“Something is coming. Something hungry for blood. A shadow grows on the wall behind you, swallowing you in darkness. It is almost here.”Mike Wheeler, Stranger Things
They’re out there. Lurking in the woods, hiding in the shadows… waiting for the cover of darkness to strike. Monsters are heralds of death, ever seeking new victims whose bones will be discarded with the host of prey they have devoured. The grotesque, horrifying nature of their attacks terrifies us, but in the context of the story, it also feels right. Why do we, like Mike Wheeler and his friends, relish the approach of the monsters with a kind of morbid delight? We enjoy the suspense of anticipation and even the thrill of the kill, whether it be a dinosaur escaped from Jurassic Park or a demogorgon haunting our world from The Upside Down. The opening lines from the Netflix show, Stranger Things, deliver a fascinating foreshadowing experience for viewers, where the group of young friends are playing the storytelling game, Dungeons & Dragons, in which a monster creeps up on the adventurous party. All the while, the audience knows that the show’s protagonists will be confronted with a real monster all too soon, with eerily similar results.
Why do we love monsters? The innate feeling of fascination juxtaposed with jaw-dropping repulsion, combined with the awful feeling of inevitability, connects with our deep-seated intuition that Death itself is a monstrous enemy. It’s always out there, sometimes boldly roaring a challenge in our face, sometimes sneaking up on us when our guard is down, and – in true and terrible form – often striking without warning, with devastating effect to those of us who are left behind. Monsters manifest this existential reality in tangible form, and there is something comforting about being able watch others face a deadly peril that may help us deal with our own, whenever it may overtake us. But death takes many forms, and monsters have far more to offer us than an untimely fate. In order to fully understand why we are drawn to stories that threaten us with gruesome death and destruction, we must look for inspiration to an author famous for his use of monsters in his own great fairy tale, The Lord of the Rings.
It’s hard to imagine J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth without envisioning some of the dangerous creatures that confront the Fellowship upon their quest to destroy the Ring, monsters that fill our minds with dread: the Balrog of Morgoth, engulfed in shadow and flame, the tentacled arms of the Watcher in the Water outside the gates of Moria, and the great spider Shelob, veiled in thick darkness in the pass of Cirith Ungol. In Tolkien’s day, many literary critics had written off monsters as “cheap” fantasy elements. If they had lived to see the production of Sharknado and its ilk, they would likely have been content to rest their case upon such purported ‘art’ which does indeed rely on cheap thrills. However, in his famous essay, “The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien defended the necessity of the monsters in one of his favorite tales, Beowulf, by arguing that they had two clear advantages: they make the story more interesting, and they elevate the struggle of good and evil above the mortal plane. Tolkien first addresses the reticence that some in his audience felt to embrace a story about monsters: gently teasing them, he asks how it’s possible they could claim to be too sophisticated for ogres and dragons while still professing their love for Beowulf, “a poem that is actually about these unfashionable creatures.” Tolkien continues:
J.R.R. Tolkien, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” pg. 15–19
“We do not deny the worth of the hero by accepting [the ogre] Grendel and the dragon. Let us by all means esteem the old heroes: men caught in the chains of circumstance or of their own character, torn between duties equally sacred, dying with their backs to the wall. But Beowulf, I fancy, plays a larger part than is recognized at helping us to esteem them… it is in Beowulf that a poet has devoted a whole poem to the theme [of indomitable will despite inevitable defeat], and has drawn the struggle in [such] proportions, so that we may see man at war with the hostile world, and his inevitable overthrow in Time… I would suggest, then, that the monsters are not an inexplicable blunder of taste; they are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness.”
Tolkien brought Beowulf’s depiction of “man at war with the hostile world” to life into the narrative of The Lord of the Rings time and again through his characters’ encounters with monstrous creatures. Their confrontations remind us that our own world is treacherous, and we never know what dangers may be awaiting us around the bend. As Bilbo advises his nephew, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door…” Sometimes we face those perils with grim heroism and prevail, as does Beowulf with the ogre, Grendel. Sometimes we suffer or perish through our own folly and pride, as does Beowulf with the dragon, when he insists upon challenging the dragon in single combat. Always we must do what we know to be right, risking the wrath of the monsters, even if all the world perceives our attempt as “just a fool’s hope.”
