The Monsters In Everyone's Closet

The Monsters In Everyone's Closet
This week on Pathfinder, part two of our descent into the world of monsters. With the help of Professor Stephen Asma we look into what makes us so obsessed with the things that go bump in the night and where they came from.

This is part two of Monster Month on Pathfinder. This week we take a deep dive into the psychology, history and rationale behind monsters, and how at every step through civilisation they've been with us.

We're joined by Stephen Asma, Professor at Columbia College Chicago. You can find his youtube channel where he offers short workshop videos about how to create meaningful art that is infused with philosophy, history and psychology. He takes you into his own creative process, and offers helpful advice about idea development and image creation. Click here to subscribe You can find out more about Stephen and his books at

In part three of our monster series, we tackle the strange, cosmic monsters of H.P. Lovecraft. We'll see you next week.


Ollie: [00:00:00] Hi there Ollie here. This episode is part two of a four-part series. If you haven't already make sure you go back and check out part one,

[00:00:10] we're obsessed with monsters. We brought up the idea that things exist beyond what we can see an outside of the natural. Take a look at any toddlers bookshelf, and you'll see plenty of books about monsters and fairytales. The Gruffalo beauty and the beast, my monster in me. And it's not just children's books.

[00:00:30] Monsters have been a powerful storyteller link device for thousands of years, with monster stories created, told retold, embellished re-imagined again and again, and again, we're exposed to monsters throughout our entire lives. We're not just forced to confront them. We actually seek them out. We relish those moments that make our skin crawl, make us jump and scream and have us keeping one eye open during the night.

[00:00:56] But to put it more accurately, it's the fear that we revelent and whatever form they may take wants to simply personify that fear. We thrive on that delicate balance between curiosity. See fear and awe and actively seek out the next thrill of a bone chilling story about monsters. Welcome to Pathfinder.

[00:01:15] A show about storytelling

[00:01:23] in 1842, a banner appeared outside of PT Barnum's American museum in New York. It advertised the showing of a bare chested mermaid caught by naturalist Dr. Griffin. It was captured off the coast of the Fiji islands. You can imagine the public going wild and the expectation of seeing the elegance of mermaids described by Hans Christian Anderson.

[00:01:47] Her skin was as clear and delicate as a Rose leaf. And her eyes were as blue as the deepest sea. This new mermaid, wasn't a new discovery. It had been preserved and displayed for the last 30 years, but along with some pretty clever promotional stunts people flocked to see the mermaid. Imagine what went through their mind when they saw what turned out to be a mummified half fish, half monkey.

[00:02:11] Of course it was a hoax. It was actually a summons. So onto an orangutan, but nevertheless museum attendance tripled, and the Fiji mermaid became a key part of Barnum's success. As a master showman. You've probably seen the film, the greatest showman based on that success. What Paul and them got so right.

[00:02:29] There's an understanding his audience. He understood people's obsession with the unknown and deep desire to witness the obscure and by doing so drove huge numbers through his museum doors and propelled himself to worldwide fame, to understand where this fascination with monsters coming from and where it's going.

[00:02:46] We have to go right back to the origins of human civilization.

[00:02:50] Stephen Asma: [00:02:50] The earliest record that we have of, uh, human culture. Something like the Epic of Gilgamesh actually includes monsters in the story. So you could even say that from the very beginning of storytelling and human culture, monsters are already there.

[00:03:07] My name is Steven Asma and I am a professor of philosophy at Columbia college, Chicago, and an expert in monster ology. The word w. We use a monster is from a Latin word monster from which means that, which has shown. And it's related to the word Monterey, which is, uh, uh, to Warren that's out of the Latin tradition.

[00:03:30] The Greek word is heritage us from which we get teratology. Right. It's really just whatever that the culture is particularly frightened of. It could be some sort of. Cryptozoology Beastie that's living in the nearby forest. It could just be other tribes of people that we're unfamiliar with. So monster ology is oftentimes caught up with xenophobia, the kind of us, them tribalism that you would have found in early peoples.

[00:03:57] And that seems to still be going quite strong. So I think monsters really contain all these things. If you look. Historically, you're going to find stuff that, uh, in the ancient world, it was going to be more like a natural history monster in the medieval period. It was more spiritual. Demonic type creatures all the way up to the present.

