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From the Cosmos to the Depths: Close Encounters

SEA MONSTER. Medieval woodcut.

n a previous post here, I wrote about the connection between cosmic horror and stories of deep-ocean terror. I focused on films like Underwater, Sea Fever, and The Beach House. These are films that use the depths of the ocean as a stand-in for the vastness of the cosmos when executing the time-worn Lovecraftian trope of “a terror from beyond.” The antagonists in these films remain either diffuse and (at least partially) metaphorical, as in Sea Fever and The Beach House, or seldom-glimpsed (Underwater). The stories are less creature features than they are tales about the human response to a threat that is, in some sense, incomprehensible or unknowable.

The idea of the deep ocean as a place physically inhabited by actual monsters is as old as humanity; indeed, it’s not an idea with its foundations completely cast in fantasy so much as in humans’ early encounters with a wide assortment of legitimately terrifying sea life. If the underwater adventure story can be said to find its earliest modern expression in Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (although my own suggestion would actually be the Book of Jonah), the aquatic creature feature – the maritime monster movie – found its first modern expression with 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Creature/Gil-Man’s humanoid form and weirdly human motivations place him in the same general category as other human-adjacent monsters like the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s monster, and even the convincingly-human Count Dracula (or even a hunched, lurking Orlok).

The giant squid from 20,000 Leagues could, I suppose, be considered a successor to Moby Dick’s titular beast, although a whale – albinism notwithstanding – is more prey than predator to humans. The squid was not humanoid in the same sense as the Gil-Man– not even as humanoid as the evil demigod who makes a very special guest appearance in Underwater (or the various scribblings of H.P. Lovecraft). However, the 1970s would bring a new monster into play – or, rather, a very old one, seen in a new light.

I have no doubt that shark biologists in particular and ichthyologists in general aren’t huge fans of Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws or its 1975 film adaptation. The film was undoubtedly a success: in addition to cementing the bona fides of a young Steven Spielberg, it launched the “blockbuster era” of film in the 1970s. Like 1960’s Psycho, it was a horror film from a “mainstream” director, and one that enjoyed “mainstream” success. Like Psycho, Jaws leaned on its musical score in new and interesting ways. Psycho, however, did not lead to mass public perception that hotels are death traps of murder and insanity. Jaws regrettably managed to convince a large segment of the public that sharks are a natural threat to mankind, as though we were a reliable part of their diet rather than occasion victims of mistaken identity.

Jaws was more than a hit summer film, and remains more than a bygone relic of the bloated and magnificent era of 1970s cinema. It marked the birth of an entire genre of summer films. In addition to whelping three sequels (only one of which, disappointingly, was filmed in 3-D – just like Creature from the Black Lagoon!), Jaws made the shark movie its own glorious template, inviting imitation, mutation, and (eventually) half-ironic parodies of such a ridiculous nature and in such profusion that one hesitates to wade into the morass without a guide. Where, oh where, might one find such guidance?

Well, you could start by picking up Susan Snyder’s Encyclopedia Sharksploitanica, available for pre-order now. You may recognize Snyder’s name from her column here at Madness Heart, Sharksploitation Sunday, in which Snyder swims the murky, often-polluted waters of ultra-low-budget, often-low-quality shark movies, winners like Bad CGI Sharks and Post-Apocalyptic Commando Shark. If Jaws and Sharknado have been your only exposure to shark movies, Snyder’s guide to shark cinema is a must-own. Snyder’s book is part of the SUMMER OF AQUATIC TERROR here at Madness Heart, and if you are looking for a summertime read, you won’t do better than Snyder’s thesis on the magical world of shark cinema.

Another part of our SOAT is Christine Morgan’s forthcoming Trench Mouth. Morgan is the author of (among other fine titles) the excellent The Night Silver River Run Red, and we’re excited to provide you with her latest tale, currently available for pre-order. But be warned. Between Morgan’s Trench Mouth and Snyder’s Encyclopedia Sharksploitanica, you might have to think twice before going for that swim at that secluded beach. Or, at the very least, make sure to take a friend who is slower (and tastier) than yourself.

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