This essay came from a project suggested by Mike Tremblay.
The images are his photos of sculpts in the Life Form studio.
Mikes' pictures defined something I had been trying to say
and also inspired me to write about the nature of monsters.
We hope to publish the pictures and text as a book .So this
web page is a test , and feedback would be very welcome.
If you have any ideas or criticisms please email us:
You can see larger copies of all the photographs below,
and more of Mikes' work, on his website at :
Words by John Coppinger
Images by Mike Tremblay
1. Why do human beings make monsters, and where do the images come from? The demons made visible that artists and sculptors have made since rock was first marked or made into objects. And what is the need that their creation satisfies?
Human beings have created monsters for as long as people have told stories and others have listened to them. When real monsters were beyond the firelight, or outside the cave, the inner world was imaginatively populated with even more terrifying images and ideas. The appalling, and prosaic, reality of being prey to roving carnivores was elevated to an heroic and bearable level by the creation of myths, legends and the images to illustrate them.
When people first valued each other as individuals, and were accorded a rite of passage by the ritual of burial, we became more than random victims or carrion to be left along the way. A new world was created behind, and in the image of, the world of everyday perceptions.
Those senses and the imagination behind them, sharpened as defences for our survival, became new tools to make that survival an existence with meaning and value. The Monsters were outer chaos embodied, enabling people to know how their world and their lives were structured. And how to seek help from the new Gods in avoiding or defeating them, even beyond death.
2. The creatures that live so realistically on our film screens have the same origins as the gargoyles on a medieval church or any other medium that images the monstrous or terrifying come to life. Fairy tales, children’s’ stories, and science fiction all tell the Monsters’ stories, and how the humans they meet may react to their presence, be consumed by them or destroy them.
The Monsters have lived alongside and parallel to our own lives for so long that we forget their world is at least as old as our own. We think we invent them anew with each generation. But they only evolve; their codes are as complex and as structured as the minds which give them birth.
The medieval gargoyle and the computer generated alien have as much in common as the cathedral stonemason and the console artist. Should the two technicians somehow meet in a bar they could find common ground for their creative decisions within the first drink. Or at least mutual terms for disagreement.
The dense structure of the boundary between the world without and the worlds within is made from the mechanisms of our senses. Senses that are common to all times and societies. The interpretations of the present that we value so much are as ephemeral as the fashions we wear to illustrate them. Yet the clothes that protect and decorate us have been made to the same measure for millenia.
Our rational world is as vulnerable to chaos, and the need to define it is as urgent, as the world of the Ice Age and the hunting of mammoths. The stories that illuminate the darkness now describe the very same monsters and demons that walked the earth, and the night, then.
3. The evidence is strong that they have been around as long as we have, and they show no signs of going away; all that is rational and calm is made powerless by the sound of their footfalls or the hiss of their breath.
A stroll to the workshop on a sunlit day. Then the same journey on a misty midnight. Only fifty yards, but when do the demons hiss and dance unseen and reach out for a shoulder? Will all the nearby lights suddenly cease to be, and the mist become a hood thrown over the head to confuse and suffocate?
Ancient oaks once stood on this place; each one a living cell where condemned and deadly spirits could be prisoned by the flimsy straps of magic. Rituals and blood have been walked into all this land. Within a few generations figures writhed in flames on a nearby hillside; looking down to where a supermarket now stands.
The savage past for this island is still the present on other parts of the earth, all images within easy reach of a TV, and the fragile make-up of civilisation barely masks a common cause with yesterdays’ public displays of brutality. Monsters we consider long dead are still abroad.
4. And however much we may deny them existence in our daily lives we are helpless when we dream. This is where the monsters live; not just in the darkness outside but as the fabric of the darkness within.
Only a few can choose where and how their dreams will take them. Most are helpless witnesses; either appalled or amazed by the universe and worlds they have made and find themselves alone in. ‘Walking on the wild side’, ‘The dark side of the Force’, ‘Where angels fear to tread’, ‘Heavens’ gate’ – All available on a nightly basis, for the price of a place to sleep. A third of a lifetime, maybe thirty years, in an alien and uncontrollable realm.
