Monsters are easy to understand as projections of the human mind, and thus as representations of some fear; however, the modern understanding of everything psychologically is a recent phenomenon. For most of human history monsters were taken at face value. If they represented anything, it was only within their own worldview.
When monsters were really believed in, they were not seen as windows to the human mind but as a breaking of the natural order. To the highly supernatural thinking of the human past the monster was seen as either an affront to divinity or as a punishment from divinity. In earlier thinking, drawing upon ancient myths, monsters were an explanation for what we would today call natural disasters–earthquakes, typhoons, forest fires, etc. More, they were not believed in in the way we would nowadays describe belief–holding something to be true on faith despite reality–but because everything in people’s experience spoke in favor of their existence. This is a paradigm shift that few people have noticed, conditioned as we are to the modern scientific worldview. Ancient peoples were not superstitious in the way we imagine. A superstitious person truly is a remnant from an earlier paradigm that has survived into a new, and replacement, paradigm. In a very real sense, ancient beliefs cannot be considered superstitious, in that given the dominant worldview of their time they were actually quite logical.
This is something difficult to understand for the modern mind: the dichotomy between the rational and the irrational is largely a modern construct, and woefully mistaken. The irrational is something truly rare, in any time. The human mind is by its very nature a pattern seeker, so that rationality, the connecting of cause to effect, is present in every human being from the very beginning. What this means is that people in the past cannot in a coherent way be called irrational. When we use the word irrational to label people who do not share the dominant worldview, it is similar to when other people in the past used the word heretic. We are, in other words, using blinders based on cultural biases to label other people. People in the past were not irrational. What this means, of course, is that monsters were at one time real but are not anymore.
By and large people have always been rational, and even their most outlandish beliefs have behind them some rational base. This is so because all reason is built upon premises, and these we generally receive unquestioningly from our societies, the same way other peoples in other times received theirs from theirs. Our modern worldview is built upon materialism, hence our reasoning must follow a materialist pattern. That this was not always the case should be obvious to even the most casual student of history. Not too long ago, the dominant worldview was a religious one, so that all observed phenomena had to be interpreted through a specific set of assumptions. This, of course, led to profound absurdities–though it should be noted that modern materialism has led to some rather extreme absurdities, too, such as the silly theory of Memes. It should be understood, however, that these absurdities are not irrational but the logical conclusions of taking their particular premises to their limits. People have always been rational, but reason has its limits; namely, the premises it’s working from.
When monsters really existed, the dominant worldview was what we now call animism–the belief that everything that existed possessed desires, sentience and intentionality. Thus if the wind ripped the roof from off your house, the logical, rational conclusion would have to be that the wind was upset with you. Bear with me for a moment. Suppose that your neighbor walked over to your mailbox and proceeded to kick it until it broke, what would you think? Getting past your own emotional reaction to the event, the only logical conclusion would have to be that your neighbor is upset with you. It would truly be irrational, as you saw him stomping away at your property, for you to think, “Gee, what a nice guy, he must truly like me.” This is simply logic. However, all logic is based on premises, and for human beings the most basic premise is our own emotional blueprint–this is how we know, for example, that people do not vandalize our property because they mean us well. Under animism, if the wind is understood as being a person and it tears off your roof, what is the logical conclusion?
Monsters are, of course, something slightly different from the first products of animism, an aberration if you will. When people encounter forces that can harm them, their natural reaction is to destroy them, appease them, or run away from them. Those things people can destroy, they stop fearing; those they can appease, they call gods; those they must flee, they call monsters. Those they can neither appease nor run away from become demons.
From a psychological perspective this is all very easy to understand as projections of the human mind in interaction with nature. From a state of unconsciousness thrust into a state of full consciousness, our only point of reference is ourselves. We interpret everything we encounter through the blueprint of our own consciousness and emotional-matrix. Thus everything is a person because we are persons. However, as we know that not all people mean us well, so is it with the forces of nature, some of it is just nasty. And the same way we deal with people, we dealt with nature. At times we tried to fight it–building dams, casting spells, appealing to mystical forces from beyond to help us control it–at others to appease it–offering sacrifices, performing rituals, praying–and sometimes we just ran. Until the modern era, every method for dealing with nature was modeled on dealing with other people. The gods were modeled on dealing with kings, or with fathers; demons on dealing with psychopaths; and monsters on dealing with dangerous anomalies.
While we can understand this intellectually based on our own modern paradigm, we do a great disservice to our ancestors by ignoring the reality as they experienced it. For us it is easy to say that all monsters are projections of unconscious fears because we live in an age were what gave rise to those fears have either been conquered or reinterpreted through a different model. When an infant dies, for instance, we do not claim that Lamatsu–the mother of all vampires in Sumerian religion–killed the child; instead, we say it was something called germs. We also, like the ancients, have our own rituals to keep the monsters away–we wash our hands with soap, brush our teeth, etc., to keep the germs at bay. Now don’t get me wrong, there is a difference between what we do and what the ancients did to keep our own particular monsters at bay; namely, that what we do actually works. However, what I’m trying to get across here is that monsters were not the products of feverish, hysterical minds but logical conclusions given the premises people were working from.
We are in a superior position to that of our ancestors because we are built upon them. However, our superiority is cultural–thus tenuous–and not intrinsic. We are not better people as such–though culturally I sincerely hope we are. Human history really is the history of perception. At first we see ourselves in nature, and everywhere we look we find intention; then, as time goes by, we see a little bit less of ourselves in nature; until, finally, we come to a time when we do not see ourselves at all in nature–we call this objectivity. This has largely been accomplished not by reason but by an overcoming of fear and insecurity, which are the true parents of all monsters.