures, part human and part machine, as outlandish as the monsters of myth and legend.

Perhaps that is why we have a different attitude toward monsters. Movies such as Shrek have redefined the monster in a particularly modern way. Our monsters have identity conflicts and contradictory impulses. Beneath their large, ugly (or in the case of modern vampires, beautiful) exteriors, they think and feel—and they are worthy of love. For me, the most interesting and affecting moment in Shrek occurs when Princess Fiona chooses to become a monster herself so she can be with her beloved. This modern attitude may account for the astonishing number of crocheted Cthulhu dolls that can be found on the internet. We are no longer frightened of monsters, who are easy to identify. Rather, we are frightened of human beings who look perfectly ordinary but commit monstrous acts. Our television shows are rife with that most frightening of modern phenomena, the serial killer—whose progenitor, Jack the Ripper, roamed the nineteenth-century London streets like a less obvious Mr. Hyde.

The dangers of our twenty-first century world can make us nostalgic for a good old-fashioned monster, with the body of a lion, an eagle’s wings, or snakes for hair. But perhaps with our modern attitudes, we will be less likely to run away in fear, more likely to sit down and listen to the story that the monster is telling.

Selected Literature

Adamson, Andrew and Vicky Jenson, dirs. Shrek. 2001.

Beowulf. 8th century A.D.

Browning, Tod, dir. Dracula. 1931.

Cameron, James, dir. The Terminator. 1984.

Homer. Odyssey. 8th century B.C.

Le Fanu, J. Sherida. “Carmilla.” 1872.

Lovecraft, H.P. At the Mountains of Madness. 1936.

—. “The Call of Cthulhu.” 1928.

—. “The Outsider.” 1926.

—. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” 1936.

Scott, Ridley, dir. Alien. 1979.

—. Blade Runner. 1982.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 1886.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. 1897.

—. The Jewel of Seven Stars. 1903.

Wells, H.G. The Island of Doctor Moreau. 1896.

—. The War of the Worlds. 1898.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. 1891.

Whale, James, dir. Frankenstein. 1931.

The monsters of classical myth and legend can be found in sources such as the following:

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. 1942.

Kerényi, Carl. The Gods of the Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson, 1951.

Selected Scholarship

Asma, Stephen T. On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Atherton, Catherine, ed. Monsters and Monstrosity in Greek and Roman Culture. Bari: Levante Editori, 1998.

Bildhauer, Bettina and Robert Mills, eds. The Monstrous Middle Ages. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” Writings on Art and Literature. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. 193-229.

Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Harraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Scott, Niall, ed. Monsters and the Monstrous: Myths and Metaphors of Enduring Evil. New York: Rodopi, 2007.

Williams, David. Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monstrous in Medieval Thought and Literature. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996. 

(1) Stephen Asma, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 136.

(2) Ibid., 13.

(3) Ibid., 43.

(4) Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills, Introduction, The Monstrous Middle Ages (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003), 12.

(5) Stephen Asma, 123-4.

(6) Ibid., 125.

(7) Ibid., 169.

(8) Ibid.,7.

(9) Ibid., 41.

(10) Ibid., 48.

(11) Quoted in Bettina Bildhauer and Robert Mills, 9.

(12) Steven Asma, 184.

(13) Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), 12.

(14) H.P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider,” The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (New York, Penguin, 1999), 43-9.

(15) Donna Harraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), 151.

Theodora Goss was born in Hungary and spent her childhood in various European countries before her family moved to the United States. Although she grew up on the classics of English literature, her writing has been influenced by an Eastern European literary tradition in which the boundaries between realism and the fantastic are often ambiguous. Her publications include the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting (2006); Interfictions (2007), a short story anthology coedited with Delia Sherman; and Voices from Fairyland (2008), a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, Crawford, and Mythopoeic Awards, as well as on the Tiptree Award Honor List, and has won the World Fantasy and Rhysling Awards.

5 replies to “A Brief History of Monsters

  1. Pingback: A Brief History of Monsters « Madeleine Swann

  2. Excellent. Enjoyed how you traced the threads through history to modernity.

    Brought to mind a blend of a futuristic movie and classic theater:

    Agent(s) Smith: I have to create monsters; it means security for me through salary, status for me as hero, and security (or at least the appearance of security) for the masses.
    Neo: I was never broken. Didn’t need to be fixed. But Agents Smith sure did try.
    Greek Chorus: Never let them see you emote.
    All: Monsters!

    You cited:
    The word monster comes from the Latin “monstrum,” meaning a portent or prodigy, from the verb “monere,” to warn.

    The major question now is who is warning whom of what? There are two different kinds of monsters, then. The ones who would give you an honest answer to that question. And the ones who would not.

  3. Pingback: A Brief History of Monsters | Eric Hoefler

  4. Pingback: Other Things: The 12 Days of Monsters Celebration Comes to an End | Ann and Jeff VanderMeer | Weird Fiction Review

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