Thursday, September 22, 2016

Slowly Watching the Monsters Die Off – Jerry Chandler

I’m in my mid-forties. Among the various other things that this statement can represent, it means for this topic that I’m from the generation who was born into one of the biggest monster and paranormal mania explosions into pop culture of the last four or five decades. My elementary and junior high school libraries were stocked with “nonfiction” books about the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, ghosts, U.F.O.s, and the various compilation books looking at all the other “real” monsters and mysteries out there. Roughly a quarter or more of the selection of our school book fairs would be similar books to buy and own. Turn the TV on at any time of the day in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the odds were you’d channel surf into more than a few TV shows on cable and network television dealing with the paranormal and cryptozoology, and all of them treating the matters as if they had the scientific authenticity of a documentary on the making of the first atomic bomb.
Things got really weird when in the late 1980s and early 1990s we saw major network specials, some hosted by hosts from their news arms, covering the paranormal, cryptozoology, and U.F.O.s. It was a strange time when one looks back on it. It makes you sometimes wonder what was going on with the psyche of the population as a whole that so many absurd things were being embraced so willingly. In truth they still are in some circles, but not to the degree they once were. But the whole-scale media embrace of these things and their promotion as fact back then may have ultimately had the opposite effect of legitimizing them. As a result, we’ve spent the last two or three decades watching the monsters slowly die.

My go to example of how the unprecedented exposure begun in that era may have ultimately killed off some of the myths it was supposed to have been supporting is the Loch Ness Monster.

The first “official” sighting of the Loch Ness Monster goes back to 565 A.D. when Saint Columba supposedly stopped the creature from attacking men swimming in the water. Tales of creatures in the water by the locals go further back than that, and it may be impossible to point to a solid date of origin for the first stories of the creature. For the longest time the creature was described as serpentine. In one legend it was one of the larger snakes Saint Patrick could not drive out of Scotland, but rather chained to the bottom of the great lochs.

This changed in the 1930s when the next wave of “official” sightings took place. A couple driving home one evening claimed to have almost run into the creature on land, describing it as having a huge body and a long neck while not being able to describe the legs or feet due to the thick underbrush on the side of the road. The creature supposedly made great haste for the water and entered it with an enormous splash. Shortly after that a motorcyclist out for a ride claimed to have seen the creature on land as well, claiming to have gotten a clearer look at the creature. It was starting around the time of this series of sightings that the creature started being identified in a way to make it appear to be a form of plesiosaur. Once this description went wide in the local and regional press, a string of sightings matching the details of a plesiosaur would follow. This was also the period that gave us the long famous and now infamous “surgeon’s photo” of the creature bearing a strikingly plesiosaur-like silhouette.

That’s how the creature would continue on for the better part of the next 50 years. The plesiosaur model was firmly locked into place, and everything around the monster became anchored to that model. Certainly that became the pop culture model as over the years Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, The Tomorrow People, and a host of other British and American television and theatrical stalwarts of speculative fiction faced off against that model of the creature. When Hammer was starting its never finished Loch Ness Monster film before the shuttering of the studio it even commissioned Toho (it was intended to be a joint production) to make the plesiosaur creature for the film. Likewise, the creature appeared in books, comic books, and comic strips over the decades as essentially a plesiosaur.

It was certainly the plesiosaur model that caught the fancy of Americans in a big way in the 1970s. When the cryptozoology explosion happened, the idea of a living dinosaur surviving into modern times seemed to hook the interest of true believers young and old. Why not? Lost lands with survivors of the prehistoric age had been a classic concept of fantasy storytelling. A living dinosaur anyone could have a chance to see for the price of a week’s vacation and a plane ticket had to be the ultimate in wish fulfillment for some. It was a concept that made many people want to believe.

It was also a concept that made Nessie a star during this period. It’s interesting looking back on it how fickle stardom is even in matters like this. Loch Ness wasn’t alone in being a deep inland lake with stories of a fantastical creature swimming in its depths. It wasn’t even the only such story of such a creature like that in Scotland. But somehow Nessie became the poster child for the lake creature in a way that no other American, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, African, South American, or even other Scottish lake monsters would. Being or not being the poster child during this period would have some other interesting side effects in later decades, but I’ll get to that later.

The Loch Ness Monster became huge. Entire episodes of programs devoted to the strange and unusual might get devoted to the creature whereas the same TV series would cram any five or ten others it might get around to mentioning into one episode about lake monsters. Nessie would become the subject of specials produced not only by the less reputable companies, but even by some of the better production companies. Specials on Nessie would appear on major networks, PBS, and cable educational channels. This in turn would generate the desire for more books on the subject, and the sales figures of the books would generate more interest by television production companies to do specials on Nessie and the various other crypto creatures like the fabled beast. This era also produced “experts” on the monster who both wrote those books and appeared on those programs. Few seemed more prominent fixtures on the airwaves and the bookshelves than Roy P. Mackal.

