When is a monster not a monster? When it’s a cryptid.
Realistically, cryptids, although often thought of as monsters, are really fairly harmless. Even the feared Mothman has never actually harmed anyone. Bigfoot doesn’t eat you. And the Mongolian Death Worm? Is that even real?
Merriam Webster’s full definition of monster is:
a : an animal or plant of abnormal form or structure
b : one who deviates from normal or acceptable behavior or character
: a threatening force
a : an animal of strange or terrifying shape
b : one unusually large for its kind
: something monstrous; especially : a person of unnatural or extreme ugliness, deformity, wickedness, or cruelty
: one that is highly successful
So ok, maybe cryptids can be defined as “abnormal” in that they don’t yet have a defined existence. They don’t typically deviate from normal or acceptable behavior, they aren’t overtly threatening, and most aren’t even all that ugly. So why do we call them monsters?
Wikipedia says a monster is any creature, usually found in legends or horror fiction, that is often hideous and may produce fear or physical harm by its appearance and/or its actions. The origins of the word itself is from the latin monstrum, which is something weird that is thought to be out of the natural order of things. Monsters are generally though of as psychologically harmful, or ugly, or in some way morally objectionable. The root of the latin word, however, is monere, which means to warn or instruct and is also the root of the word demonstrate. St. Augustine chose this interpretation and did not see “monsters” as inherently evil. In fact, even persons with severe birth defects were thought of as monsters, and if those defects were seen at birth it was a warning that problems were ahead for the individual and its caregivers.
Classic monsters like Frankenstein, wolf-man and zombies, or others that spawn from legends and fictional stories, are examples of physical abnormality. Indeed, cryptids would fit this definition. Somewhere along the way, likely through storytelling, the idea of a monster developed into something that should be feared---something that has an evil intent.
Ancient Greco-Roman, Celtic, Semitic, Norse, Chinese and Sumerian folklore all had a wealth of monsters. Folklore created a fantastic population of cruel and evil entities as explanations of abnormalities that occurred in nature. Likely it was the idea of somehow wronging a deity, therefore causing the abnormality, that initially associated “monsters” with wrongdoing and therefore evil or punishment. Certainly in the case of the Jersey Devil this is apparent. Mrs. Leeds swore a curse on her child who was then born with severe abnormalities. Whether or not those abnormalities also included extraordinary abilities has yet to be proven. Considering that the “cruelty” and “danger” from this cryptid is in the form of fear more so than injury, it can only be the legends and cursed background that qualifies this as a “monster”. Otherwise, how can simply seeing this thing be fearful?
In many role-playing games, "monster" is a catch-all term for hostile, non-human characters. Sentient characters are generally not referred to as “monsters”. This is an indication that culturally, monsters have decidedly become thought of as hurtful. This is unfortunate for cryptids; if every abnormal and unappealing being is thought of as a monster, the natural reaction would be to run, or to kill the “creature.” Indeed in many “civilized” countries it has become normal to treat that which is ugly or unusual as a threat. Sadly, we shun perfectly lovely people with scarring and birth defects. We avoid those with artificial limbs. We have been acclimated to treat those who are not just like us as “bad”.
Prejudice is recognized when it involves race, religion, or even sexuality. As we attempt to educate the bigots that those who are different are not “bad”, so we should educate that cryptids aren’t “monsters” either. They are simply different. If they weren’t different, they wouldn’t be interesting.
"Monster." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 24 Mar. 2014. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/monster>.