Monster Mash

Why man both early and modern creates monsters.


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It may have seemed like an obvious question at first: How does prey
recognize a predator? Joel Berger once performed an interesting
experiment to discover just that. When, say, monkeys sound the alert
for a nearby raptor, is that a cultural response? Perhaps they had seen
it before, or were taught the response by their elders. To test this
theory, Berger, a scientist with Wildlife Conservation Society, and his
colleagues visited various herds of American bison with recordings of
the sounds of predators that the bison would probably have had contact
with in the past (wolves) and predators they likely would not have
(lions). The American bison as it currently exists lives with very few
natural predators, and their only real link to lions is the fact that
their genetic ancestors once coexisted with, and were frequently the
meals of, the now faraway felines. The sound of the wolves did not
cause much of a ruckus among the bison. The bison, with its mass and
horns and hooves, is a formidable opponent to the relatively scarce
number of wolves in the wild. However, at location after location, it
was the roar of the lion that consistently caused fear among the herds.

  • On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears by Stephen T. Asma. 368 pages. Oxford University Press. $27.95.

Man is not that different. We come equipped with some inborn fears that defy logic. Most of us fear spiders, sometimes to a crippling degree, despite so few of us living among spider species that could actually do us harm. We may be able to think rationally about it, to acknowledge that this small jumping spider could barely break our skin, let alone kill us, but that argument does nothing to dissuade our adrenaline levels, our pounding hearts, our sweaty palms. In our genes are the memories of life in Africa, where there are very dangerous spiders that pose real threats. And we are not as sturdy as the bison. Many creepy crawly things cause that same response: insects, snakes, rodents… As Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in her book Blood Rites, the history of the human being is not the story of the fearless warrior. For most of our history, we were scavengers. We were the prey. Those who were cautious or even fearful may have lived longer to procreate, and thus we have inherited a built-in spider warning freak-out system.

We even fear those things that we have never seen, things we ourselves have conjured out of the shadows. In Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors, David D. Gilmore introduces what he believes is the first recording of human monster fear, a creature called the “sorcerer,” painted on the walls of the Trois-Frères cave. It has human-like legs, an elk body, antlers, claws, and a kind of psychotic stare. It’s there along the other cave paintings of realistic animals. The painting dates back to the Magdalenian period that started 25,000 years ago when Homo sapiens reached Western Europe. The image is not remarkable just because it conforms with the most common monster template by mixing the characteristics of several animals to form a much larger, more terrifying new creature. Those monsters — and the similar monstrous forms that decorate the caves of Les Combarelles, La Madeleine, and others — are, as the French paleoanthropologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan pointed out, the first evidence of the human imagination and the ability to think abstractly, symbolically, and metaphysically. Humans have been living with monsters for a while, and they exist across every culture. But with so many real things to fear in our lives, why would we start making up even more terrifying things in the first place?

It’s not just the largeness or the strangeness that makes a monster, as there are many mythological creatures of fearsome size that are representations of good. The word “monster” itself has roots in the Latin for “omen.” Theologians from Saint Augustine on believed in monsters, and they believed in their divine origin. They were sent by God to correct or warn of human error. Sort of like a mystical version of the story we tell our children — “If you don’t stay in bed, the boogie man (or Behemoth or Leviathan, early Judaic monsters created by God) will get you.” Gilmore writes, “[The monster] embodies the existential threat to social life, the chaos, the atavism, and negativism that symbolize destructiveness and all other obstacles to order and progress, all that which defeats, destroys, draws back, undermines, subverts the human project — that is, the id.”

The most common characteristic of the monster is that it doesn’t simply kill men. This creature of chaos, which lives deep within the Earth or under the sea, devours them. In a popular Native American myth, a Windigo is a hideous man-eating monster whose cravings are so intense that it has eaten off its own lips, creating an eerie smile. According to the myth, if a human being cannibalizes a fellow person out of desperate hunger, then they themselves become a Windigo. The Windigo is a clear omen: cross this line and you will destroy your own humanity. You will become the monster you most fear. But most of the Western monster myths are stories of fierce, mysterious beasts, unlike anything seen before, stalking a town and eating its defenseless inhabitants. That is until the hero rides in on his trusty steed.

Every archetype is coupled with its opposite. The monster creates the hero, and vice versa. In Stephen Asma’s On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, he retells the tale of Alexander the Great’s pursuit of King Porus into India. The troops became disoriented and lost several members in a river full of hippos, but they thought their problems were finally over as they set up camp near a lake. They were mistaken. All through the night, a torrent of ghastly beasts visited the lake and attacked the men, including dragons, “enormous pigs of various colors,” “bats… with teeth like those of men,” and a three-horned behemoth. Alexander and his men, of course, fought bravely despite suffering many casualties. Alexander was the hero of the day with his well-honed “monster-slaying technique.” There are many of these stories throughout time. Some of them can be explained by man’s tendency towards exaggeration — fear makes us remember the attacker as larger, the heights as higher, the battle as longer than reality. Asma takes the story to mean “the exotic world is not benign, and we must make our way defensively and aggressively.” Alexander admonishes his men not to behave as women by “giv[ing] up in adversity.” Every hero needs a monster, and every civilization that lives with the fear of monsters needs a hero. We can’t go about our daily lives living with full time werewolf panic. We create a hero, or the hero creates himself, to beat back the monster. They’re rarely killed off completely in the stories, instead simply driven back underground. They lurk, and we may still fear them, but not so much that we can’t do the dishes and go to work in the morning.

In the past the monsters made their homes in the uncharted territories of the world: the deep woods, the underground, the bottoms of lakes and seas. Today, there’s not much of the world that hasn’t been explored and mapped out, with no “monsters” ever found. We prefer our monsters in the form of movies these days, although the menace still comes from the territories we can’t see — the extraterrestrial in Alien, the malevolent spirits in Poltergeist and The Exorcist — or as man-as-monster — serial killers or the men-who-evolved-into cave-dwelling bat/mole-people in The Descent. For the most part, our day to day lives are monsterless. There are places in Spain that still celebrate the old hero versus monster stories with ritualistic parades that recreate the defeat of the beast. But even there, Gilmore reports an affection towards the dragons. They still scare the children, but there’s almost a loving relationship between the town and their tormentors.

That does not mean that the human being has overcome its fear of monsters. As Rollo May, the existential philosopher, wrote, it was considered an advancement when mankind rid itself of its belief in witches and fairies and other superstitions. However, “there is a sound truth in the old parable of the man who swept the evil spirit out of his house, but the spirit, noticing that the house stood clean and vacant, returned bringing seven more evil spirits with him.” We may no longer fear monsters past childhood, but those old monster templates are still in our brains. “Evil spirit” can all too easily be replaced with “Jew” or “Communist” or any other form we can use to fill the space, as Asma points out. Thousands of years of evolution are tough to shake. Now that we, too, have no real natural predators, we really only have each other left to fear, and the monster and hero stories have always been projections of our worst and best attributes — the depravity to which we’re capable of sinking, and the bravery to which we aspire. • 10 December 2009