In a few days it will be Halloween, a time when we dress up as, or tell stories about, monsters and other things that are meant to scare us. But have you ever wondered why we tell monster stories? They are entertaining for sure, but is there a deeper reason why we like to flirt with these frightening tales of inhuman creatures?
There are of course, many different kinds of monster stories; different categories of spookiness if you will. There are the “beast within” stories that describe the monster that lurks inside all of us (werewolves, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the Hulk). There are the stories about vampires, who both repulse and attract us, tempting us to join them and succumb to our latent, unbridled sensuality (e.g., Dracula, the Twilight series). There are the stories about ghosts, spirits, and other supernatural monsters, against which we feel completely helpless despite our advanced scientific knowledge and powerful technologies. Then there are the zombies, those inarticulate and slightly uncoordinated undead, who remind us of the fate that eventually awaits us all (my favorite being Shaun of the Dead). And then there are the unholy products of human creation: Golems, Frankenstein’s monster, the Terminator, the Cylons, and all manner of robots, cyborgs, and androids.
It is this last category of monsters that I want to focus on today: the unholy products of our secondary creation. We might call these “Promethean monsters” in reference to the Greek Titan Prometheus who not only gave mortal humans the first and most elemental of our technologies, domesticated fire, but also in some accounts played a role in the creation of humans by forming them out of clay.
These stories, I think, are interesting to examine for two reasons. First, they give us a window into understanding the source culture’s anxieties about scientific and technological change. The way these monsters are created, animated, and ultimately killed (or not killed) speak volumes about the ways in which a culture is trying to grapple with the uncontrollable forces they feel they have unleashed upon themselves.
For example, one of the inspirations for Marry Shelley’s Frankenstein story was a discussion she and her friends had about the new science of “galvanism,” which had discovered that electricity applied to the muscles of dead animals seemed to make them move as if they were alive again. Many at the time were postulating that a proper amount of electrical current applied to the human body might also bring it back to life, a prospect that no doubt sparked the imagination of young Shelley.
Promethean monsters from science fiction also provide this same kind of mirror to our own culture’s techno-scientific anxieties. The Terminator series reflected our worries over nuclear holocaust, computerized automation, networked computers, and the possibility of artificial intelligence. More recent film such as Splice express deep anxieties over the potential and ethics of biological engineering.
The second reason why I think it is important to pay attention to Promethean monster stories is because they also tend to reveal what the source culture thinks it means to be human, a person, or a child of God. Because these monsters are created by humans, and because they are often very human-like in appearance and behavior, they beg the question as to what makes them different from ourselves. In these stories, the monsters act like a foil to humanity, a creature that is similar to its creator, but remains distinct in some specific way that highlights that essential quality that we think makes us human.
For example, consider the classic 1960s dystopian novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; some of you may know the story from the movie Blade Runner, which was loosely based on the novel. Both the novel and the movie imagine a futuristic world in which a powerful corporation has developed a series of organically-grown androids that are virtually identical to humans. In the movie, they are known as “replicants,” which is such a good name that I’m going to use it even though it was never in the novel (I’m sure Dick would have used it had he thought of it).
The brains of these replicants are designed by the brilliant and enigmatic head of the corporation, and in the latest models, the corporation has implanted false memories of parents and a childhood. These false memories cause the replicants themselves to assume that they are human, and since they are virtually indistinguishable, both physically and behaviorally, from their human creators, they are almost undetectable…except for one very interesting and provocative trait: the replicants are incapable of experiencing empathy.
In the novel, this lack of empathy acts like a foil to the religion (known as Mercerism) practiced by the humans still left on Earth. Practicing the religion consists of using an “empathy box” to join the religion’s hero (Wilbur Mercer) on his repetitive climb up a steep cliff. The empathy box allows the worshipers not only to join the plight of Mercer, but also to be connected in a kind of group consciousness with the remaining inhabitants of a post-nuclear holocaust Earth. By feeling the presence of other worshipers, they reach out to one another and are reassured that they are not alone.
In both the novel and the film, the protagonist, police detective Rick Deckard, becomes so calloused by his work and living situation that he begins to wonder whether he too might be a replicant. In order to outwit the more physically powerful replicants, he increasingly has to think like they do, which starts to wear away his ability to care about the feelings and needs of other humans. This culminates in him having an elicit affair with a replicant, choosing it over his human wife.
Dick, like Shelley, is playing with what it means to be alive, what it means to be a person, and just who in the relationship is the real “monster.” Empathy may be a uniquely human trait in Dick’s dystopian world, but it is a trait that must be practiced. When humans make choices that deny their inherent empathetic capabilities, they quickly become just like the monsters they oppose. In other words, being fully human is not something we just inherently enjoy; it is something that needs to be constantly lived into.
To end, here’s an incredibly provocative clip from the series Capirca, which is a prequel to the recent reboot of Battle Star Galactica. It raises all kinds of questions about our relationship with robotic secondary creations, whether the “differently sentient” would be due the same rights as a person, and most interestingly, whether they too could have a relationship with our creator God.