Everybody has monsters that keep them up at night. I suspect the boogeyman that lives under each of our beds looks a little different. Different types of monsters light up different parts of our psyche, which is why we respond to them differently. But there are archetypes of monsters that we can recognize in books and film, in art in general, that mean certain things about us. What horror you respond to tells you a lot about what’s going on in your head.
Before this evolves into a psych dissertation, let me tell you I’m here to entertain – and maybe give you a little shiver. Because we all like to be a little scared, right?
The following archetypal monsters have always given me the heebie-jeebies (or in some cases, some hard-hitting existential dread). I would love to hear the monsters that keep you up at night, too – comment below!
Many things have been written about Harry Potter (as well as its creator), but I think one of the reasons that the HP world has become a modern classic and will remain there is due to the creation of a world that many of us would wish to escape within (and do, year after year). But the books are more than dark academia and cozy castle aesthetics – there are genuinely terrifying monsters here.
But none are scarier, in my opinion, than the dementors. They cause a person to linger over the worst moments in their life, their fears and weaknesses. And if they get close enough, they’ll perform a Dementor’s Kiss, where they suck your soul out of your body, which is lost forever. You are nothing, then. You have no emotions, no joy, no memories or sense of self. You are nothing at all – just a shell of a person, empty.
Horrifying. Perhaps all the darker when you know they were based on depression. As in, they are in the embodiment of a mental illness that does something similar. Gone are joy and motivation, gone are reasons to continue on. The whole idea is terrifying, and all too close to reality, which is perhaps why it resonates so much. Also, the dementors in the movies could not be more scary.
As I was delving deep into the mythology behind Dementors, I found a chilling resemblance to something called a “psychic vampire.” These monsters (or people) feed off of the life force and energy of others. And they might be an actual real thing. Time to break out the garlic …
Speaking of vampires, when it comes to the vampire/werewolf showdown, I’ve always preferred werewolves. Vampires seek immortality (which I’ve stressed my feelings at lot in Immortality: Blessing or Curse?), while werewolves are so unapologetically animalistic that humanity is barely recognized.
A werewolf is a human who descends so deeply into their animal self that they become an animal in truth – at least, under the light of the full moon. Scary enough as a literary monster, but I think the reason why werewolves have struck a chord in our horror is the fact that this is a fear in reality. We humans always walk a fine line between our “baser” animal instincts, our id, and the control we enact over our desires, instilled by societal pressure and our own thinking minds.
There is such a thin veneer of control we really have, though, especially in times of trouble. The instinct or desire to return to our animal nature, to descend into chaos, is ever-present. How many people have wondered what would happen if they just give in? The answer may be: werewolves.
Pennywise. Need I say more?
Clowns hide their humanity behind literal masks, presenting instead only one exaggerated emotion. I believe it is this void of humanity that really freaks me out. We can’t actually connect with the clown, because the emotion they are presenting might not be the one they are feeling, and therefore they are devoid of empathy; inhuman.
Also, that string of armed clowns popping out at people a few years ago? Left me truly shaken. Anyone remember the 2016 Clown Panic? That was messed up. Also, I’ve discovered that coulrophobia (the fear of clowns) is a real thing. I’ve been dealing with this my whole life.
Man as God
Man long ago ascended to dominance in this world, but still, we always need to try to achieve more, more, more. Some say we won’t stop until we have achieved god-like control over the world around us. Literature warns us it is this hubris, this pride, that will be our downfall. Frankenstein created life, then watched as his creation destroyed everything he loved.
One of the greatest strengths of humans is how we can change and shape the world to our needs (a strength for those personally helped, obviously, not for the rest of the world, as we’ve seen). But what makes the man as god trope so horrifying is the fact that it is so very real, the threat ever-present that in our creations, we will destroy everything (see: nuclear war, AI bots that read our minds, cloning).
The leaps and bounds in our tech and research truly are astonishing, and much of it is very beneficial and life-saving. But without critical, conscientious thought about what – and why – we’re creating, as well as pondering on how far we should go, there is every opportunity we can create a creature like that of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. For we all know who the real monster is: man, who wishes to create but takes no responsibility for the consequences of his actions. His monster was Frankenstein’s karmic rebuttal.
Mythic, seductive women who use their voices to lure men out to sea – then drown them. I can see why they have such a bad reputation. Men love to blame their lack of sexual control on the object of their desire, don’t they? Sirens have a way of striking back.
