'The Shape of Water': Why Are Monster Romances So Appealing?

Yes, a movie about a lady and a fish-man one is one of the most romantic movies of the year.

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for The Shape of Water]

Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water may be a romance film, but it's inspiring some nervous pearl-clutching in theaters nationwide. The reason the anxiety isn't that hard to figure out — it's monster/human love story whose relationship is actually consummated on screen (multiple times) in front of God and popcorn-crunching theatre audiences nationwide.

In The Shape of Water, Del Toro embraces a fantasy that's as old as time.  From Greek myths to Beauty and the Beast, people have been falling in love with otherworldly creatures across all mediums, spanning all genres, for basically all of recorded history.

The question is why? Why are people — why are women, specifically — so obsessed with monsters in love? Why is a movie about a lady and a fish-man one of the most romantic movies of the year?

It all comes down to one simple fact: on top of being a love story, The Shape of Water is also a horror movie.

Like most of Del Toro's work, The Shape of Water isn't really a conventional horror movie, but the bones of the film are excavated from the genre's proverbial haunted graveyard. And the most basic truth about horror stories is that they're scary, unsettling or otherwise uncomfortable, because it's a genre built on the destruction of normalcy. Horror is an exploration of every worst-case scenario that deviation from the norm can produce, from ghosts to chainsaw-swinging murderers to mutagens and epidemics. Horror is horrific because it indulges in the fantasy of the dangerous outsider made prismatic, maybe even made victorious, if only briefly.

Horror represents the strange liminal space where the literal outsider sitting in the audience — someone who isn't typically the target demographic for the typical Hollywood film — can see themselves in the figurative outsiders — the monsters — who hold all the power onscreen. It's a strange, dissonant, sometimes wonderful experience that opens the door for readings of the text as something completely other than what may have been intended. Women, or really anyone who exists at the intersection of different marginalized groups, are able to enter horror stories and identify with any number of fun house mirror visions of their own experience, from furious and blood-soaked final girls to tortured and alienated creatures cast off by society. It's an opportunity and an invitation that's almost entirely unique to the genre — the chance to see one's own experience projected out in a multifaceted way that takes center stage in the story, rather than something stripped down and made to service a narrative that is otherwise completely focused on the typical male-oriented Hollywood gaze.

Monsters are the outsider's outsider, the object for the perennially objectified; a spectacle that offers up both thrilling danger and enticing empathy. Horror is a genre where the alienated and the castoff are made a focal point instead of the accessory or the afterthought.

The Shape of Water is what happens when that is the goal, rather than an untended byproduct.

Del Toro's affection for monstrous love is anything but a secret, from his movies to the traveling art exhibit of his personal memorabilia collection titled At Home With Monsters, challenging viewers' perception of the grotesque has all but been his pop culture crusade, a crusade in which an explicitly rendered human/monster love affair really only seems like the next logical step. But what sets The Shape of Water apart from its thematic predecessors isn't its willingness to confront the actual interspecies sex issue head-on, but rather the self-awareness it brings to the table when doing so.

The mute Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and her best friend, closeted artist Giles (Richard Jenkins), live in apartments that sit atop a movie theatre. They are transfixed by TV and classic Hollywood, Shirley Temple and Mr. Ed; black-and-white make-believe worlds that make no space for either of them, or for their co-conspirators, Zelda (Octavia Spencer) a stalwartly brave black woman in an unhappy marriage, or Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Russian spy with a heart of gold.

The film removes all pretenses of the outsiders being dangerous and instead, paints them as heartbreaking and unconventional heroes. As Elisa makes her tearful plea to save the tortured Asset (Doug Jones) from certain death, she frantically signs to Giles "when he looks at me, he doesn't see how I am incomplete." The Asset doesn't understand that she's an outsider at all, and the camera never treats her as one — the only person in the movie who does treat her this way is its villain, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). When Giles narrates over the opening credits that the story is about "a monster," there's no debate that he's referring to Strickland. The script is flipped, with the film featuring a man with the looks of a classic, square jawed protagonist; only he's the actual monster here, murderous and literally rotting alive. Normalcy isn't the thing that's being threatened here, it's what is doing the threatening — no digging for subtext or mental gymnastics required.

Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor have a meticulous understanding of the unique nature of their story, where it sits in the pantheon of both horror and romance — finally, a movie where the alternative reads on these genres are made absolutely literal; finally, a movie that doesn't apologize or offer a convenient excuse for itself. The monster never becomes a prince, the girl never becomes a monster; The Shape of Water makes absolutely no ambiguity in which audiences it's trying to reach and what story it's trying to tell.