The Devil in Disguise: Modern Monsters and their Metaphors

By Emma Louise Backe

Throughout the past decade or so, we’ve had a resurgence of monsters. Werewolves, vampires and zombies have all experienced their zeitgeist moment, capturing the public’s attention and circulating through television spin-offs until the next monstrous trend took over. The latest incarnation of our fears, Guillermo del Toro’s The Strain, will premiere on FX on July 13, featuring a new breed of vampire. Other shows, like Hemlock Grove, Salem, and In the Flesh feature a horrifying panoply of nightmarish creatures. But it might be useful to think about why pop culture is raising the dead, and what it says about our contemporary fears.

Monsters have for centuries been manifestations of society’s fears and anxieties. As Stephen T. Asma explains in On Monsters, Monster derives from the Latin word monstrum, which in turns derives from the root monere (to warn). To be a monster is to be an omen […] The monster is more than an odious creature of the imagination; it is a kind of cultural category, employed in domains as diverse as religion, biology, literature, and politics” (2009:13). More often than not, monsters stand as symbols or emblems of a culture’s nightmares. China Miéville posits,

Epochs throw up the monsters they need. History can be written of monsters, and in them. We experience the conjunctions of certain werewolves and crisis-gnawed feudalism, of Cthulhu and rupturing modernity, of Frankenstein’s and Moreau’s made things and a variably troubled Enlightenment, of vampires and tediously everything, of zombies and mummies and aliens and golems/robots/clockwork constructs and their own anxieties. We pass also through the endless shifts of such monstrous germs and antigens into new wounds. (VanderMeer 2012)

One of the most famous monsters in Western history is that of Frankenstein’s monster, crafted by Mary Shelley in a Gothic, epistolary tale that has been said to represent concerns about morality, the social responsibility of science, and the changing role of capital and labor during the Industrial Revolution. Frankenstein’s cobbled-together, Promethean creature has haunted the Western imagination for centuries, but the monster’s immortal ability to frighten also reveals his protean abilities to represent different kinds of terror throughout history.

During Episode 3: “Resurrection” of Penny Dreadful, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster Caliban provides a metacommentary on the mutable metaphors he has cut since his creation. He confronts his creator, saying, “Did you not know that was what you were creating, the modern age? Did you really imagine that your modern creation would hold to the values of Keats and Wordsworth? We are men of iron and mechanization now. We are steam engines and turbines. Were you really so naive to imagine that we’d see eternity in a daffodil? Who is the child, Frankenstein?” (2014). Within Penny Dreadful, his visage is imagined as a product of an industrial accident, the hazards of a modern technological society in transition. He is a creature made by his cultural and historical context, and yet each time Frankenstein is recast in contemporary society, he is reanimated by the latent fears and horrors of his current creators.

The meaning of monsters changes throughout time. Zombies have typically been interpreted as the manifestations of Capitalism gone awry, or what happens when workers are so alienated from their labor that they become nothing more than shambling, undead slaves. Anthropologists Isak Niehaus (2005) and Wade Davis (1985) have both written about zombies and capitalism in South Africa and Haiti, respectfully, and David McNally has written about the invisible occult economies that dehumanize laborers and keep them enslaved in Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (2012). As Annalee Newitz writes in her book Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, “One type of story that has haunted America since the late nineteenth century focuses on humans turned into monsters by capitalism. Mutated by backbreaking labor, driven insane by corporate conformity, or gorged on too many products of a money-hungry media industry, capitalism’s monsters cannot tell the difference between commodities and people. They confuse living beings with inanimate objects. And because they spend so much time working, they often feel dead themselves” (2006:2).

Rick Grimes, The Walking Dead

Rick Grimes, The Walking Dead

But the recent outbreak of zombies in pop culture speaks to other fears. AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead is a post-apocalyptic story in the style of Cormac MacCarthy’s The Road (2006), a narrative that reveals our fears about the breakdown of society and the disintegration of culturally coded forms of morality and behavior in the face of sheer human survival. The films 28 Days Later (2002) and I Am Legend (2007) and Max Brooks’s novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006) not only confront the deterioration of society, but also speak to the terror of germ-warfare and super-viruses—diseases we can’t defend against and that could potentially mutate our whole sense of humanity. In an interview with The New York Times, Max Brooks explains, “’Since 2001, people have been scared […] There’s been some really scary stuff that’s been happening — 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Katrina, anthrax letters, D.C. sniper, global warming, global financial meltdown, bird flu, swine flu, SARS. I think people really feel like the system’s breaking down’” (Brodesser-Akner 2013). He elaborates that his first book, The Zombie Survival Guide (2003) was inspired by the HIV/AIDS outbreak, and that his writing allows readers to “metabolize their anxiety through science-fiction” (Brodesser-Akner 2013). The metaphorical threat that zombies pose is very real.

