In literature as in movies, monsters represent our fears of the unknown. They constitute those aspects in our societies we see as uncontrollable and menacing. They have been with us since ancient Greek, Chinese, and Egyptian civilizations. The Cyclops in The Odyssey, the Camazotz from Mayan mythology and the Anglican-Celtic Gogmagog are but a few of the creatures humans have created.
They represent our darkest trepidation. Our desire to come together in a common purpose to defeat a seemingly unbeatable foe. But most importantly, they allow for the rise of the hero who captures our imagination, while giving us faith in the future.
Whether ancient or modern; in literature or oral story telling; in the silver screen or in modern-day computer games, they are a window into our darkest fears, prejudices and aversions. Ultimately, monsters are perfect representations of the cultures that have created them.
When we examine our monsters, we can see a reflection of ourselves, our cultures and the issues that cause concern in society. Such are three creations that have come to us from 19th-century England and the postmodern era. These are: Frankenstein, King Kong and Godzilla. What does each of these monsters tell us about the cultures from whence they hailed?
Let’s find out…
“Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” by Mary Shelley
In Greek mythology Prometheus is a Titan and trickster said to have created humanity from clay. Among some of his naughtier exploits was to defy the gods by stealing fire and giving it to the same humanity he created in the form of civilization. He was also called the intelligent one and a champion of scientific knowledge. Unfortunately for Prometheus, he was brought down by the Olympian gods whom he served due to his reckless disregard for the natural order that governed the universe.
Mary Shelley, the prodigious 19-year old author of this 1818 classic novel, symbolically resurrected Prometheus in the character of Victor Frankenstein. From the very outset, Shelly frames the story she created through the ingenious title that brings attention to Victor Frankenstein, whom she considered the Prometheus of early 19th century England.
In her brilliant Gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, the bright young scientist, Victor Frankenstein creates a ghastly human-like sentient creature who terrorizes those it encounters. The monster, made of body parts from cadavers and then brought to life by newly discovered electricity, emerged as a soulless beast that terrified even its own creator.
Just as Prometheus disregarded the laws of the universe, so does Victor with his unnatural creation.
Since the publishing of Shelley’s novel and especially since the original movies were released, most people have attributed the name Frankenstein to the monster. This however is incorrect, as the name Frankenstein refers to the creator and not the creature, which in the story bears no name. In fact, Shelley merely refers to Victor’s creation as “creature”, “monster”, “daemon”, “wretch”, “abortion”, “fiend” and “it” but never as he or she.
Initial critical assessment of Shelley’s novel was for the most part discouraging. However, in the twentieth century critics began to look at her novel from a different perspective, realizing that her work was well ahead of its time. Today, Frankenstein is considered, perhaps the first science fiction novel ever written.
While many different interpretations of the novel ranging from a psychological, sociopolitical and philosophical perspective have surfaced in recent years, one thing is certain; Mary Shelley loathed the Industrial Revolution Europe was experiencing. Its unplanned economic development; rampant scientific advancements; migration from farms to cities, were only but a few aspects of early nineteenth century Europe was undergoing that Shelly abhorred and feared.
But to her it was also the usurpation of dignity in death, brought by the scientific experiments on cadavers; the increasing obsession and madness for the elongation of life; the fear that machines would replace human labor that Mary Shelley, as well as many other philosophers of the time felt could bring the end of civilization. In Shelley’s work, many literary experts believe Frankenstein’s monster became the symbol of this perceived historic inflection point.
Frankenstein’s Monster — Life and Death — Industrial Revolution
Frankenstein’s monster allowed early 19th century readers to ponder the concept of life juxtaposed with society’s obsession for scientific advancements and economic growth. Victor embodies the obsession and madness for a science that derails sanity and creates a twisted desire to circumvent nature.
As a leading figure in the Romantic movement, Mary Shelley viewed rapid and unchecked modernization as a harbinger for misery and misfortune to society. Her, as well as fellow Romantics viewed rampant technological advances as a force that would poison and eventually destroy nature and the humans that so greatly depended on it.
In Shelley’s story, both Victor and his monster represent a possible future in which an unchecked Industrial Revolution can bring grave harm, despite the benefits of modern innovation. In essence, his achievement of immortality, threatened the very foundation of civilization.
Frankenstein’s creation, as the industrialization it symbolizes, is an extraordinary creature. With Superhuman strength; staggering size; ability to climb the Geneva Alpine peaks at astonishing speed, Victor’s monster was an overwhelming improvement over the humans nature had created. His was a case in which modernization far surpassed nature.
