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Creature From The Black Lagoon

In this Universal horror classic that spawned two sequels, a team of scientists on an expedition down the Amazon to find a link between land and sea animals discovers more than it bargained for in the form of a water-breathing, half-human gillman...and soon the hunters become the hunted!

Water beckons us. It is soothing and seductive…but it's also capable of unleashing deadly force. The mythic creatures that inhabit the depths give form to water's essential mysteries. They arouse feelings of curiosity, hope—and bottomless fear. Like water itself, these creatures can be beautiful and enticing. But will they share their life-giving bounty? Or lure us to destruction?

The sea has been a place of mystery ever since the beginning of the human race. Probably one of the earliest sea creatures on record was the fish-god of Babylonia. Its name was Ea, or Oannes, and it was described more than 4,000 years ago. Down to the waist it was a handsome man with a beard. But below the waist, it was a fish complete with scales and a tail. It was the creature that came out of the Persian Gulf to teach the Babylonians how to write and to give them lessons in the arts and sciences.

There were other fish-men described in ancient writings. The ancient Hindus, the Greeks, and the Romans all had them in their mythologies. In the Western world, during the sixteenth century, there seemed to be a rash of fish-men and fish-women. There is one story of a creature captured in Norway that looked like a monk. One medieval writer described it: "it had a man's face, rude and ungraceful with a bald, shining head; on the shoulders something resembling a monk's cowl; and long winglets instead of arms. The extremity of the body ended in a tail."

According to the story, the monkfish was given to the king of Poland. He then took pity on it and had, it put back into the sea. In the last part of the sixteenth century, there was an account of a sea serpent:

... With seven heades that was sent out of Tryrkev to Venice embalmed, which long after was made a present to Francis de Valoys, the French king, by whom for the rareness of it, was valued at 6000 ducats. Nature hath never brought out a form anything more marvellous amongst the monsters that ever were, for besides the fearfull figure of this serpent, there is yet a further consideration and regarde touehying the faces, which both in view and judgement seem more human than brutal.

Stories of giant sea serpents have been around for a long time. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle told of a serpent that had attacked and capsized ships off the coast of Libya. The kings of ancient Delphi and Thebes believed that they were related to serpents. The first king of Athens was believed to have been half-man and half-serpent. And there were those who thought that the father of Alexander the Great was a serpent.

The Chinese had their god Foki, and the Hindus had their Krishna, both of whom are sometimes pictured as part reptile. There were places in Wales where the natives believed that men could turn into snakes. In 1522, a strange monster that was estimated to be fifty cubits long - that is about seventy-five feet - was sighted off the coast of Norway. Archbishop Olaus Magnus of Sweden described in 1555 a sea monster two hundred feet long and twenty feet in circumference. It had a lion's mane, fiery eyes, and was covered with scales. This one could not only sink ships, but it also would appear from the depths, grab sailors off the decks of their boats, and eat them.

Then there were the stories of the Kraken. One of these beasts supposedly swam too close to the shore of Norway in 1680. It got stuck in a cleft of a rock and remained there until it died. The smell from the decaying body caused air pollution for miles around, and it was months before the people could return to their homes. In 1734, another Kraken was described by the Danish Missionary Hans Egede. He said it was sighted near Greenland.

The monster was of so huge a size that, coming out of the water, its head reached as high as a mainmast; its body was as bulky as the ship, and three or four times as long. It had a long pointed snout, and spouted like a whale-fish; it had great broad paws; the body seemed covered with shellwork, and the skin was very ragged aud uneven. The under part of its body was shaped like an euourmous huge serpent, and when it dived again under the water, it plunged backward into the sea, and so raised its tail aloft, which seemed a whole ship's length distant from the bulkiest part of its body.

Erik Pontoppidan, the bishop of Bergen, Norway in the eighteenth century, described another Kraken. He wrote a book about the natural history of his country in 1752, and it was clear that, while he had never seen a sea monster, he believed the stories about them. Ile described the Kraken this way:

Its back or upper part, which seems to be about an English mile-and-a-half in circumference, looks at first like a number of small islands surrounded by something that floats and fluctuates like seaweed ... at last several bright points or horns appear, which grow thicker and thicker the higher they rise above the water ... After the monster has been on the surface for a short time it begins slowly to sink again, and then the danger is as great as before, because the motion of his sinking causes such a swell in the sea and such an eddy or whirlpool that it draws everything down with it.

Late in the eighteenth century, a Danish sailing ship was becalmed off the western coast of Africa. The captain, Jean-Magnus Dens, ordered the crew to go overboard to scrape and clean the hull of the ship. They worked from planks suspended over the ship's sides.

Suddenly, a sea monster appeared, grabbed two of the men, and dragged them into the sea. A third man was grabbed, but he held on to the rigging and his mates cut off one of the monster's arms. Then the creature sank below the surface. The two men were never found, and the third man died that night. Dens described the arm as being very thick at one end and tapering to a point at the other. It was twenty-five feet long and covered with suckers. He estimated that the whole arm must have been from thirty-five to forty feet long.

