Little green water goblins are still illustrated on signs in some Japanese towns to warn visitors of the creatures notorious for drowning humans in the rivers they inhabit.
These characters of Japanese folklore would reach into their victims’ anuses to pull out their livers, leaving them to be swallowed by the water.
Yet as Michael Foster, guest curator of the “Monsters!” exhibit at Mathers Museum of World Cultures, looked at the cute trinket of the kappa on the shelf of his room one day during his time in Japan, he was both intrigued and perplexed by the contrast between the gruesome traditional tale and the modern image of the kappa, he said.
This contrast and this creature were what sparked his interest in the supernatural, the mysterious and the monstrous, Foster said.
The “Monsters!” exhibit at Mathers, which will run until Dec. 18, is the product of Foster’s research of the monstrous. In the exhibit, the folk monster that began his interest — the kappa — makes an appearance through statuettes, keychains and figurines.
Beside the kappa trinkets is a blue robe adorned with the image of a dragon and a papier-mache figure from Mexico, endearingly referred to by the Mathers staff as the chicken dragon. To the front, a wall is covered in masks — all from different cultures — that contrast with a werewolf donning Western clothes in the middle of the exhibit.
Matthew Sieber, manager of exhibitions, said the main focus of the exhibit is this variance in culture and the ways by which different cultures converge and diverge in their portrayals of monsters.
“I think the differences between monsters of different cultures are just the specific monsters,” Sieber said. “The similarities, I think, are greater. The first reason for this is the shared fears we all have that engage with the people of a specific culture.”
Foster said these monsters are also similar in that they cannot fit into normal patterns of categorization and, as a result, possess a feeling of otherness.
“When we see something different, we ‘other’ it,” Foster said. “We make it into a monster, which I think is a mechanism in many different cultures. We are similar in how we deal with things we don’t understand in the world.”
The reason for this universal otherness, Foster said, is rooted in how every culture must grapple with comprehending and confronting the world despite things that may not neatly fit into common understanding.
“We all live in a world where nature does things we can’t understand, so we look for agency within the things that happen around us,” he said. “We look for causality and reason, and when we can’t find a reason that fits our worldview, we posit some other outside force that can be scary. That, I think, is how monsters are born.”
Sieber said this otherness contributes to the fear we feel when facing monsters.
“Monsters represent the deepest fear people have,” Sieber said. “It’s a very personal thing because it is the personification of your fears, of the unknown.”
Despite this fear, Foster said people are still drawn to monsters because they mean more than the initial fear and disgust — they represent a challenge and a concept of the future.
“I think people want to be challenged,” Foster said. “It’s fear, but there is also this beautiful possibility in it. It’s such an attractive idea to think that there’s so much more in the universe that we can’t understand. So in a way, I think the monster represents the future and new understanding. It represents the possibility of something new, something beyond what we have.”