How Humans Become Monsters

As our culture becomes more polarized, it becomes more tempting to label those who disagree with us as “monsters.” But what do we really mean when we say someone is being monstrous? And how willing are we to see our own monstrous tendencies?

To explore this, I’m going to go where monsters originally came from: the land of storytelling.

In the book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Christopher Booker lays out his theory that the core purpose of stories is to help humans learn to release the grip of an overactive ego.

Let’s look at how this is so in stories that adhere to this original purpose…

In stories with happy endings, the main character defeats an antagonist who is trying to control something or someone for selfish gains. As a result, the community is better off at the end—i.e. more integrated and full of life in some way. For example, in The Princess Bride, a farm boy becomes a hero when he saves a princess by displaying greater willpower over a prince who was trying to force her to marry him—Prince Humperdinck attempts to control the bride he has chosen for himself.

On the flipside, in stories with tragic endings, the main character is trying to control someone or something and won’t let it go. In those stories, the community is worse off—i.e. there is more disintegration as life is squeezed out. For example, in The Great Gatsby, an eccentric playboy lost in a fantasy tries to reunite with a former crush who is married, leading to loss of life in the community, including his own. Gatsby’s unrealistic and obsessive longing leads to his own demise.

In either case, a monster appears:

  • In happy endings, the monster is someone opposing the main character.
  • In tragic endings, the monster is the main character, at least by the end of the story.

The character we call the “monster” in stories still has human qualities—such as being passionate but unsympathetic, or intelligent but manipulative, or strong but oppressive—because monsters are always based on the human ego gone wild. But beyond their humanity, it’s the overactive ego that pushes them into the realm of monster as they endanger themselves and others around them.

Here’s another way to frame the core lesson that purposeful stories give us for living: finding alternatives to behaving like a monster leads to the development and integration of the mature self and community.

This makes being able to identify monstrous behavior important, primarily in ourselves.

When we act as monsters, according to Booker, we are displaying one of three monster archetypes:

  • The Predator
  • The Holdfast
  • The Avenger

Let’s look at each one from the story angle and how they can appear in us today…

1) The Predator causes us to say, “I want that now—at all costs.” (oriented to the future)

We can recognize this archetype in us when we’re myopically focused on getting the thing we desire, with no concern for any collateral damage that may occur. Such as the cyborg who travels back in time to murder the mother of the man who was capable of defeating all cyborgs, as in The Terminator. This cyborg had one mission: kill Sarah Connor—no matter how many police officers, civilians, and factories get destroyed in the process.

In everyday modern life, this archetype may cause us to consider:

  • Spreading a false claim in order to damage the reputation of someone seeking the same job as you (“it should be my job”).
  • Running a marketing campaign that leverages fear in order to get as many sales as possible (“it should be my income”).
  • Spending over 20 minutes trying to log into a glitchy website so you can order socks, while ignoring your need to eat breakfast (“those should be my socks”).

2) The Holdfast in us says, “I must keep this—and nobody else can have it.”  (oriented to the present)

We are so committed to holding onto this thing that if it appears we may lose it to someone else, we feel justified in using any manner of force against them or destroying it. For example, a dragon who hoards gold in his cave and defends it to the death, as in The Hobbit. The dragon in this case, Smaug, and his gold are inseparable.

In everyday modern life, this archetype may cause us to consider:

  • Going to great lengths to ensure your Intellectual Property is protected, so much so that you never share it with anyone (“it’s my idea”).
  • Seeing others as competition for your customers, even if there is plenty of need for multiple organizations to fill (“they are my customers”).
  • Guarding your giant plate of french fries from your spouse and children (“they are my french fries”).

3) The Avenger causes us to say, “I want that back—I have been wronged.” (oriented to the past)

We become fixated on a loss and claim the right to exert our power in order to balance the scales of justice. But unlike lawful justice, the Avenger feels no concern for the wellbeing of others, including the dignity of the one/s they believe created that loss for them. For example, a troubled child molester is burned to death by an angry mob and comes back to haunt and kill them in their dreams, as in Nightmare on Elm Street. The monster, Freddy Krueger, is seeking revenge for his loss of dignity and life.

Author’s note: What does it say about a culture’s developmental stage when so many movies feature ‘avenging’ protagonists with an ego gone wild that we’re encouraged to root for?

In everyday modern life, this archetype may cause us to consider:

  • Publicly shaming a manager who you think tried to take control of your meeting (“it was my meeting”).
  • Attacking an organization through your advertising as a response to being mocked in one of their ad campaigns (“it was my reputation”).
  • Refusing to speak to your spouse for a whole evening after they finished off the last of your favorite ice cream (“it was my ice cream”).

All of the archetypes have one thing in common—they all encourage us to see through the lens of ownership with no regard for people around us, including ourselves.

This ownership lens can be distilled to a one word sentiment:

“Mine!”

Notice how when you see this controlling behavior in others, you might activate a controlling part of yourself, beginning with using the label of “monster.” If they are the monster, that means you are the hero and your actions and words to control them are justified.

And this is how a society disintegrates. One monstrous act begets another, one ego triggering another’s ego, while everyone is thinking themselves to be the hero. This pattern only stops inside the individual who chooses to address it—through our own discipline and maturation process.

If we wish to respond to egoic behavior in a way that shifts the pattern, we must be sure not to respond from our ego. In other words, when we seek dignity for the one acting like a monster, we consciously deviate from the narrative that otherwise leads to a community where things are worse off.

It begins by not allowing the label to hold—i.e. not labeling others as “monsters” or attacking their character, but instead condemning their actions. When we criticize character, we seek to humiliate and nobody benefits. When we criticize actions, there is room for reconciliation and dignity for all involved.

In order to take the mature story lesson to heart, rather than focusing on controlling those around you, try understanding more about these controlling monster archetypes in yourself.

Here are some suggestions to get you started…

Self-Observations:

The next time you read a story or watch a movie with a monster character, see if you can identify which archetype is playing through them (Predator, Holdfast, Avenger). And then observe yourself, while the monster is most overactive in their ego. In that moment, grab a pen and paper to write down your responses to these questions:

  • What do I notice in my own body?
  • What thoughts appear in response to the monster’s actions?

And then later go back and reflect:

  • What do my reactions tell me about myself?
  • How have I behaved through that same archetype in my life before?
  • What is the relationship between my past behavior and my reaction to that character?
  • Given what I notice, what action/s will I take?

Another way is to observe yourself in daily life by writing down responses to these questions:

  • In my day, how did any one of the monster archetypes (Predator, Holdfast, Avenger) appear to influence my behavior? (even if only in a subtle way)
  • How could I tell they were active in me?
  • What was going on in my body while being influenced?
  • What thoughts appeared while being influenced?
  • How could I tell that I had little regard for others around me (or myself)?
  • What was the relationship between my intention and the monster archetype?
  • Given what I notice, what action/s will I take?

PS: I’ve created a page of resources for those curious about how to communicate with others without letting your monstrous ego get the best of you.

Main featured article image: Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781, oil on canvas, 180 × 250 cm (Detroit Institute of Arts)

About Matthew Sloane

Matthew Sloane is the artist and author of the forthcoming book, 'Alexander and the Battle He Could Not Win'—a graphic novel about demonizing and inner demons. He’s also a leadership coach and brand strategy consultant for Soulful Brand.