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An Anthropologist Considers Our Monsters

A recent e-newsletter from the Constructing Horror website introduced an interesting topic:

“The beasts of past days have given birth to a new kind of creature. In movies like Saw and 28 Days Later, the monsters are powerful and horrifying. But the concept of evil has been turned around on the audiences and what once was a creature of the dark side – has now become something much more complex. When a virus turns our friends and family against us, and antagonists like Jigsaw honestly intends to do good by forcing people to change their lives – the otherwise concrete line of what is good and what is evil becomes very blurred. “

The newsletter goes on to describe a book that tackles this topic by Dr. David Gilmore titled Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002). From the publisher’s website we find the following description:

“The human mind needs monsters. In every culture and in every epoch in human history, from ancient Egypt to modern Hollywood, imaginary beings have haunted dreams and fantasies, provoking in young and old shivers of delight, thrills of terror, and endless fascination. All known folklores brim with visions of looming and ferocious monsters, often in the role as adversaries to great heroes. But while heroes have been closely studied by mythologists, monsters have been neglected, even though they are equally important as pan-human symbols and reveal similar insights into ways the mind works. In Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors, anthropologist David D. Gilmore explores what human traits monsters represent and why they are so ubiquitous in people’s imaginations and share so many features across different cultures.

“Using colorful and absorbing evidence from virtually all times and places, Monsters is the first attempt by an anthropologist to delve into the mysterious, frightful abyss of mythical beasts and to interpret their role in the psyche and in society. After many hair-raising descriptions of monstrous beings in art, folktales, fantasy, literature, and community ritual, including such avatars as Dracula and Frankenstein, Hollywood ghouls, and extraterrestrials, Gilmore identifies many common denominators and proposes some novel interpretations.

“Monsters, according to Gilmore, are always enormous, man-eating, gratuitously violent, aggressive, sexually sadistic, and superhuman in power, combining our worst nightmares and our most urgent fantasies. We both abhor and worship our monsters: they are our gods as well as our demons. Gilmore argues that the immortal monster of the mind is a complex creation embodying virtually all of the inner conflicts that make us human. Far from being something alien, nonhuman, and outside us, our monsters are our deepest selves.”

And here is an excerpt from this interesting title:

“The mind needs monsters. Monsters embody all that is dangerous and horrible in the human imagination. Since earliest times, people have invented fantasy creatures upon which their fears could safely settle. Examples from Western lore are Frankenstein and Dracula, all those dragons of the Middle Ages, Hollywood’s ghouls and extraterrestrials, and of course the sharp-toothed bogeymen that hide under children’s beds. Classic works, from the Grimm brothers to recent psychological studies demonstrate the rich variety and the primal power of the imaginary evil creature as a cultural metaphor and literary device in folklore, fiction, art, dreaming and everyday fantasy.

“Today, we use the term “monster” to imply made-up creatures that are frightening and repugnant, but there remains a very powerful sense in which monsters are still signs or portents of something momentous, carrying profound, even spiritual implications. Indeed, as we shall see, the origins of the word reveal yet another aspect of monsters, which is the paradoxical closeness of the monstrous and the divine. For monsters contain that numinous quality of awe mixed with horror and terror that unites both the evil and the sublime in a single symbol: that which is beyond the human, that which is superhuman, the unnamable, the tabooed, the terrible and the unknown. The monster of the mind is both our foulest mental creation and our most awesome achievement.”

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There are 1 Comments to "An Anthropologist Considers Our Monsters"

  • Steve Hayes says:

    Monsters like the cherubim with the flaming sword, guarding the way back to Eden, representing the inhuman face of God, until the human face of God is revealed in the incarnation.

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