Thursday, November 29, 2012

Nothing New Under The Sun?

African Sunrise by Austin Thomas
Timing can be an interesting thing. After putting up my quick post on the Wydarr I decided to catch up with my blog reading and came across Noisms' post On Creating New Monsters in which he speculates that it's impossible to create monsters that are truly novel and without antecedents. There's great stuff in the comments over there, and I was going to just post my own thoughts, but they started to get so long that I figured I may as well make a blog post. Happy double post Thursday!

I really don't know how I feel about Noisms' definition of novelty. I mean, (without spiraling down a quantum rabbit hole) all the elements in the universe are made of protons, neutrons and electrons right... so by this logic, when they combine, nothing truly novel is actually created. And same thing with molecules right? It's still just protons, neutrons and electrons. Kirby Ferguson really is right in that everything is remix.

When it comes to monsters, I believe that successful monsters, particularly those of folklore, are just the exaggerated personification of human fears, and fear can only exists when the person experiencing it can relate to the implied consequences associated with the thing. For example, let's look at fire. Even though fire is exceptionally dangerous children don't fear it until it burns them. In fact, I think it's safe to say that children are drawn directly to it, like moths. Other fears are taught as well, and they can only take hold after curiosity on the particular topic has abated. Spiders aren't scary until you watch your mother and father flinch, squeal and flee.

So if a monster is truly created without antecedents, it cannot be a monster because it would inspire curiosity and not fear.

Since successful monsters are typically exaggerated personifications of a specific fear, size increases are common. Your culture has taught you to fear spiders? Bam, how about some giant spiders?! The size of your hand?! The size of your face?! The size of a car?! Additionally, a single feature or concept can be exaggerated to great effect, like big yellow eyes to see you in the dark, or giant fangs to rend your flesh. Regardless though, these things cannot be monstrous unless you are able to relate to them, and then extrapolate the possible consequences of interacting with those things. I read an article a while back that talked about vampires being an outgrowth of the fear of rape. There's no telling how accurate that idea is, but on the surface it feels pretty solid as they come into your house, at night, and kill you in an intimate way.

A number of commenters indicated that language makes this situation problematic as well, but I don't know that the problem is actually due to the weakness of language as much as it is due to its strength. Metaphors and similes are phenomenally powerful, and to me, they're the basis of most "this with a that" type monsters. Saying that a creature has a large, powerful jaw doesn't do much. It doesn't resonate. It's vague, and can be applied to many things. It's possible to relate that statement to a friendly creature like a dog, and completely undermine the intended psychological effect of this monster. Likewise, precise measurements of the jaw and quantifying the amount of force it can produce is equally, if not even more abstract. But if you say that a creature has a jaw "like a crocodile" it immediately becomes more concrete, and thus potentially more frightening for a larger audience because the likely-hood of a mental association increases.

Just because a creature is described as having a jaw like a crocodile doesn't mean the creature is a derivative of a crocodile. It's just being put into a context that resonates, thus producing mental images, and allowing the audience to extrapolate the consequences of coming into contact with those jaws.

Finally, Geiger's Alien falls very cleanly into the "this with a this" category of monster. It's an exceptionally gaunt human, with black skin and a penis for its head. I'd say the creature is frightening because so many of its features are recognizable as human. It's a *corrupted* human. And it looks like it's been bonded with machines too. Geiger's Aliens are very much a product of their time, and very much a representation of the fears of the time. What does it mean to be a highly sexualized humanoid machine?

In the end, just because something is relateable doesn't mean it's not new. Being able to see recognizable echos of reality in fantasy makes that fantasy even more powerful because once the idea becomes plausible, the brain can start extrapolating terrible terrible consequences.


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