A Monstrous Tree?
Have you ever looked at a tree and seen a monster? When I was five, I was terrorized by thinking that the giant sequoia I was about to drive through would bend over to snatch me from the back seat.
As an adult, in the middle of a windy night, I was awoken by a sound like a gunshot. My car was totaled when the walnut tree I’d parked under snapped. (The insurance did not cover an ‘act of God.’) A decade or so later, I cleaned-up shattered window glass after an arborist removed a cedar tree that was growing too close to the house. While I appreciate the daily benefits of breathing, I recognize the hazards trees can cause when things go wrong.
For me, the car totaling experience resolved the age-old philosophical question about the sound a tree makes (or doesn’t make) when it falls in the woods. The same debates about the nature of reality and how it relates to experience can be applied to monsters.
Are there really extra large, hair-covered, humanoids hiding in the forests of the Pacific Northwest? Does a diabetic older man enter your house each year with the intent to delight your children? (It’s OK! He’s not a stranger, he knows what they’ve been thinking.)
Monsters are grown inside an electrically charged, submerged, gelatin-like structure that everyone carries inside their skull. This magnificent organ has evolved to specialize in pattern recognition. When we see or experience something that doesn’t make sense or for which we have no prior information, our brains concoct stories that seem real and make sense.
Addiction, accidents, rejection, unrealistic expectations, loss, grief and the fear of disappearing
are a few of the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that breathe life into our own personal monsters.
Because we are social creatures, our monsters can spread like a virus. Screaming fire in a crowded amphitheater or a run on the market because a rumor predicted a crash are examples of monsters gone viral.
Monsters are as adaptable. as we are. Before we understood the stages of decomposition, we thought evil spirits inhabited dead bodies, causing them to move. Every time we drop our kids off at school, we hope that a gunman doesn’t lose his marbles anywhere in the neighborhood. We worry that refugees and immigrants are taking our jobs.
With easy access to a world of information and a bit of discernment, monsters can be vaporized. Yet, instead of doing the work to accomplish this, many of us cozy up to them, inviting them to tea, and letting them share our pillow at night.
Monsters are with us to stay. Many of them are portrayed as hideous and frightful, while others are beguiling. All of them signal some kind of danger and remind us to be alert.
With certainty, we know that tomorrow’s monster will be different from today’s.
Below is a variety of contemporary and classic monster representations and lists of themes they exemplify.
- Parental rejection
- Grief & loss from children dying (bringing the dead back to life)
- Love outside of acceptable social norms
- Weariness of industrial age science
The Shape of Water creature
- Disenfranchised finding a voice
- Courage to defy authority
- Courage to fight for justice
- Love outside social norms
Haylee in the Traveler’s Stone & the Last Traveler
- Power of sexual attraction
- Responsibility for dependents
- Reconciliation of love outside expectations
- Acceptance that all wrongs can’t be repaired
Age of Adeline & Vampires
- Power of sexual attraction/ youth
- Societal parasite
- Fear of death
- Immortality exploration
- Physical deformity and social rejection
- Loss of expectations for a young life (caused by a traumatic brain injury)
- Anger from a detrimental, permanent change of circumstances
- Family response to long-term care requirements
- Legendary, iconic brain science/psychology touchstone
Chinese Railroad Workers’ Jaingshi
- Conquering nature
- Facing death, injury & disfigurement
- Removed from and longing for culture and familiar
- Racism and social ostracization
- Fear of being lost & forgotten
Contemporary Train Tunnel Graffiti
Colorful monsters and beasties painted on snowshed walls at Donner Summit tell their own stories.
- Disenfranchised finding a voice
- Fear of death
- Seizing power
- Claiming a space in place
- Fear of being lost and forgotten
The collage reflects the ugliness and beauty of struggles with self-criticism. Matching an image to feelings allows expression of concepts that seem impossible to say out loud.
- Unconscious, underwater, unseen, unknown, unheard
- Choking with self-doubt
Like ice sculptures, sand castles, and graffiti, monster varieties come and go. They change with what we are thinking about at a particular moment in time, and they allow us to put faces on our fears.
KQED – Why Don’t Murals Get Covered by Graffiti in the Mission? – “…you first need to know that there are three groups: graffiti writers, street artists and muralists.”