Vampires too have experienced a cultural resurgence from the crypt. Historian Luise White has looked at the way vampires represented the extraction of labor, fears of colonialism, new technology and Catholicism in Western Africa (2000) and the vampiric figure in Gothic, Victorian literature often represented a sexualized, immoral fiend that defied all the codes of propriety so heavily policed by the state in the 1800’s. I would argue that the most recent vampire zeitgeist emerges from similar fears about pathogens and disease. The vampires of Jeremy Cronin’s novel The Passage (2012) emerge from a highly contagious virus carried by a bat in South America, and the very title of Guillermo del Toro’s collaboration with Chuck Hogan, The Strain (2009), is a literary conceit. Guillermo del Toro, the consummate devotee of monster mythology, combines Russian folklore with contemporary pathological panic, to create a breed of vampire that spreads through viral contact. In an interview with BBC, del Toro observed, “There are two levels of vampirism: one is the regular vampire, which is just like it has always been; and then there’s the super vampires, which are a new breed we’ve created” (Applebaum 2001)—these super vampires are the ones that have sprung from modern technology and the imagination of contemporary consumers. The protagonist of The Strain, Dr. Eph Goodweather,is enlisted by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to investigate potential biological warfare and his inability to contain the spread of the virus or protect his loved ones speaks to a panic we all share in times full of new super-viruses and illness resurgences. These vampires are the very modern plague we most fear.

Godzilla Fan Art (nuclear variant) by Daniel Shearn: Godzilla Fan Art (nuclear variant) by Daniel Shearn

Godzilla Fan Art (nuclear variant) by Daniel Shearn: Godzilla Fan Art (nuclear variant) by Daniel Shearn

Kaiju, or Japanese monsters, have stomped onto the big screen for their own cultural moment. Yet these primordial monsters represent far different modern anxieties. The original Japanese film that initially launched kaiju into international fame, Gojira (1954), was a response to the nuclear warfare of World War II and the casualties of Japanese fishermen due to undisclosed nuclear testing in the Pacific. Brian Merchant writes, “The world’s most famous kaiju—Japanese for ‘strange creature’—remains for many the cultural embodiment of nuclear hubris, and they returned to him perhaps to be reminded of what seemed at the time an unheeded warning. Because that’s clearly what Godzilla was: A somber, cautionary tale about nukes” (2013). Guillermo del Toro’s homage to kaiju culture, Pacific Rim (2013) still resonates with these fears of nuclear power, and Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) reboot was inspired by the devastating nuclear meltdown at Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan in 2011. Screenwriter Max Borenstein has commented about the cultural cache of Godzilla, “’Godzilla will always represent that fear that there is something beyond our control […] That no matter how much preparation or how much technology we might pour on a problem, we could be washed out or stomped out instantly and capriciously just like ants’” (Sacks 2014). Many have also commented that Godzilla also speaks to our fears about natural disasters and climate change—that through our contamination of the climate, we have unintentionally provided nature with the god-like power to wreak complete destruction on human civilization.

 But I don’t think kaiju are going to be the next monstrous sensation. Vampires and zombies are largely symbolic creatures, but, China Miéville argues, “for literalism of fantastic, rather than its reduction to allegory. Metaphor is inevitable but it escapes our intent, so we should relax about it” (VanderMeer 2012). And, as Rosemary Jackson posits in Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (1981), Gothic horror has the potential to be transgressive, to look “in a glass, darkly” and mirror back our own subconscious fears and misgivings. I would argue that we are moving through the Uncanny Valley and beginning to confront our fears more literally. Monsters have typically represented the “Other,” separated from humanity through distortion. And the thing we fear most now are our own creation—computers. Wally Pfister’s Transcendence (2014) follows a scientist’s attempt to upload his consciousness into an artificial intelligence program, and arguably the most frightening part of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) is when Captain America and Black Widow confront the cybernetic consciousness of Nazi scientist Arnim Zola, his visage flickering across the computer screen. Whether or not singularity is inevitable, I foresee another evolution of the Frankenstinian story, one in which we are fearful of the technology we’ve created and our inability to control our own creations. It is the monstrous possibility of true posthumanism.



