Friday, 13 September 2019

Villainous Animals

Certain animal species are often encountered as the model for villains or evil races in D&D and in fantasy books in general. Off the top of my head, these species are wolves, snakes and spiders. I suppose if an alien from Mars or elsewhere in the universe was asked to pick the most likely three animal species to be selected by human beings as representing evil and/or danger, those would all be pretty high up the list - the alien would just have to ask himself which animals have been most likely to be dangerous to humans over the course of our evolutionary past (and recent history too, of course).

Some distance behind these - the best of the rest, just about picking up the last Champions' League spot - is the ape, specifically the chimpanzee. Chimpanzees make great villains not because they are our Species Enemies like the other three mentioned above, but because they are in a kind of uncanny valley. They look and act rather like us - or, I should say, rather like our children. But they do so in a way that disturbs us. When we see them flinging shit or publicly masturbating or eating people's noses and hands while they're still alive, they look too close to us for comfort. They appear to be telling us, even as they engage in these acts of degradation and savagery: "Look upon us, you who think you are so advanced, and see your TRUE NATURE REVEALED. Only a thin veneer of civilisation separates you from acts like this, and it can be torn asunder AT ANY MOMENT".

That's what the chimps at the zoo seem to be telling me whenever I see them, anyway. I have mentioned it to a succession of therapists. 

Other apes are less effective in this role than chimps. Where a gorilla appears as a villain it arouses our sympathy because of its inherent nobility; King Kong is of course the prime example of this. Gorillas are just far enough away from us to be outside of the uncanny valley and in the territory of awe and majesty. I was going to say that the same is probably true for orangutans, although of course King Louie and Dr Zaius both stand out as radical exceptions to this. 

Next are the kind of animals that monster-creators cast around for when wolves, bears, snakes, spiders and apes have become boring. These are the animals that would be dangerous to us if only they were really big. Lizards, crabs, eagles and most types of insect are the chief examples that spring to mind. Despite the fact that a giant eagle would in reality, I am sure, be terrifying, it is hard in the abstract to get excited by a giant eagle monster because eagles themselves are not dangerous to humans. The eagle simply doesn't strike a chord of danger on the strings of the human psyche. (Or something.) 

Behind these are animals that certainly are dangerous to humans, but which we probably didn't encounter very frequently, if at all, during the course of our evolution, and which have been done to death so frequently in cinema that they now seem like very, very old hat. Sharks and crocodiles comprise the bulk of this category. It also includes bears.  

And bringing up the rear is literally everything else. Seagulls. Porcupines. Mongooses. Camels. Giraffes. Bandicoots. 

It follows that if you want to make a really interesting animal-based monster or "bad guy" race, a seagull or porcupine is the way to go, because if you can pull it off and really make it scary you'll definitely have it made. 

45 comments:

  1. Gorillas as menacing creatures really declined since the 40's and 50's as more and more nature footage of them as docile, largely herbivorous creatures became widespread.

    Chimps, though, chimps are right bastards and deserve all the bad press they get. Worse than frikkin' dolphins. :P

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  2. Also, I've heard it convincingly argued that the origin of the classic western idea of a dragon is pretty much an amalgam of snake, eagle, and big cat, and for extra measure it breathes fire. Pretty much everything that scared the bananas out of our primitive hominid forebears.

    So in a psychological sense dragons *are* real, because they represent the potentiality of everything bad that can happen to you before it happens and collapses the wave form into something concrete.

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    1. I've also recently read that argument (it's presented in Dangerous Powers by Paul Trout, though he didn't originally make it). Isn't the point there that eagles of a sufficient size did pose a real threat to our hominid ancestors? The Taung child, for example, is thought to have been killed by a giant eagle. And the Haast's eagle in New Zealand could certainly have preyed on people.

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    2. I have heard that too. I think the problem with giant eagles supposedly having once been a threat to humans is that they could only ever really have been such a threat in New Zealand, and New Zealand is pretty much the last place on earth to have been actually colonised by humans. Unless you a Maori your ancestors will never have had to worry about eagles...unless you want to go 3 million years back or whenever it was the Taung child is thought to have lived. In which case you might as well go all the way back to the common ancestor we share with rabbits and have done with it. ;)

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    3. @noisms

      Hey, some stuff runs really deep. Like any software instincts build on older instincts, some of which will stay on as a legacy long after it's needed.

