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.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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