Here There Be Monsters
I have always had a soft spot for monsters.
When I was five or six, one of my sisters was assigned Beowulf in her high school English class. She read it to me and I cried, not because I was frightened but because I felt bad for Grendel, the alleged antagonist of the poem. Similarly, when we watched The Wizard of Oz on television, I wondered how anyone could blame the Wicked Witch of the West for being angry at Dorothy, first for the death of her sister and then for the theft of the ruby slippers and, of course, her own consequent murder. True, she wasn’t exactly likable, but I sympathized.
The whole good versus evil thing has never set right with me. I loved Godzilla, even as he destroyed Tokyo in a rage. I wasn’t afraid of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or the Wolf Man, and didn’t understand why other people couldn’t see that they were just trying to exist, to find some kind of happiness in a world that hated them for being different. I loved Gossamer, the giant red monster who chased Bugs Bunny through the mad scientist’s castle, and my favorite characters in Disney films were usually the baddies: Maleficent, Chernabog, the Queen of Hearts.
There were exceptions. Prince John from Robin Hood and 101 Dalmatians’ Cruella de Vil, for example. H.R. Pufnstuf’s Witchiepoo. But as I got older, I realized that these villains weren’t so much bad as they were pathetic and incompetent. In some ways, they were to be pitied rather than feared, their evil machinations never a match for the forces of good.
Those childhood movie monsters were eventually replaced by real-world ones: The woman across the street from us, who put her two young sons into the bathtub and slit their throats while their father was mowing the lawn. My closest cousin who, following his divorce and a descent into despair, shot and killed both his children as they slept before taking his own life because, as he wrote in a note, he didn’t want them to live in a world without their father.
I found these people fascinating, both because of their horrifying behavior and because I wanted to know why they were the way they were. Also, in some instances, I knew them as people. I’d seen them be kind, and funny, and warm. I’d spent my adolescence wearing my cousin’s hand-me-down clothes and wishing I was more like him. How, then, to reconcile those people with the ones who did such terrible things?
Trying to understand monsters has become a popular pastime. My friend Gregory Maguire, struggling to make sense of Hitler and the nature of evil, famously took on the Wicked Witch of the West, turning her into the now-beloved Elphaba of Wicked. Maleficent too has been given the backstory treatment and considered as a wounded creature responding to years of torment, neglect, and heartbreak. Even the xenomorph in Alien has been given a second look. No longer are monsters simply to be feared; now we want to know why they are the way they are.
All of which brings us to this week.
With the revelation that Donald Trump is infected with the coronavirus, social media erupted with many people celebrating the news as an example of karmic retribution and others chastising them for suggesting that the man deserves what’s happened to him. The most considered response I saw said, “People who do terrible, thoughtless things most often had childhoods filled with trauma and abuse, and I believe this is what happened to Donald Trump. I want him out of a position where he can continue to harm people, but I don’t wish him ill. I wish him healing.”
Donald Trump is not a storybook boogeyman or a movie villain. He is a real-life one. His selfish, arrogant, stupid behavior has thrown the country into chaos on multiple levels. Finding compassion for him is, for me, impossible, particularly as he’s demonstrated repeatedly that he has none for anyone else. That wounded little boy has had more than enough time to sort out his issues rather than inflicting them on us, and yet he chooses at every turn to do the harmful thing.
Some monsters don’t need to be understood. No tragic backstory can make up for the destruction they cause. No amount of rewriting can make us reconsider the need to drive them out. We can, perhaps, decide not to burn their lair to the ground with them inside of it, but we also don’t need to invite them to explain themselves. Rather, we should leave them to their fates and get on with the business of repairing the damage they’ve done.
Some monsters just need to be stopped. Or voted out.
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary Award-winning author. Visit Michael at michaelthomasford.com