Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Ten

The End of the Cryptid

I'm looking for the monster of the twenty-first century. By using the Cat in the Hat's process of calculatus eliminatus, I hope to strike one type of monster off the list.

The Gill-man from Creature from the Black Lagoon is a cryptozoological monster and one of the first new Universal monsters of the 1950s. By the time the movie was released in 1954, supernatural monsters were being displaced by scientific monsters. There are probably several reasons for that. I would chalk it up to the scientific and technological advances of World War II, the coming of the flying saucers, and the postwar popularity of science fiction, among other things. In any case, the Gill-man wasn't the first of his type. King Kong is also a cryptozoological monster, as is Godzilla. Like so many monsters of the 1950s, Godzilla's origins are tied up with the use of atomic weapons and atomic power. More on that in the future.

Originally, monsters were from the outside. They lived in the wilderness, in dark forests, deep caves, dank jungles, dusty ruins. They inhabited all the darkened, outer places and came no closer than the edge of the firelight or lamplight. Like the monsters of old, the cryptozoological monster is a monster from the outside. The problem for him is that civilization is pressing in upon him, and he has very little power to resist. There is very little left of the outer edge. There is no outside anymore. Some monsters have adapted by entering the city gates and by passing among us. The cryptozoological monster, by his very nature, can't do that. Like the dodo and the passenger pigeon, his days are numbered.

Cryptozoological monsters had a good run for awhile. Before the 1950s, Bigfoot was kind of just a foot. Only later did he became Big. Roger Patterson shot his famous footage (or should that be Bigfootage?) in 1967. Nine years later, Bigfoot appeared in The Six Million Dollar Man (featuring a character who, like Bob Heironimus, the guy in the ape suit in Patterson's film, had an artificial eye). In 1987, Bigfoot starred in his own movie, Harry and the Hendersons. Like E.T. (1982), he had become a child's friend rather than a menacing monster. By then we were beginning to recognize the limits of the monster's powers and to lament the loss of something vital or necessary in our lives. Lost Worlds are called that because they are hidden, secret, lost from the outside world. We might also call them lost because they are disappearing, a thing of the past, a subject for nostalgia.

There were other cryptid monsters in the 1970s. The outsized great white shark from Jaws (1975) is an obvious example. There were two sequels to Jaws, plus lots of other movies trying to cash in on its success. They included, from 1976: Eaten Alive (crocodile), Grizzly (an 18-foot-tall bear), Rattlers (rattlesnakes), and Squirm (worms); from 1977: Day of the Animals, Empire of the Ants, Kingdom of the Spiders, Orca: The Killer Whale, The Pack (feral dogs), and Tentacles (octopus); and, from 1978: Piranha, and, in a sign that the trend was coming to its end, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. You might say the animal-attack movies of the 1970s were related to environmentalism and a new ecological consciousness (again, a feeling that something was lost), but the fan of cryptozoology can claim them as well.

In the 1920s and '30s, Aldo Leopold began developing the concept of wilderness. Today we have areas designated as wildernesses in our national parks and forests. I like the idea of wilderness, but it seems strange to me that a wilderness has become a geographic unit rather than an actuality. After all, doesn't a true wilderness draw a line around you rather than the other way around? To put it another way, we exist at the pleasure of a true wilderness, not vice versa. If the cryptozoological monster is a creature of the wilderness, then it, too, has been circumscribed. Like Harry from Harry and the Hendersons, it can no longer be a threat and is no candidate for the monster of our times.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

No comments:

Post a Comment