Research and theory may describe the mechanism but that does little to modify the quality of the experience. Science cannot save us from the scream or dry the film of sweat. But we have to sleep and dream. Turn off sleep for more than a few days and a true horror begins; we de-fragment ourselves or die.
5. But how, and why, are we all so creative; what is the origin of that ability in almost everyone that is willing to describe the experience? Whether a person has a talent or no they work and practice to be artists in any medium, but anyone can make monsters, if only in their dreams.
Or consider a reverse thesis – The artist as a person who cannot properly dream. The most extraordinary visions and achievements may be attempts to find the missing ability that a majority take for granted. Why pity the worker on the production line when no-one has access to another’s internal landscape? If we could journey within each other’s dreams would we find an awful, or wonderful familiarity or be unable to navigate from confusion and lack of any readable maps?
The artist who cannot dream must make his or her monsters in the light, and then hope they wake to proper malevolence in the night. Without monsters of our own we may be mad; unable to read the message of our lives in the right way or order, with nothing to shape a boundary between us and chaos.
6. And there is an endless fascination with the images and forms that artists create; rather than denying the monsters of the night, that we all create, we seek out and consume the creations of others with an almost insatiable appetite.
Making monsters visible is an exercise in solidarity, providing proof that we are not alone for that third of our lives when we are beyond any human help. Shared images allow a limited access to the dream quests and solutions of others. Clues and charms to be used on the nightly voyage into a vast unknown, where everyone becomes hero, explorer and survivor.
But the Monsters have one weakness we can use against them. If they only live through us they cannot talk to each other, or know how the others live, or even realise that others of their kind exist. Perhaps we should pity them in their loneliness; but still not get too close for fear of their rage. They might see the weapon behind that pity, and turn it against us.
7. Obviously we need them, and our monsters need us to give them life and keep them living. There is a symbiotic relationship between us that is as old as both ‘species’ and that will continue for as long as human beings need to sleep, or even to daydream.
The legacies of suffering that allow men and women to be monstrous are deadly to our ideals of innocence. How can we be innocent, even as passive witnesses, while the acts of human nature are so endlessly repeated and re-kindled? The enemy is not allowed to be human, neither can the rawest aspects of our nature. The Monsters are there to eat our sins for us; becoming embodied by the chaos within. Monsters for the outer darkness and also for the inner.
Hell may be other people, but it is also our suspicion of their atrocities’ potential in us. Testing ourselves may only generate the very conditions we fear. Hopeful heroes become war criminals at the subtlest twist of circumstance.
8. As the creation of the monstrous appears to be universal is the need underlying it so basic that it almost defies definition? Could it be that the monsters are really our friends and saviours; that they protect us and save us from something much worse?
There may be a place we fear so much that the Monsters stand between it and us; guarding the borders of a land we dare not enter. Is that land within or without or both? The potential for monstrosity inside us and our societies is a legacy of where we came from, and cannot be undone by simply wishing, nor by the personal rituals of religion. So it is probably both.
We can’t forever deny our origins, however positive the motivation to do so is. Altruism may be explainable as subtly advantageous, but the spontaneous act of help or mercy for a stranger is extraordinary in the context of our background.
The desire for a humane world may be our finest and most unlikely creation, so basic to us that we can hardly see its’ shape. Both blessed and cursed with awareness we struggle awake into an existential nightmare. And then, against all the pre-set rules, we are kind to each other.
9. If we create monsters for more than just entertainment then we do so to externalise and humanise some horror that we cannot otherwise face. A horror that is so unthinkable and unbearable in its’ naked form that it needs to be clothed in the familiar and the apparently understandable.
Most human effort is directed at walling off and controlling the realities of living on the surface of a planet. Even going to war is a perverse reflection of the desire for security; of borders, resources or a coherent group identity.
We move further away from the basic conditions of life with every advance in knowledge and skill, but every problem solved generates new questions and anxieties. Since the invention of the right angle we have been in a box that partially or wholly excludes the ‘natural’ world. Even societies that appear to live in harmony with nature use complex imagery to separate human experience from the cycle of life; living in the Dream Time makes the claim that human dreaming is unique by default. That may be so; the other animals cannot tell us.
