Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Gothic fantasy “Christabel” (1816) begins with an archetypal moment, familiar to fans of monster stories everywhere. The innocent maiden Christabel has been wandering at midnight in the dark forest surrounding the castle of Sir Leoline, her father. In the forest she encounters the lady Geraldine, who appears to be a damsel in distress. The kindly Christabel offers Geraldine her father’s protection, but something strange happens as the two women approach the castle’s entrance:
The lady sank, belike through pain,
And Christabel with might and main
Lifted her up, a weary weight,
Over the threshold of the gate:
Then the lady rose again,
And moved, as she were not in pain.
Naive as she is, Christabel does not see anything suspicious here, but those of us who know our monster lore realize that something sinister is afoot. Geraldine is some kind of evil being—perhaps a witch or vampire—and as such she cannot enter a household uninvited. She feigns pain to account for her inability to cross the threshold, inducing Christabel to carry her over it and thereby to invite her in. Her pain then disappears as mysteriously as it appeared, and Geraldine has successfully invaded Sir Leoline’s castle.
This invitation motif is most familiar from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), but it persists to this day, even in the titles of contemporary vampire movies, such as the Swedish Let the Right One In (2008) and its American remake Let Me In (2010). The prevalence of this motif reflects an intuition that evil is more complicated than we would like to think. We believe that good and evil are polar opposites, and therefore that, when evil enters the lives of good people, it does so wholly from outside, as a completely alien force. Good people are in no way responsible for or even implicated in the invasion of evil. But the folk wisdom embodied in vampire lore knows better. As innocent as good people may appear to be, if they were not somehow open to the influence of evil, they could not be possessed by it. It may sound like blaming the victim, but folklore is relentless, and it suspects that good people must have some affinity with the evil they claim to abhor and reject. That is why in so many horror stories the monster comes to mirror the hero or heroine.
In “Christabel,” for example, the heroine appears to be as pure as she could be, and yet one might well ask: What is an innocent maiden doing walking in a forest at midnight? Christabel is acting suspiciously, as if she were trying to conceal her movements. (“She stole along, she nothing spoke”; later she will “creep in stealth.”) She has been dreaming of her “betrothèd knight”—in a “dream that made her moan and leap.” Is Christabel experiencing a sexual awakening that has caused her to flee the confines of her father’s castle, in search of a freedom greater than he allows her? The opening of “Christabel” is filled with ambivalent images: It is midnight, yet the cock is crowing; “the night is chilly, but not dark”; the cloud “covers but not hides the sky”; the moon is “at the full; / And yet she looks both small and dull.” With all these lines blurring before our eyes, it is no wonder that when Christabel confronts Geraldine, it is not a case of absolute good versus absolute evil.
Geraldine brings trouble into Leoline’s castle, but it is by no means clear that his household was untroubled until her arrival. Christabel’s mother evidently died giving birth to her. Does Leoline perhaps on some level blame his daughter for his wife’s death? In any case, Leoline has imposed a regime of perpetual mourning on his castle that makes it feel more like a tomb than a home—hardly a place for young Christabel to flourish. The poem is filled with love-hate relationships. Leoline was once the great friend of Geraldine’s father, Lord Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine. But they fell out and now are enemies. The narrator adds, “And to be wroth with one we love / Doth work like madness in the brain.” As a conclusion to Part II of the poem, Coleridge attached a seemingly irrelevant passage about why a father might speak bitter words to a child he loves. Coleridge offers a lame explanation for this phenomenon, but the poem itself provides a more direct one: Sometimes we come to hate the people we profess to love. Having mixed feelings about people is the central theme of “Christabel,” as it is of several of Coleridge’s poems.
That ambiguity of feeling is conveyed by the way Christabel—the supposedly good character—becomes the mirror image of Geraldine—the supposedly evil character. Evil proves to be contagious in “Christabel.” Geraldine is imaged as some kind of serpent—Christabel responds to her with a “hissing sound.” When Bracy the bard relates his dream of a snake attacking a dove—Geraldine is clearly the snake and Christabel the dove—the two creatures mirror each other, with the snake “swelling its neck as [the dove] swelled hers.” Entranced by Geraldine’s “serpent eyes,” Christabel “passively did imitate” her and, “with forced unconscious sympathy,” she glares at her father.
