WHAT 12 MOVIE MONSTERS
CAN TEACH US ABOUT HUMAN NATURE
Can horror movie monsters help us understand human nature?
After all, what could horrific, terrifying stories possibly teach us about psychological health or the upper reaches of human potential?
The whole idea might sound silly.
If we’re looking for genuine insight into happiness, “self-actualization,” or just becoming someone we can respect, some might think the healthy and sane route is to avoid horror movies altogether. Horror movies and words like "being fully human" seem to live in entirely separate categories. After all, it’s been trendy to act as if the entire key to happiness and health is to stay positive, at all costs, even if it means living in denial – and horror hardly seems “positive.”
But, of course, things aren’t that simple. There’s much more to all this than just “being positive.”
For some people, there’s something fun about horror movies.
Horror movies often delve into what polite society tries to ignore.
We often walk around assuming the Big Questions of life have been settled just fine, and the only things left to sort out are a few details – who will win the game, what some celebrity is up to these days, what to have for dinner, etc.
But horror movies, often loudly and rudely, say otherwise. They remind us that life is full of anxiety, fear, dread, pain, bad guys, gross stuff, crazy people, and lots of mysterious things we don’t fully understand, as well as – maybe the biggest taboo of all – the inevitable reality of death.
This isn’t mere speculation.
Billions of dollars is evidence to the fact: lots of people enjoy watching and making horror movies. Maybe there is something to this Tao of Terror business.
Do we secretly enjoy being scared? Aren’t fear, dread, and anxiety things we usually want to avoid? We often think we’re pursuing happiness – but if that’s the case, why would anyone voluntarily immerse themselves in simulations of horrific situations?
There’s something deeper going on here.
From Carl Jung:
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,
but by making the darkness conscious.”
Are horror movies some effort toward “making the darkness conscious”?
While “self-actualization” refers to the best a human being is capable of, horror movies often depict the worst. But in this way, these two extremes may offer insights into each other.
After all, “monsters” often exist because something has gone wrong.
But what, exactly?
A few examples can offer some clarity.
1. The Werewolf
The werewolf could be described as the human being reduced to the animal. In these stories, a human individual transforms into a creature dominated by cravings, desires, appetites, or passion-without-reason.
Examples include The Wolf Man, Dog Soldiers, Wolf, The Howling, and An American Werewolf in London.
2. The Machine
The "Machine" or “Frankenstein’s Monster” could be described as the human that is reduced to a machine. In these stories, individuals are at least partly transformed into machines, or are enslaved by machines. Academics and intellectuals often employ this model of human nature when they reduce human beings to things, often using the words “nothing but” – as when they say, “A human being is nothing but a clump of atoms” (or genes, cells, brain chemicals, etc.).
Examples include Frankenstein, Darth Vader, The Terminator, The Matrix, HAL, RoboCop, Ex Machina, Megan, and I, Robot.
3. The Zombie
The Zombie is the human who has become disconnected from the source or energy of life. It seems to be alive, at least in the most basic, rudimentary, physical ways, but it isn’t fully alive in a truly human way. The body still functions, but not the “self.”
Examples include Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean, Pet Semetary, and World War Z.
4. The Vampire
The vampire, similar to the zombie, is also “undead,” or disconnected from the source of life. Yet the vampire, unlike the zombie, has a “self,” and even a full personality, and so can even be charming. While zombies survive, animal-like, by feeding off human flesh, vampires have discovered a substitute source of vitality: blood. So, they survive by feeding off the vitality of other humans. As others have noted, the vampire is the diametric opposite of the hero: while the classical hero sacrifices himself to save others, the vampire sacrifices others to save himself.
Examples include Dracula, Nosferatu, Salem’s Lot, Interview with the Vampire, and The Lost Boys.
5. The Fanatic
The fanatic is the human who becomes obsessed with a certain idea or group of ideas. Like an addiction, this obsession grows to the point that it eventually takes over. Even good ideas can become bad when they become obsessive and exclude everything else.
Examples include Thanos, John Doe from Se7en, Children of the Corn, Colonel Quaritch from Avatar, Javert from Les Miserables, and Nurse Ratched.
6. The Mad Scientist
The mad scientist is a fanatic whose obsession is channeled through science. While the werewolf depicts passion-without-reason, the inverse would seem to be one that is reason-without-passion (like Spock from Star Trek). But the mad scientist is hardly pure reason – and, in fact, hardly listens to reason at all. Instead, this type is in the grip of a single passion that has to do with the discovery of what is imagined to be a profound but hidden knowledge.
