When you think of monsters, you might imagine the dragons coiled menacingly atop hordes of gold, the lion-headed chimaeras of ancient mythology, or the lurching bulk of Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. Monsters are things that don’t exist except in the realm of stories and fairy tales - they are the stuff of make believe. We tell tales of bogey men to scare children into behaving, or indulge ourselves with the escapism of fantasy films. After a couple of hours the monster is gone, the film is over, and the brightly-lit, monster-free world returns? Not quite.
What is going on in the world right now with the global COVID-19 pandemic shows just how prevalent monsters still are, even though we might like to think that science has everything taped. The thing is, monsters are not things that exist externally, they come from inside our minds, they are integral to the way that we see the world. And there are plenty of monsters haunting us at present.
Traditional monsters, or monsters in stories, are usually ‘out there’. They come from distant times and places, exotic lands beyond everyday experience or long ago from which they cannot reach us. They are safely encapsulated in books, films, and stories, media that we can choose to indulge in or put down at a moment’s notice, shutting the monsters away. Maps used to be drawn with lands beyond the known world filled with all manner of fantastical things: dog-headed men, cannibals, phoenixes, or vast sea beasts cavorting across the waves. Medieval cartographers labelled unknown regions with ‘hic sunt dracones’ – here be dragons – signalling that these were mysterious places, where the things beyond nature stalked. If they did stray too close, they were rapidly excised, as in the witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and its hysterical rash of public executions.
Monsters are things that embody our anxieties and fears, transgress our boundaries and mix up categories. They reveal what these fears and anxieties are.
But why is this? Why did the dragons never come to perch on the roof of the Town Hall or the unicorns stroll through people’s gardens? Why is there never a bogey man when you actually look under the bed? Well, a thought about what a monster is might explain that. Monsters are things that embody our anxieties and fears, transgress our boundaries and mix up categories. They reveal what these fears and anxieties are. We give them physical forms in our imaginations, but we also do not like to face them. We have always placed them as far away from us as we are able to. Life is easier that way. More recently, though, especially from the 20th century, monsters evolved. They were no longer things that could be placed safely at arm’s length. They could not be used simply as scapegoats. We began to realise that monsters, or monstrosity itself, was something inside us. That we, ourselves, contain monsters. It explains why we enjoy indulging in monster media so much. Because it allows us to face them temporarily, get the thrill of fright, and then forget all about them in the light of day.
Monster-making is something that every human being does, with elements of the world and themselves that frighten them. Embodying dangerous and unpleasant things in something that can be demonised and pushed away, like witches burnt at the stake, is far easier than dealing with them as an integral part of you or your society. Monsters are infinitely varied as a result. They do not all have multiple heads or vast size, the ability to breathe fire or strange slimy visages. Sometimes, they can be very mundane to look at. The monster concerning us all at the moment cannot be seen at all – nor can it easily be fended off. Even with excessive handwashing. Sometimes, they can be invisible agents that infect the body and do terrible things to it.
This is not, of course, to suggest that the pandemic is not very real and very serious. COVID-19 is not a hoax, whatever the conspiracy theorists on YouTube might say. But coronavirus is not just a medical, economic and political phenomenon. It is also a psychological one. Because we cannot help but make monsters out of the things that scare us, to create monstrous images out of our inchoate fears. And a situation such as this pandemic is one where fear is rife and the boundaries of ‘normal life’ are being thrown into disarray. The world feels like a very alien place at the moment, a dystopian new reality that seems to have little prospect of returning to the normal of before, any time soon. And this dystopia is a playground for new monsters.
Coronavirus is not just a medical, economic and political phenomenon. It is also a psychological one.
Some have, of course, tried the age-old trick of pushing the monster ‘out there’ geographically. The pandemic has brought out plenty of deplorable, latent or not so latent racism in the West. The blame for the virus has been placed in the East, to countries we view as alien to us, full of people shopping in dangerous wet markets to fuel their strange bat-eating habits. Even worse, some suspect lab-fermented plans to topple the global competition.
The zoonotic transmission of the virus and the health risks of wet markets may be a question for infectious disease experts. But that does not change the vilification of a whole geographical region on the basis of these perceptions that has occurred in some quarters. At the beginning of the pandemic, before European countries went into lockdown, coronavirus was seen as an exotic infection, something that happened in places where people ate funny things and suffered from strange diseases. It did not seem like a problem that we would have to deal with. But monsters are things that cross borders of all kinds, including social and political ones. When our borders were, too, breached, it was quite a shock. And created an eruption of casual racism.
Threats bring out the demons lurking under the veneer of everyday life: the disaster fantasies waiting to be unleashed, the apocalyptic dreams, and the psychic fights for survival, dampened by comfortable urban living. They reveal the manic denial in which we all live, in our cosy consumer bubbles. And this has been no different. The polar opposite is panic. The visceral fears of apocalyptic destruction against which all measures possible must be taken. Especially stocking up on toilet roll. The ‘super-spreaders’, lax hand-washers and people clearing their throats become the monstrous agents that carry the threat which must be vilified.
Panic about a perceived threat is often the external manifestation of our internal monsters. The dichotomy between mania and panic has been clearly demonstrated by the spectrum between the ‘it’s no worse than the flu’ denialists and the ‘this will end the world’ camps.
But panic about a perceived threat is often the external manifestation of our internal monsters. The dichotomy between mania and panic has been clearly demonstrated by the spectrum between the ‘it’s no worse than the flu’ denialists and the ‘this will end the world’ camps. Both reactions have been, if anything, a barrier to taking concerted, coherent action over the course of the spread. Only a depressive position, neither panic nor denial, allows for reasoned action. For now, we must sit with our monsters of panic, and face them.
Monsters are the chaotic elements that cause us to dissolve and re-form borders. This is what is happening now: global restructuring along the lines of a viral outbreak and progression. It has caused fragmentation down to the level of the individual, invading our very bodies, keeping friends and families apart. Anyone might be harbouring the disease invisibly. All the more terrifying is that we know so little about it: this is the first wave of data we have on this virus and we cannot know for certain what will happen when lockdowns are lifted, or how much of an effect this will have on our lives going forward. Arguably, COVID-19 has slid right in to the mould of monsters that we have already imagined, in films such as 28 Days Later, I am Legend and other post-apocalyptic plague fantasies. Uncontrollable disease is just one of the coterie of modern monsters – along with the murderous psychopath, nuclear-powered Godzilla and homicidal AI – that can tell us a great deal about the fearful underbelly of modern civilisation.