On the Principle Motivating Spirit of Monsters

Posted: February 4, 2010 in Braak, poetics

All this talk about evil got me thinking about monsters.  I’m going to eventually have to write more about evil — I still don’t like it, either as a qualifier or as a story-telling element, but I think this must be a personal preference, and resolution will require substantial introspection.  In the meantime, I’m going to take an old theory I worked on in college, dust it off, and pretend like I thought of it just now.  It’s about monsters, and the different kinds that there are.

This is not, by the way, monsters in real life:  Hitler or serial killers or Jeff Holland, or whatever.  This is monsters in the arts.

So, let’s talk about monsters.  For the sake of this discussion, I’m using the following definition for “monster” — ahem:

An autonomous entity, distinguished by a substantially increased willingness and capacity to inflict harm on the protagonist(s).

I think that covers about everything.  From this perspective, I can see basically three different kinds of monsters.  The first is the Id-Monster — this is an entity that, by virtue of its will to fulfill its most basic desires, must necessarily cause harm to the protagonist(s).  The xenomorph is an Id-Monster.  The bear in any movie about someone being chased by a bear.  Moby-Dick is an Id-Monster.

Monsters like this are the kinds of things that we usually forgive by saying, “it’s just doing what comes naturally to it,” which may be true, but obviously has certain built-in limits.  Yes, the xenomorph slaughtering the shit out of everything it sees is just doing what comes naturally to it; that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t kill it.  The hallmark of the Id-Monster is usually that it isn’t conscious of the harm that it’s inflicting — it’s either coincidentally unaware, or else just lacks the machinery capable of recognizing that what it’s doing is harmful, or even of the concept of harm.

This is distinguished from the second grade of monster, what I’ll call (for the sake of consistency) the Ego-Monster.  This is an entity capable of recognizing the concept of harm, recognizing that it is inflicting harm, but has no particular interest in avoiding it.  In a way, it’s impossible to recognize the Ego-Monster as being anything but explicitly sadist, because the Ego-Monster has no purpose except itself; it serves its vanity, and commits harm to do so, because committing harm serves that vanity.

For the Ego-Monster to commit harm, harm must be the intended end, because the Ego-monster does not commit acts except those that are, or lead directly to, intended ends.

Hannibal Lecter is kind of a good example of the Ego-Monster; he behave according entire to his own inscrutable personal laws that have little reference to ordinary social mores and are do not evaluate “harm” as being undesirable.  It’s what the doctor means when they describe him as being “pure sociopath” — he’s not an animal, that doesn’t understand that he’s harming something.  He is a madman that literally doesn’t care.

The third kind of monster I’ll call the Superego-Monster.  The Superego-Monster imagines that it serves a higher purpose, and that the harm it inflicts is to the good.  This is the kind of monster that can recognize harm as being undesirable, distasteful, even troubling to his conscience, but he chooses to do it anyway, because of what he is driven towards.  This goal is necessarily not concomitant with the human social good (or the protagonist’s social good) — the discrepancy between this driving goal and the present good that is its result is a rough analogue for how monstrous we conceive the character to be.

This one’s a little rarer and trickier to find an example of; I settled on using the guy from Se7en.  He actually believes that he is doing a kind of good — that his murders, beyond simply being the gratification of his own perverted psyche, will improve the world.

Obviously, there are a lot of borderline characters.  Is it right to call a serial killer an Id Monster, or an Ego Monster?  The serial killer is fulfilling what are, in a sense, deeply-coded functions; base desires that he may not even consciously understand.  Likewise, depending on the nature of his psychosis, he may not even be capable of recognizing other human beings as human beings at all.  Is this a product of an adapted narcissistic egoism?  Or simply an undeveloped consciousness?

Michael Myers is a serial killer; I wouldn’t call him an Ego-Monster.

Hitler was a raging Ego-Monster — but his sense of self was so forceful that it became the purpose of innumerable Nazis that worked for him, and thus became Superego-Monsters.

In this light, something like Moby-Dick is kind of fascinating to me.  Melville has set up Ahab, clearly a kind of Ego-Monster, up against an Id-Monster — the former is so deeply self-obsessed that he doesn’t care if he kills everyone around him to get what he wants; the latter represents the most unconscionable affront imaginable to a rampant egoist — a monster that refuses to acknowledge him.

  1. wench says:

    I love this analysis. I think there’s another kind of monster out there though: the accidental monster. That’s the monster that happens in real life, where they don’t mean to do harm but drink and drive and kill a kid and then try to cover it up. Or they accidentally burn down a house. Or they accidentally slack off on their job as an FDA inspector and a bunch of people die.

    It’s not as sexy as a deliberate monster, but it happens a lot more often. People sometimes become monsters because they stop thinking, and begin deluding themselves that it won’t do any hard to be self-indulgent.


    Evil as a thought experiment…. in fantasy, evil often comes across as a thing, a sort of miasma like a bad smell that can settle in a place or a person or a thing and make them do antisocial acts. It’s pretty common. Sometimes it’s generated by a choice or a series of acts, but mostly it’s just there, like a supernatural free-will-stealer.

    I tend to think that a more realistic way to contemplate evil is to use it as a descriptor which can only be used under specific circumstances. One of the fundamental arguments which can be used to describe evil is “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It’s an argument which states that a thing can never be evil because a thing is not conscious; like your IdMonster, it has no mental faculties which allow it to make any sort of conscious choice about it’s actions. It is, that’s all there is to it, and therefore it cannot choose good or evil.

