November 27, 1966, was a Sunday. That morning, as Connie Jo Carpenter passed the chilly links of the Mason County Golf Course in New Haven, West Virginia, she saw something strange. It hulked over the road, vaguely man-shaped, but by her later account "at least seven feet tall and very broad." It was pale gray, lacking a recognizable head, with two gaping red eyes set square and lidless in its torso.
Her car slowed. Two wide wings spread from its back. It rose into the air ("like a helicopter," she'd later say) and with an aura of hypnotic menace, swooped barely over her windshield and out of sight.
It was gone. Terrified, she floored it down the road.
It was not the first time the thing that would come to be known as the "Mothman" had been seen. In the nearby town of Point Pleasant, a group of four people walking an isolated lover's lane had seen a "man with wings... with muscular legs... and fiery red eyes." It had followed their car, as they drove frightened back through the dark woods at speeds (they claimed) of up to 100 miles an hour, leaving them only when they reached a lit section of the highway. The light deterred it, it seemed. Perhaps because it would have allowed a clear look.
Despite the literally incredible nature of the stories, reports snowballed over that winter. They came from more couples on midnight strolls, whole families terrorized on dark roads, wild-eyed recluses in the West Virginia woods. Newspaper articles sensationalized the encounters. "Couple Sees Man-sized Bird … Creature … Something." "Mysterious 'Mothman' Said Still at Large." Over 100 stories of sightings accumulated, and with them, all manner of oddities blamed on its influence.
In a fever of paranormal obsession, locals blamed it for UFO sightings, menacing "men in black" terrorizing townspeople from strange, hopelessly antique cars, cryptic voices, and in an ultimate (and very real) tragedy, the deaths of 46 people killed when a bridge over the Ohio river collapsed.
The sightings stopped after that, but the story kept building. In 1975, fringe journalist John Keel published The Mothman Prophecies, a much-fictionalized account of his investigation into the Point Pleasant strangeness. For all its bald sensationalism and leaps of logic, his exaggerated version of the West Virginia happenings captured imaginations nationwide. A film (starring Richard Gere) in 2002 solidified the story's place in modern American folklore. The Mothman, for good or ill, had moved into the neighborhood.
Something from "outside"
I do not believe that any real monster was out in those woods. Though (to twist Shakespeare) there are likely more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy, I think the tale of the Mothman is that of a Great Snowy Owl in unfamiliar territory, and of low lighting, a mass freak-out, and the whipping up of second-rate "fact-finders" working to sell a spooky story to gullible people.
But with that said, consider the story. Whatever thing (real or imagined) did flap through the West Virginia woods 40-odd years ago, the hold it took on the imagination of 20th century America is impressive. An entire community of people, as rational (or irrational) as you or I, were gripped with the idea that something else was in their woods. Something from "outside." Something monstrous. Gripped by this mania in the same year that Gemini 8 carried Neil Armstrong and David Scott into space. The same year that Russia landed a scientific probe on the planet Venus. Gripped by it in a "modern" world, of telephones, and supersonic flight, and bright clean Science, a world beginning to sparkle and smell of bleach. Gripped it with a hold that's persisted for decades.
Scientific progress and modern thought aren't antidotes for our fear and fascination of the monstrous. I bring up the Mothman because it's a "true" example of a universal human trait. We find monsters all over. They are in our myths, our urban legends, our high art and Hollywood films. Monsters are a human universal. They persist. But if it's not just cobwebbed superstition that keeps them around, why do we keep making, finding, fearing, and believing in them? Why must they populate our nightmares, our ancient myths, our blockbusters? It seems that humans, of all times and in all places, are compelled to create them. Even us, in our well-lit nations of strip malls, and smartphones, and Miley Cyrus, and online advertising. Even us who live in the Point Pleasants. Even us Christians.
Moving out of Point Pleasant
So what are we to think? Are the redeemed exempt from the hold of monsters upon the human mind? Far from it. Given that, is there anything for us to learn about humanity and our faith from peering "under the bed" at the dark things that slither about?
After I wrote a previous piece for Christianity Today on our culture's obsession with zombies ("The Zombie Apocalypse"), several people mentioned to me their surprise that an iconic Christian magazine would publish on the bloody zombie genre. After all, what can monsters teach us besides paranoia? Why would any spiritually mature believer make it even five minutes into a George Romero flick?
