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Under what circumstances could a civilization that was roughly 100 years in advance of present day American society have a strong cultural awareness of "monsters" that included myths and legends, and various taboo about areas that the creatures were said to inhabit, or things that you should avoid doing in order not to attract them, but have little or no scientific data on the creatures themselves?

I'm envisioning a situation where a creature of some form exists, and parents warn their children about it in the form of fairytales, or act as if it is a cautionary take used to warn children about everyday dangers. Yet the society is fully aware that the creatures are real, and there is no official denial of their existence. Attacks by them are reported on the news in the same way that a bear attack might be treated in our world, and people do things like admonishing their neighbors for breaking certain taboo in the same way that someone in our world might tell a neighbor to secure their garbage cans to stop animals getting in.

But for reasons yet to be determined the creatures are treated as if it were folklore. Research on them is conducted by Sharman\Wiseman like figures, they are discussed on conspiracy websites. Little or no scientific research has ever been done on them.

I want to avoid ideas with religious or spiritual overtones.

The community in which this occurs is a colony that was set up several generations ago, it is left open whether they migrated from another region or another planet.

This is primarily to explain why an advanced civilisation might be geographically isolated and living in small communities surround by dense woodlands.

The creatures are rare and elusive, and while they are dangerous they don't represent an existential threat to the people's existence. They are like ... bears in Alaska, if bears were treated like bigfoot by local people.

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    $\begingroup$ Until I read 'I want to avoid ideas with religious or spiritual overtones', I wanted to comment that it sounds like religious business as usual, pretty much anywhere $\endgroup$
    – crizzis
    Mar 27 at 20:36
  • $\begingroup$ Are they supernatural? $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Mar 28 at 8:21
  • $\begingroup$ They are flesh and blood living creatures, but spoken of as if they were phantoms. $\endgroup$ Mar 28 at 11:17
  • $\begingroup$ Right, so they can't have supernatural powers? $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Mar 28 at 12:26
  • $\begingroup$ No powers, they're the local equivalent of bigfoot. $\endgroup$ Mar 28 at 12:55

21 Answers 21

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They just don't show up that often.

It's not even that weird. Giant Squid and Colossal Squid are two different species which we've seen, have videos of, even have cadavers of. And we know next to nothing about them that isn't speculation.

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It is against the law to use government funds to study these monsters.

https://www.wired.com/story/cdc-gun-violence-research-money/

For all the obsession that Americans have with guns, the country has awful little scientific data to show for it. In 1996, Congress passed a law with a provision known as the Dickey Amendment that effectively prohibited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using its life-saving budget to study gun violence. As a result, for decades the US has not thrown its full resources at the problem the way it has with, say, tobacco or car crashes.

People in the US definitely know about gun violence and especially mass murders with guns. They are in the news every month, at least. There are "shooter" drills at schools. Workplaces have advice about what to do if a shooter shows up; on one of these at my workplace is an icon of people fighting a shooter with a cell phone, a stapler and a trash can.

But despite the deaths, in the US there are laws against using government funds to study gun violence. There is consequently very little scientific understanding of what is happening and why.

So it is with your monsters. They kill people. Everyone knows it. There is word of mouth advice and ad hoc procedures to try to steer clear of the monsters. But there is no scientific study because it is against the law. They do not want to understand their monsters just as in the US we do not want to understand ours.


It is impossible to even write the term "gun violence" without immediate negative reaction by some parties. This is why there is the law. But it is possible to use science fiction to comment on the real world in ways that concrete thinkers will not perceive to be relevant to their interests. I am afraid I am outing you and your very clever scifi commentary concept. Good luck!