The legend of sirens has been around for a very long time, essentially as long as written history, as they first show up in Homer’s The Odyssey, when Odysseus orders his men to block their ears as they pass the legendary sirens, but commands that he is chained to the mast so that he may hear the siren song without diving into the sea. The effects nearly drive him mad. Sirens are viewed as monstrous because of their power over desire. Even in Disney, the siren had to lose her voice, rendering her powerless. Fear of what a woman might be able to do if she were given a voice?
Sirens are feminist horror creatures. Rarely does it speak of women being affected by their song, although that scenario did come up in Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters. The sirens are always female, and they use the powers men see them as having (looking and sounding nice) to end them. Perhaps one of men’s greatest fears is the perceived power women have over them, and why they continue to try to silence men.
Another siren myth is that of the Germanic lorelei, very similar to the Greek sirens. One book that has an iteration of the lorelei is one of my favourite young adult novels of all time, The Darkangel. A lorelei, or water witch, lives in a lake within a desert, drowning anyone who comes to drink her water. Unless, they give her a male child, who she drains of blood and covers their heart with lead so they become incubi. A very cool book (also super feminist, check it out!)
The concept of a banshee has always freaked me out. Banshees appear to a person shrieking, warning them of the imminent death of one of that person’s family members. They are Celtic legends, and are said to be fairy people, harbingers of death.
I’ve struggled to find examples of banshees in fictional literature, although I’m sure it’s out there. My Soul to Take, by Rachel Vincent, is a young adult book that does follow a girl who screams while predicting death. There is also a banshee in the TV show The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (E.27). But there’s not much to what a harbinger can do. Predicting death of a loved one is horrifying for the person who receives the message, but they don’t actually do any of the killing. They are less monsters, and more the precursor to the monster that comes – be it death or the thing that brings it.
Cassandra, the prophetic princess of Troy who foretold them all of their doom, was a harbinger, in some ways like a banshee. Of course, she was doomed to never be believed. When it comes to doom and gloom, nobody wants to hear it. A more modern harbinger was The Grim in Harry Potter – seeing a large black dog can foretell death (unless of course, it’s just your godfather checking in).
Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic series speaks of the deathwatch beetle, who begins buzzing just before the death of a loved one. But at the end of the day, the horror that comes from a loved one’s imminent death can’t do much in terms of a storyline, which is perhaps why it’s little used in literature. It doesn’t stop me from being kept up at night, wondering what it would be like to glance out the window, to see the shape of a floating woman wailing, shrieking, telling me my loved ones will die. Chills …
Man is the most horrendous monster that ever existed on this planet. And nothing is more chilling than the way we rationalize our evil, the way we explain away the horrors we cause. This should send us all shuddering under the covers.
Hannah Arendt introduces the phrase “banality of evil” in her report on Albert Eichmann’s trial for the part he played as a major organizer of the Holocaust (his actions contributed to the death of millions). He claimed he bore no responsibility for his crimes, for he was only following orders, doing his duty (and following the law).
But if people refuse to think critically about their orders, to question authority and whether the laws and the orders are right and true to their values, then we as a species descend into something less than human – obedient slaves to higher-ups, which allow the worst kinds of tyrants to take over.
In literature, we see the consequences of refusing to question authority, and it goes beyond ordinary horror. Orwell’s 1984 is the kind of book that lives at the back of your head, rent-free, popping up at inopportune times to horrify you. The bureaucracy that runs the dystopian hellscape that is Oceania, run by “The Party,” is not so far off from some real-life dictators. In fact, it was based on Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. It’s a cautionary dystopian, a what could happen if we stop thinking for ourselves and wash our hands of any responsibility for our actions, as long as somebody else told us to do it. This brings me to the worst of all the literary villains …
It all seems to come back to Harry Potter, doesn’t it? Man, the author really knew how to create perfectly evil villains, and none were worse than Dolores Umbridge. She was self-serving, yes, but the worst of her crimes is that she happily acted under someone else’s authority. She felt she herself was not responsible for the crimes she committed, as long as the party in power told her they weren’t crimes. Taking away our personal responsibility for our actions turns us into soulless monsters. We must always ask the hard questions about what we are doing, and accept that we are responsible for our actions at a soul level. If not, horrible things happen. Like Umbridge’s Inquisitorial Squad. Or the Holocaust. Let’s not let that happen ever again.
Want more book recommendations? I got lots. What are you in the mood for:
Books I Still Think About Years Later
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