[24 June 2008]
Fear – we can describe it only when we don’t feel it. H.P. Lovecraft wrote that our most intense fear is that of the unknown, and almost a century of technological progress hasn’t weakened his claim. In earlier times, the unknown was so terrifying that we credited the devil for all the work, until science stole power from religion. Freud asserted that fear of the unknown stems from the uncanny, the return of the repressed, i.e., the creepy is really the familiar. Whether we buy his theory or not, something must occur in our gray matter to make us squirm about the unknown.
But still, science strives to vanquish our fears – or at least, the unknown—for good. Scientific claims have dismissed our monsters, those born in the folktales haunted by medieval dogma and now disappearing, at least in some segments of the populations in some parts of the world, along with religion’s influence. In the birth of the space age, we were told to watch the skies for our newest ghouls, as we feared the unknown’s arrival by spaceship for a day of reckoning. While pop culture in the US has made the psycho-killer into a very realistic monster, aliens of ‘90s movies such as Independence Day brought American’s fears back to the skies, until a day in September 2001 brought a monster of more human form.
Bombs from the skies released from the hands of “the human monster” is, sadly, well known to many throughout the world, as the Japanese have so succinctly captured in the form of Godzilla, terror incarnate. Stateside, SciFi-horror films post 9-11 might channel the fear of terrorism.
But the political is rarely personal, and even if many still find their monsters beyond the clouds, creatures of the night, creatures that make our skin crawl, lurk right outside our doors. The scientific mind approaches this kind of creepy-crawly fear in Monster Quest, a History Channel series now available on DVD that investigates the earth’s “mystery creatures”. While the cover of Season One uses werewolf imagery to suggest the visual flair of horror movies, the series focuses on the monsters of urban legend: the American Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, and the Swamp Beast, for example.
While these oft-discussed monsters are mandatory, “Unidentified Flying Creatures” and “Mutant Canines” could spark new daydreams and nightmares in the young and imaginative. Meanwhile, “The Real Hobbit”, “American Werewolf”, and “Russia’s Killer Apemen” (which details Stalin’s alleged Dr. Moreau-like aspirations) show the series incorporating monsters similar to those of the literary tradition.
Staying true to the beasts’ folkloric background, each episode begins by describing a mystery, as a storyteller would begin a tale over a campfire. These introductions mix our fascination for tall tales with evidence from dead-serious witnesses, both of which will be developed later on. Even if viewers are new to some of these beasts – though spotted by many, like large-eyed aliens – they inspire an uncanny feeling in the Freudian sense, as if our nightmare factories have a special spot for each monster. The episode titled “Birdzilla” begins by musing on killer birds throughout history, and touches upon a deep unease that even Karl Jung would have been at pains to break down.
Yet Monster Quest attempts to explain these unknowns, as a variety of experts make the show one-half phenomenal inquiry, one-half Mythbusters. Dispassionate accounts from scientists rationalize the unexplainable, as an Anne Radcliffe conclusion would explain away the ghosts of her castles. While the reasoning behind a wandering ape in the Florida Everglades may seem obvious, an expert even rationalizes a photo of what sure looks like a Kraken emerging from Lake Champlain in New York. Although the series title attracts young fans of the macabre, Monster Quest represents science as an active, fascinating discipline (though there’s plenty of crackpot theories, too).
The scientists are paired with assuring, wide-eyed cryptozoologists, those who study strange animals only known through fossils or folklore. When the show transitions from a traditional scientist’s testimony to a cryptozoologist’s, it plays like the shift from a baseball historian to one of the sport’s most dedicated fanatics – even though a reappearing DNA expert who tests artifacts looks like a punk rocker on a permanent acid trip. (Eyewitness accounts present other colorful folk. And look out for blokes who hook catfish with their bare hands!) While these cryptozoologists earn a living by peddling their stories, the series never demeans them nor hides their youthful fascination and inquisitiveness.
After gathering evidence from witnesses and hearing from both types of experts, Monster Quest deploys field researchers into the wild to document the various “mystery creatures”. They set up motion-triggered camera casings that look like an accessory off GI Joe’s belt. These casings are fixed to trees, with the hope that they will capture evidence. While these setups may leave the little ones in suspense, adults will anticipate the failing missions, and treat the occasional stilted reenactments and digital graphics as par for the course. (The set’s paltry extra, a short behind-the-scenes featurette with some entertaining and informative bits, is also to be expected.)
Yet we realize the monster tracking makes for a narrative hook, while the series reminds us of the unknown lurking just around the corner. To scan the episode index is to see how many beasts reside in our collective dreams, and to wonder how many others have yet to emerge from the void. For a documentary series, Monster Quest presents some chilling moments.
In the entry on giant birds (with that aforementioned, regretfully goofy moniker, “Birdzilla”), a Native American named John Huffer caught on film two unidentified, large-winged creatures soaring over a stream in the Midwest. While scientists dismiss his footage, arguing that the birds are just large turkey vultures, the sight of them gliding just above the trees, as if ready to dive toward any prey of their choosing, draws out our avian fears, of that which can transform from an elegant sight into a ravenous lizard of the sky.
Perhaps our everyday creatures are chilling enough, and thus our dreams transform the mundane into the monstrous.