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ON THE REALITY
OF THE IMPOSSIBLE
The word "monster" comes from the Latin monstrum, "that which is shown forth or revealed." The same root also appears in the English word "demonstrate," and several less common words (such as "remonstrance") that share the same sense of revealing, disclosing, or displaying. In the original sense of the word, a monster is a revelation, something shown forth.
This may seem worlds away from the usual modern meaning of the word "monster"a strange, frightening, and supposedly mythical creaturebut here, as elsewhere in the realm of monsters, appearances deceive. Certainly, monsters are strange, at least to those raised in modern ways of approaching the world. As we'll see, too, monsters have a great deal to do with the realm of myth, although this latter word (like "monster" itself) has older and deeper meanings that evade our modern habits of thought. The association between monsters and terror, too, has practical relevance, even when the creatures we call "monsters" fear us more than we fear them.
The myth, the terror, and the strangeness all have their roots in the nature of the realm of monsters and the monstrousa world of revelations, where the hidden and the unknown show furtive glimpses of themselves. If we pay attention to them, monsters do have something to reveal. They show us the reality of the impossible, or of those things that we label impossible; they point out that the world we think we live in, and the world we actually inhabit, may not be the same place at all.
The Meaning of the Monstrous
For thousands of years, monstrous beings have been a source of revelations of this kind. In earlier times, in fact, monsters and what they showed forth were seen as matters of very great importance. Monsters were news, and not just for the reasons that draw crowds to monster movies and UFO-sighting areas nowadays.
To the ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, the appearance of any strange being was a message from the hidden realms of existence, and needed interpretation by skilled professionals. Like comets, meteors, the mutterings of oracles, and the behavior of birds and animals, the appearance of monsters could be read and understood by the wise, and used to cast light on future events, the unknowns of the present, and the always-mysterious purposes of the gods and goddesses. Other ancient societies had similar habits. In China, up to the time of the Nationalist takeover of 1911, for instance, the imperial government included a whole bureaucracy of omen readers, who collected reports of dragons and other monstrous creatures and recorded them as guides to the will of Heaven.
The same sort of attitude is common to most traditional cultures, and it remained standard in the West all through the Middle Ages. The monkish chroniclers of medieval times noted sightings of werewolves and mermaids in much the same spirit that leads modern newspapers to report the doings of such equally mysterious entities as the Gross National Product. The appearance of a monster was news, not just because of what the monster was, but because of what it meantin other words, what it showed forth about the universe and humanity's place in it.
This approach to the monstrous only faded out with the Scientific Revolution, which began some three hundred fifty years ago in Western Europe. The thinkers who spearheaded that revolution saw traditional lore of all kinds as one of the most important roadblocks in the way of their dream of a wholly rationalistic approach to the world. Some of these early scientists, such as Francis Bacon, suggested that the old lore should be carefully searched for whatever real knowledge it contained. The majority, though, thought otherwise, and it was their view that ultimately triumphed.
That triumph was rooted in a profound change in the way people understood the world around them. Before the Scientific Revolution, most people saw the world as a living unity, one that communicated with the observant mind. With the new science came a radically different way of thinking about the universe: a way that saw dead matter moving in empty space as the only reality, and rejected everything else as fable, fraud, or delusion. Under the influence of this new philosophy, all the old monsterlore of the ancient and medieval periods (and a great deal more) was heaped up into one great pile, labeled "nonsense," and tossed aside without a second thought.
Depending on one's viewpoint, this shift in the way people understood the world may look like either common sense breaking through centuries of superstition, or a Faustian bargain in which an entire civilization sold its soul in exchange for material wealth and power. Our task here, however, is not to judge the Scientific Revolution but to understand it, and to make sense of the changes it made in our habits of thoughtchanges that have had a major impact on how we understand (or, more precisely, fail to understand) the appearances of monstrous beings in our midst.
and the Impossible
What set the new science apart from nearly all previous ways of thinking about the world was its insistence that everything real had to be materialthat there was nothing in the universe except atoms and empty space. The most interesting thing about this claim is that no one ever proved, or even tried to prove, that it was correct. It was simply assumed, by the founders of modern science, without proofand it is still assumed, without proof, by most scientists today.
