Even a visionary like Thomas Edison can’t know the directions in which an invention might be taken. The idea of the moving picture has immersed human beings in an alternate reality that is sometimes difficult to separate from the physical world we daily inhabit. As soon as movies were invented, producers and directors began to explore the depths of fear with the monster movie. What they were really exploring was the mystery of religion. I frequently write of the nexus of religion and the monstrous, and Timothy K. Beal wrote a book on that subject a decade ago in which I found another affirmation of my suspicion. Forthrightly titled Religion and its Monsters (Routledge, 2002), Beal’s playful yet serious exploration of the scary traces the origins of monsters to Genesis, and even earlier. Taking on Leviathan, the biblical sea serpent, Beal demonstrates the pre-biblical pedigree of this fierce monster and shows that, like most truly frightening entities, it began as a god. Indeed, what we call religion today grew up around fear of those forces beyond our control, a nature so harsh it could be none other than divine. The writers of the Bible clearly knew this story as Beal traces it from Genesis to Job, from Psalms to Jonah, from Leviathan to Devil.
In a shot/reverse shot formation, Beal takes us to modern-day monsters and shows their religious origins. Those things that frighten us on the big screen crawl there from their origins in the temples, shrines, and chapels of religions that don’t manage to subdue evil completely. The claims are made that the gods are stronger than the chaos that surrounds us, but they are still fighting nevertheless. From Dracula to Godzilla, the monsters have the gods on the run. And when the human protagonists finally get their monster pinned down, they discover that it is often God wearing a mask. Our monsters are gods gone bad. How else could they revive from the dead at the end of the reel? They never truly disappear. And if they do, there’s always more where they came from. The reason, Beal concludes, is that we are, in fact, the monsters.
According to the analysis of W. Scott Poole, Timothy Beal, like myself, falls into the “monster kid” generation. As I grew up, I quickly learned that to confess my interest in monsters was to risk the labels of juvenile, naïve, and immature. Grown ups are interested in money and sex and power. Only kids have any interest in dinosaurs, mythology, and monsters. An epiphany of sorts, however, seems to be unfolding. Scholars of religion in my generation are peeling back the rubber masks of our movie monsters and are discovering the face of the divine. Perhaps we are all adolescents at heart, fixated on the weird and bizarre because the paths to money, power, and temptations of the flesh are blocked to us. Or perhaps we are the Magellans charting a course for regions off the map. It is those regions, as Beal reminds us, that are illustrated with sea serpents and inscribed hic sunt dracones, “here be dragons.” Doubt it? Read your Bible and find out for yourself.