Monsters are cultural constructions of the terrible that define what it is we subconsciously fear and what it is we’re told to hate or love. Definitions of the monster change over time and with each generation.
Where there is a monster, there is a miracle.
A nation wide sample of 1,166 people responded to a survey exploring choices for a favorite movie monster and reasons why a monster chosen was a favorite. The sample was comprised of equal but culturally diverse numbers of males and females. Ages ranged from 16 to 91. Results of the study indicated that, for both genders and across age groups, the vampire, in general — and Dracula in particular — is the king of monsters.
With a few exceptions (women found vampires and the Scream killers more sexy and ranked the demon doll, Chucky, significantly higher than males), males and females were generally attracted to the same monsters and for similar reasons. As predicted, younger people were the more likely to prefer recent and more violent and murderous slasher monsters, and to like them for their killing prowess. Older people were more attracted to non-slashers and attracted for reasons concerned with a monster’s torment, sensitivity, and alienation from normal society. While younger people also appreciated the classic film monsters such as Frankenstein and King Kong, a parallel cross-over by older respondents for more recent monsters, like Michael Myers, was not reciprocated.
Overall, though, monsters were liked for their intelligence, superhuman powers and their ability to show us the dark side of human nature.
Different monsters are adored for different reasons but, overall, characteristics such as superhuman strength, intelligence, luxuriating in the joy of being evil and being unfettered by moral restraints, are some of the most popular reasons favored by the sample. Moreover, monsters are admired for holding a mirror up to our darker sides and assisting us in understanding evil. Perhaps it is the evil that we fear lurks in all of us, the evil that, in reality, dares not show its face or speak its name. But it is an evil that does dare parade itself across the movie screen for our vicarious enjoyment and delectation.
Beyond what a monster may show us about ourselves and our darker side, our results indicate that what monsters must do above all is behave horrifically and evoke in us extreme emotions, especially the adrenalized emotion of fear. Looking scary is useful as well. Moviegoers also relish their monsters displaying such positive traits as compassion, sensitivity, humor, and intelligence. Regardless of age, members of all age groups in this study, in varying degrees, liked characters who were sympathetic because of their afflictions and torments. Moreover, the supernatural powers that the monster possesses are attractive. Our modern and classic literature and legends show that we humans fantasize about having powers beyond the normal. Whether we’re rooting for Superman or Dracula, good or evil, superhuman powers are an audience favorite.
It is worth noting that over 90% of the people who cited classic monsters who were reprised in modern remakes, specified their favorites to be the original, not the remakes. Remakes tend to disappoint. Remakes of films such as Godzilla, The Thing and King Kong, for example, were each singled out for particular rejection by respondents. The myriad of actors portraying Dracula over the decades once Bela Lugosi’s star went into decline, including such notables as Jack Palance, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella and, most recently, Gary Oldman, seemed to carry on the tradition of the romantic vampire, but Lugosi’s Dracula was still the most frequently mentioned incarnation.
A closing thought about the monster preferences of the young versus the older viewer. Younger viewers do celebrate the riot of blood and dismemberment unleashed by contemporary film monsters. But it must be noted that the more classic film monsters have appeal across generations – an appeal far broader than the appeal of later monsters. Modern respondents clearly like classic monsters. They like them almost as much as do older respondents and, as evidence shows, for many of the same reasons: outsider, misunderstood, sympathetic, frightened, and compassionate. Perhaps those qualities are most exquisitely represented in the monster who is taken from his home, placed in an environment he doesn’t understand and is brought to his iconic demise because of the love for but not of a woman—King Kong. Kong is a monster with whom people of all generations can identify and sympathize. And the youth of today is no exception.
Remarkably, though, it would appear that younger movie goers have another set of criteria that they invoke for the modern movie monsters, the Freddys, the Michaels, the Jasons: who they kill, how they kill, and how often they kill counts for a lot, and the bloodier, the better.
This mass murderer dimension of monster appreciation is largely absent from the metrics and aesthetics employed by older respondents. This may reflect a co-existing set of preferences in younger minds that they handle easily, a set of tastes that straddle generations of popular culture and film monsters. Jenkins (2000) offers the suggestion that violent entertainment like this serves four functions for young people including fantasies of empowerment, of transgression, intensification of emotional experience, and acknowledgement that the world is not always a safe, friendly place. This youthful juggling act, this plasticity of filmic preference, may both astonish and offend older people but it’s one that younger people have come to find rather normal. Whether it means something deeper and more disturbing about real life tolerances for rape and murder and real life appetites of younger viewers for death sports and snuff films, is open to speculation.
When these younger viewers approach middle age, whether they continue to find such explicit violence and mayhem as appealing as they do now is another open question. Research cited earlier suggests that time alters such appetites. But perhaps times have changed and, like greed on Wall Street, a monster mired in murder, mutilation and mayhem will remain an allure not to be outgrown but, rather, a timeless source of an evening’s entertainment for the entire family.