I have always been interested in monsters. They are compelling subject matter. Upon them, our various cultures have placed blame and hatred, and we use them to build up societal rules, norms and paradigms. They are our antithesis, that which humans attempt to subvert or kill, yet they are also a reflection of humanity itself, as many famous works of literature remind us, we ourselves suffer from being monsters. Monsters, in every iteration ranging from aliens to yetis, challenge us not only physically, but philosophically.
Two years ago, I was told about the work of Dr. Jeffrey Kripal, a professor of Religion and Philosophy at Rice University. For those who are unaware of his genius, he regularly dabbles in the world of monsters, ghosts and aliens. In an essay from 2014 concerning Whitley Strieber’s famous book Communion, he wrote,
“And what of real monsters? By ‘real’ I do not mean to point to some future biological taxon. I do not think that we will someday shoot a Sasquatch or net the Loch Ness Monster. By real I mean quite simply ‘really experienced,’ I mean ‘phenomenologically actual.’ I mean to remind us that many people, including many modern people, have experienced monsters not as ‘discourses’ or as cultural ‘deconstructions,’ but as actual incarnate, discarnate, or quasi-incarnate beings.”
Kripal raises a compelling idea; a monster that is not objective or subjective, but objective AND subjective. It exists in a dualistic state, it is fact and fiction. Real and not real. A psychosocial construct that is as physical as the smartphone in your hand or the computer you are looking at.
This is not a new idea, if anything, it is ancient. Even William Shakespeare points out in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that,
“And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”
The point, I suppose, is that monsters are everywhere and nowhere. They haunt us from the gaps which form between the mind, culture and the physical objective world.
Several days ago, I was given the opportunity to view Seth Breedlove’s latest monster documentary, The Bray Road Beast. Originally, I promised Mr. Breedlove a film review. After seeing the film however, I wish to deal with the broader philosophical messages the film raises. That being said, I want to appease Mr. Breedlove as he deserves credit for an excellent film.
The film itself is a great investigation into the story surrounding a large upright dog-like creature, a werewolf if you will, which has appeared multiple times in and around Elkhorn, Wisconsin. A rash of sightings in the early nineties along the quiet rural Bray road was investigated by reporter Linda Godfrey, who today, enjoys great fame and accolade for her books concerning various other monster stories (many of essential reading if you ask me). The film features great interviews with Godfrey herself, multiple witnesses, and other investigators. It also has some hair-raising reenactments and computer-generated scenes which helps the viewer visualize the events. Breedlove works with a shoestring budget, but his expert ability to tell a story and use a camera makes the film look spectacular. The narrative keeps the viewer engaged, and strangely nervous that the beast, whatever it may be, is waiting just out of sight. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and any fan of the paranormal will too. It tells a great story with some really interesting new pieces of evidence.
Can we get back to some theory now?
The film reminds us that the lines between real and mythological, human and monster, are incredibly tenuous. It matters little if the Beast of Bray Road is real; if enough people “see” it, talk about it, and tell stories about it, the beast begins to haunt us in a very real way. This is where the film is successful. It assumes that nothing ought to be taken for granted.
Depending on your personal philosophical bend, reality itself tends to work along a similar vein. The world around us, our daily lives, are a symbiotic blend of truth and myth. We tell ourselves stories all the time.
What is the ‘objective’ truth or value of a one-hundred-dollar bill versus a one-dollar bill. It’s the same paper and the same ink, the only difference is we have all agreed to mythologically value the number 100 more than the 1. Why value money at all? Simply put, as a society, we have agreed to do so. There is no inherent “capital T” truth to money itself. We can go beyond this into any past or present paradigms, such as gender, race, power and politics. Our entire reality is mythological in nature. Societal definitions of “manliness” and “femininity” are great examples of ideological storytelling, and those stories are constantly changing. There is nothing objectively real regarding how a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ ought to be or act; it is simply mythology.
The overall point here is that, on a daily basis, you and I exist in a world of fiction and storytelling. The drive to Burger King or your son’s swimming lessons is as full of myths as the monster which stalks the backcountry Bray road. If we continue to tell stories concerning the myths we take for granted, such as the value of money, those myths continue to be real. They, for all intents and purposes, are “true.” Yet, in some curious twist, the myths we don’t take for granted, or perhaps would rather not take for granted, such as monsters, remain on the fringes. The funny thing about myths though, and monsters too, is that they tend to pop up every once in a while. Uninvited. Whether through witness accounts or blurry photographs and videos, monsters seem to be a myth that won’t go away.
If we are prepared to say that monsters are not real, then we need to be prepared to throw away all of those other myths we tell ourselves and our children, or at least appreciate that they are illusions. However, we won’t. We will continue in our myths because they form and inform us. We become part of those myths, and we live in a sort of communion with them (no pun intended).
We need to be prepared to accept Kripal’s framework; that monsters are real and unreal. They are from the blending of reality and storytelling, and people encounter them at times. Breedlove’s film presents us with this interesting idea. As individuals, we must accept that monsters are both part of us and apart from us. They exist in our psychosocial reality as well as our objective reality; the big question is how? We do not know, but perhaps we can all agree that speaking and writing about them is the necessary first step to breath anything into existence. We do dwell in mythology after all.
Breedlove expresses a wonderful idea in his film towards the end. Monsters are everywhere. No “hot spot” is really a hot spot. We mythologize places. We tell stories about certain areas and put more “skin in the game” as it were. Perhaps due to the spinning of those tales, monsters tend to pop up a little more. It is not that Bray road in Elkhorn is some special place. Monsters haunt us in our books and films, in our dreams, and perhaps most frightening of all, in our backyards where our children play. It is not that we need to hunt the monsters to find the truth behind them. Rest assured, they are most definitely hunting us.