Saturday, August 30, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Nine

The Creature, The Cryptozoologist, and Lost Worlds

In 1954, Universal Pictures released Creature from the Black Lagoon and a new monster was born. Filmed in 3-D (a response to the vast popularity of television), the movie was so successful as to spawn two sequels, Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). Creature from the Black Lagoon was also novelized by John Russell Fearn no less, under his pseudonym Vargo Statten. By the time Aurora Plastics issued its line of monster models in the 1960s, The Creature, also called the Gill-man in the movies, had reached a status equal to that of the classic Universal monsters. Today he is the only Universal monster of the 1950s to be part of that same pantheon. Or should that be panmonstrum . . . ?


The Mummy is one of the undead and embodies undying fears, that the dead will live again, that they will walk among us, prey upon us, and perhaps take their revenge upon us. Ghosts, vampires, and zombies are of course also among the undead. Dracula and The Wolfman (i.e., the werewolf) are supernatural in origin and date from at least the Middle Ages. A relative latecomer, Frankenstein's Monster is a monster of science and at the same time a monster of the Gothic romance (as well as one of the undead.) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came later still. Mr. Hyde is a monster of science or of the semi-science of psychology. He also falls into the category of the degenerate human or beast-man. The Phantom of the Opera is a kind of madman and might also be explained by science. Finally, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a monster in the original sense of the word, that is, a deformed person, thus no monster at all. The Creature from the Black Lagoon is altogether different. He is without a doubt a monster of science, but that science was a new one for the twentieth century.

Cryptozoology is the science--more accurately pseudoscience--of unknown animals. Unknown animals range from the quite real--for example, the okapi, which was not known to science until 1901--to the ridiculous, such as the chupacabra. There is a wide range in the type of people who look for unknown animals as well. Some are scientists. Others are crackpots. The field of cryptozoology was in fact founded by men of science. Anton Cornelis Oudemans (1858-1943) is considered the father of cryptozoology, a judgment based on the primacy of his book The Great Sea Serpent (1892). Bernard Heuvelmans (1916-2001) and Ivan T. Sanderson (1911-1973) were among the prominent cryptozoologists of the twentieth century. In fact, the term cryptozoology was coined by one or the other of them. All three men were trained as zoologists and distinguished in their work.

There have always been unknown animals. In the Age of Exploration, cartographers would mark unknown lands with the words "Here Be Monsters." Even into the twentieth century, parts of the earth remained unexplored. As late as 1920s or '30s, there was still a chance that unexplored regions would hold large fauna, or--in the popular imagination--even relict dinosaurs or prehistoric mammals. In the literature of fantasy, those unexplored places of earth became known as Lost Worlds. In hidden and unreachable valleys or plateaus, beyond high and impassable mountains, at the earth's poles, and even beneath the earth's surface, Lost Worlds awaited discovery. I don't think it's any coincidence that cryptozoology and the Lost Worlds genre date from about the same period, that is, to the end of the Age of Exploration and to the beginnings of the Age of Science. (1, 2)

The Age of Exploration continued into the twentieth century as Roald Amundsen, Richard E. Byrd, and other men penetrated into the heart of the last unknown places on earth. On a more popular level, Frank Buck made a name for himself as a collector of animals from exotic places. Like the Universal monsters, he even teamed up with Abbott and Costello in Africa Screams (1949). The Lost Worlds genre and the related genres of safari, jungle, and South Seas adventure thrived during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, even as the world was shrinking. During World War II, American servicemen and merchant sailors were stationed in the South Pacific, New Guinea, the Philippines, Africa, and Latin America. They brought back with them indelible memories of the tropics. James Michener wrote of those places. His book Tales of the South Pacific, published in 1947 and winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1948, opens with an unforgettable passage:
I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description.
In the postwar, Tiki culture, a kind of kitsch, but still popular today, spread across the land. Les Baxter, Arthur Lyman, and Martin Denny set the exotic to music (and if you have never listened to Exotica, you should--you won't regret it). Under the title South Pacific, Michener's book was adapted to Broadway, then to the silver screen. (3) Other entertainment set in lower latitudes included King Solomon's Mines (1950), The African Queen (1951), Beat the Devil (1953), Mogambo (1953), The Naked Jungle (1954), Watusi (1959), Hatari! (1962), The Naked Prey (1965), Born Free (1966), and The Pink Jungle (1968). On television, there was Tarzan (1966-1968) and of course Gilligan's Island (1964-1967). (4)

That's a long way to go to get to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, but it seems to me that the movie was drawn from a stew of ingredients and not just from Universal monsters and the post-war ascendancy of science fiction. The Creature from the Black Lagoon inhabits a Lost World in miniature. The people searching for him are scientists, more specifically, cryptozoologists. The Gill-man himself is a cryptozoological creature (or cryptid) and a relic from an earlier age. Like Bigfoot, he is bipedal and has a level of intelligence that approaches the human. Also like Bigfoot, he lives on the edges of human habitation. The implication is that his world will become smaller and smaller, finally to disappear before the advance of civilization. In the end the Gill-man is a tragic creature. Like King Kong (who also comes from a Lost World), he is drawn to and ultimately killed by his attraction to a beautiful woman. (5)

I have made a list of ingredients that went toward the making of Creature from the Black Lagoon. Take what you like from it. In addition to Universal monsters, postwar science fiction, and the effects of television on moviemaking of the 1950s, it includes: jungle adventure, safari adventure, South Seas adventure, pulp fiction or a general pulp sensibility, the genre of Lost Worlds, science and pseudoscience, the Age of Exploration, animal collecting √† la  Frank Buck and Ivan T. Sanderson, men's adventure out of the pulps and out of World War II, Tiki, Exotica, and even Abbott and Costello (6). Few who saw the movie at the time would have known anything about cryptozoology, but that's part of the mix, too.

To be continued . . .

(1) In its entry on "Lost Worlds," the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction lists some works in that genre. Some of the earliest: Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne (1863); The Coming Race by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1871); Atlantis, The Antediluvian World by Ignatius Donnelly (1882); King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard (1885); The Phantom City: A Volcanic Romance (1886) and A Queer Race: The Story of a Strange People (1887) by William WestallA Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James de Mille (1888); The Aztec Treasure House: A Romance of Contemporaneous Antiquity by Thomas Janvier (1890); and of course The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle (1912), which lent its name to the genre. I would add Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, from 1915.
(2) It might be more accurate to say the Age of Pseudoscience or the Age of Scientism.
(3) There is even a lost world of sorts in South Pacific. Bali Ha'i calls to you.
(4) Maybe you can include McHale's Navy (1962-1966) and Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980) in that category as well. As for literature, it seems like there was less to read than to watch. Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) wrote of Africa of course. So did Robert Ruark (1915-1965). I'm not sure who else to put on that list.
(5) One of the highlights of Creature from the Black Lagoon is the underwater photography of the female stand-in, Ginger Stanley, a swimmer of extraordinary power, beauty, and grace.
(6) To promote the film, the Creature appeared with Abbott and Costello on live television on The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1954. I guess you could call that another team-up.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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