Philosopher Stephen T. Asma of Columbia College Chicago and author of On Monsters and the Evolution of Imagination, argues that the encounter with the monstrous is useful. The term monster is from the Latin word, monstrare, to warn. Monsters activate our sense of repulsion or disgust (about which I have written here), which is why we demonize or monsterize our enemies, casting them as uncivilized or disgusting. Similarly with mass murderers such as Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas.
Calling others monsters is deeply adaptive from an evolutionary perspective, operating to contribute to group survival by getting us to be nervous about both non-human and human predators. Asma gives as an example the fact that the traditional werewolf story was strong in Europe, since wolves were a predator for Europeans, whereas there is a werebear tradition in the Americas because Native Americans were worried about bear predation.
But there is a “xenocurious” as well as a xenophobic piece to considering monsters. For instance, St. Augustine stressed the “wondrous” aspects of the monstrous creatures thought to be living in Africa and the East.
He says, “These guys are scary, but if we can talk to them, and they demonstrate some kind of rationality, they might be capable of being saved, they could be part of redemption.”
This is the project of Western liberalism — to expand the circle of tolerance to those who are different from you. From the liberal point of view, disgust for strangers is terrible. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for instance, can be read as a way to show that you create aggression and violence by not welcoming difference into your group.
Liberal humanism may also factor into the fact that monster has come to be a term for persons as well, now that we are able to see members of the out-group as humans as well. Simultaneously, we began to understand that we have hidden incomprehensible parts within ourselves that could make us do monstrous or revolting things. Although it is a much older notion (why Medea killed her children, for instance) it comes to fruition in Freud’s notion of the id.
There’s a part of us all that has to be carefully managed. Otherwise it does psychopathological actions. You see this now with the Las Vegas shooter. We want to know why he did it. Is there some part of ourselves that if we don’t manage it correctly, it could, in fact, lead us to some kinds of behaviors like this?
There is an impulse to understand the monstrous. The first question we ask about someone like Stephen Paddock is what his motives were, the second whether there is something wrong with his brain. But sometimes it will remain inexplicable and we must be content with the fact that humans beings can be monsters, although it is probably quite rare.
Our literature and culture creates icons of immorality, and they help shape our behavior and our thinking. A lot of people enjoy horror like The Walking Dead because it’s a form of rehearsal. I’m not expecting a zombie apocalypse, but I do wonder what would happen if the grid went down and we had no electricity and suddenly there’s a food shortage. What would happen if modern society came to some screeching halt? Many of the monster scenarios would be a surrogate training for what could happen between human beings.