Examples include Victor Frankenstein, Jigsaw, The Fly, The Green Goblin (and Doc Ock, and many other supervillains), Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, Splice, Species, Firestarter, Re-Animator, The Human Centipede, Mimic, and others.
7. The Jekyll-Hyde
The Jekyll-Hyde type is someone who is split. That person’s self is composed of several different and often contradictory personality sub-components. This type depicts someone who leads a “double life,” or “lacks integrity,” and has no single, unified life philosophy.
Examples include Dr. Jekyll, Hulk, Gollum, The Three Faces of Eve, Ed Norton from Primal Fear, Dennis from Split, the narrator from Fight Club, and Two-Face from The Dark Knight.
8. The Psycho
The “psycho” is the human with deep, unresolved psychological conflicts that are externalized and projected onto the external world. The psycho isn’t introspective, and so often acts out these subjective conflicts in the objective world. Another quote from Jung can apply here: “What we do not make conscious emerges later as fate.”
Examples include Norman Bates, Jack from The Shining, Alex from Fatal Attraction, Annie Wilkes from Misery, Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs.
9. The Psychopath
The “psychopath” is often described as being completely disconnected from the “conscience” or sense of right and wrong, or as being unable to feel empathy with others. This type of individual can be fully self-obsessed or perfectly self-ish, lacking any element of selflessness, and so is also described as narcissistic. Despite being cold and ruthless to the point of seeming inhuman, they can also be highly intelligent, socially skillful, and even charming.
Examples include Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, Vincent from Collateral, Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, Hans Landa from Inglorious Bastards, Billy from Scream, Maxy Cady from Cape Fear, Early Grace from Kalifornia, and Henry from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
10. The Nihilist
The “nihilist” could be described as someone who has adopted an incredibly narrow view of the world, or a very limited and specific worldview or life philosophy. To a nihilist, life has no meaning or purpose, truth doesn’t exist, the universe is governed by chaos or chance, and nothing ultimately matters. Nothing is sacred. “God is dead.” Naturally, then, a nihilist might be willing to murder someone over a pair of shoes – because, after all, why not? If nothing matters, we can do anything we want (or not). And the chaos that ensues from adopting this idea tends to reinforce the idea that nothing ultimately matters.
Examples include The Joker, Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men, Alex from A Clockwork Orange, The Killer from the movie The Killer, and various purgers from the Purge series.
11. The Other
The “wholly other” is a form of not-self that is utterly indifferent to human interests. In its pure form, it’s thoroughly impersonal or objective. It’s not necessarily anti-human – it simply has other interests, and sometimes we’re in the way. It might not even have “interests” at all, strictly speaking – like a force of nature (weather, tornadoes, etc), it might just “be what it is.” (A tornado isn’t evil, it’s just a tornado.) It isn’t personal. It just doesn’t care about us to the slightest degree, except possibly to the extent that we can benefit it in some small way. It's thoroughly indifferent on topics we view as matters of life or death. In this sense, it represents something partially or fully disconnected from passion or human feeling.
Examples include Alien, Independence Day, War of the Worlds, The Thing, Predator, It Follows, Jaws, The Day After Tomorrow, and Twister.
12. The Evil
The “evil” is the human that has gone beyond being merely “other” and has instead moved into conscious and deliberate anti-humanity or opposition to the good.
Examples include The Exorcist, The Omen, Sauron, Voldemort, Emperor Palpatine, Leland Gaunt from Needful Things, The Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, Freddy Kreuger, Jason from Friday the 13th, Pennywise from It, Michael Myers from Halloween, Rosemary’s Baby, The Devil Inside, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and The Pope’s Exorcist.
This warrants a disclaimer.
Few of the examples listed above are complete and perfect fits.
Most could arguably fit with some combination of more than one category.
For example, Vincent from Collateral could easily be described as nihilistic. But he also has a code he lives by, which means he isn’t perfectly Nihilistic (and living as a perfect nihilist is virtually impossible). Similarly, Amon Goeth from Schindler’s List and Hans from Inglorious Bastards could be a combination of Fanatic (true believers in their ideology) and Psychopath. Frankenstein’s monster could technically be a Zombie instead of a Machine, since he’s technically “the dead that has come back to life.” Zombies and Vampires are both “undead” creatures that survive by feeding off others, so in some ways, they’re cousins. Werewolves also live a kind of Jekyll-Hyde existence of being “split” or leading double lives. The Fly depicts a Mad Scientist type who manages to reduce himself to an Animal (an insect, even). A human in Pet Semetary becomes a sort of Zombie, but also turns Evil.
