Bigfoot Encounters

By Lionel Tiger

"Opinion Journal"
Saturday, May 26, 2001 12:01 a.m. EDT

Going Ape

If the Monkey Man didn't exist, we'd have to invent him. Oh wait, we did.

The extreme often illuminates the normal. So the bizarre reports of the "Monkey Man," which has, since April 8, terrorized people in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and then in New Delhi, may reveal what lies beneath the surface of everyday life.

Self-satisfied sophisticates may fend off the case by placing it in the category of primitive magical thinking. However, it is worth exploring what this eruption of hysterical fear meant for the people who experienced it, as well as for our own community--one in which the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, New Mexican space visitors and the Yeti compete for tabloid sales with details of Cher's latest makeover.

What happened in India was that flash announcements swept the community that a half-man, half-monkey creature was randomly attacking people at night in the streets where many of them slept because of the heat.

After complaints about 348 attacks by the monster, vigilante groups wielding sticks patrolled the streets. Several hapless candidate-monsters were attacked. Three thousand police officers were assigned to find the creature. At least three people are thought to have died by jumping from windows when the monster pursued them--or perhaps their enemies took the opportunity to push them out. A police reward of 50,000 rupees (around $1,000) turned up no useful leads. It was finally announced that the Monkey Man was the product of "fear psychosis." In any case, we can be sure that he will not be captured because he does not exist.

But the central point is that Monkey Man taps into a deep vein of interest in the ghoulish and disastrous among not only Indians but also Americans. Highway police know that after an accident people will slow down to gaze with evident fascination at someone else's wreckage. One of the most common television news images is the yellow police tape marking a crime scene. Morbid curiosity is surely a prime ingredient of the appeal of dozens of films, television series like "The X-Files," and mystery thrillers, to say nothing of those wholly freakish films and TV series featuring human actors who wear fearful makeup and costumes.

In short, consumers often seek out drastically unpleasant stimuli and pay for the privilege to boot, with time if not money. The monster Monkey Man isn't very far away both here and in New Delhi. Even when it appears to recede too far, we contrive to restore its power through nutty fear psychosis on the one hand and well-crafted works of communication on the other.

What appears to be going on is that however comfortable and predictable life may seem to people, the awareness remains that everyone from New York to New Delhi lives on the edge. Drive down the highway and mistakenly turn the steering wheel 10 degrees to the right or left and you may be a bloody mess or dead. The day trader gesticulating to his cell phone on the turnpike has the speed and poundage to kill you in seconds. Children are taught to avoid walking under ladders with good reason--tools fall.

There are inner monsters, too, which connect the smooth modern present with the unruly dangerous past before excellent medicine and lawsuits for remedial damages. Nightmares don't only occur during sleep.

Before amniocentesis became commonly available, bearing a heartbreakingly deformed infant was neither a theoretical fear nor a rare event. There have always been tacit and sub rosa implications that somehow understanding doctors would fail to assure the survival of severely irregular newborns. Pregnant women were and are understandably frightened of everything from the Evil Eye to possibly toxic foods. Some element of the public turmoil about cloning and genetically modified foods must have to do with longstanding fears about genetically modified humans--man-made monkey men.

Small children threatened with having to sleep by themselves seek endless reassurance and comfort. They lack certainty that the boogie-monkey-man will remain in its cage--perhaps this is why Western society is aberrantly alone among the communities of the world in requiring little children to sleep alone, in the dark.

And it remains a favorite tactic of degraded statecraft for a group in power to define a subordinate one as a kind of nonhuman monkey man, perhaps by requiring it to wear a version of species marker such as the yellow star for the Nazis. Now we have the Muslim Taliban's up-to-the minute innovation, requiring Hindus to wear specially colored garb, like clowns. They are saying: We fear you because you are different. But we will prevail and box you in. We will make a monkey-man out of you yet.

Lionel Tiger is a professor of anthropology at Rutgers and author of "The Decline of Males" (Golden Books, 1999).

© The Wall Street Journal's "Opinion Journal"

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