A monster is any creature, usually found in legends or horror fiction, that is often hideous and may produce fear or physical harm by its appearance or its actions. The word "monster" derives from Latin monstrum, meaning an aberrant occurrence, usually biological, that was taken as a sign that something was wrong within the natural order.
The word usually connotes something wrong or evil; a monster is generally morally objectionable, physically or psychologically hideous, or a freak of nature. It can also be applied figuratively to a person with similar characteristics like a greedy person or a person who does horrible things.
The root of monstrum is monere—which does not only mean to warn but also to instruct, and forms the basis of the modern English demonstrate. Thus, the monster is also a sign or instruction. This benign interpretation was proposed by Saint Augustine, who did not see the monster as inherently evil, but as part of the natural design of the world, a kind-of deliberate category error.
Among newborn young and embryos of humans and most species of animals are found occasional individuals who are malformed in whole or in part (cf. Teratology). The most grossly abnormal of these have been referred to from ancient times as monsters, probably because the birth of one was thought to signify something monstrous or portentous; while the less severe are known as abnormalities or anomalies or even birth defects. No sharp line separates these grades of malformation, all being due to various kinds and degrees of modification of the normal course of development of the embryo. The study of these deviations forms the subject of teratology, a branch of morphology or embryology.
A knowledge of the kinds of abnormalities and their causes may, like deliberate experiments, increase understanding of normal development. Convention recognizes two major classes of monsters: those that represent defective or excessive growth in a single body, and those that have partial or complete doubling of the body or one of its axes.
Giants and dwarfs are often classed as monsters, probably because of the prominent places they occupy in mythology. Since in humans they generally result from abnormal growth, they cannot usually be recognised as abnormal at birth. An exception is the disproportionate dwarfism known as achondroplasia or chondrodystrophia, in which the limbs and especially the legs are short, thick and bent, with head and trunk disproportionately large. This congenital abnormality occurs in many animals, including:
- Cattle, particularly in the Dexter-Kerry breed in which the monstrous bulldog calves with chondrodystrophic dwarfism are often aborted before term
- Domestic fowl
A similar abnormality has become a breed characteristic in Bulldogs. In all these cases, abnormal characteristics are inherited together. Cases where this type of dwarfism in a human family behaves as a simple hereditary characteristic have been reported.
It may also be due to other causes. Rudolf Virchow long ago noted the familial association of the chondrodystrophic type of monster with another type in which the limbs except for digits are nearly absent (phocomelus). It has since been shown by Walter Landauer that the fowl phocomelus and chondrodystrophia result from the same hereditary factor, the former representing the homozygote, the latter the heterozygote.
Gigantism usually expresses itself during early growth. In humans it often arises from endocrine imbalance. It may declare itself at birth in greater size, and sometimes in lower animals and plants, is due to the doubling of the normal chromosome number. (Cf. Heredity and Tetraploidy).
Repetition or deficiency
Repetition or deficiency of single parts such as fingers or toes (polydactyly, hypodactyly) are frequent anomalies in humans and other mammals. Absence or abnormality of whole limbs is less common and includes besides club-foot, the so-called congenital amputations, once thought due to strangulation of a limb by a fold of embryonic membrane (amnion). It is probable that endogenous abnormalities of the bone are more frequent causes of such "amputations" than are strangulations. Cases are recorded of human identical twins in which both members have the same type of limb abnormality, suggesting an hereditary predisposition to this type of malformation. In other cases injury and malposition are probably responsible.
In addition to monsters with rudimentary limbs (phocomelus), others are known with incomplete or underdeveloped extremities (hemimelus, micromelus, ectromelus). A rare type of monster that has always attracted interest has the lower extremities more or less united, as in mammals of the order Sirenia such as the dugong or manatee and in the mythical figures of sirens or mermaids. Such sirenoid monsters may have a single foot (uromelus) or limbs fused throughout their length with no separate feet (sirenomelus or symelus).
Defective closure of lines of junction in the embryo produces monstrosities, such as harelip and cleft palate, in which the ventral laminae of the palate have failed to fuse. A frequent abnormality in human infants is spina bifida in which the spine fails to close over, leaving a gap in the vertebral column. Both conditions are inherited albeit somewhat irregularly in humans.
Hydrocephalus is a related abnormality in which the embryonic spaces of the brain persist and fill with fluid, causing a greatly distended brain and head. A hereditary form appears in mice. Occasional monsters are found in which a part of the brain protrudes through the cranium as an encephalocoele; an extreme along this line is reached in pseudoencephaly in which the whole brain is everted and rests upon the top of the cranium like a wig.