The notion of man’s “inevitable overthrow in Time” is woven into the very fabric of Middle Earth, seen through the fading and failing strength of Men and Elves to contest the new powers of evil that have arisen in the form of Sauron and Saruman. Galadriel offers a bleak picture of the Elves’ enduring struggle against evil: “together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.” Yet though their victory is far from assured, they continue to fight. In one of his letters, Tolkien illuminated the reason we have for our own resistance against the realm of darkness: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.” We do not have the strength to break the lines of Mordor. We live in a dangerous world, and we often face difficult odds that may seem overwhelming. But, as Théoden King encourages his riders on the eve of their seemingly futile attempt to save Gondor, “we will meet them in battle nonetheless.” For as Christians, we serve One who does have that strength to win a final victory over the forces of evil. Even if we do see Good conquer Evil, we should not expect the peace to last, nor confuse a defeat of darkness with the complete eradication of evil – not on this side of eternity. And yet, as Sam exhorts Frodo in The Two Towers, “there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”
Monsters not only capture our existential struggle with evil in corporeal form, but can sharpen our focus upon the moral complexity of that struggle as well. In a battle between men and monsters, there is usually not a philosophical or moral debate about whether the monster deserves to die. Monsters are cruel and dangerous; they give no quarter and therefore deserve none. The hero may slay the monster without pity, and his deeds will be praised by the people he protects without reservation. However, in battles between men and men, the issues are far more complicated. Every man has some mixture of good and evil in him. Every man’s motives differ based on his own aims and life experience, and their hearts are obscure to us. In The Two Towers, Tolkien reveals Sam’s reflections upon the first casualty he witnesses in a battle between the kingdoms of men: “He wondered what the dead man’s name was, and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he really would not rather have stayed there in peace.” Our struggle is not primarily against the flesh and blood of men whose mixed motives are often impossible for us to see clearly, let alone to judge. The monsters remind us that behind all of our mortal strife, there are higher powers waging war for our souls.
Not all monsters are created equal – Tolkien is careful to draw this distinction in his essay as well. A certain brand of monsters may accomplish little more than the addition of strength, size and a vile quality to the villain. Beowulf’s particular kind of Norse monsters and their relations to men establish them as unique representatives of the struggle between good and evil. In a time when Christianity was relatively new to the Scandinavian part of our world, Beowulf’s poet imposed themes of spiritual warfare throughout the narrative. Beowulf’s slaying of the ogres is unequivocally praised as having delivered the Danes from the “inmates of hell,” the “adversaries of God,” and the “enemies of mankind.” Contrast this with Homer’s account of Odysseus fighting the Cyclops in his epic poem, The Odyssey: though the Cyclops – like Grendel – has angered the gods through his appetite for devouring men, the Cyclops has been created by them and remains under their protection, so that Odysseus earns the enmity of the gods by blinding the Cyclops in order to make his escape. While the Greek gods used both men and monsters as part of their own schemes, the Norse gods “gather heroes for the last defense” in their war against “the monsters and the outer darkness.” Tolkien writes:
Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics,” pg. 25
“It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put monsters in the center, gave them victory but no honor, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage… For these reasons I think that the passages in Beowulf concerning the giants and their war with God, together with the two mentions of Cain (as the ancestor of the giants in general and Grendel in particular) are especially important… For they are precisely the elements which bear upon this theme. Man alien in a hostile world, engaged in a struggle which he cannot win while the world lasts, is assured that his foes are the foes also of [the Lord], that his courage noble in itself is also the highest loyalty.”
Insofar as the monsters are represented as the enemy, vassals of the Power of darkness that roams the earth seeking whom he may devour, they have retained the form most powerful, most terrifying and most consistent with the world we live in. Our heroes must face them with courage – even in the face of certain death. The Duffer brothers, creators of Stranger Things, build on this existential understanding of the nature of the monsters, portraying Vecna, the Mind Flayer, and the Shadow Monster, as emissaries of an endless, hellish onslaught upon Hawkins. Their heroes, likewise, are armed with little more than raw courage in the defense of their world from the horrors unleashed from the Upside Down. As Robin consoles Dustin: “We all die, my strange little child friend. It’s just a matter of how and when.”
The monsters are coming. They are our enemies and they are relentless. How can we possibly stand against such a threat? Stranger Things offers some brilliant insights into this question, for the most compelling monster stories reflect ourselves, in our weakness, hopelessly outmatched against a deadly peril. We are caught off guard. We are unprepared. And yet, we prevail: together. One of the most powerful elements of the show is that its protagonists are just kids, vulnerable in skill and stature, utterly unlike Beowulf, the mighty captain of great renown. They know nothing of the Upside Down or how to contest the terrifying beasts that emerge from the cracks that connect its world to our own. And with the exception of Eleven, they have neither powers nor weapons that could hope to match their foes. But they have each other. It is the strength of their love for one another, their collective will to rescue and to resist, which overcomes the powers of darkness. Nowhere is this more evident than Season 4, when Eleven is even stripped of her powers for a time, the band of heroes is hopelessly cut off from one another, and they must each play their own small part in order to stand a chance against the forces of evil. It is an inspiring image of what can be accomplished through loyalty and perseverance, an unexpected yet worthy picture of what the body of Christ might look like, when each is doing their part.
Monsters remind us that Death itself is unnatural, an aberration of the created order of how we were meant to live. Threatening to violently shatter our peaceful existence, death was not a part of our Creator’s original design, but rather a consequence of living in the shadow of a cursed, fallen world. And it was a monster – the serpent in the Garden of Eden – who deceived humanity and brought this death into the world. A respect for the danger of the monster is essential and even healthy. The psalmist exhorts us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. The monsters raise the stakes of the choices we make, elevating our own role in the struggle of good vs. evil. But we also count the days in hope, knowing that our King, Jesus, will return to deliver us someday from the threat of death that he has conquered, from the outer darkness that could not hold him in the grave. May that fill our hearts with courage as we face the monsters of our time.