Laboratory Note - Is Cookie Monster Really a Monster? (Part 1)
Updated: Jan 26
WARNING: This post contains references to Mr. Spock, Ripley from crew of the Nostromo, and hard-core pornography. If you don’t want to read about Spock, Ripley, and pornography, stop here!
* * *
RIPLEY: The only plan that’s going to work is the one we had before. Drive it into an airlock and blow it out into space.
PARKER: Drive it…The son-of-a-bitch uses logic.
- Scene from Vulcomorph – The Alien/Star-Trek mashup fanfiction where the Xenomorph is replaced with USS Enterprise Science Officer Mr. Spock
This blog contains the laboratory notes of one of the most important scientific endeavors ever attempted. We are going to invent a new kind of monster! Since nobody has ever attempted anything as audacious as this, there is not a lot of prior work to build upon. We must lay our own foundations, starting with the deepest and darkest sub-basement of what will one day be our own ivory tower. We must first answer the question:
What is a monster?
Let’s skip the part where we go to the dictionary and Wikipedia and look up the existing definitions. Instead, let's get started by taking a look at a classic monster and see if we can retro-fit a definition of monster onto it. One of the most monstery monsters I can think of is the Xenomorph from Alien. It's got everything you need in a monster: it’s violent, incomprehensible, terrifying, murderous. It springs out of dark spaces and eats your face with its weird, un-Earthly double set of teeth. Certainly, given such a fine specimen of a monster, we can find some universal qualities that can help us define what is, and is not, a monster.
First of all, it's an alien. Does that mean that as part of our definition of a monster, we can say "all aliens are monsters?" Monster synthesis is an empirical science, so let's try it out:
The Xenomorph from the movie Alien is an alien, so it's a monster... Check
The Predator from the movie Predator is an alien, so it's a monster ... I guess. It was a citizen of some kind of advanced civilization. But it was a scary and violent creature too, so I suppose it’s a monster.
Mr. Spock, the science officer on the Federation Starship Enterprise is a Vulcan, not from Earth,3 so he is a monster.... No way
Hmmm. This line of thinking isn’t working out. Let’s slip into something a little more … multidisciplinary … and see what we can learn from the world of hard-core pornography.
In 1964 Nico Jacobellis, manager of a theatre in Ohio, showed the film The Lovers. He was charged with two counts of possessing and exhibiting an obscene film. His case made it to the US Supreme Court, which found itself in the position of trying to define obscenity.
In his attempt to draw a bright, clear line defining what is and is-not obscenity, US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
That’s a pretty clever way of wiggling out of the position of defining a super-subjective concept like obscenity. Can we use the same technique to dodge the difficult task of defining what is and is-not a monster? I’m not sure. Let’s look at some fringe cases:
Is Stephen King’s Cujo a monster? It’s a dog – a St. Barnard. St. Barnards are real animals. Can a real animal be a monster?
Is the enormous shark in Jaws a monster? – It’s a big shark that, frankly, goes around doing regular shark things. Is Jaws a monster story, or a man-vs-nature tale? Or both?
Some argue that God’s actions in the Old Testament are monstrous. Is God a monster?
Satan – is Satan a monster? Who would win in a fight, Satan or Godzilla?
Cookie Monster – he has the word monster in his name. If it’s named something monster, it’s got to be a monster, right?
In each of these cases, I can’t even apply the “I know it when I see it” test to determine if Cujo, Jaws, etc. are monsters, because I can’t seem to form my own strong opinion one way or the other.
Instead of looking at the characteristics of the monster, let’s think about it from the perspective of the whole story. If we do that, we find a simple way to wordsmith our way out of coming up with a definition of the word monster.
A monster is the antagonist in a monster story.
There. Now I don’t have to attempt to answer thorny questions such as “Is Mr. Spock a monster” or “Is God a monster?” Instead, we have to examine specific stories, books, episodes, or sequels, and ask ourselves if the entity of interest is being portrayed as a monster in a specific work.
Following this line of thinking to the bitter end, we can make this statement: anything can be a monster, even Mr. Spock, if it’s portrayed as a monster in a story. Let’s swap out the acid-for-blood, face-hugging, incomprehensible Xenomorph for Mr. Spock and see what happens when we use him to terrify and kill the crew of the Nostromo.
I present to you a scene from Vulcomorph – the Alien/Star-Trek fanfiction mashup custom written for this blog post!
“Anything new?” The medical bay doors slipped shut behind Ripley as she walked to the observation window.