It may come as a surprise to learn that the Scientific Revolution's rejection of magic, alchemy, and the like was based on rhetoric, not experiment. In all the arguments over the reality of these things, no one on the scientific side of the debate claimed to have done experiments proving that magic, alchemy, and other kinds of "rejected knowledge" were false. (This point can be looked up quite readily in contemporary sources, or in the very large modern historical literature on the period.) The early scientists assumed that these things were false because they didn't fit the new scientific and materialist image of the universe, not because anyone disproved them.
In the same way, the lore of monsters was tossed out with the trash, not because people didn't keep seeing monstersthey didor because monster sightings all proved to have simple, straightforward, scientifically acceptable explanationsthey didn'tbut because the scientific model of the universe had no room for monsters. Monsters couldn't existthis is how the logic wentand therefore they didn't exist. By an extension of this same sort of thinking, anyone who disagreed with this sweeping dismissal was obviously either deluded or misinformed, and anyone who claimed to see a monster had to be either mistaken, dishonest, or crazy.
By any standard of logic, of course, this approach is impossible to justify. If the evidence contradicts one's theory, the reasonable thing to do is to throw out the theorynot the evidence! Still, the opposite habit has a long pedigree in scientific circles. It has even been raised to the level of a full-blown philosophical argument by David Hume, whose book An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (first published in 1748) was one of the first clear formulations of the philosophy of modern science. In that book, Hume argued that no amount of evidence could prove the reality of an event that violated the laws of Nature, since it was always more likely that the evidence was wrong than that natural law had been set aside.
This is an interesting claim. If we knew, with absolute certainty, what laws Nature follows, it might even be a reasonable one. Since we don'tscientific "laws," then and now, are simply the most widely accepted theories about how the natural world works, and they constantly change as our knowledge changesdismissing relevant evidence because it doesn't agree with one's preconceptions is at the very least a questionable way to go about things. Nonetheless, this kind of logic has remained standard within the scientific community for more than three centuries now, and has shaped our culture's response to an astonishing array of phenomena.
Thus, for example, no less a personage than Thomas Jefferson reacted to reports of a meteorite impactat a time when scientific theory stated that meteors were not made of rock and could not hit the Earthby insisting it was more likely that an entire county full of witnesses had lied than that a stone had fallen from the sky. His logic was simple: the best scientific authorities said that there were no stones in the sky, and therefore stones couldn't have fallen from the sky. Meteorites couldn't exist, and therefore they didn't existno matter what the evidence said.
Similarly, until Nixon's trip to China brought acupuncture into a blaze of publicity that no amount of official condemnation could obscure, medical authorities in the West insisted that putting needles into a person's skin couldn't possibly cause anesthetic and healing effects. These statements were made, not because anyone had done experiments disproving acupuncture, but because Western medical theories couldn't (and still can't) account for it. Even now, after the publication of reams of experimental studies showing that acupuncture does in fact have the effects claimed for it, there are plenty of medical researchers in the Western world who still dismiss it as quackery because it doesn't fit their theories.
The same questionable logic, finally, continues to govern the way most scientists respond to more than a century of systematic research into extrasensory perception (ESP) and other unusual powers of human consciousness. As sociologist James McClenon demonstrated in his incisive study Deviant Science, most of the scientists who accept the reality of psychic phenomena do so on the basis of evidence. Some are familiar with the impressive results of parapsychological research over the last century, while others have had personal experiences with ESP. Most of those who reject the possibility of psychic phenomena, on the other hand, do so on the basis of theory. In McClenon's study, in fact, no less than 93 percent of scientists who rejected psychic phenomena referred to a priori arguments (that is, arguments based on theoretical principles) as an important factor in their opinions, while only 7 percent of those who accepted psychic phenomena did so.
The sort of thinking that considers theories more important than evidence is a major barrier to the study of monsters and monster lore, among many other things. If any sort of sense is to be made of traditions and experiences involving monsters, it's crucial to avoid this highly unscientific "scientific attitude."
At the same time, of course, it's important to stay away from the opposite extreme of complete credulousness. The realm of the monstrous has attracted its share of questionable cases and dubious characters down through the years; there have been lies, hoaxes, cases of mistaken identity, and other sources of confusion and misinformation. It's important not to forget these issuesbut it's equally important not to fall into the trap of assuming that just because such things occur, as they do in every other field of research, the whole subject can be comfortably dismissed. Either of these attitudes misses out on what monsters have to reveal.
