There are many ways to investigate mythology, and when I heard that the History Channel planned to look for the “truth” behind myths and legends, I had some hope that they might try exploring the actual way stories grow and change over time, tracing them back to their origins. Unfortunately, it’s cheaper and easier to take stories at face value and assume that the psychological purposes for which they are used are synonymous with the reason they sprang into being. True Monsters, airing after Ancient Aliens on Friday nights, takes the latter approach, and doesn’t even do it well. It’s a sloppy, superficial show that plays like a bunch of old white men (nearly everyone on the show is middle aged, white, and male) bullshitting their way through a pop quiz they aren’t prepared for.
True Monsters is a new series from Committee Films, the production company behind America Unearthed, that claims to look for the true origins of myths and legends. There isn’t an introduction to the show in any real sense (a very brief teaser serves this purpose), no real orientation for the audience, and it seems that the producers expect the audience to read the description of the show before tuning in in order to have any idea where they are going or what the purpose is. The segments aren’t connected to one another, nor are they presented in a logical order. There is only the barest thematic connection across the segments.
The show doesn’t think much of its audience, either, explaining to the audience what heliocentrism is (and, more distressingly, specifying that it’s true), and comparing colonial era-almanacs to blogs so readers can understand them. The “experts” on the show range from people who don’t know what they’re talking about to people who have nothing original to say, and a Satanist. Most are writers, directors, and other media practitioners, not experts in religion, myth, or history.
The Jersey Devil
The series got off to a rocky start by having its first set of talking heads be cryptozoologist Ken Gerhard and comic book writer Ralph Tedesco, discussing the Jersey Devil. Other talking heads in that segment include authors of credulous monster books, and one skeptic, Brian Regal. All of them are treated as equally authoritative, and their words are contrasted against crappy recreations that are not always labeled as such. Some, indeed, are presented as though they were real video evidence. While Regal is allowed to explain that the legend is not literally true, the credulous talking heads offer bizarre euhemerist ideas—that the Jersey Devil was an atavism, for example. Regal is then allowed to put forward his faulty theory that the publisher of Leeds Almanack included Jersey Devil images in the form of wyvern images on the Leeds arms, which inspired (he says) the shape of the legendary monster. As I showed a long time ago, those arms actually feature double-headed eagles, not wyverns, and this claim is simply wrong. The Leeds arms can be easily found, with descriptions going back to their granting in 1338 (“Argent, a fess gules, between three eagles displayed sable, a bordure by way of the second”); Regal is simply seeing things and didn’t bother to check his own fantasies against facts.
The second segment looks for the origin of Krampus, the evil Austrian Christmas demon. The show assumes Krampus is a survival of pre-Christian paganism, but that view isn’t universally held. A competing claim suggests that the figure emerged from medieval devil stories and plays. No one really knows since there isn’t a clear record of Krampus or anything similar before the modern period.
I have no idea why Hades, the ruler of the Underworld in Greek mythology, would be given a segment since he isn’t a devil and isn’t really evil. He is gloomy and unpleasant, but, while he ruled the Underworld, he was not the god of the dead (who was Thanatos). He did not actively kill (that’s Thanatos) and only took action when someone tried to escape Hades. Anyway, they retell the story of Orpheus and give it a psychological reading. This segment was much inferior to the earlier History show Clash of Gods (2009), which was not my favorite show (due to its Christian bias) but which at least had experts who knew what they were talking about to explain myths in more depth.
The show next discusses the Norse underworld goddess Hel, but the primary reason for discussing her is to contrast the frozen Hel of the Norse with the fiery Hell of Christianity, the baseline for their discussion. The narrator falsely asserts that the Norse concept that Hel judges the dead inspired all other judgments. This is hardly true since judgments of the dead can be seen going back to ancient Egyptian art and appeared in Greek mythology, both long before Norse religion as we have it today had taken shape.
