Francisco Goya’s etching shows an artist sleeping, his head down on his desk as giant bats and owls swarm around him like the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz. The print’s title, displayed in Spanish on the side of the desk, reads: “The sleep of reason produces monsters.” The work was originally intended as the cover for a collection of 80 etchings titled “Los Caprichos” (Follies) that were published in 1799. In a radical thematic departure for Goya, who had once been an artist in the court of King Carlos III, the collection was intended as a critique of Spanish society at the time. In an advertisement for his etchings, Goya explained that “from the multitude of follies and blunders common in every civil society, as well as from the vulgar prejudices and lies authorized by custom, ignorance or interest, those that he has thought most suitable matter for ridicule.”
Although Goya may have had satire in mind, his etching illustrates a universal psychological truth. Monsters do tend to come out when our powers of reason are in abeyance. This is seen most clearly in small children whose ego defenses are rudimentary and who are most vulnerable to primal fears of the dark. As parents and grandparents, we go through elaborate rituals at bedtime to sooth their fears, assuring young ones there are no monsters lurking under the bed or hiding in the closet.
Where do these monsters come from? Fear of monsters may be instinctual, an evolutionary inheritance from our hunter-gatherer past, when our forbearers were prey to wild animals, especially at night. According to depth psychologist Carl Jung, monsters are archetypal images found in the nether reaches of the collective unconscious, which acts as a repository for ancestral memories common to the human race. These archetypes are by definition universal, which means they are found in some form in many cultures around the world.
The bogeyman that haunts your child’s bedroom is one such archetype. This creature of the night goes by many different names but is commonly depicted as a sinister figure who comes with a sack to carry off misbehaving children. One of the etchings in Goya’s “Los Caprichos” collection portrays the bogeyman (“el coco”) as a shrouded figure looming over two small children who cower in their mother’s arms. To the extent that the bogeyman is invoked to threaten children who are afraid to go to bed, the stratagem would appear to be self-defeating.
Children eventually outgrow their inordinate fear of things that go bump in the night, but the monsters never go away entirely. They are an ever-present feature of our cultural landscape: as creatures in fairy tales and myths, as gargoyles decorating temples and cathedrals, as characters in comic books, Halloween costumes and films. To the extent the Hollywood dream factory functions as a kind of collective unconscious, it is not hard to see that monsters occupy a prominent place in the national psyche. Where else can you go to find such a teeming collection of the ghoulish and the grotesque: Frankenstein, Dracula, Godzilla and King Kong, plus untold numbers of ghosts, demons, vampires, zombies and serial killers.
As a source of vicarious entertainment, these nightmarish figures might seem harmless enough. But not when these “monsters of the id” — as they were called in the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet — are projected onto real people. Think of the Nazis who branded Jews as “vermin” before exterminating them at Auschwitz. Or undocumented immigrants who were denounced as murderers and rapists before children at our border were taken from their parents and put in cages.
Monsters are not simply the harmless remnants of childhood fears. They are embodiments of what Jung called the “shadow self” — the parts of ourselves that are not compatible with our sanitized self image and therefore are not allowed conscious expression. But just because we don’t see them doesn’t mean they are dormant — or even invisible. As long as we remain unconscious of the dark elements operating within ourselves, we will project them onto others and give them names of the very qualities we cannot abide in ourselves.
Our monsters are activated by fear, which originates in the depths of the reptilian brain in response to perceived danger. The reptilian brain — the part of the brain we inherited from reptilian ancestors — operates on instinct and controls such vital functions as heart beat, breathing and body temperature. Fears are by definition irrational, since our higher brain functions, including our powers of reason, tend to come into play only after the fact. In the absence of reason, our monsters are given free rein.
“Our whole being is nothing but a fight against the dark forces within ourselves,” wrote the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. Normally, our rational mind can more or less keep these forces at bay. But sometimes fear gets the better of us, and our shadow self gains ascendency. "A man who is possessed by his shadow is always standing in his own light and falling into his own traps,” Jung wrote.
Although the shadow self is usually thought of in individual terms, some Jungians believe it is also part of the collective unconscious and can manifest itself on a much broader scale. Cult leaders and demagogues are skilled in playing upon the dark impulses of their followers and exploiting them for their own ends. The result is a group or even a nation where rational constraints have been bypassed, and the shadow has gained ascendancy. The mass suicide of Jim Jones’ cult followers at Jonestown bears this out to an unusual degree. What otherwise would possess more than 900 souls to line up for a drink of cyanide-laced Kool-Aid? When reason sleeps and monsters run rampant, they can easily devour those who unleash them.
Carl Jung, “The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious,” Collected Works