The experience of memory reinforces the separation – Think of a place you have been to. Do you orientate yourself on the compass and think of the location as being ‘over there’, or do you look ‘backwards’ through your consciousness to the world carried in your memory? Do you look outwards or inwards to find the place you have known?
10. It is the other end of the spectrum from the mechanism of laughter. Comedy in all its’ forms has its’ roots in ridiculing our fears and always flirts with the edges of hysteria; an instinct to laugh from the soul. As hysteria is usually communal so nightmare is personal; but within the nightmare is a similar, and terrible, excitement that has much to do with desire.
Laughter may be uniquely human. There is evidence that other animals can consciously lie, and laugh if physically tickled, but do they play jokes and tell them?
Laughter encircles us with a pleasant denial of our fate. It raises one finger to the Reaper, daring him to demonstrate his omnipotence. For that moment we are free, and do not care.
It must be that thing we call happiness. Only an unhappy person is truly afraid to die; when we are happy we are content to live as immortals, enjoying each day as if it is our last.
Hysteria is laughter that has us by the throat. It is the point where we acknowledge the archetypal carnivore, either for ourselves or for another member of the group, and can enjoy the frisson of survival; the mechanism beneath all ‘Look out behind you’ entertainments.
The frozen fear that comes in a nightmare has a similar quality; but even the desire to laugh is deferred as the waiting moment pauses. There is no need to breathe or move; the imminent approach of something unknown is the focus of total attention.
11. The dancing skeletons of Voodoo and similar cults may express a desire for death, but while we wish to live we also desire being exalted by fear; a temptation to be united ecstatically with the deadly threat of our inevitable annihilation.
The monsters reach out, unseen but breathing behind us, and we tremble for a touch.
Still not daring or desiring to breathe we wait in suspended and appalled delight. The actual touch could stop the heart, but an endless moment of delicious fear echoes excitement within the dreaming body.
Paralysed when suddenly awake, struggling to move an eyelid to break the spell, the limbs are heavy and relaxed with renewed life; the mind trying to guess who’s still alive after such a close escape.
The unseen ‘something’ failed to reach us again. It always does, always will, but maybe we don’t know that for sure. How will we ever find out and come back to waking life?
12. Perhaps the fascination with monstrosity is an unconscious acknowledgement of how miraculous healthy growth is. From a human perspective, as makers of objects, we might expect the complexity of living things to produce monstrosity as the norm, and health as the product of chance. And, to a degree, it is. We ‘average out’ our perception of other peoples’ true appearance; overlaying the raw image with our social expectations and the prejudices of sexuality.
Nothing in life is perfect, but everything is miraculous. How can cells possibly grow to form any living thing that functions on the earth, let alone beings that can play a piano, construct a bridge or perform the amazing feat of walking on two legs? In the interests of survival and sanity the daily business and busyness of life overlays perception of just how unlikely and extraordinary being alive is.
Wonder may be a luxury we can’t afford too often. Dreaming oneself to death, rather than getting on with the day, is built out of the genes; seeing too clearly could distract and blind. And being aware of the monstrous and sublime would overload the senses when they most need to be alert. The tiger might be beauty and horror combined, but its’ mouth and claws are still open. It has no respect for our admiration. If it is hungry it will try to kill.
13. Is it madness to attempt to see others as they really are, and therefore monstrous? But this is ‘monstrous’ in an uncritical sense; seeing through the masks, the uniforms of fashion and the daily postures to how far from the ideal average we all are. Even the ‘beautiful’.
So all become monsters, and that vision becomes a fascination; a new form of beauty if one ignores any visual judgement.
Human senses are less subtle and more easily fooled than it is comfortable to admit. “I know what I saw” we say, but often we haven’t the faintest idea. Our eyes and ears provided data and the mind came up with the best and fastest solution in terms of staying alive or what was otherwise in our personal best interest. Magicians make a living and the Law is endlessly debatable on the basis of this uncertain and unproveable certainty.
