Do newspaper headlines sometimes get it wrong? Advertisers proclaim “Monster sales”, which mean they are big, cheerful and (hopefully) filled with bargains. Those in charge of the media and also the police, regularly describe violent criminals as “monsters”. So who is right and who is wrong? Can somebody or something be big, harmless and beneficial whilst the same word, applied to wrongdoing, implies that an individual and/or their deeds are intrinsically evil? How can a few bargains on a shop shelf equate with a mass murderer – and yet both are described as monsters?
Then again, how can a mass murderer, King Kong and colourful, misshapen cartoon characters all fit into the same category when one is human, one is described as a “colossal” gorilla and the rest are cute and cuddly? What happens if a mother describes her baby as “a little monster”? Does she really think her child resembles the massive two-ton crocodile caught and photographed in the Philippines or the 15metre-long giant squid found off the coast of New Zealand?
Is this just another example of a word’s meaning depending on its usage being changed so that people are meant to understand its meaning by its context?
One online dictionary definition describes a monster as “a large scary creature in fiction. They are usually found in legends or horror stories. They are often ugly and may make people scared.”
Do you remember the first monster that you ever saw? The earliest that I remember was a Dalek. There might have been earlier monsters, but there was something scary and exciting about the metallic creatures which rolled along the floor, waving something that vaguely resembled a gun barrel and declaring, “Exterminate! Exterminate!” The novelty of the Daleks captivated small children. Suddenly their play areas were dominated by little ones who extended a rigid arm at the level of their nose, clenched their fist and approached their friends with the words, “Exterminate! Exterminate!” As the juvenile would-be Daleks attacked, so their “victims” made weird gurgling noises, clutched their stomachs and, with great melodrama, rolled over and pretended to be dead.
Daleks kill. Daleks are monsters. Therefore monsters kill... Except that an interview with the late Terry Nation, who invented Daleks for the Doctor Who television series, revealed a different story. His creations needed to be of a shape which would allow someone to sit inside its iconic conical casing. Even a monster, it seems, may have a human heart. Even King Kong had moments of vulnerability: he was not totally evil.
We generally think of monsters as dangerous and evil – yet what about the many smiling, friendly cartoon characters which are also called monsters although they are harmless? Somehow, their long teeth, bright colours, multiple eyes and misshapen ears, antennae, hands or feet are not particularly upsetting. It would be hard to imagine them doing anything evil. They are more like children in fancy dress: look inside and there is a mischievous giggle waiting to burst out.
So what happens when there is a man, woman or child who is described as a monster? Do such people not also have their soft spots and moments of innocence? Gilbert and Sullivan once wrote:
“When a felon's not engaged in his employment
Or maturing his felonious little plans
His capacity for innocent enjoyment
Is just as great as any honest man's...”
Problems arise when the word ‘monster’ is applied to a human being. Suddenly that person becomes something other than human, with no redeeming qualities.
To call someone a monster implies that he or she is beyond rescue, can never reform and can never be readmitted to ‘normal’ society. Suddenly such a person is put on the same level as, for instance, the Kraken, a legendary sea monster reputed, since the fourteenth century, to dwell off the coasts of Norway and Greenland. The Kraken can never become a goldfish, peacefully swimming in an aquarium. By contrast, the mother who describes a naughty child as a “little monster” does not intend to say that her little one is beyond hope, personifies evil and can never change. Instead, she sincerely hopes that a nap will transform her fractious toddler into one who is full of smiles and fun.
Might it be more accurate if, instead of attaching a monster label to someone, we were to describe their behaviour as monstrous? There is a difference. Look up “monstrous” in a dictionary. There are at least forty-nine words which describe “monstrous” behaviour in a human being. They include such words as appalling, abhorrent, heinous, evil, wicked, abominable and vile. I suspect that none of us knows somebody to whom all of the forty-nine words apply, even in their worst moments. The dictionary definition of monstrous behaviour implies purpose and a choice which has been made but which could be un-made. There is always room for goodness to slip into someone’s heart: St Paul’s fanaticism made him a very nasty character before he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. By the end of his life, people wept when he said goodbye at the end of a visit!
We have recently seen in the media, the first reaction of a father to the discovery that his son had become a mass-killer. In California, in May of this year, 22 year-old Elliot Rodger murdered six people and then himself. Inevitably, the world’s media had a massive story and collected eyewitness reports, scene of crime photographs, aerial images and the reactions of neighbours, police, public officials and psychiatrists. Several hours of interviews debated the US gun laws and whether or not they should be repealed. It seemed that, once again, a killer and a monster were one and the same thing. Elliot’s film director father, Peter, gave a different picture. "When you go to sleep normally, you have a nightmare and you wake up and everything is ok," he said. "Now I go to sleep, I might have a nice dream and then I wake up and slowly the truth of what happened dawns on me and, you know, that is that my son was a mass murderer... There's no way I thought that this boy could hurt a flea... What I don't get is we didn't see this coming at all." Perhaps the reason is clear: the father saw his son. He did not see a monster. He is a father whose son’s actions broke his heart. Just as the victims’ family life will also never again be the same, so also with him, but his grief will be compounded by guilt and the unanswered, “Why?”
Of course the media will use banner headlines to maximum effect in order to boost sales. The problem is that there will then be a search for an even more dramatic term as an earlier one loses its impact on the general public. Categorising someone as a “monster” declares them as beyond even God’s influence. Once the word becomes banal, what lies beyond it? If “monster” is applied to a fizzy drink, what happens with the latest atrocity perpetrated against innocent people? To be human means engaging in mindfulness, not in mindlessness. We are not pre-programmed robots.
Even Daleks never tried to replace their human heart beating inside them.