Geraldine is Christabel’s monstrous double. She appears fair in public but in private, preparing for bed, she reveals that she is half a witch-hag. If Geraldine is half a beautiful lady, half a monster, perhaps the fair Christabel contains a dark side as well. Coleridge never completed “Christabel,” but he took the poem far enough for us to realize that Geraldine is not creating evil out of nothing in Leoline’s household; she is merely exploiting ill feelings and conflicts that were already present, simmering beneath the surface and ready to break out at the first opportunity.
The Monster in Us
“Christabel” can stand for many horror stories in the way that it portrays the monstrous as inextricably intertwined with the everyday—it feeds on something already inside us. That is why the monster always has to be invited in—it must have links to something that is already there. Often we are blind to the evil that lurks around us and within us.
This is literally true in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). There the Frankenstein monster is invited into the De Lacey household by an old blind man, who, alone among the family, cannot see what is monstrous about the creature. Victor Frankenstein, in creating the creature, seems inadvertently to bring evil into his world. Frankenstein presents himself as a benevolent man; he pursues his experiments to create life in order to benefit all humanity. Victor would deny that pride and ambition drive his efforts, but in fact he seeks to create a being that will worship him and thereby flatter his ego. It is no surprise, then, when the creature turns out to be an expression of Frankenstein’s monstrous egotism. Functioning as a doppelgänger, the Frankenstein monster acts out Victor’s buried aggressive impulses, severing his ties with all the people he loves, yet unconsciously hates for the burdensome responsibilities they impose on him. Frankenstein always senses when his creature has committed a crime because in the dark depths of his soul he secretly longs to commit the same crimes but cannot bring himself to do so. The creature kills Victor’s bride on their wedding night because marrying Elizabeth is about to end Frankenstein’s freedom to live his life on his own. It is no accident that people typically refer to the monster simply as “Frankenstein.” Just like Christabel and Geraldine, Frankenstein and the monster are two halves of the same being, combining good and evil.
Bring the Dinosaur Back Alive
An interesting variant of this motif might be called “bring the dinosaur back alive.” The grander scale of these stories takes us beyond mere psychological issues and introduces a political dimension to the horror. This subgenre of the horror story deals with some kind of monstrous creature that comes to threaten civilization, particularly urban life. The monster is often a prehistoric animal, usually a dinosaur, and seems to represent the revenge of the ancient past on modernity. In one way or another, we tragically “invite” this monster into our midst. An expedition to a remote jungle discovers dinosaurs still roaming the earth, and the intrepid explorers just have to bring them back to New York or London, where they do not belong and manage to escape their restraints. Running amok in the streets, the monstrous creatures destroy life and property on a massive scale. Again we initially appear to be the passive victims of calamity through no fault of our own. But on closer inspection, the monster seems to answer to some suspect force within our own souls. Whether out of greed, or devilish curiosity, or satanic pride, we bring the monster into our homes and must answer for the consequences.
One of the earliest examples of the “bring the dinosaur back alive” motif appears in Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World (1912). Doyle’s explorers and scientists journey to a remote plateau in the South American jungle, where they discover living dinosaurs. The Lost World is a late example of the kind of Victorian fiction of empire epitomized by Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885). In these works, native peoples are traditionally portrayed as physically strong but mentally weak. This stereotyping is fundamental to colonialist ideology, supposedly justifying the way civilized Europeans rule over native people all around the planet and exploit them for imperialist purposes. Doyle portrays the dinosaurs the same way—they are physically imposing but mentally backward. Powerful herbivores such as iguanodons can be herded around like modern-day cattle. The dinosaurs are the monstrous doubles of the native tribes in The Lost World. As savage monsters, they are supposedly inferior to civilized human beings, but they also pose a threat to their would-be conquerors. The enormous power of the beasts is what attracts the Europeans to them in the first place, but it is also what makes it difficult to rule them. If the dinosaurs ever got out of control, the power relations between the two parties might be reversed and the Europeans would become the prey of the dinosaurs. In this reversal, The Lost World foreshadows the theme of colonial revolt in twentieth-century literature.
