Perhaps you share my fascination with the biology and physiology of monsters, whether they appear in fiction, movies, or games. What is it about their physical appearance that makes them terrifying—or laughable? Nearly all monsters are large, fast, and voracious—that is, predatory. But these days, with the exception of werewolves and perhaps an abominable snowman, few are warm blooded or hirsute, like us. They tend not to resemble the lions, tigers, bears and wolves that originally kept our population numbers under control. What combination of biological characteristics makes for an effective and memorable monster?
Ken Gelder, in The Horror Reader (2000) notes that the word monster is semantically related to the verb demonstrate, that is, to reveal. In this sense, the particular monster is a reflection of the culture that produced it—it signifies that which a society is most afraid of or intolerant of. As such, monsters are excluded from society, from consciousness even, and banished to its furthest edges. Gelder suspects that some societies are more teratogenic than others, that is, they produce more monsters. Why should this be so? What conditions predispose a culture or society to produce more monsters than another?
In less civilized times, monsters were placed just beyond the margins of the civilized world. They were assumed to inhabit the surrounding forests and wilderness, out in the region known as terror incognita. Some of the earliest monster stories seem to be related to archetypal tales of the hunt. The monster is not so much ‘the one that got away’ as ‘the one we almost didn’t get away from.’ It seems likely the exaggerated size and ferocity of real predators—lions and tigers and bears, oh my!—formed the base material of these early monster stories. Think of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf (1936).
Perhaps as the danger from real predators receded from everyday life, monsters in some cultures became more fanciful in construction. An image that shows up frequently in mythology is a monster that is an amalgamation of several known animals. Thus the Chimera, the fire breathing creature slain by Bellerophon, had three heads and combined the bodies of a lion, a goat and a snake. The Ichthyocentaur incorporated the torso of a human, the lower front of a horse and the tail of a fish.
Here is an example of a composite monster from the New Testament Book of Revelation (9: 3-10):
And out of the smoke locusts came down upon the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth…The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. Their hair was like women’s hair, and their teeth were like lions’ teeth. They had breast plates like breast plates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle. They had tails and stings like scorpions and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months.
Five months would seem to be sufficient.
There are also numerous examples in mythology of a human being with the head of another animal, for example, the well-known Minotaur. This motif of humans with animal heads shows up in a number of monster movies from the 1950s and 1960s, for example the 1959 film The Alligator People. Which is to say that there is no strict chronological sequence of development implied here, as if prehistoric hunters’ tales give way to mythological beasts and later some more sophisticated format—these are all templates that are likely to reappear over time whenever conditions support them. Conceivably, we might observe among contemporary monster stories a recrudescence of composite creatures when tampering with the human genome goes awry. (Which it will.)
Another source of monstrous forms, somewhat related to the above yet still distinct comes from the ancient field of cryptozoology. Cryptids, the subject of this now scientific area of study, are animals suspected of existing but which lack documented proof. (Cryptids can be plants if the field is cryptobotany.) In the absence of actual specimens to preserve and dissect, the imagination is free to emphasize the exotic and potentially terrifying aspects of the creature. Which creature is always seen on the periphery of vision, or with fallible recording technology. Famous cryptids include the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, and Chupacabra. Horror movies have been made featuring each of these.
Author William Rusho made use of a cryptid from Alpine folklore, called the Tatzelwurm, in a novel he wrote recently. The Tatzelwum is reportedly a lizard like creature with cat-like features in the front and a limbless snake-like tail. It may have been photographed in 1934, but expeditions to capture one have not been successful to date.
It may be that, as with the Tatzlewurm, what is considered monstrous involves a violation of the ideal mammalian physical form. As mammals we are used to beings with four limbs, so the wrong number of limbs is disturbing. A serpent perhaps is more disturbing than a lizard—no legs, when there should be four. On the other hand, an octopus or other tentacled organism, or an insect, has too many appendages.
As mammals, and more broadly speaking, as vertebrates, we enjoy a symmetrical physical form—our left side is like our right side—and our various attachments often come in multiples of two. Odd numbered, asymmetrical creatures, especially those lacking a distinctive outline, are deeply disturbing, perhaps primordially so. H.P. Lovecraft knew this almost intuitively, which is why his monsters are often so effective, so other.