Variability in sex characteristics
Hermaphrodites, as individuals containing both functional testes and ovaries, do not occur in mammals, including humans, where sex is determined in the fertilised egg and is fundamentally distinct at birth. Intersexual offspring occur in which the sexual organs undergo some developments in the direction of those of the opposite sex. Minor anomalies of genitalia, such as hypospadias, are relatively frequent.
A remarkable feature of monsters in vertebrates including humans is the association of multiple abnormalities in complex syndromes. Thus in humans harelip, spina bifida, hydrocephalus and polydactyly may be found in the same monster; while in acrocephalosyndactyly we find an egg- or dome-shaped skull, partial or complete fusion of digits in both hands and feet and, often in addition, harelip, contractures, spina bifida and mental abnormality. Several authors have suggested that such multiple abnormalities trace to a common source in a retardation in early development which in the above case is probably due to a defective gene.
Origin of single monsters
Much has been learned from study of abnormalities that occur in graded series. Thus, geneticists Sewall Wright and K. Wagner showed that an extensive series of monsters in one inbred family of guinea pigs could be arranged in a series in which those with least defect are normal, except for a single median lower incisor while with increasing grade of defect the lower jaw is reduced and lost (agnathia), the ears approach each other on the ventral side and fuse (otocephaly) leaving a single ear aperture in the throat; then the mouth and upper teeth are reduced, the nostrils formed into a proboscis, the eyes are reduced (microphthalmia) and fused in the centre of the forehead (cyclopia) and finally all head structures are lost except a small median ear (acraniate monster). The primary factor in these cases is abnormal heredity combined with a chance assortment of minor environmental factors to produce varying inhibition at different times in early development when the antecedents of the head form. Otocephaly, cyclopia, and related defects have been produced in experimental animals (fish and amphibian embryos) by chemical treatments that inhibit in ways the head is especially sensitive to. Monsters falling in similar series are found in humans and other vertebrates. They probably arise as a result of interaction between a specific heredity and abnormalities in the environment of the embryo sometimes due to disease or injury.
Individuals partially or wholly double, but joined together, are represented by the rare occurrence in humans of Siamese twins, which also reveal the mode of origin of this type of monster. Siamese twins, so-called from a famous pair exhibited for many years in the 19th century, are identical twins joined by a bridge of tissue that joins the circulatory systems. They probably arise by the nearly complete separation of a single fertilised egg into two parts. German embryologist Hans Spemann produced double monsters in newts experimentally by constricting the egg in the two cell stage with a hairloop. Human identical twins arise by complete separation of the two halves of one embryo at a very early stage, and thus represent an extreme of the same process that causes double monsters.
In humans, partially double symmetrical monsters occur. These vary from those with a single head, but neck, trunk and limbs doubled, through those with two heads and a single trunk, to others with head, shoulders and arms doubled but with one trunk and one pair of legs. Such double monsters probably arise following the less complete separation of the halves of the early embryo or partial separation at later stages. A rare type is one in which there is a Janus head, two faces on a single head and body. Janus monsters have been produced experimentally by a variety of treatments of amphibian embryos in early stages. A group of cases in which the hinder end of the body was doubled from the sacrum back has been found in one strain of mice and appears to be due to abnormal heredity. Doubling of whole limbs in amphibia has been produced experimentally by injuring the limb rudiment at an early sensitive stage.
Unequal double monsters
Unequal double monsters consist of two parts—one usually well formed and the other small, vestigial, or abnormal that seems like a parasite upon the more normal partner. Thus a young man of Genoa, Lazarus Colloredo, born in 1716, who was figured as a child by Fortunias Licetus and later by Danish physician Caspar Thomeson Bartholinus, bore at the lower end of his breast bone a living child as parasite. In other cases the parasite is attached in the head region or to the trunk. The parasite often shows the same types of monstrosities which in single monsters have been attributed to delayed development. Rarely the parasite is included within the abdominal cavity of the larger partner as a foetus in foetu.
