Our fears, whether you are a true believer of monsters or not, all start in one central place: our minds. And what better time to explore the origin of ghosts and ghouls and vampires and hard AI than Halloween?
It appears there are certain sects that we cleave our monsters into, and each embodies a deep, perhaps even primal, fear. However, they all appear to be rooted in scientific and social advances. From the first groups of people living together to enclaves of religion to the Enlightenment and even in the modern day, our monsters seem to spring from our own advancement, and our fear of that advancement.
Our first, perhaps most primal and desperate fear, is embodied in the monsters that remind us of the irrevocable and uncontrollable power of nature. We see these in the classical world like the Minotaur of ancient Greece, Grendel from Beowulf, and the Sphinx of Egypt. However, these monsters did not stay in our mythology books, like us – they evolved. We see them in the famous creature-features of the 1950s and 1960s, and even in the contemporary era in films like Jurassic Park and, dare I say, Sharknado. We are fascinated, and terrified, when reminded that nature has a will all its own and will, likely, never reveal its full hand.
Then there is the man-made monster, a beacon of the power and destruction man can bestow upon the world, even if s/he does not mean to. We see it as far back as the first iteration of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and it has reappeared again and again, especially throughout the entertainment series. It seems, to me, that there are two distinctions within this category. First is the accidental monster – the zombie, the ruination of our Ozone layer, or even a deathly virus. These man-made monsters are uncontrollable, insatiable and thoughtless. Then, the second subsection of the man-made monster: the cognizant monster. This is like Frankenstein’s monster who rebels, or an AI that becomes more and more aware of its unfair plot in ‘life’ and plans to enact revenge or even a scourge upon the world.
Similar to the man-made monster is the monster within. This kind of monster was born from the study of the brain, of psychology, and of the notion of the individual. This brings to mind the idea that humankind is the only real ‘monster’ that exists. These human monsters, rarely supernatural, remind us of the dark side and the malevolent power that lays dormant (or worse, active) in every person. This can be found, perhaps, in the obsession of true-crime, which became popularized in the 1800s with Penny Dreadfuls, and continues with now-classic films like Silence of the Lambs and The Shining.
The fourth category is the so-called “monster of the past”. These are distant memories of the past turned villains, like how Vlad the Impaler became the forever-feared Dracula. It is a reminder, as professor Leo Braudy says, “that, however powerful our science and understanding, we can’t escape from the dark lore of the past.”
We seem, again and again, to resurrect and recreate and birth anew these monsters in these four simple, yet endlessly fruitful, categories. Are the simply ways of imagining our fears and controlling the narrative? Or, are they the result of deep-rooted, impossible to remember primal fears that were given to us at a time none of us can remember?
Have a spooky halloween, hope this gives you something to chew on! – Astonishing Legends
The above picture comes from Flickr User Victor P. and is licensed under Creative Commons.