You believe in monsters, whether you know it or not — and I’m not even talking about the two-thirds of Americans who believe in demons and demon possession, or all of us who for a couple of weeks thought the Miami cannibal attack was the beginning of a zombie apocalypse (deny it all you want, but I know how hard it was to find shotgun shells that week). No, I’m talking about the monsters that live in your brain.
They are the reason we go see scary movies, and why we obsess over the most gruesome, face-eating news stories. These monsters are an important part of who we are and, by the way, are quite a bit more terrifying than the thing you only thought lived under your bed when you were a kid.
Note: I have written a novel that addresses this subject in the most ludicrous way possible and it is on shelves now. Also note that if you click your mouse anywhere on this page, there’s a good chance you’ll accidentally order it.
So to understand our obsession with monsters, we have to start with the fact that …
#5. We All Have at Least One Category of People We Think of as Monsters
Let’s say you are convicted of a crime and the judge sentences you to be parachuted naked into a populated area of someone else’s choosing. It can be anywhere on Earth, but in the name of leniency, the judge allows you to pick one city or region where you won’t be dropped. What’s your pick? What’s the one place you know you’d have no chance of getting out of alive? Detroit? Somalia? Think about it, we’ll come back to it in a moment.
So, if you picture Japan in your mind, this is what you see: Right down to the bunny ears. Don’t lie. But if we were in 1943 America, you’d see this:
And that’s not a person. That’s a monster. That thing doesn’t have a mother. It doesn’t feel human compassion. It’s not even the same species, and we shouldn’t feel bad about incinerating a couple hundred thousand of them with bombs, any more than we’d feel bad about fumigating some cockroaches. I know that poster looks like ancient history to you, and that your grandparents look very naive for buying into it. But here’s what I grew up with:
Even his hair is a weapon.
That was what a “Russian” was in my mind — cold, emotionless, violent, soulless, inhuman. As a school kid in 1984, I’d have pushed the nuclear button myself. I had seen Red Dawn, I knew it was us or them. So let’s go back to our question: What’s the one part of the world you don’t want to drop naked into? Maybe the darkest, poorest parts of Appalachia, where the inbred Deliverance rapists live?
“Buck up, friend. This is an important part of our culture!”
Or maybe it’s the most brutal parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where (as we saw in District 9) there are gangs of AK-47-wielding cannibal warlords:
Fortunately for you, you won’t be dropped into any of those places. No, the judge has decided you’ll be shoved into one of the radical Muslim anti-American demonstrations going on right now:
If you plead guilty now, you will be allowed to tape up your genitals.
Now, I’m not calling you a bigot, that’s not the point of this. It’s not your fault that you’re scared of all of those people, and that you think they lack any kind of human empathy or rationality. It’s not their fault that, in many cases, they’re equally scared of you, or what you represent. For you see …
#4. Hate Gives Us a High Similar to Cocaine
There is a scene in the movie Pulp Fiction that explains almost every terrible thing happening in the news today. And it’s not the scene where Ving Rhames shoots that guy’s dick off. It’s the part where the hit man played by John Travolta is talking about how somebody vandalized his car, and says this:
“Boy, I wish I could’ve caught him doing it. I’d have given anything to catch that asshole doing it. It’d been worth him doing it, just so I could’ve caught him doing it.”
That last sentence is something everyone should understand about mankind. After all, the statement is completely illogical — revenge is supposed to be about righting a wrong. But he wants to be wronged, specifically so he’ll have an excuse to get revenge.
We all do. It’s in our genes. And once you come to terms with that, a whole lot of ugly things about the world start making sense, the dick of your illusions blown off by the shotgun of truth.
Think about the worst fight you were ever in. Now think about the last time you did cocaine. Did you ever notice how similar the rush was in both instances (maybe you couldn’t tell, if both of those things happened on the same night). It’s basic biology — we mentioned before an experiment where scientists found that angry cursing soothes physical pain. It doesn’t mean that someday they’ll prep you for surgery by injecting you with motherfuckers; it means that when we get angry, our body releases the painkiller norepinephrine. It makes perfect sense — the emotion we call “anger” or “hate” is a part of our evolutionary fighting instinct, so to prepare us for the battle, it pumps us full of anesthetic to block the pain and releases the pleasure chemical dopamine to ease our fears about fighting the tiger/tribesman/drunken Red Sox fan who is threatening us. Incidentally, these are the same two chemicals that are released when you smoke crack.