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  • $\begingroup$ Legislation like that doesn't completely stop research though. Just going to Google Scholar and typing in "gun violence america" returns >1000 articles post-1996 (cannot get complete count on mobile), even if they may not have CDC funding. Looking at the abstracts those seem to be about the topic as well, and not just mentioning it. $\endgroup$ Mar 27 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ @user2352714 - agreed as regards our world. The real world example was for proof of concept: governmental barriers to research for sociopolitical reasons. It does not take much imagination to think of changes in our own world which would make such research more difficult or nearly impossible.. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Mar 27 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ To someone who recognizes the difference between mechanical devices and biological systems, it defies logic that anyone would think that the CDC should have anything to do with guns. The law is merely requiring that funds intended for control and prevention of diseases actually get spent on something relevant to that mission. It is not a (barrier for political reasons) to research, it is a barrier to (siphoning of research funds for political reasons). There are several branches of the government that might be tasked to study gun violence; it is self-evident that the CDC is not one of them. $\endgroup$
    – Ben Voigt
    Mar 29 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ @BenVoigt - in case you are curious what the CDC does, you can start here: cdc.gov/about/organization/mission.htm $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Mar 29 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ I do believe the barriers you mentioned in reply to @user2352714 should be a part of the answer. Otherwise you have an example which actually disproves the answer as it shows that lack of government funding does not prevent scientific research. The answer would also benefit from mentioning possible reasons why would there be a law limiting government funding for the research of these creatures. As it is now, the core answer is basically one sentence and the rest is the CDC example. By addressing the two points I mentioned, you could expand the core answer. $\endgroup$
    – user31389
    Mar 29 at 21:19
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They're considered potentially sentient... by a few cranks.

Your people are colonists, not invaders. They are peaceful people who are definitely not stealing and terraforming the homeworld of another species, even one with primitive technology.

In order to preserve their clean conscience, and avoid any untoward bureaucratic issues with their settlements, it is best not to harass any local wildlife that shows occasional signs of inspiration such as ambushing tourist busses or playing with valves on pipelines. These are just noble beasts, occasionally playful or curious, which one should be careful to stay clear of. There is a plan to study them when sufficient resources are available, but first the natural ecosystem should be preserved outside the settlements. They'll get back to you about the timeline.

Those who investigate such beasts on their own should be viewed as loose cannons, harassers of the natural ecosystem, accused of cruelty in their interactions with wildlife, risking desensitizing the wildlife to contact with civilization and therefore putting others at risk, in pursuit of a fringe theory based on rank speculation.

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  • $\begingroup$ Better yet: scientific study is actively discouraged until they can find a way to do it non-invasively. Blah blah blah prime directive. $\endgroup$
    – Zags
    Mar 30 at 0:37
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Science and real-world logic is your friend here

Science and skepticism go hand in hand. Also, even in our modern world, superstition is very much a thing, and old superstitions can become cultural practices over time. Especially when breaking tradition and entering the forbidden woods around the village results in people either never coming back or coming back traumatized and telling crazy stories.

Think about it this way; IRL people believed in all sorts of monsters, but as time went on, most of us became skeptical and outright disbelieving of monsters. If cryptids do exist, natural skepticism, difficulty in finding any monster evidence, the relative rarity of monster encounters, and so on make it so most of us don't believe in them. I can't speak for everyone, but I know for a fact most of us Westerners like certain proof before we believe in things like pixies and goatmen!

And from this we can conclude:

  • Just like in real life, wildlife will be rarely seen in civilization. There's just not a lot of animals in the city, because most animals avoid people and don't like being in our altered environments, and those that don't have that problem are pretty dang good at escaping notice. In other words, monsters will be in areas people don't spend much time in or be extremely evasive.

- People are adverse to danger. There's not exactly a lot of people who are willing to get into a wild animal's space, let alone take a job involving a substantial risk of death, so if we take a page from the Monster Hunter game series and assume that these monsters are dangerous and relatively widespread outside settled areas, and that they attack anyone dumb enough to enter their territory (see below), not many people will come back from jobs requiring one to enter monster territory, and those that do will likely sound crazy and have little to no evidence that they're telling the truth.

I mean, come on, what kind of person is going to have the presence of mind to collect a biological sample and bring it back to civilization, let alone the means? No, far more likely survivors ran for it with their lives intact but not much else-which will be expensive to pay off, as I'm sure corporations will demand recompense for lost and destroyed equipment.

And plus, who would be stupid enough to study something that kills everyone that goes near it?

  • Natural selection will also play a role. If the monsters that avoid towns, cities, really just groups of people survive better than the ones that don't, modern monsters will instinctively avoid human civilization. Additionally, if being hostile to those humans who do enter their territory aids in survival, chances are it'll become a near-universal if not totally universal monster trait. And that will totally happen, because if people can survive a monster encounter, they'll realize the monsters are beatable and kill them off, but if no one seems to come back alive or sane from such-and-such area.....

TL;DR: people are adaptive, but they are also smart enough to pick up on patterns. If bad things seem to happen to one's health or sanity when one enters the wilderness, and attempts to expand go wrong, they'll stay where they are because it's safe. And for the monster's part, if bad things happen to monsters that enter civilization and get noticed by humans, they'll adapt to avoid humans. In conclusion, the conflict between species will likely cause both sides to avoid the other!

