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TL;DR: How can I psychologically justify why relatively normal (i.e., non-sociopathic) human beings that have turned into monsters (like vampires or werewolves) devolve into feral beasts or vicious predators without relying on some innate supernatural biological drive compelling them to harm people or otherwise turn on humans?

I have a story which revolves around a group of monsters in a modern setting, most of which were "turned" from humans in some way. The monsters are incredibly varied in terms of their morality and worldview. Some try their best to fit in and pass amongst humans despite their condition, others basically just devolve into feral beasts eating animals in the woods, whereas others start actively preying on humans and other monsters. The story mostly focuses on the "passing" monsters with the more malevolent ones serving as foils and antagonists. The main draw of the series is meant to be a psychological drama exploring the diverse psychology and worldviews of the characters and the different ways they perceive and deal with their monsterhood.

Some of the rules of the monsters in the setting and their plot reasoning are listed below, so as to make the rest of the question make more sense:

  • The monsters more-or-less live hidden among humanity. I.e., typical genre trappings.
  • The monsters don't need to prey on humans to survive, in order to allow the monsters much more moral latitude and explore different types of monster tropes. Eating people isn't as unthinkable as it is among humans, but how taboo eating people is varies massively from group to group. I.e., the more sympathetic monsters are horrified and disgusted, whereas the less human ones don't care.
  • Becoming a monster does give a person monstrous instincts and can warp their mind a bit, but the person mostly remains the same. Personality shifts can occur but happen due to lived experience post-monster. This is partially due to story themes and partially because the whole point of a psychodrama is to explore someone's thought process.
  • The monsters aren't exceedingly long-lived or immortal. Mostly to make them more relatable to the audience.
  • There isn't really a huge faction of monster hunters. The monsters are afraid of persecution by humanity but it's not like there's a group dedicated to hunting them down. Mostly because the "monsters being persecuted by monster-hunters" trope has been used so many times it's become cliché and there isn't much one can do to make it fresh.

However, when writing the story I am running into an issue in trying to understand how a relatively normal person could devolve into a barely-human beast squatting in the woods or a monstrous predator. I've tried researching other "monster" stories like the Old World of Darkness and Tokyo Ghoul to see how those settings handled it, and mostly I have come across a few major explanations. However, these don't seem to work with the psychological drama angle of this story for a variety of reasons.

  1. The monsters become increasingly estranged from humanity due to the monsters being immortal and losing all of their human connections. This is how the Old World of Darkness tended to handle it, and it does make the most sense psychologically. Lose all your connections to humanity and suddenly one's ability to empathize with them becomes difficult. But the monsters aren't immortal here, so the "weight of ages" is hard to pull off.
  2. The monsters have to eat humans in some way and those that do not sufficiently dehumanize human beings end up starving to death. From what I've read supposedly the Sabbat in Vampire the Masquerade worked along these lines, but it never really got explored due to lore changes. This doesn't work because the monsters here don't have to eat humans, and indeed the story points out on a logistic and biological level a species that must eat humans wouldn't be able to survive.
  3. There is some kind of biological compulsion involved that makes the former human instantly turn on humanity. However, when this shows up in fiction this is usually used as a justification as to why the audience shouldn't feel morally conflicted about the protagonists staking their former friends. It doesn't work in a setting where the monsters are more sympathetic. I have seen stories make good arguments as to why someone would choose to be a monster than a human. E.g., many monster stories set in the Victorian era point out that for young women becoming a vampire/werewolf/whatever gives them personal freedom and power not available to them as a human, but there's no reason that wouldn't translate to "I like being a monster but I like people too" instead of "I eat people".
  4. The former-humans decide to become the monsters everyone sees them as after being persecuted or ostracized by their former brethren (see: Carrie). This kind of works but it's hard to see how widespread it could be without monsters being common knowledge, so it doesn't make sense to make it a universal phenomenon among every feral monster.
  5. The monsters were evil people before becoming monsters. I.e., the "I reject my humanity, Jojo" principle. This seems the easiest to implement and seems fairly straightforward but kind of removes the personal horror aspect from the story. I.e., it seems almost Calvinist (and a bit morally black-and-white) in that only the "bad" people become "bad" monsters. I know there are cases where regular people can be corrupted into enjoying atrocities (e.g., Nazi Germany, the Stanford Prison Experiment), but most of the time that seems to require mass movements and an external system coercing or encouraging people until they start enjoying or rationalizing it. Additionally, I know humans can be quick to dehumanize others, but that usually happens to those outside their in-group, not those within. Humans can clearly be awful but this seems to be the wrong kind of awful to justify what I need.

The problem with many of these explanations is that they rely on some sort of hardline biological compulsion to turn people into monsters, which is terrible for a psychological drama because it removes most of the elements of personal choice. Consider, in a psychodrama about a vampire the audience wants to know why the vampire thinks and acts the way they do (e.g., Interview with a Vampire). If the vampire only does so because they must prey on humans and because they are biologically compelled to hate humankind, that removes all sense of character agency and thus they become less interesting. So I'm trying to avoid that.

