In The Millions this week, journalist Chantel Tattoli has a piece about “Aliens, Mermaids and Other Flights of Fancy.” I wanted to like the article since it is a somewhat skeptical appraisal of fringe ideas on cable TV and the internet, but like so many journalistic appraisals, it settles for platitudes and generalities where a sharper focus might have built the article into something better. Even given the constraints of being a “quick hit,” it assumes agreement from the reader about the nature and value of monsters and aliens.
She briefly notes that last true believers refused to accept the CIA’s admission last year that UFO sightings at Area 51 were the result of secret aircraft test projects, and she praises the true believers for refusing to surrender a good story to mere facts. She also seems to harbor some praise for the brave souls who stepped up to start making new Loch Ness monster sightings after Scotland went a full 18 months without one—the longest in modern history. In so doing, she claims that St. Columba was the first to see the monster, though strictly speaking this isn’t true. In St. Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba 2.28, written around 700 CE, the author writes that Columba battled an undescribed “monster” that attacked travelers from the River Ness, not the Loch, though I suppose over the centuries it could have moved.
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Planet’s Mermaids: The Body Found pseudo-documentary from a few years back, which already places this article in the out-of-date category, but it is thematically tied to her book project.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.
Russell is the author of Swamplandia and is a novelist, not a mythologist. She received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant in 2013.
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.
I'm an author and editor who has published on a range of topics, including archaeology, science, and horror fiction. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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