Laboratory Note - Is Cookie Monster Really a Monster (Part 2)
Updated: Jan 26
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! In laboratory note #2, we applied US Supreme Court analysis of hard-core pornography to our problem of monster invention. This groundbreaking work led us to create this definition of the word monster:
A monster is the antagonist in a monster story.
One surprising consequence of this definition is that nearly any kind of entity can be a monster, provided it is portrayed as a monster in a story. For example, In laboratory note #2, we re-imagined Mr. Spock (who is certainly not portrayed as a monster in Star Trek canon) as a monster, swapping him with the Xenomorph that terrorized the Nostromo in the movie Alien.
There is another consequence of this definition of the term monster. You can’t just describe a monster and say you’ve invented one. It has to be put into in a story. And not just into any kind of story. For the entity you create to be a monster, you have to put it into a special kind of story: a monster story.
In the rest of this post, I’m going to:
Determine what story elements must be present for a story to be considered a monster story.
Argue that, according to the way he is typically portrayed, Cookie Monster is not a monster.
se the newly-developed monsterizing technologies described here to turn Cookie Monster into a true monster.
What makes a story a Monster Story? This is an empirical project. We analyze data. We need data about the traits that tend to be present in stories about monsters. To gather data to help determine the key story-telling criteria of a Monster Story, I decided to use a relatively new and promising research tool: The Internet. I used Google to find a range of blogs, research papers, theses, and articles that, in some way, talk about what a Monster Story is. (You can see the list of materials I found in the Works Cited section at the bottom of this page). Some of my source material gives a background on the 7 basic stories that, according to (Troilo), are the basis for nearly every story ever told. One of these story archetypes is called "Overcoming the Monster." (Troilo) writes that a properly told Overcoming The Monster tale follows a set of required stages of the story that lead us from learning of the existence of the monster, through the a hero's acceptance of the task of defeating it, the struggle against the monster and its ultimate defeat.
However, the 7-basic-stories theory does not have a monopoly on ideas about what should be in stories about monsters. I found research describing the way monsters are treated in children's bedtime stories. A master's thesis that explores the voice of the monsters themselves in stories ranging from the Minotaur to Beowulf. I looked at a thingy published by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art about Guillermo del Toro’s collection of monster-themed artwork, and a variety of web pages, blog post, and articles containing guidance for the aspiring writer of a monster story. Wherever each of the source documents makes a prescriptive statement about what should be in a decent monster story, I highlighted the relevant text. Then I organized these snippets into categories and found that, based on these documents, there are 10 elements of a story that contribute to its “monsterosity.” The more of these elements that are present in a story, the more “monstery” the story is. Each of these monster-story-criteria is explained here, along with a running example where I attempt to illustrate the story elements.
Story Element: Anticipation
In the anticipation part of a monster story, we learn that the monster exists. Or we at-least get the sense that something bad and dangerous lurks wherever the plot will take us.
…we now go live to our correspondent on the scene, Jennifer Grant. Jennifer, what’s happening there? … It’s a terrible scene Chuck. I’ve covered school shootings and industrial accidents before, but none of them come close to what seems to be unfolding at the Super-Shop in Kenniston. Police have declared a five-block area surrounding the Super Shop to be a no-entry zone. Between local and state response, Chuck, I estimate there are over one hundred officers-
Kathy switched off the television.
“Hey – I was watching that!” Bob O’Wulf paused in mid-pushup to air his complaint.
“Bob, you know I can only handle so much of the real-world before breakfast.”
“They weren’t talking about the real world, Kath, like Beirut or whatever. This was Kenniston. That’s like the actually real word.”
Story Element: The Call
Here is where the protagonist starts on the path that will ultimately end in a life-or-death struggle with the monster. The hero might volunteer himself or herself, gallantly and boldly running into the fray for glory or the American Way or some other higher cause. Or they might be dragged in – they’re the chosen one, or the monster messed with them and now its personal.
“Something big is going on in Kenniston, Kath. This is my chance. My chance to show the world!”
“Your chance, Bob? To show the world what, exactly?”
“To show the world what a well-regulated militia can do. This is it!”
Bob wasn’t listening to her anymore. He had already opened the gun safe.
“Bob. You can’t be serious.”
He strapped a Glock to his thigh, and began stuffing extra clips into the pockets of his tactical vest. “Make me a sandwich, Kath. This could be a long battle.”