And so on. All categories eventually blur and overlap. Mathematical precision in these areas doesn’t exist and probably never will, and the search for it is a snipe hunt. This means endless and fun arguments can ensue. There’s plenty of reason to stay loose and humble when delving into all of this.
So, what’s the point?
How does any of this apply to real life?
Applications are all around us, in the sense that horror movies can shed light on what's under the hood of human beings.
Each category above represents a model or snapshot of human nature.
Or, more clearly: they represent flawed models of human nature, or ways human nature can go wrong.
Horror movies depict what we could call “human reductionism” or humans being “reduced” in various ways to something “less” than fully human. They dramatically portray human nature being reduced to an animal, a machine, a body without a soul, a soul without a body, a human with passion disconnected from reason, reason disconnected from passion, in a condition of being split or fragmented between incompatible components, as a self that’s been disconnected from goodness, other people, the source of life itself, or all of the above.
These are exaggerations of real conditions.
In horror movies, human nature can get reduced to that of an animal (Werewolf), a machine (Frankenstein), a body without a soul (Zombie), a soul without a body (Fanatic/Mad Scientist), it’s split or fragmented between incompatible parts (Jekyll/Hyde), it’s passion disconnected from reason (Psycho), reason disconnected from passion (Other), it’s a human that can be disconnected from other people (Psychopath), or disconnected from the proper human source of life (Vampire), meaning (Nihilist), or goodness (Evil).
These forms of human reductionism are exaggerated ways we can possibly (and often do) fall short of the mark.
But these are dramatic portrayals of things that happen in real life.
And in this sense, it can help us navigate through life.
It can also point the way to the opposite of human reductionism.
This can help us sketch a rough image of the “fully developed human,” or a general ideal of what full humanity or psychological health might look like.
But this might start sounding a bit hokey.
So, we might want to back up a few steps.
In the early days of psychology, Freud and others worked to understand individuals with “abnormal” conditions, such as what they described as “neurosis.”
But, this orientation led to a narrow focus on the negative.
The result leads to plenty of ways to go “wrong,” but few ways to go “right.”
This negative orientation survives today, where there seem to be continuously expanding categories of various “disorders,” but hardly any mention of “order,” the prevention of disorders from arising in the first place, or the positive aim and diagnosis of psychological health.
Essentially everyone under the disease-oriented model gets defined as some version of “walking wounded.” No one is declared “healthy,” there are only varying degrees of being declared more dysfunctional, or less.
Abraham Maslow worked to remedy that.
Instead of the purely negative, disease-oriented models of human nature that ruled his day (and still rule ours), he embarked on studies of “self-actualization” where he strove to understand the best humanity is capable of.
His work was sorely needed, groundbreaking, and highly influential.
Yet, there’s room to question his methods.
For example, he selected individuals (such as Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, and others) that he described as self-actualized. He then studied “common denominators,” or qualities those individuals shared. But his method boiled down to 1) choosing individuals based on certain qualities, 2) observing those individuals, and then 3) describing those qualities he observed. So, his results could be seen as circular. (He imagined qualities, then found individuals who demonstrated those qualities, and then described the qualities those individuals demonstrated.) To be fair, he had to start somewhere. But the question becomes one of why those qualities or individuals were selected in the first place.
This doesn’t invalidate Maslow’s approach, but it does highlight the critical role of the initial assumptions in our thinking (a situation addressed by advice to “know thyself.”) Especially in tricky business like this, the answers we get often depend on the questions we ask.
Horror movies offer a different approach.
Movies might seem to live in the realm of “art,” which lies in the opposite direction of rigorous science – especially “science” involved in the slippery fields of psychology and “inner health.”
But there’s also hard data involved in the business of making, selling, and viewing horror movies.
Billions of dollars and lifelong reputations are at stake. While anyone can say anything on a psychological survey, when it comes to movies, there’s often skin in the game (such as careers, money, status, etc.). And while it isn’t a realm of mathematical precision, some stories clearly “work” while others clearly don’t.
All to say, this approach isn’t mere speculation.
But more importantly, it can help us fill in some spots left open by Maslow’s approach.
We can take the qualities humans naturally and instinctively perceive to be sub-human, and create an image of their opposites.
If every type of horror movie monster lacks a certain element of humanity, then we could collect those qualities, describe them, and reverse them.
