The Science of Monsters

From The Telegraph:

Kaplan_main_2516071bIn its simplest forms, we like to put a face and a form to things we don’t understand. So when ships disappeared, unaccountably, from calm seas, their loss used to be ascribed not to technical failure but to monsters who came up from the bottom of the ocean to drag the unsuspecting mariners ever downwards. Those who lived in areas prone to earth tremors and eruptions put them down to angry monsters rising up from the ground to wreak havoc. Religion, inevitably since it represents our attempt to make some sort of sense of the world around us and the random blows of fate, came to endorse some of these formulations. The devil, the ultimate monster in Christianity, so very nearly a match for God, especially if we are craven enough to believe the empty promises he whispers in our ear, is the face and form put to the abstract reality that many call evil. He also used to be employed to explain natural disasters and illness.

So the rise of science should have pensioned off such beasts, and to some extent that is the case, as Kaplan demonstrates. However, it hasn’t quite dispensed with our propensity to want to believe such tales. Faced, for example, with the horror of Myra Hindley’s crimes, many retreated even in our secular, scientific times into labelling her as the devil incarnate. And even though we may now be able to send cameras down to the floor of the deepest oceans, we still can’t quite banish the notion that there may still be something lurking there. Can’t or won’t? Kaplan is especially good on how modern literature and especially cinema continues to feed our appetite for being frightened by monsters. The whole Jaws phenomenon – books and films that echo in the memory of anyone taking a dip off an unfamiliar beach – can be seen, he argues, as a modern manifestation of older fears of Charybdis, Leviathan and the Giant Squid, the creatures of “mysterious fathoms”. And the age-old association of man and monster which allows buried human insecurity to be projected onto mythical creatures has, he suggests, found a whole new dimension in the cinematic cult of alien invaders from outer space. Alienated humans express their disconnection with the rest of society by believing in aliens.

More here.