There’s a scary picture I want to show you: three kids outside their house, all wearing masks and grinning like devils. One has a crocodile head, another is a cartoon dog covered with funky spots and the last wears a deranged face drawn on a paper bag, eyes bugged, mouth crammed with jackal teeth. They’re dead now. They appear in this book called Haunted Air (2005) collecting old American pictures by anonymous photographers of folk in costume on Halloween. I’m guessing from the fuzziness of the picture that it must have been taken in the 1930s, roughly aligning with the time that Judy Garland crash-landed in Oz. There are tons of other pictures I could have fetched for you – David Bowie on the cover of Diamond Dogs (1974), half-alien, half-hound – or the Count’s shadow climbing the stairs from Nosferatu (1922), but beginning on Halloween seemed like the most potent clue to the festivities up ahead. Ghosts run amok, identities melt, everybody’s in costume, and reality is nowhere to be found. Think of it as an invitation asking you, as Captain Beefheart once howled, ‘to come out and meet the monster tonight!’
You’re one of the first monsters I remember meeting, both as a cartoon in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) and in huge illustrated books where you were usually depicted with a touch of the owl or hog. Almost everybody, if they’re lucky, sees monsters for the first time in fairy tales where the traditional response to their appearance is astonishment. When the Evil Queen in Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937) changes into a witch thanks to her psychotropic potion, even her beloved raven leaps back in fright and hides inside a skull by her cauldron until he’s just an eyeball, panicky, staring out of somebody else’s head.
Scary pictures were one of my earliest obsessions and I’ll try to explain why later on in this dumb fan letter to you, dear Beast. I don’t have a picture of myself to hand: not the snapshot in which I appear wearing a werewolf mask as a small boy on my birthday, or the other where I’m a vampire stalking through wet grass, sun low and red, squinting like a drunk through slender trees. I was a woozy child, the world was slow, it was fun to watch myself disappear in the mirror, face turning full moon white with make-up, fake blood drooling sweetly from my mouth, a little black crayon around the eyes for that buried alive stare: that was my face and yet it was not. When I discovered a new monster lurking in the forest of a film history book – David Naughton in An American Werewolf in London (1981), gazing at the hand that’s no longer quite his own, or Lon Chaney as The Phantom of the Opera (1925), gaunt and scalded by acid – I felt the same shiver: fear speedballing with wonder. I was electrified inside. That was the monster feeling.
Right now, of course, there are monstrous entertainments everywhere. Check the data: ‘ghost drone’ videos on YouTube (military tech enlisted to spook trick-or-treaters on Halloween); sell-out exhibitions dedicated to Alexander McQueen at the Met in New York and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London; the pop cultural ubiquity of zombies who now have their own parades in cities worldwide; the enormous success of the television series Stranger Things (2016), in which a bloodthirsty alien known only as ‘The Monster’ prowls 1980s suburbia; FKA Twigs videos, especially ‘Water Me’ (2014), directed by Jesse Kanda, where the singer is turned into a post-human doll sprung from the uncanny valley; and Oneohtrix Point Never’s album Garden of Delete (2015), conjuring puberty as a nightmare state through scrambled fragments of heavy metal, noise and electronic dance music, or its artwork showing a pre-teen boy, mid-scream, his liquid flesh melting away to reveal a robotic eyeball, synthetic teeth and bone.
The abundance of monsters in circulation now proves that the collective imagination is in a strange and disorientating state, at once fearful of what can be done to the body through technology or trauma and fascinated by the possibilities those changes represent. In our present situation, dude, this seems like a good moment to go back, rewind, assemble some sort of history of monstrous wunderkinds and refract the present through them to mind-altering effect. If the monster is so now, it’s also one of art’s oldest inventions: there could be no other classification for the hydra killed by Hercules. If I was making a taxonomy, I’d keep you in the same group (‘Mythological Monsters’) though you don’t have the same connections to antiquity as the serpent or the maenads who slaughtered Orpheus and, through godly punishment, were transformed into shrieking trees. Then there are the new versions of old monsters like the grunge werewolves or vampires seen in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), which I was obsessed with in childhood and haven’t stopped thinking about since – Buffy uses supernatural metaphors to deal with real horrors so skilfully (all lovers are vampires) – and the contemporary monsters responsible for hideous deeds that still excite a slimy fascination. Check this recent news ash, Beast: ‘Following the killing, the teenage couple took a bath to wash off the blood, had sex and watched four Twilight vampire films, abandoning plans to kill themselves’. (‘What if I’m not the hero? What if I’m the bad guy?’ as Robert Pattinson asks in the first movie when he’s playing Edward, the hot young blood-sucker.) And the body can be mutilated by accident or from birth and assume a monstrous condition. I’ve spent plenty of time reading and re-reading testimony from the woman who received the first facial transplant in 2005 (she was mauled by her dog, which was trying to rouse her from an overdose of sleeping pills) who said, of the months before the operation, that she had ‘the face of a monster’. ‘She had no mouth’, a report continues, ‘and her teeth and gums were exposed, skull-like.’