      Heck, the reason we as a species suffer from hiccups is 'cos of a gill clearing reflex that our particular evolutionary thread hasn't really needed since before the Devonian period.

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  3. Big cats.
    I mean, I live with a feline, but only because it's small.

    It is not domesticated -though it's not feral either- and often by its habits I am reminded: here is a small *creature* that lives in the same artificial cave I do.

    Sure, Bast is great. "Working" farm cats are worth their weight in gold. I love kitties... but the large cat mouth and teeth shapes *have evolved* to slip cleanly between our neck vertebrae for easy kills from behind and above. Also, you can't stare them down like a wolf, nor walk calmly away in a perpendicular direction like a bear. And the fossil record shows hundreds of thousands of years of humans killed by them. Wolf calls are beautiful in most circumstances, but the puma shriek always makes my nervous system panic (like birds and bunnies when the hawk shrieks).
    Popular media perhaps renders them as a precocious and beautiful or some such, and it's a go-to for non-threatening and noble humanoids (Thundercats HO!).... but I will assert this is an illusion propped up by lack of close proximity. People (who aren't ranchers) will argue about the need of reintroducing wolves to vary tracks of North American wilderness where they were hunted out of, but nearly no one wants to live next to cougars. They will will eat you. They will hunt your children while you hike beside them. Lion and Tiger rule the lands they dwell in not because they manage and maintain those lands as a wolf pack might, but because they can kill any other creature that lives there (except maybe an adult elephant).

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    1. I was also going to bring big cats up. There's a particularly good Howard passage about them:
      "In reality he was almost as much like a bear in build, save for his unmistakably feline head. Sabre-tooth was massive-limbed, with a low-hung, great, heavy body, and he vanished from the earth because he was too terrible a fighter, even for that grim age. As his muscles and ferocity grew, his brain dwindled until at last even the instinct of self-preservation vanished. Nature, who maintains her balance in such things, destroyed him because, had his super-fighting powers been allied with an intelligent brain, he would have destroyed all other forms of life on earth. He was a freak on the road of evolution organic development gone mad and run to fangs and talons, to slaughter and destruction."

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    2. I think you are certainly right in the sense that big cats are terrifying but I think our long association with the domestic cat has spoiled them as a source of villain races. Put bluntly, we have too many cultural preconceptions about 'Tiddles' now.

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  4. I'd disagree with some of your points here; bears, in particular, seem to have held a long fascination for humans. They're very popular totem animals, and their skins are badges of status for both Norse champions (in their bear-sarks!) and modern guardsmen. I'd say they're right up there with the wolf as an awe-inspiring animal.

    Think of Beowulf ("Bee-wolf", so "bear") or Bodvar Bjarki (the prototype for Beorn: http://hobgoblinry.blogspot.com/2019/08/a-spotters-guide-to-beorn.html).

    I reckon the bear is right up there with the wolf as a source of terror; Paul Trout argues fairly convincingly that the first gods were propitiated predators, and there are lots of bear-gods and bear-heroes.

    But the bear is also more admired than the wolf. That's probably because an individual bear is a much greater threat to even an armed man than an individual wolf - and less easily driven off if it wishes you ill - but also often content to go about its own business and less of a threat to herds and flocks.

    Sharks and crocodiles seem to be fairly common gods/totem animals/bogeymen in areas where they occur, so I'm not sure that they weren't encountered frequently during our evolution. They're just more tightly geographically concentrated than wolves and bears.

    I do like your top three plus ape, though. If we take the archetypal RPG monster - the orc - and go to its source (Tolkien), we find an ape-like creature that is associated with snakes, wolves, and spiders. Orcs are likened to apes several times in The Lord of the Rings - not least by each other! - and their fast movements are compared to snakes a couple of times (in Moria and Cirith Ungol). On top of that, they fight alongside "wyrms" in The Silmarillion, have a sort of relationship with Shelob in LotR and both ally with and ride wolves.

