Hidden Monsters

I don’t think much about having been born male.  I’m starting to realize that that’s because I don’t have to.  The same is true of being caucasian, although I’ve always objected to the labels of “white” and “black” as being polarizing and wildly inaccurate.  Although I grew up in poverty, my “social markers” put me in a place of privilege, even if others sharing my demographic have locked me out of the club.  These thoughts were raised by Mallory O’Meara’s excellent The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick.  As soon as I saw the book announced, I knew I had to read it.  As O’Meara would doubtlessly not find surprising, I had never heard of Milicent Patrick before.  I’m not surprised that a woman designed the Creature from the Black Lagoon, however, because woman create memorable monsters (can I get a “Frankenstein”?!).

The reason I don’t think about being male is because the crumbling society built by males assumes that it’s the default.  Men have always been shortsighted, I guess.  Having been raised by a “single mother” (she was technically not divorced because a male-made religion said it was sinful), I always believed women to be protectors, capable heads of families, and far more empathetic than the men I met.  I didn’t realize at the time that we lived so close to the brink because men devalue women.  Milicent Patrick grew up in a family where this was much more obvious.  A talented artist, she incurred her family’s lasting wrath by going to Hollywood and doing what was then movie makeup work.  That she designed the beloved Gill Man makes sense to me.

O’Meara’s book is sure to make thoughtful readers angry.  Not at the author, but at the behavior of men.  Perhaps due to my unbalanced upbringing, it has taken many years to see what others probably notice much more readily: women have to struggle for that which someone like myself can simply claim.  Bud Westmore, Patrick’s boss at Universal, claimed her creation as his own work.  There are monsters in this book, and I’ll give you one guess as to their gender.  Still, I’m glad to have read it for I know I’ve found another monster fan.  O’Meara’s clearly aware of how those of us who admit this odd passion are marginalized in a world that prefers super heroes and those good with finance over those who see monsters everywhere.  This is an important book; read it and you’ll see them too.

The Lagoon

My current book project has me watching The Creature of the Black Lagoon again.  One of the Universal monsters—indeed, arguably the last of them—the Gill-man fascinated me as a child.  There was a strange contradiction here.  The creature had evolved in the Devonian Era and remained unchanged into the 1950s.  But the movie opens with a voiceover of Genesis 1.1.  There’s a mixed message here, appropriate for scriptural monsters.  Watching the film again brought back many of the innocent perceptions of youth, as well as the trajectory of my own life.  I don’t often get to the theater to see horror movies anymore, but at the same time the Universal monsters aren’t quite the same thing as modern horror.  As a genre it had to evolve.

Strangely, as a fundamentalist child, the evolution aspect didn’t bother me.  I was after the monster, you see.  The backstory was less important.  Growing up, at least in my experience, means that the backstory becomes more essential.  It has to hold together.  There are, of course, inaccuracies in the story—many of them, in fact.  Still, within the first three minutes Genesis and evolution are thrown together in a happy harmony that belied what I was being taught at church.  The Gill-man is a monster mainly for being a creature out of time.  When modern humans invade his lair, he defends his territory.  The story might’ve ended there, had he not spied Kay.  He doesn’t so much want to kill her as get to know her better.  For a movie posthumously rated G, it has a body count.  Five men die but the Gill-man apparently just wants to evolve.

There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in Creature from the Black Lagoon with both the publication of The Lady from the Black Lagoon and the death of Julie Adams this year.  The Gill-man seldom shows up in the same billing with Dracula or Frankenstein’s monster, or the Wolf-man.  He’s a bit more inaccessible in his watery abode.  Both cold and hot-blooded, he represents how science and Scripture might get along, at least on the silver screen.  The film holds up remarkably well, if a modern viewer can handle the pacing.  Underwater filming was pretty new back in the day, and watching humans swim in many ways suggests the truth of evolution in its own right.  These aren’t the childhood observations of the movie, but rather the reflections of a guy wondering if there might not be some hidden wisdom in the monsters of yesteryear.

Biblical Black Lagoon

During my summer-term courses I feel it is only fair to break the lecture time up a bit. Rutgers summer courses can run four hours at a stretch, and no matter how valiant the student, no one can pay attention to me for that long. I have long had an interest in the Bible in popular media, so for each class session I show a brief clip of a movie that features the Bible, often in a pivotal role. We then discuss how it is presented. As a personal pork barrel I give the students a multiple choice question on their exams as to which movies we have watched (it also gives them incentive to be in class, I hope). One summer, after sending the exam off to the print office, I realized I’d made a mistake. As usual, my interest in 1950s sci-fi flicks led to trouble. One film I hadn’t shown a clip from, and which I thought was Bible free (I hadn’t seen it in a long time) was The Creature from the Black Lagoon, a perennial favorite for both camp and kitsch.

Of course, The Creature from the Black Lagoon does have the Bible in it. The movie begins with a narrator reading Genesis 1.1. Well, I had to give all the students credit for that question, because there was no wrong answer. Nevertheless, the easy association between beginning the film with the Bible and its evolutionary plot-starter seemed worthy of comment. Back in the 1950s evolution was already a hot-button issue (so I’ve read). Forces lined up on the scientific and biblical fronts faced off like angry hockey players as they swung at that hard black puck of the truth. It does seem odd in a country so heavily reliant on science that the foundation of biology and its benefits (if scientists hadn’t recognized and reacted to the swift evolution among microbes I’d likely not be here typing this sentence) that one particular interpretation of a very small section of the Bible should have the power that it does. I’ve seen carnivorous, chrome-plated bumper Jesus fish eating the peacefully walking Darwin fish! Old metaphorical Moses would be scratching his head, I’m sure.

The Creature was, of course, also a metaphor (if I’m not shoveling out too much credit where it isn’t really due). The sequels to the original film grew progressively worse, but those who have the patience to sit through The Creature Walks Among Us discover that the gill-man is a man after all, under all that green rubber. The beast is us. Not too weighty of a revelation to be sure, but it isn’t too weighty a movie. Like any discriminating Bible reader I choose what to accept and what to explain away. When I watch The Creature from the Black Lagoon, it ruins the story for me to think ahead to the denouement of the gill-man being a real man. It is a passage I simply choose not to accept. (This is, of course, a metaphor.)

What might this be a metaphor for?

What might this be a metaphor for?