Works Cited

Applebaum, Stephen (2001). “Guillermo del Toro: The Devi’s Backbone.” BBC Movies.

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

Boyle, Danny (2002). 28 Days Later. DNA Films.

Brodesser-Akner, Taffy (2013). “Max Brooks Is Not Kidding About the Zombie Apocalypse.” The New York Times Magazine.

Brooks, Max (2003). The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Brooks, Max (2006). World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. New York: Broadway Books.

Cronin, Jeremy (2012). The Passage. New York: Ballantine Books.

Darabont, Frank (2010). The Walking Dead. AMC.

Davis, Wade (1985). The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist’s Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombis and Magic. New York: Simon & Schuster.

del Toro, Guillermo & Chuck Hogan (2009). The Strain. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

del Toro, Guillermo (2013). Pacific Rim. Warner Bros.

Edwards, Gareth (2014). Godzilla. Legendary Pictures & Warner Bros.

Honda, Ishirō (1954). Gojira (Godzilla). Toho Film.

Jackson, Rosemary (1981). Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. New York: Routledge.

Lauro, Sarah Juliet & Karen Embry (2008). “A Zombie Manifesto: The Nonhuman Condition in the Era of Advanced Capitalism.” boundary. pp. 85-108.

Lawrence, Francis (2007). I Am Legend. Warner Bros.

Logan, John (2014). Penny Dreadful. Showtime.

McCarthy, Cormac (2006). The Road. New York: Random House, Inc.

McNally, David (2012). Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism.

Haymarket Books.

Merchant, Brian (2013). “A Brief History of Godzilla, Our Walking Nuclear Nightmare.” Motherboard.

Newitz, Annalee (2006). Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in Pop Culture. Duke University Press.

Niehaus, Isak (2005). “Witches and Zombies of the South African Lowveld: Discourse, Accusations and Subjective Reality.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 11, No. 2. pp. 191-210.

Pfitser, Wally (2014). Transcendence. Warner Bros.

Russo, Anthony & Joe Russo (2014). Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Sacks, Ethan (2014). “The New ‘Godzilla’ Reflects Our Current Fears of Nuclear and Natural Disasters.” NY Daily News.

Shelley, Mary (1818). Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus.

VanderMeer, Jeff (2012). “China Miéville and Monsters: ‘Unsatisfy me, frustrate me, I beg you.’” Weird Fiction Review.   

White, Luise (2000). Speaking with Vampires: Rumor and History in Colonial Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.


About Emma Louise Backe

I graduated from Vassar College, which makes me an official liberal-arts witch, where I majored in Cultural Anthropology and English. I focused on the intersection between medical anthropology and folklore, indigenous narrative practices and healing techniques, and the role of language and storytelling in healing. I'm a logophile at heart--the bookish type that's always carrying around three or four books, loves experimenting with language, and has something of an Indiana Jones complex. I've worked in South Africa at the Gender, Health and Justice Research Unit; interned with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, The NAMES Project Foundation, and the UCLA Center for Art and Global Health; served as Head Consultant of Vassar College's Writing Center; volunteered with Peace Corps on community health empowerment; and worked as the Research Assistant at The Global Women's Institute at George Washington University. I have spent most of my professional career working on human rights issues, specifically violence against women and girls and reproductive health rights. I am currently pursuing my Master's at George Washington University.

There are 12 comments

  1. In My Not So Humble Opinion: the Writings and Ramblings of Ben Herman

    I found this to be a very insightful, intelligent piece. It is certainly interesting and revealing to explore what fears form the basis of the fictional monstrocities that populate movies, television and literature, as well as to examine the evolving interpretations of those creatures throughout the decades and centuries. I have found that some of the best science fiction and horror can be enjoyed on more than one level. At its simplest, genre fiction is exciting, scary entertainment. But once you look deeper, you will see that many of those works hold up a mirror to ourselves and our society.


  2. Unspeakable Gibberer

    A modern approach to these monsters of their time can be found in creations like The Slenderman or The Rake. These internet creations were spread like wildfire over the internet and people bought into it. I think with these stabbings and rituals in the news in relation to The Slenderman play into the cautionary tale that “you can’t believe everything on the internet.”


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