copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
The 1950’s and 1960’s horror movies, in particular, frequently featured what have come to be known as BEM’s: bug-eyed monsters.
Let’s list a few of these films and the threats they boasted before seeing what, if anything, these movies were really all about.
Them! (1954) focused on gigantic ants. They were mutants, spawned, as it were, by the radiation of atomic bomb tests, which transformed them into enormous, man-eating monsters. The insects established nests--one in New Mexico, another in a ship at sea, and a third in Los Angeles.
A giant octopus, a giant bird, and giant bees appear in Mysterious Island (1961). Giant rats--and a giant chicken--attack human-size humans in The Food of the Gods (1976). The title of Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) gives away its decapitating antagonists’ identity, as does the title of Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959). The Florida swamps are full of the bloodsuckers, and they’re hungry!
Those who’ve seen The Beginning of the End (1957) know that the monsters to watch out for are really giant locusts--except in Mexico, where The Black Scorpion (1957) and its kin, recently escaped from volcanoes, ruled.
A huge gila monster, an enormous gopher, and a particularly unattractive, one-eyed fiancé (the Cyclops of the movie’s title) wreck havoc in The Cyclops (1957), whereas a colossal, deadly mantis makes its debut as a mega movie monster in The Deadly Mantis (1957).
We could go on. . . and on. . . and on, but, suffice it to say, many, many more bug-eyed monster movies debuted in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and there have been a bevy more of them in the early years of the present decade, such as Arachnid (2001), in which, as the title implies, giant spiders are the culprits; Boa (2002), and its sequel, Boa vs. Python (2004); and Crocodile (2000), in which the croc attacks obnoxious teens. More interesting than simply listing such monsters, however, is asking (and attempting to answer) the question, Why? Why do such films exist? What do they represent? What’s going on behind or beneath these movies and their monsters?
One reason that animals are often the monsters of horror fiction, especially that of the big-eyed monster variety, is that we fear them, as Emily Dickinson’s poem about “a narrow fellow in the grass” clearly and dramatically indicates:
A narrow fellow in the grassOf course, making something that we fear naturally hundreds or thousands of times its normal size makes it correspondingly fiercer and more fearsome.
You may have met him, did you not,
His notice sudden is. . . .
Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.
Possibly, another, more important motive also accounts for our frantic, frenetic, frenzied concern for and obsession with the environment, with ecology, with the fate of the planet. Like the narrator of “When the Music’s Over,” a Doors’ song, we wonder:
What have they done to the earth?We--or some of us--have gone from believing, as Genesis assures us, that God gave us the earth and all its animals (and plants) to subject to our will to the belief that these creatures are not, and ought not to be, thought of as lesser animals but as our fellows. If that’s true--if there is no hierarchy of life forms, with us at the top and everything else below us, on one level or another, as the great chain of being concept held, and we are not the “crown of creation”--we’ve done an injustice to our animal (and plant) brothers and to “our fair sister” (or Mother), the Earth. Since animals are sharper of tooth and claw, move faster, and are far stronger than we, we may have cause to be troubled. Maybe we should be worried.
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravished and plundered
And ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives
In the side of the dawn
Tied her with fences
And dragged her down.
We have exercised “dominion over the earth” and all her inhabitants, commanding the sands of the shores to become the glass panes in our houses, automobiles, storefronts, and office buildings; ordering trees to become paper and wood and furniture; compelling ores to become the chasses of vehicles, tools, machines, and construction site skeletons. We have transformed animals into food and clothing and servants as well as companions. Some, we have put in cages or made to perform in circus acts for our own amusement. We have stripped them of their dignity, their nobility, their freedom.
Instead of considering them our fellows, as a “thou,” in the language of Martin Buber, we have regarded them as an “it,” alien and other, and have exploited them at every opportunity for our own advantage, convenience, and comfort, even using rats and monkeys and pigs as subjects of painful, often lethal research. Afterward, before discarding their cadavers, we have dissected and autopsied them. In some cases, we have not even waited until their deaths, but have, instead, performed vivisections on their live and functioning bodies.
In “The Tables Turned,“ William Wordsworth warns us, “We murder to dissect”:
Sweet is the lore that Nature brings,D. H. Lawrence writes, in his poem, “The Snake,” of our tendency to regard the serpent as alien and other and to fear, rather than to honor, this fellow creature. The narrator of the poem, in obedience to the dictates of his education as a human being, drives the snake away. Then, he feels guilty, as though he has a “pettiness” to expiate:
Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things--
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art,
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
. . . immediately I regretted it.Part of the reason (blame?) for the state of affairs in which we find ourselves vis-à-vis our no-longer animal friends may be science and technology. Both Wordsworth (“we murder to dissect”) and Edgar Allan Poe suggest that this is the case. In “Sonnet to Science,” Poe contends that humanity’s scientific approach to nature has had the consequence of demystifying the world and of reducing it from having been viewed as a place full of wonder and divinity to its being considered a mere object among other objects.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
And I have something to expiate:
Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!In the days preceding science’s objectification of the world, hunters regarded the beasts they slew for food and clothing as fellows and apologized for having killed them. Animals were regarded as having souls, like people, and to kill one of them was no light matter. Rules governed the hunt and the kill, and the animal was slain only when necessary and, always, in a humane fashion. Sometimes, their spirits were adopted as the tribe’s totems, and animal spirits could be guides to shamans. In the world that Poe describes, there is no reason to apologize to animals or to treat them in a respectful or humane manner, for they are merely organisms that compete with other organisms for their survival, and we happen to occupy the highest levels of both the evolutionary and the food chains. We are predators, and animals are our prey, not our fellows.
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes. . . .
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?
On one hand, in the dim recesses of our memory as a species, we may retain the pesky, half-remembered notion of our ancestors, that animals are our brothers and sisters, so to speak. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Native Americans, and many other so-called primitive peoples envisioned half-human, half-animal creatures, regarding the gulf between they themselves and their animal “others” to be not so vast as to be an altogether unbridgeable chasm or abyss. There were apologies, rites and rituals, totems, and interspecies communication. There was respect.
Now, there is only an uneasy feeling that, in ravishing and plundering “our fair sister,” we are committing dishonorable, perhaps even irreverent, deeds, and deeds for which, one day, as, in The Birds and a hundred other cautionary tales we are warned, we may be repaid; the animals may exact revenge. This uneasy quiet, this silent dread, may be, as much as fear itself, the underbelly of the bug-eyed monster movie. Could the Industrial Revolution, in its military aspect as part of the "military-industrial complex," and its transformation of our world, have been the scientific and technological parents who spawned the ecology movement and, perhaps, even Al Gore's global warming warnings?