Monsters vs Men

As horror aficionados, we all have our favourite monsters: the vampires, the desiccated mummies of ancient civilisations, or the Frankensteinian stitched-together creations of the doctor or scientist gone mad. Of course, as thrilling and scary as these undoubtedly are, their effectiveness derives mostly from what they ultimately represent – unbridled sexual lust and penetration (vampire), that  the past should be left firmly behind us and kept buried beneath the sands (the mummies), and the genuine fears of some that science, left unchecked, will produce an unspeakable horror (Frankenstein). The latter is especially effective because very few people outside the hallowed halls of the scientific priesthood actually understand its arcana (let me state here, though: I LOVE science and possess an abiding interest in everything to do with it).

And of course, classic monsters such as Godzilla and King Kong are always a draw, as they probably represent an unconscious fear of nature somehow getting its own back on humanity for abusing its gracious bounty so wantonly. Consciously, however, there is also a triumphalist feeling that no matter what nature throws at us, we’ll be able to conquer it. The same goes for those pesky aliens from the farthest reaches of the universe visiting this wonderful little blue marble of ours and attempting to invade and subdue us. It’s a mix of deeply ingrained neuroses and the psychotherapy needed to resolve it. Basic fears, that are readily mended through our own devices and philosophies.

Running underneath all that is the unspoken thought that these creations aren’t real and that, after the film/book is over, we can put them safely away in their little boxes. Zombies, vamps and men made from the borrowed limbs of dead people, or giant dinosaurs and monolithic gorillas with attitude problems, just aren’t part of our everyday real-world landscapes. We’ll never meet any of them whilst going to the supermarket for our weekly groceries. That knowledge is enough to make us feel safe; apart from that, despite the best efforts of psychologists, film and literary critics, very few of us ever think in such archetypal terms when either watching a film or reading a book – we just want to be scared or horrified.

However, for me, the scariest monsters are not the imaginary ones that inhabit our dreamscapes, but the ones that lurk within the everyday. Who knows whether that seemingly charming man over there isn’t a serial child-molester, or that guy over there, with the warmly affable laugh, doesn’t spend his time at night running around gutting prostitutes? Or that well-dressed woman window-shopping for the latest high-street fashions, isn’t a literal man-eater, or a bloody gold-digger? These are the characters that elicit the true, deeply-disturbing nightmares – because these are real people. They could be friends, neighbours, lovers. And they never stand out, because to do that would be to invite scrutiny, invite discovery and disaster. People who have the most to hide wish to blend in and to escape the curiosity of the authorities.

In other words, they don’t go around wearing t-shirts or badges saying “I’m a Paedophile” or “I kill a Prostitute every Night”. They seamlessly integrate with society, wear the same clothes, do the same everyday jobs as everyone else and shop in the same places. In real-life, we demonise difference to an often shocking level and yet, when you look at the kinds of personalities that kill, they’re very ordinary, very conventional. Look at Ted Bundy, for example: his college friends thought him a very personable man and great to be around – yet, he killed several young women and got a kick out of it.

Yes, there are the odd, instantly recognisable weirdos who commit horrific acts, I won’t deny that. However, if we look at many of the famous killers, they were respectable people, pillars of society in some cases. John George Haigh (pictured), the ‘acid-bath murderer’, looks to be a fairly ordinary man, indistinguishable from many of his era. John Christie (of 10 Rillington Place fame) was even more ordinary-looking. Even Jack the Ripper has been touted as being a member of the aristocracy.

What I am getting at here, is that it’s often humanity itself, or more specifically, individual members of it, that are the true monsters. In some ways, of course, the monsters and otherworldly creatures in films and books are nothing more than the embodiments of human actions and motivations. It’s the monster in the flesh of a man very much like the guy you see in the pub of a weekend, chatting and laughing amiably at the bar, who give us the real cold chills. The ordinary folk that you encounter, or ignore, as you walk to work of a morning or share a bus with. They are scary because we cannot distinguish them as evil and nasty, just because they don’t sport horns or scales. They are just normal humans, with all the frailties and baggage. But, possibly, just beneath that calm, conventional exterior, are coils of writhing worms and seething masses of bugs. And you would never know to look at them that darkness hides within.

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