Noises in the Night

In the first chapter of her autobiography Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali recounts some of the Somali folktales her grandmother taught her when she was a child. One was a story of a nomad, searching for a home for his wife and child, who mysteriously finds an oasis with a fine grass hut already built in the middle of the desert, and a smiling, friendly stranger who invites them to live there. Alas for the trusting nomad, the stranger was really “He Who Rubs Himself with a Stick,” a monstrous werewolf-like being who stalks the desert in the shape of a hyena, and who returns that night while they lie sleeping and devours their infant son. Another example:

There were stories about an ugly old witch woman whose name was People Slayer or People Butcher, who had the power to transform herself, to adopt the face of someone you liked and respected, and who at the last minute lunged at you, laughing in your face, HAHAHAHAHA, before she slaughtered you with a long sharp knife that she had been hiding under the folds of her robe all along and then ate you up.

Every culture has stories like this, of course, stories of the monsters that lurk at the fringes of civilization and fall upon those who stray from the prescribed rules of conduct. There’s almost always a moral lesson to be drawn from these bloody folktales: whether to be chaste, or pious, or suspicious of strangers, or obedient to one’s parents, the main character almost always transgresses in some way that leads to disaster.

In all likelihood, these cautionary tales are as old as humanity itself. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in a world full of very real dangers, and it’s no surprise that they gave some of them a supernatural gloss. Natural disasters like drought and flood became the handiwork of angry nature spirits. Members of other, possibly hostile, rival tribes became shape-changing demons, utterly other, utterly alien, ready to drop their guise and strike at any moment. And our fellow predators, those who hunted the night beyond the light of our huddled fires, became monsters of every description. Fanciful though they were, these imaginings served a real purpose – giving our predecessors a way to deal with their fear, by constructing elaborate rituals intended to ward off misfortune. Like all religions, they imparted a sense of security and control in a hostile and uncaring cosmos.

With the passage of time, as our societies became more complex and the borders of our knowledge advanced, our myths and our monsters became more abstract. Nevertheless, their basic purpose stayed very much the same. Take a more recent example from human cultural history, William Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence”:

He who shall teach the Child to Doubt
The rotting Grave shall ne’er get out.
He who respects the Infant’s Faith
Triumphs over Hell and Death.

This clumsy, unsubtle threat delivers the same fundamental message as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s childhood folktales: stay within the bounds of your culture, believe your elders, or suffer a terrible fate. With the Somali folktales, it’s more obvious where they originate – the childhood fears we felt on moonless nights, when we heard monsters roaring beyond the light of our fires. But both they and Blake’s poem are descendants of that same ancient, superstitious terror. Both paint pictures of unseen evils waiting to strike down those who stray from the straight and narrow path.

Ironically, these primitive fears still guide our steps, even though we have long since acquired enough knowledge to tell that they are substanceless. Our ancestors cowered from noises in the night, but we no longer need to. We have a better option: just go and look. More than enough brave thinkers have gone before us to make it abundantly clear that there are no supernatural dangers lurking in the dark, no monsters hiding in the bushes. We do have dangers to confront, but we can respond to them more proportionately and effectively if we cease embellishing them with fanciful mythology.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Samuel Skinner

    I like the more modern myths- they come in neat comic form:
    http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2007/7/30/the-tournemon-part-four/

  • Ngeli

    Now I want to know what would be good fairytales to tell children. I mean, there are monsters (beast or human) in about all of them as antagonists.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    IMO, trying to teach children caution by using false fears isn’t only unethical, In any sort of modern information- era society, it’s almost certainly bound to backfire.

    Think of what happens when parents and teachers lie to kids about the dangers of drugs. Once the kids find out they’ve been lied to, what do they learn? That parents and teachers lie to them about drugs. And they then disregard anything they’ve been taught about the dangers of drugs… even the stuff that is actually true.

  • bestonnet

    More than that, they learn that parents and teachers lie. Period, and not just about drugs.

  • silentsanta

    Great post.

    I just had a thought after reading:
    “More than enough brave thinkers have gone before us to make it abundantly clear that there are no supernatural dangers lurking in the dark, no monsters hiding in the bushes.”
    Aren’t the real dangers almost all entirely human ones? And one of the greatest of these is the danger of your kinsman or neighbour, earnest but bound up in superstition and ready to spill blood over *his* fear of a nonexistent bogeyman?
    We have no need of monsters when we are already so adept at acting with pitiless inhumanity.

  • velkyn

    Greta has it right. I found myself in that position. My parents lied to me (inadvertantly or not) and that started the questioning. If I couldn’t trust them to be correct about something small, why believe unquestioningly about something big?

    IMO, religion must depend on fear and hate. It really is a primitive thing and is all about the “other” not being as “good” as us.

  • Alex Weaver

    We have similar stories today. Ostensibly well-meaning relatives who try to scare you out of driving assertively by doing their best to convince you that every third person on the road is an armed psychopath waiting for the slightest provocation come to mind…

  • Valhar2000

    Or the sex offenders list: people who were arrested for having sex in high school will rape your children!!!! THEY’RE EVERYWHERE!!!!!

  • Christopher

    This is the type of absurdity that results when society gets involved in people’s sex lives – anyone who deviates from their expectations is criminalized and demonized in the public eye. Of course, the trusting public – conditioned for obedience to authority – just buys whatever the people on TV, sit in oversized theaters (that’s exactly what the legislative house is – an over-glorified colosseum) or those who wear badges tell them.

    I say that there’s only one true monster in this world – and its name is social order.

  • Alex Weaver

    (Sorry if this double-posts)

    And how does Jeffrey Dahmer fit into that scheme, Christopher?

    …don’t answer that.

  • Christopher

    Alex Weaver,

    “And how does Jeffrey Dahmer fit into that scheme, Christopher?”

    He was a product of the sexual repression of the social order – in his time homosexuality was very tabboo, inspiring the homosexuals to take their sex lives underground: in this case, his repression was so deep that he could only express his sexuality in terms of voilence.

    Had the social order not repressed him, I doubt he would have turned into a serial rapist/killer – so, in a sense, the society he lived in created him (or at least played a huge role in it).

    “…don’t answer that.”

    If you didn’t want an answer you shouldn’t have raised the question…

  • Christopher

    Spelling: “violence”