Monsters aren’t just for Halloween anymore. From the hippogriffs, house elves, and goblins popularized by the wizarding world of Harry Potter to the orcs and dragons of Middle Earth, to the suave vampires and muscular werewolves of the Twilight series, monsters are a primary theme of books, movies, comics, and graphic novels that pervade the postmodern pop culture landscape.
Video games, too, are host to a plethora of digital creatures: the 20-plus-years-old Pokémon franchise now boasts over 800 types of “pocket monsters” and counting, and the newly minted Yokai Watch video game for Nintendo 3DS has introduced millions of kids and adults in the West to various species of yokai, demons from Japanese mythology. Globally popular anime and manga has also introduced various monsters of myth and legend to a worldwide audience.
So what makes monsters so special, and why do we like them so much? In the field of zoology, the study of animals of a particular region is called faunistics, and here we take the opportunity to examine monsters as the fauna of the fantastic.
It’s easy to explain our culture’s interest in monsters by simply stating that we are fascinated, as well as repulsed and terrified, by the unknown, and the entire genre of modern fantasy—especially Young Adult novels—capitalizes heavily on this. However, regional legends and folklore are also a major component of the intrigue of monster study.
Interest in mysterious monsters that frequent real-life locales, known as cryptids—a term including such creatures as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Mothman, and Chupacabra, among others—has developed over several centuries.Many were first introduced to a wide American audience during the 1990s in the hit television series The X-Files.
Another example of monsters by locale are ancient maps. Unknown and wild lands have always featured dangerous monsters, often denoted by the famous adage, “Here be monsters.” Although globally monsters have always been a hallmark of local folklore, changing appearance according to the unique culture in which they appear, for a greater meaning to the monsters motif we turn to none other than the eminent psychologist Carl Jung.
According to Jung, monsters are universal archetypes that represent expressions of the hidden side of human intellect that is constantly changing form. In his essay “Individual Dream Symbolism in Relation to Alchemy,” Jung observes the symbolic connection between the Roman god Mercury, or Mercurius, and the god’s mystical qualities of the intellect. Jung’s analysis suggests, “Mercurius as quicksilver is an eminently suitable symbol for the ‘fluid,’ i.e., mobile, intellect. Therefore in alchemy Mercurius is sometimes a ‘spirit’.”
In addition to being messenger of the gods, “Mercurius possessed a double nature, being a chthonic god of revelation and also the spirit of quicksilver.” This quicksilver nature contributed to Mercurius’s ability to shapeshift into numerous monsters and animals, which were stated in many alchemical texts in the Middle Ages: “[S]ometimes he was a ministering and helpful spirit . . . and sometimes . . . an elusive, teasing goblin . . . he is dragon, lion, eagle, raven”.
As Mercurius is continually changing shape, so is the expression of each person’s unconscious mind, which Jung calls the anima. Everyone has an anima, an unconscious mind which is expressed symbolically in the real world, through nature, ideas and the numerous mediums in which we communicate. Jung further describes the anima as “a life-giving factor, a psychic reality which conflicts strongly with the world.”This conflict manifests in the presentation of the anima as shadow self, a collection of hidden fears that appears as numerous monsters of various folklore that humanity continuously confronts and explores.
The idea of the anima as a shapeshifting spirit was nowhere addressed more directly than the young adult novel The Golden Compass, in which everyone has a “daemon” or spirit that takes an animal form that best expresses their inner soul. Carl Jung, in fact, equates the intellect directly with its daemonic, or chaotic, shape-shifting nature.
Arising continually as products of human intellect, monsters serve as symbols of inner fears, as well as personal power. To “collect” monsters is to collect inner power; to befriend a mythical creature is to come in contact with the unconscious mind, and to consciously tame it. Whether as objects of terror or wonder, the mythical meaning of monsters is universal.