For centuries, writers have been transfixed by monster stories. The most common monsters are from the 20th Century films: Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Wolfman, King Kong. But the ancient greeks had Medusa and the Minotaur. The Nords marvelled at Fenrir and Jormungand. The Chinese spun tales of Zhulong and Juiwei Hu. Humans have always been fascinated by the terrible creatures lying around each corner and, perhaps more fascinatingly, the aspects of their humanity.
Even more of a marvel is the evolution of monsters and love stories. Often, monsters would steal young women and were seen as cruel antagonists. They even were commonly metaphors for female impurity. However, over time, the idea of monsters being romantic leads grew and has become a new trope in literature and cinema. One of the earliest, most popular examples of this is the iconic, classic tale of Beauty and The Beast.
While Beauty and The Beast is a leader in this romantic subgenre, other films such as Twilight, Warm Bodies, and The Shape of Water have also been modern staples of the “finding beauty in ugliness” love stories. Though only these few are mentioned, there are countless more tales expounding upon the topic. However, one might wonder, how does such an odd sub-genre come about?
One easy answer to point a finger at is the feeling of “other”.
This term encapsulates the way a person feels when they are an outsider. They might not fit into societal norms, or they have a disfigurement, or feel different and outcasted for a variety of reasons. These people find solace in the love other outsiders, kindred spirits they can feel understand them. Sometimes, this solace comes best in the form of a monster. After all, if someone so monstrously “other” can be loved, someone can love them, too. Not only do outsiders feel affection towards these “other” creatures, but they also see themselves in them. These romances appeal to the outsider in everyone, and its why Beauty and The Beast is one of the most popular classical romances ever.
However, some stories achieve the goals of the subgenre much better than others. When they do, they can be effective romances that connect with all outsiders while conveying strong messages of heroism, acceptance, and/or the errs of society. When done poorly, they can.. Well, they can become Twilight.
Cue the sparkles, friends.
To discuss this topic thoroughly, two different stories will be looked at: Twilight and The Shape of Water. Both are very blatant monster romances, yet one is critically praised and the other is the butt of jokes.
Oddly enough, Twilight could have been a supremely effective teen romance as well as a monster love epic. The novel was disturbingly close to doing its job effectively, it only missed the mark by doing the exact opposite of The Shape of Water at its most critical points. This article is hardly a Twilight bash, it’s more a lament for the effective, powerful novel it could have been.
So, sit back, suspend your disbelief (we’re talking about falling for monster, after all), and let’s dive into the missteps of Twilight.
The best place to start is Twilight’s main character: Bella Swan. The book takes its first wrong turn by contradictorily calling Bella an outcast but immediately making several boys fall in love with her, the most popular girls fawn over her, and removing all hardship from the average high school life. Writing a high school outcast is painfully easy. Bella could have simply been ignored and it would have been a grade above her practically being the coolest, hottest new girl in school.
The Shape of Water‘s Elisa, on the other hand, isn’t treated like a leper, but she is certainly an “other”. Elisa is mute, a cleaning lady, and is ignored or treated awkwardly by most of the staff. The closest person to be cruel is the new scientific director, but he’s cruel to everyone. She feels monotonous and lonely, but she’s not always alone. Elisa has enough but, to quote a Disney Princess, “[she] wants much more than this provincial life”. She’s alive but she’s not living. Elisa merely skates by until love makes her feel like she’s someone special for the first time in her life. Comparatively, Bella is hardly “other”ed like the average monster story love interest ever is.
Similarly, Edward is only a self-proclaimed outcast. At school, most girls think he’s hot and wish he would have any interest in them. People have put him on a pedestal of pretentiousness, at most, but he’s more treated like an unattainable celebrity instead of a monster. Conversely, Amphibian Man, monster of The Shape of Water, is quite literally caged, cruelly tortured, experimented on, and is treated sub-humanly. He is as “other” as one can get.
The appeal of monster romances is the capability for others to find even the worst parts of yourself lovable. With Bella and Edward contorting those “outcast” roles, it already warps the monster aspect of their love story to change the meaning of it. Normally, monster romance is meaningful because it represents even the worst parts of a person being salvageable, meaningful, even if they are twisted, troubled, or monstrous.
Twilight deconstructs that even more by making Edward an “exception” monster and not a normal monster. Here’s the explanation of that idea: unlike other monster stories, Edward is the good “vegetarian” vampire in a sea of bloodsucking monsters. He is the humane good guy. In that quest to make him seem better, the author washes away the meaningful aspects of him being a monster. The parts of him that are still “other”, his vampirism, is now watered down by being “not that bad” either.
In The Shape of Water, Amphibian Man kills a cat. He scares others. He hurts people. His otherness makes him dangerous, even if he does truly care for Elisa. Elisa even acknowledges this with her plan to release him into the ocean. She knows he doesn’t belong in her world, no matter much she cares for him.
The Twilight series flirts with this idea several times, but in the end leans into the vampires partially connecting to the human world and acts like their willingness to disappear is an overreaction. After all, they’re vegetarian vampires. The book has to jump through hoops to add reasons why their existence is dangerous to the people of Forks and it ends up having nothing to do with the Cullens themselves.
These thematic decisions ultimately, for better or worse, destroy all normal, logical, thematic reasons for Edward to be a vampire at all. Monster romances are about finding comfort in kindred spirits and feeling lovable. When the monster is actually perfectly beautiful and barely a monster, that becomes a problem. The story could have easily been about a mob family, or secret agents. Being vampires never was worthwhile.
However, as said, the novels could have easily been salvageable. The Twilight saga almost was a really good monster romance tale for teens. And here is how they could have fixed it:
- Everyone is a vegetarian vampire- making The Cullens “good guy” vampires was dull. Having every vampire being a vegetarian adds stakes. One, it makes Edward’s past in vigilante vampire murder more interesting and troubling. Two, it also shifts the narrative from Edward fighting normal vampire nature to be a good guy to instead him struggling with the bloodthirsty urges within him.
- Make human blood like a drug- This gives Edward a very distinct reason to avoid people at school, or even look a little crazy. OR he doesn’t go to school like the rest and just picks them up. Think Boo Radley. Once he went on a blood spree back in the day, he now has to deal with the consequences of human blood sounding and smelling too delicious to him. It also gives vampires a very good reason to avoid human blood: its their best chance at survival and staying hidden.
- Bella being an actual outcast- Step one, delete the concept of “every boy asking her to homecoming”. While a weird, high school fantasy situation, Bella would have fit better into the narrative if she was weird. Have her be interested in the abnormal. Or have her be a serious introvert with a love for walking in the woods. Easy way to accidentally meet the guy avoiding humans.
- Give them common ground- Bella having anxiety and Edward being habitually afraid of falling back into his old “druggie” habits would be a great connection for them. They’re both a little jumpy and uncomfortable, and they can find a common ground there. Also, being new, Bella is one of the few people who don’t know his story of being the “weird sibling” so he can actually have someone to talk to.
Twilight, while having a lot wrong with it, could have had a lot going right. It could have been a story about two lonely, awkward teens who find companionship in a world that scares them. In a world that doesn’t quite fit them.
Instead, we have whatever sparkly mess is it.
When in doubt, just watch The Shape of Water again for all monster romance needs. Or Phantom of the Opera. Or of course, the captain of them all, Beauty and the Beast. Today, all we can do is dream of the story Twilight could have been and then try not to think about its disappointment for another few years. Maybe a new vampire romance will surface and create the vampire romance this generation deserves.