Monsters aren’t as blood-curdling as they used to be

The medieval universe was haunted by all kinds of monsters, some more terrifying than others. Some lay in faraway lands, in the East, at the edge of the known world, but many supernatural creatures were right next door, threatening to burst into human society and lay waste to the brittle social order. The unnatural wasn’t frightening because it was disconnected from nature, it was horrifying because it was always exploiting the vulnerabilities of nature. Far from inhabiting the stories people spook each other with, they were seen as part of the universe – and a constant possible intruder. The line between fact and fiction, natural and unnatural, even benevolence and evil, was at its blurriest.

Compared to the men and women of the Middle Ages, we have no idea what blood-curdling means. Modernity has emptied the visibile world of all the unseen and the natural world of all things unnatural. We’ve been rewired to expunge the supernatural from our range of possibilities. The house has been cleared of monsters, so the monsters we let in, tawdry fictionalities engineered out of discarded material, fail to engage our atavistic instincts.

The evidence for the truth of all this is that the scariest things we can imagine in art and media are the monsters found within ourselves, the evil lurking under the surface, away from the eye of reason. For what can be seen can be tamed but what cannot be seen cannot even be grasped, let alone controled. And we keep frightening each other with the hidden monstrosities of the soul, the basis of our wildest, horrific literary, cinematic and artistic creations. Nothing ever goes to waste, nothing disappears. It simply shifts position, like a predator, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes less so. The monsters may not live at the edge of the village anymore and they may not lurk in the moonless night, but they certainly siddle, slink and prowl in the darkest regions of the world that haven’t been touched by the magic wand of rationality: the depths of our souls. And we rediscover some of the dread and trepidations of ages long gone.

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