Learning to get past the devious and self-serving distortion of our perceptions by a prejudiced inner observer is a long and frustrating process. Essentially it is an attempt doomed to failure. There is no way to measure even partial success except through the very same flawed channels. But at least the observer has more information, and can exercise a little caution.
Training to be an artist, formally or not, is a process of learning how to see. And the quality of vision is changed forever by awareness of the simple tricks our senses can play on us. The apparently familiar can be renewed. Visual confusion is less likely to cause a panicked jump to the nearest conclusion. Vision is clearer to an unquantifiable degree; notions of beauty and ugliness lose their powers of distortion.
At the very least the view is more interesting.
14. All monsters in art are chimeras, from stone gargoyles to computer generated film aliens, that merely mix the features of different animal Phyla. Real life is much stranger and far more alien. Insects and arachnids in particular, invertebrates in general, are mysterious and inaccessible entities; their experience of life impenetrable by any form of human empathy.
Alter the scale, look through a microscope literally or not, and everything is changed. Swat a fly, then look close-up at the delicate, miraculous and horrifying creature you have destroyed. How can matter be organised into such endless and alien complexity?
Under the surface details our Monsters are usually very simple and stylised beasts, really no more than cleverly designed costumes. The nearest rock or pond conceals far more inhuman images and forms; a merciless world of jaws, claws and poisonous stings.
We imagine ourselves to be eagles and lions, angels and demons, but never biting worms or scorpions. How could we, when there is no shared experience to build a simulation on?
The change in scale which separates us from this world is illusory; compared to the atomic dimension we are the same size. But there is no chance of empathy with these creatures; they are too far away in time and form and behaviour for any links to be made.
The monsters we make only borrow the surface details of this realm, and transfer them onto human frames and movement. A pilot or soldier in full combat gear may look more insect or robotic than human but there are still many clues as to how he or she might act or react.
The monstrous chimeras walk, and even talk, and interact with their human victims or combatants in ways that are familiar enough; anthropomorphism is generally the rule.
15. Except that it seems easy to imagine having six legs or eight, or more, or wings, or fins. Perhaps we inherit a Jungian memory of different body forms; a perception of past forms gained as we ourselves grew as embryos. Ontogeny recapitulating Phylogeny not only physically but in the sensation of inhabiting bodies very different from our own.
Only an expert can predict the actions and reactions of a spider or a snake, using patient observation, and consider how to influence their behaviour. It may be difficult or impossible to know how these creatures perceive the world, but we can imagine how it would feel if our consciousness inhabited their bodies.
If we ‘know’ how to move with wings or fins, or many legs or none, where does that knowledge come from? Somewhere between dream and waking is an old awareness of all the ways a body can move; an empathy of the body and its’ many forms.
Whatever design the Monsters’ bodies may have the face and/or persona is ‘human’. We can no more invent a totally alien way of being than imagine a new primary colour. All is made in our own image, however bizarre the body ‘costume’ may appear.
16. But we share over ninety nine percent of our genes with chimps, almost as much with the other great apes, and nearly forty percent with a worm; so we and all other animals have much more in common, compared with stones and streams, than we might care to think.
The mind-numbing complexity of form and function that the evolution of life on earth has created is based on an apparently simple series of codes. We share a large percentage of our DNA with a mushroom or a worm, and all forms of life have far more in common with each other than with the planetary matter they derive from.
Apart from life in the deep ocean trenches all life is energised by the sun, and without evidence of life forms from any other place there is no way of knowing if the patterns of DNA are common, one of many possible themes or a single event in the universe.
All we can know for now is that all life on this planet shares its’ basic and essential structure. This is the commonality underlying a concept of all life on earth being a single entity; Gaia.
17. So the tension between monstrosity and beauty, in our bodies and our minds, mirrors our fears and epiphanies; terrors and exaltations that can twist through each other and generate a new awareness of the utter strangeness of existence. This strangeness, even more than death, may be what we really fear; the horror that the monsters are protecting us from. We crave familiarity, even when we appear to be seeking out the new and the strange.
