Samuel Sattin is a novelist and essayist. He is the author of The Silent End and League of Somebodies, the latter being described by Pop Matters as “one of the most important novels of 2013.” His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Salon, io9, Kotaku, San Francisco Magazine, Publishing Perspectives, LitReactor, The Weeklings, The Good Men Project and elsewhere. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College and an MFA in Comics from CCA. He’s the recipient of NYS and SLS Fellowships and lives in Oakland, California.
It was probably The Thing that first did it. The mucus-slicked entity that crawled forth from John Carpenter’s imagination and into my television years ago. What better a setting than the frozen arctic, where nature’s ruthlessness is openly on display, for the geometrics of human anxiety to be mapped? And what better a way to map human anxiety than with pushing the boundaries of what it means to be called a monster.
The beast Carpenter created (or embellished upon, building off the original source material) was both familiar and alien to me, a bubbling soup of biomorphic ingredients, all of which are recognizable on their own, but unsettling when mismatched. I’ve rewatched the film many times in recent years, and am continually impressed with the way in which the Thing evades classification. There’s a deep element of artistic merit to its design; it’s the kind of creature Picasso may have painted if alien life had been his primary concern instead of more earthly beings. Instead, it was somewhat summarily relegated to the realm of genre, and horror in particular, where writers, artists, and filmmakers for years have been cataloguing our collective nightmares in order to reflect what it is we fear most.
The word monster itself is as incomplete as it is ambivalent. Though often used in the horror genre to refer to extraordinary creatures, it need not loom over us twenty feet tall, saliva dripping from blood-tipped teeth. A monster can be a xenomorph or poltergeist as much as it can be a vicious human being, a Frankenstein’s monster, an aberration of nature. A monster can be terrifying. A monster can also be pitiful, or even cute. It might sound silly to compare Cookie Monster to Pennywise the Dancing Clown, for instance, but the two do possess commonalities; each is a willful distortion of the familiar, though with opposite goals in mind. The reason that they both appeal to a similar category, however, is that they are both engaged with the realm of childhood, as many monsters have been since time immemorial.
Pennywise, or more appropriately, the creature known as It in Stephen King’s classic tale of horror, quite literally feeds off children’s fear. Ageless, powerful, and brimming with hatred, it manipulates the animated realm of childhood imagination to instill in its victims abject terror and, eventually, use that terror devour them. It is not only a clown with razor blades for teeth. It becomes whatever its victim fears most; a werewolf, a giant shark, a dead loved one. This is why the idea of It is so completely terrifying—particularly if you’re a child or teen. If you can be scared, if you have an overactive imagination (as most every young person does) then all It needs to do is deliver unto you a horrific, blood-curdling demise by utilizing nothing more than the stuff of your dreams.
It goes without saying that the Cookie Monster is a far less visceral and disturbing entity. More of a ravenous glutton than not, the furry, steroidal, estranged cousin of Grover is marketed towards children as a source of comedy, much in the same way the Disney-eyed shaggy beasts from Monsters Inc are. But his existence relies upon the predilection of fear. Only a row of sharp teeth and red glowing eyes separate the goofy Sesame Street gourmand from full-on hell ghoul. Imagine for a second the raspy sound of “Cooooookie” coming from your closet in the night, followed by a drooling, sharp toothed grin as an oleaginous blue blob of hunger and hair lurches towards you, eyes filled with murder. “Me…want…COOKIE!!!”
But without sharp teeth and glowing red eyes, Cookie Monster is rendered palatable for childhood consumption. Arguably, that is why he and all like him exist at all; to help children process a key emotion: namely, fear. Cookie Monster is a gateway monster, something to prepare children for the bigger, nastier ones ahead. The nastier ones like It, for instance, whose raison d’etre is to rip your childhood to shreds. And it must be said that even It is a gateway monster itself to other, more devastatingly psychological terrors. The horror of growing older, for instance, or of realizing human imperfection. The horror of discovering the limits of mortality and our enormous capacity to do harm.
From the aberrant to the absurd, monsters show us what it is we fear. But more than that, they introduce us to fear, and help us process it in safe, somewhat gradual ways. Particularly as we enter adulthood, and increasingly look askew to those who live alongside us, we turn to monsters to assist with assessing what is dangerous, and what is not.