“‘Hello, I’m a monster too.
What poisons me is what poisons you.’
Into these animals we grew”
-The Barr Brothers “Beggar in the Morning”
Maps may or may not have ever said “Here there be monsters,” or even “Here are dragons,” though the common lore is that this is what mapmakers used to put on maps to denote the dangers of unexplored areas.
But the phrase stays with us, perhaps because the phrase on its own, is a bit chilling.
There be monsters.
This is seeped into our collective consciousness. We see it manifest in our fear of the dark, which those of us who have reached adulthood have mostly learned not to talk about — yet we make every effort to light up our pathways: with streetlamps and headlights and the flashlight app on our cell phone. We huddle near campfires. We tuck ourselves behind locked doors at night and maintain mythologies around both new moons and full moons. We travel in pairs and in packs, and text our friends when we get home safe. We jump at shadows and the glinting eyes of small mammals peeping out from under bushes and most of us reach for our lamps when we wake up from nightmares.
We see this fear of, and obsession with, monsters manifest in the continued existence of scary stories and movies. We see it manifest in the our collective fascination with understanding the motives of serial killers. We see it in the ways the news covers, or doesn’t, acts of violence in and against communities.We see it manifest in our national and local policies on incarceration and immigration and terrorism because these things allow us to, so easily, make people into others. We see it manifest in our evolving policies on guns: who can carry them in public, concealed or open, who is stopped because they might have a gun, who is murdered because of it.
We see it manifest in our need for heroes and superheroes, who fight monsters, who are — when we’re being honest — our darkest selves.
And that, perhaps, is the point.
Most evenings I bike through an area of town whose residents, largely, do not have the same color skin as me. Many of the residents are money-poor and English is not the primary language spoken in many households. The air often smells of chemicals, the highway divides the community in one area and railroad tracks divide it in another. There are few sidewalks or working crosswalks and there are no grocery stores anywhere nearby. Racism, and racist policies, have shaped that part of town.
More than once, in the moments before I leave my training gym to bike through this area of town, the white men who trade training punches and kicks with me — so we can all practice the art of self-defense– have asked if I’m carrying a gun.
They ask, because they believe in a particular type of monster.
This breaks my heart.
I respond with: “The fact that I know you and that you look like me drastically increases the chances that you will hurt me.” I let them absorb this. “If I’m hurt by anyone else, it’s just more likely to make the news.”
I don’t know what else to say when this happens. I don’t know how else to help these people, who I largely believe are good and wouldn’t intentionally do something to treat others disrespectfully, explore the beliefs that underpin questions about whether I carry a gun. If I say the wrong thing, they won’t hear any of it.
This isn’t to say, by any stretch of the imagination, that I’m exempt from these feelings although I don’t feel afraid when I bike that area of town. I don’t, mostly, even feel afraid on any part of that bike ride.
Except sometimes I do.
Sometimes I veer away from darker shadows along the most secluded areas of my route and breathe a sigh of relief when I reach the area that is better lit.
Sometimes I approach groups or individuals on my ride home and I can feel all my muscles tighten.I’m bracing for an attack. So far, nothing has happened.
That doesn’t stop me from considering how if something happens, people will say “I told you so.” It doesn’t stop me from considering how many ways people will seek to blame me.
Of course, the monsters I fear have little to do with the people in front of me or whose communities I pass through. The monsters, instead, come floating up from my past or my imagination, unbidden, as monsters are wont to do.
We fear that over which we cannot even pretend a modicum of control.
Gather around, my lovelies. I’d like to tell you a story.
Once upon a time, I lived in an idyllic mountain town, population roughly 20,000. The air smelled of lavender, blackberry, and sage. Most people socialized at the food co-op or the farmers market or what passed for a town square. On my days off, I walked railroad tracks into and out of town and sometimes stopped for conversations with others who were doing the same. Even the deer — and there were many — could usually be counted on to cross at crosswalks and at dusk, a herd often took over the playground of the elementary school I lived near. The sun shone most days. People took over a vacant lot near the dog park to guerrilla-garden and the land owner, when they learned about it, not only supported the venture but went so far as to pay for the water to sustain what had become a half-acre community garden. I knew, by proxy, people who had worked as counter-military recruiters for the community peace center. The main economic drivers in the town were a festival that lasted the better part of the year and the small university. The shadow economy was partially made up of things people could trade: pies for bread, massages for childcare, sandwiches for a hit of someone’s joint.
While I lived there, I ran most mornings, before dawn. I listened to a podcast of scary stories for a while, until I couldn’t. Mountain lions called the town home, and after a while every shadow became scary. Every rustle of high desert grasses or the crunching of leaves in the forest became a possible attack.But, I told myself, there was really nothing to fear. Mountain lions, after all, don’t frequently attack people.
Then, one day, a young man was murdered on his way home from his job at a local grocery store. His head was nearly severed from his body. It happened blocks from where I worked, at about the time I usually got off. The case still has not been solved.
This type of case is horrifying in its infrequency.
Sometimes, though, that is what comes to me when I find myself tensing against shadows.
Sometimes, instead, it’s the face of the man who raped me. Someone I knew.
Sometimes it is none of these things. Sometimes, and mostly, the monster exists only in my imagination and the pit of my stomach. A sense of dread. Fear, while my mind tries to fill in the darker spots in the shadows.
We make up, and consume, stories about vampires and zombies and werewolves and witches to explore life by exploring death. To explain that which is unexplainable. To give our anxiety an outlet.We make up, and consume these these stories because, in the end, they allow us to understand our own mortality. To justify our acts of inhumanity.
We use these stories to build our communities: us versus them.
It would be a beautiful thing if we could begin to interrogate our internal biases — the ones that cause people to ask if I’m carrying a gun only when we’re in certain neighborhoods, for instance..
We, mostly, like to imagine ourselves the good guys, the heroes or superheroes. We are, after all, the protagonists of our own stories. Most of us believe that we are good, or mostly good.
Far too many of us fail to extend this basic belief we hold about ourselves to others.
In doing this, we dehumanize those others.
They are, then, almost by definition, monsters.
When we dehumanize people enough to make them monsters, we lose something of ourselves in the process. We have to in order to separate ourselves.
One of my self-defense instructors, instead of saying “good guys” and “bad guys” while we’re learning talks about “Asshole #1” and “Asshole #2” or “and his buddies.” I love that this complicates the idea — that the person we might someday need to defend ourselves against, isn’t necessarily a “bad” person — but an asshole. This is a subtle shift, but one that still extends humanity to someone else.
What we often fail to remember that the difference between hero and monster is who is telling the story.
There be monsters.
Perhaps in the end, we’re all really monsters. Aren’t we?
– Aaron Mahnke, from Lore Episode 3, “The Beast Within”