Can you think of a single terrifying monster that hasn't gone cute? From Freddy Krueger and Godzilla to Cthulhu and Pennywise the Dancing Clown, we seem determined to transform our monsters into plushies, cartoon characters and other cuties.
As Joe McCormick and I explore in this episode of the Stuff to Blow Your Mind podcast, the answers to that question explain a lot about the interconnected nature of monstrosity and cuteness in the human experience. Because make no mistake: Monsters and cuties aren't just entertainment.
Let's take a second to discuss what monsters and cuties actually are. You can go down the rabbit hole on the cognitive origin of monsters – and STBYM has – but a monster is essentially an unreal creature that's awesome in size or novel in its chimerical combination of natural forms. It threatens and terrifies us, even as it relates some lesson or understanding of the world around us. For instance, a werewolf combines human and lupine characteristics but also relays a message about the dual nature of human beings. We are both beast and something that aspires for more.
Cuteness is easier to nail down, if only because it's so rooted in conditioned responses to human infants. Because what we call "cute" in babies (big eyes, fat cheeks, etc.) are simply the features that hijack human attention and response. After all, the infant is the fruit of all our genetic programming. We can't help but attend to its needs.
This view of cuteness falls in line with Charles Darwin's theory that natural selection favors creatures that, in infancy, possess features that cause adults to protect them. As Joe points out in the podcast, Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz went on to outline the specific triggers involved, including short, thick extremities and clumsy movements, in addition to the big eyes and chubby cheeks.
To what degree does cuteness hijack our senses? Scientists have observed one-seventh of a second response time in adults to unfamiliar infant faces, but not to adult faces. A 2012 Japanese study published in PLOS ONE found that people who viewed infant animal images performed tasks better than those who viewed adult animals.
In other words, cute stimuli improve performance in "tasks that require behavioral carefulness." We're simply hardwired to become careful guardians when cuties call to us – and that bleeds over into inhuman cuties as well: kittens, puppies and cartoon characters. (Maybe those cute kitten posters in the office actually serve a purpose.)
At this point, it's easy to think of cuteness and monstrosity as separate entities, but the two states may exist upon the same spectrum of attention-grabbing stimuli. Imagine a slider mechanism in a program or video game: One direction takes you into the realm of disgusting terror and the other is a one-way ticket to cute town.
In her paper "Monstrous/Cute. Notes on the ambivalent nature of Cuteness," social scientist Maja Brzozowska-Brywczyńska argues that the cute and the monstrous exist in a single dimension, and that there's a tipping point as to how far you can push that cute/monstrous slider.
This spectrum, she writes, "works inevitably as a sort of pendulum swinging to and fro, and thus being able to play its role only up to a certain point, where the sweetness becomes a mock and a pitiful or ironic alter-ego of itself."
In other words, it's possible to push cuteness so far that it becomes sickening. If we're to push too far in the other direction, arguably the monstrous simply becomes ridiculous – like the "Rat Fink" abominations found in Ed Roth's classic hotrod art. Of course, in either case, individual thresholds to cute/monster overload will vary.
Monsters and cuties may stand as opposing exaggerations on the same slider of visual stimuli, but why would we move the slider to begin with?
In making our monsters cute, we diminish the underlying natural or cultural horrors they entail. In making the cute monstrous, we also dilute its brain-hijacking potency. This might also entail what psychologist Oriana Aragon calls a "dimorphous expression," in which an overly positive emotion produces a negative reaction. If you've ever felt the desire to pinch an overly cute infant or kitten, then you've felt the phenomenon firsthand. When cute gets tough to handle, a dash of horror balances it all out.
It would seem we create monsters for a variety of reasons: to entertain, to warn, or to chastise and thrill. We turn them cute to dull their power or repurpose them for commercial gain – but the slider can always run back in the opposite direction. We can only rob our monsters of their powers for so long.