Saturday, 28 January 2012

Making monsters: folklore and cryptozoology

Throughout the ages mankind has created stories of strange creatures, ghosts and monsters that lurk just on the periphery of our senses. From giants to water spirits, someone at some point in history believed these things existed.

So it's little wonder that as a species we're still making monsters that people believe in. The hobgoblin of times gone by have been replaced by the Sasquatch, the Loch Ness Monster and more recently, Nightcrawlers. Arguably every culture has its own modern day folklore creature, or 'cryptid' that occasionally makes the rounds in the press and on the internet.

One of the most interesting things about folklore is discovering why certain communities hold specific beliefs. What is it about Latin-American culture that conjures up the chupacabra and why do rural English communities see Black Shuck? What's also interesting is why this need to create weird creatures has stayed with us up to this day, even to the extent that there are organisations that are formed for the sole purpose of tracking down these enigmatic and ultimately non-existent beasts.

Although I certainly don't believe that cryptids, or at least the majority of them, exist, that's not my concern at this moment in time. What I want to know is why people believe and what re-enforces that belief.

Psychologists like Brian Cronk say the reason people believe in monsters is because, well, they want to: "Many people quite simply just want to believe," said the professor of psychology at Missouri Western State University. "The human brain is always trying to determine why things happen, and when the reason is not clear, we tend to make up some pretty bizarre explanations." This is a pretty sound explanation. It shows why Scandinavians believed that sleep paralysis was a Mara wraith, or why mutilated cattle in Mexico are attributed to the chupacabra. However, from a folklore standpoint I don't think this explanation is enough because there are some cryptids who apparently exist for the sake of existing.  The Yeti, to my knowledge, isn't a by-product of something that Tibetan people can't explain. In fact, the Yeti is an example of precisely what psychologists might be missing when looking and beliefs in monsters. The Yeti, or Meh Teh, is likely to have come from the god worshipped by the Lepcha people and the rituals of the Bon religion. The rituals consisted of the blood of a "wild man" who was depicted as a hairy ape creature carrying a whistling stone sword. 

In the above example, we can see the reason why the Yeti myth is so prevalent in Nepal. It was ingrained into their culture way before people started uploading grainy footage to Youtube. You can say this for hundreds of folkloric beliefs, such as giants originating from the Norse Jotun. Because of this, Professor Cronk's statement is far too simplistic: there's clearly more at work than a 'want' to believe in cryptids. There are more factors involved and it's up to folklorists and amateurs to try and get to the bottom of it.