I recently watched the movie “Godzilla vs. Kong” (2021), directed by Adam Wingard. It comes on a wave of a revival, somewhat, of monster movies, particularly BIG monster movies or ‘Kaiju’ as they might call them in Japan, like Godzilla.
Now I won’t give a full review of the movie, that’s not my intention with this article. All I can say is go in with either an incredibly open mind, or one completely shut and just looking for dumb monster-smashing fun. Big thingies go smack-smack on head, do hurties to one another, break city – that’s the best bit of the film.
The rest of it is a threadbare plot, barely any exposition, characters that could be completely cut without detriment to the film, dialogue that frankly hurts, built around a premise so flimsy it wouldn’t hold up to a gnat’s fart. But, big monster do smashy-smashy make boom happen – Smile smile.
It is literally the dumbest fun I have had since being sobre and, do you know what? If you read this website you realise…I overthink shit a lot! It’s basically what I’m best at. Being able to sit and watch a movie that literally forces me to suspend my disbelief lest I leave scarred is sometimes a good thing. Watch it for the monster smashy, not the ‘good movie’ – there isn’t one. It’s a theme park ride on your television screen. 2/10 plot, 7 or 8/10 movie – Expect that.
Anyway it got me thinking about the role of monsters!
It’s not a new phenomenon, I mean, Godzilla sprung up via Toho into a post-nuclear Japanese movie industry. As a metaphor for the lingering, monstrous effect that the use of atomic weapons had on Japan it is, frankly, a masterpiece. The fact that it literally spawned a series that endures to this day is a testament, though, to something deeper.
The bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, only 9 years later, in 1954, the legend, the “King of the Monsters” Godzilla was born. He is a clear metaphor for those bombings and other nuclear disasters, indeed, as a monster he was created by nuclear fallout – to an extent mirroring the very creation of our own monster, in nuclear arms.
So, one role monsters play is as a manifestation of our own internal fears.
It makes it very hard to consider the ‘earliest’ monster ‘myth’. For one, our proto-human ancestors inhabited a world of literal monsters. The Pleistocene, the age during which modern humans were developing, began around 2.5 million years ago and ended only around 12,000 years ago. It was an incredible age, which saw titans like the Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), the giant ground sloth (Megatherium americanum) and the short faced bear (Arctodus sp.). This was a time, as far as we know, before town walls, solid defences, quality weapons and the separation from nature that humans have today.
Early humans and our proto-human ancestors grew up with monsters chasing them, they grew up with the inevitability of losing family members to predators. Humans were preyed upon by many of these monsters. We also fought against them, combining our strengths, our skills, our weapons and our greatest weapon of all, our minds, to take down humongous animals like mammoth for our own exploitation.
For much of our evolutionary history, being snatched by, and fighting against, nature’s greatest monsters were the lessons we learned.
As the glaciers retreated, the real monsters died out, and our once unsettled ancestors learned to cultivate, to build, and to safely wall themselves off from nature and her remaining monsters, the dangers and predators. All that was left was the monster in our mind.
One reason for monsters, then, could be this lingering ancestral memory. I’ve talked about the ‘snake detection hypothesis’ in my article about the Bible chapters 1-5 (discussing the serpent in Eden). This hypothesis suggests that humans and other primates have particularly attuned visual abilities when it comes to spotting snakes disguised in the environment, and suggests this is because of the danger they posed to us in the past.
So, checking in the closet, under the bed and behind the curtains for monsters might seem outlandish by contemporary safety standards, but as I like to constantly remind people, our memes, our culture, develops significantly faster than our genes, that code for our bodies and minds. Venomous snakes, spiders, scorpions etc. would all have been a significant danger to humans and could all be lurking in the dark, dank corners of our lives. It takes a long time to undo what could be innately cautious, anxious codified behaviours.
Sometimes we invent monsters to talk about the potential pitfalls humans could be walking towards, like with Godzilla. Sometimes the monsters were very real, but in our safe human world of today are no longer lurking in our shadows ready to kill us. Is that all there is to it?
You see I, and many others, also believe that many monsters are made of our inner selves, indeed most ‘monsters’ represent aspects of an inner self.