Quite simply, hate gets you high.
“I’m about to trip my goddamn beard off.”
The science behind it is fairly new, but it explains so much, from wars to the confrontational dick at the office, from racism to the crazy girlfriend/boyfriend who is constantly trying to pick fights or create “drama.” You are a biological machine built to hate, and you got that way because your ancestors killed off everyone who wasn’t. Rage made you strong, and that strength let you win. This is why so much of society is built around controlling and suppressing it.
So what does this have to do with monsters? Here’s a hint:
#3. Society Controls You by Manipulating Your Hate Addiction
Jesus, that’s a depressing headline. I don’t want this article to seem like it’s coming off as cynical — after all, the rocket that took us to the moon ran entirely on hatred of communists. Here, let me lighten the mood with this picture of a couple hundred people dying horribly in a nightclub fire:
That is of course the aftermath of the infamous Bali terror attacks in 2002, where a car bomb detonated near a club full of Australian tourists. The victims were just dancing and laughing and having a good time when Muslim fundamentalists decided that the best way to get the world behind their cause was to make those innocent, joyful tourists die horribly in flames.
Look at that picture. Think about the victims inside. Think about the perpetrators watching it burn, listening to the screams, smugly confident that the act would somehow get them into heaven. How does it make you feel? What does it make you want to do to them?
OK, now how does it make you feel when I tell you that the image above is not of the Bali bombings, but rather the completely accidental nightclub fire that happened a year later in Rhode Island, in which a hundred people died due to a malfunction of pyrotechnics set off by the band Great White?
Which up to then everyone thought was a Spinal Tap-style parody band.
Well, shit. That’s a buzzkill, isn’t it? Despite the fact that the people died in the exact same way, and that far more people die in careless fires every year than in terror attacks, it just doesn’t set off the same fireworks in your brain. Imagining hunting down and killing those terrorists makes me want to charge out of my front door wielding a shotgun and a vengeance erection, with Drowning Pool blasting in the background …
… but when I imagine charging out the door to advocate for stricter fire safety standards for public performances in small venues, I find myselfIiiiiiithnnnnnnnnnnnnbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbmmmm …
Sorry, I fell asleep on my keyboard there. So why does one tragedy make me want to do a Liam Neeson on the Arab world, while an identical tragedy barely registers? Because I’ve been trained like one of Pavlov’s dogs to react a certain way — not to danger, but to monsters. And the fuckers who blew up that nightclub were monsters.
I can’t be convinced otherwise because long, long ago, the people in charge figured out that the easiest and most reliable way to bind a society together was by controlling and channeling our hate addiction. That’s the reason why seeing this …
… on the news makes us mumble “That’s sad” and maybe donate a few bucks to the Red Cross hurricane fund, while this …
… sends us into a decade-long trillion-dollar rage that leaves the Middle East in flames. The former was caused by wind; the latter was caused by monsters. The former makes us kind of bummed out; the latter gets us high.
And addicts are very easy to control, if you know how to manipulate their supply. Don’t take my word for it. Let’s see if you can name which genocidal world leader said this:
“Good morning. In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. Mankind … that word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests.”
That was, of course, Bill Pullman as President Thomas J. Whitmore in Independence Day. What does it take to unify humanity and let us get past our “petty differences”? A devastating invasion by space monsters. The same thing that got Captain America and Tony Stark to work together in The Avengers. The same thing that got the various warring clans of Scotland to band together behind William Wallace in Braveheart. It’s right there, in all of our most popular movies: a war against unspeakable, inhuman evil is the only thing that makes us unite and put our differences aside.
“If it wasn’t for the aliens, I totally would have dropped the N-word by now.”
And if that singular, despicable monster doesn’t exist, we’ll create it. We have to.
Or, to quote another leader who rallied his people when things looked their darkest:
“As a whole, and at all times, the efficiency of the truly national leader consists primarily in preventing the division of the attention of a people, and always in concentrating it on a single enemy. The more uniformly the fighting will of a people is put into action, the greater will be the magnetic force of the movement.”
At the risk of this getting taken out of context in the week I’m trying to sell a book, I think we can all agree that Adolf Hitler was right. As were all of the experts who came after him who said the same thing.
