Our Monsters, Our Selves
The title of this article is taken from a panel discussion at World Fantasy Convention 2012—a panel that had so many voices who wanted to contribute that it had to be split into two parts! The topic of discussion was on the appeal of monsters in fantasy literature: Why, how, and to who do they appeal?
While the monsters under discussion were reflective, for the most part, of what we see in urban fantasy, I believe the discussion can certainly apply to traditional fantasy as well, since most forms of fantasy-driven fiction tend to draw from the established bestiary of creatures we’ve seen for centuries (and in some cases, millennia).
Monsters are a Projection of Our Internal Darkness
One theory on the appeal of monsters to us—as human beings—is that the relationship between monsters and ourselves is like, for the sake of an easily understood example, the creature from Alien. Monsters are, in a way, a part of us. When we’re able to see that and recognize their place within us, the monster no longer becomes an “other” (and we could spend a whole different article discussing human fear of the “other” and “otherness”).
That’s not to say that we are all right with having that monster within us, only that we recognize it’s there—and it’s terrifying. Who hasn’t had dark thoughts; thoughts that made you question where they came from, and wonder how you could have possibly thought that as a decent human being? The fear is that that dark side will emerge—much like an alien bursting forth from your chest—and there’ll be nothing you can do about it.
Monsters are a Method of Explanation
This is a more historical argument for the appeal of monsters, simply because we now understand the natural world in a far more complete way than humans did, say, several hundred years ago. And while there’s still plenty we don’t know, society for the most part has moved beyond the kind of storytelling that used to exist to explain human transgressions.
In previous centuries, a belief in the existence of monsters was a way to divorce aberrant behaviour from a group of people: “That’s not us! We don’t act like that! Only a monster would do that.” We still recognize that kind of speech (it’s been ingrained into us as a common expression), but whereas we mean it figuratively today, someone living in England in 1742 may have expressed this literally.
For example, early vampire mythology was arguably developed as a way for humans to process the reality of death—to deal with it as a part of the human life cycle, and to cope with the finality of death. There have been many lengthy treatises written on the origins of vampire mythology and folklore, but most of it centers around one thing: Death and how humans cope with death.
We see something similar in early werewolf mythology as well. Early accounts of werewolves in history refer to voluntary werewolves as having been people who’d made ‘deals with the devil’, so to speak—who did terrible things both in and out of werewolf form. This was a perfect way to explain why someone would act ‘inhuman’ in the period before modern science was able to explain and treat things like neurological disorders and mental illness. That’s not to say there was no awareness of these things, but that it became far more reassuring to have an explanation as to why someone would act that way. An explanation removed that sense of the unknown, thus soothing fears and ensuring the continuation of order within a society.
Monsters are a Reflection of Our Deepest Fears
Death. Loneliness. Abandonment. Insignificance. Failure.
All common human fears. And what is a monster, if not something we fear? That much is obvious. But why do we fear it?
Monsters tend to do one of two things, depending on the creature: They will take choices away from you, or tempt you into make choices you otherwise wouldn’t make. And these choices, or lack thereof, lead us toward some of humanity’s greatest fears, like death, and failure.
But what if there were no monsters? What if we never had to look one in the face and see the choices laid out before us? Monsters, even imaginary monsters we’ve read about in a story, are a way for us to process what we’re afraid of. They’re a way for us to recognize what exactly it is that we fear, and once we’ve discovered what that is? Only then can we learn whether we’re strong enough to face it.
And it doesn’t have to be a vampire, a werewolf, a zombie, or a dragon. You might recall the oft-quoted line from Angela Carter’s In the Company of Wolves: “the worst kind of wolves are hairy on the inside.” The scariest monsters are the ones that feel real, that draw us in with their humanity because we can see ourselves reflected in them.
Monsters are Not Invincible
We’re drawn to monsters, because we’re human. We see ourselves in them, they explain the world to us, and through them, we learn what we’re made of. They have power over us—over our imagination, our emotions, our reactions—but they can be overcome.
And maybe that, most of all, is why we’re drawn to them. Because their very existence is what brings forth hope. We have hope that the hero will defeat the dragon. We have hope that the heroine will fight off her vampire captor and escape, alive. We have hope that death won’t win this time, that the battle will be won and the world will be whole again. No more loneliness, no threat of failure.
Maybe we’re drawn to them because we’re all just making our way toward happily ever after, one monster at a time.
This article was originally posted on January 10, 2013.
Title image by Jameswolf.