by Kathryn Hampshire 

When you hear the word “monster,” what comes to mind? Is it the black-and-white, somewhat blurry image of an undead creature from that horror film your parents didn’t know you were watching from behind the couch? Is it a memory of believing without a doubt that there was something sinister living under your bed or in your closet? Maybe it’s the real monsters like mass murderers or cannibals that come to mind. Or is your first thought of the children in costumes running around at Halloween?

Thinking about monsters can solicit a plethora of images, from the terrifying to the adorable. In fact, this term encompasses such a diverse range of creatures that it can be difficult to see what actually makes something monstrous. What do Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and Sasquatch have in common with Jeffrey Dahmer (a serial killer), the Goliath Birdeater Tarantula (the largest spider in the world), and Vlad the Impaler (the “real” Dracula)? How can cute, friendly characters like Mike Wazowski and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan from Monsters, Inc., belong to that same category?

What they share is not clear from a simple definition of the word “monster.” According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the meaning of the word is “a strange or horrible imaginary creature; something that is extremely or unusually large; a powerful person or thing that cannot be controlled and that causes many problems.” The full definition later adds a few more details—that a monster can be “an animal or plant of abnormal form or . . . strange or terrifying shape,” “one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character,” “a threatening force,” or a “highly successful” person (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

These connections will become even clearer with an examination of the word’s origin. Over time, the meanings of words evolve as cultures and languages change, and this term is no different. While an early-fourteenth-century definition may have focused mostly on living things that exhibited signs of physical disabilities, the 1500s added such meanings as “animal of vast size” (1520s) and “person of inhuman cruelty or wickedness” (1550s) (Online Etymology Dictionary). The Oxford English Dictionary cites an example from 1522, when a translation of Virgil’s Æneid used the phrase “[t]his fatale monstre,” and William Shakespeare’s King Lear features one of the more well-known first uses of the 1550s definition, when a character named Gloucester says, “He cannot be such a monster” (Oxford English Dictionary).

Indeed, the meaning of this term is inherently linked to its cultural context. Monster theory scholar Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” states that a “monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and place . . . . The monstrous body is pure culture” (4). In other words, the creation of a monster is in response to the cultural and historical context of the society in which it received its genesis; thus, we can look to a “monstrous body” for information and insight into the society itself. Likewise, the slight evolution in definition through time also represents cultural and contextual shifts.

As Cohen notes, the term’s etymological roots relate to the way that these beings serve as text: “[T]he monstrum is etymologically ‘that which reveals,’ [and] ‘that which warns’” (4); the Online Etymology Dictionary adds that this Latin word also means “divine omen, portent, sign; abnormal shape; monster, monstrosity,” and it has origins in the Latin root monere, which means “warn.” By examining what a culture or individual describes as monstrous, we can read these creatures as artifacts for contextual understanding.

In order to add further nuance to our understanding of the term, we can turn to related forms like “monstrous” and “monstrosity”: the Online Etymology Dictionary adds that these forms come from the late Latin term monstrositas (“strangeness”) and the Middle French monstrueux (“strange and unnatural”) (Online Etymology Dictionary). By extension, we can see that one trait that defines the monstrous is its distance from the self and the familiar, regardless of whether or not it is scary: even though the sight of a five-year-old Frankenstein’s monster would not be physically threatening, the portrayal of a reanimated child corpse is certainly out of the norm, pushing our intellectual boundaries, and can therefore be classified as monstrous.

Historically, the Oxford English Dictionary provides an example from 1558 which states that “a woman . . . exercise[ing] weapons” was a “monster in nature” (Oxford English Dictionary). While this might not seem monstrous to a modern audience more accustomed to seeing images of armed female soldiers, for example, this dated application of the term alludes to the fact that it was a strange sight—an “amazing event or occurrence” (Oxford English Dictionary)—to witness a woman with a weapon. Furthermore, this image serves one of the monster’s main purposes, according to Cohen: the monster is a warning. The image of a woman with a weapon carries implications that threaten traditional gender roles, evoking fear in those invested in patriarchal power structures and warning against the female potential for violence. By looking to the contextual implications of a term’s usage, we can learn both about the contemporary culture of the time and about the differences between then and now, between here and there.

While much of what was monstrous to people hundreds of years ago might be merely mundane to us today, the concept remains the same. A monster is not merely a specific class of mythical being or a descriptive label for that which incites fear; rather, it is an embodiment of cultural meaning that invites us to look beyond the physical realm into the psychological, requesting that we question not just what classifies as a monster, but why those beings are monstrous.


Works Cited

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1996, pp. 3-25.

“monster.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.

“monster (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.

“monster, n., adv., and adj.” Oxford English Dictionary. 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2002. Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.