Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors

Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors

Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors

Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors


The human mind needs monsters. In every culture and in every epoch in human history, from ancient Egypt to modern Hollywood, imaginary beings have haunted dreams and fantasies, provoking in young and old shivers of delight, thrills of terror, and endless fascination. All known folklores brim with visions of looming and ferocious monsters, often in the role as adversaries to great heroes. But while heroes have been closely studied by mythologists, monsters have been neglected, even though they are equally important as pan-human symbols and reveal similar insights into ways the mind works. In Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors, anthropologist David D. Gilmore explores what human traits monsters represent and why they are so ubiquitous in people's imaginations and share so many features across different cultures.

Using colorful and absorbing evidence from virtually all times and places, Monsters is the first attempt by an anthropologist to delve into the mysterious, frightful abyss of mythical beasts and to interpret their role in the psyche and in society. After many hair-raising descriptions of monstrous beings in art, folktales, fantasy, literature, and community ritual, including such avatars as Dracula and Frankenstein, Hollywood ghouls, and extraterrestrials, Gilmore identifies many common denominators and proposes some novel interpretations.

Monsters, according to Gilmore, are always enormous, man-eating, gratuitously violent, aggressive, sexually sadistic, and superhuman in power, combining our worst nightmares and our most urgent fantasies. We both abhor and worship our monsters: they are our gods as well as our demons. Gilmore argues that the immortal monster of the mind is a complex creation embodying virtually all of the inner conflicts that make us human. Far from being something alien, nonhuman, and outside us, our monsters are our deepest selves.


Like so many other eternal adolescents, I am fascinated by imaginary monsters—especially the luscious ghouls and extraterrestrials in sci-fi literature and Hollywood films. They always inspired both dread and attraction in me, or perhaps empathy is a better word. So, given this morbid interest, the present book may represent a coming to grips with a juvenile obsession that has endured well into middle age. The appeal of monsters reaches a peak in childhood, when all prudent boys and girls check under their beds at night for demons, but it lingers well into adulthood. In those who are seriously weird—a category I admit belonging to—it evolves into a luxurious repertory of fantasies, anxieties, and phobias.

I think the immortal monster is irrefutable proof, if such were needed, for the existence of Freud’s aggressive instinct, the reality of an impulse toward violence. As my research has shown, people everywhere and at all times have been haunted by ogres, cannibal giants, metamorphs, werewolves, vampires, and so on. In Africa people believe in were-lions, and in the South Seas there are man-eating were-sharks, not to mention cannibal ogres among the American Indians and the bellowing ape-men of the Far East! Since these nightmares are universal, they must reveal something about the human mind. Monsters share certain characteristics no matter where they appear: they are always aggressive, gigantic, man-eating, malevolent, bizarre in shape, gruesome, atavistic, powerful and gratuitously violent. In rendering their fantasies in art and folktale, people have been both troubled and relieved.

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. This stark dualism— half horror, half reverence—inspired me to write this book.

Delving into the topic, I sought and received advice from many sensible people who indulged me as best they could. Among those who helped were Howard Bloch, Stanley Brandes, Uradyn E. Bulag, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, John R. Colombo, Marc Edelman, Richard Gottlieb, Marie-France Gueusquin, Anita Moskowitz, Susan C. Rogers, John Shea, Aimeric Vacher . . .

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