Stare in the mirror too long and you might just see a monster staring back at you.
Two eyes. A nose. Two ears. A mouth. An average number of teeth – none of them particularly fang-like. No horns. No excessive body hair during full moons. Everything seems perfectly normal… except for what is happening beneath the skin. Rage. Madness. Wrathful Vengeance. One of them could pass you in the store on the way to buy some milk and you’d think, “How very normal.” It might never occur to you that milk was but a prelude to murder. See, the Monster in the Mirror looks just like us — and that’s the most dangerous monster of all.
Medea, Macbeth, Jack the Ripper – legends, real and imagined, that reflect our fears of the dangerous, unbridled mind. M, Peeping Tom, Psycho – early films that gave us our first close-up of psychopathy: innocent flowers hiding the serpents underneath. From the earliest days through today, our stories have always made attempts to probe the minds of psychotics and sociopaths, of those who live without a moral code or of a code of their own making.
Peeping Tom, released in 1960, was sliced up by critics and effectively ended the career of its director, Michael Powell. Later that same year, Alfred Hitchcock would release Psycho to a much warmer reception. A couple of years later, Mario Bava would unleash the Italian giallo film with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963). From these early films would come the great swath of American slasher films of the 70’s and 80’s and onward.
Of course, these movies were not cut from whole cloth (or skin as the case may be). All too real human monsters like Jack the Ripper and H.H. Holmes and Ed Gein became demented inspiration for characters like Norman Bates and, even later, Leatherface. John Wayne Gacy increased cases of coulrophobia in the 1970’s. The Green River Killer, the Zodiac Killer, the Night Stalker: like Jack the Ripper before them, these media driven monikers haunted and terrified Americans in the 1970’s and 80’s. As movies and books about demented killers grew in popularity, newspapers and reporters responded in kind by giving these very real killers names as terrifying and lurid as those found on book covers and theater marquees. And since media loves a circle, these killers would become the subjects of their very own movies and stories.
An exploration of the “human monster,” however, also reveals a challenging critique of horror: its often poor treatment of “the other.” The nature of horror is to reflect what we fear – and sometimes those fears reveal our prejudices. Soldiers returning from World War I brought with them the literal scars of war. Movies like The Penalty and The Phantom of the Opera – both starring Lon Chaney – featured disfigured humans as the “monster” of the film, implying that scars and amputations reflect inner darkness and evil. Horror’s use of transgender characters has been just as dangerous, often treating such characters as sexually depraved or mentally unstable. The aforementioned giallo films frequently used sexual dysfunction and gender dysphoria as motivations for its black gloved killers.
As you can see, Dread Reader, we have much ground to cover in this topic. We will examine killers, real and imaginary, and explore how they both reflect and affect our collective psyche. We will explore movies like M and American Psycho that use the serial killer trope as a commentary on society and we will critique horror’s troubling history of “othering,” of creating monsters out of those who are different. So go forth and prepare for a bright new day. Wash your face and admire that fine image in the mirror. See the very best version of you in that reflection — and try to ignore the shadow staring back at you… #monsterinthemirror