Where Do Monsters Come From?

Halloween is drawing near, so we thought we’d explore the origins of the supernatural. Across all cultures, there are myths of beasts and spectres with their own special way of going bump in the night. From yetis to vampires to the Chupacabra, cryptids and ghosts defy the laws of nature to scare the crap out of us from the beyond.

Most of our spooks have something to do with the afterlife, like demons and all manner of ghouls. Other semi-human or animal myths involve a contortion of natural life. It’s all designed to disrupt our cognitive dissonance with what we consider “normal,” according to Dr. Margee Kerr (writing for The Atlantic):

[…] things that violate the laws of nature are terrifying. Humans are obsessed with death; we simply have a hard time wrapping our mind around what happens when we die. This contemplation has led to some of the most famous monsters, with each culture creating their own version of the living dead […] So while the compositions and names of the monsters are different, the motivations and inspirations behind their constructions appear across the globe.

One such common monstrosity is the vampire. Most people associate it with Eastern European origins, usually from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The idea of a life-draining creature from beyond the grave is not that recent, though.

Ancient Egyptians have demon lore involving blood-thirsty creatures, and there is the story of the goddess Hathor, whom Ra sent forth to lay waste to humanity. As soon as she starts her killing, Hathor is transformed into Sekhmet, a bloodthirsty crazed god. Ancient China has the jiangshi, a hopping vampire / zombie hybrid that originated from a family’s wish for their dead relatives to be able to find their way home in the afterlife.

Author John Edgar Browning explains our fascination with vampires:

They’re what we aspire to be, what we’re told to hate most about ourselves, what we secretly yearn for, but shouldn’t. The vampire of today’s popular culture may or may not inspire terror. He or she may provoke empathy or pathos, forcing us to recognize its monstrosity as our own, to embrace what once we were taught to loathe.

Even more fascinating is every culture’s version of the “wild man”: ape-like creatures similar to Bigfoot. (In Europe, they’re just “wild men.”) Whether it’s yetis, yowies, yeren, mapinguari, or the Lailoken, every continent has a legend about a giant hairy hominid that stalks the forests of its region (and sometimes the swamps). How is it possible all these separate entities have worked their way into our different cultures?

Daniel Loxton, a writer at Skeptic magazine, thinks that it has to do with bears:

Bears are often associated with ogres or wild men in folklore because they’re pretty human-like. Once that folklore is underway, you have the opportunity for people to make these misidentification errors where they see a bear and think it might be a bigfoot.

Since bears in many varieties live in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia, and can often walk upright on their hind legs, this confusion with the supernatural seems plausible. According to National Geographic, paleontologist Donald R. Prothero agrees:

People are fooled by their senses, especially sight, because we are notoriously bad witnesses. One of the sightings of the Yeti, or the abominable snowman, turns out to be a rock outcrop. The guy saw it move the first time and then he had to leave. He came back finally a year later–after his sighting had been all over the media–and it turns out that it was just a rock he was shooting pictures of.”

Werewolves are another example of folklore that we often associate with more modern origins in Eastern Europe. (It’s often mistakenly confused for a Native American myth.) The stories actually go all the way back to Ancient Greece. Greek historian Herodotus wrote about a tribe of people in Scythia called the Neuri, who shape shifted into wolves every year.

Despite wolf attacks not being that common in nature, werewolves are seen as vicious killers without conscience. Some believe this is how we rationalize the actions of serial killers — it couldn’t possibly be a normal human urge, it has to be the work of some animal predator possessing us. In the 16th century during the trial of cannibal Peter Stumpp, for instance, he claimed the devil made him do it, and would transform him into a wolf in order to eat babies. (Spoiler alert: They executed Stumpp for eating babies.)

By far it is our belief in ghosts that trumps all other reported phenomenon involving the undead. Half the American population believes in ghosts, even if they generally believe in science. In certain Asian cultures, it’s weird to not believe in ghosts. Aside from our fascination with death, what does it mean that every culture has its own type of haunting? Anthropology professor Tok Thompson told NPR:

There’s a lot of, I think, social and even moral messages that can come from ghost stories. I think that ghost stories deal with a lot of issues — not just whether or not one believes in ghosts, but also questions of the past that haunt us, perhaps past injustices that haven’t been taken care of.

Whether these things scare you or not is entirely dependent on your own personal viewpoint. If you’re not afraid of the afterlife and think we have something to learn from poltergeists, you probably welcome a good old fashioned haunting or demonic possession. Maybe you use horrific beasts and phantoms to teach parables, or maybe it’s your overactive imagination combined with curious wildlife.

In the end, our monster sightings teach us more about our own nature than anything else.