Because we start the year in my college-level English literature class reading such classics as Beowulf and its companion piece, John Gardner’s Grendel, because Halloween is fast approaching, and because one of my favorite pop-punk (It’s that’s not an oxymoron, I don’t understand the term.) bands All-Time Low has had a song of the title recently spend eleven weeks at the top of the charts, my mind lately has been on monsters.
The presence of monsters in the early literature of England was literal. Because of the limited knowledge and travel of the people of that era, there were many places both near and far that few, if any, folks had ever visited. As humans are wont to do, they filled such places with the monsters of their imaginations: ogres, trolls, dragons, giants, sea serpents, abominable snowmen, zombies, etc. Today, however, those unexplored places are much fewer, and anyone with a rational mind knows there is no such thing as a monster — at least not on the literal level.
The remaining value of monsters in society and storytelling, beyond the visceral thrill of a good horror film or a terrified walk through a haunted house, lies in their usage as symbols of the fears and anxieties we must overcome and the challenges we must eventually face if we have any hope of functioning effectively in the world.
Although the monsters of literature, pop culture, and our imaginations do not actually exist beyond their sphere, there are any number of real world monsters — some of our own creation — of which we must be wary. Unlike the monsters of fiction and film, such real world monsters can terrorize us and do actual damage to our lives.
To make matters worse, real world monsters often draw near to us dressed as the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing so that, unlike the zombies pictured above, we don’t see them coming, and when we finally do, it often feels too late to save ourselves from them. Such monsters include petulant students/children, unreasonable teachers/supervisors, drugs & alcohol, all sorts of phobias, abusive partners, con artists, road ragers, mass shooters, sex offenders, etc. As Eminem and Rihanna remind us, weirdly enough, we sometimes even choose to become “friends with the monster” rather than defeat them.
The good news is that there has never been a fictional monster created that couldn’t be defeated by some means: a wooden stake, a silver bullet, a bucket of water. All responsible storytellers subscribe to the practice of killing off their monsters at the story’s end unless, of course, it’s part of a film franchise like Halloween; whereby, the producers can keep Michael Myers alive as long as moviegoers are interested in watching the same basic plot again and again ad nauseum. The monster’s vulnerability ensures us that we do not need to allow our personal and very real monsters to terrorize us forever. If we possess and show the courage to confront them, we can destroy even the most formidable among them; if not, there are others who are available to help us face down our demons should we have the wherewithal, the willingness, and most importantly, the wisdom to ask for help.
Are you a dragon slayer? If not, “Who you gonna call?”
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