Many believers are reticent to engage things that superficially seem "dark." While I'm not one of them, there are moments that I sympathize with their thinking. After all, aren't we supposed to "set our minds on things above?" Doesn't Paul's exhortation to the Philippians to think on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable put a damper on the Mothmen? On the killer beasts, mad scientists, and the living dead?
They might, depending on what is edifying for you. If you're going to stay awake at night (like my wife) after a creepy movie, then by all means don't watch them. If they shake your faith to its roots, you may have bigger spiritual issues than just your media choices, but still, guard your heart and mind. Choose what you read or watch or think upon out of love for Christ, others, and yourself. But if you're one of these people, more sensitive than some to the darkness, also realize that some of us, no less mature, are less shaken by the dark side of things, and in those shadows we find a potent way to understand ourselves, our culture, and the Christian story. We learn, and we understand.
Why monsters? It's an important question. I answer it now as I did then, saying that though perfect love casts out fear, our fear shows us our hearts, our stories, and by a strange path, our God.
And, to be totally honest with you, I've always thought monsters were pretty stinking awesome.
Monsters show us our hearts
In 1927, weird fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft opened his essay on horror literature with this line: "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."
He was almost correct. The Christian story arguably claims that fear is the second oldest emotion. Love is the first emotion, the love of a newly conscious mankind, freshly stamped in the image of God, living, really living, in balance and the "very good" order of our beginning.
A monster, you'll remember, breaks that order. A speaking serpent, twined around the forbidden tree hisses its venom into the ears of Eve and Adam, prompting selfishness, guilt, blame, bloodshed, and of course, fear. Fear of God, fear of death, fear of the thousand gradients of pain, of loss, of being preyed upon.
Is fear the basic human reality or is love? There are few more pertinent questions. Are we happy accidents adrift in a world of blood and fang? Or is there some guiding order behind the cruelty and horror of existence?
A look at the beasts that come out of our minds tells us a lot about the state of our hearts, and how we answer this question. Our complex mythologies, the myriad justices and injustices and madnesses and sanities of our monster stories show us the state of what is within like few other aspects of our lives.
Did you know, for example, that in the 1990s, homeless youth in Florida shelters developed a cohesive mythology of demonic warfare with themselves at the center? Part muddy Catholicism, part Caribbean black magic, and part middle-school drama, it is a poignant, colorful, bizarre cycle of tales. In the shared stories, Satan was nearly captured in Miami, but evaded an angelic hit squad. God, distracted by the overwhelming suffering of the world, has fled heaven. Humans have a choice. Good actions help the angels and help ease suffering. Bad actions help the black-eyed demon Bloody Mary win the war, and will bring death to those you love. The news doesn't talk about it, but shelter kids know.
From The Miami New Times in 1997:
"No one believe us! But it's true! It's true!" cries Andre at the Salvation Army shelter on NW 38th Street. "It mean there's no one left in the sky watching us but demons." His friends sitting on the shelter patio chime in with Bloody Mary sightings: She flew shrieking over Charles Drew Elementary School. She stalks through Little Haiti, invisible to police cars. "I know a boy who learned to sleep with his eyes open, but she burned through a shelter wall to get him!" a seven-year-old boy says. "When the people found him, he was all red with blood. Don't matter if you're good, don't matter if you're smart. You got to be careful! If she see you, she can hunt you forever. She's in Miami!"
If you want to know what life and love are like for Andre, ask him about his monsters.
Fearing (even in "fiction") the ghosts of the wrathful dead tells us something about our relationships with our ancestors. Fearing the sensual, predatory vampire tells us something about our views of sexuality. Fearing androids or mad scientists tells us more about our mistrust of technology or science than we'd probably admit in polite company.
Our monster stories reveal deep-set fears, but they also unveil our hopes. In the popular modern zombie flick, for example, we see that even in the total collapse of human society, we can hope for not only survival, but for community, for beauty, for something more than the Western dreams of brainless consumption and the cannibal exploitation of our neighbors. We can find a sense of belonging, of dignity. Modern Westerners long for a satisfying level of self-sufficiency, for friends that we could trust our life with, for a sense of clear purpose, however bleak the surrounding world might be.
In America, where our folk culture is steeped in red-hot brimstone and rapture theology, we both dread and long for apocalypse. We're afraid of being killed or "left behind," but secretly believe that we'll be one of the chosen few who survive the end, to help usher in a new age. This apocalyptic narrative has extended far beyond Christianity or pseudo-Christian cults. It's embedded firmly in our cultural imagination regardless of our collective American faith or lack thereof. As such, the modern zombie tale is a classic example of apocalypse in the 20th century. We long for a reset button, for upheaval that will leave something better than what we have now when the dust settles.