Origin of double monsters
The origin of double monsters has been traced to a variety of causes including disease of mother or embryo, faulty placentation in humans and other mammals, and other factors which reduce the oxygen supply or nutrition of the embryo. The most thoroughgoing application of the latter idea has been made by Charles R. Stockard who produced double monsters of many types as well as single monsters by subjecting eggs and early embryos of fish to a variety of stimuli (low temperature, poisons, etc.). He concluded that, "the primary action of all the treatments is to inhibit the rate of development, and the type of deformity that results depends simply upon the developmental moment at which the interruption occurs." Aforementioned Wright and Wagner showed in addition that some of the factors determining the inhibition are internal, that is, part of the heredity of the embryo. In general for double as for single monsters, it is probably true to conclude that most of them are due to modifications of normal development during critical periods of embryonic life.
Monsters have been regarded by primitive peoples as of supernatural origin. Human monsters have been attributed to intercourse between women and the devil or between men and animals. Many mythical beings such as races of dwarfs and giants, cyclops with a single eye, sirens, mermaids, races of men with a single median leg — were probably suggested by actual observations of human monsters. The scientific study of monsters began with William Harvey (1651) who attributed them to deviations from the normal course of embryonic development. The present system of classification of monsters was introduced by Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire whose great work on anomalies (Paris, 1832-1837) remains a valuable source of information.
Classical mythology is a catalog of indescribable horrors, with all sorts of monsters populating a world of cruelty and evil. Folklore created a fantastic dimension dominated by strange forces and terrifying creatures, foul because the latter were hybrids that violated the laws of natural forms.
The Sirens. First you will come to the Sirens who enchant all who come near them. If any one unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green field and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men's bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.
The Harpies. Saved from the sea, the Strophades we gain,
So called in Greece, where dwells, with Harpies,
Ne'er sent a pest more loathsome; ne'er were seen
Worse plagues to issue from the Stygian mire
Birds maiden-faced, but trailing filth obscene,
With taloned hands and looks for ever pale and lean.
Polyphemus. This was the abode of a huge monster who was then away from home shepherding his flocks. He would have nothing to do with other people [...] With a sudden clutch he gripped up two of my men at once and dashed them down upon the ground as though they had been puppies. Their brains were shed upon the ground, and the earth was wet with their blood. Then he tore them limb from limb and supped upon them.
The Chimaera. The Chimaera, who was not a human being, but a goddess, for she had the head of a lion and the tail of a serpent, while her body was that of a goat, and she breathed forth flames of fire; but Bellerophon slew her, for he was guided by signs from heaven.
Monsters? There is also talk of other fabulous human portents, which are not real, but invented: they are symbols of a set reality. This is the case of Geryon, king of Spain, of whom it is said he was born with three bodies: in reality, there were three brothers who got on so well that it was almost as if the three bodies shared one soul. This is also the case with the Gorgons, prostitutes with snakes for hair, who with one look turned men into stone. They were said to have only one eye, which they took turns in using. In reality, they were three sisters all equally beautiful, almost as one to the eye, the sight of whom stunned men so much they fancied that the sisters had turned them into stone.
Monsters in fiction
Pre–World War II monster films
During the age of silent movies, monsters tended to be human-sized, e.g., Frankenstein's monster, the Golem, werewolves and vampires. The film Siegfried featured a dragon that was actually a giant puppet on tracks. A few movie dinosaurs were created with the use of stop-motion animated models, as in RKO's King Kong, the first giant monster film of the sound era.
Universal Studios specialized in monsters, with Bela Lugosi's reprisal of his stage role, Dracula, and Boris Karloff playing Frankenstein's monster. The studio also made several lesser films, such as Man-Made Monster, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. as a carnival side show worker who is turned into an electrically charged killer who dispatches victims merely by touching them, causing death by electrocution.
Werewolves were introduced in films during this period, and similar creatures were presented in Cat People. Mummies were cinematically depicted as fearsome monsters as well. As for giant creatures, the cliffhanger of the first episode of the 1936 Flash Gordon serial did not use a costumed actor, instead using real-life lizards to depict a pair of battling dragons via use of camera perspective. However, the cliffhanger of the ninth episode of the same serial had a man in a rubber suit play the Fire Dragon, which picks up a doll representing Flash in its claws. The cinematic monster cycle eventually wore thin, having a comedic turn in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
Post World War II monster films
In the post World War II era, however, giant monsters returned to the screen with a vigor that has been causally linked to the development of nuclear weapons. One early example occurred in the American film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which was about a dinosaur that attacked a lighthouse. Subsequently, there were Japanese film depictions, (Godzilla, Gamera), British depictions (Gorgo), and even Danish depictions (Reptilicus), of giant monsters attacking cities. A recent depiction of a giant monster is the monster in J. J. Abrams's Cloverfield, which was released in theaters January 18, 2008. The intriguing proximity of other planets brought the notion of extraterrestrial monsters to the big screen, some of which were huge in size, (such as King Ghidorah and Gigan), while others were of a more human scale. During this period, the fish-man monster Gill-man was developed in the film series Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Britain's Hammer Film Productions brought colour to the monster movies in the late 1950s. Around this time, the earlier Universal films were usually shown on American television by independent stations (rather than network stations) by using announcers with strange personas, who gained legions of young fans. Although they have since changed considerably, movie monsters did not entirely disappear from the big screen as they did in the late 1940s.
