Monsters in Media: A History

Recently, Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, a film set in the sixties about a mute woman who falls in love with a ‘fish-man’ being experimented on by the government, won Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscar Awards. It’s one of those rare movies where the monster is the good guy; it’s definitely very different from the monster movies of the fifties and sixties that we are so accustomed to. Monsters have always been a staple in media and folklore, the ‘bad guys’ in stories that strike fear in the audience. Del Toro’s film stands out by making it’s monster the romantic lead. Because of this, I decided to look at various folklore and media and try to find out how we’ve reached this point.


First, it’s important to remember that media is a reflection of our society. Art is a vessel for one’s opinion, and when an issue reaches the public, conscience art will respond. Maria Tatar, an academic who analyzes folklore and its significance in the real world, talks about early European fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast. According to Tatar, “Beaumont’s take attempted to steady the fears of young women, to reconcile them to the custom of marriages, and to brace them for an alliance that required prefacing their own desires and submitting to the will of a ‘monster.’” In other words, Beauty and the Beast and similar fairytales were addressing young women’s fear of marriage, telling them that if they were good wives then their ‘beast’ would eventually become a prince. Or rather, their husbands would warm up to them.


Fast forward to 1818, where we have the classic of all monster stories, Frankenstein written by Mary Shelley. Shelley’s friends were discussing rumors that there were scientists trying to learn how to bring someone back to life. So when she and her friends held a contest to see who could write the best horror story, Shelley wrote Frankenstein. It was written at a time where people were very concerned that science might have been overstepping its boundaries by trying to push Christianity out of the way. The story of Frankenstein expressed that. Yes, Frankenstein’s monster has pathos and is sympathetic, but at the end of the day the monster is an abomination that has to be put down. The moral of Frankenstein is that you shouldn’t try to play God, and that’s why before Dr Frankenstein dies he tells Captain Walton to “avoid ambition.”


Now that we’ve covered two famous books, we can get to Hollywood. Early hollywood was practically overflowing with monster movies. A prominent example we can look at is King Kong. In the movie, a ship goes on an expedition in the Amazon, comes across a monster that kidnaps the female lead, and then the male lead has to come in and save the day. King Kong falls into the ‘lost world’ genre of storytelling which revolved around people discovering hidden ancient civilizations, creatures, etc. According to Youtuber Lindsay Ellis, the director of the film, Merian C. Cooper, used to go on a lot of safaris in Africa which may have inspired the movie.  The film was also made after the Empire State Building was just completed and was being hyped up as this big, new, modern landmark. This entire background is reflected in the movie; a theme of the uncivilized vs. the civilized.


The indigenous people of Skull Island are portrayed as a primitive tribe that practices human sacrifice. When the chief of the tribe sees Anne, he even offers to trade six of the tribe’s women for her. They are a part of the unknown, uncivilized world that King Kong is captured from before being sent to New York as a tourist trap. When he escapes, he is shot down from the Empire State Building.  At the end of the whole affair, one of the characters even remarks, “It was beauty who killed the beast.” Ellis also critiques the deeper meaning of King Kong saying, “King Kong’s death is treated like an inevitability, but a tragic one. When he’s captured into modernity, disaster occurs, and he is destroyed. There is a fear of the primitive and unknown embodied in the monster, but don’t worry. Modernity will eventually mow it down in the end.”


Finally, we get to The Shape of Water. Guillermo Del Toro said that he was inspired to write The Shape of Water after feeling bad for the Gillman whenever he watched “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.” According to KUTV out of Salt Lake City, Del Toro said, “I feel it as an immigrant has been received by this country, but I still feel there is sort of the demonization of ‘the other’ very present. I needed to talk about the beauty of the other. It’s about celebrating imperfection… It’s not so much tolerance as it is love.” Del Toro uses his experience as an immigrant, as well as the fears of marginalized groups in America, to tell a story about a monster being abused by the government and is saved a disabled woman. It speaks to what society currently fears most. The good news is that through movies such as The Shape of Water, we can learn from the stories and face those fears which just may change society for the better.


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