Thought-Provoking Lockdown Reads: ‘The Science Of Monsters’

Reading & Writing

This fascinating book is the kind I would usually prejudge and overlook; it would appear to be a patch-together job on a spurious and rather vague subject, but turns out to be surprisingly thoughtful. Kaplan is London-based science journalist looking at the monsters of legend with a serious eye. I was prepared for a rehash of origin stories for vampires and werewolves (only coupled together because of old 1930s Universal movies), but Kaplan begins with a research study that explains why feeling frightened is linked to a craving for spicy food, and continues to take a lateral approach through his other-worldly subjects, aligning them to human traits and emotions, and finding out how monsters came to be.

We create our own fears, of course, as author Maura McHugh and I discovered when our Campaign for Real Fear uncovered the modern-day monsters feared by a new generation, not the mythical tormentors of Roman and Greek myths or the lumbering beasts of the early 20th century which represented war and chaos, but the pernicious modern-day fears of being judged or rendered voiceless. The monsters now are internalised and slippery, hard to define.

Kaplan argues that the Chimera of Homer’s Iliad represents mankind’s struggle to envision the world. Finding that fossils with beaks and bony frills bore no resemblance to animals in the wild, they extrapolated blended beings from them as imagination met science.

The monsters are therefore divided into groups; those which were already here, those created by us, those born of religion belief, those drawn from the elements, those from beyond our ability to understand or even imagine. I particularly like the connection Kaplan draws between the concept of dragons, the pyramids and the dispelling of methane in ancient times. Inevitably the deep-rooted fear of women arises in the beliefs of men, who created sirens, witches, succubi, harpies and the ultimate fearsome female, the Medusa (for the best filmic depiction of mythical females watch Las Brujas de Zuggaramurdi). There’s a look at early descriptions of vampires in fiction, which mirror the condition of corpses. The dead were not always fully buried and often dug up, and a closer connection existed between the living and the dead.

As the lockdown has brought us images of wild boar, locust swarms and mutant pigs running loose in the streets, we fear the rewilding of the world and the loss of our hard-won civilisation. Gene-editing threatens of bring a tsunami of trophic cascades to those who fear that the borders of science are not being patrolled, and the ancient fear of artificial life re-emerges. Kaplan’s book of essays packs a lot into its brief length, but there’s a hefty source material list included for further exploration.

7 comments on “Thought-Provoking Lockdown Reads: ‘The Science Of Monsters’”

  1. SimonB says:

    Just added that one to my list.

    Oh, and hello all. Seems I take fewer web breaks when working from home or on days off so not been keeping up here very well. But thanks again to our host for the content and you lot for the extras.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    A definite must read.

  3. Ian Luck says:

    “A craving for spicy food when frightened”? Really? I’ve never, ever craved food, spicy, or otherwise, when frightened. Granted, I can’t actually remember being frightened, although the kid shooting at me with a crossbow came close. (He fell over quite hard when I caught him – I’m not proud of that). All I craved was a toilet, simple as.

  4. Peter Dixon says:

    Volcanic gas in caves and fairly uncontrolled drug use before and during the Bronze Age brought about lots of this monster stuff.

    Shamanistic rites involved magic mushrooms and dressing up in the skins of powerful animals – bulls, rams, wolves, bears etc and gave rise to the whole transformation from human to animal mode, attempting to understand the minds of animals you wanted to eat or kill yet were revered for their huge power.*

    We lost the ability to truly understand how pre-iron age cultures developed when those darned Americans ( although mostly europeans at the time) decided it was easier to kill native Americans than it was to learn from them. The mythology of the ancient American west and its development through the south into Incan world views and their monsters, has been badly let down over 250 years. We still prefer to look down on primitive South American and African tribes rather than finding out the basic blocks of pre-civilisation from them.

