Monsters and other imaginary animals have been conjured up by a wide range of cultures. Can their popularity be explained, and can their properties be predicted? These were long-standing questions for structuralist or cognitive anthropology, as well as literary studies and cultural evolution. The task is to solve the puzzle raised by the popularity of extraordinary imaginary animals, and to explain some cross-cultural regularities that such animals present—traits like hybridity or dangerousness. The standard approach to this question was to first investigate how human imagination deals with actually existing animals. Structuralist theory held that some animals are particularly “good to think with.” According to Mary Douglas's influential hypothesis, this was chiefly true of animals that disrupt intuitive classifications of species—the “monsters-as-anomalies” account. But this hypothesis is problematic, as ethnobiology shows that folk classifications of biological species are so plastic that classificatory anomalies can be disregarded. This led cognitive anthropologists to propose alternative versions of the “monsters as anomalies” account. Parallel to this, a second account of monsters—“monsters-as-predators”—starts from the importance of predator detection to our past survival and reproduction, and argues that dangerous features make animals “good to think with,” and should be overrepresented in imaginary animals. This article argues that both accounts understand something about monsters that the other account cannot explain. We propose a synthesis of these two accounts that attempts to explain why the two most characteristic aspects of monsters, anomalousness and predatoriness, tend to go together.

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