Why do monster stories appeal to us?

Someone has yet to write the treatise that explains the appeal of different kinds of monsters. No doubt monster stories (qua horror stories) have always appealed to us because we enjoy the thrill of being frightened without actually being in any imminent danger. But that’s merely to describe why people enjoy horror stories, not to explain why certain types of monsters frighten us and why some monsters wax and wane in popularity over time (e.g., werewolves, who always play second fiddle to the vampires these days), and why others change their essential characteristics (take the most obvious case in point: Bram Stoker vs. Stephenie Meyer).

I don’t have a theory for every monster—not yet anyway—though I do have one for zombies. If you’re a zombie lover, however, I have to warn you now that you may not like my theory. It may strike you as a little condescending. But I don’t think it should; or if it does, then take solace in the fact that you’re in good company, because I like some zombie flicks too (more of my deep thoughts on The Walking Dead are forthcoming). Anyway, here goes.

I’m probably not the first to observe that zombie stories are allegories of alienation. It’s not hard to see how this works. You identify with the protagonist, who’s nearly alone in an antagonistic world filled with merciless, unthinking, flesh-eating creatures set on destroying you—er, the protagonist. See what I mean? That’s the psychological hook. The zombie hoards are just stand-ins for strangers in the wide world outside that we feel alienated from.

The second part of the affective connection is the bathetic exaggeration of our mundane every moral problems into life and death decisions. Do we help our fellow survivors and why? Do we do it out of self-interest or because it’s just the right thing to do? Do we become mere mercenaries out for ourselves or do we try to preserve our humanity in the face of a harsh and perilous world?

In other words, the moral situations the characters find themselves in and the decisions they make are more or less identical to our own everyday decisions, only the stakes are much higher. And that’s what appeals to us most, I think; it flatters us when our everyday life struggles are elevated to the high drama inherent in life and death existence in the world overrun by antagonistic forces.

If you reflect on it, I think you’ll find I’m making sense. After all, the appeal of zombie flicks is entirely different than the appeal of high fantasy. We don’t really live vicariously through an impervious hero on a sacred mission who possesses the kind of incredible powers we wish we had. Zombie apocalypse survivors are just like us, everyday people trying to survive. And their decisions are like ours and wholly unlike the fantasy hero’s.

That’s it for now. Let the angry denunciations begin…

6 thoughts on “Why do monster stories appeal to us?

  1. It brings a few thoughts to mind for me, obviously survival or survivial of the impossible, but also makes me think of us against them (whatever “them” may be).

    Strangely I also think of the Spock quote from Star Trek …need of the many outweigh the need of the few, a scene from a move called The Cube (where the heirachy of people trying to survive establishes itself), and a school exercise that demonstrated who would survive better in a team and who would survive better alone.

    Perhaps monsters flicks really can easily be construed as art imitating life. 🙂

    1. Thanks for dropping by Ava.

      I guess my view is not so much that zombie art just imitates life, but that zombie art is everyday life writ large for our own self-succor.

  2. I’ve heard (and mostly agree with) the theory that monsters and zombie flicks represent a proxy for us to battle hopelessness in our own lives. A visceral way to fight back at a world that seems increasingly incomprehensible.

    Anecdotally, it seems to me that the increase in the popularity of “extreme” monster stories like those with nigh-invulnerable zombies coincided with 20th century technological and population growth.

    How’s that for a dystopia?

    1. Alienation usually has two senses. The one you’re referring to might be called objective alienation. It means that people’s feelings of alienation are justified because mass society (or some other cause) alienates people from one another by making them feel insignificant. This sense of alienation was popularized by Marx and his disciples, but it has a far older and broader lineage. The other kind of alienation might be characterized as subjective: it says people’s feelings of alienation are the result of cultural changes that elevated the fulfillment of personal desires above all other concerns.

      Now, I was deliberately non-committal about which kind of alienation my zombie theory fits into, mostly because (here) I’m interested in how the aesthetic works. But my theory would fit either mould.

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