Vampires, for example, may be a surprisingly modern Eastern European folkloric legend, but the notion of monsters – especially very sexualised monsters – draining our life essence, our blood, is one that dates back potentially as far as the earliest myths we have. Hindu mythology has it’s vampire-adjacent monsters, Babylon and Assyria bring us the Lilitu, who would become the Lilith of Hebrew myth, a very sexualised and vampiric demonic being.
So the notion of ‘draining essence’ seems to be innately tied to the two most fundamental, and mysterious, of life’s processes – Sex and death. You can read all about them in my introduction to biology here. Effectively, though, sex and death are two processes fundamental to our lives working as they do, but even today they remain enigmatic, mysterious and unknown even the biggest of experts in the field of biology.
So are these monsters, like so many other myths, a means of making sense of the world around us? Sexual desire is a baser urge, capable of clouding even the most rational of thinking minds and, thus, turning them into a beast, a monster.
Fear – the physiological state more than the feeling – is mirrored by many of the same biomarkers that would indicate arousal. Sex and monsters, fear and arousal, sexual horror, just works.
So what other monsters could be linked, similarly, to psychological processing of our own behaviours? Werewolves are an obvious one. Much like with the vampires, they represent the overwhelming of our conscious, rational mind with a more bestial essence.
Indeed it is suggested the roots of Medieval werewolf legend could come from a pre-Christian, animist idea of the warrior (particularly in certain Germanic groups) being imbued with the spirit of the wolf. Effectively, in battle, they become a werewolf. With a later Christian rationale this could be looked at as adopting a demon, allowing oneself to become possessed.
In the case of the werewolf I would argue the internal considerations are more temper-based, being overcome with anger, with a desire to do violence and do harm, to consume your foes, more than it is sexual as it is with vampires. We all have this! Very few are the people who act on those urges but so many people have them. You have a bad day, your boss gives you grief and you just momentarily imagine tearing them limb from limb. That violent, bestial entity exists, lurking in the shadows of our psyche at all times. How better to explain it than through monsters, through werewolves. It crafts this perfect metaphor for the transformation of an otherwise rational human into an animalistic creature.
These kinds of beasts are represented through the human monster cannon, from satyrs, centaurs and sirens through to the emblematic Minotaur. The Minotaur not only represents a monster as created by hybridizing (literally, in this case) a human and a bull, but also is a cautionary tale of human hubris on the face of the Gods.
King Minos prayed for favour with the Gods (specifically Poseidon, God of the seas) and asked to be sent a white bull as a sign of this favour. He was given the favour, but was ordered to sacrifice the bull to honour Poseidon. Minos, being so entranced by the beauty of the bull, tried to sneakily sacrifice something else to Poseidon instead and so Poseidon made Minos’ wife, Pasiphaë, fall in love with the white bull. She fucked it! In fact she had Daedalus make her a hollow, wooden bull contraption so she could fuck it. The result was the Minotaur, this half-man, half-bull monster.
So to an extent not only does the Minotaur represent the bestial innate within humans, but also their guilt. In fact I suspect a lot of other monsters are manifestations of this as well. How often do we say alcoholics are under the spell of the ‘demon drink’, or that someone daydreaming or not paying full attention is ‘away with the fairies’ – We craft these myths and monsters to explain our behaviours.
In a way, then, these myths and monsters could represent some of the earliest forays of humanity into the notion of psychology. It is a means to understand ourselves, our place in the world, and how we feel about it all. Given that the human mind seems particularly enamoured with understanding through narrative, it makes monsters, myths and the stories built around them, perhaps the most universal means of conveying that meaning. It seems very Jungian to suggest but perhaps Jung was on to something with universality of meanings of certain motifs, and the means to connecting humans via this universal, symbolic language?
Either way, I think we need monsters. I think the human mind is liable to break when considering everything in the cold light of rationalism, and certainly creativity suffers. Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein represented the dangers of biological explorations and Frankenstein’s monster was the monstrous manifestation of that danger. Godzilla is the monster of a post-nuclear world, in which inhumanity has been demonstrated in the most catastrophic way. These monsters, though metaphors, perhaps represent a more universal way of communicating these ideas, these cautions, these dangers, the guilt and the pain, than conventional language.
I like monsters. I’ve always liked monsters. I know they’re supposed to be big scary things. The thing is, though, I’m all too aware that they themselves only represent the worst of us.
I’m not scared of monsters lurking. It’s the people you need to worry about.Follow @wldiscipline