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  • $\begingroup$ "wildlife will be rarely seen in civilization" - squirrels, raccoons, boars and other stuff disagrees. And many other animals are scared of humans because we are large or hunted them to extinction. "People are adverse to danger" Most. Others try to cross Antarctica on foot before radios or rescue planes are available. For science. $\endgroup$
    – Caesar
    Mar 29 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Caesar: these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Monsters, like most animals, will be avoid humans because they're dangerous and surround themselves with unnatural environments, and the few crazies who encounter monsters for science aren't likely to be taken seriously, in my humble opinion. $\endgroup$
    – Alendyias
    Mar 30 at 1:33
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Heisenbugs

In software development, a Heisenbug is a bug or glitch that refuses to happen when you're looking for it.

It's a pun-name based on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics where observation of a particle changes its behaviour.

Your monsters are somewhat similar. When attempts are made to study them, they simply don't appear, or operate differently.

  • The demon-bear is just another bear when observed by someone attempting to study it.
  • The red-eyed dire-wolves are just wolves until you're on-foot and alone in the dark woods.
  • Bigfoot only appears to the credulous.

No deliberate attempt to study the beasts will ever turn up anything but normal and well-understood animals, but still the villages are plagued by the borderline supernatural (or actually supernatural) monsters.

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Frame challenge: This cannot happen under any circumstances

The OP says

while they are dangerous they don't represent an existential threat to the people's existence

Whether it'll kill the entire species is irrelevant. If it injures enough people to cause significant distress - and "enough" is one person! - it will always be investigated.

History shows that it doesn't matter how many cultural or religious taboos are in place when it comes to this. The extreme example is medicine, where the causes are often obscure, the effects are hard to analyse, and every society has some kind of body-contact taboos. Still, every society also has some long-standing practise of medicine, regardless of effectiveness.

In a primitive society, it is entirely possible that people would simply avoid the area with a taboo. Even taboos are data though - they would reflect knowledge of the creature's territory, abilities or hunting patterns. That knowledge may be flawed (Gerald Durrell described demonstrating to the people of Bafut that a snake they thought was particularly deadly was actually harmless) but it still reflects the people's best information available.

But the existence of a more technologically advanced society than our own requires the scientific process to be in place. This is simply a prerequisite for technology. At that point, taboos are replaced by conscious factual discussion, by definition of how this process works.

Granted that there may be risks in studying the creature, those risks are information in themselves which feeds into how you can do that studying. Pathogens such as Ebola are a useful example of this - we know just how dangerous they are, and the information about risk has been used to develop safer ways to study them. Or in environments which humans can't realistically reach/survive, such as the deep ocean or space, we've developed remote-operated and autonomous vehicles.

Subcultures of this advanced society may still have taboos, sure, in the same way as most fundamentalist religious subcultures have taboos against discussion of human reproductive biology. This does not mean that the entire society lacks that information, only that these subcultures consciously hide information as a means of controlling "their" people. And again, because a technologically-advanced society requires the scientific process, these must be subcultures. If they were in control then the society could not become technologically advanced, as amply demonstrated by Europe in the Dark Ages.

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The answer to your question depends greatly on the context surrounding the civilization therein.

On the one hand, it would be really easy for there to be detailed cultural mythos and superstitions surrounding said creatures. Just look at how people treat bears today: we make them the subject of our folktales (Goldilocks and the Three Bears), tell stories with them, yet in most cases also have a pretty healthy fear/respect for them and will do just about anything to avoid having them cross our path (bells, bear spray, etc.). Or look at how people in the Kamchatka Peninsula treat Siberian Tigers. The people there have all sorts of superstitions about tigers, such as if someone tries to poach a tiger's kill it will remember you, track you home, and make your life miserable, but how true these are is sometimes unclear. On the one hand, it would be very likely for the locals to have all sorts of superstitions about the local wildlife, especially if they rarely see them and don't know much about them.

However, at the same time it is super unlikely that no one would be studying these creatures in a scientifically rigorous manner, assuming your society is similar to present-day society in technology. To get to a modern or "100 years beyond ours" level of technology, a society needs to have an outlook that favors investigation and the scientific method, because otherwise...well they wouldn't be able to maintain their technology or at best descend into cargo cultism. But what this means is there is no way they would leave the creatures alone.