Waking up to wonder not only who but what it is that wakes. Looking at a hand, counting fingers; struggling to be clothed in a familiar personality. Beyond nightmare, because there are no monsters here; only awareness of the moment and the state of being aware.
This may be the realm that we try to avoid. Not a void, because we are there; but what is the observer and how is that observance possible? Familiar things become essential then, tea or coffee with breakfast, dispelling the strangeness as another day comes into focus.
Or is this the realm that meditating adepts have always attempted to reach? Somewhere that our complex and busy lives have distracted or protected us from all through human history. Maybe this is the consequence of being caught between the animal and the sublime. We cannot deny the animal. We can build a cathedral. But the very building of it distracts us from the original revelation. Walking upright is a powerful demonstration of that dilemma.
18. We make monsters in our own image so that we can all share the same perceptions of what it is to exist on this planet, in this universe, as living beings. And prefer to seek out the miraculous in stories and fantasy rather than in the everyday world around us and the very fact of our conscious witnessing of it.
Creating the monstrous chimeras that populate our nightmares is an expression of anthropomorphism that any scientist should deplore. An error in our view of life, and our place within it, as much as the creation of cute, furry animals that talk. But we are not all scientists and those of us who are would admit that being human is a condition impossible to step outside of entirely. We can attempt an objective viewpoint while admitting that complete success is impossible.
There is an elitist aspect to the ‘scientific’ that would have us deny this problem, or try to claim a monopoly on ‘clear’ thinking. The only option then is a backlash into religious faith or a stubborn insistence on being ‘ignorant’. But none of us are any more or less ignorant than the latest, most convincing story that scientific research and theory can provide. Today’s best descriptions of the universe will inevitably appear ignorant and quaint at some point in the future.
Scientists dream human dreams, and separate their lives into the rational and chaotically personal as much as anyone else. If we were all totally objective then love and family life would probably disappear. The rational, scientific viewpoint can be just another convenient mask; part of pretending to know exactly where and what we are.
Stories and fantasies can be caves to shelter in, a process that appears to be built into our consciousness; seeing shapes and faces in the flames of the fire that look back and tell us who we are. Something we badly need to know.
19. Being too aware of our own consciousness pushes us close to chaos, and loss of identity, by tilting us towards that alien vision of where we really are.
Contemplating one’s own navel is not admired in the first world of all action heroes. It is usually seen as an indulgence or a symptom of religious mania. Even the priests should be on satellite to reach a ‘modern’ audience. Meditation is something to fit into a properly planned and busy schedule.
This is not a new way of dealing with the world, very little is, but as ancient as any human group faced with the practical tasks of survival and their own well being. The complex ‘modern’ world is no more complex or modern than life in the caves.
Consider ‘Nostalgia for the Present’; and see the present as it might come to be seen in the future. Travel as some future historian might wish to travel, through the quaint and fascinating world of his or her past, and be self-aware in a less anxious way.
20. [A television pundit tackling churchmen on the definition of miracles – ‘Forget about walking on water. Just look at the water itself and see how extraordinary and wondrous a thing it is that it can exist, and that we are here to see it’.]
Now that we are offered so many ways of looking at the world it becomes almost wearisome to do so without checking if it is worth it, relevant or in our best interests. The illusion that so many images and points of view really inform us is very compelling. We are being informed, but we are not experiencing the world from our own unique viewpoint.
Generally we’d rather be entertained than informed, always wanting to see a spectacle, preferably something gruesome or startling, rather than make the effort to see the miracles right in front of us. Much of what passes for religion comes under this heading; stories and rituals that entertain and confuse rather than elevate or enlighten. Weeping statues, walking on water, levitating monks and other circus ‘miracles’ all demean the original messages.
Why do we need to do this; insist on seeing the world this way?
21. A sense of wonder at the apparently mundane is involved in all creative processes; taking nothing as known or understood. A process of awareness that involves no judgement or counting or classifying. Life itself is the first expression of this awareness; evolving as a flame front of metamorphosing forms and designs. Flowing into new shapes, successful stasis or back into chaos.
