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Predator/prey: Why monsters are scary

People are drawn to monsters because they flip the predator/prey relationship on us, turning us from predator to prey.

Philip Athans, Blogger

February 27, 2013

7 Min Read

[People are drawn to monsters because they flip the predator/prey relationship on us, turning us from predator to prey.]

I love monsters.

I love monster movies, monsters in books, monsters in games . . . I have a huge collection of role-playing game products, stretching back to my first encounter with the medium in the summer of 1978. I have cycled through a lot of those games, but the one thing I’ve always kept are the monster books. 

Of the 112 books on these two shelves, 44 of them are dedicated solely to monsters.

In the class I’m currently teaching on the subject of worldbuilding, we spent an entire three-hour class session talking about monsters. In previous classes and at conventions and conferences, I’ve talked about a particular theory on the nature of monsters. Occasionally someone in the class or at the seminar will pin me down for some statistics, which I’ve rarely been able to quote—my bad.

So for this class, where we’re getting into a great deal more detail on the subject, I spent some time gathering some intelligence.

But let’s start with the theory:

People are drawn to monsters because they flip the predator/prey relationship on us, turning us from predator to prey.

Now, I’m not sure that most people in the civilized world in 2013 think of themselves as “predators,” per se. But we are. By nature, humans are omnivorous hunter/gatherers. And we’re pack hunters. One guy with a pointed stick vs. a woolly mammoth is going to go hungry. A dozen guys all working together with pointed sticks feed the whole tribe. We’re not the only animals who do this, by the way. Wolves are pack hunters, for instance, and there’s every reason to believe that our long relationship with wolves’ human-altered offspring (aka dogs) springs from a certain mutual understanding: We get each other. We operate in the same way.

One of the things that early humans sorted out, thanks to our big, complex, creative, problem-solving brains and our nimble-fingered hands, was how to kill things from a distance. This makes hunting safer. As the years stretched on we got better and better at this, then invented agriculture, domesticated the animals we thought tasted best, killed off competing predators in our chosen ranges, and at some point in the distant past fully removed ourselves from the predator/prey relationship.

At this point in our history—and this has been true for quite some time—we are entirely unconcerned with being preyed on by other animals, and our relationship to the natural world as predators has become a form of recreation. Hunting is fun (or so I hear) but we don’t have to do it.

Of all the things I have to worry about today, being taken down by a leopard or something is not one of them. And I live in an area where predatory animals are actually wandering around. A bear wandered onto the soccer field at my son’s middle school while a gym class was outside. The teachers got the kids inside, and the bear wandered off. I’ve seen a couple coyotes in the neighborhood, and there’s the occasional cougar sighting, too.

But that’s modern suburban American life. My day to day life is nothing like the day to day life of, say, the Cro Magnon man, who maybe did have to keep one eye open at all times for some kind of predatory animal who might be looking for a light snack.

But that instinct is still there. My dog, a pug, is about as far away from his wolf ancestor as I am from Australopithecus africanus, but when this pampered pooch sees a squirrel in the backyard that wolf blood boils to the surface and he’s all predator. This happens to people, too, and unfortunately that hunting instinct, coupled with an ingrained need to clear our territory of competing predators, means we end up turning that on each other. Side effects include murder, gang violence, and war.

One point that sometimes gets skeptical looks from classes and audiences is my assertion that humans are the apex predator in every environment on Earth. Mostly what gets thrown in my face is the shark. Surely we’re not a more significant ocean predator than a shark.

Let’s look at the facts:

There were 471 fatal shark attacks reported, worldwide, in 2012.

Approximately 100,000,000 sharks were killed by humans in the same year, or about 11,000 sharks every hour, round the clock.

The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Services estimated that 12,000,000 sharks were killed by recreational fishermen in U.S. waters alone in 2004.

What that means is that we are winning the shark-human war by a kill ratio of approximately 212,000:1 and there’s no indication that any of the 471 people killed by sharks were killed for recreational purposes.

In fact, we’re so far beyond merely the apex predator category that we’ve turned into something entirely separate. We don’t just kill competing predators, we experiment on them, catch them and put them in zoos and circuses for the amusement of our children . . .

This is not to say that we never fall victim to nature, red in tooth and claw.

Let’s look at your chance of being killed by an animal in the United States.

The most common cause of death from animal contact comes from contact with a venomous animal or plant: 1 in 36,175. Your chance of being killed by a dog is about  1 in 115,103, and how about the terrifying shark? 1 in 8,000,000.

By contrast, your chance of being struck by lightning is 1 in 700,000, so that popular benchmark has been met. You’re 11 times more likely to be hit by lightning than to be killed by a shark. Okay? So calm down about sharks already.

Here’s one I love: Chance of dying from falling out of bed, a chair, or other furniture: 1 in 4225.

So what really kills Americans? You will die of one of two things: heart disease (1 in 5) or cancer (1 in 7). Everything else is a wild statistical outlier.

So then along comes a monster . . .

What makes the alien in the movie Alien so scary? It’s a “perfect killing machine”—and it’s loose on your starship. It’s hunting you, and all your natural weaponry (in the humans’ case: technology) is to no avail. Shoot it? Okay, but then its acidic blood will eat through the hull of your starship and everybody dies via explosive decompression.

What I most often hear as an argument against the idea that humans are the apex predators on Earth is that we don’t have the powerful jaws of the shark or the razor-sharp claws of the tiger, and that’s true. Drop me in the middle of the ocean in a Speedo and the shark will win. Drop me in Siberia in the same unprepared state and the tiger is boss.

But that’s not fair. Nature gave us weapons that ended up being lots more powerful than a shark’s jaws or a tiger’s claws. To be fair, you have to put me in the ocean in a Trident nuclear missile submarine—at which point the shark simply becomes irrelevant. Me in an M1 tank vs. tiger? Hardly fair for the tiger.

This is why the most effective—the scariest—monster stories always take away those things that humans rely on to tip that balance in our favor. We’re isolated from the rest of the “pack” like the arctic explorers in the movie The Thing (or the original John W. Campbell, Jr. short story “Who Goes There?”) or the crew of the Nostromo in Alien. The creators of these monsters also take away our weapons, usually by giving the monster some way to out-smart us (as in the thing’s ability to hide in plain sight) or render our weapons useless—or just as dangerous to us—like the alien in Alien.

This is the visceral thrill of the monster. What if I was being hunted down by something I couldn’t just shoot, that was stalking me at some remote location where I couldn’t just  call 911 or Animal Control? What if I were dropped out of my secure place not just at the top of the food chain, but effectively removed from it?

Scary stuff.


—Philip Athans



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