In a hint of what was to come, Doyle’s adventurers bring one of their dinosaur finds back to England. As self-promoters, they want to become world famous for having discovered living dinosaurs, and, with the help of an enterprising journalist, they stage what amounts to a dinosaur show in the middle of London. They have brought a pterodactyl with them, which terrifies the audience and then escapes out a window. Fortunately in the book version of The Lost World, the monster flies off harmlessly over the Atlantic and disappears. But in the first movie based on the novel—as early as 1925—a much more threatening brontosaurus brought to London is shown wreaking havoc, eventually destroying Tower Bridge. Such mass-scale urban destruction has become standard in dinosaur movies ever since. This case of evil being invited into the normally safe confines of the civilized world reflects a sense of guilt over the sins it has committed. For example, in the unending series of Godzilla movies, which repeatedly depict the devastation of Tokyo, humanity must be punished by a radioactive beast for the crime of unleashing the nightmare of nuclear weapons, another case of retribution for inviting evil in.
The great imperial capitols of the world—London, New York, Washington—have often been cinematically portrayed as paying the price for the way they have exploited the material and human resources of their colonies or possessions. For centuries, treasure was brought back from the imperial frontier to the metropolitan center. Now it is payback time, the day of reckoning. The Westerners have invited one too many “foreigners” into their midst: Finally, one turns out to be a monster, exacting revenge on the colonizers for their efforts to conquer the world. Stoker’s novel The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903)—the fountainhead of mummy horror movies such as Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)—provides another variant of this motif, this time with an archaeological twist. Egyptologists have brought a female mummy back to London from the Arab world, and she goes on a one-woman campaign of resurrecting herself and restoring her rule as an ancient queen. It is the familiar reversal of power relations—the British take possession of an Egyptian mummy, and then the mummy, transported to London, takes magical possession of British men and women. Europeans wish to penetrate the mysteries of ancient Egypt, but they discover that those supernatural forces can overwhelm them when released in the modern world. In particular, the lead Egyptologist brings the mummy into his home, where it begins to exert its baleful influence on his own family. This development reflects the way that Britain’s imperialist foreign policy has a corrupting and destructive effect on its domestic life. This motif has come to be known in postcolonial literature as “the empire strikes back,” exemplified by Márcio Souza’s 1990 dinosaur fantasy called in English Lost World II: The End of the Third World.
The 1933 movie King Kong is perhaps the most resonant and powerful realization of the “empire strikes back” theme. It combines all the elements. Living on a remote island, the giant ape is associated with native people, who engage in primitive rites to worship their jungle god. In keeping with the convention, Kong is enormously strong, but he represents a lower stage of evolution mentally. (He hangs out with dinosaurs, but at least he is a step above them on the evolutionary ladder and can beat them to the punch, literally.) The leader of the expedition is a showman who hopes to profit by displaying Kong in a theater in New York. Perhaps the film’s most memorable image is of Kong struggling in huge shackles on a Broadway stage. As many commentators have observed, Kong is a powerful emblem of African slavery in the antebellum United States. We see civilization trying to exploit forces it regards as primitive and subhuman. As the show advertises: “He was a god in his own land, and we have brought him here for your own amusement.” The way the giant ape abducts a beautiful white woman plays right into a fundamental stereotype of racist ideology, especially deep-seated in the American South—the fearsome image of the potent black man violating the virginal white woman.
Kong battles all the forces of modern civilization—from paparazzi in the theater to a Manhattan elevated train; he is finally brought down by fighter planes. Although he is in the end defeated, it is not without a fight, and Kong puts fear into the hearts of his oppressors. In the allegorical terms of the film, American civilization has exploited natives from a distant world and must struggle to reassert its superiority over the so-called primitive forces it has enslaved. We again see that the monster in the story is in fact created by the civilization that condemns it as monstrous. Left alone, Kong would have stayed in the jungle realm he ruled and never threatened New York, or, for that matter, the beautiful Fay Wray. New York suffers only because it invites Kong into its center. Kong is a mirror in which we can view our own monstrous behavior, projected onto a creature we have in fact victimized.
From a vampire slinking through a dark forest, to the deformed creation of mad science, to a lumbering dinosaur in central London, to a radioactive mutation marching on Tokyo, to a reanimated mummy scheming to take over the world, to a giant ape atop the Empire State Building—we have met the monsters, and they are us.