Let me put it this way, as someone who has firsthand experience with biology, biologists, and a general interest in masquerade tropes. The reason scientists generally don't believe in Bigfoot and other cryptids isn't because of any agenda or desire to believe something doesn't exist, it's because there isn't any reliable evidence. The minute anyone found a reasonably decent specimen suggesting that there was some undescribed hominid present in the woods of North America, scientists would descend on the Pacific Northwest en masse, smelling glory and easy grant money. And virtually any fictional monster would leave traces that most scientists would instantly recognize as something unusual, and therefore worth studying. Even if some pooh-poohed the idea, others would pursue it, and it only takes a few to make a breakthrough that forces the floodgates open.

What this means is, presuming your creature existed, is it would be near impossible to get scientists to not study them given the general publish-or-perish atmosphere. Which means scientists would most likely not exist in your setting.

Even if, say, your creatures were super hard to find, or could not be kept in captivity, or spontaneously decomposed upon death, there would still be people who study them. There are animals today that people have seen less than a few dozen times that people study (e.g., megamouth sharks, certain species of squirrels and opossums). Other species do not do well in captivity (e.g., great white sharks, most whales), so people stick cameras on their back. Even if they spontaneously decompose, well, sharks and soft-bodied cephalopods do that in the fossil record, and there are people who make their entire career studying fossil shark teeth.

Also note that even IRL wildlife has some mysticism and superstition about it, even in the last 100-200 years when people were studying it via the scientific method. At the turn of the 20th century amateur naturalists still spoke of "elephant graveyards" in Africa and India as if they were a real thing, though they sort of talked about it like it was more legend than truth (check out old articles from Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society for a few examples). Until 1975 almost no one knew where monarchs went during the winter, despite seeing huge swarms of them depart to the south every year.* We still don't know how great white sharks or whale sharks mate or give birth (other than they give live birth), despite these being some of the largest creatures in the ocean.

TL;DR: You're probably going to have to get rid of all scientists, as well as remove any sort of attitude favoring the scientific method among your populace. Curiosity about the natural world does not mesh with the idea of a species that is well-known in folklore but no one is interested in studying. I have no idea how you would maintain a society with a tech base 100 years beyond ours with that, though.

* - local inhabitants of the mountains of Mexico knew about them, but most Mexican biologists seemingly didn't, because it wasn't well known at the time.

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  • $\begingroup$ Taking an example from fiction there were multiple tab0oo against genetic engineering due to the Eugenics wars, and against AI in Dune and Warhammer 40K due to previous wars. The Battlestar Galactica reboot has a taboo against integrated computer systems due to the Cylon wars. In real life, we have multiple taboo against using science to explore racial differences. $\endgroup$ Mar 27 at 11:37
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    $\begingroup$ @AaarghZombies Wha...? (Anthropologists study genetic differences between ethnic groups all the time)[pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1617042114]. The problem is people frequently try and cheese their data to support whatever wonky pet theory they support, hence why there's a high standard. E.g., 10 years ago (IIRC 2006ish) there was a huge scandal when someone claimed to have found a gene related to human brain expansion that dated to the Neolithic Revolution and it turned out the researcher had cooked the books and the gene actually dated to the Late Pleistocene. $\endgroup$ Mar 27 at 15:31
  • $\begingroup$ @AaarghZombies But the Imperium and the AdMech are exactly who I was thinking of when I meant "cargo cultism". The Imperium are basically blindly aping the technology of their forebearers without understanding how it works. This would lead to a general loss of knowledge and technology over time because no one can fix what breaks. This is something mentioned repeatedly in the lore of 40k but never comes up because of Imperial plot armor. Hence, your civ would likely collapse into a hand-to-mouth existence because it can't sustain its tech base. $\endgroup$ Mar 27 at 15:38
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The monsters are the result of a failed experiment

It is hard to imagine a reason why a civilization 100 years more advanced than ours would not be able to explore everything on their planet. If some places were too dangerous for people, remotely steered or AI-controlled robots could be sent to investigate. And if religious taboos are out of the question, what remains is a political incentive to prevent research on the monsters.