On one hand, I’m not saying anything new here — all of this was a major theme of 1984, as well as Van Halen’s earlier albums — but on the other hand, people keep falling for it. The crackhead knows the drug is bad for him, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still freaking love crack.
Now, I’m typing this on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and the above is going to attract conspiracy theorists to the comments claiming that George W. Bush arranged the attacks in order to give the country the mindless monster it needed to rally against. But the process of creating the monster doesn’t have to work that way. You don’t remember the spy plane incident in April of 2001? The tense international standoff after an American spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet in Chinese territory, killing the pilot? That came on the heels of an election where Bush promised he would get tough on China. If bin Laden hadn’t come along, we had another cold war cued up and ready to go.
But before you blame the world’s politicians for manipulating you, keep in mind …
#2. Hatred of Monsters Brings Us Closer to Our Own People
The next time you’re at a sporting event and the home team scores, reach over to the guy next to you and grab his crotch. Feel that boner? It’s perfectly normal — experiments show that testosterone goes up 25 percent in guys when their team wins. And that was with scientists watching.
Unrelated: The team they’re cheering for is called the “Redskins.”
Humans are social animals, and by that I of course mean we are bred by evolution for group murder. Natural selection has awarded you with a brain that loves everything your team does and hates everything the other team does, regardless of what it happens to be. That’s because our ancient ancestors figured out at least 3.5 million years ago that we could kill things better when we ganged up on them. And when it came to survival, unity trumped logic, morality and everything else. If the group was wrong, you went along anyway, because the alternative was trying to go solo against a Velociraptor.*
*The author is not a trained scientist.
This “loyalty or death” instinct is why you didn’t feel bad about all the people who were blown up in the Death Star. It’s why the football team didn’t hang around the DD club in high school, it’s why you had completely forgotten about that terrible earthquake in Haiti until I mentioned it just now. Your brain functions in a completely different way when looking at the people outside your group — they might as well be a different species.
“– And really, what’s up with the ‘no penis’ thing? Bunch of freaks, if you ask me.”
Or monsters. You’ve gotten the idea by now.
Now combine what we know about the addictive nature of hate with the biological need to see our team “win” and you have what might be the most addictive human emotion possible: self-righteous indignation. The feeling that we are in the right, and that the bad guys have wronged us.
Why else would we love a good revenge movie? We sit in a theater and watch Liam Neeson’s daughter get kidnapped. We’re not sad about it, because we know he’s a badass and he finally has permission to be awesome:
“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have is a particular set of skills, skills I’ve acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you.”
And theeeere’s my boner again. I’ve got that speech memorized, and I swear to God someday I will convince someone to kidnap my wife just so I have an excuse to use it. Not a single person in that theater was rooting for it to all be an innocent misunderstanding. We wanted Liam to be wronged, because we wanted to see him kick ass. It’s why so many people walk around with vigilante fantasies in their heads.
Not Liam Neeson.
We need to believe we’re under siege at all times; no amount of evidence can talk us out of it. That’s why, while the crime rate in America has been falling for 20 years, somehow 70 percent of Americans think it’s getting worse. It’s easy to blame the news media for pumping us full of stories of mass shootings and kidnapped children, but that’s stopping one step short of the answer: The media just gives us what we want. And what we want is to think we’re beset on all sides by monsters.
It’s not that there isn’t real crime and awfulness in the world. I’ve seen it first-hand — a lot of my closest friends and most loyal fans are violent criminals. But we always want it to be worse than it actually is. How many of you remember the stories of rampant rapes and murders and chaos in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but fail to remember the follow-up stories pointing out that most of it never actually happened?
“Oh, I thought you meant ‘N(ew)O(rleans) rapes reported’.”
Do you have family who still insist that there is a “War on Christmas” despite the fact that every square inch of the USA celebrates it for three straight months? Do your hardcore Christian grandparents still believe there was an outbreak of rampant Satan worship and child sacrifice in the 1970s and ’80s and that devout Satanists still run major U.S. corporations, no matter how many times you forward them the Snopes link debunking it? The facts are irrelevant — the monsters must exist.
Hey, you remember those anti-Japanese propaganda posters from before? Here, take a gander at how Americans are portrayed in North Korea. Here’s one of us shooting a little girl in the head:
Man, we must have blacked out hard that weekend.