Story Element: Hard-Won Knowledge
Initially both the reader and the protagonist in the story have no knowledge of the monster, except that it exists. Or maybe even that it might exist. Each bit of information we learn about it comes at the painful price of pain, suffering, and death. Slowly, as the body count rises and the situation gets worse and worse, we learn about the monster – how it attacks, how it behave, and – hopefully – what its weaknesses are.
Bob slammed on the brakes. The antilocks kicked in, but his truck still T-boned the cop car that rolled into the intersection. Bob jumped out of his truck and ran to check on car. The damage to the police car wasn’t too bad – the rear door was crunched in a bit, but the he had managed to slow his truck enough to avoid any serious damage. It was a minor accident, but the driver of the police car was screaming.
No, Bob realized, the driver wasn’t just screaming. He was flailing wildly in the driver’s seat. Bob flung open the driver’s door. “Hey, you alright?”
The driver – a state trooper – momentarily stopped flailing and turned to Bob. His mouth opened in a horrible gasp of terror. His eyes! His eyes were burned out of his head – only charred black craters remained where his eyes should be.
“Stay here, I’ll get help!” Bob backed away as the cop with the ruined face struggled against his seatbelt.
“Don’t…” the cop with the missing eyes struggled to speak.
“Don’t get help?”
“Don’t look at it! Don’t let it see your eyes!”
Story Element: Monster is Scary
It almost goes without saying: monsters are scary. There are plenty of stories with antagonists that are memorable, that are difficult to defeat, that are diabolical, or evil. But a monster has to have to potential for a great jump-scare. Nurse Ratched instructing you to take your medicine is a terrible person to be at-odds with if you’re institutionalized on her ward. A Xenomorph in your bathroom while you’re naked in the shower, hiding behind the curtain pulls the strings of your most deeply rooted, visceral fears.
Bob grabbed his rifle and sprinted across the intersection that was now dominated by the T-shaped configuration of his truck and the mutilated cop’s car. He juked right and dove behind a dumpster, colliding violently with three super-tactically-outfitted police. The acronym SWAT was stenciled across the chest plates of their armor.
“Dammit pal! Watch it!”
“What unit are you with?” asked another hyper-tactical officer with a hyper-tactical mustache.
“I’m with the militia.”
The SWAT team exchanged a look. Another wannabe with no prospects to become an actualbe.
“Sir, you remain right here. This is your position.” The SWAT-leader said, hoping the tactical-sounding word position would seem official enough to the civilian poser to keep him safely hidden.
The three SWAT members pulled out their phones. “Selfie mode,” said the leader, and all three men held their phones in front of them like teenagers posting selfies on Instagram. “Move out!”
The trio zig-zagged down the street backwards, navigating by looking through the selfie view of their phones.
Bob peeked out from his position behind the dumpster. The backwards-moving SWAT team cautiously approached the corner. On the commander’s signal, they sprinted into the intersection beyond the last building on the block, using their phones to look down the street. A flash left three purple streaks in Bob’s vision. A thunderclap hit him a moment later and he rolled back behind the dumpster. He rubbed his eyes, futilely trying to remove the streaks from his vision.
Bob cautiously slid his head beyond the dumpster again. The SWAT team was down, each man clutching the smoking remains of his phone-holding hand. Two enormous thuds made the dumpster jump. The impacts sounded like whales falling from aircraft, or meteors made of flesh crashing into downtown Kenniston. Whatever made the noise was around the corner, visible to the injured SWAT team but not to Bob. The three SWAT officers instinctively turned to whatever made the noise, and were instantly punished with lightning bolts to their faces.
Bob rolled back behind the dumpster. “Oh shit. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit…” Bob’s worst fear was the fear of going blind.
Story Element: Monster is Unrelatable
Perhaps the most critical characteristic of a monster story is that the monster must be unrelatable. Over the course of the story, we might learn about the monster’s capabilities, its lifecycle, its weaknesses. But we never fully understand its motive. Here’s what (Calahan) writes about Michael Myers – the slasher from the movie Halloween:
Michael Myers, alias the Shape, is mostly unique among his fellow slashers in that he has no discernable motive for his actions. And that unrelatability, and more broadly that unknowability, is what makes him so terrifying.
A minute passed. Five minutes. Eight. The three members of the SWAT team were still lying in the intersection. Still screaming for help.