The monsters used to be people, but were turned into something else due to an experimental medical treatment gone catastrophically wrong. Maybe a treatment targeted at the nervous system to cure mental illness caused the patients to run into the woods to stalk and ambush anyone who happens to pass by. Or the military tried to create super soldiers, but got psychopathic killers. Perhaps the participants or patients were even recruited to the experiment unethically based on false claims. If people knew how the monsters came to be, heads would fall in the government. So the authorities control the media, ban all mentions of the monsters except in context of myths and impose severe punishments on those who try to find out any facts about them.

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    $\begingroup$ To generalize this answer: the government is corrupt and everyone knows it, but they cannot acknowledge it for fear or repression. Something about the monster specifically highlights the government's corruption. It could be rogue AI that never should have been programmed, genetic experiments gone wrong, or even someone faked the environmental survey, and we never should have built the colony here because its monster territory. +1 $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Mar 28 at 15:52
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They fight back.

Electronics go on the fritz. Photographs blur. People vanish, and the bodies are never found.

Many scientists are completely convinced that this is entirely natural, and that proper protections could be devised to deal. Testing is a problem however. It has been completely established that Faraday cages don't work unless so solid that you can't use them observe. Some people claim the solid ones work only because the cryptids don't care.

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The monsters are infectious to most.

The monsters have an extremely virulent disease in them which transforms humans to more of their kind. This disease has been able to bypass every filter thrown at it, and the only real sure defense is staying away from it, or burning it with fire.

These creatures retain the memories of those they infect, and try to persuade people on social media to come to them because they like the free food, claiming that they are shamans who will awaken people. People know of their existence, and know how to ward them off and avoid them mostly, but have very little information on them. There's a cultural taboo about discussing them too openly, because people who do discuss them might be them.

Attempts to study them have gone extremely badly because the monsters are technically sophisticated.

Drones, automated cameras, clockwork cameras, everything has been tried. The monsters have some knowledge of technology and are pretty good at hacking such devices and using them as infection vectors. The best guess among scientific minds is that they're some sort of very solitary alien civilization that doesn't work together well to build cities or overrun settlements but which has developed advanced technology.

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  • $\begingroup$ Lovecraftian induced insantiy from any kind of exposure to them would get around technology without their needing to understand it. You probably don't need to go as far as exposure to any information, even textual, inherently drives one insane though. Or perhaps some extreme form of primal fear or reaction is induced. Similar to an extreme form of how imagery from some Japanese horror movies can still make you feel unsettled and raise the hairs on the back of your neck even when just looking at a still frame or watching the movie in a detached haphazard way on purpose in broad day light. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 27 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ If the entities are dark gods from another dimension that would be a religious matter. I was going for a scientific explanation to correspond with OP's concerns. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Mar 27 at 19:00
  • $\begingroup$ I don't see why anything has to be a dark god at all. It only has to be enough to baffle human sensibilities. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 27 at 19:13
  • $\begingroup$ A monster that just doesn't make sense, maybe it slips through a psychological blind spot. I like that. $\endgroup$ Mar 28 at 11:20
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Any scientific investigation comes at the cost of innocent blood.

When we first found the creatures, we set out to study them with the same rigor that we would any beast. But, for every scientist, probe, or helicopter that we sent out, a dozen people in the villages died from subsequent attacks. Nothing seemed to slip past the monsters' attention, and every trespass into their domain provoked violent retribution. We couldn't stop them, either, or predict them. It might have been hours or days after each academic foray, but innocent civilians would pay the cost every single time, without fail. Worse still, the penalty rose with each infraction, until entire city blocks were laid waste over one biologist who grew too curious - or so the old tales say. Whether the monsters are highly intelligent super-beings or instinctively territorial brutes, we still don't know, but the one fact we managed to learn from all our scientific investigation was that the cost was just far, far too high. Investigation of these creatures - the epitome of selfish, scientific hubris - is now the greatest of our taboos.

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    $\begingroup$ I was going to go for a more "rare and elusive" creature not a Xenomorph like creature that presents an existential threat to kill everyone.. $\endgroup$ Mar 26 at 21:16
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Reservations:

The law predates science, and the law is clear.

Besides common social stories (vampires and light, werewolves and silver, etc.) your people came to accept the existence of "supernatural" creatures before science predominated. There could have been science, but it wasn't widely accepted as the basis of interpreting reality.

Then the isolation was established.