The show tells the myth of the Fall of Lucifer, as given by John Milton, and it presupposes that Lucifer predates Satan. They argue that Satan’s stereotypical image as a horned satyr derived from the Greco-Roman Pan, but they dwell on this not at all before listing the circles of Dante’s Hell. The talking heads dutifully note that Dante made the whole thing up and later people simply took it as truth—who exactly they do not say. That concludes their “truth” behind Satan, with nary a word about the Hebrew origins of the figure in the Adversaries of the Hebrew Bible or the origins of the Fall of Satan in a misinterpretation of a famous passage of Isaiah. The show cares only for psychological “truth,” not philological facts.
Jinn (or Djinn)
This segment retells the story of the “Fisherman and the Jinni” from the Arabian Nights (without mentioning the source), and it lists some of the references to the Jinn in the Quran, followed by later folklore about the Jinn. Rather than explore the concept of the Jinn in any detail—or even note that the Islamic Satan, Iblis, is himself a Jinn—instead they tell the story of Aladdin and the Lamp, which once again is given a psychological explanation in which such stories exist to fill a presumed “need.” Modern beliefs about the Jinn are also mentioned, including an idiotic idea that Jinn can be harnessed as a renewable energy source. Yes, someone in the Middle East really proposed that.
As Committee Films brings this turkey in for a landing, they present some reenactments of an alleged demonic possession, done in the style of a cheap Syfy horror movie. Clearly, they blew their budget here. They speak with an exorcist, but most of the segment is given over to a reenactment with no effort to establish that what we see on the screen has any basis in fact other than the exorcist’s word. Fortunately, the show reminds its viewers that the power of Christ will cast out demons. The show notes that the number of exorcisms is increasing, but they don’t bother to treat this with the nuance or thoughtfulness of Michael W. Cuneo’s American Exorcism (2001), which looked for a sociological explanation for a rise in exorcisms that began around the time of The Exorcist and is tied to the increase in fundamentalist religion and the decline of mainstream denominations. Instead, they treat demons as real.
So, for the record: The show does not believe in non-Christian monsters like the Jinn, Krampus, Hades, Hel, or the Jersey Devil, but it treats both Satan and demons as literally true. What a shock, and what a crock.
10/11/2015 10:16:57 am
Great review. Like you and the others here I hate the history channel and the people who appear on it.
The troll Krampus
10/11/2015 07:16:11 pm
Could you explain your hate please, Herm. How or why do you hate the History Channel and the people who appear on it?
10/11/2015 11:54:40 am
According to the Twin Cities newspaper article:
10/11/2015 12:14:25 pm
The Bible is to blame for the invention of The Devil.
10/11/2015 04:26:16 pm
"Real monsters are behind our greatest legends. "
10/11/2015 01:50:01 pm
Fifteen or twenty years ago, while I was still working, I had very little time to watch television. That being so, the two things I did watch, mainly on weekends, were baseball and the History Channel. Baseball, because, having when I was younger played the game, I had grown to love it. The History Channel because it engaged my mind on something other than mindless entertainment. Then the History Channel changed. A woman by the name of Nancy Dubrac was hired by A & E (the corporate entity than owns the History Channel) to increase rating. Her way to do so was simple. Dumb it down. The first shows that came out of her reign were quasi-reality shows such as Pawn Stars and Ax Men. What was unfortunate was these shows were rating successes. They spawned others and then came along such crap as Ancient Aliens, UFO hunters and other fringe, unscientific and unhistorical shows. The history channel betrayed his core audience of fifteen, twenty years ago in favor of the bottom line. Now the channel is basically un-watchable by anyone with the I.Q. of more than a carrot.
10/11/2015 05:18:14 pm
Hard to believe that the History Channel, A&E and Bravo (24-7 commercial-free foreign films - WUT?!), among others, once produced and imported many excellent shows. Ironically (or should I say crapulously?), before they decided to go for the big big bucks, cable was less expensive back then.
10/12/2015 11:54:18 am
Just curious how an ex-producer of the The Christian Science Monitor, Nancy Dubrac, appears to have changed allegiances so dramatically when she joined History Channel, and later as CEO of A&E, that she oversaw and supported the introduction of H2's somewhat cavalier attitude to Christian Science. I guess that's called ambition, but where did the principles go?