[00:04:16] It's sort of these, you know, really amplified and exaggerated worries about technology. Let's say all of these things can be monstrous. And I think it, the key element is just, uh, whatever condenses human vulnerable. That's the way I would put it.

[00:04:33] Ollie: [00:04:33] The word monster began to be used to describe abominations.

[00:04:36] Incessantly had religious connotations. But over time, it was used more broadly simply to describe something that doesn't fit within the natural order. Something that we can't team something we're frightened of as human beings, we're wired to try and understand the world around us and enforce order. We develop categories to define and compartmentalize the world around us.

[00:04:58] And as we grow, this becomes more than just a definition. It's a cognitive framework that becomes a lens through which we see the world. And a thing that does not fit into this framework produces a reaction of fear. When you think about it, what do we fear most? It's rarely the thing that we can see touch or experience.

[00:05:14] It's the fear of the unknown, the monster you never see on screen, but build up in your own imagination is always the most frightening. Another trait we have as humans is to try and control the world around us, including our fears. The creation of monsters gives us an opportunity to control our worst fears.

[00:05:31] And the beauty of fiction is that we also have the power not just to control, but also defeat those fears. Monsters are our way of understanding the world and our fears within that world. But what happens when our fears change? Well, the monsters change and evolve with us. The monsters we're most afraid of reflect our fears and anxieties in a form that we can wrestle with and ultimately defeat.

[00:05:53] There's not many stories where the monster remains victorious at the end of the story, take any of the famous monsters over the years. They're usually defeated. And you will notice a dark reflection of the fears of the society at that

[00:06:05] Stephen Asma: [00:06:05] time. We are about which is goes back to really the late medieval period.

[00:06:10] And so there's this pursuit of anyone that's on Orthodox or heterodox. And the idea was whether there's people who are outsiders and are making a deal with the devil and are having a demonic, a relationship outside of the church. And so there were actual witch hunters that were, you know, given mission by the church.

[00:06:30] Uh, to go out, hunt them down, torture them, kill them is a well known story. And of course in the States we have the Salem witch trials. These oftentimes correlate with, um, changes in the larger culture. Like the, the Catholic tradition went after, which is right around the time that, that the reformation was really taking off.

[00:06:50] And it felt like there was a schism within society. And so a great deal of fear came up about which side are you on? But I mean, if you go forward all the way to the 1950s, you'll find that a Godzilla films, for example, or the Kaiju stories that come out of Japan have been correlated with, uh, the experiences that Japan went through during the, you know, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they're explicitly in the narratives of the stories.

[00:07:18] There's a lot of narratives about. Evil and creepy babies in the 1960s and seventies, you know, like Rosemary's baby or it's alive. And this seems to correlate quite well with the sexual revolution. You look at the rise of personal computers and AI, like in the 1990s and the early aughts. And you find, you know, Terminator films and the matrix.

[00:07:42] So, uh, even, even more recently after nine 11, there was a lot of anxiety in the West about, about the middle East and about Islam in general. And you'll find characterizations of Persia. For example, in Zack Snyder's movie 300 are, are very sort of demonizing monstrous culture. You know, that's just sort of right.

[00:08:03] The hoards are right at the gate and we have to keep them out. So these are just a few examples where you can see that the. The historical events or anxieties really, uh, shape the narratives or the, the monsters that we see

[00:08:17] Ollie: [00:08:17] Dracula. The mysterious count from Transylvania was written in Victorian times when people were flooding into London from all over the world, strange people from strange lands created xenophobia.

[00:08:28] Is it also about overcoming all fear of lost and overindulgence, but even in recent fascinations with vampires, such as the Twilight films show that there's more than this. The idea that vampires are immortal speaks very clearly to our fear of confronting our own mortality. You could say the same about any ghost story you've ever heard.

[00:08:46] Death is the great unknown, and we're terrified of it. What better way to confront that fear then create something that embodies that fear that we can defeat recently during the global pandemic mysteriously, the 2011 film contagion suddenly appears in Netflix, his most popular category. If we take a step back and consider this.

[00:09:07] There's a global pandemic with unprecedented ability to spread with unknown death tolls. And we like to kick back with a beer and watch a fiction film about the exact same scenario with albeit a much more deadly virus strain and a pretty bleak outlook. Why do we do this? It comes back to being able to control the world around us.