Your society early on designated certain forests, deserts, and plains as forbidden due to the creatures that lived there. The old traditions concerning the creatures are well known and understood, but the law is firm and a strict isolation is maintained between the natural and supernatural. Large fences and other defenses separate the areas, and the only scientific inquiry that goes on is via telescopic cameras and heat sensors. Enough evidence exists to reinforce the belief in the monsters, but not enough to provide a comprehensive scientific basis for them.

Anyone trying to enter the forbidden areas was subject to execution, assuming the things didn't get them first. It is widely accepted that a sort of covenant exists, and as long as their territory isn't violated, human territory is protected. Even the bodies of such creatures that occasionally turn up dead in rivers or stuck in barbed wire are dumped on the other side of the fence.

The law predates the science, and the law is clear.

Alternate: Isolationism/anti-colonialism

Your people view themselves as progressive, and the creatures exist in the equivalent of the new world. Because your people don't want to disrupt or destroy the real or imagined society of the monsters, they maintain a discreet distance and don't interfere with them. Diligent defenses seem to work very well. The practices around the creatures are observed as a way to respect the traditions of the native humans who were tragically wiped out by diseases in the first wave of colonization. Fear of repeating these mistakes and destroying the monsters is keeping scientific inquiry to a minimum and that is mostly passive sensors and satellite images. Areas with any evidence of the creatures is made strictly off-limits. People, though, are idiots and sometimes go where they shouldn't, so videos circulate on the internet and rumors of illegal monster fighting and rumors of monsters abducting humans for sex/food/mind control abound.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not sure anti-colonialism would be enough to keep them isolated. All it takes is one determined person to "reveal the secret" and said secret would be blown wide open. This is sort of what happened with the Zuni. Southwestern archaeology provides another good example in that while policies have changed to be more respectful of native cultures (e.g., avoiding Ancestral Puebloan remains at archaeological sites), the research never stopped and doing so is considered unrealistic by most researchers. $\endgroup$ Mar 31 at 1:31
  • $\begingroup$ @user2352714 There isn't a secret, since everyone accepts there are monsters. The question merely states that there isn't any significant scientific study of the monsters, and study on them is more like myth and mythology. Science requires reproducible and documented information and observations. In a lack of empirical data, stories and rumors will naturally fill in where people have ignorance. Besides, anticolonialism was only an alternate argument. Cultural rules predating scientific inquiry is the primary. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Mar 31 at 3:22
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They only come out when the right humans are around...

Let's say they can sense humans and are very secretive. Perhaps they can also read human minds and so, if a human approaches with scientific equipment, they tend to avoid that particular human, for fear of being inspected. They remain in their deep burrows, or perhaps, do not materialize from dead matter around those pesky, nosy humans. They only peak the vulnerable ones.

...and tend to chew those humans' heads right off

The few people that survive the encounter produce the only evidence of their existence. Perhaps some of them even managed to snap a few pictures, and eventually the mountain of evidence cannot be refuted. This is hardly enough input for scientific inquiry, and... well, scientists dislike the idea of having their heads chewed off just as much as regular folks.

This is, in fact, a reiteration of how things worked for most human history, after all. Just remember that in an Amazonian tribe, the people who warned children about jaguars were mostly precisely those people who never met a jaguar, or else there wouldn't be enough jaguar encounter survivors who could tell the tale to new generations of intrepid explorers.

In fact, the Amazonians hearing those tales did not believe ghosts existed, they knew for a fact ghosts existed, in precisely the same sense they knew for a fact that jaguars existed. Those facts were not generally challenged, regardless of whether they were actually true. People just took the 'scary stuff they told me about that I'm afraid to even investigate for myself' at face value, because disregarding those accounts would be careless, and it was better to err on the side of caution.

In fact, your scenario makes it even easier to arrive at the expected result, since it is much easier to get actual, tangible evidence of the monsters' existence using modern technology, while still not giving science enough to go on.

But I digress; it is enough to (1) leave shreds of evidence of the monsters' existence, enough to be irrefutable, but scarce enough to let rumors evolve into myth, and (2) make studying them both cumbersome and a mortal danger, and how a person with a chewed-off head looks like will remain the only scientific fact most people may ever want to know about those creatures. You just need to apply modern standards to #2, and most scientists will prefer the much less risky business of studying ladybugs' mating habits.

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The Monsters Can Pass as People

The monsters are integrated into society as people. They have co-evolved with the main population for such a long time such that they are fully documented as ordinary people going back as far as records do, maybe mostly on the margins, or mostly in areas near woods or whatever areas they frequent in the myths, but still people.

