The season of ghouls and goblins upon us, and the monsters that show up often reflect our fear of the unknown. Across the street, my neighbors drape orange lights around tattered black clothes that stream from ghoulish skeletal masks. Pumpkins appear carved to reflect a kind of hunger that speaks to nature: We will all be devoured by the plants. The monsters in our culture that are most common, I think, involve ideas like “undeath” (which sounds like it isn’t such a bad deal if you can stomach a little murder) and afterlife entities like ghosts. Frankenstein’s monster and his bride are reconstituted dead bodies. Many of our modern monsters and monstrous frights involve the unknown, and for us, that means death.
But in other eras and other times, the unknown meant something more than just death. The unknown began a few miles from home, at the edge of the villages where the forests became dark, or the sea might drop off into an abyss at the edge of the world. On the maps of the world, scholars and learned men drew pictures of sea dragons and wrote Here there be Monsters. Stories and myths and legends filled the night with tales of the distant journeys and the bones of dinosaurs emerged occasionally to warn of dragons. The horrors of the world were close, and the unknown surrounded everything beyond them. There are monsters that used to be as common as vampires and mummies, but they have faded as maps have gotten smaller and the idea of the unknown has shifted out of the physical world, into a metaphysical one.