“In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined.”
Psychologists make their living figuring out stuff we’re afraid of. It’s no wonder the list keeps getting longer. There are at least 530 clinically documented phobias for everything from agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) to zeusophobia (fear of god). There is a lot of learned speculation as to what constitutes the basic human set of primal fears. Social scientists don’t seem to appreciate classification systems with less than five elements because if you are going to trouble yourself to classify something, the prevailing wisdom is that your efforts should generate at least five research papers in obscure journals with a smaller readership than even this pathetic little hobby blog. Consequently, humans are generally described as operating on five fundamental fears, from which all other fears are derived. These are: ceasing to exist, mutilation, loss of autonomy, abandonment, and ego-death. If we were to endeavor to use less jargon, an effort that social science regards as bad for business, we would translate this list to: death, disability, lacking control, being alone, and shame. I call shenanigans! Even something as seemingly basic as fear of the dark, is actually a fear of the unseen predator lurking out there. Our fundamental human fear, reflected in our gods and monsters, is the fear of being eaten.
Despite the fact that we can now have cell phones, sniper rifles, and unmanned drones that can pinpoint and destroy a target from half a world away with remarkable accuracy, we were not always at the top of the gastronomic heap. For a sizable portion of hominid history, we were prey rather than predator. We will merrily sacrifice life, limb, freedom, friends, and honor for any number of reasons, as long as the inevitable result doesn’t involve being eaten. We’re funny like that. American writer Logan P. Smith summed up the successful human life well, when he said, “How can they say my life is not a success? Have I not for more than sixty years got enough to eat and escaped being eaten?” Some theorists have posited that the act of complex communication between our bipedal ancestors evolved from the necessity of distinguishing between what particular kind of beasty was approaching the troop, and how to best avoid being its next meal on the savannah, where there weren’t a lot of places to hide. One hoot if you spot an eagle in the air. Two hoots if you glimpse a tiger in the grass. Appropriate evasive action ensues. Once we developed longer range weapons (even a spear keeps a nasty critter at a distance and helps to avoid the losing proposition of wrestling with a bear), got smart and stopped competing for caves with things that had the undeniable weight advantages and fangs, settled down in cities with nice high walls, and turned our attention to thinking of effective ways to spend our time oppressing each other, we kind of subsumed our fear of being eaten in the dark recesses of our subconscious in favor of more legitimate concerns like dating and sports. We forcibly removed ourselves from the food chain, and any attempt to put us back into the mix is both horrifying, as well as an attack on our humanity. Plus, nobody wants to be turned into poop. As succinctly described by Paul Trout in Why We Invented Monsters, “Regardless of their different sizes, features, and forms, monsters have one trait in common — they eat humans. Whatever else they may do for us psychologically, monsters express — and ex-press — our dread of being torn apart, eviscerated, chewed, swallowed, and then shit out. This shameful fate of those who are eaten is confronted in an African myth in which a giant predatory bird swallows the hero whole day after day and then excretes him. Myth after myth confronts the stark facts of being consumed by a larger creature, obsessively depicting in graphic detail what both monsters and animal predators naturally do — turn humans into excrement.”
Opinions vary as to whether cannibalism as an acceptable societal norm or standard subsistence strategy (as opposed to ritually, as some sort of psychotic fetish, isolated attempts at survival such as shipwreck, or as a last ditch maneuver in times of famine) was extensively practiced by pre-modern humans. Historically, some people have certainly eaten other people, but it is generally the exception rather than the rule. One thing is certain—unsubstantiated accusations of cannibalism have traditionally been a central feature in the demonization of other groups. Hellenic Greeks identified non-Hellenic “barbarians” with cannibalism. The invading Spanish went on and on about Caribbean (the term “cannibalism” itself is actually derived from the Spanish name for the Carib people, Caníbales) and Aztec cannibalism. Colonial Europeans regarded everyone in Sub-Saharan Africa as a potential cannibal. Medieval Christians considered the Jews to be cannibals. Anthropologist William Arens, in his controversial The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy pointed out that “all cultures, subcultures, religions, sects, secret societies and every other possible human association have been labeled anthropophagic by someone.” Accusing another group of culinary cannibalism seems to be de rigueur in establishing one’s own cultural superiority, inevitably justifying the civilizing influence of conquest, colonization, or outright eradication. Throughout history, the most basic fear-generating tool is to tell people they are in distinct danger of being eaten.
