This week, I’ll be finishing up my monster marathon by discussing some man-made monsters and just why they tend to freak us out. There’s something frightening about the things that we do to ourselves- something different than forces of nature and worse than the supernatural.
Let me start by talking a little about a sub-field of Psychology called Environmental Psychology. At the surface, Environmental Psychology may sound like people in Lab coats asking trees about their feelings and the trauma they underwent as acorns. But that’s not really what the field is about–environmental psychology looks at the interactions between environments (both natural and man-made) and behavior, thought, and emotion. It goes all the way from natural aesthetics, to interacting with machines, to temperature, to disasters. And it’s this last facet that causes me to bring up Environmental Psych.
There’s a lot of literature on the effects of disasters on people, and believe it or not, most of it is heartwarming. When confronted with a large-scale disasters, people tend to help each other more. Humans are naturally predisposed to seek others and act altruistically when frightened. The reason that this relates to our discussion on man-made monsters is that across the board, man-made disasters are worse. You can measure the severity of a disaster by a lot of things: loss of life, property damage, disruption to daily life, emotional impact, how long it lasts, etc. And pretty much in every single dimension, man-made disasters are worse. Sure, they’re less common than tornadoes or hurricanes. But things like Nuclear Meltdowns scare the absolute shit out of us.
Now, there are some good reasons–meltdowns are super bad. Chernobyl, for example. Granted, 31 people died in the immediate meltdown, but in the years since thousands of people who lived in the nearby town have developed malignant cancer. 49,000 people were evacuated; the town is still completely deserted, and it cost about 5,000,000 rubles to clean up (money the Russians didn’t really have at the time). Natural disasters usually last from 3 minutes to 3 months. How long did Chernobyl last? Well, we’ll let you know when the danger’s gone. 150,000 square kilometers in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine are contaminated. And Pripyat (the town where it occurred) is still so highly irradiated that there are spots that will kill you in an instant. It’s so scary, that despite the low statistical likelihood of a power plant melting down, and how efficient they are, NOBODY wants to build any more of them. The emotional weight that comes with nuclear power is so aversive that it scares us off. Environmental psychologists and philosophers have proposed (though at this point, it’s pretty much just speculation) that it has to do with our hubris. Humans are arrogant, cocksure creatures–it’s part of the reason we got to where we are. With a brain this powerful, it’s hard not to get a big head along with it. So we like to think we have control over the things we create. And when it comes crashing down on us, it’s a stark reminder that we are not as in control as we think. This is the same thing with man-made monsters.
Now, for all monster stories, and horror in general, they were originally meant to be cautionary tales. Sometimes as simple as: “Hey, bears are fucking scary and not something to be screwed around with,” and sometimes as complex as “with the advancing rate of technology, some day in the future it’s going to surpass us, and eventually will not need us anymore and try to remove us as waste, also bears are pretty ferocious and you shouldn’t play with them.” We can see this slant more often in more modern tales because the horrors are more salient to us. We don’t need a freaking story to let us know about bears (but seriously, bears are wild animals), but genetic engineering? Global warming? Rouge AI’s? Phwoarr, that’s some spine-tingling stuff that can still cut to your core.
So, let’s get straight to the biscuits:
Some people point to the Golem of Hebrew myth as the origin of man-made monsters, but I will contend that he wasn’t really a monster- at least in the original story. It’s a little like Frosty The Snowman. The legend goes that once upon a time, a Rabbi made a snow-man out of mud (mud-man) He then made prayers around it, and through divine intervention, the Golem came to life.
The Rabbi then ordered the Golem to protect the Hebrew people of Prague from persecution. And so the Golem set about basically being an awkward Batman made out of mud (you’re welcome for the idea, DC).
The one stipulation was that the Golem could never be awake on the Sabbath because that’s just what the old Asian guy from Gremlins told him (I assume).
So the Golem is fighting for truth, justice, and the Hebrew way–kicking 110% ass (seriously, there’s a part in the story where he leaps onto a moving carriage to stop a man who was framing a Jew for murder). And each Friday evening, the Rabbi would shut the Golem down for the Sabbath. But one day, he forgets to do so. Fearing that the Golem will go rogue and terrorize the town for desecrating the Sabbath (again, similar to Gremlins), the Rabbi sprints home as the sun sets on Friday and shuts down the Golem just as the Sabbath begins. The Rabbi declares that the Golem is too powerful to exist in the world, and has the possibility to be misused as a sacred gift. The Golem then shatters, dies, and Michael Caine delivers a sobbing, heartfelt eulogy.
Now, later incarnations threw in some extra spice: the Golem falls in love with a lady, he goes on a murderous rampage, so on and so forth. But in the original tale, he wasn’t a monster. He was actually a proto-superhero.
No, the real origin of the man-made monster is none other than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley’s story is not just a cautionary tale about the folly of man in creating artificial life–at the time, it was a pretty blatant piece of anti-science propaganda. I’m not gonna slam Shelley for it because people don’t really think of it as that anymore, and because she’s dead.
HAH! EAT IT!