Such stories were often believed in earlier times, but this one was so fantastic that few people swallowed it whole. One person who did, however, was a French naturalist, Pierre Denys de Montfort. He thought that Dens' monster was a giant octopus. He included the story in his book, The Natural History of Molluscs, which was a six-volume work published in Paris between 1802 and 1805. Most people made fun of his writings. Montfort continued his studies, however, compiling reports of "the sightings of monsters and serpents of the sea by mariners whose sincerity I do not and will not doubt." In the 1790s, he went to the port of Dunkirk, France where a group of American whaling sailors lived and worked. He interviewed these men. One of his reports stated:

One of these captains, named Ben Johnson, told me that he had harpooned a male whale, which, ... seemed to have [a long organ] coming out of its mouth. This surprised him greatly, and also the sailors, and when they had made the whale fast to the ship, he had them put a hook through this long round mass of flesh which they hauled in with several running nooses ... they could hardly believe their eyes when they saw that this fleshy mass, cut off at both ends and as thick as a mast at the widest point, was the arm of an enormous octopus, the closed suckers of which were larger than a hat; the lower end seemed newly cut off, the upper one ... was also cut off and scarred and surmounted by a sort of extension as thick and long as a man's arm.

This huge octopus's limb, exactly measured with a fishing line, was found to be thirty-five feet long, and the suckers were arranged in two rows, as in the common octopus. What then must have been the length of arm which had been cut off at its upper extremity where it was no less than six inches in diameter?

Montfort thought that about ten feet had been cut off the upper end, and ten to twenty-five feet off the lower end. That made a total length of about eighty feet. Another story that he collected was told by an American captain named Reynolds. "One day," Monfort wrote, "he and his men saw floating on the surface of the water a long fleshy body, red and slate colored, which they took to be a sea serpent, and which frightened the sailors who rowed the whale boats."

But one of the men noticed that this huge snake had no head, so it rnust have been dead. They hauled it on board. To them it looked like an octopus or squid arm, having suckers and measuring forty-five feet long and two and one-half feet in diameter. Another story recorded by Montfort concerned a sailing ship from St. Malo. It was off the coast of western Africa when it was attacked by a "monster straight from Hell." According to Montfort:

The ship had just taken in her cargo of slaves, ivory, and gold dust, and the men were heaving up anchor, when suddenly a monstrous cuttlefish appeared on top of the water and slung its arms about two of the masts. The tips of the arms reached to the mastheads, and the weight of the cuttle dragged the ship over, so that she lay on her beam-ends and was near to being capsized. The crew seized axes and knives, and cut away at the arms of the monster; but, despairing of escape, called upon their patron saint, Saint Thomas, to help them.

Their prayers seemed to give them renewed courage, for they persevered, and finally succeeded in cutting off the arms, when the animal sank and the vessel was righted. Now, when the ship returned to St. Malo, the crew, grateful for their deliverance from so hideous a danger, marched in procession to the chapel of their patron saint, where they offered a solemn thanksgiving, and afterwards had a painting made representing the conflict with the cuttle, and which was hung in the chapel.

Montfort had a copy made of this painting, but the artist made the whole thing seem even more fantastic. When the copy was published, the critics hooted at it and called the picture an even bigger fake than Montfort's books. He was titled "the most outrageous charlatan Paris has ever known." The original picture was taken from the chapel and no one knows whether it was hidden or destroyed.

The coast of New England was a popular place for sea monster sightings between 1815 and 1823. One of them was seen in 1815 heading south in the bay near Gloucester, Massachusetts. It was described as being about one hundred feet long. Its head looked like a horse's head, and it was dark brown.

It was said to have made another visit in 1817, and the Gloucester Telegraph reported: "On the 14th of August the sea serpent was approached by a boat within thirty feet, and on raising its head above water was greeted by a volley from the gun of an experienced sportsman. The creature turned directly toward the boat, as if meditating an attack, but sank down."

This sighting was the first one ever to be investigated scientifically. The Linnaean Society of New England, a group of gentlemen who were interested in natural science, decided to get more information about the Gloucester Harbor Monster. They asked the local justice of the peace to take sworn depositions from the witnesses, and have them answer a questionnaire that the society had prepared. Eight of these were taken - two fronn ship captains, three from tradesmen, and one each from a carpenter, a sailor, and a seventeen-year-old boy.

They seemed to agree that the creature looked like a huge snake with lumps on its back. Also, it seemed to he about one hundred feet long. Sometimes it floated on the surface; sometimes it jumped around like a porpoise. Most of the time, however, it chased and ate herring.

Then the society made a mistake. They wondered what the creature was doing in water so close to shore, and dccided that it wanted to lay its eggs. While the members of the society didn't find any eggs, somebody did find a dead snake, about three feet long, with a humped hack. The members of the society decided that this snake was a baby sea serpent.

They dissected the snake, which they had given the scientific name Scoliophis atlanticus. "On the whole," they wrote, "as these two animals agree in so many conspicuous, important, and peculiar characteristics, and as no nnaterial difference between them has yet been clearly pointed out, excepting that of size, the society will probably feel justified in considering them individuals of the same species." The baby sea serpent was really a full-grown black snake with a diseased back. Needless to say, they were criticized in the scientific journals of the day.

