Tattoli, whose current project is a “biography” of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid statue, dutifully coveres Animal Planet’s Mermaids: The Body Found pseudo-documentary from a few years back, which already places this article in the out-of-date category, but it is thematically tied to her book project. She records culture mavens’ concern that an outrageous number of viewers were duped into believing mermaids are real, but she blasts the complaints as “pooh-poohing” of the intentional creation of a mythology she says is “necessary” for a mixture of evolutionary and psychological reasons that sit uneasily beside one another.
There are, of course, deep, necessary reasons for all of the above. Mythology, as Karen Russell often observes, speaks to perennial aspects of human nature. Half-human creatures are vehicles for reconciling our species on the continuum of other beasts. Monsters are projections of an atavistic unease — born of the sense that something bigger and badder is out to get us (because for the long course of mammalian history, something was). These stories get weird and totally out-of-hand, but they never end.
The idea that monsters connect us to the animal kingdom is certainly an old one, and as I discuss in my book Knowing Fear, it is one of the major themes of Victorian horror fiction, particularly in works like The Island of Dr. Moreau where Darwinian evolution is explicitly or implicitly the locus of horror for removing humanity from the company of the angels. But this rather ethereal idea that specific types of monsters—animal-based monsters, say, rather than ghosts or zombies—are a reflection of changes in perception induced by evolutionary theory doesn’t sit as easily beside the claim that monsters are also projections of the primal (i.e., evolutionary) fear of attack. That fear is not unique to pseudoscience—to aliens or Nessie—but permeates all human endeavors. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” as H. P. Lovecraft wrote.
But do the people who go searching for Bigfoot or Nessie fear the creatures? Given how blasé ancient astronaut theorists are about their own belief to have seen direct evidence of frickin’ space aliens and how excited alleged witnesses to Bigfoot become, it seems that fear isn’t the primary motivation behind the continuation of monster myths. Who, after all, would want to choose a life of fear by believing in the unbelievable?
Tattoli’s piece is unusual in that it recognizes fringe-oriented cable offerings as the modern mythology they are, and it’s a shame that she didn’t draw out that idea more systematically. She closes with a summary of an incident from Cranford involving an angel, and she misses the opportunity to ask what difference there actually is between aliens, monsters, and angels.