Why We Love Monsters

Posted by Stephanie Carrillo on October 28, 2014

As Halloween draws near, representations of ghosts, goblins, and vampires saturate the seasonal displays. Given the success of various Halloween events at local theme parks, it's clear that there is no shortage of people who want to be frightened. For a fee, we can go to a haunted house or staged zombie apocalypse, and experience the thrill of controlled panic.

I can't help but ask myself, "Why would we want to surround ourselves with these images? What is our fascination with monsters?"

I wonder if people enjoy these Halloween events for the relative safety they provide. We can experience feelings of fear, dismay, revulsion and foreboding, but we never have any real decisions to make. Although we may feel terrified the moment a college-aged kid in a ghoulish mask jumps out from the shadows, our sense of safety remains intact in that House of Horrors. We still know in our hearts that the monster isn't real. We won't be harmed. There's nothing on the line. We don't have to worry that this person will destroy someone else should we choose not to stop him.20140927_150012

As a history teacher, I know that the truly horrifying events of the past didn't work that way. The stripping away of people's rights, the forced marches, the packed cargo holds on ships and cattle trains, the outright refusal to recognize another's humanity...unlike the haunted houses that frighten us and give us a heightened sense of danger, most of the truly evil horror stories of history began quietly, imperceptibly, and largely without notice. People told themselves they didn't have to oppose actions because measures taken against the others weren't that drastic. By the time the suspicion turned to alarm, they convinced themselves that they could no longer act.

Yet if haunted houses are exhilarating because we know that the "monsters aren't real," in the case of historical horror stories, it seems that people are equally comforted believing that monsters do exist.

What do I mean? For as long as I've been teaching about slavery, war, and genocide, my students are always quick to demonize the perpetrators of any crime against humanity. Before I teach the Holocaust, I ask students how such a horrible tragedy could occur. It never fails that I get answers such as, "The Germans were pure evil" or "The Nazis were simply monsters." The students feel very secure in these answers. They've learned this response from popular culture or maybe from home, but wherever they got the idea, overwhelmingly the kids seem to think that the case is closed. And why not? Isn't it easier to believe that the perpetrators are cut from a different cloth than the rest of us?

As long as we can tell ourselves, "THEY were inhumane monsters, but thank goodness, WE are civilized people!" we won't have to confront how we might be similar to all those who went along with the program because it was easier than resisting. We won't ever have to admit to ourselves that all of us can recall a moment when we could have, should have helped another person, but for whatever reason, did not act.

I credit Facing History and Ourselves for giving me the tools to dispel the "monster myth" with my students. When we look at the acts that led up to the Holocaust, we can relate to both the victims and the perpetrators. I tell my students that most "evils" don't present themselves right away as horrible monstrosities but rather as a sequence of compromises that gnaw on one's conscience.


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Topics: Holocaust and Human Behavior, Social and Emotional Learning, Upstander

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