A monster is a fear assuming a form. I never thought at first, dear Beast, that the whole book would be so rotten with dead things. But I’m not as fascinated by the monster’s Rorschach blot properties as I am with another more dizzying (and urgent) pair of questions, entwined like Cupid and Psyche or Sid and Nancy: namely, what’s it like to be a monster and what kind of art does such an identification demand you make?
Mute and solitary, I guess you haven’t made much art but your condition has been an inspiration for all kinds of artists. In the video for Thriller (1983), Michael Jackson turned into a werewolf and dancing zombie after warning his date, ‘I’m not like other guys,’ hinting at the erotic complications bedevilling his personal life that were only rumours back then. Meanwhile, Ryan Trecartin became a helium-voiced lion cub in his phantasmagorical romp A Family Finds Entertainment (2004) to prove all the brain-melting imaginative possibilities available at the turn of the millennium. I figured you’d understand, not just because you were hexed early in your youth (Disney has you transformed by a witch’s spell; Cocteau makes the change a punishment for your parents ‘who didn’t believe in magic’) but also to acknowledge that you’ve hungrily chased children through their dreams since 1740 when Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (a fancy dame) turned your existence into the stuff of fable. As a metaphor, the monster (especially this belief in the beast inside taking over the body) remains indestructible, haunting any notion of the human. A ghoul leaps out of the closet at a little girl at the start of Trecartin’s film (Scissorhands on angel dust) and she ignores him. I wanted my monsters to sneak me out of the house. When there was a full moon, I’d stand outside in the dark and howl. I rewatched gra Cocteau’s version of the story from 1946 a little while ago and the old faun makes being a monster look like no fun at all. Tell me Bacchus didn’t have a killer time at his parties. Ovid writes in Metamorphoses that he was brought to term through a gash in his father’s leg and later poisoned his grandparents with deadly snakes. The kids in the video for Aphex Twin’s ‘Come to Daddy’ (1997) (directed by Chris Cunningham) have a wonderful time, terrorizing the same London estate that Alexander de Large roams in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) – Beastie, you haven’t seen the last of him. I used to watch ‘Come to Daddy’ over and over again, half-scared, half-delighted by watching these kids, all wearing masks of the Aphex Twin’s bearded and grinning face, cavorting in the alleys like a bunch of feral Victorian urchins. Aphex (Richard D. James) is the poltergeist snarling the chorus inside the TV (‘I’ll eat your soul!’) and the appliance later spawns that freaky cadaver, suggesting Nosferatu mated with the creature from Alien (1979), which howls a storm wind in an old woman’s face: the ultimate juvenile delinquent.
I’m through with thinking of the monster as a wholly negative role, which is your curse, since you live in wait for a love that will probably never arrive. Even though the origin of the word lies in the Latin ‘monere’ (‘to warn’) and plenty of monsters’ lives are cautionary tales, that doesn’t mean their transgressions should be rejected. Leave that to the well-behaved children. In her book, Our Vampires, Ourselves (1995) the theorist Nina Auerbach claims that ‘a vampire is simply more alive than it should be’, but doesn’t ‘more alive’, in all its ambiguity, sound exciting? Wrecking those boundaries is a thrill. Transformation, which is the monster’s whole game, simultaneously altering their bodies and changing the surrounding culture like radioactive fallout, is a mode of catharsis, along with a strategy for abjuring a body that feels way too vulnerable or out of control. These changes can be accomplished with magic spells, prosthetics and all the other means of invention offered by art. In certain cases, the title ‘monster’ should be reclaimed in a spirit of punk triumph to become a great honour. Monsters cause trouble, they disturb definitions, they discombobulate what we think we mean. All of which is brave and wild, not to mention something like art’s task.
Charlie Fox’s This Young Monster is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, London.
Main image: Jean Cocteau, La Belle et La Bete, 1946, film still. Courtesy: BFI