This would give us the raw elements to potentially sketch out a rough picture of a fully human (or self-actualized) human.
It’s a kind of double-reverse maneuver.
To paraphrase Richard Rose:
“A negative reaction to a negative situation might be quite positive.”
For example, based on our evaluations of horror above, we shouldn’t reduce humans or ourselves to being machines (Frankenstein), or animals (Werewolf), or allow ourselves to be reduced to either of the two. We should find our own connection to the proper source of life (energy or vitality), and not feed off others socially or emotionally (Vampire, Zombie). We should work to resolve our inner conflicts and not project them out into the world (Jekyll-Hyde, Psycho). We should respect other people and ourselves (Other). We should engage in honest dialogue and healthy debate with others, avoid unhealthy obsessions, and be humble and open-minded about the possibility that some of our ideas – even core ideas we cherish – might be wrong (Fanatic, Mad Scientist). We should find meaning and coherence in life (Nihilist). We should do good (Evil).
So to summarize, a rough sketch of the full, psychologically healthy human individual is someone who is:
• more than merely an animal
• more than just a machine
• where the soul and body are interconnected and unified
• where reason and passion are interconnected and unified
• connected to other people
• connected to a sense of goodness
• connected to a legitimate source of life
Much of this might sound obvious. Yet many academics and intellectuals often see humans as mere animals (eg evolutionary psychologists and biologists), mere machines to be manipulated (eg behavioral psychologists, politicians), pure passion (postmodernists, some psychologists), and so on. We can treat other people - or ourselves - like they're machines or animals, as things to experiment on or feed off of, as things to use as objects of our own amusement or pleasure (Nihilist) or to work out our psychological issues on - and so on.
Our view of human nature is an outgrowth of our life philosophy or worldview. If nihilism is true, for example, nothing matters, including whether we become a hero or a villain. If deism or existentialism are true, then the universe is split into multiple parts that are incompatible, and that could easily lead to some sort of personal split existence of a Jekyll/Hyde or Hulk. A materialistic philosophy easily lends itself to seeing human beings as mere animals or machines, as history as shown, which leads to dark places. And so on.
All of this points us in a certain direction.
Horror movies aren’t just tales of survival under horrific conditions.
They’re simulations in which we vicariously experience an overcoming of forces that are working to dehumanize us. In this sense, it can be a form of experiential spirituality.
In order to answer the question, “Why do we watch horror movies?” we first have to answer the question, “Why do we do anything?” We can’t understand the specific without understanding the general. (To fully understand why we fear heights or spiders or public speaking, we need to understand fear itself. To understand anxiety in social situations or about status, we need to understand anxiety itself. And so on.)
If we wanted to drill down to the bedrock level, we could propose something like this: we all have a “Basic Motive.” This motive can be described in several ways, but boils down to one basic force where humanity overcomes inhumanity, or the self triumphs over the not-self, or where Being prevails over Not-Being, and so on.
While we express this Basic Motive in ways as varied as human personalities and are as unique as human faces, the motive itself is one. It’s shared by all humans. (This is all explored more here.)
This force implores some of us to test its boundaries and explore the darkest conditions and outermost limits, at the true “furthest reaches of human potential.”
Some soldiers have given voice to this desire.
It’s a desire to confront life at its most raw, at the very bottom, at its worst.
From the film Lone Survivor, written by Peter Berg, Marcus Luttrell, and Patrick Robinson (based on the book by Marcus Luttrell on some of his days as a Navy Seal):
“There's a storm inside of us. I've heard many team guys speak of this. A burning. A river. A drive. An unrelenting desire to push yourself harder and further than anyone could think possible. Pushing ourselves into those cold, dark corners, where the bad things live. Where the bad things fight. We wanted that fight at the highest volume. A loud fight. The loudest, coldest, darkest, most unpleasant of the unpleasant fights.”
We could call this an apophatic approach to reality. It’s a way to find truth by backing away from untruth, or a way to find ourselves by backing away from everything that’s not us.
Horror movies, in this sense, can be an effort to get at the heart of life. It isn’t pretty, it’s messy, and it might even occasionally be terrifying. But as casual as they might seem, in the same way we might climb Everest or join a cult or do anything, maybe we watch horror movies as a way to express this fundamental drive or basic motive: to become fully human, attain enlightenment, achieve Self-Realization, become selfless, or find communion with God.
And if we look at them in just the right way, maybe they can even point us in that direction.
Maybe horror can help us reach further, for the fully human. And stay away from zombies.