Avatar: The Last Airbender’s episode “The Puppetmaster” begins with Avatar Aang, waterbender Katara, her brother Sokka, and earthbender Toph telling ghost stories around the fire (stories which ring with the air of Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain). Beginning the episode with ghost stories sets the tone for one of the series’ spookiest installments: the four heroes face Hama, a waterbender seeking revenge on the Fire Nation for her years of imprisonment by controlling the bodies of townsfolk each full moon and imprisoning them beneath a mountain. The episode is filled with tropes, imagery, and reinventions of familiar monsters, and it’s worth looking more closely at how ATLA’s creators use existing monstrous lore to build a new, unsettling story that moves the monster from the outside in.
Scary Time, Scary Place
The opening shot of the episode is a close up on an almost-full moon, with eerie music playing in the background. The moon’s power plays an important role in the episode and links the lore of “The Puppetmaster” with existing monstrous tales. Monsters and spirits often have a connection with certain times, appearing at night or at specific times of the year. The Japanese tradition of the hyakkiyagyō (“night procession of demons”) imagines a parade of yōkai (spirits, wonders, supernatural phenomena) specifically at night and, at least in the case of the Muromachi-period Hyakkiyagyō emaki, ends the parade with the dispersal of yōkai at the rising of the sun (Foster 55-56). In vampire mythology, the vampire usually strikes by night, in some cases even sleeping during the day or burning upon contact with sunlight. In werewolf lore, the cycle of the moon can control the werewolf’s transformations. The night and the moon are understood as triggers of and environments for monstrous activities and changes.
ATLA capitalizes on these associations. Throughout the series, the power of the moon is associated with waterbenders, as they derive power from the moon and therefore experience stronger powers at night (in the episode “The Siege of the North, Part 2,” the Fire Nation kills the Moon Spirit in order to deprive the waterbenders of their powers). The series also associates spirit activity with nightfall: in the episode “Winter Solstice: Part 1: The Spirit World,” the angry spirit Hei Bai attacks only after sunset. In “The Puppetmaster,” Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Toph learn of people disappearing in the woods during the full moon, and they assume they are dealing with a similar angry spirit—or even a “moon monster” (ATLA, 3.8, 15:48). As Sokka remarks, “people disappearing in the woods, weird stuff during full moons. This just reeks of Spirit World shenanigans!”—and of recognizable elements of monster stories (ATLA, 3.8, 6:11). The night-bound nature of the disappearances and their connection with the full moon primes us to attribute the disappearances to a supernatural or monstrous cause.
The location of the disappearances—in the woods, as Sokka notes—also helps connect the episode with a tradition of supernatural lore. Woods and mountains often serve as a space for monstrous encounters. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the fight with Humbaba occurs on a wooded mountainside. In the Shanhaijing, monsters inhabit mountains and seas, uncharted areas where brave travelers would expect to run into strange creatures. The conception of unknown or uninhabited realms as homes of spirits manifests in Japanese culture with the building of shrines to different spirits as one moves further away from “civilization” and folkloric tales of kamikakushi, or people being “spirited away” to the realm of the spirits. In “The Puppetmaster,” though the term kamikakushi isn’t used explicitly, the characters assume an angry spirit is stealing villagers from the woods and taking them deeper into the spirit’s territory. ATLA stages mysterious activity in the woods and the mountain because those places, displaced from human dwellings, have historically been imagined as containing spirits and monsters.
Hama, the “Moon Monster”
In the end, the disappearances are not a result of an angry spirit but a waterbender woman named Hama. ATLA gradually constructs Hama as monstrous by endowing her with the qualities of many familiar monsters.
When Aang, Sokka, and Toph discover Hama’s prisoners, the prisoners say they have been brought there by a witch (ATLA, 3.8, 17:42). Hama shares many qualities with the archetypal witch. She is an older woman with white hair, long fingers with sharp nails, and magical abilities. Even before she is revealed to be the cause of the disappearances, she exhibits strong waterbending abilities as she teaches Katara how to draw water from plants and from the air. Her empty and mysterious house, in which she seems to live alone, adds to her isolation and otherness (and, in turn, her monstrosity).
Hama’s powers align her with other monsters as well, creating a hybrid creature of connections. Hama’s increased power during the full moon echoes mythologies of other “moon monsters” discussed above: vampires and werewolves. Like the werewolf, it is by the light of the full moon that she transforms from a human into a monster. Hama’s monstrosity stems from her monstrous acts of “bloodbending,” a practice by which a waterbender can control the blood in someone’s body and, in so doing, control their movements. Hama’s power over blood increases the horror of her powers, calling to mind the vampire’s connection to blood and mind control abilities. In her ability to control people’s bodies, Hama also takes on the role of a bocor, a sorcerer who would control the revived bodies of the dead as zombies. Hama renders her victims living zombies; they retain the ability to think and speak, but she controls their every movement.
Passing It On
Importantly, while Hama seems to be driven by a thirst for revenge (like a vengeful ghost), she later reveals another motive for her actions throughout the episode: to get Katara to become a bloodbender, too. Katara uses bloodbending to subdue Hama, and though she is defeated, Hama declares, “My work is done. Congratulations, Katara. You’re a bloodbender” (ATLA, 3.8, 23:30). Here, Hama reveals her desire to pass on her power; in making Katara a bloodbender, Hama has ensured her power will live on. This desire to pass on her monstrous abilities aligns Hama with other monsters whose monstrosity is contagious: vampires, some renditions of werewolves, and zombies, all creatures who turn humans into monsters with a bite, who are driven to reproduce through replication. Hama, like these monsters, has turned Katara, replicating monstrosity in her. Like in the 1998 Japanese horror classic Ringu, when the haunted tape must be passed on in order to escape its deadly sentence, monstrosity is contagious, always looking to multiply and grow. Even Katara, ATLA’s unfailingly good hearted heroine, caves to monstrosity’s need to proliferate.
By the end of the episode, monstrosity has left the shadowy corners of the woods at night and infiltrated the familiar through Katara, moving from the unknown wilderness to the internal, the personal, the known. “The Puppetmaster” thus follows the arc of monsters in history, who migrate from the edges of maps into our own psyches. The episode concludes with Katara crying under the light of the full moon as she realizes she has proved capable of monstrosity herself, reminding us that monstrosity cannot be contained by time or space but instead lives inside us, always waiting to emerge.
DiMartino, Michael Dante and Bryan Konietzko, creators. Avatar: The Last Airbender. Nickelodeon Animation Studio, 2005-2008.
Foster, Michael Dylan. Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai. University of California Press, 2009.
Ringu. Directed by Hideo Nakata. Toho, 1998.
Strassberg, Richard E., editor. A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways through Mountains and Seas [Shan Hai Jing]. University of California Press, 2002.
Thompson, R. Campbell. The Epic of Gilgamesh Complete Academic Translation: Translated from Cuneiform Tablets in the British Museum Literally into English Hexameters. Forgotten Books, 2007. Open WorldCat, https://web.archive.org/web/20140515171703/http://king-of-heroes.co.uk/the-epic-of-gilgamesh/reginald-campbell-thompson-translation/.
Ueda, Akinari. Tales of Moonlight and Rain. Translated by Anthony H. Chambers, Columbia University Press, 2007.