Here we are burying families alive in mass graves:
And here we are chucking babies down a well, just for the hell of it:
And yeah, they start in early over there:
Seeing it from the other side, it’s insane to the point of almost being comical. There are millions of people there who believe Americans want to invade and throw their babies down wells, as firmly as they believe the sun will rise. What would we possibly have to gain from an invasion of North Korea? For what rational reason would we spend billions of dollars to …
Oh, right. Because we’re not rational. Because we’re monsters.
Of course, from the outside you can easily see how it’s all a ploy to prop up a failed regime in a country where the populace is impoverished and oppressed: Only monsters can make North Korea’s government look good by comparison.
The problem is, we all do it. Which brings us to the heart of the matter:
#1. Believing in Monsters Gives Us an Excuse to Be Dicks
Have you ever been mugged? Or been in a car accident that was someone else’s fault? Or at the very least, have you had a run-in with really horrible customer service? When you told the story later, did you find yourself spicing it up a little? You know, making the mugger a little bigger and scarier, making the other driver more reckless? It’s only natural — danger equals excitement, and a scarier story gets more attention (fun fact: science says that negative experiences impact your brain about five times harder than positive ones). But get this: As we tell our inflated, scarier version of the story over and over again, we eventually start to remember the bullshit version as the truth. The mugger/drunk driver/Verizon customer service rep who wronged you will, in the telling, become a monster. And all human culture is just a series of stories we tell over and over.
And of course, the reason you tell that story to everyone you run into isn’t to show how perfectly horrible the bad guy was; it’s to show how horrible he was compared to you. Making them worse makes you look better. It’s our own personal version of that Korean propaganda.
The worst part was after he finished and yelled “Can you hear me now?” down the well.
For instance, journalist and blogging great Fred Clark tells a bizarre story about the day his newspaper ran a gruesome article about some local kids who killed a kitten by burning it to death. The bizarre part is all of the messages that poured in from people proudly announcing that they, for one, did not approve of kitten burning. As if that was the minority opinion:
“If you jumped into the comments thread and started reading at any random point in the middle, you’d get the impression that the comments immediately preceding must have offered a vigorous defense of kitten-burning. No such comments offering any such defense existed, and yet reader after reader seemed to be responding to or anticipating this phantom kitten-burning advocacy group.”
“Wait, just hear us out about their flavor …”
It wasn’t enough to know that some disturbed kids tortured kittens; they needed to believe everyone but them were kitten torturers. You can see why; think about how goddamned easy life would be if the only moral hurdle we had to clear was “didn’t burn a kitten today.” That’s why we need to believe in kitten-burning monsters to lower that bar for us. This is why Maury Povich exists — as we previously mentioned, people watch shows like that and Jersey Shore because it gives them a boost in self-importance. You didn’t need a scientist to tell you that; you watched Snooki literally playing a flute with her vagina and realized that compared to her, you’re the goddamned Dalai Lama. “Sure, I’m unemployed and I’m mean to my kids and fewer than 50 percent of my urinations have been into toilets, but you’d never catch me acting like that.”
An actual ad running in NY subways as we speak.
And that, friends, is why you can tell so much about a society by looking at their monsters. The really popular stories will always feature monsters that are as different from us as possible. Think about Star Wars — what real shithead has ever referred to himself as being on “the dark side”? In Harry Potter and countless fantasy universes, you have wizards working in “black magic” and the “dark arts.” Can you imagine a scientist developing some technology for chemical weapons or invasive advertising openly thinking of what he does as “dark science”? Can you imagine a real world leader naming his headquarters “The Death Star” or “Mount Doom”?
“Even I wasn’t that tacky.”
Of course not. But we need to believe that evil people know they’re evil, or else that would open the door to the fact that we might be evil without knowing it. I mean, sure, maybe we’ve bought chocolate that was made using child slaves or driven cars that poisoned the air, but we didn’t do it to be evil — we were simply doing whatever we felt like and ignoring the consequences. Not like Hitler and the bankers who ruined the economy and those people who burned the kittens — they wake up every day intentionally dreaming up new evils to create. It’s not like Hitler actually thought he was saving the world.
So no matter how many times you vote to cut food stamps and then use the money to buy a boat, you could still be way worse. You could, after all, be one of those raping/murdering/lazy/ignorant/greedy/oppressive monsters that you know the world is full of and that only your awesome moral code prevents you from turning into at any moment. And those monsters are out there. They have to be. Because otherwise, we’re the monsters.