Copyright 2007 by Gary L. Pullman
Life is always fragile. One might suppose, however, that, before the advancements in science and technology that we enjoy (sometimes) today, the world must have been fraught with many more perils. Human life must have been especially precarious without the benefits of such modern marvels as antibiotics, computers, incandescent light, and firearms, to name but a few. Pneumonia, tornados, the blindness imposed by darkness, and inefficient or unreliable weapons must have caused many deaths that, today, could be averted or avoided. No wonder Gilgamesh sought immortality. Life in his day must have been both mean and brief. What did others seek? The treasures that were the objects of their quests tell us the things their societies valued most. Whatever threatened these treasures represented their fears, because we fear what we may lose (or want but may never gain). If Gilgamesh sought immortality, he valued life and, consequently, feared death, which may be the greatest loss of all.
“The wages of sin,” the Bible tells us, “is death,” and this is frequently the punishment that God metes out to the unrepentant, as he did with regard to Adam and Eve, to the civilization that existed at the time of the flood, to the residents of Sodom, and to many others throughout the pages of both Testaments. However, according to Christian thought, there are two types of death: physical and spiritual, as the following scripture suggests:
And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both the soul and body in hell. --
The one who can destroy both the body and the soul in hell is God, and, many times, the Bible warns the faithful to “fear God,” as does Matthew 10:20. There is a worse condition that death and a worse place than the grave, as the damned find out when they arrive to spend an eternity’s torment in hell. If hell is considered the state of the soul as it exists apart from God, then its opposite is the value that the existence of hell threatens, namely, being in the presence of God (or love, for “God is love”) for eternity. To be an eternal outcast of love is hell.
A threat to one’s whole way of life, which the Trojan War represented to the ancient Greeks, indicates that a people--in this case, the ancient Greeks--valued their culture. Although war is horrible, it’s not usually a horror story’s antagonist, because the monsters of horror fiction are, as we see in another post, metaphorical in nature. They’re symbolic of something else. Instead of a war threatening one’s way of life, therefore, a horror story might posit an extraterrestrial race, as in The War of the Worlds or Alien, as the antagonist, but, make no mistake, these monsters aren’t going to be satisfied with killing only a handful of victims; they want nothing less than a whole nation or, perhaps, the entire planet. In Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four, Galactus represents such a threat to humanity. Following the lead of his herald, the Silver Surfer, who locates inhabited planets, Galactus literally devours the energy that sustains the planets’ life forms, whether they are human or otherwise, going from planet to planet to appease his hunger. Since Galactus threatens humanity itself, as do, or could, the Martians or the extraterrestrial monsters of Alien, he represents the destruction of a whole way of life, or a civilization and its culture. This same monster--the threat to culture--appears in Beowulf, in the guise of Grendel,
Grendel’s mother, and the dragon.
Such monsters, in a more specific mask and costume, showed up in the horror films of the 1950’s. After World War II, which culminated in the nuclear destruction of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world feared wholesale annihilation, a worldwide nuclear holocaust, and the monsters of horror represented such a threat in the guise of Godzilla, giant ants (Them!), and aliens with enormous destructive capabilities (Invaders from Mars).
The post-war decades (1960’s-present) of horror produced more personal monsters, products of the decade’s emphases on sex, drugs, and rock and roll--experiments with sexual freedom (or license), altered consciousness, and the pursuit of passion, adventure, and excitement for their own sake: deranged serial killers, cannibals, and paranormal or supernatural aberrations and entities who acted, as often as not, on the bases of vengeance, lust, or sadism, rather than on the basis of any rational purpose. Again, the monsters are the threats to the values that the writers, filmmakers, and audiences hold dear. It’s hard to exercise one’s sexual freedom when there’s a sadistic serial killer on the loose or to enjoy one’s emotions when doing so could attract an alien or a demon who feeds off human feelings or the energy associated with them.
What’s to come? Time alone, it seems, has the answer. Whatever the new monster’s shape, though, it will be the shadow of the values of the society of the day that spawns it.