Mere Monsters

While my colleagues and I wait to hear if our monster session will be approved, my thoughts naturally turn to the taxonomy of monsters. One of the perennial problems in the study of monsters is that definitions vary widely. We might all agree that a werewolf is a monster, but what of Cthulhu? Or of a horribly deformed, but completely natural animal? What about demons? Should we all agree that we know what a monster is, how do we divide them into categories for easy study? One way of doing this might be to rely on binaries. For example: natural monsters versus unnatural monsters, living monsters versus undead monsters, monsters from earth versus monsters not from earth, monsters created by humans versus naturally occurring monsters, fictional monsters versus monsters reported in nature. It soon becomes obvious that monsters are a widely divergent group of creatures.

Monsters have won an enduring place in popular culture. I think of The X-Files. Apart from the “mythology” of the series, many episodes featured a weekly scary monster. The same is true of Sleepy Hollow, now in its third season. Monster movies, although perhaps taking a back seat to super heroes of late, are regulars on the silver screen. We just can’t seem to live without our monsters. I’ve mentioned in my many posts about monsters that the connection with religion is so obvious that it hardly requires apology. But a deeper question has occurred to me. It has to do with the nature of religion (itself not well defined).

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Religions exist to deliver people from the trials they face. Offering Nirvana to break the endless cycles of reincarnation, or Heaven when we die after one go-round, religions claim to give us something of an assurance that things will work out. (Mostly.) In the light of this, why does religion give us monsters as well? Surely they are more than mere metaphors for the misfortunes of daily life. There has to be something more to it. What that more is, I’m not certain. I’m not even sure of how to approach the question. Monsters will, for me and many other Monster Boomers, remain a guilty pleasure that we are pleased to be able to address as adults. I am becoming more and more convinced that the more we learn about them, the more we learn about religion itself. And perhaps also about those who give shape to religious thought.

Religious Monsters

Some colleagues and I are working to meet a deadline. I suppose I use the word “colleague” rather grandly, since they both have teaching positions, nevertheless, we have a common goal. We are fascinated by monsters and we’d like to see the American Academy of Religion dedicate a small section of its large annual meeting to them. We’d do all the work. At first glance, this might seem an odd topic for the serious study of religion. The fact is, however, that monsters are a part of human experience—at least in our imagination—and the conceptual space overlaps considerably with religion. Many monsters have their origins in religious thought. Some theorists go further than that and suggest the very concept of “monsters” comes to us, courtesy of religious beliefs. We can see it time and again in popular culture; the movie or television show, or novel that features monsters ventures into the territory of religion.

The reason for suggesting that this relationship be formalized is the fact that, although this connection exists, it has not be given adequate study. Monsters are the denizens of childhood imagination. When we grow up we leave our monsters behind. But not really. We just stop talking about them. With our mouths. The film industry knows that a horror film will generally draw in the lucre. Halloween has become a major commercial holiday. Stephen King is a household name. I’m not sure why all of this is so, but I think it might have something to do with repression. When we grow up we are taught there’s no such thing as monsters. Those who refuse to relinquish those beliefs are ridiculed. We have more important things to do. Things like making money. Deep down, however, we may still believe.

The fantastic and belief are intimate companions. In fact, belief is at the root of much of our experience. That’s not to say there are really monsters in the night, but at some level we believe there are. And we also believe that infinite deities control this infinite universe that may be only one of many multiverses. It just seems likely. Evidence may point in the other direction. Empirical proof is lacking. And yet, we believe. I’ve discovered a number of colleagues over the years who share this academic fascination with monsters and religion. I don’t know if we’ll be approved by the powers that be, but at least we will have begun to raise the question. What lurks behind it is a matter of belief.

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