“It’s not your fault, Dallas. You followed protocols.”
“There aren’t any protocols for this now, are there, Ripley?” Dallas jabbed the intercom.
“Ash, do you know what it’s doing to him? Can you get it off his face?”
Ash replied without looking up from the examination table. He was only two meters away, but his voice, filtered through both the hazmat suit and the isolation room intercom, was as distant as if he was on the surface of the Mutara-sector planet they were orbiting. “As you can see, it’s a humanoid. But it’s doing far more than simply gripping Kane’s face. Look at the patterns on the function scan,” he pointed to a screen on the far wall of the isolation room. “it’s like the humanoid has melded minds with Kane.”
“Just get it off him, Ash.”
“Very well.” Ash stood and walked to instrument table, giving Dallas and Ripley an unobstructed view of Kane and the humanoid. Kane lay on his back, unmoving, unconscious. The humanoid they brought back from the surface lay on top of him, also apparently unconscious. The humanoid’s right hand gripped Kane’s face so tightly they had been unable to pry it off when they found Kane unconscious on the floor of the massive chamber in the ruined spaceship on the surface of the Mutara-sector planet.
The humanoid appeared to be mostly human. In fact, except for its unhealthy greenish-tinted skin and its pointy ears, it would have been easy to mistake for human. Ash assured them it was certainly not human. “It’s heart,” Ash told them after the initial scan, “is where it’s liver should be. And its muscle fibers – completely different from humans. Much stronger.”
“Beginning removal attempt number one,” Ash spoke, more for the benefit of the Nostromo’s medical log than for Dallas and Ripley.” He picked up a beam incision cutter and stepped back to the examining table. “Cutting proximal phalanx of middle finger…” his voice trailed off and was replaced with the high-pitched whine of the beam incision tool.
Ash sprung back from the table. A splurt of green liquid from the humanoid’s finger landed on the floor.
“What is it Ash?” Ripley shouted.
“The humanoid’s blood. It’s green!”
Dallas and Ripley squinted through the isolation room window. A small puddle of green fluid formed at the base of the table.
“I need a sample container. We don’t have any in here. I’m exiting the chamber.” Ash turned towards the isolation room door and entered the exit code.
“Ash! Look out!” Ripley screamed.
Behind Ash, the humanoid silently released its grip on Kane’s face and deftly slid off the table. Ash turned back towards it, but he reacted too slowly. The humanoid struck Ash with a ferocious backhand, sending him tumbling into the instrument table.
“The door!” Dallas jumped to pull the isolation chamber door shut. The humanoid was too fast. It flung the door open. Dallas stood in the doorway, blocking its exit.
The humanoid put its hand on Dallas’s shoulder. The gesture was almost one of comradery. Or even sympathy. Dallas collapsed to the ground. The humanoid stepped out of the isolation chamber and slammed the door behind it, locking Ash inside. Ripley backed into the medical bay, scanning the room for anything she could use as a weapon.
The creature cocked its head as it regarded Ripley. Its eyes were devoid of emotion. They were the eyes of pure calculation and logic. Ripley found an oxygen tank and brandished it in front of her.
The creature spoke. It said, “The needs of many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.”
It sprinted out of the medical bay, into the heart of the Nostromo.
Pretty good, yes? I’ll just leave this link here. It’s the process for nominating an author for the Nobel Prize in Literature, in case anyone thinks I deserve a shot at the prize for this, the only scene from Volcomorph that has been written.
As we’ll see in Part 2, determining whether a story is a monster story is somewhat easier than determining whether an imaginary entity like Cujo or Mr. Spock is a monster.
The Boring Footnotes
I sort-of lied here. There actually is some prior work we can take a look at. Monsterology is the study of monsters that have already been invented. Dr. Stephen Asma wrote On Monsters, a serious and seriously-thorough treatment of role monsters have played in culture. I owe a lot of the inspiration for this blog to On Monsters. However, Dr. Asma doesn’t “go there” regarding coming up with a workable definition of a monster. Indeed, he writes:
One will search in vain through this book to find a single compelling definition of monster. That’s not because I forgot to include one, but because I don’t think there is one.
Yes. I know, I know that Spock’s mother was a human, so he’s therefore half-Vulcan, half-human, and thus is a weak candidate for testing whether or not the rule “if it’s an alien, it’s a monster” holds across the entire space of aliens in fiction. But, come on! Vulcomorph!
Oh, by the way...
My new book, Second Death, is now available for Kindle, just in time for the holidays.