[00:09:27] There's something empowering about seeing other people, valiantly, defeated, deadly virus on screen. Suddenly what we're experiencing in our day-to-day life makes much more sense. We fear it less because we've learned a little bit more about our place in the world and the fears that we have. So when you first develop, so the new monsters that reflect those fears and we learn new ways to defeat them.

[00:09:48] We all sell us, have devised the monster in our stories and therefore control the rules. Everyone knows a monster has a weakness that the hero of the story needs to exploited.

[00:09:59] Stephen Asma: [00:09:59] The key is that a, the monster story or film or pictorial tradition is. Always wedded to some kind of hero narrative. And it's the overcoming, that's really a crucial element here.

[00:10:12] Like standard monster stories always had some heroic, you know, uh, last act where the evil was banished and, uh, repudiated. And you know, if you look at traditional. Stories like Beowulf, you have some kind of obvious hero that does it, but even in science fiction, films of the 1950s, the military would have finally put down the threat of giant insects or whatever it was that was coming at people that, that story changes.

[00:10:42] Like if you get to something like the alien series by the eighties, you have a general hostility towards military solutions to threats. And also you have a general hostility towards scientific solutions to threats. There's just a great deal. More skepticism in the culture. Broadly speaking about military and large corporate science.

[00:11:03] So oftentimes in those narratives, it's sort of the common man or the last girl that survives just by their own individual Moxy and. TA, you know, native talents and perseverance. So that's fairly common, but it's pretty clear that some kind of heroic domination of the monster is usually a part of it. The story in that sense, it's a classic story that goes back to Aristotle, which is.

[00:11:27] We need art to give us these catharsis of these difficult emotions, like fear, anxiety. This is why Aristotle thought that there was tragedy. You needed a safe place to experience these troubling emotions, and then you could get them out of your system and usually tragedy, you don't get the sort of hero resolution, but in most monster stories, you get to feel like the terrible fears and dreads have been put back in the box and society and my own.

[00:11:57] Psyche, you can go on into the future, you know, with it's with our lives of security and safety. So oftentimes I think that's one of the reasons why monster stories are so perennial is that you have a crescendo, a threat, and then you have the threat put down,

[00:12:13] Ollie: [00:12:13] has changed over time. Do they ever really go

[00:12:15] Stephen Asma: [00:12:15] away?

[00:12:16] You might think about what are the common sort of monster stores, what are the universals? And you'll find that there's sort of a handful of universals, like. People generally of all cultures and all times have had a fear of spiders, snakes, fear of the dark fear of murky water. And so the argument that some have suggested is that these represent, you know, evolved fears, evolved phobias, and that we're carrying these evolved fears and phobias with us even in modern life.

[00:12:49] So if a monster story can tap into these with they're tapping into as a sort of a deep. Phylogenetic history where it would have been trouble for our ancestors to encounter spiders trouble for them to encounter a snake. I mean, we all evolved on the African Savannah. It turns out there are snakes and spiders there that can kill you.

[00:13:09] And if you look at monsters, they oftentimes have the qualities of the local predators. So for example, you know, almost every culture has aware Wolf type creature. Whereas a human can turn into an animal, but if you look at the werewolf stories, they're VE they're, they're pinned to the specifics predator.

[00:13:27] That's local, like, uh, Western Europeans tend to tell a story about becoming a Wolf. If you grew up in, uh, Indonesia, you have a kind of where crocodile, where you can turn into a crocodile. If you're native American. You have a very similar story, but what you turn into is a bear. So it's aware bear instead of a werewolf.

[00:13:47] So these are kind of fun. Examples that show you that there's a local predator perhaps, and then monster culture has built around that as a series of amplifications. On top of it. As

[00:13:57] Ollie: [00:13:57] humans, we crave comfort in our lives and many of us live comparatively safe and comfortable lives. So why is it that we still find the need to seek out thrill?

[00:14:06] That's a horror story gives

[00:14:07] Stephen Asma: [00:14:07] us. One of the advantages of going back to monsters, even in a fairly prosperous and comfortable life that we might be living in the modern era is that, uh, I would say two things. One is that it gives your limbic brain kind of thrill ride that it, frankly, that it needs our brains evolved to engage in fight or flight relationships with our environment until very recently.

