Let's talk about mythological monsters this evening.
I'm going to differentiate between these, cryptids, and spiritual/otherworldly monsters (ghosts/aliens/fae/demons/etc) for the purposes of this thread.
I don't believe in them at all.
Mythological monsters, as I'm defining them here, would include all classes of physical undead, lycanthropes/shapeshifters, giants, and minotaurs (to name a few). It's a loose categorization that primarily requires them to be corporeal and have associations with folklore.
I find many cryptids far more plausible since there are lots of reclusive and weird animals in the world and it's also easy to mistake diseased or deformed animals (or normal animals) for something totally different out in nature.
As for otherworldly entities, I've always been very uncomfortable with the idea of dismissing them out of hand, and I think however you want to conceptualize them they exist, even if only as thoughtforms. Another thread for another time--you all know I like the occult by now. I really don't like watching horror movies involving ghosts/demons/alien abduction for the same reason I don't like watching movies about serial killers--too plausible for my taste and experiences.
But I'll laugh at vampire and werewolf movies all day long. Why is that?
Something that's always bothered me is how INCREDIBLY and overwhelmingly prevalent things like vampires, zombies, and animal shapeshifters are in so many different cultures around the world throughout history.
When I was a kid, I wanted to believe in them. How could something that so universally crops up NOT have a grain of truth, right? We don't transmit cultural stories unless they're useful. Why are they so persistent? Where do they come from? Why so popular if false?
You might be inclined to think the stories are just sticky because they're entertaining, but there's way more to it than that. If we just liked being scared, there'd be a booming industry around spider horror movies instead of vampires. But if they were sticky because they were real, we'd catch some. Especially in the modern day, with smartphones, there's no way someone wouldn't have some real hard proof of corporeal entities in the physical world with the ubiquity of something like vampires. As I explained last night to @eigenrobot, I think the stories about these creatures are sticky not because they're real, but because they're useful warnings about emotional experiences and expressions of other humans in our lives.
In a nutshell my take is that all mythological monsters have roots in primal and universal human experiences and fears and the most popular ones are the ones that trigger sympathetic emotion—that gives you a base and then cultural storytelling tacks on bits of lore over time.
The folklore around something like vampires springs up as a symbolically encoded and embellished warning about humans who symbolically do the types of things vampires do--in this case, sociopaths.
Also many monsters are just hyper-embellished takes on methods of interaction and activity humans have with each other: Symbolic representations of the evils we do to one another.
Vampires are just embellished sociopaths with symbolic representations of how they exploit and manipulate.
It's hard to explain how dangerous sociopaths can be to people who haven't experienced the devastation that having one in your life can bring, and it's very much about the subjective experience. The scariest thing about sociopaths (and vampires) is that they LOOK NORMAL. And you hear people talk about this all the time--when you haven't been in an emotional relationship with a sociopath, it's very hard to understand how powerful they feel and how powerless you feel sometimes.
Why not just walk away? But you can't. Let's do some quick symbolic comparisons.
Sociopaths are known to be charming, persuasive, emotionless, predatory, often wealthy/powerful via their talents and position, and extremely manipulative. They're ruthless pragmatists and good at self-preservation.
Vampires ooze charm in their classic presentation. Seduction is a core skill, attracting you with an inexplicable magnetism that draws you to them against your will.
Sociopaths often have this same magnetism. They dress well. You want to be their friend. They seem impressive
Vampires have the ability to persuade, command, and compel via magic. They can cloud your mind and make you believe what they want when you're in their spell.
Sociopaths will lie, frame, gaslight, and confuse you until you're not sure what the truth is too. Vampires have transcended human emotion. They're undead and cold. They serve only their own ends.
Sounds a lot like the definition of sociopathy, huh? Devoid of human emotion? We literally call ruthless, pragmatic people "cold-blooded."
Vampires are innately predatory, feeding on the blood and life force of humans.
Sociopaths use others to satisfy their own needs, often at the person's direct expense, without concern. They extract emotional labor, money, and time, giving back as little as they can.
Vampires have a strong association with aristocracy.
So do sociopaths. How often do we talk about sociopathic CEOs, leaders, and politicians? Often sociopaths seek prominent positions of power intentionally.
Vampires keep their vampiric activities to the shadows, turn invisible, and are notoriously hard to kill.
Sociopaths conceal their abuse of people so that it all looks normal on the surface, and are experts at deflecting, lying, or manipulating information to avoid detection
Finally, and this one is important: It requires a vampire to MAKE other vampires.
Sociopathic behavior encourages sociopathic behavior from its victims. Lying/cheating/gaslighting/theft all look normal when someone does it to you all the time.
All of these seemingly unrelated special powers attributed to vampires have direct allegorical connection to the ways a victim of a sociopath experiences their abuse. The emotional experiences are common and real, even if the fictional representation isn't.
You can read Dracula as an allegory of a powerful noble with a sociopathic bent who uses all of these tactics to control and terrify the nearby village, and it works just fine if you translate the symbols appropriately. Similarly, when we look at something werewolves, it's a pretty obvious allegory for psychopathy and serial killers.
Did you ever notice how vampires and werewolves kind of have this weird cultural association despite being totally different? That's because they're not so different when viewed through the lens of allegorical variation on human emotional and behavioral experiences.
They're linked in the same way sociopathy and psychopathy are. Werewolves seem normal on the surface, hiding their nature, and then occasionally explode in a secret, violent, animalistic rage that warps them into a beast delighting in blood.
Compare to the actions and demeanor of serial killers, like the fictional Patrick Bateman.
Because the allegorical depictions are rooted in common human experience and cultural memory of the ways some humans attack and exploit, the stories of these creatures have strong memetic weight. They're appealing because they're so very familiar and resonant.
I believe that these allegories spring up universally because of common human experiences, and then vary across cultures because they pick up different kinds of baggage as the same memetic thread ripples through different cultural periods and lenses.
Also, by cloaking reality in allegory, it gives us better emotional tools to cope with the presence of very uncomfortable people in the world around us because it's easier to stomach them and laugh at them than the true stories, which are much less fun to consume. This is why American Psycho or Saw are so much more uncomfortable to watch than a bloody werewolf flick, or why Francis Underwood makes your skin crawl far more than Dracula ever will.
It's too real. Too close to home. But the stories are compelling because the emotional impact is similar. You know how we dismissively say stories about werewolves and vampires "are for kids"?
Taking that literally, Dracula is a cautionary tale with less emotional weight than the real deal. Underwood-lite. Most people tend to enjoy and share stories that have emotional significance, but not so much uncomfortable emotion that it's overwhelming.
Lots of topics don't get conversational play just because they make folks uneasy to discuss, triggering strong fear or disgust. It's scary to discuss sociopaths or psychopaths, ESPECIALLY when they're real people you know. They're good at hiding their activities and if you try to reveal them you become a target. No one wants to be a target of these types, because they're good at what they do.
By encoding and culturally transferring symbolic allegories of the qualities of these people, we hand down strongly memetic information that gives people implicitly felt cautionary instincts to avoid or attack the behaviors when evident.
There are lots of different ways to interpret something like zombies via this lens, but notice also that zombies didn't become nearly as popular as the other two I've discussed until they took on more of an association with the post-apocalyptic zeitgeist and herd mentality.
I'd argue that all physical monsters which are popular and universal in the same way as these are similar allegorical tools to describe and ward off culturally shared anxieties that most people don't like discussing.