    It's interesting too (well, to me at least!) that the original wolf-riders (the troll-women of the Eddas) use snakes for reins.

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    1. You should take a minute to read this link -- best thing I've ever read on bears, and a wonderful glimpse into the mindset of archaic humans with respect to bears:

      https://charlierussellbears.com/LinguisticArchaeology.html

      "And speaking of habits, there is also a suggestion that the original PIE word for bear, *rkso- (or its variants) is itself descriptive, meaning "destroyer (perhaps of beehives)", because a cognate word in Sanskrit is "rakshas", meaning "harm, injury". If the bear's standard PIE name did mean "destroyer", we can see why it would not have been used lightly by anyone familiar with the bear, for fear it might inspire or encourage the bear's destructive tendencies. Even today, we need only think of Yellowstone and Yosemite parks, and the shambles of a Ford or Toyota after a bear has torn it apart in a search for food, to know that "The Destroyer" is still an aptly descriptive moniker."

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    2. What a terrific link! Many thanks!

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    3. @Picador
      Interssting article but I see small problem. "Bär" (ger. bear) is not the source for Berlin.
      The name of the German capitol comes from an old slavic word (all the land beyond the Elbe-River was slavic in the 10th century) meaning swamp or bog.

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    4. Are bears and wolves really more common in humanities evolutionary history than sharks and crocodiles? I think that might be a western bias based on how Europe having more lions and bears.

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    5. The thing about bears is that while they are undoubtedly admired and thought of as totemic, they don't really occupy the "evil" space in the way that wolves, snakes and spiders do in folklore. Or so it seems to me anyway.

      On the snakes and crocodiles point, my feeling is that most humans wouldn't encounter sharks at all and even those living on the coast would encounter them rarely. The same is true for crocodiles and major rivers. And while wolves may not have been common in Africa, say, there are plenty of species of big canines on the continent, as well as things that look like big canines (such as hyenas).

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    1. I know hyenas are not particularly closely related to wolves but I feel as thought the occupy the same sort of "headspace", if you know what I mean.

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  6. [snakes]
    I believe snakes are in a class of their own; I dare say human mythology has more monstrous serpents than wolves, spiders and apes combined.

    [making monsters]
    A good way to make an original monster menacing is to invert the values associated with an unthreatening animal. Take Zzarchov Kowolski's The Pale Lady: the "orcs" of the module are giant humanoid rabbits. Instead of being timid and docile, they're cruel and malevolent but with that herbivore dumbness. I found them more creepy and unsettling than anything else in the LotFP catalogue.

    I'm sure you could pull off the same effect with doves, mice, cows, and so on. Imagine coming upon a bloody-mouthed sheep chewing on a dead wolf.

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    1. You are probably right about the snakes.

      I love the idea of the orc-rabbits and I am using sheep-monsters for my current project. There is something really sinister about sheep faces and particularly their eyes.

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    2. Little known fact: hares do scavenge dead meat.

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    3. Woah, very cool. I knew deer will scavenge carrion, but had never heard that about rabbits.

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    4. Rabbits will also kill stoats and weasels given the chance. This was even on "Springwatch" once.

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  7. There was a survey some years back regarding people's willingness to veer their vehicle onto a highway shoulder to run over a decoy snake, spider, or turtle.
    https://gizmodo.com/roadkill-experiment-shows-that-six-percent-of-drivers-a-5927083
    The experimenter found that something like 6% of drivers would go out of their way to kill something, but noted that the percentage dropped to 2.8% if you took the spiders out of the equation. He didn't address any disparity regarding snake-killers. I'd assume that they were more unloved than turtles, but apparently not so much so as to merit his comment.

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    1. How big were the decoy spiders that people could even notice them while driving???

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    2. I bet you could spot a tarantula on a lighter road surface in bright sunlight.

      When I'm driving in western PA. during rainy nights in late spring I can see frogs and toads trying to cross the road. Of course they hop in a distinctive way and get lit up by headlights. But they're roughly tarantula sized.

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    3. Another detail not provided, but as BigFella notes, they were probably large tarantula-sized. That's actually a pretty common size for novelty rubber spiders.

