The defining fiction of my childhood, perhaps my whole life, is the Godzilla series. When I was a kid, other kids would rip on me because I dug Godzilla and not so much “American” King Kong. They thought Godzilla was silly and Kong “respectable”. They’re both tragedies, of course, but the tragedy of Kong is about human/American desire to “grab the unknown and stick it somewhere where one’s own species can gawk at it at their leisure”. And since we’re “hunting Bigfoot”, we’re still doing it. In fact we almost HAVE to “bring in a body” in this age of digital deception. Yes, this is an aspect of human nature. And it’s an important one to scrutinize–hence Kong, despite the ridiculous “I’m in love with a nearly hairless little kewpie doll” aspects–is necessary and critical to our culture. That’s why it was iconic even in the early Sixties.
(Image below is from Hake’s Americana & Collectibles. Had these as a kid but didn’t have a safe to keep them in so they ended up getting thrown away like all my other collectibles. Monster figures by Palmer.)
But Godzilla speaks to the darkest of all aspects of human nature: The strange urge to destroy, quite often just because we can. Yeah, this is worse than what we do with captured species because at the core of the thinking that gave us the atomic bomb is the mentality, “If WE can’t have it, no one can.” Many say there was no need to drop the bombs on Japan: that it was simply done because we’d spent so much on the technology and wanted to see how many “enemies” it would kill. Then we went on to blow up over 2,000 more of the hell-spawned devices afterwards…and probably counting. Godzilla? Godzilla is our righteous indignation at people like Edmund Teller and his military sponsors, monsters all. Godzilla is our hope for overthrowing the horrible war merchants running the world. Godzilla is how WE feel when we see the human race destroying and taking and using and poisoning. So I’m just fine with being that nerdy little kid of the Sixties who’d skip football in the street because Godzilla vs. the Thing was on TV.
Let’s look at other famous fictional monsters and see what messages, if any, they contain.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon – I steadfastly avoid anything “Oscar” but it was impossible to miss the fact that the Academy decided to finally throw another bone in the direction of SF and fantasy this year. The Shape of Water, in fact, will probably make it tricky for Universal to do a reboot of the original Creature film/trilogy, at least for a while. (Of course we know Universal’s monster series sank with last year’s The Mummy, but if you didn’t see that coming you probably think what’s his name can actually act.) Back to the point, though, which is basically the same as King Kong’s: Just because you’re curious about an animal does not give you the right to kidnap it and put it on display in a foreign environment. This is a great point, and it’s odd that I love the Creature movies while not being that big a fan of Kong (just King Kong Escapes and Skull Island so far). I refer again to the kewpie doll syndrome.
Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Them!, The Giant Behemoth – all atomic bomb parables like Gojira/Godzilla, King of the Monsters. The Beast was released from arctic ice during an atomic test. The Behemoth, originally intended to be a huge mass of radioactive slime like the piece on the beach that burns local good guy John’s hand, is, according to prototype environmental hero Steve Karnes (Gene Evans) the end result of not just nuclear testing but the dumping of atomic waste in the oceans. The giant ants in Them! are mutations arising from the fallout from the first bomb test at White Sands. And in a movie that I personally like even more than those three, X: The Unknown, Dr. Adam Clayton (Dean Jagger) is up against a mass of sentient radioactive mud that’s been drawn to the surface of the Earth from deep below because it has sensed the presence of its food—radioactive isotopes—and come looking for it. The message here is age-old: Never let your reach exceed your grasp.
Now quite often in the golden age of movie monsters it wasn’t our fault at all. Sometimes, as in The Monolith Monsters (another favorite), The Blob, War of the Worlds and quite a few others, something was invading. Whole different thing. Not necessarily morality tales whatsoever, unlike the previously mentioned groups. Definitely lighter entertainment conceptually, but since I had nightmares about The Blob throughout my childhood, it’s pretty obvious that such things matter little in terms of the movie’s ability to imprint upon the memory.
Then there’s John Wyndham’s fantastic Day of the Triffids, which in its original form strongly suggests that the monster invasion was an oversight on the part of the military that resulted in blinding the world (which freed a maneating mobile African plant to breed without constraints and go on to assault the helpless populace), becomes one of the latter category as a movie. Confession: Love that movie anyway. Great settings whether the military screw-ups get off the hook or not.
Do we find underlying moral “points” in Dracula’s movies? Sometimes. The monster is often portrayed as at least in part a victim. Same with all the vampire stuff his legend has spawned. Morality varies a lot with vampires, werewolves, even the Frankenstein’s monster concept and the Mummy flicks. But Joss Whedon taught us that quite a while ago. Sometimes the Mummy is just a jerk, sometimes he’s a victim, often a bit of both. Sometimes Frankenstein’s “Creature” is a good guy, sometimes he’s a bad guy, sometimes he just wants to scare Lou Costello. So the message is…well, it varies. But there’s not generally any overall moral point to be made with these popular creatures, or zombies either for that matter. Probably why they’re all so popular—no deep thinking required.
Now, do we NEED messages in our entertainment? Good question. Joe Dante, director of my favorite movie, Matinee, said in a recent interview that (approximate quote) “…if movies changed things, we’d all have disarmed after Strangelove”…and that is a pretty good point. We WATCH The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951, but as scary as Gort might be, the next morning we’re back to building and testing more bombs and weaponry to send into space. Mankind, indeed, may be nature’s D student. Too bad, because we’re just bright enough to realize we’re screwing up, but for most of us it’s like, “Oh well…that looks like a lot of work to fix.”
I’m not sure that a movie could not change things. I think they affect our culture. All stories do. But the culture is vast, and to shift its overall direction would require one pervasive “mind virus”, that’s for sure.
Oh well. Piece said. Back to creating more literary mind viruses.