Like the machines of the Industrial Revolution, capable of doing in one day, what dozens of workers could do in a week, Frankenstein’s creation holds inconceivable possibilities for a future world. Would machine power make humans expendable? Would a new breed of humans be created, ultimately replacing natural humans? Can nature survive the onslaught brought by such industrial growth?
Mary Shelley’s Gothic classic is a reflection of a society grappling with questions about life and death; the unfettered advancement of technology; the dizzying societal changes caused by industrialization; the treatment of the poor and uneducated and the forsaking of the natural order through the advances humanity was experiencing.
Ultimately, Frankenstein’s monster reflects the fears and concerns of a thoughtful and worried society, not able to make sense of the accelerated pace of life. In 1831 poet and writer Thomas Arnold remarked in his Letters on the Social Conditions of the Operative Classes that it seemed possible during this period of time to live “the life of three hundred years in thirty.”
Conclusion: How does Frankenstein reflect the culture of nineteenth century England? The novel represents a thoughtful and cultured society that grapples with the anxieties of modern life, while railing against an overreaching science that attempts to play God.
A giant ape; a mysterious island; a money hungry promoter; a beautiful blonde; a forbidden love story. Everything about King Kong is controversial and metaphorical. So 1930s. But also so much bigotry veiled under the condemnation of an unscrupulous circus showman.
The original Kong came to movie theaters at a time when the Great Depression had stripped an underclass of African Americans of fifty percent of their jobs. A time when whites called for blacks to be fired from any jobs as long as there were whites out of work. When racial violence had become more common, as evident by the surge in lynchings in the South.
Now, in keeping with the times, Merian Caldwell Cooper, a true-life adventurer, ex-Air Force pilot and war hero — turned movie producer and script writer — brought to the silver screen a story full of racial subtexts and imagery. A film full of mocking images of natives but most importantly, the idea that white men must protect a white woman from a giant, menacing black jungle creature. All this while cunningly capitalizing on the zeitgeist of the era.
However, King Kong movies are still being produced with the same racist undertones. Its latest iteration Kong: Skull Island, follows the same plot as the original movie.
In the original as in the latest Kong, a black nation cowers under their superstitions and offer human sacrifices to a simian monster in order to appease him. A beautiful blond female is offered to the giant ape but manages to escape. The giant ape falls for the alluring white woman and is eventually captured. He is brought to America where he runs away with the attractive damsel, later to die for his indiscretion.
Kong’s inevitable attraction for Ann Darrow also acts as a cautionary tale to white society at large: black men are to be feared. As for Darrow, her realization that while she could not physically stop the beast, she could tame him with her charm and higher intelligence; fitting with a narrative that struck a nerve in 1930s America.
As Darrow gets carried away by the King of the Apes, they climb to the top of a phallic skyscraper, which leads to his eventual death. No beast of the jungle can be allowed to seduce a beautiful white woman and not be destroyed by the same people who enslaved him.
King Kong a Cautionary Tale
In the 19th and early 20th century, African Americans were commonly portrayed as ape-like in fitting with racist tropes used in film, literature and white society as a whole. While Kong is often compared to Beauty and the Beast, most film scholars claim it is a cautionary tale that interracial unions will not be tolerated in America.
Serving as a warning to other would-be “Kongs”, Carl Denham, the explorer who captured the Great Ape said after King Kong was gunned down by the airplanes: “it wasn’t the airplanes; It was beauty killed the beast.”
Finally, in 1933 when King Kong was first released, Nazi film sensor Dr. Ernst Seeger recognized the film as racist and summarized the film as follows:
“… Outside this prehistoric empire, separated by a wall, live blacks who offer human sacrifices to the gorilla ‘King Kong.’ The blacks kidnap the blonde star of a film expedition and present her to King Kong instead of a woman of their own race…They capture the gorilla by rendering him unconscious with a gas bomb, and they take him to New York. The gorilla breaks out during an exhibition, everyone flees in horror…The gorilla then climbs up a skyscraper with his girl-doll in his hand, and airplanes bring about his downfall.”
Seeger’s pronouncement that the blacks in the film presented a white woman to King Kong “instead of a woman of their own race,” was in essence citing Thomas Jefferson’s statement that black men preferred white women when he said: “as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan (orangutan) for the black women over those of his own species.” ( Benjamin A. Urwand. Hitler and Hollywood — by Benjamin Alexander Urwand. 2011. U. Cal at Berkeley, PhD dissertation)
Whether or not the American public of 1933 saw King Kong as a racially insensitive production, Seeger identified it as such.
