On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears by Stephen T. Asma


Monster derives from the Latin word monstrum, which in turn derives from the root monere (to warn). To be a monster is to be an omen. Sometimes the monster is a display of God’s wrath, a portent of the future, a symbol of moral virtue or vice, or an accident of nature.”

Fear is fascinating. On of my earliest memories is of me, my brother and our parents sitting on a boat on some trip to some place I can’t remember, and while my Dad rowed, he told me the story of the Minotaur. I was morbidly fascinated by the half man/half bull creature and his labyrinth home, but even more so by the way the children were offered up to the creature so freely and the idea that if a person is fearful enough they are capable of horrors they’d could never dream of, that even the kindest, most loving person is driven by an instinct to survive and if that means someone else has to be offered up in your place, well, we know how it goes. The idea of how something terrifying like the Minotaur would be the image to haunt your dreams because it looks monstrous, when it’s the people in the story that act monstrous by sending their children to it always stuck with me. It’s what made me question what truly makes a monster, made me see that there’s no point in being afraid of something because of how it looks instead of the way it behaves and spurred me on a lifelong quest to seek out the humanity, the morality in all monstrous things. So I’ve been looking high and low for texts that talk analytically about monsters as metaphors, finding lots of articles but no compiled essays, until I found this one and snapped it up.

On Monsters… goes through the history of creatures created in myth and legend, and studies them as warnings designed to discourage or sometimes encourage particular behaviors in the societies that created them, playing on our internalized phobias to drive the message home. He looks at what it means to be a monster, how some monsters such as the cyclops could have been inspired by our ancestors discovery of fossilized bones mastodons, creatures they’d never seen in life. He looks at each topic, beginning with ancient and biblical monsters, up to our more modern ones created in pop culture.

It’s well compiled, well researched however it just didn’t seem to have enough oomph for what I was looking for and didn’t really offer any new insight on the topic considering how bulky the text was. As a research text it was great, but for dealing with such a potentially juicy subject matter, the writing was flat and rather dry. So if you’re reading it as a reference text, then it’s perfect, but it you re looking for more of anything more than that then look elsewhere.



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