Most of us think of monsters as external threats which take familiar forms: bats and cats and dogs and frogs; vampires and werewolves; witches and zombies; and nameless, faceless things that go bump in the night. These are the creatures of which many of us first think when we recall the monsters that send shivers down our spines. There are others, though, of a whole different kind. Internal monsters. They may be visible or not, objective or not, but, whatever form, if any, they take, they have this in common: they are the monsters within.
Some inner demons are mental states, conditions, or disorders that the rest of us (who don’t suffer from them) label as “abnormal” or “aberrant.” Psychology textbooks are full of the names, symptoms, and supposed treatments of these states and conditions and disorders. We classify, categorize, and divide them, adding some, subtracting others, and voting on which should be included or excluded from this or that particular edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM:
- Developmental disorders
- Disruptive behavior disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Eating disorders
- Gender identity disorders
- Tic disorders
- Elimination disorders
- Speech disorders
- Disorders of infancy, childhood, or adolescence
- Psychoactive substance-induced organic mental disorders
- Organic mental disorders
- Psychoactive substance use disorders
- Delusional (paranoid) disorders
- Psychotic disorders
- Mood disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Somatoform disorders
- Dissociative disorders
- Sexual disorders
- Sleep disorders
- Factitious disorders
- Impulse control disorders
- Adjustment disorders
- Personality disorders
While the more cynical among us claim that the DSM represents, more than anything, the psychiatric and psychological professions’ attempts to maintain and extend their own self-interests, it seems difficult to deny that at least some of these states, conditions, and disorders have an objective or factual basis. Some people--Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Jeffrey Dahmer come to mind--are hard to get along with, no doubt about it, and their problems seem to be self-generated, to come, whether organic or otherwise, from within. Even when they speak of an “entity” who directs them, as Bundy did, or a voice that speaks to them, as David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) contended, most of us are reluctant to let these killers off on the grounds that the devil made them do it. We insist that they take responsibility for their actions. We incarcerate them, treat them, and/or kill them.
We also write about them and make movies about them. Some of these books and films are fictional, some are biographical, and some are a hybrid of the two. Edgar Allan Poe wrote stories and poems, such as “The Cask of the Amontillado,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” that had, at the bases of their plots, “madness and sin”; Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Silence of the Lambs are based, in part, upon the exploits of Ed Gein; The Stranger Beside Me is inspired by Bundy; and In Cold Blood details, in a semi-autobiographical, semi-fictional manner, the murders of a Kansas farm family by Perry Smith and his fellow sociopath-partner, Dick Hickock
Psychology started out as the study of the soul or mind. In more materialistic times, the discipline, losing its soul or mind, became a study of human behavior and its motives. Along the way, its practitioners discovered that pretty much whatever can go wrong with the soul or the mind or human behavior and its motives or whatever psychiatrists and psychologists claim, at any time or another, to study will, at some point, with some people, go wrong.
Medical doctors have learned, likewise, that whatever can go wrong with the body often will do so, whether it is diabetes, epilepsy, hypoglycemia, jaundice, paralysis, or worse. These physical conditions and diseases are also real or potential demons within. For the purposes of horror fiction, however, as horrible as they are in reality, they must be dramatized. Therefore, a germ may be given an extraterrestrial origin, as in Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, or a microbe may be created in the laboratory, most likely by a mad scientist. (In H. G. Well’s The War of the Worlds, the microbe is this-worldly and brings about the deaths of the novel’s Martian invaders.)
Another way to glamorize germs is to strengthen them to the point that they represent the microscopic world’s equivalent of the comic book super villain. In other words, they are super-resistant. Ordinary antibiotics don’t work. The germ maybe mutates, almost by the split second, becoming ever more robust. As scientists learn more and more about microbes, representing one as being super virulent and resistant may become increasingly difficult. Fiction may be hard put to keep up with fact. For example, “The World’s Toughest Microbe” is “a bacterium first discovered in spoiled beef and believed sterilized by radiation turned out to be ‘Conan the Bacterium’ (aka Superbug)--the most radiation-resistant life form ever found. Deinococcus radiodurans is highly resistant to genotoxic chemicals, oxidative damage, high levels of ionizing and ultraviolet radiation, and desiccation; it can survive 3,000 times the radiation dose that is lethal to humans.”
Writers shouldn’t forget to exploit the human aspect of microbes. There’s fertile material for fiction in the amoral, immoral, and criminal behavior of people who deal with microscopic villains, after all. Perhaps the germs were mishandled, so an element of government incompetence or even corruption is introduced and the resulting story becomes as much a cautionary tale about ineptitude, laziness, greed, and the abuses of personal and political power as it does about the bug itself. Alternatively, maybe the story’s theme concerns negligence. Could the people we trust to look out for us be asleep at the switch rather than simply looking out for their own interests? Maybe the Centers for Disease Control needs a wakeup call. A number of movies are also based on the killer-microbe-from-space theme, including the film version of Crichton’s novel and The Omega Man.
Before long, there will probably be a germ that causes mental disorders or aberrant behavior (or both). Oops! Too late! Don’t we have this in Stephen King’s The Stand? Meanwhile, these writers’ treatment of not-so-sexy inner demons in a sexy manner offers tips as to how to jazz up these types of threats to make them more palatable, as it were, to readers.
Dramatize them: make the germs bigger and badder than those that routinely threaten human life.
Make them exotic: have them come from the rain forest, an uncharted island, the ocean floor, an abandoned spaceship (or a spaceship full of dead aliens), or another planet.
Relate them to human nature: Tie them in to something social, political, religious, or historical--basic human emotions such as greed and lust for power (or just lust) and fear are good.
Make them criticize something related to human beings, such as politics, folkways, mores, or customs.