You are being followed; you can sense it. Your chest tightens as you search your environment for the thing that hunts you. Hungry eyes glow from the darkness. Dagger-like teeth flash in the moonlight. Deep rumblings growl in the distance. Your heartbeat quickens and the hair stands on the back of your neck while you frantically search for a place to hide. You feel its hot breath on your skin. It‘s too late.
Monsters are an integral part of both folklore and popular culture. They scare us, they hunt us, they teach us, and sometimes they play with us. They occupy a strange place between the real and surreal. They take many forms. In our stories and on occasion in our real lives they can be ghosts, wild animals, supernatural creatures cobbled together from random parts, or even people. In our earliest stories, we tell tales of creatures that upset the natural order and make the world more dangerous. They hide around every corner, just waiting for their opportunity to strike. We throw terms around like monster, inhuman, and evil to describe people that we find socially reprehensible. When we talk about groups different from us that we find threatening, we often ascribe some of the worst traits we can imagine, dehumanizing them and making them into one-dimensional beasts. Sometimes we use them to look at the monsters within ourselves.
The idea of monsters is as old as human thought. Monsters have existed in our minds and stories in many incarnations. The etymology of the word is found the Latin word monstrem, meaning misshapen, or malformed, something unnatural. This was originally used to describe people with birth defects, and over time came to represent anything that horrified or amazed us in appearance or act.
I would like to think that very concept was likely born in our primitive ape brains when we first had the capacity to share information. At that time the monsters were as real as the grass of the savannahs we walked. Giant bears, terror birds, mega lions, and crocodiles stalked us day and night, their eyes, teeth, claws and accompanying savagery forever etched into our minds. Even now our most feared monsters have all the traits of a merciless predator with which there is no reasoning. We find them in thirsty vampires, ravenous werewolves, shuffling zombies, or elusive chupacabras. They are beasts that have no humanity in them. They feed on our destruction and delight in our despair. Like predators, our death and loss give them life.
This fear of becoming the prey has been instrumental in teaching lessons that may otherwise go unheeded, playing on superstitions and the fear of the supernatural to maintain societal order. M. Night Shyamalan plays with this very idea in his film The Village. The inhabitants of a nondescript 19th century-esque settlement are warned not to venture out in to the woods. Creatures lived among the trees, eager for the moment when one of the villagers breaches their agreement so that they could lay waste to the town. This story was told to the villagers in the film in order to maintain the social order and prevent them from discovering the truth about not only the village, but the wider world around them. Order must be maintained or society risks ruin. Stories about la diablesse in Trinidad and Tobago are often used to warn us about the dangers of strange people. The many Arthurian legends about slaying trolls and dragons tell us to be brave in the face of that which terrifies us. In many of these tales, the monster represents the unknown, the danger of breaking with the social order and feeding moral decay. Venturing into the woods will ruin society, being too trusting of strangers can get you killed and eaten, not living up to the high morals of a brave knight mean death and dishonour.
Having monsters also gives us a sense of validation. Being able to point at something and personify it as evil can make laying claim to the righteousness of our way of life simple. We see this not only in films and stories, but also in modern politics. This is a common trope in modern political discourse. We don’t need to learn anything about the target group beyond the worst. No good they do is enough to make them worthy of human treatment because they are subhuman and dangerous. When we perceive an existential threat to our way of life (real or imagined), we tend to ascribe the worst possible characteristics we can imagine onto that threat. In so doing, we can justify whatever atrocities we commit against them because they are not like us. We can become monsters ourselves without having to claim the title. We can bring citizens into line with popular opinion because the threat we perceive is bigger than any of our internal differences. The worst of ours will always be better than the best of theirs. They are malformed creatures that are so dissimilar they do not deserve the same treatment that we would give another human being. It is from this capacity to strip people of their humanity because they are different that allows for xenophobia, nationalism, and ethnic violence to take place. Projecting the qualities of a monster on to someone else gives us the ability to create distance between the worst parts about ourselves and the people we think that we are. Making other people into monsters makes us feel better about whom we are and the terrible things we do because we can make ourselves believe that they deserve it.
Monsters also do one more thing for us. They allow us to explore the most distasteful aspects of our own nature from a distance. Zombies help us to explore our rampant consumerism and the latent barbarism that crawls beneath our skin. Shows like The Walking Dead delve deeply into the subject matter, serving as a thought experiment on human psyche after the total collapse of civil society. The show holds up a mirror and asks us directly “how far are you willing to go?” Vampires are metaphors for our predation on others. Being Human is a television show that wrestles with that very notion, as one of the main characters is a vampire that tries to sustain himself without having to kill for human blood, and the costs associated with his decision to break with a society that kills and consumes with reckless abandon. This is an allegory for people who question our society’s rampant consumerism and the havoc that it wreaks on both the environment and other people. Our capitalistic society is by its very nature vampire-like. At the cost of impoverished people and the environment the world over, we extract raw materials to continue to feed our glut for power and comfort. We suck the life out of the rest of the world so that we can continue to live. Having frank conversations about these parts of ourselves can prove difficult, especially since most of us want to imagine that we are good people. We don’t want to think of ourselves as ruthless or destructive, and projecting those characteristics onto a mythical creature allows us to look into the eyes of the devils within us and make a choice to change who we are.
So why do we need them? If monsters only allow us to control each other, demonize and attack other people, and to avoid responsibility for the things we do, why do we need them? Is there no way for us to just confront these things about ourselves and do better? The truth is that these are not easy questions to answer. What I can say is this: As long as we have stories to teach us about ourselves, monsters will be there. As long as there are things we don’t understand, monsters will be there. As long as we will continue to need validation for our own righteousness, monsters will be there. As long as we continue to avoid the self-assessment necessary as a society to make ourselves into better people, monsters will always be there. As long as there are monsters, there will always be stories to tell us about them. We need monsters because they make framing the world in a simple dichotomy of good and evil easy for us. Monsters, however, are neither good nor bad. Our monsters are what we make them out to be. Whatever shape they take, and what we choose to do with them are reflections of who we really are.
Until next time, be good to yourselves and each other.
Adam H.C. Myrie