“Why We Tell Monster Stories”
by Harmony Libby
Storytelling has long been a human tradition. Dating back to thousands of years ago, even the simplest of cultures had their own myths and stories that have been orally passed down from generation to generation. Over time the stories may change slightly in their telling, but usually the key ingredients to what made the story a myth, remain. Traditionally, myths have been recounted orally, passed from parent to child, but in more modern cultures, stories are related through written tradition. Children today have access to many different stories from many different cultures, and to stories that have been written down from centuries past, but no matter when or how they were told, most stories include a moral or valuable lesson, and are, in many cultures, seen as truth, or as a way to teach culturally acceptable behaviors. In what follows, I will discuss the importance of “monster stories” and how they shape the way a child views the world around them, including how such films depicted from popular fictional novels like The Lord of the Rings have contributed to shaping society’s view of “good and evil.”
In order to consider where the Lord of the Rings has stemmed from, the culture that would bring an author to write such a story, and why it would attain such fame, one must understand why our culture, or why humanity, tells such scary stories to children to begin with. In ancient times, lacking an understanding of science as we know it today, civilizations needed a way of rationalizing the forces of nature, and the forces within (Gilmore 23). Monstrous forms start to appear on the walls of caves around twenty-five thousand years ago in France and Spain, which show prehistoric man’s awe of man-eating animals and inimitable forces of nature (Gilmore 25). Such forms are not as numerous or famous as wild game animal cave paintings, but none the less, they are frequent and imply that such forms were important in understanding human psychological origins (Gilmore 25).
It would be safe to say that stories of monsters contributed to the rise of civilization on this planet (Gilmore 26). Scalise Sugiyama and Sugiyama write that monster stories were traditionally told orally in forager cultures to promote survivability in young children (Scalise Sugiyama & Sugiyama 334). Most parents will do and say anything to keep their children safe, and telling stories about a monster or two who may hurt a child who wanders off, is just one more way that parents use to make children obedient to their will, especially where their lives may be in danger. The use of stories to scare a child safe is not unique to foraging societies; in fact most cultures have stories that they tell children to make them obey without argument. For instance, here in the U.S., parents often will tell their children to go to bed without delay or the boogie man may come to get them. Variations of these stories are told worldwide (Scalise Sugiyama & Sugiyama 333).
Fear is an extremely powerful emotion, and one can only imagine that within a world of darkness and predators, fear plays an important role in the rearing of children. The environment in some cultures, especially those of foraging societies, may be fraught with dangers. Those dangers include such things as getting lost, temperature differences, dying of thirst or hunger, and the danger of being kidnapped or tortured by rivaling tribes. Parents who tell their children monster stories do so to keep them safe from predators or from wandering off form the group. For foraging cultures, it is important that children believe, without doubt, whatever their parents tell them, and that they remain, at least, within earshot of the main camp (Scalise Sugiyama & Sugiyama 341).
According to Norenzayan, Atran, Faulkner, & Schaller, in their article entitled “Memory and Mystery: The Cultural Selection of Minimally Counterintuitive Narratives,” stories that are based on imaginary creatures, or monsters, or stories that contain within them elements that are extraordinary, are more likely to be remembered and passed down from generation to generation in oral tradition (Norenzayan, Atran, Faulkner, & Schaller 535). The stories of oral tradition that contain some element of the supernatural, while not detouring too far from the human experience, have a better chance of being stored and passed down orally than stories that contain no supernatural elements at all (Norenzayan et al. 543). The monster may have been real, while the acts the monster would commit may be fantastical. In classic literature, monsters took the form of demons, inhuman monsters, or other fantastical creatures that often fought against humans in the fight of “good vs. evil.”
Monster stories almost always contain some element of fantasy, and according to Norenzayan et.al. those stories are the ones that persist. “Supernatural elements externalize and emotionally relieve core existential human problems, including death, deception, meaninglessness, and other problems that are factually and rationally intractable” (550). Aside from the fight against evil, monster stories often teach children real world problems in an entertaining way. Since monster stories often relate back to real world problems or situations, they are often remembered better and passed down more traditionally then stories that do not.
