“The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life” – George Simmel
Once upon a time the worst thing a monster could do to you was eat you. Maybe destroy your crops. And if you took the long view, possibly steal your soul. Well, we’ve out-predated the predators, most of us assume our food is grown in situ at the supermarket, and we’ve been waffling on the existence of the soul for generations. In terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (in order from basic to sophisticated: physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, self-actualization), western civilization smugly feels we’ve got physiological, safety, and a need to belong covered for most people, most of the time. Our lifespans have been extended through the miracle of modern medicine; you are generally not in mortal danger from a saber-tooth tiger each time you leave the house; and our social safety net guarantees that there is an exclusive club out there for every fetish, and a bar where everybody knows your name, or at least your drink of choice. We even have the ready-made “self-esteem engine” of social media that affords us the starring role and executive directing credits in the reality show that all our lives have become. This is a tough world for monsters, given that ever since we decided that we were smart enough, interesting enough, and gosh darn it, people should like us, and consequently invented psychology, we’ve figured that human fears (and the monsters that minutely expressed them) were directly related to our needs. What’s a monster to do now that we’ve cleared back most of the dark forests they used to lurk in, turned night into day with copious amounts of electricity and neon, established support groups for everything that bothers us, and created a world where we can reinvent ourselves at will, physically through plastic surgery, mentally through therapy and cocktails of psychoactive medications, and socially by our very mobility and lightening-speed, personalized public relations managed by social media? What’s left to truly scare the beejezus out of us, you ask? Are the monsters of modernity empty shells, mere reflections of a vestigial past? Fear not. Oh wait. Fear a lot. The monsters of self-actualization are among us.
Psychological theorists such as Kurt Goldstein describe the need for self-actualization as the motive to realize one’s true potential. Far be it from me to be overly modest, but in that case I must have self-actualized long ago, as I feel I’ve been living above my “true potential” for a goodly number of years. Maybe I need to go back and work on that whole self-esteem thing. Anyhow, an important component of self-actualization is autonomy, that is, freedom from the pernicious influence of forces beyond your control. Consider a situation where you are well fed, secure, a vital member of your community, and valued for your skills. That covers most of Maslow’s hierarchy and sounds like a pretty good gig. Unfortunately, you could still be somebody or something’s slave. Kind of sucks, right? And you thought you had it going on. Sorry. Without autonomy, we rather obviously, at least in some respects might be regarded as automatons, forced to blindly respond to the overwhelming power of determinative forces over which we have no control. Bluntly stated, our consciousness has been colonized. We move around. We seem to make decisions of our own accord, but our human potential and capacity for voluntary action is subsumed by insurmountable external powers, with wants and goals that were we conscious, we would not advocate. This is of course, the “highfalutin” way of saying that without autonomy, we end up doing stuff we don’t want to do, and perhaps even strongly object to. This suggests that the modern monster is less like Grendel, and a little more like Jeff Probst (host and executive director of Survivor).
Consider the big themes that populate modern horror and science fiction. The mass of humanity gets turned to mindless zombies slumping about the countryside looking for brains to consume. Humans are turned into living batteries. Virtual realities warp our perceptions so that we don’t understand what is real and what is not. Aliens abduct us and perform decidedly invasive and uncomfortable experiments, and we are powerless to do anything about it. Time travelers hop in and out, manipulating the course of history, unbeknownst to most, by tweaking essential elements here or there. Even those classic bloodsucking vampires have morphed into irresistibly charming, ravishingly sexy aristocrats that can compel you to bend to their will with a twinkle in their eye. Increasingly, our monsters are monsters of consciousness, that is, a control of human consciousness. Where once the fearsome beasts of our imaginations were a threat to life and limb, now they represent a grave danger to human autonomy. As technology continues to pervade our lives, human consciousness has expanded to encompass an interconnected world, where thought contagion spreads with a virulence that most microbes could only dream of. Consequently, our monsters have evolved. We may no longer have to worry about sharp teeth and claws, but we face the far more terrifying prospect of no longer being afforded a choice. In a world where we are able to reconstruct our identities at will (just change the “About” section on your webpage), the dreadest demon is the one that exerts control over who we imagine ourselves to be. We may as well be the walking dead, for as psychologist Erik Erikson said, “In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity”.