Three Monstrous Questions
All of the above begs at least three difficult questionsmonstrous questions, one might saywhich need to be asked and answered before we go any further.
First, a matter of definition: over and above issues of the word's origin, what are monsters? What kinds of beings or phenomena properly fit within this shadowy category, and what kinds belong elsewhere?
Second, a matter of reality: do monsters actually exist? Does the monster lore found in the world's cultures come out of nothing more than ignorance and misunderstanding, or is there something more solid behind any of it?
Third, a matter of relevance: do monsters matter? Even if there are real beings or phenomena that correspond to the various monsters of legend and lore, what importance do they have to people living in a modern industrial society?
We'll take these questions one at a time.
Defining the Monstrous
As mentioned, the word "monster" originally meant something shown forth, a revelation of the hidden side of things. While this definition still has relevance today, it's a good deal too broad for the present purpose. Closer to our needs here is the most common modern definitionthat a monster is a strange and frightening being whose existence is doubted by most or all of the currently accepted scientific authorities.
Even this definition is too broad, though. There are many different kinds of beings that can all be put into this category, even though they have nothing in common beyond a habit of frightening people and a history of rejection by the majority of scientists.
One such category consists of animals that, for one reason or another, have not yet been officially discovered by the biological sciences. The mountains around the Puget Sound country where I live are home to one of the more famous of these, a large ape known locally as the sasquatch. Bigfoot, as it's also called, has been part of the animal lore of the local native tribes as far back as records go; it has been seen literally thousands of times in mountain forests along the West Coast, from northern California to British Columbia; tracks, droppings, hair, photographs, and even a short film have been collected by researchers. All this seems to point clearly in the direction of an actual, biological animal.
The sasquatch even has a likely pedigree. Paleontologists have uncovered fossils of a very similar creature called Gigantopithecus, dating back only a few million yearsan eyeblink in evolutionary termson the other side of the Bering land bridge in Asia, and reconstructions of this big, upright ape look remarkably like eyewitness accounts of the sasquatch. The only thing no one has yet been able to produce is a specimen, living or dead.
The sasquatch is only one of a number of animals that appear to exist, but remain unrecognized by the scientific mainstream. This may seem surprising; still, since nearly all universities and grant-providing agencies assume that such creatures don't exist, it's all but impossible to get funding for the very expensive process of tracking them down systematically. A new scientific specialty, called cryptozoology, has emerged around the best cases, althoughpredictablya majority of scientists and scientific organizations still dismiss cryptozoologists as crackpots.
Nearly all the creatures currently being studied by cryptozoologists would count as monsters under the modern definition of the word, and many of them are discussed in books that have the word "monster" somewhere in the title. These animals are strange, or at least unfamiliar; many of them have been known to frighten people; all of them are considered nonexistent by most scientists. Still, the label seems inappropriate for creatures whose "monstrous" character is mostly a function of our ignorance.
Any one of them, after all, could lose its credentials as a monster instantly, by the simple process of being officially discovered. If a hiker with a cellular phone in his or her pack were to stumble across a recently dead sasquatch in the Cascade Mountains next week, for example, odds are that within a very short time Bigfoot would simply be another part of the local fauna, of interest chiefly to wildlife photographers, zoos hoping to expand their primate collections, and activists gearing up for another fight over the Endangered Species Act. Given that the sasquatch is rare, shy, mostly vegetarian, and far less dangerous to human beings than the average bear, it's hard to see it as a monster in any real sense of the word. The same is equally true of the other still-unknown animals that appear to be hiding in various parts of the world. Whatever monsters may or may not be, these creatures belong in a different category.
Another set of creatures that qualify as monsters, at least by the modern definition, are more of interest to the literary critic than to the zoologist (crypto- or otherwise). These are the purely fictional monsters of literature, movies, and television. Perhaps the best example of these is Frankenstein's monsterthat extraordinary product of a teenage girl's imagination, reshaped by way of one of the first great horror movies into an image that lurks behind every shadow of our modern technological society. Mary Shelley drew on what was then up-to-date scientific research, as well as on very old legends, as raw material for her monster; still, this is one monster that is wholly a work of fictionat least for now.
