[note—this post discusses plot twists. It will contain spoilers for Attack on Titan, Suisei no Gargantia and Madoka Magica among others]
Is Hannibal Lector writing these plot twists? Because everything is people. Not just our food like your classic Soylent Green, which is possibly one of the most iconic examples, but also our enemies. After all, when you’ve worked so hard against a great foe, what could be more horrifying and heartbreaking than discovering that you and it weren’t so different after all?
Humans vs Monsters can be a very black and white battle to base a story around—not that this is always a bad thing, after all; not all stories require the amount of complexity and darkness that would come with a Humans vs Humans dilemma. Pacific Rim, for example, gets its strength of fun and positivity from bringing humans together in the fight against monsters, and in that it creates a happy ending of a unified earth striving to protect itself. Of course, actual conflicts are rarely so simple, and giving your alien/monster/magical foe sympathetic qualities is a quick way to make things more complicated for your heroes and your audience.
Maybe your brave warriors come across a family of the Lovecraftian monsters that they’ve been fighting, showing values they can recognise, perhaps even some baby ones playing around and being cuddled by impossible-to-comprehend tentacles made of the Void. Wait, guys! They aren’t so bad! They’re kind of like us, and maybe we shouldn’t fight! Maybe, in the best plot twist, we’ve been the ones attacking them the entire time and they were just defending themselves like any reasonable creature would do! It’s a bit of a cliché, but for dishing out the message that we should try to understand our foes instead of treating them as a terrifying Other and attacking blindly, it serves well (and for some reason, aliens and monsters appear to work better for this sympathetic metaphor than actual people of other races or cultures, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion).
What greys this moral topic even more is going beyond the monsters having recognisably human qualities, and having them be human. Or at least, something that was human once. It throws the entire morality and mindset of the conflict off its axis and brings up all sorts of philosophical questions—or, can just be used as a device for horror. Because you don’t even have the ability to stare it in the face from the get-go like with zombies, there’s the added element that my God, how many of these things have I killed, and they were people all along?
When I first watched Madoka Magica, many a year ago now, I distinctly remember saying to CP, my viewing buddy, “Wouldn’t it be messed up if it turned out that Witches (the cursed, reality-warping destruction-spreading artistically rendered beings of doom and despair) were magical girls once?” Let me tell you, it has never felt so wrong to be right. Upon once-heroic Sayaka’s descent into despair and disillusionment and subsequent transformation into a giant symbolism-laden monster, you’re faced with the terrible realisation that these girls have been manipulated into destroying their own kind in an endless vicious cycle. How many Witches have they fought over the series? How many betrayed and ruined teenaged girls have they effectively killed?!
Whether or not Madoka Magica is in fact the flawless deconstruction of the magical girl genre, this reveal certainly works for kick-in-the-face shock value as it turns the entire premise of the series on its head and makes you realise that—especially, for maximum irony, in the case of Sayaka herself—their noble goal was not as noble as they were led to believe. And you begin spiralling out of control wondering who the other Witches were before, what their stories were. The Humans vs Monsters system has been a lie from the beginning since the humans are engineered to turn into monsters, to create an endless energy-harvesting cycle for small uncannily cute cat aliens.
In that case it becomes a story of Humans being betrayed by a greater system and turned into Monsters, and the rebellion against said system in a search to reclaim that humanity and the free will that we hold dear. The alternative to this is a story where Humans and Monsters being cut from the same cloth is our own fault, and that drags up a completely different discussion. In Susei No Gargantia an entire interstellar civilisation is based around the fight for survival against space molluscs whose only purpose and goal seems to be to destroy people. Their entire lives and mindsets are incredibly militaristic and the main character’s sole purpose in life is to fight against the aliens, who represent everything bad, the polar opposite of the glory of humanity.
Except, of course, when Our Hero Ledo crash-lands on a now mostly oceanic Earth, he discovers that the creatures known as Hideauze are the result of humankind’s greatest feat of (possibly and probably illegal) engineering, ingenuity and curiosity—they biologically manipulated themselves so they could survive in space and travel the stars, eventually evolving into cosmos-dwelling cephalopods. Surprise, protagonist: the glory of humanity is what gave birth to the very monsters that threaten it, and the humans that survive in the orbiting colonies are so robotic and focussed on their fight that they’ve bled every last drop of their scientific creativity and longing for knowledge. And wouldn’t you say that those were very human traits? Now who is less fundamentally human, then? The soldier race, or the Hideauze?
Obviously, if nothing else, it’s a terrible shock to the protagonist and the audience, complete with the squashing of some suspiciously human-foetus-shaped egg things on the way to the central hub of the underwater ruins that reveals all this. Again, nothing draws out sympathy and a sickly guilt like babies, even if they are baby monsters. For the most part though it plays into the series’ theme of conflicting political and militaristic ideals, and brings the back-and-forth about Ledo’s morality to a head by turning it upside down and smacking him with it. And brings up a bigger question about humanity: will we one day strive so high in our thirst for power and knowledge and more that we no longer even recognise ourselves, that if we saw what we’d become we’d attack it on instinct?
With any of these there’s the big moral question: is it okay to kill Hideauze or Witches now that we know they’re people? Or should they not be treated as such since they’re so far gone? Do they still retain a human-like sentience? Are we doomed to the same fate?
The third kind of story this can bring up is the one where the characters look said Monsters in the eye and say “bugger it, we’ll willingly become like you if it means getting on your level and standing a chance of winning”. Though of course, where that leaves you from a moral standpoint is a blaring question, but sometimes he who fights monsters risks becoming a monster himself, and if you’re engaged in any kind of war effort, sometimes your humanity falls by the wayside in order to do what you need to do. The irony there being that in trying to protect Humans from Monsters you’re becoming one yourself, creating a vicious cycle and, arguably, a hell of a lot of hypocrisy.
They repeated this about seventeen times in Attack on Titan to attempt to get this point across, but I think (whatever the as-yet-unexplained mechanics of it are) the main character shapeshifting into one of the flesh-eating giants his entire race is constantly fighting against summed the point up pretty well. Should the people trust him, if he can turn into their greatest threat willy-nilly? Should this prompt investigation and insight into the titans themselves, and should they be considered to have some sort of human basis if people can turn into them? Is it ethically acceptable to say it’s okay when the guys on our side trash cities and tear bodies apart, because they’re on our side?
The ‘everything is people’ twist is a fun one that brings all sorts of pressing questions into play, though perhaps a tad overused at this point, since I saw that “titans are people” (or at least, some of them are) thing coming a mile away. Because honestly, what could be more shocking? That dirty, dangerous evil Other is, in fact, you, staring back at yourself. Maybe we fear Monsters because we can’t stand to see ourselves reflected, and maybe the Monsters hate us Humans because we in ourselves are monstrous. Choose your poison. We’re a notoriously self-reflective bunch, much as we speculate that we’d hate it.