Naming, counting and classifying are tasks our brains and minds are programmed to do almost automatically. The first discarded spear was likely picked up and notched by an accountant; quantifying and calculating resources has always been essential to survival, particularly during a lean period or when facing a harsh winter.
An artist might use the fire-hardened tip to draw a picture or lever up a rock with an interesting shape. Nothing to do with survival, but everything to do with making survival meaningful, focusing motivation and courage or fixing a groups’ identity.
The union between practicality and artistic or religious vision is as old as the need to eat, drink and find or maintain a safe place to sleep. Has that union always involved an element of conflict; a questioning or misunderstanding of the need to expend resources on anything not obviously useful? Weapons and people in particular have always been decorated, so far as we can tell, most often in connection with ritual.
Ritual could be said to reinforce or replace responsibility. Maybe because there has so rarely been time to really stop and stare. And a suspicion that to do so may bring bad luck?
The drive of the artist or innovator is to step outside ritual and observance and stare as hard as he or she can. Then to attempt to fix a unique vision in whatever medium is chosen by or chooses them. Thinking first into the vision and then into the materials that will make it seen.
22. There are no species or individuals in this view; only the perspective of Gaia living as one entity, formed from uncountable complex interactions, on the surface of a planet.
And death, and its’ monsters, are gone from this vision too; as each life flashes its’ spark within the flames eaters and eaten swirl across the surface of a time that is not eternal but structural. Truly the fifth dimension.
There are no objects, no bodies, only process. Each life blooms and is blown away as a tiny ring of smoke. Stones and mountains bubble into existence and are gone. Ice flickers and dances up and down the planet. Life swirls and glistens on its’ skin as oil on water generates an iridescent rainbow of colours.
Earth projected vividly on the wall of time; all is motion and permanent change.
23. For us, and all living things, time, and the illusion of permanence, is the price of existence for a tiny moment and the monsters and angels are generated to protect us from an underlying awareness of that price.
If we didn’t have to die we wouldn’t be here to worry about it. The perception of time is so embedded in our bodies’ reaction to it that the enigma only deepens. We don’t care that we weren’t here one hundred years ago, except maybe academically, so why do we care so deeply and fearfully that we won’t be here one hundred years hence?
Each person suffers from the illusion that they create the world as they look at it. As conscious beings our task is to be unique witnesses, but do we really influence and rebuild the world by observing it or does it pour through our awareness into some other dimension?
Maybe we are forced to pay attention as time passes through us. Maybe we don’t travel in time because we are time.
24. So the monsters we imagine, and allow to live, shield us from too close an experience of the life of Gaia, where there is nothing but change, endlessly and always in flux. A life outside any familiar framework that a human identity could recognise as a place to survive. Gaia does not know monsters, or death, except maybe in a realm we cannot access; not outside time but so deeply embedded within it that it would be invisible to the senses of any individual living thing.
The Monsters howl and scratch on the borderland between our small ‘now’ and the cold fire of time, where it is always both day and night, gesturing for our attention to distract us. So we forget to look past them into that strange twilight.
We create them in the images of love and hate, but always as our allies, to permanently guard that border. They will not let us cross unless we insist, in madness or hope, that we can find a way back. They would even travel with us if they could. But the wall of time would undo their imaginary forms, so they call out to guide us from the edges of the human world.
25.Our terror of this place, which is our origin, is not avoidance but is built in for our survival through the time that we have to live in. And if we meet our monsters as friends who help us along the way then maybe we can catch a glimpse, behind them, of the place we truly come from and look at it in wonder rather than in fear.
Living on a planetary surface, formed and preserved by gravity, under a blanket of blue skies is the only condition we have ever known. However blissful or agonising the passage our lives have always been defined by this absolute constraint.
Now we are starting to look out from under the blanket. Twenty four human beings have flown beyond the orbit of the earth as witnesses.
As we have changed where we are we are about to change what we are. And there is no going back. Why would we? If we have any purpose it is to carry on becoming aware. This is as terrifying and challenging for a self-aware species as growing up and moving away from home is for any individual. But also as necessary, inevitable and exciting.
© John Coppinger – 7 November 1999
Images © Mike Tremblay