Nautilus

Why We Still Need Monsters

It doesn’t seem enough to call Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 innocent people in Las Vegas in October 2017, a monster. The term has lost its power to evoke the unimaginable. The beasts that terrorized the mental lives of our ancestors have been tamed by religion and culture, notes Stephen T. Asma in a Nautilus essay, “Why Are So Many Monsters Hybrids?”. So what do we call Paddock?

Asma, a professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, and author of On Monsters and The Evolution of Imagination, says the term “monster” is not ready to be retired. The moniker suits Paddock, he says. “Monster is a term we reserve for people who cannot be negotiated with. It’s almost impossible, if not impossible, to understand their behavior, their motives, their mind. Our regular theory of mind doesn’t work on these people.”

THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY: Crazy behavior by leaders commands attention, which could have a deterrent effect.Mandel Ngan, Ed Jones / AFP / Getty Images

In a ranging interview with Nautilus about mythic and real monsters, Asma talked about the evolutionary origin of werewolves and the psychological fears that give rise to tyrannous leaders. Asma lived in Cambodia for a while and learned about the monstrous rule of Pol Pot. He offered his view of what appeals to Americans about Donald Trump. We delved into the roles that desire and repulsion play in our conceptions of monsters, and why he disagrees with neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett about the source of emotions.

Given the strange and gruesome tales in his chosen field of study—“You definitely want to wait until you have tenure before you write a book on monsters,” the philosophy professor says wryly—Asma was invariably amiable in conversation. He is the cheerful amanuensis of humanity’s darkest fears.

What is a monster?

It’s from a Latin word, , to warn. If you look at early uses of the term and concept, particularly in. They thought they were horrifying punishments for immoral activity—a theme the medieval Christians jumped on and articulated. It was a sign that things were going to be bad for the state, or for this particular emperor, or this particular battle. It’s a mix of natural calamity and supernatural significance.

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