Movie Trope Thursday: Humans Are the Real Monsters

King Kong 2

This is usually an interesting trope that is commonly displayed in science fiction and works of animation that feature animal leads. This trope depicts humans as awful (but usually not ALL humans) as they are run by sins like greed and racism/xenophobia. Most movies with this trope will have a non-human character as a foil to the behaviors of humans or to be there to reap the horrible effects of man’s deeds. While some movies depict that humans are, well, human as they make mistakes and are far from perfect such as seen in Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) where a heist is pulled off perfectly but the members of said heist are too flawed to escape with their reward, the “Humans Are the Real Monsters” trope takes this one step forward. Instead of just being flawed, these humans cross a line and are willing to do horrible things and certainly humans are capable of doing such horrible things.

Perhaps the big example that comes to any movie lover’s mind in terms of this trope is The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). In this movie, humans feel threatened by Klaatu’s presence (as he is an alien and something they don’t understand) even though he is harmless and only promotes peace. Throughout the movie, we see some humans are willing to help Klaatu (such as a scientist as well as a mother and her son), but most fear him or use him for their own selfish purposes. The government doesn’t understand him and tries to hunt him down (one soldier even shoots him and wounds him when he first arrives) and Hugh Marlowe’s character seems nice until turning in Klaatu could provide a hefty sum of money for him. Most old sci-fi movies preferred having the aliens as the bad guys and the humans as the good guys, but there were examples that followed in The Day the Earth Stood Still’s footsteps, the most notable being It Came from Outer Space (1953). It Came from Outer Space understands the motives and decisions of both the aliens and the fearful humans, but the movie certainly doesn’t portray being run by fear as being a good thing. The characters that trust others and are sensible are the most likable similar to the few people willing to help Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Island of Lost Souls

This trope can also be common in horror movies depending on the subject at hand. Most horror movies prefer keeping humans as flawed but not necessarily capable of evil doings as in most cases we are supposed to be rooting for the humans. This is not the case with Island of Lost Souls (1932) which is a reimagining of The Island of Dr. Moreau featuring animals being turned into human abominations. In this movie, the human Moreau is the most detestable character featured and while the animal-humans do commit some atrocities the movie shows where they are coming from. They try to think and act like men, but naturally coming from animals they submit themselves to behaviors that would be considered beastly.


If you don’t think of an example of science fiction or horror when this trope comes up, then likely Disney comes to mind. Many of Disney’s best movies feature animal characters and often in these movies the villain is a human. No more so is this clear than in Bambi (1942) although we the audience don’t see or know anything about “man” but we do know that they hunt our characters down and through carelessness lead to the destruction of their home through an accidental fire. While the humans are off-screen and are only referred to by the animals and music queues, “man” from Bambi is widely considered to be one of the most effective villains in all of film history. Dumbo (1941) uses this trope too, but to a lesser extent as the humans in Dumbo aren’t necessarily villains but they are the most unlikable characters featured along with a cluster of gossiping elephants. The humans place Dumbo’s mother in chains and turn Dumbo into a clown and aside from those actions they do little else making humans hold a sour taste in the mouths of viewers. Few old examples of animation feature this trope as prominently as Peace on Earth (1939), the MGM cartoon directed by Hugh Harman. The cartoon is about man destroying each other (and the world they inhabit) through war and violence only to be taken over by animals once they are all wiped out.


There aren’t a whole lot of old movies that liked this trope, but it was still around especially in genres that featured extra-terrestrials or animals. Even if you are the kindest, most giving person around, odds are these examples will shake you and stick in your mind. Movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Bambi have aged remarkably well with hardly any edge to them dulled over time. This message of “Humans Are the Real Monsters” is timeless and will probably always remain so, and therefore it is not a bad message to have in a film. I at least think so as both The Day the Earth Stood Still and Bambi are two of my favorite movies.


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