In 1818, the creature, or one that looked just like it, was sighted off the coast of Nahant, Massachusetts. Samuel Cabot of Boston was standing on the beach when he observed that several boats were turning around and heading for shore. Cabot described the scene:

My attention was suddenly arrested by an object emerging from the water at the distance of about 100 or 150 vards, which gave to my mind at the first glance, the idea of a horse's head. It was elevated about two feet from the water, and he depressed it gradually to within six or eight inches as he moved along. His bunches appeared to me not altogether unifonn in size. I felt persuaded by this examination that he would not be less than eighty feet long.

The monster reappeared in 1819 and was seen by dozens of people. One of them said:

I had with me an excellent telescope, and ... saw appear, at a short distance from the shore, an animal whose body formed a series of blackish curves, of which I counted thirteen ... This at least I can affirm ... that it was neither a whale nor a cachalot [sperm whale], nor any stronger souffleur [dolphin], nor any other enormous cetacean [water mammal]. None of these gigantic animals has such an undulating back.

The creature was also sighted by the captain and the mate of the sloop Concord. They both made a sworn statement in front of a justice of the peace. The mate described the monster by saying: "His head was about as long as a horse's and was a proper snake's head - there was a degree of flatness, with a slight hollow on the top of his head - his eyes were prominent, and stood out considerable from the surface ..." Over the years, the Gloucester Monster was sighted many times. In 1866, for example, it was seen not only in Gloucester Harbor, but also off Cape Cod and Southport and Norwalk, Connecticut.

Olaus Magnus' maned sea serpent of 1555 seemed to make a comeback in 1848. Captain Peter M'Quhae and six members of his crew sighted the monster while they were on the deck of the H. M. S. Daedalus. They described the creature, and the strange part of this storv is that seven experienced sailors claimed that they had observed the monster for about twenty minutes. They said that it was "... enormous ... there was at least sixtv feet of the animal on the surface of the water. The diameter of the serpent was about fifteen or sixteen inches behind the head, which was ... that of a snake." Then, about six weeks later, a similar serpent was seen by the officers and crew of the American brig, Daphne.

The English naturalist Henry Lee tried to explain the Daedalus sighting. Like Egede's Kraken, he thought that the serpent was a giant squid seen from an angle. The tail was exposed and the tentacles, as they undulated in the water, appeared to be little bumps on the surface. In his book, Sea Monsters Unmasked, published in 1884, Lee tried to prove that all sea serpents sighted in the past had been giant squids. Captain William Taylor, master of the British ship British Banner, reported the following story in 1860:

On the 25th of April, in lat. 12 deg. 7 min. 8 sec. N., and long. 93 deg. 52 min. E., with the sun over the mainyard, felt a strong sensation as if the ship was trembling. Sent the second mate aloft to see what was up. The latter called out to me to go up the fore rigging and look over the bows. I did so, and saw an enormous serpent shaking the bowsprit with its mouth.

It must have been at least 300 feet long; was about the circuntference of a very wide crinoline petticoat, with black back, shaggy mane, horn on the forehead, and large glaring eyes placed rather near the nose, and jaws about eight feet long. He did not observe me, and continued shaking the bowsprit and throwing the sea alongside into a foam until the former came clear away from the ship.

The serpent was powerful enough, although the ship was carrying all sail, and going at about ten knots at the time he attacked us, to stop her way completely. When the bowsprit, with the jibboom, sails, and rigging, went by the board, the monster swallowed the foretopmast, staysail, jib, and flying-jib, with the greatest apparent ease.

He shoved off a little after this, and returned apparently to scratch himself against the side of the ship, making the most extraordinary noise, resembling that on board a steamer when the boilers are blowing off. The serpent darted off like a flash of lightning, striking the vessel with its tail, and staving in all the starboard quarter gallery with its tail. Saw no more of it.

There is an arm of the sea on the west coast of Scotland called Loch Hourn. In 1872, six persons on board the cutter Leda saw a sea serpent there. The weather was clear, the sun was shining, and Loch Hourn was perfectly calm. The observers at times used telescopes to see the beast from distances as close as one hundred yards. It looked like a line of black humps - up to eight at a time. From time to time, it would stick its head above the surface of the water. Estimates of its length ran to sixty feet. When the thing was moving through the water, only the head could be seen, followed by a wide wake.

The London Times reported a sea monster story on July 4, 1874. The steamer Strathowen, bound for India, sighted on a calm sea about an hour after dusk a small schooner, the Pearl. A dark object was seen between the schooner and the steamer, lying half-submerged on the surface. As the steamer's 200 passengers watched in horror, the dark object crawled half aboard the schooner and dragged the 150-ton vessel down into the lagoon.

The sea monsters kept appearing. In 1877, the captain and several of the officers on the British ship Osbourne sighted one off the coast of Sicily. Its head was six feet wide, and it emerged above the water on a neck thirty feet long. Its shoulders were fifteen feet wide and its flippers were fifteen feet long.

Thomas G. Aylesworth. Creatures in the Sea. Other Creatures in the Water. Science Looks at Mysterious Monsters Julian Messner, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, U.S.A., 1982.


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