Monster stories are a quick route to our hearts. Our fears shed light on our loves, on our priorities, on our hopes, on the thousand things that form who we are.
What if the movie posters, comic book covers, and urban legends we brushed past every day were not just flights of fancy, but glimpses of the inner curves of our souls? We would pay more attention, realizing that our call to understand and love our neighbor just might mean being thoughtful about the films they make … or gobble up like yellow popcorn.
Monsters show us our stories
I remember the first time I saw something on television that truly frightened me. I was 3 or 4, watching The Neverending Story on a Betamax tape at my grandma's. It wasn't the first time I'd seen it (it was one of the only videos I watched), but this time was different. For some reason, my imagination awoke to the true horror of G'mork, the black dog-thing who, in the film, brings death and destruction. The hero, Atreyu, meets the beast at the climax of the movie, as the world is literally falling apart.
Before their clash, Atreyu walks through a building frescoed bizzarely with ancient paintings of his own life. He sees the death of a friend, his various tests and adventures across the world. He sees the whole journey bringing him to that very place. The final painting is simply the face of a slavering beast peering from a cave.
The cave, of course, is right behind him. Come closer the monster says. I will rip you to shreds.
With those words, came a little pop of understanding in my mind. Young as I was, I somehow grasped (in what may well have been my first epiphany) the link between the frescoes and the beast. I saw the whole story unfold itself before me, and with it, the inevitability of the monster. He had to be there. There wasn't any other way that the story could go. The monster was a necessary evil in the truest sense. Without him the world would have been plotless. The Neverending Story wouldn't have been a story at all.
No story worth listening to lacks a villain. And no villain worth fighting lacks monstrosity. It may be monstrosity of morals, of physical form, of context, of any number of ways that beings can break out of the natural order of things. But it will be there. People can't tell a good story without it.
Most of the thoughtful Christians I know are students of their culture. There is an innate understanding that to love we must try to understand. The human need to have context for one's life takes on a special urgency for the Church. We're called to compassion, to seek understanding and to speak truth to the special lies of our culture.
In this quest for understanding, our monsters tell us a lot about ourselves. Cultural imagination, seen in literature, legend, or film, is much more than entertainment. Our creations betray how we view the world. They're spyglasses, if you will, aimed for our shared narratives.
Monsters are universal, but their forms are infinitely varied. They're never random. Amid Native American fears of starvation and cannibalism, the Wendigo (once human, now always craving human flesh but unable to be sated) was born. Puritan New England, terrified of heresy, embodied their fear in witches. In post-Hiroshima Japan, Gojira and Mothra, city-leveling beasts unleashed by the reckless use of atomic energy, are living metaphors of nuclear catastrophe. Their (now comical) on-screen stompings of toy soldiers amid poorly dubbed pacifist platitudes carry the collective trauma of a generation of survivors.
Even with such a short list, a pattern emerges. It's easy to see that cultures capture their most important stories, their deepest fears, their priorities, their traumas in their monsters.
"What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark?" Werner Herzog once said. "It would be like sleep without dreams."
Monsters show us our God
In our smiling evangelicalism, we gloss sometimes over the many monstrous facets of our faith and scriptures. It's a pious thing we do. We want to skip to the end of the story, the heavenly part, the redeemed and glorified part, the New Jerusalem, and the heavenly city descended upon earth. But we lose, and lose big, if we fail to pay attention to the darkness (good and evil) of the Christian story.
Our grand narrative doesn't last three chapters before it's invaded by an ancient evil thing masked as a speaking snake, who twists his way through the whole great story until, sweeping down the very stars of heaven with his tail, he is flung down into a pit of hell horrifying enough to hem him in.
The swath he cuts through the text is wide. He spawns lies and liars, murders and murderers. All things evil in the Bible bear him some kinship. Setting aside the many difficult human monstrosities of the villains and heroes of the Bible, we're faced with horrors, natural and supernatural, in nearly every book of Scripture. The sons of Anak, giants spawned from the trysts of fallen angels with human women, monsters of the deep sea, Behemoth and Leviathan from the book of Job, shadowy references to child-eating night creatures in Isaiah. Legion, he of many demons. The Beast that rose from the sea. These are only a few.
