Sunday, May 8, 2011

Why We Need Monsters

My most recent Netflix obsession is Destination Truth, which is like Ghost Hunters but with legendary creatures instead of spirits (most of the time). Most of the investigations prove inconclusive, but the host maintains that legends like this persist because they're integral to part of the culture they belong to. The question is, why?

Recently, I saw an episode set in the Amazon rainforest. I don't remember what the creature was, exactly, but one of the experts posited that the native people sometimes claim they see the monster when they really see a jaguar, because being scared of a jaguar is far less legit than being scared of a gigantic lengendary creature. Most of us Western folk are sure being scared of a 200-lb cat that can eat your face is pretty damn legit, but I guess if you live in the jungle you're supposed to be used to it.

It seems that's the role of supernatural creatures in any society, really: to have something it's okay to be scared of. Take  mainstream American culture. We're not supposed to be afraid of any number of terrifying things in the average adult's life: work, relationships, parenting, bills, whatever. When you live out in the country, you're a pussy if you're scared of tornadoes and snakes and bears. You should be wary of them, but you shouldn't show it. We're expected to just deal with it, like the Amazonian natives are expected to deal with jaguars, because this is the life we're born into. It's the life we tell ourselves we've chosen to live (because Americans are all about choice). But who, honestly, ISN'T scared of these things?

So we have to give ourselves an outlet, something that we are allowed to fear, whether it's ghosts or gnomes or Bigfoot or werewolves or El Chupacabra or whatever. Even (maybe especially) in our ultra-logical American culture, urban legends persist despite evidence to the contrary. And rather than scoff at these legends, many people embrace them--and really, they ought to. They're coping mechanisms. We have any number of shows like Ghost Hunters and Destination Truth because we love to think that there might be real critters or real spirits out there. We like horror movies, especially monster movies, for the same reason. We love UF and horror because even if there's no plausible reason to believe that these magical beings exist, it's an outlet for our fears.

This need for an outlet is one of the many reasons why I think people are obsessed with paranormal stories. They really aren't anything new, but in the past ten years, they've grown wildly popular. And it's no wonder. What happened ten years ago? 9/11, anyone? Americans live in constant, legitimate anxiety over real-life issues of terrorism. But as we've seen from many people's reactions to Osama Bin Laden's death, it seems like we're all supposed to be over it. I mean, it happened soooo long ago. (This just goes to show how short the American memory span seems to be getting.)

So it's gauche to say, "Look, I'm afraid every time I get on a plane that it's going to get hijacked." In order to make this fear more legit, we have to add, say, motherfucking snakes on that motherfucking plane. It seems ridiculous, but is it? Sure, when you live in the country you're not supposed to live in fear of the occasional copperhead or rattler, but when there are snakes dropping out of the overhead bins? The stuff of nightmares, dude.

Of course, UF is not always terrifying; it's not horror, where the general mood or tone is one of fear. But we still want to believe that supernatural creatures exist among us in the world we're familiar with, whether they're our friends or our enemies. Sometimes we humanize them, give them our problems (relationship troubles, late bills, broken down cars). Sometimes we make their lives ideal (mansions, six-car garages, Swiss bank accounts). But in UF, especially, the antagonist (or one of them) is always supernatural. Man vs. the paranormal and the extraordinary. This theme goes back to the dawn of time, to Gilgamesh and Beowulf. We're all totally allowed, at least within the framework of the story, to be afraid of the supernatural. When we're not supposed to be afraid that we won't be able to pay bills and eat at the same time this week, we can turn to supernatural stories instead. In a way, it's cathartic.

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