There's various options there for what the lifecycle is or how much time they spend as people vs monster. Whether it's changeable quickly at will or in response to stimulus (werewolf, etc.), or is more a like a phase they grow through or into. I vaguely remember reading a story where a scientist was trying to get past human neoteny and evolve into a human "dominant male", like other primates do. The punchline being that there is no human "dominant male" phase of growth and he triggered instead a re/pro-gression to an ape-like dominant male. The monster could be a generally missing phase of growth like that.

With only "people" involved, either through quick reversion of form, or as a societal support to cover up the reality of incidents involving monster phase individuals, it's easy to dismiss any folk stories that "everyone knows" as boogey man superstition or alien abduction style nonsense, and treat any real attacks as either a matter for ordinary criminal investigation, or a reason to call in animal control, never seeing that man/beast is a false dichotomy and there's a third "monster" option that explains the attacks.

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Evil Moses

When the people first arrived at this place, whoever ruled them stopped here because of the woods. They would likely have been thinking of ways to keep power, especially when they would no longer be needed after whatever migration had taken place. They came up with the idea of monsters, and decided to use tales of them to keep the populace in check.

However, this civilization is rather advanced, and would never fall for such a thing. To get around this, the government does not say anything about them in public. likely with little more than "That's ridiculous". Instead, they set up fake conspiracy sites where they talk about these monsters, and with their proficiency and skill, convince a large portion of the masses.

However fake 'sightings' were not good enough, so the government decided to make some 'real' ones, with actual people seeing them. They might have started out with people in costumes, and then some form of animatronics. Next its only modifying the genome of several animals,which is already done today, in a civilization 100 years advanced it will be much more commonplace, but potentially more secret, or not. This gives the monsters a reality for the people, and you may say they really are real after the ruling party(or parties) of this small state begin tampering with the genome as it suits their purpose.

The society likely stays smaller in size for the same reason--the government does not want the people to become stronger, so limits their numbers. The use of monsters fits into this, and the lack of comment on them allows the government to avert suspicion. So do the conspiracy sites, because the government refuses to take them down, which would not make sense for a government who was responsible the monsters to do from the citizen's POV.

I will also note that the small size of the Government would be necessary for their to be actual monsters, as too large of a government would have bureaucratic troubles keeping such a thing hidden, as well as starting it in the first place. Otherwise such a scheme would only ever include the fake part, if it existed at all.

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If you want a sci-fi, conspiracy theme...

The setting is a colony on a different planet, humans have encountered aliens before and it has always gone badly, leading to a deeply xenophobic population.

The government knows for a fact that the 'monsters' exist. They are in fact an alien civilisation that also shares the planet. Their cities are underground so you won't see them from flyovers and they are generally reclusive, but they are violent and hostile towards humans.

The leadership of both colonies have come to an uneasy truce, but the deal involved keeping to their own areas of the planet. The human leadership know that their citizens are deeply xenophobic and would try to mount an attack on the aliens if they knew they existed which could escalate into a much bigger confrontation, so their plan is to keep the populace ignorant and discourage any official investigations into the disappearance of the occasional hunter that crosses into alien territory and gets killed so they actively encourage any rumours of mystical monsters that will kill anyone that strays too far into the wilderness

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The monsters ‘aren't real’.

Or rather, they are, but not in the sense science considers as real.

These monsters exclusively atrack at night. They are shadow-creatures, and exist in the dream-world of the collective unconscious. Science dismisses them as nightmares... and yet there is a strange regularity to how they exhibit. People who've never met report the exact same dream sequences, where they were chased by the same creature — across cultures, the creatures are the same. Shamans question why the European dragon looks exactly the same as the Asian one, and claim it is because the creatures exist independently of our brains; psychologists, instead, think these dreams are just the brain reutilising old myths.

Science will totally ignore these creatures because there is nothing for science to grasp. At the same time, you can make the creatures have whatever effect on people that you want (light trauma all the way through to heart failure, etc.). Perhaps these creatures are ethereal, and live as a haze in some specific locations (forests, graveyards, . . .); people who live near them, or visit some of these areas, are beset the first time they go to sleep.