Now, I’m not particularly concerned with the debate over humans eating humans. We’re nasty little creeps filled with all sorts of bizarre justifications for relatively inappropriate behavior. Its evolutionarily adaptive and one of our few charms. I’m worried about monsters eating humans. Our most popular modern monsters (measured by the amount of popular fiction generated) certainly consider us a food group. Vampires drink our blood. Zombies gnaw our flesh. Hannibal Lecter has an entire epicurean repertoire on how to serve us, and what side dishes best complement a nice, tender human. Let’s not discount the possibility that monsters eat us because we’re tasty and perhaps a little bit crunchy. An exhaustive cross-cultural list of mythological monsters that eat people would be, well, exhausting. Suffice it to say that the defining quality of monsters is a penchant for eating us, more often than not. So ultimately monsters are all about our denial of the most basic human fear, that is, of being eaten.
It seems to me that in the human supremacist culture of the West there is a strong effort to deny that we humans are also animals positioned in the food chain. This denial that we ourselves are food for others is reflected in many aspects of our death and burial practices the strong coffin, conventionally buried well below the level of soil fauna activity, and the slab over the grave to prevent any other thing from digging us up, keeps the Western human body from becoming food for other species. Horror movies and stories also reflect this deep-seated dread of becoming food for other forms of life: Horror is the wormy corpse, vampires sucking blood, and alien monsters eating humans. Horror and outrage usually greet stories of other species eating humans. Even being nibbled by leeches, sandflies, and mosquitoes can stir various levels of hysteria (Plumwood, 1996, p6).
If we were to try to reduce monsters to mere expressions of ambivalence about instinctual aggression, violence, and animalistic behavior, as is often the knee-jerk reaction, we would in fact miss a few salient points. Violence and aggression don’t bother us as much as we pretend in civilized society (if we take say, all of human history as an example). We find that aggression is more frequently rewarded than punished. And gosh darn it, we’re mostly pretty fond of sex. Monsters certainly sometimes reflect various neuroses about these domains of existence, but at the core of monsterdom, the weird dualism of regarding a monster half with horror, and half with reverence, is that it is trumping us on the eat or be eaten pyramid.
The evidence indicates that monsters are more complicated than being reducible to the uni-dimensional id forces of sex and aggression. However terrible, they are not just metaphors for beastliness: their vast powers inspire veneration as well as repugnance. While we struggle against them, monsters also instill awe and even a grudging respect (Gilmore, 2003, pIX).
The bottom line is we just don’t want to be eaten. It’s a much more reasonable attitude in our modern, semi-civilized world. Once you’ve attained the lofty heights of the Great Chain of Being, and don’t have to be watching over your shoulder for a sabertooth tiger, what do you do with all the predation angst that remains in your primitive monkey brain. Obviously, you start telling stories about mythological super-predators (the technical term would be “apex predators” – predators that have no predators of their own), the only thing on earth that can still make a meal of you. Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin didn’t know it, but he was supporting the notion that we alleviate our fear of being eaten by confronting it mythologically when he said, “My tactic with conservation of apex predators is to get people excited and take them to where they live.” As he died after being stabbed in the heart by a stingray while filming a non-ironically titled documentary called Ocean’s Deadliest, this was likely not an optimal strategy. Let the monsters come to you. No need to irritate the man-eating grotesques by tormenting them with their own non-existence. First, it’s rude. Second, you might be ontologically incorrect. Then where would you be? Digested, that’s where.
Gilmore, David. Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.
Plumwood, Val. “Being Prey” (originally written 1996). Essay included in O’Reilly and Sterling’s, The Ultimate Journey: Inspiring Stories of Living and Dying”, 2000.