Several years ago I wrote and produced a documentary on Gargoyles, the stone-carved and winged monsters perched atop church spires throughout the world. For such a low-budget production it was actually extremely successful, running on several PBS stations as an anchor for their Halloween-night programming. I long ago turned my back on being a television producer, willfully forgetting much of what I knew. But I still often think about Gargoyles.
When I was making Gargoyles: Guardians of the Gate (“The gate to what?” you ask. Well, so did a lot of people), I looked hard for experts on Gargoyles to interview. It turned out they were very difficult to find. Oh sure, there were plenty of art historians and medieval historians to talk to, and even a few masons in England and New York who make Gargoyles. But the academics wanted to demythologize Gargoyles and the masons — well, they didn’t care very much either way. Meanwhile, I wanted people who would, if anything, exaggerate the role of Gargoyles (this was not 60 Minutes).
I wanted people to recount the tales of Romanus, the 6th century Saint who conquered the Gargouille — the dragon that terrorized the French town of Rouen and is rumored to have leant its name to the creatures for all time. I wanted people to say Gargoyles are the frozen souls of the condemned; or demons enlisted by the Church to fight off other demons, as the legends have it.
What I didn’t need was some post-modern academic lecturing me on the sexual alienation implicit in gender-neutral marginal art. I didn’t need someone to tell me that a Gargoyle isn’t a monster at all, it’s just the architectural term for a rainspout (which is where we get the words gargle and gurgle, sharing the same root as Gargoyle). Sure, these things may be true but they miss the forest for the trees.
Gargoyles were used for a lot of things, but their central role was to remind people that monsters are everywhere. Having climbed a lot of church rooftops, I can tell you that up to 90% of Gargoyles cannot be seen with the naked eye from the street (especially with the uncorrected vision of the Middle Ages). Many of these incredibly elaborate, bizarre, and often lewd demons and dragons are hidden in places you’d never find unless you looked for them. So, why go to the bother and expense of putting monsters where nobody can see them?
Because monsters can be found everywhere. Didn’t you know that?
HERE THERE BE MONSTERS
We live in an age that frowns on the idea of “evil” monsters. But we love the idea of, well, lovable monsters. Historically speaking, a loveable monster is a weird concept. The original meaning of the word “monster” derives, via Old French, from a word for “divine omen or warning.” This was the role of Gargoyles. To warn people — mostly illiterate people — that evil was always around the corner, behind a ledge, down a shaft. The Latin monstrum comes from the verb monere meaning “warn.” A monster was a harbinger of evil.
Today, monsters are the exact opposite. From Frankenstein to Sesame Street, we’ve become conditioned to believe that monsters are good things. The Cookie Monster is so proud to be a monster it’s his last name for goodness sake.
But it’s not for the sake of goodness that we have abandoned the idea of monsters. The psychologists, sociologists, social workers and other social cleansers have taken it upon themselves to explain that what we call “monsters” are really just things we can’t understand. After all, the old mapmakers used to just throw up their hands when they didn’t have any more info and would just write “Here There Be Monsters.” The social cleansers believe that any time we say “here there be monsters” we’re really just revealing ignorance. “These children aren’t monsters,” we will hear some fool say on the nightly news after some child has done something particularly monstrous. “We shouldn’t demonize so-and-so” just because they have done something so demonic that it takes an act of supreme will to see it as something else.
But why is it such a good thing to understand evil? When we claim that all evil acts are understandable, we excuse them in a way. Oh, he’s a pedophile because his father was a pedophile. That guy? He murders people because society never gave him a chance. Him? He’s a rapist because of a chemical imbalance, etc. etc.
Would it be so terrible for us to say, “He’s a monster” or “he’s just plain evil” and leave it at that? Last August, a man in Merced, California burst into a family’s home and murdered two children with a pitchfork while they cowered under the sheets. The other two children saw it happen. Do we need to explain that?
Being reminded that evil exists, seeing it like a Gargoyle on the wall or, even in a kid’s costume, is a useful thing. For if we don’t think evil exists, if we reject the idea that there are monsters, unknowable in their evilness, we will always make excuses for it when we see it. And when we do that, we forget what the opposite of evil is too.
For more about monsters, see “A Word About Monsters”.