If you really want them to be physical creatures, make them unremarkable bugs who enter people's dreams through a bite.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hmmm... the question kind of specifically states that they are real, there's been reports of attacks in the news. etc. $\endgroup$
    – komodosp
    Mar 28 at 8:32
  • $\begingroup$ It depends on what you mean by real — perhaps my post would be better titled 'they aren't physical'. I definitely do mean them to be real, it's just you can't touch them. If people fell prey to night attacks it'd be in the news. $\endgroup$ Mar 28 at 12:24
  • $\begingroup$ There is something for science to grasp, otherwise the field of psychology would not exist. Yes, it's fraught with mysticism and p-hacking, but it's still a young field! $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Mar 29 at 11:04
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  • Science is slow Understanding the creatures might require a revolutionary scientific breakthrough or a key insight that no one in the small colony would ever think to consider. On the scale of the discovery of DNA or Calculus.

  • Science is expensive Although technologically advanced, perhaps people in the colony are culturally trained to be inventors, engineers, etc., but none are trained to do basic research in a scientifically rigorous way. Simply because of constraints of the population its needs. Possibly, the necessary tools would be so difficult to manufacture that the colony's economy cannot support it, so although the theory is understood, it is economically out of reach. (Analogy to particle accelerators, or space stations).

  • They may decay rapidly in captivity, or be impossible to take alive.

  • They may be extremely sensitive to electrical fields and any available observational technology, and going into the forest without a device or with low batteries may even be a cultural taboo because it's well known that carrying a full battery keeps you safe.

  • Emotionally unmotivated They may only appear under very specific conditions and be viewed as a non-problem under most cases, with the victims often being reasonably blamed. Either way, the problem is not worth researching. For example, perhaps they only appear when a sick/injured person charges into the forest alone without any technology with them. The common cultural response to such persons is that they were insane, stupid, or asking for it, and deserved what they got. In the same vein, in order to study the creatures, society would need to choose sick/injured persons to sacrifice. There are other ideas for why society may not feel bad for the victims or would feel bad for studying the creatures. Maybe being eaten by these creatures is pursued as a euphoric way to end life and people believe it's an enjoyable form of euthanasia. Maybe information about the creatures is a memetic horror or otherwise mentally impairs the mind, and society has agreed to protect scientists by banning study.

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The Monsters Have Powers We Project on Them

When your civilization first started getting credible reports of the monsters, they launched a full-force investigation about them, and rapidly learned new powers and abilities that the monsters had and published them in the scientific documentation... in fact, they gained these powers as quickly as we researched them. Something about the creatures taps into the knowledge and belief of those around them. Scientists, wanting to learn more, received more, and as the monsters gained new abilities, they became more widely known, and therefore more powerful. It's been decades of tracking down and burning papers, purging databanks, but we have the monsters back down to the level where they're no worse than your woodland predators. If you encounter a dragon, it's just a scaly lizard that can give you a pretty bad bite, but no one really believes the myth that they used to breathe fire... I mean look at them, they look more like Komodo Dragons, right? A bit punier than those ones, actually.

Conspiracy sites hint at something more, but not enough people really believe it, so the worst the government has to deal with is the occasional case of reminding people that Bigfoot won't actually kidnap young women and use them as breeding stock, that your daughter probably ran off with her boyfriend from Canada. That ghosts are just quirks of human brains and have nothing to do with the burial ground that used to be where the apartment complex is. And if anyone gets a little too organized or people start meeting up, you run a standard discreditation scheme on them, or arrange for the guy organizing it to be found in an unfortunate autoerotic asphyxiation accident, My-Size Chippy the Chupacabra doll sprawled out on the floor below him.

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I'm going with elements for several suggestions. Essentially it's a "vulcan ministry of science says that it's impossible" answer.

Decades ago the central bureaucracy declared them to be simply dumb animals based on erroneous early reports that got a lot of the details wrong, and for political reasons nobody wants to question this.

The local people noticed that the creatures are much more intelligent than they are supposed to be a mythology sprung up that paints the real life intelligent creatures as being separate entities from the officially recorded dumb animals.

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The monsters are intelligent, stealthy, capable of living without apparent technology, small in number and have abilities that many would exploit if they could.

The result is that they have reached an agreement with the government to help keep them out of sight. A few select people in the government know what's going on--if a serious effort were made to subjugate them an awful lot of people would die and the only way to avoid some bad actors making such an attempt is to keep people from realizing their power.

Thus there is no official funding for research and the government looks the other way when bad things happen to amateur sleuths who manage to get too close (most of them are simply avoided or their equipment messed with to make them look like crackpots.)

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