Mackal and some of his brethren became like rock stars in the field, and everyone wanted to get them on as guests and speakers. They provided their “expert” analysis on the creature, the sightings, the photographs, and their own encounters. Over and over again they hammered home the idea of Nessie being a modern day relative of the aquatic dinosaur made famous by the plesiosaur model. They’d produce drawings of a plesiosaur-like beast as evidence, claiming them to be sketches made under the strict direction of eyewitnesses. They’d point to grainy underwater photos and explain how these shapes were exactly what one would find on a long necked, aquatic dinosaur with triangular flippers like the plesiosaur.

The bonus to this description was that it was something familiar that people could latch on to. It also, again, tapped into some form of wish fulfillment. The more the “living dinosaur” image was pushed, the greater the demand for stories about the beast. This cycle would ultimately be the death of the monster as well.

As the fame of the monster grew, real experts started to take more notice of the spectacle, and more than a few were being asked to comment on the creature for the ever growing number of program episodes and specials devoted to the mysteries of Loch Ness. As the more skeptical, science, fact, and evidence based commentators starting showing up, they brought with them questions and facts that weren’t kind to the monster hunter’s business model.

One of the smaller sticking points was the issue of food for a population of large, predatory aquatic dinosaurs. The argument about the availability of food in the loch went back and forth for years. Monster hunters would occasionally sidestep the issue by positing the idea that the creatures in the loch were not trapped there. They, so the theory went, could use rivers, even theoretical underground rivers, to travel to other lochs and even out to sea for food. Some even began to try to counter this by suggesting that the loch was a home base of sorts, an annual spawning ground for the creatures. You’d only see a larger population in the loch during certain periods of the year, and maybe the odd beastie remaining outside of that period.  

One of the bigger sticking points they threw into the mix was the fact that the family of dinosaur the monster hunters were promoting as the Nessie model was a family of air breathers. A breeding population of aquatic, air breathing dinosaurs would be like a large population of turtles in a small pond. You’d see them on the surface with far greater frequency than Nessie was known to make appearances. Even better, these were creatures that spent not an insignificant amount of time on the beaches sunning themselves or napping. Air breathers of this nature wouldn’t be a mystery as you’d be tripping over them (and running for your life from them) multiple times per day. This was a problematic fact even for the spawning ground proponents.

As the focus on Nessie increased and the commentary of scientists and marine biologists outside of the cryptozoology crew was sought with greater frequency; the nature of Nessie suddenly began a rapid evolution. The creature had been locked in the plesiosaur model from the 1930s to the 1980s. “Experts” like Campbell, Cornell, Mackal and others who had banged on about the living dinosaur, plesiosaur model for a decade or more- arguing passionately for this as fact –suddenly backed away from the plesiosaur model.

They couldn’t embrace the more skeptical or fact-based suggestions of the scientists and marine biologists though. There would be little interest and even less money in Nessie as a giant sturgeon or a family of seals passing through the loch. No, the new narrative from some quarters become Nessie as a descendent of a prehistoric whale known as a zeuglodon.  Others offered up the ichthyosaurs as a possible identity.

While each of these options certainly eliminated the issues of constant surface and beach appearances, they didn’t entirely work for two reasons. First, each of these was still an air-breathing creature. While creatures following the whale and dolphin model would theoretically not surface as often as a plesiosaur modeled creature, they’d still spend far more time surfacing and swimming visibly just under the surface than the Loch Ness Monsters was known for doing. Second, they didn’t exactly match the long-necked profile hammered home by so many monster hunters and witnesses.

Some ichthyosaurs did have a longer snout that some monster hunters cited as the “neck” of the monster. The idea being that an ichthyosaur grabbing a fish close to the surface would have its snout stick up out of the water and the effect of this with the body would match the classic monster sightings. However, it was quickly pointed out that this would be a second or less occurrence whereas many of the classic monster sightings had the monster supposedly swimming along leisurely with a very visible head turning and craning on a bendable, serpent-like neck.

This resulted in the same monster hunters who had claimed sightings on video and in print- sometimes very adamantly standing by their descriptions of a long-necked dinosaur –changing their stories. The same Nessie “experts” who held up pictures of plesiosaurs over the years and emphasized the living dinosaur model were now holding up pictures of an essentially no-necked whale with a bulbous body and diamond shaped flippers. They were also backing their new theory for the identity of the monster by pointing out that it fit the Nessie model if you looked at the “credible sightings” and “facts” around the sightings and the science.