Perhaps the Broadway musical bearing the same name but starring Christiani Pitts, an African American actress in the role of Ann Darrow could solve the problem the King Kong movies face. Unfortunately, the show closed August 18, 2019 after only 29 previews and 324 regular performances. For now, King Kong continues to be a footnote in this country’s racist history.
Conclusion: How does King Kong represent American culture of the 1930s and perhaps even today? Plainly put, King Kong represents a society not able to get beyond its racism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia.
Starting in the second half of the 1800s Japan began to look outside of its borders for areas of expansion, as it sought resources to fuel its desire for economic growth. In 1875 it annexed the Kuril Islands located some 800 miles northeast from Hokkaido, Japan. This was followed by the acquisition of five other Pacific islands that included Taiwan.
In 1905, after Japan’s victory in the war against Russia, Korea became its protectorate under the Japan-Korea Treaty. This was followed by the Taft–Katsura Agreement, in which the United States agreed not to interfere with Japan in matters concerning Korea.
Perceiving an opportunity to continue to push for additional colonies and annexed areas, in 1930 Japan began to aggressively expand its territories by invading parts of China as well as other countries in the Pacific. Its brutality in the invasion of China and other countries in Asia has been well documented.
These atrocities included the Nanjing massacre which resulted in the death of an estimated 300,000 people and compellingly reported in Iris Chang’s seminal book The Rape of Nanking. Japan’s World War Two brutality was so inhumane that today Japanese scholars and diplomats are loath to admit these atrocities occurred.
After the United States declared war on Japan following the attack of December 7, 1941, on Pearl Harbor, the two countries fought a long and bloody war. During this time the Japanese continued with their scorch-earth war tactics. The war finally ended when President Harry Truman approved the use of two atomic bombs to be deployed on the cities of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki three days later on August 9.
The events of the war that led to the total obliteration of both these cities have been deeply traumatic to the Japanese people. The suffering and sacrifices made by common citizens in supporting the war effort and the realization they had been misled in believing Japan was strong and invincible added to their feelings of despair.
Conflicted Feelings — Emotional Outlet — Metaphor
These events created immense deep and conflicted feelings among the Japanese. For a nation where the Bushido Code or “the way of the warrior” has been such omnipresent military philosophy throughout history, the cataclysmic events of World War Two became deeply tormenting. Consequently, the atomic bomb left immeasurable collective scars in the psyche of the Japanese people becoming an abstract symbol of the wrath providence betided upon them.
The collective angst these events created in the minds of the Japanese nation needed an outlet; a way to exclaim their fears; their frustrations; to symbolically accept their punishment. Hence, enter their monster. Enter Godzilla.
Created by Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ishirō Honda and Eiji Tsubaraya, this prehistoric sea monster standing the size of a skyscraper has been fictionally terrorizing Tokyo since 1954 when it was first introduced to the world. Awakened and empowered by nuclear radiation, this superstar of creatures, bearing the sobriquet of the King of the Monsters has been reproduced in more than 30 films, numerous video games, novels, comic books and television shows.
The name Gojira, as the monster is called in Japanese, is a combination between two words: gorira, meaning gorilla and kujira which means whale. Invoking memories of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Lucky Dragon 5 incident of 1954, this “Godzillasaurus” was conceived as a metaphor for nuclear weapons. Therefore, over the last six decades Godzilla has been raining death and destruction on the people of Japan with the same intensity the two atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Godzilla’s signature weapon, the “atomic heat beam” or “atomic breath”, is created by nuclear energy generated inside of its body. It is unleashed from its mouth in the form of a blue or red radioactive beam and used by the gigantic beast to further punish the inhabitants of Japan.
As radioactive waves rip across Tokyo, collapsing buildings and killing an innumerable number of innocent people, Japan’s old government bureaucrats ineptly run around, concerning themselves more with trivialities than the chaos and destruction surrounding them. It is these same types of incompetent government people and parliamentarians who in real life enabled a jingoistic military and an acquiescing but culpable emperor to plunge Japan into an unwinnable war that led to the most horrific nuclear disaster in history.
For a culture steeped in tradition, deeply responsive to the symbolism contained in ancient customs and rituals, Godzilla represents a powerful metaphor that deeply resonates with the people of Japan. Godzilla was expressly created to bring punishment, damnation and retribution for the transgressions of the past. But also, most importantly to inculcate the discipline necessary to remain a civil society.
Conclusion: How does Godzilla represent Japanese culture? A nation once known for a militaristic approach to problems that practiced aggressive and violent imperialism, comes to terms with past transgressions and abuses. It uses Godzilla as a symbol of the destruction they endured during the dropping of two atomic bombs on their cities.