Is That a Snake in Your Pants, Or Are You Just Happy to See Me: Monstrous Metamorphoses and the Literature of Alienation

February, 2021
Wenying Wu, Blog Correspondent

Content warning: brief mentions of sexual assault in literature.

Human fascination with unnatural transformations is nothing new; humans have morphed into monsters all throughout literature, from werewolves to vampires, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast.

Perhaps the most famous treatment is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a compilation of mythical changes. The wrathful Athena transfigures the beautiful Medusa into a monster with hissing snakes for hair, whose very gaze turns men into stone—because Medusa, raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, had to be punished for defiling Athena’s sacred space. The jealous sorceress Circe transforms Scylla, a beautiful woman, into a monster with a pack of rabid hounds for legs. In both cases, the lovely mortal has her beauty stripped away from her, alienating her from human society by transforming her from a coveted object of desire to a grotesque object of revulsion. Medusa and Scylla’s transformations are both involuntary, and neither of them possess internal traits associated with monstrousness. Rather, they are made utterly discordant with both their past selves and their internal worlds; Scylla, after her transformation, attempted to flee from the slobbering hounds, only to find that they followed her every step—were her every step. Medusa and Scylla, alone in their caves: where we find monstrousness, we find the condition of complete isolation. 

In some respects, the monstrous transformation is the process by which exile physically manifests. The dichotomy of the in-group and the out-group is essential to all attempts of social organization, which always imply some sort of human taxonomy. If humanity is the ultimate in-group—a veritable old boys’ club of Homo sapiens splendour—then what could better represent the out-group than inhuman monstrosity? And while monsters in themselves elicit fear, the true terror in these tales seems to be the uncontrollable and not quite rational mutability of human identity. In tales of monster transformations, the public fear of the monster—that Medusa’s eyes petrify, or that Scylla’s limbs slobber and bite—is rendered secondary by the private fear of transformation, of becoming something horrifying to society and to one’s self.

Perhaps the most fitting example of the alienating transformation can be found in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, wherein Gregor Samsa transforms into a large insect-like creature, which horrifies his family and leads to his eventual death by their neglect. Notable in the case of Samsa is the text’s preoccupation with his new incapability of functioning as a productive member of society, his parents despairing over the fact that he will no longer be able to work and provide for them. In The Metamorphosis, humanity is a privilege reserved for those capable of performing human labour. What Kafka seems to depict is a physical realization of redundancy—how, as Samsa’s affliction renders him incapable of performing his assigned labour, society rejects him as an extraneous element. Though the image of a monster may have utility in establishing the out-group to bolster in-group stability, an actual monster has no place within society. No role, no use, no hope.

Considering these associations with societal alienation, cultural depictions of monster transformations also often include subtextual treatments of xenophobia. A particularly vitriolic depiction of the intersection between monstrous transformation and xenophobic fear appears in the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft, famous for his genre-defining works of weird fiction, has also achieved some measure of notoriety as the flagrantly racist giant of horror’s literary canon. In his 1931 novella The Shadow over Innsmouth, his narrator investigates the town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts, whose native-born inhabitants all exhibit abnormal physical traits such as flat noses and bulging eyes. Eventually, the narrator discovers that the town had long ago been forced into colluding with an aquatic race of man-fish referred to as the Deep Ones (of moderate importance in the broader Cthulhu mythos). The human townspeople mate with the Deep Ones to breed hybrids that, though initially appearing to be normal humans, eventually gain the physical features of the sea monsters and leave human society to enter the aquatic existence. To the narrator’s horror, he finds out that he too is descended from the Deep Ones. Over the years, the transformation slowly takes hold until, one day, he decides that—in the immortal words of Sebastian the Lobster[1]—everything would be better, down where it’s wetter[2].

