Do you like scary movies? Do you delight in spooks or look for monsters beneath the bed? Is Halloween your favorite holiday? Monster stories and poems are an enduring and common feature in history. Today, monsters that scare us only do so in our dreams. Real ghosts don’t linger in windows, and fierce beasts are nowhere to be found outside the realm of our imagination.
In the Middle Ages, witches were thought to lurk in communities bringing sickness and death. The witch hunts we are surprised to read about were the results of very real fears of the natural world and our lack of control over health and well-being in daily life. Our superstitions about supernatural beings faded as we began to implement a scientific world view and turn our attentions to understanding the real world in terms of research into the structure of existence, such as atoms or things such as veins and capillaries of the human body. Earlier men and women saw magic in the dark of night or the mists of the unknown. Today, we talk instead about great events like black holes in the universe or the confusing actions of quantum physics at the very heart of what exists in the world we call home.
But magic remains. The wonder and fear of the natural and spiritual world cannot be denied. And so today we entertain ourselves with monsters. We no longer explain the uncertain in terms of evil creatures who want to destroy us. Instead we pass on fairy tales of ghouls that (hopefully) only scare us a little. And that is the point. The fearsome has become entertainment value only. We’re sure that werewolves don’t exist and that vampires don’t really haunt castles in Transylvania. We know that electrons and things like quarks are real. We can test for them and study their interactions with the primary elements of existence. On the other hand, the monsters of our imagination have migrated to the realm of fiction where we can read about creatures made from old corpses like Frankenstein or lurking werewolves beneath a full moon.
Some of the great books in the canon of literature we read in school are horror stories. Have you heard of Dracula by Bram Stoker or Frankenstein by Mary Shelley? They are some of the first tales that began a basic story for us from which later movies and literature would draw. How many vampire movies can you count on your hand? And in how many ways has the novel Frankenstein influenced popular fiction? Today’s movies and books are derived from the foundation story that Shelley and Stoker dreamt up in the dark night of their hearts. Frankenstein is about a scientist who makes a living creature out of the parts of a corpse. Dracula is about a vampire who exists on the far borders of Europe, just ready to invade the civilized world. Both books lean toward the lesson that civilization or society is a thin veneer ready to fall apart into the horror of nightmares. That is, science can’t always protect us from the evil that exists in our hearts.
Scientists can tell us that scary monsters aren’t real but that doesn’t protect us from evil that people do, the way Stalin and Hitler killed millions of people in their quest for power. Evil that exists as ferocious creatures intent on doing us harm isn’t real. But people can still do bad things. And maybe that is what horror fiction is all about. It helps us to come to terms with large scale bad actions by states, politicians, or evil men. It allows us to acknowledge the evil that exists but also to dismiss it as a fiction in when we get too afraid. We get a little fun out of horror fiction as written by Edgar Allen Poe. But there’s also a lesson in there. Compassion for others, peace in the world, and charity that begins at home are forces we need to practice. They can fall anytime as our horror movies remind us but it’s up to us to stick to our values and act with decency even when it seems the harder course.