Film discussion

The Shape of Water: Would You Love a Monsterman?

Monsters have come a long way since Victor Frankenstein, in classic didn’t-think-it-through scientist mode, built a creature in his laboratory and then abandoned it to the loneliness and cruelty of an uncaring world, without even teaching it how to use Tinder.

Nowadays society is more and more coming round to the view that love is a monster right, and inter-species romance is no longer frowned upon in the way that it once was. Between consenting adults, love is love, no matter how much fur or slime might be involved.

These musings are prompted by Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning fantasy-romance, The Shape of Water. A new take on the 1950s ‘creature feature’, The Shape of Water sees Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), who is mute and speaks in sign language, fall in love with an intelligent amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones). He is held captive, and in mortal danger, at the government facility where she works as a cleaner, and it is left to her to rescue him and save his life. It’s that classic story of girl meets sea-monster, girl steals sea-monster, girl… well, I won’t spoil the ending for you right now

But what do we mean by ‘monster’ anyway? The word derives from the Latin monere – ‘to warn’ – via monstrum – ‘a portent, an unnatural thing or omen’, and certainly in the past the appearance of monsters has been viewed as a presage of disaster, a physical manifestation of society’s ills, or a reflection of one’s own psychological state.

And now? Well, current definitions of ‘monster’ include the words, ugly, large, strange, and – across the board – frightening. But what are we frightened of? Usually appearance. Sometimes behaviour. Always something that is different, or that we don’t understand. But once one has gotten over this fear of ‘the other’, monsters, it turns out, can be kind, beautiful, magical, and even – that rarest of things – marriage material.

But perhaps we shouldn’t call them monsters, these potential mates of ours. It’s kind of insulting. And there are a lot of different types of them out there…

I’m Under Your Spell

You know this one: it’s a tale as old as time. Your love starts off as human, but somehow – be it by a curse, the bite of a creature, or some seriously misjudged science – he ends up being transformed into a monster. Perhaps you loved him as a human and now have to learn to love him as a monster, or maybe you only met him once he’d become a monster. Either way, there are two outcomes to this situation: the curse is broken, a cure is found, and he turns back into a human, or – he doesn’t. He’s a monster forever now. Deal with it.

Probably the most well-known example of this is 18th century French fairytale La Belle et la Bête, which has spawned innumerable retellings across various media, including Jean Cocteau’s 1946 movie classic of the same name, and Disney’s 1991 animated feature Beauty and the Beast, as well as a 2017 live-action remake. In this scenario you have to fall in love with the beast – arguably whilst suffering from Stockholm Syndrome – and your love for him then breaks the curse and he returns to his original human form. Which, to be honest, is something of an anti-climax. 2001 animated feature Shrek subverts this trope by having human Princess Fiona turn into an ogre to be with her true love.

If what you’re looking for is a thoroughly modern monster, then perhaps a zombie might take your fancy. Although – heads up, and possibly off – it likely won’t end well for either of you. Jonathan Levine’s 2013 zom-rom-com – (yes that’s an actual category now) – Warm Bodies is a happy exception to this rule. Based on a novel that is based on Shakespeare, R is already a zombie when Julie meets him, and together they battle the apocalypse, and the disapproval of Julie’s father, until gradually, one heartbeat at a time, R regains his humanity. N’awww!

Another variation on the ‘Oops, I’m a monster now!’ theme are your classic vampires and werewolves. That one night that you don’t close your window properly, or decide to go out for a 3am stroll, can seriously damage your love life. In An American Werewolf in London, David Kessler, mauled by something large and furry, and hallucinating the ghost of his decomposing best friend, begins a relationship with his nurse, Alex Price. But when David transforms into a werewolf and begins slaughtering Londoners willy-nilly, Alex doesn’t give up on him. She corners him in an alley and declares her love for him, even in his shaggy and snarling form. But this time, sadly, love isn’t enough to save the monster. David is killed, and Alex cries over him.

TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, and Being Human, have explored human-vampire and human-werewolf love, as well as multiple other forms of inter-species romance – (I’m looking at you, Xander) – with all the issues that they entail, and their varying degrees of success or failure. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention – grudgingly – the hugely popular Twilight series. I don’t think I need to elaborate.

One of the more horrific versions of the human-becomes-monster story is David Cronenberg’s 1986 classic, The Fly, which sees eccentric scientist Seth Brundle fused at a genetic level with a housefly. It was an accident, and his girlfriend, Veronica, rolls with it until it becomes terrifying, and dangerous, and she has to end Brundle with a shotgun. Monster love rarely ends in just divorce.

Beautiful Monster

In this scenario the monster is a strange and mysterious creature, rare or unique. You might not know where he comes from, or who his parents are, but he has always been a monster, and you might need to look past his strange face to see the beauty that dwells within. Or perhaps he has a beastly nature, and whilst he desires you, you are repelled by him. Into this category fits monster love as seen in The Shape of Water, and the various iterations of King Kong, as well as the 1987 TV show Beauty and the Beast. Also – possibly controversially – Sarah and the Goblin King in Labyrinth.

When one half of an inter-species relationship is defined as a monster, it’s usually because society just isn’t used to that kind of love. But when it’s considered the norm, then you’re probably dating someone who exists within a well-loved science-fiction franchise. Your love is not a monster, he’s just an alien. We’re talking The Doctor and Rose, and Jenny and Madame Vastra in Doctor Who; Worf and Dax, Kira and Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine; Delenn and Sheridan in Babylon 5; and Riker and any alien woman who would have him in Star Trek: The Next Generation. We can even throw Superman and Lois Lane into this category. But not Starman himself: he is actually a Beautiful Monster. Confusing, no?

And then we have the monsters who are created by human hands. These are all your Frankenstein’s-monster types, your robots, and your AI simulations. These guys often have a hard time finding love, so let’s not dwell on them for now. This is by no means an exhaustive list: there are other types of monster out there, and some of them are slippery and can’t be pinned down into just one category.

Two things that you might have noticed from the above examples: interspecies romance is usually – not always, but usually – between a human or human-seeming female and a male monster, and it falls to the woman to accept her mate for what he is; and that monsters are often – again, not always but often – defined by both a childlike innocence and a capacity for terrifying power. Make of that what you will. The Shape of Water fits both of these tropes.

Actually, ultimately, it is ambiguous as to whether The Shape of Water’s inter-species romance is between a human and an amphibious monster, or whether it is a love story between two aquatic creatures. Because heroine Elisa, mute, and with scars on her neck, has an indeterminate backstory. She was found, as a child, by the water. That’s all that is revealed of her origins. Perhaps the scars are from interference that rendered her mute. Perhaps they are from a failed operation to give her a voice. Or perhaps – perhaps – they are the remnants of gills, that either closed up, or were forcibly sewn up. It is unclear. And so it is also ambiguous as to whether Elisa’s god-like green lover merely heals breathing equipment that she already possesses, or transforms her scars into an entirely new anatomical feature. It could be read either way. And let us also not forget that the only monster mentioned as such in The Shape of Water is Colonel Richard Strickland: ‘the monster, who tried to destroy it all’.

‘Would you love a monsterman? Could you understand the beauty of the beast?’, asked monster band Lordi, back in 2002. In the real world, monsters – however you choose to define them – are all around us. They are us. And maybe they’re not as frightening as they first appear. Would you? Could you? Swipe right for yes.

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