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Why Monster Stories Captivate Us

I was 13 years old when the movie Alien was released. It scared me into a month-long spell of anxiety. The hair on the back of my neck was perpetually up and I had the jittery demeanor of a combat veteran. While the full-grown xenomorph alien was chilling, the larval stage face-hugger was terrifying. Not only did it penetrate the human host’s throat, planting the chest-burster in the gut, but it was intrinsically grotesque, an odious, zoological mash-up of scurrying spider and slithering snake.

It’s easy to interpret our fears of alien predators as nothing more than superficial horror ginned up by the Hollywood fright machine. But they also reveal important truths about human cognition and cultural evolution. We are wired for emotional jolts and these feelings have adaptive benefits. My paralyzing dread of the face-hugger in Alien may be a vestige of ancestral primate experiences with snakes and spiders. But the hybrid nature of the Alien monster takes us deeper into ourselves and history.

MONSTER MASH: The face-hugger in Alien taps into fears and terrors symbolized in folklore and religions throughout human history.Sunset Boulevard / Corbis via Getty Images

Every culture, it seems, has monstrous mash-ups in their folklore and religion. Composite creatures appear in our earliest literature and (2100 B.C.), heroes Gilgamesh and Enkidu battle a hybrid monster named Humbaba, described as having a lion’s head and hands, but a scaly body. Vishnu, in India, manifests as a fierce lion-man monster, Narasimha, in several Hindu texts. Ganesha, son of Shiva, is humanoid with an elephant head. The many Greek hybrid creatures—centaurs, satyrs, mermaids, Pegasus, Hydra, griffins, chimeras—are constantly resurrected in Hollywood. Literature over the last two millennia, from to Tolkien to Rowling, has added countless composite creatures and shape-shifters. More recently we have regular hybridizing of humans and computers.

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