Destroy All Monsters: An Urgency

Joshua Roberts, “A group of counter-protesters march against members of white nationalist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia,” originally published in Priscilla Alvarez, “A State of Emergency in Charlottesville,” The Atlantic(August 12, 2017)

In a large crowd, a young white man holds a homemade sign. Beneath the raised fist of the Black Lives Matter movement, it reads: “DESTROY ALL MONSTERS.” This photograph was taken at the Unite the Right rally, which brought together neo-Nazis, white nationalists, the Klu Klux Klan, and other hate groups in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was purportedly the largest white supremacist rally in the United States in decades.

12 August 2017, the date this photo was taken, seemed like a moment for monsters. The United States convulsed as white supremacist groups marched through the streets bearing torches and shouting Nazi-era slogans of hate (“Blood and soil!” “Jews will not replace us!”). Though monsters have been around as long as humans, since they define us by stalking our borders and mirroring our traits, there are times when monsters seem particularly potent, prevalent, even necessary. The man with the “DESTROY ALL MONSTERS” sign was one of the marchers who came to defy the torch-bearing mob, and his sign said more about this moment than he might have known.

In hipster fashion, he seems to have taken his slogan from Ishirō Honda’s eighth sequel to Godzilla, released in 1968, in which the monsters from previous kaijū films (Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and others) attack cities through the world under the command of scientists who are, in turn, under mind control by hostile aliens. This slogan, then, is a fitting response to the sense that American cities are being attacked by an outside force yet this is not an alien invasion. The Unite the Right marchers are American citizens, and, despite the foreign origins of many of their symbols, they are part of a long-standing American history of hate groups.

The fascist marchers in Charlottesville and those who sympathize with them are participating in one of the oldest—and most pernicious—of human impulses, to define themselves through the exclusion of others, to raise their sense of self-worth through the insult of, denunciation of, and outright assault on and murder of other individuals and groups. This role is one of the central functions that monsters serve across time: monster-making is exclusionary, and monsters bear the seeds of that exclusion within themselves. No doubt, monsters are fun—tremendous, city-smashing, fire-breathing, shape-shifting, boundary-pushing, messy, sexy, crazy fun. But if you only see the fun, you miss a great deal of the importance of monsters and the power we grant them to shape our societies. As St. Augustine of Hippo tells us, these monsters demonstrate so much we can learn from; they bear substantial meaning.

The trouble with the counter-protester’s slogan is that we can never destroy all monsters. Anyone familiar with monster narratives, from Grendel to Godzilla, knows that there is always a sequel, always a Return Of, aBride Of, aSon Of…Always a Godzilla Raids Again. Surely, it has seemed that the Nazis were thoroughly and absolutely defeated, yet the Unite the Right marchers wore and waved swastikas, gave the Nazi salute, shouted “heil” this and “heil” that. A poisonous ideology that seemed long dead shambled back to life. Of course, monster movies have long literalized this fear in a seemingly endless series of Nazi zombie movies.

They return because we are all one another’s monsters: inside everymonster lurks a human being. Peel back the mouldering swastika, fur, or slime, and there we are. This is because all monsters are human creations. We therefore owe them our care and attention. That care and attention will be rewarded—because monsters perform important work for us, policing our boundaries, defining our norms through their transgressions. Through their bodies, words, and deeds, monsters show us ourselves.

In assembling this collection, we celebrate monster theorists, monster stories, and the monsters they unleash or attempt to contain. We have organized the readings into two volumes: Classic Readings on Monster Theory and Primary Sources on Monsters. Our first volume introduces the most important modern theorists of the monstrous and some allied theorists whose ideas enrich Monster Theory—from J.R.R. Tolkien to Edward Said. Our second volume collects some of the most influential and indicative monster narratives from the West—from the Epic of Gilgameshto Slender Man. Together, they form a reasonably coherent set of materials, allowing us to witness the consistent, multi-millennium strategies the West has deployed to disempower and dehumanize a range of groups and individuals. The readings in volume two are all primary sources—fictional, religious, scientific, or historical texts. Images play a prominent role as well, unusual in a source reader like this, because many monsters are highly visual or known primarily through their appearance.

Some of the “monsters” we have assembled throughout these two volumes are nightmare creations of unadulterated malice. Others prove to be downright sympathetic. In the end, it is not horns, fangs, or claws that make a being monstrous, but the purpose for which they are used. Ishirō Honda’s Destroy All Monsters [SPOILER ALERT!] has an ironic twist: it is the monsters, led by Godzilla, who ultimately save humanity. They are scorned, feared, and attacked by the world’s powers, but want only to return to their peaceful island of Monsterland. The world needs its monsters—and its monster stories. This is the impetus for our collection. Whether the monsters are deadly enemies or unlikely saviors, their stories are essential to our understanding of the world, and our place within it.

by Asa Simon Mittman and Marcus Hensel