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“Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me. And I will defend it.”-Frankenstein’s Monster, FRANKENSTEIN (Mary Shelley)

“We belong dead.”-Frankenstein’s Monster, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (James Whale)

Basic storytelling 101: all stories need conflict, and all conflict is driven by an antagonistic force. That force can come from anywhere, even within the hearts and minds of protagonists. The horror story is perhaps the home of the greatest of all antagonists: the monster. The definition of a “monster” is malleable but it can often be boiled down to, at the very least, the external other; a force that brings about fear. The monster is as important to horror as the camera is to film. It drives the plot and makes the film memorable, but most importantly, the monster is loved because it is a reflection of ourselves.

Those reflections can be warped and terrifying, they can be kind and misunderstood, they can be fraught with self-destructive danger. Regardless of what form they come in, to write off the monster as something separate from ourselves is to disregard the horror genre’s ability to speak to the darkest parts of human nature.

Spoilers ahead for ALL films discussed

The Outcast

The most iconic, and arguably most important, of all the great horror monsters is the Creature from Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. In Shelley’s novel, the creature begins its life as a blank slate. Much like a newborn, the Creature cannot speak and cannot understand the world around it. In this state, it is immediately rejected by its master, Victor Frankenstein. Rather than embrace his creation with paternal care, Victor is horrified by what he has done and banishes the Creature into the world.

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Despite his appearance and his namesake of “the Creature”, Shelley’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s wayward experiment is immediately sympathetic. True, the Creature’s actions, the murder of both Victor’s wife and his younger brother, are unforgivable. However, each of these actions can be traced back to Victor’s initial rejection of the Creature in the first place. Shelley’s monster is a representation of what happens when we refuse parental responsibility and reject our fellow man simply because of their differences.

Director James Whale recognized this subtext when he created the film adaptation FRANKENSTEIN and its sequel BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. While aspects of Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN may be vastly different from the original novel, the film maintains the sympathetic portrayal of the Creature (aided in part by Boris Karloff’s terrific performance) by maintaining its childlike curiosity and confusion. Whale’s choice to make the Creature naive made the Creature’s actions even more forgivable than in the original novel. Here, the Creature is no more than a lost child, unaware of the consequences of his actions. In the sequel, Whale adds to the Creature’s “accumulation of anguish” when Henry (Colin Clive), as Victor is called in the films, creates a wife for his ersatz offspring that ultimately rejects him as well. In this moment the Creature, living a life devoid of sympathy or compassion, chooses to end his own life, declaring that he and his bride “belong dead.” The Creature’s decision is a condemnation of the cruel society that drove him to such rash action. It is a tragedy that can only be laid at the feet of Henry/Victor and those who scorned the innocent Creature.

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Fellow classic horror director Tod Browning explores a similar tragic sort of monster in his film FREAKS. While the subtext of FRANKENSTEIN has religious implications about humanity’s own relationship with its creator, FREAKS is more interested in how humanity treats its fellow man. In the film, trapeze artist Cleopatra plans a murder plot to obtain the inheritance of Hans, a wealthy little person who is a member of the circus’ cadre of “freaks.”

While Wale’s tale of Frankenstein is an operatic tragedy, Browning’s film is a parable with an Old Testament sense of morality. After being accepted as “one of us”, according to the film’s famous refrain, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) is quickly discovered to be a schemer and Hans (Harry Earles) plots his revenge with his fellow freaks. After a rain and mud soaked chase, the film ends with the revelation that the freaks have mutilated Cleopatra, making her a part of their sideshow as one final ironic twist of fate. Browning’s monsters may be more vicious, but that does not make them any less sympathetic. Wisely, Browning’s film shows the rich personal lives of each member of the freak show. This narrative choice reminds the audience, who would likely treat the “freaks” as Cleopatra does, of their own humanity.

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Both FREAKS and FRANKENSTEIN force the audience to self-evaluate their own judgments. They take our natural fears of the grotesque and the strange and create stories that weaponize those fears against us. Whale, Shelley, and Browning each made the “monsters” tragic, but what about the monsters who are on our side?

My Friend, the Monster

There is a seductive element to many monsters in horror films. Dating all the way back to DRACULA, both Bram Stoker’s novel and Tod Browning’s film, the darkness of evil has often come in pleasing forms. However, it’s hard to deny the outright maliciousness of a character like Dracula. He may present a charming form, but that’s merely a ploy to entice new additions to his collection of slaves. These monsters are often seen as the opposite of characters like the Creature in FRANKENSTEIN or the titular circus attraction in FREAKS who are inherently innocent. Dracula and his ilk are written off as purely evil, creating a rigid good or evil dichotomy to monster films.

