In from the Fog

Monstrous Fishermen in Popular Culture

by Chris Justice

28 October 2009

From The Fog 

Life/Otherlife in Borderlands

Life/Otherlife in Borderlands

Fishermen inhabit borderlands, areas where land and water collide. They dwell on the edges, and it’s along those edges where our imaginations are most easily shocked.

No film presents this model more elegantly that John Carpenter’s The Fog. Carpenter’s film is not only about the ageless appeal of narratives, but also about fishing narratives and the creepy balance between realism and fantasy they possess. Often mixing fact and fiction, and therefore neither real nor unreal, fishing narratives harbor a ghostly presence that can shock us into disturbing behaviors. Using narrative tropes so popular in many fishermen’s tales – fog, campfires, ominous weather reports, lighthouses, boats, heavy drinking, etc. – his narrative goes like this:

Lurking amidst the fog of Antonio Bay, California is a dirty secret, and Father Malone, played by Hal Holbrook, knows it. Malone is a local priest who refuses to participate in the centennial festivities of the small Northern California fishing village. Mayor Kathy Williams, played by the iconic Janet Leigh, wants a robust celebration, but Malone, who earlier in the day found his grandfather’s old, cryptic journal behind a brick wall in his church, learns about the village’s duplicitous and murderous past.

That past centers around a wealthy leper colony patriarch named Blake, who wanted 100 years ago to establish an island refuge for his sickly followers. Malone’s grandfather acquiesced, but deceitfully, the villagers, in an attempt to pad their village’s coffers, lured Blake’s clipper ship into treacherous waters, and the ship sank. Now, the ghosts of Blake and his followers want serious payback.

The Fog works on various levels because of its obsession with narrative power. Stories within stories abound, and seemingly everyone in the film narrates something. The film opens with the town’s resident angler, played by John Houseman, curmudgeonly telling a group of children a ghost story about Blake’s unfortunate ship. He is brilliant in a mischievous, grandfatherly kind of way. Interestingly, Carpenter added this Houseman scene in post-production because he wasn’t satisfied with the original cut. This was wise because it sets the film’s tone perfectly: this is a story fishermen know too well, and consequently, one only they could tell.

Later, when Jamie Lee Curtis’s character is picked up hitchhiking, she tells the driver her story although it’s full of deceit, a potent foreshadow of Father Malone’s secret. Holbrook tells the story of his grandfather, and Tom Atkins, tells yet another interesting story while on the ship investigating his buddies’ disappearance. And of course the ultimate storyteller, deejay Stevie Wayne, narrates the entire onslaught of Blake’s colony from a lighthouse as they descend upon the residents of Antonio Bay.

Even legendary storyteller Edgar Allan Poe finds a short stage in this film when Carpenter uses one of his quotes for the prologue, and the allusion to the mystical English poet – and another popular storyteller – William Blake is obvious. These meta-narratives serve as a testament to the power of storytelling, particularly in the context of maritime and angling settings.

Although Blake and his lepers’ identity as fishermen is ambiguous, they seem to be competent in various areas of maritime life including fishing, sailing, and meteorology. This interpretation is supported by the various hook-, gaff-, and harpoon-like weapons they use to enact their revenge. And these fishermen-boogeymen are unique. Arriving on a clipper ship, they represent an unusual hybrid between the spectral presence of ghosts and the decaying flesh of zombies.

Because they are lepers, their wormy appearance is associated with zombies, and Carpenter cannot resist at least one close-up of a muddy, wriggling “face”. However, unlike most zombies, who seek flesh purely for survival, these dead souls apparently want nothing more than vengeance, a characteristic usually assigned to ghosts. The lighting and fog these ghosts are draped in also establish an almost classical feel to their spectral presence.

Fishing and fishermen are central to The Fog’s message. It’s not that narratives can shape reality in distinct ways; instead, it’s that narratives already have, and our responsibility is to understand how those narratives work. The ghosts’ first victims are fishermen, and the anglers’ demise is lubricated by beer and the distracting, seductive power of stories. When the ghosts sabotage their ship, they’re too intoxicated on beer and story to notice what’s happening.

Later, Stevie Wayne’s son offers the first concrete evidence that something is amiss. He discovers a piece of driftwood from the sunken ship while fishing, and when he returns to report this news to his mother, she doesn’t believe him because his story is too fantastic. Few films have interwoven the timeless allure of ghost and fishing stories as effectively as The Fog.

But why portray fishermen as monsters in the first place? What do fish and ghost stories have in common? And why are fishing stories so often connected to the monstrous?

One reason is because luck, magic, and mysticism are inherent elements of fishing, which makes the sport easier to portray as supernatural. Ask a serious angler what role luck plays in his sport, and the answer will often reluctantly fall somewhere between “a lot and a whole lot”. Sure, an understanding of the sciences associated with fishing – entomology, marine biology, ichthyology, etc. – helps tremendously, but so does luck. And to the average non-angler, pulling large fish from a seemingly endless ocean – or even a modest river – is a sight to behold.

Non-anglers often wonder, “How did he do that?” which is one reason why spectators flock to large charter boat marinas to discover what anglers have unearthed. Add the feverish, passionate emotion anglers harbor for their sport, and it’s easy to understand why some consider the sport a cult. 

Another answer is purely geographical. Fishermen inhabit borderlands, areas where land and water collide. They dwell on the edges, and it’s along those edges where our imaginations are most easily shocked. Life is stable on land, but unstable on water: one miscue and death is knocking. To find the best fishing holes, fishermen abandon the safe harbor of home and travel through dark forests, along unpredictable rivers, upon treacherous seas, or into untamed regions to claim their quarry. In essence, fishermen become part of their prey’s environment, and that environment is usually dark, dangerous, suspenseful, and unknown.

Furthermore, anglers rely on nature’s ecological cycles intensely. They follow tides, fish runs, weather patterns, bird migrations, and other important natural phenomenon more closely than most. And they understand the mystery of a salmon run, the predatory stealth of a muskellunge, and the acrobatic leaping prowess of a tarpon. Consequently, they’re more intimately connected with predation and death, meteorological vagaries, and biological eccentricities.

Since these adrenaline-junkies are often associated with danger, suspense, and drama, it shouldn’t be surprising how often they’re linked with the monstrous. A 200-pound man landing a 600-pound shark or tuna is, seemingly, not only impossible but an epic wrestling match with a “monster”. But it happens often.

To paraphrase Nietzsche, when fighting monsters one should be careful not to become one, but that’s a major reason why many people fish: to slay the proverbial dragon. For some fictional anglers in popular culture, it’s too late. They’ve become monsters themselves, and The Fog is one of many films that exposes that unique relationship.

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