Historical Context of Monsters as Metaphors

A blog feature image showing a skull sitting next to a candle atop an old book with the title 'Monsters as Metaphor' over the top

Monsters can take many forms in literature and popular culture, but what’s interesting about them is that they often represent the beliefs of an era or appear as metaphors for human fears. Monsters have consistently been used to explore themes like morality, prejudice, and personal identity.

In some fiction, monsters are used as symbols for different kinds of oppression, from racism and classism to religious discrimination. In others, monster figures can become role models that teach readers to embrace their inner strength and overcome adversity. However a monster is portrayed, its purpose usually reflects the cultural perspective of its time period and offers an engaging way to explore our relationships with the unfamiliar.

 

Monster Symbolism in Early Media

Monsters in Ancient Myth

Monsters have been used as symbols to explore the human condition for centuries. In literature and other forms of media, monster metaphors have been popular since the ancient Greeks. From Gorgons like Medusa to the giant snake Jörmungandr, monsters can represent our own anxieties and insecurities, such as our fear of change or hidden power.

Medusa has become particularly iconic, being a metaphor for the frightful weight of female trauma and the subsequent unleashing of her own power. She has also been more recently looked at from a feminist perspective and called the face of feminist rage that may turn the patriarchy to stone. The monster metaphors seen throughout ancient mythology still show up today in films, novels and other literary collections, and artwork alike, so clearly, their influence and relevance are just as strong now as they ever were!

The Minotaur is one of the most iconic monsters in Greek mythology, with its part-human, part-bull form. It’s widely seen as a monster that represents the animalistic and violent impulses of human nature, in much the same way as the werewolf.

In Norse mythology, monsters were often used to illustrate powerful concepts and represent human fears and weaknesses. For example, Fenrir was a giant wolf destined to kill Odin at the end of the world, representing the destructive power of nature and the inevitability of death (even for a god).

Similarly, Jörmungandr was a world-encircling serpent whose fate was to fight Thor at Ragnarok, symbolizing the unpredictable chaos of the natural world. Lastly, Loki stands out from other monster-gods because he was not destined for any given battle but instead represented the danger inherent in trusting someone untrustworthy.

Monsters in Popular Folklore

Monsters have been a part of folklore for centuries and have often been used as a reflection of the deeper fears and anxieties that pervaded people’s lives at the time. Vampires, for example, were used to represent feelings of fear around sexual promiscuity and the spread of dangerous diseases. It’s interesting, then, that today they’re widely seen as less scary (and more seductive) than they once were!

Werewolves were symbols of unchecked aggression and the fearlessness that comes with losing control. Lastly, witches were viewed as dangerous figures representing female power and illustrated society’s fear of women acting differently or bucking conventions.

Metaphors like these offer fantastic (and occasionally horrifying) insight into the values and beliefs of past cultures.

From ancient mythology to modern-day horror stories, monsters exist to serve as powerful symbols of our innermost fears, frailties, and anxieties.

By understanding the monster-as-metaphor trope that has been so prevalently used throughout time, we gain a deeper insight into how people from different places and eras contemplated the world around them. It’s an intriguing concept that provides endless opportunities for falling down a Wikipedia (and other media) rabbit hole to learn more!

Monsters in Classic Literature

For many early authors, monster metaphors were used to ignite the imagination and create a fascinating dialogue on a range of human fears. As monsters are usually seen as something negative, writers were able to tap into existing anxieties that people already have in their everyday life to highlight important issues and leave lasting impressions.

Whether it was fear of the unknown, insecurity about the world around us, or even an unrelenting feeling of dread about our own mortality, monster metaphors shone a light on the darker side of life. Here are some of the (arguably most known) examples of classic (western) literature that use monsters as metaphors.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Frankenstein is an age-old classic that has left generations of readers with a lasting impression and a sense of trepidation. Rather than representing an evil being, the monster at the centre of this tale is a metaphor for unchecked scientific progress and the fear of the unknown. Created and then abandoned by that same creator, this monster is left alone and at the mercy of society.

It is the monster’s suffering that pushes him into violence. It calls attention to our need for restraint when it comes to scientific advances and reminds us that, no matter what we create, we must take responsibility for the outcomes. At the heart of Frankenstein is also the question of which is more monstrous – the monster or its creator? This is a theme that has been subverted and played with inside other works ever since this novel became popular. The monster in Mary Shelley’s novel endures as one of literature’s all-time favourite metaphors.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Dracula is a masterful work of literature that combines the eeriness of the unknown with the themes of temptation and seduction. Even the beginning, with the character of Harker embarking on a trip, plays into the idea of how the monstrous can be present at any time or place.

The monster Dracula is used as a metaphor for both our fears about the growing power of ‘outsiders’, and our inner fears about succumbing to sin or temptation. Vampirism itself as a concept has often been thought of as a metaphor for disease and (later) even for capitalism.

Dracula acts as a warning for us to resist indulging in our darkest desires and to be cautious of those we consider ‘different’. By exploring these topics through a well-written and terrifying monster, this classic novel drills deep into the readers’ subconscious and leaves its mark long after the novel has come to an end.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a classic that delves into the duality of human nature. By inventing a potion that allows him to transform into his alter ego (the monstrous Mr. Hyde), Dr. Jekyll can explore the darker side of human nature which is often locked away.

As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Mr. Hyde serves as a metaphor for our capacity for evil, showing how powerful and dangerous our dark desires can be when they are suppressed and repressed by societal pressures and expectations. A powerful exploration of fear and loss of control, this novel is essential reading in understanding both ourselves and what lurks beneath the surface, and the price we sometimes have to pay to protect others.

History of Monsters as Metaphor: Key Takeaways

By delving into some of literature’s classic monster-centric texts, we can gain a better perspective on why monsters remain potent symbols of our deepest fears. Monsters in works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula serve as metaphors for something that is feared, unknown, or misunderstood.

The monster serves to both reveal closely-held anxieties and then inspire us to confront them head-on.

These ‘classic’ monster-as-metaphor uses are especially potent in horror, which is often littered with the same (or a very similar flavour of) symbolism of these timeless monster stories. Ultimately, these classic works provide a rich source for understanding how monsters are used to represent what terrifies us most.


In part two of this series, we’ll be taking a look at more modern examples of the monster as a metaphor, and how those metaphors have evolved.


About Dan Padavona

Dan Padavona, the author behind several captivating mystery and thriller book series, has certainly made a name for himself in the world of terror. With acclaimed series such as the Wolf Lake, Logan and Scarlett, and Darkwater Cove series, it’s evident that he possesses a wealth of knowledge and expertise in crafting enthralling tales of the monsters that surround us.

Picture of publisher Sara-Jayne Slack

Sara-Jayne Slack

Sara-Jayne is a social entrepreneur, convention panelist, (very) amateur actress and lover of all things tea related.

© Inspired Quill 2023 | Website by Big Red Web Design

Skip to content