Granted, part of the point of the story is to explore the assumptions of monster tropes (and "there's less slavering beasts than you'd think" is a plot point), but the fact is I need the more antagonistic monsters to create conflict, and if I can't understand why my villains and antagonists behave and think the way they do (or more broadly, where they even come from) that creates a problem. Some of the more feral monsters are treated narratively more like dangerous wild animals or man-eating big cats than slasher villains, dangerous but with their own set of priorities and motivations that don't always involve violence, but even getting a human being psychologically to that point seems very difficult to achieve.

So, more broadly, how can I psychologically justify why there would be a general phenomenon where more-or-less psychologically normal people can devolve into monsters after being turned?

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  • You are trying to force a contradiction: 'nice monster' rendering the word 'monster' meaningless. 'Normal monster' is also a contradiction that makes 'monster' meaningless…. What defines a 'monster' if they are not monstrous – Sesame Street™ blue fur? This is a trap of new authors who want to break stereotypes with 'normal' superheroes and 'ordinary' gods. Consider if the reader wanted stories about regular people living their lives, they could read non-genre fiction. It's possible to go too far to avoid cliché to a point where you have no conflict or theme, just unconnected tropes.
    – wetcircuit
    Dec 19, 2021 at 12:14
  • TL;DR if you can't figure out what makes a monster bad, maybe 'monster' is not the correct metaphor for your story. There are better-coded analogies for social outcasts than 'some of them eat people'.
    – wetcircuit
    Dec 19, 2021 at 13:05

3 Answers 3

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Psychology is Weird:

Humans are remarkably free of instincts - which means that we can convince ourselves of anything. A perfectly ordinary person can be convinced that they should get chemically castrated, carry out terrorist attacks, and then die in a mass suicide so the aliens will take them off to the alien home world. All without anything but someone telling them it's right. Murderers are convinced that they are right (or at least somehow justified) in killing others for endless reasons - greed, revenge and supposed injustices. Then there are people who flat-out have a mental illness, and can't distinguish right from wrong like others.

All these things are radically magnified when a person is abruptly transformed from the conventional soft, fangless, clawless, socially easy-going bodies we normally live in. Our very sense of self is shattered by the transformation, and we become the OTHER. Talk to someone who has undergone a physically transformative injury, and they will have a host of mental health issues to report. That is while still retaining the basic fundamental identity of human.

Consider the effects from something as simple as a relatively mild global pandemic. People are socially isolated, treat each other as unclean, and argue incessantly about the factualness of vaccinations, masking, the effects of the disease, and so on. Mental health crises are blossoming, and therapists can't keep up.

Add to this a break with society. Your transformed people are (at best) on the outside of society, a society that likely looks at them now as hideous beasts. They are cut off from the feedback we get telling us it's not okay to be terrible fiends, and instead told that we ARE terrible fiends. That seriously screws with your head right there. Society and various belief systems frequently conflate beauty with good and ugliness with evil. So you go from an accepted human to an outcast that frightens people who even so much as look at you. Good luck getting mental health services to cover it, let alone even finding people you can talk to about what has happened.

People fundamentally want who and what they are to be good and right and true. If they are told otherwise, they come to hate those who tell them otherwise, or come to believe that whatever they find themselves as must be right somehow. A Nazi, confronted with the atrocities of of WW2, can either decide their cause was horrible (and in this case, people turned to monsters can't turn away), or embrace it and decide the holocaust was justified. Either way, those people are shifted from embracing society to denying it.

Add to this the input of religions, new belief systems centered around these changes, cults, gangs (I guarantee there would be, since gangs started as self-defense groups) and others with complex messaging that may tell you that you are either in league with evil, OR that the rules no longer apply to you because you are no longer human, better than human, or inferior to humans.

Add to that that the people so transformed are still fundamentally humans with no instincts who can believe anything. Toss in a lack of communication or taboo about discussing those transformed. People will obsess about their situation and come up with crazy decisions in a world filled with ignorance on the true facts of the situation.

The real miracle is that ANY of these people could retain their sanity, even lacking biological effects from their transformation and new body.

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There's already a great answer on here about human psychology which I heartily agree with - people can do all sorts of things that make them become monstrous on the "inside", never mind the physical and psychological trauma of becoming one on the outside.

I would add a few extra points to this:

  • While physical transformation to a monstrous form doesn't make you a monster, it's very possible that the physical changes include the brain. If you're a giant wolf...you'll have hunting instincts? New urges? Even if they resist them? (best conflict!) Your subconscious is telling you these things are good.

  • People can justify just about anything in their own defence, or even perceived defence of their tribe/community/self. If the monstrous people are attacked, they'll feel justified in "defending" themselves. Once you've killed one person, it likely becomes far easier to justify doing it again to yourself.

  • There's more than one monstrous person, and more than one personality. People are different, monstrous people are different. Just because some have the will and self-control to avoid hurting humans, some may come to enjoy the power and savagery of their new nature.

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People Change

I think you're missing the real narrative power in answer #5 - they are just people who are evil.

The thing is, they don't have to start evil. It doesn't have to be black and white - it can be Dorian Gray. Freedom from consequences can lead them to excess.

Power Corrupts

In Plato's Republic, the sage posits that power corrupts even the just man. So maybe the majority of those turned to monsters become monstrous, because they can get away with it.

It's only the rare people with exceptionally strong ethics who retain an empathy with the normal people. The horror is in the realization of just how easy it would be to abandon the path of righteousness.

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