    The Ancient Greeks found the skulls of elephants in their own country. These were from a period when elephants still lived north of the Med. An elephant skull looks just like a giant human skull, but the area where the trunk was leaves a large central hole. It looks like the skull of a one-eyed giant – or to the ancient Greeks, a Cyclops.
    But then we have the later mythologies which seem to want to blend humans with other animals in a different way – angels are an incredibly bizarre idea: there is no physical way that a human shaped body can acquire wings and fly – its like sticking two Airfix models together.
    The animal headed gods of ancient Egypt and the entirely constructed items such as the Minotaur and the Sphynx are closer to Borges than reality; they are a complete fiction based on speculation in the Med around 5 to 6 thousand years ago.

    Maybe thats why we prefer modern monsters with chain saws and a propensity for teenagers having a weekend camping trip, or , for fecks sake, a young traumatised family moving into a new/old house with creepy secrets, or even worse a group of zombies who can move and chase you when their muscles are peutrifying and NOTHING IS KEEPING FLUID AND HYDRAULICS WORKING to enable them to move.

    I really do like spicy food.

    * Shamans rarely tried to be pygmy shrews, bluetits or voles as far as I can see.

  5. admin says:

    The spicy food link is to do with the induction of unstable sensations that remind us of fear, but in a safe way, just as watching horror movies gives us the sensation of risk without having any.

  6. Jan says:

    The dead were not always buried at all.Scarification being one of the early preferred methods of body disposal.

    It’s interesting that during much earlier eras there was a different relationship between the living and the dead. The skeletal remains of the bodies were “filed away” within some long barrows in a very different fashion than would become the norm for later cultures where keeping the skeleton in one piece perhaps to enable the persons supposed entry into the “next life” entailed what remained of the body being kept intact. The Egyptians perhaps taking this idea to its extreme.

    Within ancient long barrows long bones were kept in one part of the barrow, skulls in another.
    Keeping the skeleton intact as an individual unit was unimportant. A filing cabinet of the remains of the ancestors was there though close by the tribe. The people who had preceded them were still there honoured by their descendants.

    This idea of keeping the body then the bones of the body intact plays through Christianity maybe reflecting its being influenced by earlier faiths.

    To kick off with to enter heaven all the bones of the body must be maintained intact, then as space becomes tight in cemeteries this turns into the skull and long bones being all that are required to make it through the pearly gates or all destinations South…

    That’s why there’s a skull and crossbones on the pirate flag its…. is the word memento mori? You see skull and cross bones featured in 17 +18C artwork. Skull and crossbones and your in for the next round of life or death wherever that might be. Wherever you are off to! Of course beyond the 18C and on into the 19C and beyond space for disposal of corpses becomes at such a premium cremation becomes acceptable. With no bones for onward transmission at all.

    The retention of ashes is still massively important to folk though and crematoriums really do keep individual ashes for return to the deceased family. I’ve always found that a bit odd really (Epecially now very strange jewellery items can be created from these ashes. Bizarre that is. Truly odd) So something deep within us must be satisfied at some level by knowing the remains of those we have loved are being held close. I wonder how or indeed if that relates to the tradition only ended when a kings carriage was held up in London of suicides being buried at crossroads?,

    Or people – youngsters mainly- being sacrificed at the creation of important buildings. The ancient tribes battling over what ever it was they were battling about disposed of their oppositions dead by sometimes placing them into ramparts at their hill forts like the bodies of the vanquished didn’t matter all. Like the hopefully not so numerous corpses concealed withIn motorway infrastructure, that always was such a clever idea but it echoed back at something that resonated within people. A sort of folk memory thing that this was disposal of dishonoured inconsequential, irrelevant dead.

    Funny old thing really…. odd subject. Especially now when we see plague pits being created on islands near to Manhattan and large freezer lorry overflows for hospital mortuaries. I ‘m sorry if this strikes to anyone’s personal private grief. It’s is a deeply unsettling subject the relationship of the living and the dead.

  7. Jan says:

    Still got no e mail Chris. Stop jumping about in great delight! You can’t keep the Anglo Saxons at the door for ever.

    Hope everything’s alright

Comments are closed.