Occasionally, monsters are depicted as friendly or misunderstood creatures. King Kong and Frankenstein's monster are two examples of misunderstood creatures. Frankenstein's monster is frequently depicted in this manner, in films such as Monster Squad and Van Helsing. The Hulk is an example of the "Monster as Hero" archetype. The theme of the "Friendly Monster" is pervasive in pop-culture. Chewbacca, Elmo, and Shrek are notable examples of friendly "monsters". The creatures of Monsters, Inc. scare children in order to create energy for running machinery, while the furry monsters of The Muppets and Sesame Street live in harmony with animals and humans alike. Japanese culture also commonly features monsters which are benevolent and/or likeable, with the most famous examples being the Pokémon franchise and the pioneering anime My Neighbor Totoro. The book series/webisodes/toy line of Monster High is another example.
Monsters are a staple of fantasy fiction, horror fiction or science fiction (where the monsters are often extraterrestrial in nature). There is also a burgeoning subgenre of erotic fiction involving monsters, monster erotica.
Monsters are commonly encountered in fantasy or role-playing games and video games as enemies for players to fight against. They may include aliens, legendary creatures, extra-dimensional entities or mutated versions of regular animals.
Especially in role-playing games, "monster" is a catch-all term for hostile characters that are fought by the player. Sentient fictional races are usually not referred to as monsters. At other times, the term can carry a neutral connotation, such as in the Pokémon franchise, where it is used to refer to fictional creatures that resemble real-world animals, or in Undertale, where "monster" is synonymous with "person". Characters in games may refer to all animals as "monsters".
Monsters in legend
- Beast of Gévaudan
- Canvey Island Monster
- Fouke Monster
- Homo monstrosus
- Mythological hybrid
- Lake monster
- Legendary creature
- Midgard Serpent
- Sea monster
- Swamp monster
Monsters in fiction
- David Wardle, Cicero on Divination, Book 1 (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 102; Mary Beagon, "Beyond Comparison: M. Sergius, Fortunae victor", in Philosophy and Power in the Graeco-Roman World: Essays in Honour of Miriam Griffin (Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 127; Gregory A. Staley, Seneca and the Idea of Tragedy (Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. 109, 113 et passim.
- Saint Augustine, City of God, Book XXI, Chapter 8
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "article name needed". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. – especially for this section, see also the relevant EB bibliography with notes by developmental geneticist L. C. Dunn, pp. 739–741.
- Cf. "Studies on the lethal mutation of cornish fowl"; "A Study of Hereditary Chondrodystrophia in the Chick (“Creeper” Fowl) by Means of Embryonic Transplantation". For an abstract biography of Landauer, see
- Cf. Grumbach, Melvin M.; Conte, F. A. (1998). "Disorders of sex differentiation". In Williams, Robert Hardin; Wilson, Jean D. Williams Textbook of Endocrinology. Philadelphia: Saunders. pp. 1303–1425. ISBN 0-7216-6152-1. OCLC 35364729.
- Cfr. Sewall Wright, K. Wagner, "Types of subnormal development of the head from inbred strains of guinea pigs and their bearing on the classification and interpretation of vertebrate monsters", Americal Journal of Anatomy, Volume 54, Issue 3, pp. 383–447.Article first published online 3 February 2005
- Cf. also L.C. Dunn, "Heredity and development in early abnormalities in vertebrates", The Harvey Lectures, cit., pp. 135-165.
- Descriptions and interpretations of the mode of origin of monsters are given by scientist Charles R. Stockard, "Developmental rate and structural expression: An experimental study of twins, double monsters and single deformities, and the interactions among embryonic organs during their origin and development", American Journal of Anatomy, vol. 28, pp. 115-266.
- Each card features a monster from Japanese mythology and a character from the hiragana syllabary.
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