10/11/2015 01:50:21 pm
"I had some hope that they might try exploring the actual way stories grow and change over time, tracing them back to their origins." ;-)
10/12/2015 09:47:39 am
That was the old HC.
10/11/2015 02:28:30 pm
I'm sorry but between Alaska Monsters & Missing in Alaska I'm overbullshitted and can't watch another one of these.
10/11/2015 04:45:32 pm
I might consider watching if they aired shows like "Ice Road Zombies," "Wasilla Werewolves," "The Real Vampire Housewives of Ketchikan," and Graham Hancock's "Quest For Ewoks in Ekwok."
10/11/2015 05:02:59 pm
"The Real Vampire Housewives of Ketchikan,"
10/11/2015 05:38:16 pm
Pam -- Hah! Last year in an Essex pub, the telly was showing a silly a bit of treacle called "The Real Housewives of Cheshire." I cracked a joke, "This is shite, but it's better than the last few seasons of Downton Abbey," which got a laugh from the locals as well as a pint of yummy Halcyon IPA on the house from the bartender.
10/11/2015 06:00:14 pm
Btw, the rest of that lovely evening is a compleate blur. Sorta like the time that month I spent with my sister when she lived in Thorne Bay, Alaska.
10/11/2015 03:31:52 pm
Hel didn't even judge the dead! She got the leftovers that Odin and Freyja didn't want, and at most, rode out following the Valkyries to take her share since the Valkyries wouldn't.
10/11/2015 04:56:49 pm
10/11/2015 05:51:31 pm
Jason was making fun of the show thinking it needed to explain the concept to its audience. His parenthetic "and, more distressingly, specifying that it’s true" made me chuckle.
10/12/2015 12:17:53 am
10/12/2015 01:10:37 am
It's still there, third paragraph.
10/12/2015 06:24:28 pm
I looked for it, but couldn't find it before. I'll be quiet now.
10/11/2015 04:58:58 pm
"That concludes their “truth” behind Satan, with nary a word about the Hebrew origins of the figure in the Adversaries of the Hebrew Bible or the origins of the Fall of Satan in a misinterpretation of a famous passage of Isaiah."
10/11/2015 06:19:53 pm
You remember correctly. I recall from my intermediate Italian lessons, during which we read the Divine Comedy, that several times Dante depicted Satan and other damned sinners being surrounded in ice, at one point describing them as "covered wholly by ice / showing like straw in glass." What a great poet he was.
10/11/2015 09:00:30 pm
Yes, Dante was one of the greats. It's nice to know I remembered correctly.
10/11/2015 05:02:23 pm
I think it's because it would be like them explaining to us that water is wet and fire is hot. It kind of assumes that we are dumbasses.
10/11/2015 05:03:43 pm
Sorry, My comment was for Harry.
10/13/2015 01:33:49 am
I just heard the other day about that guy who suggested using Djinn as an energy source. I think it's a great idea; imagine if we could harness the power of a stupid idea... =P
Duke of URL
10/13/2015 11:40:26 am
Why not? Algore and his corporation have become immensely wealthy by pushing the stupid idea of Man-made Globalwarming.
10/15/2015 05:28:27 am
And apparently he duped 99% of the worlds climate scientists by fabricating an enormous amount of evidence and traveling through time to seed it into the historical record.
10/13/2015 09:26:25 am
A comic book writer, classic.
10/14/2015 03:21:55 pm
I think I'm actually going to have to watch this, only because Brandon Sanderson was recorded for it (though it sounds like he doesn't get more than a few seconds onscreen) and he's an author I like a lot. From the sound of your review, his prediction that the end product might lean towards sensationalism and treating at least some myths as literally true (contra his hopes the other way) turned out to be the case. Anyhow, I'm including his blog post on the process here and his own take on a certain memetic image in case anyone's curious as to one talking head's thoughts.
10/17/2015 01:32:47 am
"nearly everyone on the show is middle aged, white, and male"
10/17/2015 01:58:28 am
Nah, Jason's doesn't have to bullshit. He's also not sloppy or superficial, like fringe historians/theorists.
terry the censor
10/17/2015 10:00:25 pm
> but you are middle-aged, white, and male.
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I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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