From Oral to Written Tradition
It is impossible to trace the origin of stories. People shared stories long before they wrote them down. It is therefore impossible to determine when the first monster story was told. Stories were often told to relate shared experiences, and to pass on knowledge from one generation to the next. Stories became popular by their ability to be remembered, being retold often, and by being accepted as relevant by the people listening to the story. Stories that maintained their appeal were later written down as humans gained both the knowledge to write and read because they had stood the test of time, and were still being told and retold by people in the time they were written down. Stories such as the mythologies of ancient Greece, the life of Jesus Christ and other stories in the Bible, as well as books that are more recent, such as “The Lord of the Rings”, are still being told and re-told today.
“The Lord of the Rings”
“The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien is a fantasy story that takes place in Middle Earth and it is one of my favorite stories of all times; I must have read it twenty times during the course of my life. I will admit as a youngster, I was mostly interested in escaping my current circumstances, and “The Lord of the Rings” and Tolkien’s middle Earth is a place I often escaped to. I had never given much thought to the mythological aspects of the story, until later in life.
The characters include a white wizard, a fallen king, a hobbit (or a few significantly forgotten little persons), an elf, a warrior, and a dwarf. The companions must embark on a quest to eliminate the world of evil, by destroying a supernatural ring that holds the spirit of the evil dark lord, Sauron. The ring is seeking its master, and at times appears to have a mind of its own, tempting Frodo into wearing it, even though Frodo knows better.
The story fits perfectly with the conclusion that stories must contain supernatural elements, while not detouring too far from the human experience (Norenzayan et al. 543). At first, it may appear that “The Lord of the Rings” is purely a fictional account of a young hobbit who must face evil to save the world. However, on closer inspection, one will see elements of the classic battle between good and evil, the underlining story of how Frodo was leaving home for the first time, the dangers that he might face, and the dangers of trusting those who may betray you.
According to Norenzayan the remembered story must contain just enough of the supernatural to make it memorable and relatable, but not so much that people hearing the story find it unrealistic (543). “The Lord of the Rings” contains mostly human issues that are encountered in real life situations, however, it has just enough magic to make a person remember it. For instance, one main passage in the story is when Gandalf is fighting the demon from the deep and falls into the pit. While in the pit he uses magic to fight the demon, emerges victoriously, then later returns to the companions as the white wizard. This sub-section of the story deals with the fear of life after death, and humans conquering that fear; something that most Christians will admit hey hope to achieve someday be going to Heaven.
According to Scalise Sugiyama and Sugiyama, fairytales, or monster stories, are retold time and time again because they relate to survival or reproduction. “The Lord of the Rings” could be said to relate to the survival (357). In the classical sense, one may not see the survival aspect of “The Lord of the Rings.” It does not relate to everyday survival, but more so to the survival of the soul; the ultimate fight between good and evil, or between the devil and God.
Stories have a way of taking on a life of their own. Some stories remain with you, and some characters come to life; like long known friends, they provide comfort and familiarity in times of unfamiliarity. Stories are important to cultures of people, because they connect and unite, shock and amaze, and take one on an epic adventure that relates life back to one’s self. They resonate with generations of people and are often passed down from one generation to the next, picked up by an outside culture and passed on in many different forms in a variety of societies. The classic mythology stories, the ones that everyone knows, such as the story of Hercules, or the story of Cinderella, contain just enough fantastical elements to make the story relatable and memorable to many different people form many walks of life. Good stories, the ones that stick, will continue to make an impact and hold special places for many generations of people to come, and “The Lord of the Rings” is one of those stories.
Harmony Libby is a Dean’s List student in her third year at Ashford University, majoring in Cultural Anthropology with double minors in Sociology and Psychology. After graduation, she plans on continuing her education and obtaining a doctorate in Psychology. Harmony has a passion for helping people, and plans on specializing in trauma, anxiety, and stress related disorders as a psychologist. She lives in South Dakota with her wonderful husband, four amazing children, and their dog. Harmony and her family are avid adventurers and like to spend as much time exploring new places as possible.