[00:14:34] In human history, we needed to be able to freeze, fight running in a way. And our limbic brain is designed to dump all of this adrenaline into our system and dopamine, and basically like explode the homeostasis of our regular operating system and get us to run away from a tiger or a snake or. You know, a shark, but we live in a world where we don't have to face any of these predators.

[00:15:02] So one of the things that I think monster culture does, like you think about haunted houses, for example, or horror films, it, we want to sort of activate a system that is part of our operating system. Just like a, a thoroughbred racehorse has to run. It's got these amazing muscles and needs to run. Human beings are drawn to risk-taking behaviors because we want to activate this adrenaline system.

[00:15:25] And so monster stories and monster narratives help us do that. It helps us basically take this part of our brain, essentially. And run it around the yard, give it some exercise. Uh, and that's good. That's healthy for a system that was built to handle threats. The other sort of reason why I think monster stories continue to be valuable, useful functional for us is I call this a, an expression of the moral imagination, where we use these stories to help us understand what are our values, uh, what matters to us.

[00:15:59] And then we try to work that out in art and in storytelling. So if you look for example, a lot of traditional monster stories are morality, tales that are, they're sort of politically conservative, like don't have sex, you know, before marriage, because a slasher will come and kill you while you're in the car trying to make out or something like this.

[00:16:22] So that, but then there's also a kind of liberal. Use of monsters, which is, you know, a liberal tradition sees monsters as sort of monstrous, uh, systems, surveillance systems like big brother Skynet, the matrix. This is sort of the, the monstrous view from the liberal point of view. But then if you look at a really successful franchise, like let's say the walking dead.

[00:16:46] Here, you've got a zombie story about the breakdown of society. They're really smart stories can mix the sort of liberal and conservative fears together. So you have a kind of. There's a kind of universal fear about vulnerability, about protecting your family. That's a common theme in zombie narratives.

[00:17:03] How are you going to keep your kids safe or whatever, but then also there's a kind of indictment of the government. The power grid goes down. Economic failure. Descent into tribal survivalism. So I think that monster stories are still doing a lot of good work for us because they help us to understand, like how would we meet real?

[00:17:23] Not, not, we're not going to meet real zombies, but the power grid could go down. You know, look at the pandemic. We're all living through the economic system could fail. How are we going to keep people we love safe? Um, how are we going to sustain our values in the context of these threats? And that I think is still a really useful aspect of, of monster

[00:17:48] Ollie: [00:17:48] monsters have been a key part of our culture since the beginning. We have a primal instinct to recognize danger, to feel fear and act on that emotion. And that primal part of our brain needs to be exercised in our modern, comfortable lives, but it goes much deeper than that wants to just help us understand our place in the world.

[00:18:06] What we fear losing the most, and therefore what we value the most without monsters, we wouldn't be able to express what we don't understand and what we fear the most within the world that we live, which leaves us with a lot of fear. And we have no idea where to put that there or what to do with it until it consumes and overcomes us fear becomes the story bit fill-in without a weakness that we cannot contact the stories you read.

[00:18:31] Aren't really about the hero. They're about the monster defeating the monsters in our stories gives us hope. Hope that we can overcome hope that whatever's going to happen. We will survive and thrive. Fear exists already with or without monsters, but without monsters, there would be no hope

[00:18:55] we compile finder. We'll be looking into what happens when we have discovered too much when we are too rational for our own good. When the monster becomes more than just a beast when the monster moves to the plane of the impossible and becomes a living form of existential dread subscribe. Now for part three of monster month, where we'll introduce you to the weird and powerful monsters of HP Lovecraft.

[00:19:20] This has been Pathfinder a show about storytelling. A big, thank you to professor Steven Asma for joining us on this episode, his book on monsters, an unnatural history to our worst fears, inspired us in a big way. For this episode, I suggest you pick it up. Steven also has his own YouTube channel about monsters art philosophy in psychology.

[00:19:41] You can find it by clicking the link in your podcast app or going to Ford slash monster ology. Thank you for listening. This episode was written and edited by Roger Morley and produced by me Ollie Judge. But where are the things that go bump in the night? We'll see you next week.