By John Cech
The modern age of monsters—at least for children, their parents and caregivers, and those who have been called the “defenders of make-believe”—dawned in 1963 with the appearance of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. This now iconic book was one of those pivotal, paradigm-shifting works that comes along every half century or so and manages to change everything. Sendak’s monsters, which are so familiar to us now, in their various forms (from tiny Kubrick toys to huge pixilated avatars), were unusual and curious then in that still-placid time. They rumpussed through the American nursery at the beginning of the decade that would be distinguished, in part, by its capacity to acknowledge (if not wholly embrace) the monster, the freak, the Other.
The very word for monster goes back to ancient terms for an “omen,” a “portent,” or a “prediction.” Our earliest taxonomy for monsters comes to us from ancient Babylonia, where there was an attempt to categorize malformed fetuses into three groups: as monsters in excess (those with six fingers); in “default” (four fingers) or “doubled” (two thumbs). Depending on the kind of physical anomaly and other circumstances of the birth, these signs could bode ill in the ancient world. Until relatively recently in human history, they were manifestations of the wrath of the gods or of God. If you were travelling, they (the monsters) were always the inhabitants of those distant, forbidding, unknown places, where people walked upside down or hopped on only one foot or were, as Jonathan Swift satirically imagined, Brobdingnagian giants. Some called the monsters “prodigies,” while others, like the 19th century showman P. T. Barnum, commodified and commercialized them as “curiosities.” For a fascinating study of the cultural reaction to the monstrous Other, see Leslie Fiedler’s indispensable 1978 book, Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self.
It is interesting that Fiedler doesn’t mention Sendak, the Wild Things, or the important role that children’s books have played in incubating our modern ideas about monsters. Sendak’s monsters were certainly predicting what was to come by the end of the sixties (and beyond), when American and European cities would be filled with young people who looked remarkably like his Wild Things, give or take a fang or claw or scale or two. The winds of cultural change that began to blow steadily from the 1960s on, it seems to me, were anticipated by the Wild Things and the Zeitgeist they rode in on. Moreover, Sendak moved our general awareness of the topos that the monster inhabited in our collective imagination from the external to the internal place where he (or she) has always belonged archetypally. In other words, Sendak showed millions of kids, in his brilliant 250-some-word distillation of the hero’s journey, how to “own” their own monsters, how to “tame” them, how to “rumpus” with them, and ultimately how to leave them be and move on.
Today, we call this agency. But the process of “owning” your monsters has forever been a part of the alchemy of psychological development. The creatures we fear most are the creatures within each of us. They are powerful aspects of our being. The hero within ventures forth on quests and journeys. But his opposite, the monster, remains in place, watching, waiting, guarding.
What does he guard? In our most ancient monster story, from the 4,000-plus-year-old Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, the monster Humbaba guards the sacred cedar grove. He is a giant with a face with folds that are said to resemble human intestines. In some depictions of him, he is shown with claws, teeth, and the hairy mane of a lion. Humbaba is the brother of the Demon of the wind, Pazuzu—who has wings, the head of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, and is the spirit who protects humans against plague.
Humbaba is challenged and defeated by Gilgamesh and his sidekick, Enkidu. Humbaba even begs for his life, but our two heroes kill him anyway and chop down the trees he is guarding to develop the city of Uruk, over which Gilgamesh reigns as its king. In this way, Humbaba is a kind of ancient Lorax, someone has pointed out on the blogosphere, protecting the gods’ truffula trees—a sacred duty. Nothing good can come from killing him and destroying the cedar trees, and in the epic, what quickly follows this desecration is Enkidu’s death. In this ancient story, we see a very modern dynamic at work: even the hero—perhaps especially the hero—must pay for a lack of compassion and, we might argue, for the hubris of deforesting the sacred grove the monster is guarding. Like today, things were not simply good or evil five thousand years ago. Even the hideous monster has a larger purpose and functions to protect us from our own wanton destructiveness.