      I think running over a turtle is a pretty vile thing to do, but given the prevalence of phobias, I'd imagine that a lot of the snake/spider killers really thought they were doing a civic duty.

      Also, running over small animals apparently a common "tradition" as old as motoring (a machine age equivalent to all the medieval "blood sports" like setting fire to cats, and such). I recall a passing reference to it in The Grapes of Wrath.

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    4. Haha. I think this can only be proved by experiment. I'll see if I can track down a rubber spider.

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  8. Hippos, despite being terrifyingly dangerous, seem not to be very well-represented among the villainous creatures. Perhaps it is their roundness which makes us inclined to consider them more jovial than fearsome, or perhaps we are simply missing out on a lot of evil hippo-people since we mostly consume media inspired by temperate regions.

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    1. I wanted to bring up Hippos too. They are literally terryfining.
      Incedibly territorial, fast enough to run down Usian Bolt, and I once saw a video of a Hippo fending of a pride of lions, by f***ing ignoring them until it reached water. Can you imagin fighting somthing that ignores half a donzened great cats biting it, and slashing it with claws? And now imagin there a dozend of his friends around.

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    2. Hippos sort of look as though they are smiling because of the shape of their jaws. Notice it the next time you see footage of one. They inescapably strike us as benevolent.

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    3. Hippos are scary as fuck. IIRC they were pretty much the only animal that was able to successfully defend its territory from pre-modern humans.

      I mean snakes are scary snd all but people didn't go "fuck it, I'm not going to go farm that fertile farmland because snakes live there" but some fertile riverside areas went uninhabited by humans because they were full of terrifying hippos.

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  9. The big exception seems to be livestock, animals that we live alongside but rarely connect with. I believe you posted about pigs a few months back, them being the best example. Besides apes, it feels like pigs are the best other in the animal kingdom, holding up a mirror while providing a threat.

    Goats are good fodder for monsters, obviously, though usually just borrowing the sharp bits, I think there's still room for hordes of sheep people with cacophonous bleating and dead eyes.

    Oh and the octopus lovecrafts favorite, points for being alien and intelligent.

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    1. Those are good points.

      The goat one is interesting, because immediately one starts thinking of Satan. Why is the Devil goat-like?

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    2. Oh that's an easy one. Rising Christian Church wanted to bash on a popular pagan character: Bacchus/Satyr, for obvious reasons.

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    3. Also, if there's one thing art history has taught me, if something could represent phallic imagery, at some point it was explicitly used as such. The horns indicate lust in both pagan and Christian symbolism, with different connotations.

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    4. I also think the Biblical analogy of our heavenly shepherd sorting the sheep from the goats, which at the time was meant to be an understandable metaphor for a predominantly herding culture, wherein the sheep were the "keepers" and the goats were the ones who were going to Hell kinda freighted an otherwise intelligent and personable animal with demonic connotations.

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    5. The Biblical explanation of sheep/goats makes more sense to me. Bacchus and satyrs surely wouldn't have been relevant to the medieval Christian church, certainly not in Northern and Western Europe?

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  10. Crawly, stingy things that we can walk on inadvertently and fearsome beasts that remind we're not always apex...

    Now, think about the extinct megafauna!

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    1. The Moa - basically giant chickens - are the stuff of nightmares to anybody who knows what utterly and implacably evil bastards chickens are.

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    2. Of course they are, chickens are non-extinct dinosaurs.

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    3. Yep. I was reminded by this just last month staying at a working farm owned by friends who keep about 30 chickens free range on the property. Chickens are beaked compsognathuses basically.

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  11. I know nothing of the evil of chickens, but would like to learn!

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  12. No mention of Goats?

    From Satyrs to depictions of the Devil, the Goat and Ram can be made out to appear pretty darn scary. In addition, though I personally find them adorable, goats can be a royal pain in the butt. They will eat literally anything, can leap all but the highest fences, and will randomly slam their little horned heads into people, buildings, and objects.

    Goats be crazy!

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  13. What about rats and bats? They crawl or fly in the night, they screech, they eat your food or your blood, and they look like they are laughing at you while doing so.

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