    This seems to make evil a choice. But can a person be evil? Or is a person no more than a thing, sometimes acting for good, sometimes for bad, depending on the mix of circumstances and intent? A person with bad habits can sometimes do good, and a person with good habits can sometimes do bad things. Yes, I’d say there are people who make more evil choices than good ones and people who make more good choices than evil ones, but the person themselves – despite their free will – is it possible for a person to actually be quantified as “evil” or “good”? Or are those terms which can only be applied to the choices they make?

    And now I really ought to stop talking because this is getting into TLDR territory.

  2. braak says:

    The problem that I have with “evil” is that it suggests a kind of active force — a specific pole, the opposite of which is “good”, and in between is the muddy mess of human civilization.

    The problem that I have is that that’s just not how the world looks to me. It doesn’t look like “good” and “evil” forces arrayed against each other; it looks like a general sort of “good,” which is, to my eye, really “humanism” –compassion, charity, friendliness, &c. — and innumerable more things that obscure that good.

    It seems a little weird to say that the greatest evils of our time, like Adolf Hitler, are really just regular people with personality disorders, but to me that’s just a way of saying, “Hey, yeah, don’t put people with personality disorders in charge of things.”

  3. V.I.P. Referee says:

    “Moby Dick” wasn’t a monster. He was a hunted creature; pursued by a grande (but fascinating) narcissist, who held a personal vendetta against him just for his managing to evade death by whaler. Moby Dick happened to maim the hunter in the process of trying to survive. Only the most insanely self-absorbed would imagine that a hunted animal should deserve a horrible death, just because it managed to once avoid dying a horrible death at their hands. Mad, mad Ahab.

    It’s hard (well, for me it is, anyway) to give value to “evil” as an immaterial, driving or supernatural force; is “evil” something you are, something you do or something you become? I tend to think of “evil” as dependent upon action. You do evil before you become it, but you aren’t evil until you do it. Evil isn’t just floating around, poisoning existence and wearing pointy boots.

  4. braak says:

    @Wench: I think that the “willingness” part of my definition precludes entities that do harm by accident. There’s something that feels weird to me about calling something like that a monster.

    @VIP: I don’t actually know Moby-Dick that well; I kind of assumed that the whale was a problem, in general. Kind of messing people up, &c. Your perspective makes Ahab intensely more narcissistic.

  5. V.I.P. Referee says:

    If Moby Dick were pursuing–or “out to get”–Ahab, as the mad old plank thought, than “Id-Monster” might suit for classification. Moby Dick was just humming along, being a big whale before the whalers found him. Can’t demonize him for that. Maybe he’d be considered a monster to the animals chased for his dinner (if they could consciously consider something like that) but it’s unfair to compare him to something like, say, “The Kraken”.

  6. braak says:

    As a sperm whale, Moby-Dick probably ate the Kraken. Though, to be fair, it’s not like the Kraken hunts men–it mostly just kills whoever happens to crash into it.

    But again, the idea of Moby-Dick going after Ahab precludes it being an Id-Monster, because Id-Monsters only fulfill their immediate needs; they are monsters because their immediate needs are harmful to the protagonists. Or humanity in general.

  7. V.I.P. Referee says:

    …but Moby Dick doesn’t eat humans or whaling vessels. Moby Dick has no personal interest in pursuing Ahab. Ahab can’t make his body whole again by killing Moby Dick. Ahab doesn’t need anything from Moby Dick that the whale is preventing him from getting; Is M.D. a monster just because he’s big, powerful and can dive deeply underwater for long periods of time, unlike Ahab?

    Ahab wants vengence for vengence’s sake. It’s exclusively human (as far as we can determine) to desire something so complex as wanting to enact revenge on someone. If another kind of animal, besides the human one, watches its prey get away, that predator might become flustered because it lost a meal, but I’d doubt any future stalking of that same prey, by the same predator, would have the motive of vengence behind it. Ahab’s anger is akin to a potential rapist wanting to torture (beyond just rape) a potential victim, simply because that person escaped before the act could be performed. There was no “need” behind the original desired act, only want for something (Ahab does not need to eat whale meat in order to survive, in the way non-opportunistic animals need to eat certain things and creatures, but he wants to render whale blubber down into a sellable oil–a product that could make him very wealthy. He hates that his superiority is questioned. On the boat, he’s ruler of The Universe, but he’s no match against a whale in the ocean.)

    (…and The Kraken, modeled on giant squids, could’ve taken Moby. Surprisingly, many Sperm Whales have met their deaths in the killer hugs of Giant Squids…)

  8. braak says:

    Well, like I said, I am not real familiar with Moby-Dick. I had kind of assumed the whale was wrecking ships and such, which is why I qualified him as a monster.

    And, not actually that many sperm whales have met their deaths to giant squids. Giant squids are one of the foods that sperm whales eat. That is why they can dive so deep–so they can eat the squids.

  9. Your classification remains sound. I vote this system be named “the Braak Taxonomy” in all future online discussions of monsters. I also predict that in future online discussion of the Braak Taxonomy, someone will trigger Moff’s Law.

  10. wench says:

    Revenge is not exclusively human. Cats take revenge. It’s simplistic revenge, true, but they do get have a “get back at the asshole” setting somewhere in their brains.

  11. […] de recomendar textos brillantes escritos por otros. Por ejemplo, este post de Chris Braak, titulado On the principle motivating spirit of monsters y publicado originalmente en Threat Quality Press. El autor se plantea cuáles son los objetivos […]

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