“I hate to be the one to break this to you, here at Comic Con, but there is no Jersey Devil,” said Brian Regal, Kean University professor and author of a book on the hybrid monster said to inhabit New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, last Thursday. “You know what they say, it’s all fun and games until a historian shows up.”
Regal was part of a panel featuring the experts of a brand new, eight-part series debuting on the Science Channel this Sunday, October 14, called Mythical Beasts, which aims to explore the historical origins of the legendary creatures which scare us.
“So we are all about the science,” said moderator and Scientific American editor, Michael Lemonick. “No myths here!”
“I really do feel like I have the best job in the world,” said Margee Kerr, a sociologist who travels to haunted houses, paranormal investigations, and the world’s scariest thrill rides to study fear. Despite Lemonick not being able to sympathize, there are apparently very good reasons we like to be afraid.
“There’s a lot to gain from doing scary things,” Kerr said. Studies show that after being frightened, our mood improves, and we’re less tired or stressed out. Doing scary things “takes us out of our heads,” so that all the trappings of our world fall away, and the instinct remains for only one thing — survival.
“We’re not thinking about bills or what we have to do next week,” Kerr said, because in that moment, deep inside, we’re happy enough to just be alive. Surviving the scary brings a feeling of accomplishment, and stronger bonds when done with friends. Lemonick was convinced.
“Maybe I’ll try it,” he said.
Despite opening jokes to the contrary, a show called Mythical Beasts wouldn’t be complete without a “mythological consultant” like Richard Schwab. Schwab operates a website called Story Seeds that compiles 50,000 motifs of myth globally, to see which kinds of things are universal, and which might be particular to certain cultures.
“I get asked about dragons a lot right now,” Schwab said, blaming the popularity of Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. Dragons (the subject of the series’ first episode) are fairly universal in older cultures, though it’s still unclear why. Schwab said since we’re a relatively young species, we’re all still closely related, so it’s no surprise to find “archetypal ideas we’re all kind of programmed with.”
Regal, a historian of science, fell somewhere between the other two. He also likes studying people, but a certain group of people.
“I’m particularity interested in the relationship between amateur investigators and professional researchers,” Regal said. “I’m fascinated by people who are tragic figures.” Consider the Bigfoot hunter who endlessly tracks a figment through the woods. “I’m interested in people who spend their whole lives looking for something and never find it,” Regal said. But why bother with any of it?
“The study of monsters is the study of human hate and fear,” Regal said, a way for us to turn different groups into the “other.” It was werewolves hundreds of years ago, today it might be gays or immigrants.
“I think there’s also the quest for meaning,” Kerr said, saying if you can come up with something that caused your problems, even if it’s something untouchable, that still feels better than not knowing, or just leaving things to chance. Monster stories can serve as education, too — if you want to warn kids about bears, come up with the biggest, scariest bear you can.
Starting October 14, Mythical Beasts airs Sunday nights at 10:00 pm eastern time, on the Science Channel.