Here’s a cool essay by Paul. A Trout about why humans create monsters. One reason is a cultural warning for people to stay away from real creatures (lions, tigers, bears, oh my) that thought people might be a tasty snack:
“[T]he basic function of the monster was to give fear a face, to graphically capture the dread that is bred into us by millions of years as a prey species that was stalked and sometimes eaten by huge and terrifying carnivores.“
So dragons aren’t just cool in stories; they could have served an evolutionary purpose. Another reason is that people may have seen fossils of ancient creatures and developed stories of monsters based on those giant bones. I saw the Mythic Creatures exhibit at the Museum of Science a few years ago, which featured this idea.
Anyone who has had a nightmare also knows that monsters could come from dreams, where the familiar is mashed together to create something terrifying:
“Among the salient experiences our ancient ancestors remembered and stored in their unconscious must have been life-threatening encounters with predators. Which means that during altered states, images of predators would have undergone further shaping, twisting, recombination, or hybridization. The upshot is that proto-humans were able to conjure up hybrid images of animals well before cognitive fluidity and mythmaking emerged during the Middle Paleolithic.”
Wherever the idea of monsters came from, I think it’s awesome that almost all cultures and social groups have some kind of scary creature in their stories. And it’s fun for writers now to be able to play with these cultural touchstones and myths. (Even if it does mean a restless night’s sleep.)
Check out Trout’s book for more on the history and creation of monsters.