So what’s with our boy Frankie? Well, like with man-made disasters, the fear of something we created that we can’t control is a large part. Also, like the chimera, it’s a fear of the grotesque and the asymmetrical. And like zombies, the uncanny valley theory plays a large role. See how all of these parts are coming together? It’s almost like I plan out these columns.
Shelley’s writing is just chocked full of dread, awe, and horror–if you’ve ever read the book, it really beats you over the head with the darkness–Dr. Frankenstein creates his monster in his dark lab with only a low-burning candle! If you’ve ever been in a medical lab, you know they’re extremely well-lit. You know why? Because you need to see what the hell you’re doing, especially with careful work. Maybe your creation turned out to be a monster because you couldn’t see what the hell was going on! Her writing style is largely what caused the book to be so scary. But the recent scientific advancements also played a large part.
Something you ought to understand was that Shelley was writing in a time where there were some large leaps and bounds made in medical science–the first successful blood transfusion was done right around the time she penned Frankenstein.
So to the people reading it, it wasn’t quite unreasonable to assume that (like the blood they were using), organs and tissue could be stored after someone’s death and used later. It’s comparable to a lot stories now about cybernetics or nano-machines. It’s things that are beyond our cusp of control–but not too far (we think). And the direction that science can head can sometimes be scary. But rest assured we’re just as scared about it as you. This trend continued in The Island of Doctor Moreau, where a scientist mixes and matches animal parts, kinda like Skylanders: Swap Force. I have a five year-old nephew, guys, don’t judge me.
A better example would be the 2009 movie Splice. Frankenstein is to blood transfusions as Splice is to GMO’s. In the movie, scientists genetically combine animals and humans in an illegal experiment and create a “monster.” Now, the reason that one’s in quotation marks is that Dren (the creature) isn’t a straight-up monster, not at first. It’s largely misunderstood or confused and does some bad things because it doesn’t know any better. This sentence describes a lot of modern man-made monsters. Frankenstein’s Monster, Dren, and everybody’s favorite computer/singer HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odysessy.
I’m sorry, Drew. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
First off, the moral of HAL is obvious: technology can go haywire and things can go bad if we put too much power in it. Clarke wasn’t all that creative when he took each letter from the computer company IBM and lowered it by one. But like Dren and Frankenstein’s monster, HAL is misunderstood. In fact, HAL just did what he was programmed to do. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie (shaaaaaaame) or don’t remember, HAL murdered everybody because he couldn’t resolve a conflict between his two orders: Help out the crew and answer their inquiries, and conceal the true purpose of the mission (there’s a giant, black, alien brick near Jupiter) from the crew.
HAL goes ape-shit, the crew tries to shut him down, and he kills in self-defense. He actually admits to being afraid when Dave goes to shut him down in the end. He’s not a monster, he just didn’t want to go down like that.
Robots replacing/using humans is becoming a more and more realistic fear, though not necessarily involving the whole “MURDERTOWN” thing. But you can really see this through the progression of our popular culture: Terminator, Battlestar Galactica, The Matrix, I,Robot, The Foundation Trilogy, Mass Effect, Eagle Eye, Stealth, The Alien/Prometheus series, Westworld–it goes on and on and on.
It’s used all the time and goes back as far as the computer. We’ve always been afraid of technology taking over–and it hasn’t happened yet. The most advanced learning computers we have are still pretty stupid. Remember that supercomputer who stomped the shit out of two humans at Jeopardy? Well, the reason it won was because it was faster than both humans. Pure and simple. It didn’t know all the answers. In fact, it got a lot of them wrong. Easy ones, too. So rest assured that your brain is still the best processor around.
“Heard you were talking some shit, would you like help with screwing yourself?”
Now, some things that computers can do that are actually terrifying? Well, turns out that like HAL, we have some very advanced computers that can read lips pretty well. Computers are also starting to be able to interpret body language–they have mastered the nod.
But wait, computers aren’t all that bad or horrifying. What about the laptop that allows me to type these words to you? Or computers that diagnose patients more accurately than doctors? What about helpful robots technology? What about the T-800 from Terminator 2? Even the father of Haywire AI stories, Isaac Asimov didn’t believe that robots were all bad (he also pronounced the word as “roh-buht”). His story “Robbie” from I, Robot is a heartwarming tale about robots being able to care, and help.
What have we learned? Artificial intelligence need not be scary. In fact, the bizarre and the strange need not be scary either. It can be exciting; it can be intriguing–tantilizing, even. That’s ultimately the wonder of doing science. Yeah, that shark will bite the absolute shit out of you if hungry or provoked. But something deep inside us yearns to know, and if I may borrow from Tennyson, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Next week, I’ll be discussing some biology/perceptual psychology in order to address one of your questions that was asked last week:
Why do your eyes take so long to adjust to the dark but adjust so quickly to the light?
I’ll be talking about two of the most badass-sounding concepts in biology/perceptual psychology: Dark Adpatation and Photic Driving.
And be sure to check out my other column, where I review action films every Monday: Mindless Action Mondays
Have a science-related question? Ask it!
If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find someone who does.