More screams for help, this time from the other direction. A crowd of five, two people wearing Kenniston police uniforms and three civilians, stumbled to wards Bob’s position. Each of them with blackened pits where they eyes used to be.
“Over here!” Bob shouted to the group. “Careful!” He stepped into the road and guided the group into hiding behind the dumpster.
“What is it? What is doing this?”
“We don’t know,” sobbed one of the civilians. “Everyone who tries to look at it gets blasted.”
“It’s just blasting everyone’s eyes out. Nobody knows why.” Said one of the blind Kenniston police.
Story Element: Monster is Hard to Defeat
What kind of lame story would it be if the monster was easy to defeat? What if Godzilla crumpled at the first salvo from the tanks protecting Tokyo? What if Dracula had a nut allergy and faded into nothingness when served a dessert with marzipan? What if Grendel ran crying back to his cave at the first punch from a drunken reveler in the mead hall of Heorot?
An insect-like whine filled the air. Drones! A formation of quad-copters overflew Bob’s position behind the dumpster, following downtown Kenniston’s street network at roof height.
The drones came to a stop in the air over the intersection where the SWAT team was still incapacitated.
“It’s okay now,” Bob told the huddled group of blind victims. “There’s drones here now. Someone’s going to-”
Bob’s optimistic sentence was cut short by a flash and a thunderclap. Smoking pieces of the drones fell over the four blocks of downtown Kenniston like rain. Some of the pieces clanged against the dumpster, producing a tuneless, arrhythmic harmony of metallic chimes.
Story Element: Monster System
Even though the monster is unrelatable, it still needs a consistent internal logic. We don’t need to understand why the monster follows certain rules, only that it does.
“It blasted out everyone’s eyeballs,” Bob thought out loud. “And the SWAT team’s phones. They all got blasted too. And the drones.”
“Lenses!” one of the blinded civilians shouted. “It’s blasting anything with a lens. Anything with a lens that focuses on it!”
“My God, I think you’re right,” Bob said. “And if you are, then that gives me an idea…”
Bob stood and checked the street. Nothing had changed. The monster, whatever it was, was still out-of-sight around the corner. Bob sprinted back to his truck.
Story Element: The Monster is an Abomination
Monsters are entities that come from the outside. Outside our social and moral order. Outside our taxonomic order. Outside of the systems we use to make sense of the world. In (LACMA), Guillermo del Toro writes that “Monsters are the ultimate outcasts. They are beyond sexism, class struggle. They are truly fringe characters.” (Lacy) writes that monsters are:
Freaks and hybrids [that] physically embody transgression and their "externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in any systematic structuration"
Bob rooted frantically through the toolchest in the back of his truck. “Got it!” he shouted, pulling his welding mask from the bottom of the chest. He put the welding mask on his head. Holding his phone in his left hand and his Glock in his right, he slowly walked down the street, past the dumpster and towards the helpless, blinded SWAT team in the intersection.
Bob reached the intersection. He lowered the welding mask, effectively blinding himself, and continued forwards. When he reached the point that he estimated was the center of the intersection, he threw his phone to the ground and pointed his Glock in the general direction of the cross-street.
A moment later, lighting flashed again. The blast vaporized his phone. But the flash was bright enough to illuminate the street through his welding mask. His glimpse of the creature only lasted a millisecond. But that millisecond was somehow too long of a look..
A creature stood in the center of the road. Stood? Standing implies that it has legs. The irregular, cream-white, maggot-shaped body the size of a tour bus held itself off the ground on a dozen piles of white flesh that strained the anatomical definition of word legs. Its body was covered with eyes. Some of its eyes looked the like eyes of cow. Others were the enormous dinner-plate-sized eyes of deep ocean squid. Compound eyes like that of a fly bulged from its body like beach balls. A line of massive human eyes ran the length of its back. Human eyes that were inquisitive and sad and the size of watermelons.
The bolt of electricity that destroyed Bob’s phone, and that produced that flash that let Bob see the creature emanated from one of the human-like eyes.
Story element: The monster is defeated
The hero, who has suffered terribly for most of the story, finally gets a break. She uses her hard-won knowledge to figure out the monster’s weakness. Then she bravely exposes herself to terrible danger to exploit the monster’s weakness. The monster is defeated. Maybe it’s killed. Or maybe it slinks away to re-appear later in the sequel!