The other, fabled monster from the ancient world is Lilith, who is said by the scholars of the Torah and Talmud to be Adam’s first wife. Lilith was created by God as Adam’s equal in the first version of Genesis. Adam divorces her, the scholars insist, because her desire, literally and metaphorically, is to be “on top.” Most likely, she is also Babylonian in origin, where she first appears as a spirit who stole the souls of children while they slept. She is the Lilu-demon, with taloned, owl-like feet, and wings for arms. She is known as the Lady of the Night. She is also the first vampire, the Aluka. One could capture her and other demons under the spirit bowls that were buried in the four corners of one’s house. Solomon, it is reported, gave us magical charms to protect us from her powers. In the ancient Middle East, spells were said over sleeping infants to keep Lilith at bay. Today we call them lullabies, after her name.
Like Humbaba, Lilith is a contrary, an Other; she is the opposite of the great, all-nurturing mother who occupies a large space in our collective psyches. Lilith, though, is the dark side of that life-giving, nurturing, archetypal orb. She takes life away, or at least until recently, she has been almost universally reviled for this. Her reputation of late has undergone a reappraisal, and now she has an annual rock festival named after her. She has come to represent women’s abilities to fiercely claim their independence, to declare their autonomy and their own desires, and to say no—not only to their husbands, but also to the whole line of male hegemony, including God.
I am invoking these ancient monsters because Lilith and Humbaba are denizens of the world that Sendak creates in Where the Wild Things Are. We see this vividly in Sendak’s depictions of them, and even more dramatically in Spike Jonze’s 2009 reimagining of Sendak’s picture book in the form of a full-length feature film. Here the monsters are protective of the grove of trees where they live and where Max visits them. They have built gigantic structures made of woven logs like immense Andy Goldsworthy projects. Humbaba appears in the form of the leader of the Wild Things, Carol, and Lilith is present as Judith, who defies the authority of Carol and the other (male) monsters. Both are equally as powerful, violent, and unpredictable as they are funny, vulnerable, tender—and altogether human.
Where did Sendak’s monsters come from in the first place? Sendak has said in many interviews that they are based on his relatives, the ones with the “yellow teeth” and big hairy nostrils who would terrify him as a small child, pinching his cheeks and telling him he was so cute they could “eat him up.” They initially appeared to the child Sendak as strange, threatening, other. Yet as much as they were part of his tangible, external world, they were also part of Sendak’s and every child’s psychological development and crucial to the process of ego formation. This process occurs during the slow evolution of consciousness in which the individual, beginning in childhood, starts to make the choices that define him, the things that will become his “I,” and the things that will be relegated to the “not-I,” the unacknowledged, rejected, or repressed psychic material that makes up that guardian of the unconscious, the shadow.
The shadow is the first aspect of the unconscious that we confront as we begin the lifelong process of integration, of becoming conscious of the unconscious. The great fantasist, Ursula Le Guin, describes this archetypal symbol in her essay, “The Child and the Shadow”:
The shadow is on the other side of our psyche, the dark brother of the conscious mind. It is Cain, Caliban, Frankenstein’s monster, Mr. Hyde. It is […] Frodo’s enemy Gollum. It is the Doppelgänger. It is […] the werewolf; the wolf, the bear, the tiger of a thousand folktales; it is the serpent, Lucifer. The shadow stands on the threshold between the conscious and the unconscious mind, and we meet it in our dreams, as sister, brother, friend, beast, monster, enemy, guide. It is all we don’t want to, can’t admit into our conscious self, all the qualities and tendencies within us which we have repressed, denied, or not used. (63-64)
Sendak’s hero, Max, is still too young to recognize that the monsters are projections of himself and thus unable to open those doors of awareness that make it possible for the shadow to be “admitted” and absorbed into a conscious sense of self. These are the tasks of the adolescent and, with increasing urgency, the adult. But Max has a first, dramatic encounter with these forces, these monsters, and sees that they are not simply, or only, evil. To quote Le Guin again, the shadow is:
inferior, primitive, awkward animallike, childlike; powerful, vital, spontaneous. It’s not weak and decent […] it’s dark and hairy and unseemly; but, without it, the person is nothing. What is a body that casts no shadow? Nothing, a formlessness, two-dimensional, a comic-strip character. The person who denies his own profound relationship with evil denies his own reality. (64-65)
This is a lot of weight for a picture book to carry, and Where the Wild Things Are was not met with universal praise when it first appeared. Some critics warned that it might terrify children. But with time, all but our Talibans of children’s books have come around. Even the then famous child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, who had infamously panned Where The Wild Things Are when it was first published, eventually rethought his position and wrote, ten years later: “the monster a child knows best and is most concerned with [is] the monster he feels or fears himself to be, and which also sometimes persecutes him. By keeping this monster within the child unspoken of, hidden in his unconscious, adults prevent the child from spinning fantasies around it” and thus “mastering” or “taming” these feelings (120).