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In the last decade, many horror films have started to blur the lines of this good and evil structure within the monster movie. The beginnings of this shift can likely be traced back to the works of filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. While many would classify his films as “dark fairytales” rather than straight horror films, the influence of the classic Universal monster movies on Del Toro’s own works is never hidden from the audience (to the point where we get a scene in HELLBOY of the character watching BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN), and neither is his fascination with the sympathetic monster. Dating back to one of his earliest films, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, Del Toro has presented audiences with monsters filled with pathos, but that still maintain a sinister edge. His style of parable horror has reshaped the sympathetic monster to explore a sympathetic monster concept with more moral complexity at its core.

One such film is 2008’s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN. Directed by Tomas Alfredson, the film focuses on lonely Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and his blossoming friendship with the eternally 11-year-old vampire Eli (Lina Leandersson). The truly sweet relationship between these two characters is enough to make the audience forgive Eli’s violent attacks on Oskar’s neighbors. Eli’s apparent age does nothing to quench the vampiric thirst for blood, and Alfredson revels in the shockingly savage outbursts in an otherwise quiet and reflective film.

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Many of these instances of violence are carried out by Håkan, an older man who acts as Eli’s caretaker. While the film portrays Eli and Oskar’s friendship as the joyful union of two lonely people, the role of Håkan (Henrik Dahl) in Eli’s life predicts a dark future for Oskar. He has found happiness, but at what cost? Will he simply become a tool for Eli to manipulate when the vampiric hunger strikes? When Håkan makes a fatal mistake while trying to procure another victim for Eli, he pours acid on his face as the police approach, ensuring he won’t be identified. With Håkan gone, all Eli has left is Oskar. It’s easy to feel a cathartic sense of joy seeing these forsaken souls find some companionship, and yet there is a nagging sense that all that awaits in Oskar’s future is to become Håkan, a murderous pawn.

The sympathetic monster has now reemerged with a dark layer of synthesized cynicism and realism, and it shows itself again in the recently released films  THE BABADOOK and THE WITCH. In THE BABADOOK, the monster comes in the form of a warped Dr. Seuss creature from a children’s book called Mister Babadook. It haunts widower Amelia Vanek (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). The Babadook’s presence in the film is a manifestation of the grief and depression Amelia feels following the death of her husband. Director Jennifer Kent manages to craft beautifully tense scenes in her simple, but effective, film. However, the monster in this film is very much an extension of the protagonist’s subconscious, leaving us with a sympathetic monster who happens to also be the hero of our story.

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This hidden duality makes the revelation of the monster’s origins even more powerful. When Amelia “defeats” the monster in the film’s climax, she is actually learning to heal from her mental trauma. In the film’s closing scenes, we see that Amelia has locked the Babadook away in her basement, keeping it under her control. Here the audience sees the inseparable nature of Amelia and the Babadook. The trauma that the Babadook represents will never leave Amelia – “you can’t get rid of the Babadook,” as the film says – but it can be controlled so Amelia can live an average life. The use of the sympathetic monster in THE BABADOOK creates empathy in the audience for both monster and protagonist alike.

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This shift in empathetic expectations is utilized to create the haunting ending of THE WITCH. Like THE BABADOOK, the monster (the titular witch), has a deeper symbolic significance and connection to the protagonist, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy). Trapped in the rigid confines of her extremely Puritanical family, Thomasin struggles to adapt to her family’s attempt to live a holy life removed from civilization. The film is seeped in 17th-century ideals about women and their place within a family. As such, Thomasin, a teenage girl on the verge of womanhood, is persecuted by her parents and suspected at every turn when an unseen witch (seen briefly by the audience) begins to wreak havoc on the family. The suspicions and accusations of Thomasin’s family eventually turn deadly, leaving all but Thomasin and the devil himself alone on the farm.

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Here is where the film takes an unexpected turn to generate, forgive the Rolling Stones pun, sympathy for the Devil. Thomasin is given the chance to write her name in the Devil’s book, making herself a witch in his service. Shattering the conventional narrative, Thomasin agrees and joins a covenant of witches in the woods. The film ends with the women dancing in wild ecstasy in the woods and floating off into the night sky.

It’s no surprise that the Puritanical religion was detrimental to women. It guaranteed that the most a woman would ever be able to contribute to
17th-century society was becoming a housewife and having children. Thomasin’s choice seems like the corrupting of an innocent soul, but in reality, the ending of the film is a victory. When Thomasin levitates off the ground with her newfound coven, she is freeing herself from the patriarchal bonds that kept her grounded to the Earth. It can be argued that this freedom does come at a cost, specifically servitude to, y’know,
Satan, but her alternative was a life of repression in a society that would have plucked her wings and denied her the right to fly. Thomasin agrees to become a monster, but she makes a choice with which the audience can sympathize.

When monsters become sympathetic, they don’t lose their power to scare or horrify. In fact, they become fully realized characters. Perhaps that is where they reach their most effective ability to scare. The greatest monsters in human history were, before all else, human beings. When people forget this fact it becomes easier to ignore inhumanity and evil because it seems like an impossibility. Sympathetic monsters are our reminder that no one is wholly good or wholly evil. A monster can appear with nothing more than a change of perspective.

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