The problem with this for everyone but the most hardcore believers was that they were essentially saying that every sighting they claimed to have personally had, every sighting they cited as proof, and almost every detail they discussed and wrote about for ten, fifteen, and in some cases twenty years were not credible. The plesiosaur model sightings were no longer accurate evidence or credible sightings according to some of the monster hunters, yet this was their bread and butter model during the period of time the monster was receiving the greatest amount of attention.

The result of this ultimately seemed to be one of diminishing the Legend of the Loch. While Nessie remained as popular as ever with the makers of speculative fiction, the idea of believing in a living dinosaur or prehistoric throwback creature swimming around in the loch in real life started to lose its wider appeal. Eventually it became far more of a joke for many than it had ever been before. Even for some believers, it became harder to stand by “experts” who essentially revamped their entire model multiple times despite claiming to be firsthand eyewitnesses on more than one occasion to the models they now disowned.

By the late 1990s the internet began to grow as a tool to bring likeminded people together on forums and blogs devoted to what they loved. Fans of lake monsters were certainly included in the list of groups who found the net a useful tool to talk to one another about what they liked. However, it also allowed skeptics the ability to present counterarguments more quickly and easily. This didn’t help matters any.

By the 2000s we had Loch Ness Monster theories floating around that bore no resemblance to the theories so adamantly fought for two and three decades earlier. Some, such as giant eunuch eels, rose to prominence if perhaps not for the most legitimate reasons. The biggest push for this theory in connection to Loch Ness came with the discovery of an eel tooth that looked to most observers amazingly like the tip of a deer’s antler. The entire flap around the discovery turned out to be connected to promoting Steve Alten’s Loch Ness based horror novel ‘The Loch’. It was a hoax done as a publicity stunt.

Today there are still people splashing around the loch hunting for their undiscovered species. Today there’s even still a chunk of the population who believe in some version of the Loch Ness Monster, of an unidentified aquatic creature swimming around in the waters. But even in that group the belief in the idea of the living dinosaur is certainly in the minority of believers. Even the belief in the model of the fabled giant serpent of old is not a popular one. A legend that was ticking along fine and dandy for centuries was essentially killed by its explosion of pop culture fame and the intensity of the microscope that fame put it under.

But the interesting bit I mentioned earlier that was a result of the fickle finger of fame with which lake monsters around the world would get the spotlight or not back in the boom of the 1970s and 1980s comes into play here. While certain ideas with regards to what can and cannot be the identity of the lake monster of Loch Ness has been severely limited by the attention over the years, the lesser focus on the bodies of water in other parts of the world still allow the crypto fans to get a little wild with their speculation. The idea of the living dinosaur is still being (for lack of a better word) seriously discussed with regards to bodies of water and jungles in Africa, South America, remote parts of Asia, and other less populated spots around the world. The idea of the prehistoric throwback is still treated with a degree of greater seriousness in some crypto circles even when talking about some U.S. lake monsters. But if you bring up Nessie, you can more or less stick a fork in the beastie when it comes to such talk as far as the wider denizens of popular culture are concerned.

Nessie and the wider lake monster concept isn’t alone in this though. Bigfoot and the Abominable Snowman took similar hits. They may have had less damage done to them, but the overall belief in the existence of such creatures doesn’t appear to be anywhere close to what it once was. And, let’s face it, when the crew of ‘Finding Bigfoot’ is the biggest public face of your field…

Slowly over the last few decades we’ve ended up watching the monsters slowly die off. We’ve even seen some crypto fans put forward the idea that the beasts existed up until recent decades and have only just finally died off. It seems that there are less people seriously embracing the idea of their existence, and less of the public at large seems to be willing to give that group’s claim the benefit of the doubt. Many skeptics love this development. While I don’t think it’s particularly great to have people shelling out cash on frauds, I don’t quite share the unrestrained glee of some in the skeptic community.

For one thing, I understand the desire to believe and embrace such notions. After all, I did so as a kid. But even as an adult who knows better, I can feel those desires tugging at me from time to time. It’s easy to want to believe in living dinosaurs roaming around undiscovered in some isolated, remote location in the world. It’s rather appealing to think that something like a missing link, a family of man from a different branch, is still hiking around the vast wildernesses of the world. It touches that part of us that loves the fantastical, and the simple idea of it makes the world seem a little more magical. Looking around the world we have, sometimes it’s easy to think we need a little more magic.

R.I.P. monsters of the world. You were a great inspiration once, but sadly your time is fast coming to an end.

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene or making indie films with his friends. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.

No comments:

Post a Comment