Within a few years of Where the Wild Things Are, a flood of monster books for younger children washed over the publishing world—some of these works were cautionary, some of them humorous, some of them “curiosities.” These additions to our juvenile canon of monsterology include—to mention a few—Dr. Seuss, of course, William Steig (Shrek!), Tomi Ungerer (The Beast of Monsieur Racine), Edward Gorey (The Beastly Baby and many others), Mercer Mayer (There’s a Nightmare in My Closet), Tobi Tobias (Chasing the Goblins Away), and John Steptoe (Daddy is a Monster … Sometimes). During this time, some other, very strange monster books for younger children also appeared, like the suggestively titled Monster for a Day or The Monster in Gregory’s Pajamas. In this oversized picture book, the main character Gregory, like Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning to discover that he’s been transformed—into a furry, fanged creature who refuses to get out the pajamas that Gregory was wearing the night before, though the metamorphosis only lasts a day. But one of the most transporting of these monster books is Raymond Briggs’ brilliant comic book/picture book, Fungus the Boogeyman, in which the eponymous monster suffers from ennui and boredom and is actually a student of existential philosophy.
Children’s media from the 1960s to the present have included a vast population of monsters (or aliens or mutants), from the friendly, funny, and positive (think of E. T., the Muppets, Alf, Hellboy, or those sadly misunderstood X-Men) or destructive and diabolical (think of all those spawns of the devil, all those “Omen” children). There’s a book to be written about the American mood swings between representing children (or child-like figures) as little monsters on the one hand, and possible messiahs on the other. Perhaps more than any other culture, we are waiting, to quote Leonard Cohen, “for the miracle to come.”
What does it mean that we are deluged by monsters—especially vampires, lycans, and zombies—today? And that these are our housemates and bedmates, that they occupy and preoccupy our imaginations? And what does it mean that one of the hottest rock artists today refers to her fans as “little monsters”? Does this finally mean that we are embracing, totally, the other? The alien? The former “curiosity”?
Perhaps the embrace was inevitable, for in it lies an examination of our inner selves, of all that we hold secret, and thus sacred. For the monster—collectively and individually—stands at the entrance to these wondrous spaces, and asks us to move through those ancient reflexes of shock and revulsion that we have been schooled in for millennia, to the revelations on the other side. The monster takes us there, to that place where we can begin to examine our shared humanity. It is not a matter of joining them, or to quote Todd Browning’s famous movie, Freaks, becoming “one of [them].” Rather, the recognition is that we already are part of the eternal, archetypal balance of things. You can’t have the hero without the portentous encounter that Humbaba brings, and you can’t have true independence without Lilith. In other words, you can’t have one, without the Other.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977.
Briggs, Raymond. Fungus the Bogeyman. London: Hamilton, 1977.
Cohen, Leonard. “Waiting for the Miracle.” The Future. 1992. Album.
Fiedler, Leslie. Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Gaster, Theodor H. The Holy and the Profane. Evolution of Jewish Folkways. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1980.
Geisel, Theodor Seuss (Dr. Seuss). The Lorax. New York: Random House, 1971.
Gorey, Edward. The Beastly Baby. New York: Peter Weed Books, 1995.
Jonze, Spike, dir. Where the Wild Things Are. Warner Bros., 2009. Film.
Kaff, F. Monster for a Day or The Monster in Gregory’s Pajamas. New York: Elsevier-Dutton Publishing Co., 1979.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Child and the Shadow.” The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. New York: Putnam, 1979, 59-73.
Mayer, Mercer. There’s a Nightmare in My Closet. New York: Dial Press, 1968.
Sandars, N.K., trans. The Epic of Gilgamesh. An English Version with an Introduction. New York: Penguin, 1960.
Sendak, Maurice. Where the Wild Things Are. New York: Harper & Row, 1963.
Steig, William. Shrek! New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990.
Steptoe, John. Daddy is a Monster … Sometimes. New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1980.
Tobias, Tobi. Chasing the Goblins Away. New York: Frederick Warne, 1977.
Ungerer, Tomi. The Beast of Monsieur Racine. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971.