Romanticizing the monster is as old as art. Greek depictions on vases from the classical era show Satyrs charming human women with music, wine, and massive erections. But it does seem to be prolific in the current era. A simple web search results in countless teratophilic fictions and art featuring the cute, such as a small child cuddling with Sasquatch, to the erotic, such as a vividly depicted honeymoon night with Slenderman.
This need to soften the dangerous and sometimes fatal aspects of the monstrous can be seen in other genres as well – such as romance. Janice Radway notes that many traditional romance novels seemed preoccupied with explaining away masculine threat, especially that of rape and sexual violence:
[B]y suggesting that rape is either a mistake or an expression of uncontrollable desire, it may also give [the reader] a false sense of security by showing her how to rationalize violent behavior and thus reconcile her to a set of events and relations that she would be better off changing (216).
By softening the very real danger of masculine violence through love, desire, emotional aloofness, and other typical tropes, the “hero” becomes less monstrous. Perceived as less of a danger, the heroine not only accepts his behavior, but is also more willing to move intimately closer.
What is it that drives us to bring the monstrous close? This is one of the many questions teratologists try to answer. If something is threatening, the reasonable action is to create distance. However, that is not everyone’s reaction when faced with danger. Every Halloween thrill seekers flock to haunted houses and throughout the year Hollywood fills the theater with horror films. Paradoxically, the move closer alleviates some fear and anxiety regarding the monstrous object. The romanticization of the dangerous is one way to do this by processing threat in terms of a relationship. By bringing the monstrous closer, we make it more palatable even if the danger remains the same. This is one reason Stockholm Syndrome works. You can’t change the situation, so why not make the best of it? It doesn’t legitimize the abuse, but it does make the trauma temporarily manageable.
One example is that of the Yakuzi and the anime Nurarihyon. The Yakuza, a Japanese criminal organization is a network that has committed horrendous crimes such as human trafficking, extortion, blackmail, and murder. Yet, there are many examples of cultural art from literature to film that depict them in a sympathetic light. A family of disenfranchised individuals that have come together, bound by loyalty and who revere honor about all else. For example, The Outsider (2018) follows Nick Lowell (played by Jared Leto), an American POW who stays in Japan after WWII and becomes a member of the Yakuza. Not only does the sister of his sworn brother fall in love with him and become pregnant, but he avenges the murder of clan leader. These acts of love and loyalty are depicted as noble despite a background of extortion, violence, and murder.
This attempt at un-monstering is abstracted to another level in the anime Nurarihyon No Mago (Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan). The Nura clan consists of monsters whose central identity is to terrorize and even kill humans, and in many ways is a mirror to the Yakuza. Rikuo Nura is the protagonist and grandson of the leader. He is half-human and half-yokai, and is ambivalent about leading a clan of monsters. He doesn’t want to be a monster, he wants to be normal. But he also loves his family and wants to belong. Through his adventures, he comes to terms with his own monstrosity and views it as an advantage that can not only protect his family but also his human friends. Two methods that the narrative employs to reach this conclusion are showing worse examples of monstrosity and showing the “human” side of the monsters. The former include Hagorme-Gitsune, a boogeyman-like yokai that eats children. Rikuo defeats Hagorme-Gitsune and saves his human friends from being eaten. The latter includes not only humanizing Rikuo who attends a human school despite being the heir to the Nura Clan, but also showing his monster family performing mundane human tasks like washing clothes and cooking food. The Yakuza is un-monstered through animation by transforming it into a parody of monsters, and those anime monsters are un-monstered by showing how human they are.
Various scholars have theories on our relationship with monsters, and horror in general. Eugene Thacker thinks it’s a way to think about the unthinkable, Noël Carroll says it’s to come to terms with the impossible by making it possible, and Claude Levi-Strauss thinks it’s a way to control the uncontrollable. Perhaps they are all right. Each way of thinking about it is in effect a method of bringing closer the distant, threatening unknown. Intimacy breeds familiarity, and with familiarity comes less fear. But as we know, sometimes in our quest to allay our fears we only succeed in creating disaster. A tiger brought into our home is still a tiger.
Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. 2nd Ed with New Intro. 1984. Chapel Hill: The University of North Caroline Press, 1991. Print.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. Myth and Meaning. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.
Thacker, Eugene. In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy Vol. 1. Alresford: Zero Books, 2011.