Picture yourself in a dark alley. There, in the shadows, the glint of bloody jaws. Something moves, its disfigured limbs crawling too fast to be natural. What is that? You freeze, back up. Then, nothing. Did you imagine it? You listen, you watch, until you see something in the corner of your eye and—!
What makes monster stories so appealing? And why are we so inapt to recognise those very monsters in real life?
Tricking the Brain
Our instinctive fear of monsters goes back to when our ancestors still lived in trees. That primal response persists in our modern brains to this day, and it’s a veritable treasure trove for storytellers.
Movies and books make use of the face that our brains can’t tell the difference between a real threat and an imagined one. So when you watch a horror movie – at home, on your couch with a mug of hot chocolate – your survival instinct kicks in all the same. Your heart begins to race, you tense up, and cold sweat gathers in your palms.
It’s just a movie, you tell yourself, but your brain won’t buy into that.
So Hollywood and mainstream paperbacks churn out tropes and clichés ad nauseum. The response such concepts elicit is so primal that it never fails to hit the emotional mark. Endanger or kill cute animals and children, and you’ve got the audience by their proverbial balls (m/f).
Other sure-fire bets are intense chases, trapping the main character, and monsters. Is a story lacking spunk? Add a monster of some sort. Success guaranteed.
Breaking Down Monsters
An effective monster goes straight for the amygdala. To do that, it needs to meet 4 key criteria:
- It must be a direct threat to the hero’s (way of) life.
- It must be highly unpredictable in its behaviour, or the behavioural pattern is unknown.
- It is beyond (human) control.
- The hero can’t evade or defend herself (and others) against it.
Any large predator will do. Remember the velociraptors from Jurassic Park franchise?
- The raptors can and will kill humans.
- The heroes can’t be certain when, where or who they will attack next.
- The heroes can’t control their behaviour, since the raptors are wild animals and terribly smart to boot.
- Try as the heroes might, the monsters’ size, strength and speed render the available weapons useless.
Hiding and running is really the last recourse their prey the heroes have, but even that doesn’t assure their survival. Cue one hell of a story finale!
Large predators capable of hunting humans are the most obvious type of monsters. They appeal directly to our brain, and remind us of the time humanity wasn’t at the top of the food chain.
Thinking Out of the Monster Box
In stories, monsters don’t always look like the stereotypical hunter-killer. Still, their function in the story is functionally the same.
In emotional dramas, the ‘monster’ is often an antagonist that threatens the hero’s way of life. A relative who threatens to cut you off the financial support you rely on for survival is every bit as scary as someone coming at you with a knife. The hero pleads and tries to convince that nasty parent/aunt/sugar daddy, but he has no real control over the decision that may ruin his life. Even the bully in a children’s story checks all the boxes of the monster checklist.
Actually, most antagonist are a ‘monster’ of some sort. Because monsters are essential. Stories don’t function well without them. That is how deeply entrenched our fear of them is.
Not all threats to our survival are posed by big creatures with fangs. Sometimes, the monster is not less dangerous for being microscopic.
A few years ago, the world clenched its collective buttocks as the Ebola virus spread like wildfire. The disease wasn’t unknown, but it had never infected so many people so quickly. So quite naturally, we were terrified.
- Ebola has an absurdly high kill rate. Patients die horribly and in great numbers.
- The virus is incredibly contagious. Fleeing the area didn’t guarantee you would escape infection.
- A preciously obscure virus, we knew relatively little about it and had no way to manage the outbreak, let alone contain it. It spread unchecked from community to community.
- There was no weapon against it: no cure, and experimental drugs were still unsure to be effective.
Against all odds, people survived, but rarely due to modern medicine. The Global Village got a taste of what life had been like in 14th century Europe, when the Black Plague decimated entire countries. Of course, this time only West-Africa felt the immense horror of the outbreak, while the rest of us hid behind borders and oceans and prayed the monster wouldn’t find us.
In Real Life
We humans are rather preoccupied with monsters, and with good reason. As invincible as we may feel as a species, a part of us realises we’d be sitting ducks if something truly monstrous reared its head.
It has. Repeatedly. Because monster are everywhere. We just don’t always recognize them in time.
Child molesters look regular persons. To their victim, they may even be family. Gang members may advertise their status, but that doesn’t necessarily make them murderers. Sometimes the line is even less clear: in tyranical regimes, the monsters wear uniforms and carry guns – but so do the soldiers that come to liberate them.
For want of elongated teeth and red eyes to give away the monster, society has more than once turned to ambiguous ‘tell-tale signs’ to identify unwanted persons. Such paranoia yields too many false positives. Still, people prefer to defend themselves against the devil they know, rather than to acknowledge the existence of a monster they want to fight but can’t.
And so every day, the news is full of torches and pitchforks.
Does it help? Does knowing the monster make it less scary? Let me rephrase: are you less frightened watching that new horror movie when you know how its monster was designed?
No. If that monster is credible to you, you will be shivering. Your brain won’t allow you any other option.
Unless the monster is ridiculous and makes you laugh. Or when the shiver you feel is one of awe instead of dread. Then you won’t feel that primal fear, and you won’t recognise the monster for what it is.
That how Adolf Hitler and his henchmen became democratically elected rulers of the German nation. That is how Donald Trump became President of the USA, and how he remains in power. We – that is, society as a whole – didn’t see how they could pose a threat to us.
Nor could we. History teaches us the consequences of leaving such monsters unchallenged, but at the time, no one could have foreseen the dangers. For what danger is there in a laudable bid to restore a struggling country?
Sometimes you just can’t recognise the monsters until it is too late.