The same thing is true of a great many other monsters whose images and stories are familiar to everyone raised in American culture. King Kong, for instance, was invented by a scriptwriter and never lived anywhere outside the silver screen. Equally, though, a good many monsters with a much longer history have similar origins. Unicorns, gryphons, cockatrices, and many other creatures who stalk through the pages of medieval bestiaries are also literary creations; they were the product of an earlier form of monster fiction, the traveler's tale, and passed from writer to writer over the centuries, picking up details as they went. Some of them probably started out as unfamiliar living animalsthe earliest descriptions of the unicorn sound suspiciously like a rhinoceroswhile others probably have nothing more solid behind them than Frankenstein's monster.
All of these creatures are strange; all of them are frightening, or at least produce the vicarious thrill of fear that makes horror movies so popular; all of them, with very good reason, are thought to be nonexistent by scientists. By the modern definition given earlier, they all qualify as monsters. Still, when the vast majority of the world's cultures have treated monsters as a significant part of the real world, wholly fictional creatures should properly go into a different category.
Three Monstrous Features
With the cryptozoological and fictional "monsters" set off to one side, what remains are the monsters with which this book is centrally concernedvampires and werewolves, ghosts and demons, as well as beings such as faeries, mermaids, and angels, which don't qualify under current definitions but would have counted as monsters under the older meaning of the word. It's worth noting that these entities don't just make up a grab bag of miscellaneous horrors. They have a number of important features in common, and these will form the basis for the working definition of "monster" we'll be using throughout this book.
The first of these common features is that the monsters of our third category are described, usually in great detail, in folklore. What is folklore? There are a number of definitions used in the academic field of folklore scholarship, but for our purpose it's most useful to think of folklore as the realm of unofficial knowledge in any culture.
Folklore, in other words, is the knowledge ordinary people learn from their friends, coworkers, and family members, and pass on in turn through the same sort of connections. Every culture and subculture has its own folklore, which differs to a greater or lesser degree from whatever official knowledge that the culture may pass on through formal methods of educationwhether these latter take the form of tribal initiatory societies or graduate schools offering Ph.D. degrees in astrophysics and molecular biology. The official knowledge of any given culture may or may not include lore about monsters, but the folklore of most cultures includes lore about the most common monsters of our third category.
The second common feature is that this category consists almost entirely of beings that either do not have physical bodies of the usual flesh-and-blood kind, or that behave in ways that ordinary flesh and blood do not normally permit. (Ghosts are an example of the first type, werewolves of the second.) This feature has driven much of the official rejection of monstrous beings, since it has been an article of faith in our culture since the Scientific Revolution that material effects must have material causes. Still, if we are to consider the evidence rather than the preconceptions that have been used to interpret it, this aspect of the monstrous can't be avoided.
With the third feature, we approach an answer to the first of our three questionswhat are monsters?and at the same time throw open the second question, the question of their reality. To make sense of this third feature, we'll need to take another look at the way all three of our categories relate to the models of reality we normally take for granted.
The Reality of Monsters
The "monsters" of the first category, that of undiscovered animals, however unlikely they may seem to modern scientists, offer no particular challenge to the scientific view of the universe. The sasquatch, for example, is no more "impossible" than the mountain gorilla or the orangutan, and the most drastic thing that would happen to modern science if sasquatches were to be officially discovered is that textbooks on the anthropoid apes would need a new chapter in a hurry. Many monsters of the second category, by contrast, could be real only if most current scientific knowledge is dead wrongfor example, the gryphon has the front half of an eagle and the rear half of a lion, which violates most of what we know about evolutionary biologybut there is no evidence whatsoever that these creatures are real in any sense, and sightings of them are very few! Monsters of the first category, then, are scientifically plausible and potentially real; those of the second category, by contrast, are scientifically preposterous but certainly (or almost certainly) unreal.
Our third category is more troubling. Ghosts, vampires, spirits, and demons, like many fictional monsters, would pose a stark challenge to the scientific view of the universe if they exist. After all, that was why they were relegated to the category of "superstition" at the time of the Scientific Revolution, and why they are dismissed as imaginary by most people today. The problem is that people see them. The monsters of our third category are encountered, not just now and again but quite frequently, by modern, educated, apparently sane people.
Excerpted from MONSTERS by John Michael Greer. Copyright © 2001 by John Michael Greer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.