After the flash, Bob was once again plunged into the darkness behind the welding mask. No more lightening bolts came. No blasts of electricity found their way into his eye sockets. Bob raised his Glock and pointed it in the direction of the central mass of the uncategorizable horror that stood in downtown Kenniston. He fired a single shot.
Blasts of lightning, like the end of the fourth of July fireworks, ripped from the creature into the streetlights, the lamp posts, the back-up cameras of the cars parked on the street. Bob could feel the heat from the bolts, and he smelled ozone in the air. The creature flickered in and out of his vision as each of its misdirected lightening bolts lit up the street.
The lightening stopped. A massive thud told Bob that the creature had fallen over. He waited. No sounds. With a shaking hand, he lifted the mask from his face.
Nothing happened. No blasts of electricity shattered his eyeballs. The creature lay dead on the street, its hundreds of eyes staring lifelessly in all directions.
Story element: the monster typically symbolizes something
A proper monster, one whose story serves a purpose beyond pure entertainment, ought to symbolize something. In children’s bedtime stories, a monster can represent a typical childhood fear, and when the monster is tamed so, it is hoped, is the fear. The purpose of the story, writes (Asma) is to be a dramatic version of the obstacles that real-life will inevitably throw our way.
“Of course I defeated it, Kath! Anything that gets too big, that grows too many eyes will eventually be brought down by an armed citizenry.”
“You’re still talking about monsters, Bob?”
“No Kath, I’m talking about the government! Just like that thing I killed in Kenniston, if the government gets too big, grows too many eyes to look into our business, a well-regulated militia will step up and do what it needs to do!”
[Author’s note – Bob O’Wulfe’s political opinions belong solely to that of his fictional character, and not the author!]
What about Cookie Monster?
Every children’s show skit I’ve seen involving Cookie Monster exhibits, I’d say, none of these monster-story elements. Sadly, we must declare that Cookie Monster, as he is typically portrayed, is not a monster, because he is not an antagonist in a monster story.
But we can elevate Cookie Monster from a harmless furry blue sasquatchy-thing, to a true monster. We just need to place him the right kind of story. A story about, say, Blue Monster Brand Cookies.
Troilo , Staci. “Basic Plots: Overcoming the Monster” Story Empire Blog, August 13, 2018. https://storyempirecom.wordpress.com/2018/08/13/basic-plots-overcoming-the-monster/ retrieved November 15, 2021
Callahan, Jonathan. “Black Hole: Michael Myers and the Horror of the Unknown.” Lemon Wire, October 31, 2018. https://lemonwire.com/2018/10/31/568220/ retrieved November 15, 2021
User name ChipperEditor, “Embodiment of Horror: How to Write a Monster Story.” ServiceScape Blog, Book Writing Advice. October 21, 2021. https://www.servicescape.com/blog/embodiment-of-horror-how-to-write-a-monster-story retrieved November 15, 2021 Education Department, Los Angeles County
Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). “Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters.” https://www.lacma.org/sites/default/files/module-uploads/E4E_GDT_Consolidated.pdf, retrieved November 15, 2021
MasterClass Staff, “How to Write a Monster That Will Scare Your Readers.” MasterClass Articles, November 12, 2021.https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-write-a-monster-that-will-scare-your-readers#quiz-0 retrieved November 15, 2021
Gribble, Sarah, “How to Create a Monster That Terrifies Your Readers.” The Write Practice Website, Publication Date Unknown. https://thewritepractice.com/create-a-monster/ retrieved November 13, 2021
Lacy, Jeff. “Monsters We Become: The Development of the Inhuman Narrative Voice.” Dissertations and Theses Database. (UMI 1443512). https://digitalcommons.trinity.edu/lib_faculty/55/ retrieved November 13, 2021
Maynes , Mary-Louise. “Monsters at bedtime: managing fear in bedtime picture books for children.” Humanities and Social Sciences Communications volume 7, Article number: 63 (2020)
Asma, Stephen T. “Monsters and the Moral Imagination.” Story Magazine Issue #2A, The Monsters Issue. http://www.storymagazine.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Story-Issue-2-Full-Web-420.pdf retrieved November 15, 2021
Goss, Theodora. “The Fin-de-Siècle Monster.” Story Magazine Issue #2A, The Monsters Issue. http://www.storymagazine.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Story-Issue-2-Full-Web-420.pdf retrieved November 15, 2021
Oh, by the way...
My new book, Second Death, is now available on Kindle, just in time for the holidays.