Alas, US movie studio Warner Brothers have let the ill-tempered reptile out of the cage again with its recent release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The movie is a sequel to their 2014 eponymous title, Godzilla, proving once again that this Japanese cult character now demands the interest of an international audience.
Japan’s penchant for gargantuan monsters that emerge from the deep began in Godzilla’s first outing, Gojira (1954), produced by Toho Pictures. It will be a surprise to learn for those who are not cult followers that there are significant cultural and political narratives behind the tale of Godzilla and his cohort of behemoths. Despite its rather humorous ’50s kitsch feel, Godzilla is a metaphor for a nation in fear.
Released on November 3, 1954, not even a decade after Hiroshima, the film had a profound effect on Japanese audiences. Godzilla not only represented the unheeded nuclear warning, but also the fear of unleashing powers beyond our control. Godzilla is the unknown, inhuman force that is ignored at the peril of man. In more recent times, the monster’s narrative parallels to more common natural disasters and climate change have not gone unnoticed.
And behind the widespread resurgence of the horror franchise in recent pop culture also lies the most unlikely cultural metaphors to a medley of ghouls and fiends. The blurring of reality and fiction is a common theme within the modern myth of the monster.
A landmark moment in the evolution of the horror tale to represent the moral and existential challenges faced by society surprisingly came about by a lake in Switzerland in 1816. Lord Byron, escaping scandals of affairs in England, rented the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva for the summer, and invited a host of friends and literati to stay.
Poor weather and incessant rain led the occupants to entertain each other with the writing and reciting of fantastical stories. It was to be the perfect storm that gave birth to the gothic horror masterpiece.
Mary Shelley, wife of the English romantic poet Percy Shelley, penned Frankenstein, in which a brilliant scientist brings life to a creature created of human body parts. But the creature is never the monster. The book represents concerns about morality and the social responsibility of emerging scientific breakthroughs of the time. Frankenstein’s abandoned creation only becomes menacing when it is feared and rejected. In fact, the real villain in the tale is the torch-wielding villagers who, in attempting to drive out the monster, exact its need for revenge.
Byron also invited his friend and physician John Polidori to Villa Diodati. Polidori was keen to seek recognition of his own writing skills from Byron, and wrote The Vampyre, the first modern vampire story. Prior to this tale, the centuries of bloodsucking folk tales had depicted the creature as nothing more than a simple, animalistic predator. Polidori’s new gothic vampire was a sophisticated and wise human-like character who represented a sexualised immoral fiend that defied the codes of propriety which were so heavily policed by society in the 1800s. The Vampyre was, in fact, Lord Byron. Our love affair with the romantic gothic vampire was born.
In modern times the vampiric tale has literally gone viral. Recent representations of this age-old parasite have focused on breeds of vampire who spread through contact. The vampire is the super-virus, representing the modern pathological zeitgeist and society’s fears of disease.
Onto the impending zombie apocalypse. They’re everywhere. From the popularity of The Walking Dead to a swathe of films since the turn of the millennium, including I Am Legend (2007), popular culture is obsessed with the mindless, herded undead. Significant? Certainly.
The millennial generations feel disillusioned and alienated with modern society and posthuman systems that seek to oversee the masses. Imagine being born into an AI-based consumer behaviour tracking and data profiling world. Zombie narratives are typically manifestations capitalism out of control. Humans are turned into undead slaves to a system that cannot tell the difference between commodities and people.
The sophisticated genre of postmodern horror plays on the viewer’s fear that they are themselves no different. The narratives blur the distinctions, where the monster contains recognisable elements of both ourselves and a struggling society.
Of course these modern beasts developed in the west have detached themselves from any religious factors, positioned as more psychological metaphor and reflection of the human disposition.
Closer to home, the need to appease ghosts is a regional phenomenon practised across Cambodian, Laotian, Thai and Malaysian cultures as an aspect of the general mythology of Buddhism and its oral tradition of spirit-laden tales.
There are many different categories of ghosts which are either benevolent or malicious, and generally appeased by worship at the temple shrines or food offerings made at residential spirit houses.
But even the worship and ritual to satisfy the spirit world has an anthropological benefit. If you’ve done all you can and things don’t go your way, the responsibility for your misfortune can be passed to the other side… beyond our human control.
The monster, whether serving as a scapegoat, fear of what we cannot control, extreme capitalism or moral values, has evolved into a societal omen. And perhaps we should all heed a warning as to why pop culture is so keen to raise the dead.