So, basically, Lovecraft tells a story of a port town where outsiders mate with the townspeople, creating tainted bloodlines whose heirs develop traits such as flat noses and bulging eyes—both of which have strong racialized connotations in Western media—which eventually render them incapable of living in regular society. Though Lovecraft also examines fears steeped in the universe’s irrationality and indifference, this story almost definitely calls to its contemporary audience’s fears surrounding miscegenation: that outsiders from, perhaps, across the ocean will infiltrate into a sleepy New England town and degrade or even destroy normal—meaning white—society. The fear of becoming monstrous becomes identified with the fear of “becoming black.” The narrator’s final revelation is even more insidious, suggesting the horror of transformation that could occur to someone who is even unwittingly a member of that Great Aquatic Other. As his very body becomes foreign to him, he absconds to the sea. It’s kind of like having a lifelong phobia of being abducted by aliens, and then discovering that, really, you were the alien all along. There Lovecraft suggests that something about monstrosity is inborn, that someone with tainted blood will always be incapable of assimilating with the world of white purity. 

While it’s tempting to view Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia as an aberration, the United States only ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional in 1967, 36 years after the publication of The Shadow over Innsmouth. Such cultural depictions support and perpetuate the status quo of a racist society. Lovecraft is a particularly bigoted example of how, more broadly, one finds monstrosity in a subversion of internalized values of normal, the degradation of the purity of these categorizations that spring from social organization. Not only do we learn to view others through the lenses of conformist ideals, but we also judge and conceptualize our own identities with these principles of normalcy as the foundation. Monstrosity, therefore, is an object of perception. Our evaluations of monstrosity are, in a way, a statement—of what we can or cannot allow in our societies and in ourselves. Revulsion is in the eye of the beholder. 

If the monster is the ultimate other, then what does it mean when that other warms your bed? In Octavio Paz’s 1957 surrealist poem Sunstone, the lover’s eye is the frame for the horror of transformation. In Sunstone we find represented in sexual union the ultimate act of communion, a deep fusing of two souls as well as two bodies. But one passage in the poem leaves us uncomfortably aware of the possibility of horror inherent to sexual experiences—how in moments of intense intimacy, we may find ourselves shockingly cognizant of the alien and grotesque qualities of this outsider we’ve allowed access into our bodies. Sex and romance exists in a tension between pleasure and fear—the fear drawing on an epistemological gap. How well can we know the other lying in our bed? How similar are our two forms? How different? If love unites and mirrors the two bodies, then will the other be able to corrupt us? The lover actively manufactures vulnerability that allows heightened levels of communion, but that same vulnerability opens the lover’s interiority to the possibility of being tainted—infiltrated—by the monstrous and alien unknown within their partner. In that moment, the pleasure and joining of sex is distorted; communion transforms into isolation, a violation that alienates the soul from the skin.

The moment of alienation, for Sunstone’s speaker, comes the morning after sexual intimacy. Lying in bed next to his lover, Melusina[3], his bliss is assailed by a sudden, alien vision:

I saw your horrid scales,
Melusina, shining green in the dawn,
you slept twisting between the sheets,
you woke shrieking like a bird,
and you fell and fell, till white and broken,
nothing remained of you but your scream.

(from Sunstone, trans. Eliot Weinberger)

Oh, Melusina! It was some time during the night that his heart lost courage and became a shrivelled, shrunken sigh; that his eyes became heat-warped, an unseeing-glass. Then, though the night had passed on, his transformation had not passed on, and he watched you with new sight, watched your writhing in the blank-faced light, and, trembling, felt his own skin for any traces of your horror that you could have left on his body. Oh, Melusina, was it you that transfigured, or did the horrid scales tear out of his own eyes? He shuddered, wrapped in dawn, thinking of your monstrousness, thinking of your beauty made grotesque, thinking of your scales furrowing into him and sowing their seeds within his flesh. You shrieked in sorrow, crying out that if the human form is as mutable and transient as many waters, then the human eye—owing no fealty—is only smoke, only shadow.


[1] Actually, official Disney sources seem to treat Sebastian as a crab. I reject this for two unassailable reasons. First of all, he looks nothing like a crab. Second, it’s much more fitting to call the words of a lobster “immortal” because of their longevity and youthfulness that has often been misconstrued in popular culture as immortality.

[2] See (or hear) “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid (1989). Now that’s another movie about metamorphosis.

[3] Melusina’s name is borrowed from a figure from European folklore who is half-woman and half-serpent. In some myths, she possesses the enviable ability to spontaneously sprout wings to flee awkward situations.

Our evaluations of monstrosity are, in a way, a statement—of what we can or cannot allow in our societies and in ourselves. Revulsion is in the eye of the beholder. 

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