Why monsters are necessary

Day 19: Life is far more terrifying than zombies, vampires, or blobs

This piece originally appeared in The National Post (online), 22 October 2012.

There’s a dude sitting at the table next to mine. The guy looks suspicious; he’s been typing on his computer a bit too determinedly. Probably he’s just updating his resume, but perhaps he’s trying to purchase uranium on eBay.

I’d better alert police, just to be safe. It’s the only rational response.

We’ve had more than a few ages in our species’ lifetime. The Stone Age. The Bronze Age. The Renaissance. The Age of Enlightenment. The Technological Age. Those few years when Pauly Shore was a thing.

Nowadays, I firmly believe we are smack-dab in the Age of Fear.

Terror bombards us from a hundred points of attack. The television newsmanikins raise unease and blood pressure with sound bites on that day’s virus outbreak and warfare and terrorist attacks and mysteriously dead whales, all right outside your door. Political doomsayers warn of Armageddon should the other party gain/maintain power. Religious leaders tell us gay marriage causes hurricanes. Government officials assure us that we are in constant peril, hence the need for more prisons; unreported crimes are on the rise, you know.

I’ll let you ferret out the logical inconsistencies in that statement yourself; I’m trying to make a point here.

Behold! The face…of horror!

These days, I have to finish my morning “business” before I check my browser to lessen the possibility of spontaneous pants soilage from terrifying headlines screaming of ebola, climate change, oceanic destruction, missing children, Rob Ford, and the necessity of bike helmets. Horrors abound throughout this epoch, like coffee shops in Montreal; if you’re not afraid yet, just turn around.

As our trusted leaders say, we’re completely secure. But. Be wary about everything and everyone, just to play it safe.

Consequently, with every stranger a danger, every shoe a bomb, every paper a cut waiting to happen, why would I ever consider frightening myself on purpose? Why would I ever want to layer my very real fears with the psychosexual creatures of Clive Barker’s imagination? What, it’s not enough that I’m terrified to fly, now I have to contend with the haunted houses of Andrew Pyper, the menacing alcoholics of Stephen King, and the bowel-infesting worms of Nick Cutter?

Yet it is obvious that we, citizens of the menacing terror-planet that is Earth, love being fictitiously scared. We gave Saw six sequels; we tune in to The Walking Dead and American Horror Story and Hannibal; we consent to Dean Koontz receiving a semi-regular paycheque. We, as a society, not only want our fictional monsters; such imaginary demons are necessary to our subconscious’s sense of well-being.

Science tells us that deep within the primitive canyons of our brains, we cannot differentiate between fantasy scares and the real thing. Is it any wonder then that we’ll watch Jason Voorhees hack up co-eds galore, when we’re sure the postwoman is plotting the same thing?

Monsters are essential to how we function in a world that, we are unceasingly reminded, is getting deadlier by the minute. If that lovely couple from Paranormal Activity can live with a pesky ghost, maybe I can face another work day. Rosemary loved her baby, spawn of Satan though it was; I guess I can cope with picking up the kids from soccer practice. It’s because of my surviving the page-numbered vampires of Salem’s Lot that I am sure that, when it all starts to go down, I won’t stop until it’s over.

But let us not forget, monsters, violent tendencies notwithstanding, are just plain fun. A good monster story exhilarates, either because the evil is vanquished or just because it’s awesome to watch a giant fire-breathing lizard stomp cities into kindling. If your boss has ridden your ass all day, what better way to relax than by vicariously haunting an amusement park where that old weird guy was murdered that one time?

Finally, we need fictional creatures of myth and nightmare because their stories have endings. This “war on terror” shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. There’s little-to-no light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to global warming. But when the last zombie has been picked off, the survivors helicoptered to safety, and the credits begin to roll, we can go safely out into the night, secure in the knowledge that, while our homes are most definitely being broken into and our possessions pilfered, at least we’re sure we won’t be devoured by brain-hungry ghouls.

Ninety-nine percent sure.

For some reason, I always write about horror every October. Probably because it’s my birth month. Something like that.