Jonah Goldberg

February has been a bad month for monsters.

John and Linda Dollar of Beverly Hills, Fla., are monsters. Or, to use the legalese required in these circumstances, they're monsters if they did what they've been accused of.

Mr. and Mrs. Dollar allegedly tortured at least three of their five foster children. According to the authorities, the kids say the Dollars electrocuted them when they "stole food." The Dollars pulled out their toenails when they "messed-up the place." The children were kept locked in a closet with a wind chime on the door knob so that their "guardians" would know if they escaped. Physical exams reportedly corroborate the testimony.

Three of the kids were so starved they will probably never grow properly. One of the twin 14-year-olds weighed 36 pounds, the other 38. Their condition was discovered when the 16-year-old - who weighed 59 pounds - was brought to the hospital with suspicious head and neck injuries. The other two kids, aged 14 and 17, were treated better because they were the Dollars' "favorites" - although being raised and "home-schooled" in such an environment, which reminded investigators at the scene of pictures from Auschwitz, constitutes its own kind of torture.

The Dollars were picked up by the police in Utah driving a gold Lexus, which they bought in part with the money they got to take care of their foster kids.

Around the same time, an Alabama woman was arrested for deliberately starving her three children, aged 11, 9 and 8, to death. And defrocked priest Paul Shanley was convicted of raping and assaulting a boy by a Boston jury.

Monsters of a different sort play a big role in my life these days. My house is drenched in Elmo, Cookie Monster, Grover, and other cute and cuddly beasts. My daughter still can't get enough of "Monsters Inc.," a wonderful movie that nonetheless perpetuates the idea that monsters aren't by their nature evil. In the film the creatures are just as terrified of human kids as the kids are of the giant creatures.

A lovable monster is a very new concept because, first and foremost, monsters are about evilness. The original meaning of the word "monster" derives, via Old French, from a word for "divine omen or warning." The Latin monstrum comes from the verb monere, meaning "warn." A monster was a deformed person or animal that people mistook for a harbinger of evil or bad spirits. The idea that monsters were horrible creatures came later. It wasn't until perhaps as late as the 16th century when the literary notion that monsters were big slobbery dragons and beasts was well established.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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