But here the monstrous is not limited to Satan's brood. No less (I think more) frightening are the unfallen angels, the heavenly creatures unknowable in their holiness, who (unblinking) look upon the seat of God. Gabriel, hunched in Mary's tiny house with his glorious announcement, is monstrous. Gloriously so. We call such in-breakings "miracles" because God has the right to suspend the laws that he has made. But "monstrous" they still are, signs that our lives bump along only one thread of an intricate reality curving far out of sight.
Our good (but not tame) God is highlighted sharply by his proximity in scripture to the small, evil things that teem in the pages. His greatness, his goodness, his humility, his care for the weak, his trustworthiness, his beauty, his patience and purity are striking.
And (may it not be blasphemy to say it!) is not God himself monstrous to mortals? Though creating all, he extends outside all that is known or knowable, limited by nothing but his own being, full of the plenitude of all things. To look on him unmediated would be death, even seen in the person of Christ, the utter strangeness of his thought and action stumps and stuns us. His oneness does not diminish the multiplicity of his persons, his threeness doesn't dilute his unity. He is all places, times, and so immanent in his creation that Psalm 139 says that he dwells in the place of the dead, as well as in heaven. In asking for his name, Moses received a simple declaration of infinite being. In speaking of ancient generations, Jesus simply said that his being was "now" with the past.
The God of Scripture is monstrous, utterly other, and I worship as I say that.
Orthodox Christians have a potent theology of this. For them, the place to begin speaking of the Godhead is not in light, but in darkness, not first in revelation, but first in mystery. Before God removes our veil, he is masked from us, by his greatness and his strangeness. His divinity and unknowability are nearly the same thing.
And yet, he reveals himself. The marvel of it is that such a worthy Monster should make himself known to us, become one of us, join us in our small, dark world full of fears and things that walk in the shadows. In Christ, that great, good monster wrapped himself in our skin, feared with us, hurt and felt loss with us, learned what it meant to be a small soft thing in a cruel, hungry world. He knew, in order to give us knowledge. He feared, to give us his courage. He died, to give us his endless life.
I am sad, but not surprised, that popular Christianity tries to tame God, to muzzle Christ and the dangerous, burning Spirit. We try to place him like King Kong, in cunning cages. Scholars do it with theology, Christian bookstores with kitsch. Worship leaders do it with catchy melodies designed to make us feel like God's just an accessory to our feel-good salvation moment. Pastors, charged with shepherding Christians as this dangerous Christ would, often call believers to a thin faith focused on penny-dreadful meager ministries designed to put butts in seats and keep them satisfied.
We feel uncomfortable with even the least rumor of God's monstrous-ness, his transcendence. We try and brush aside that which makes us uncomfortable, even though that is precisely where our true worship ought to begin. For in his infinite strangeness, doesn't Jesus call us to the same good monstrosity that he exemplifies? In the world in which the old serpent still slithers amok, peacemakers, the meek, the weak and humble who choose to forsake power and choose service, are monstrosities, upending the false order of things with God's truth and redemption.
Normal is not the last word
The word "monster" is Latin originally. It shares a root with "demonstrate." They both come from a word related to "sign." I say that to highlight the early understanding that "monstrosities," were seen as divine signs or portents. It was understood that "monsters," things that broke the natural order, meant something. They were seen as a communication of sorts. A sign that the natural or the normal is not the final word in the universe.
In The City of God, Augustine writes:
… it was not impossible to God to create such natures as He pleased, so it is not impossible to Him to change these natures of His own creation into whatever He pleases, and thus spread abroad a multitude of those marvels which are called monsters, portents, prodigies, phenomena, and which if I were minded to cite and record, what end would there be to this work? … [T]hey are called monsters, because they demonstrate or signify something ... [T]hese things which happen contrary to nature … ought to demonstrate, portend, predict that God will bring to pass what He has foretold regarding the bodies of men, no difficulty preventing Him, no law of nature prescribing to Him His limit.
Augustine's point in context is that even things that seem to break the natural order of things can be seen as a sign, something that points one to a God unlimited in his creativity and unbounded by the natural laws he has set. Augustine argues that this reminds us of the miracles awaiting our own persons.
I'm confident that St. Augustine didn't have Godzilla or Frankenstein in mind when he wrote that. But his point still stands. In the strange, the deformed, the giant, the shrunken, the wicked, the tragic, the deathless, and the dead, we can glimpse ourselves, glimpse the truth, perhaps even glimpse the hand of God.
And those are mysteries worth staying up late to see.
Paul Pastor, associate editor of Leadership Journal, is also a writer and grassroots pastor based in Portland, Oregon.