In from the Fog: Monstrous Fishermen in Popular Culture

Fishermen come in various shapes and sizes, especially in popular culture. Traditionally, they’ve been depicted in literature and film in ways that typically accentuate their positive characteristics. However, one of the more atypical depictions worthy of investigation is that of the fisherman-monster.

Book: The Compleat Angler

Author: Izaak Walton

Publisher: BiblioLife

Publication date: 2009-01

Length: 408 pages

Format: Hardcover

Price: $27.99

Image: English writer Izaak Walton was mostly responsible for establishing the cultural prototype of the “angler as solitary intellectual” as he was a significant literary force in England during his lifetime (1593-1683) and befriended several literary heavyweights such as John Donne and Ben Johnson. Among his many important publications, The Compleat Angler is considered, arguably, the most important piece of fishing literature ever published. In it Walton creates a dialogue between a fisherman and a hunter so the former can extol the many benefits of angling, rural life, and Anglican beliefs.

More than a century later across the Atlantic, Henry David Thoreau assumed Walton’s baton. With quotes like these – “Time is but the stream I go fishing in” and “Many men go fishing all their lives not knowing it is not fish they are after” – Thoreau extended Walton’s prototype to profound extremes. Sprinkled throughout his essays and classic autobiography, Walden, are philosophical ruminations about the role angling plays in one’s life. Thoreau’s prose calls for a new brand of self-sufficiency and solitude, one that enables us – through intimate interactions with Nature, particularly the kind angling affords – to better understand our societies, neighbors, and ourselves. Walton and Thoreau are the original architects of those modern scenes that depict anglers fishing in solitude, searching for greater meaning in their lives.

One of Thoreau’s contemporaries, Herman Melville, solidified the cultural archetype of the “angler as mad Captain”, a character whose intrepid, crusty, lone-wolf stoicism and megalomania blazed a destructive trail through the most adventurous of oceanic narratives. Captain Ahab’s maddening pursuit of the white whale established the template for other obsessed anglers, most notably Captain Quint in Jaws.

In Ahab and Quint, we have a noticeably different portrayal of the fisherman The predatory nature of the hunted coalesces with the aggressive capitalism of the hunter to form a provocative critique of both. Although not literally monsters, characters such as Ahab and Quint are figuratively monstrous in their incessant chase for wealth and destruction.

Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo is a more benevolent, composed extension of Ahab. His eccentric tastes, professorial interests, and relatively controlled temperament depart from the curmudgeonly outbursts of Ahab and Quint, yet even Nemo possesses flashes of righteous indignation. His hatred toward imperialism and desire to ruin his nemesis fuel many of his contradictory actions. As one of many examples, although he is an ardent fan of freedom, he entraps anyone who steps foot onto his vessel.

Other prototypes since Walton and Thoreau have portrayed fishermen as peasants who are students of nature, not books; fisherman who are determined, even-tempered, and pragmatic, not maniacal; and who are ordinary, conservative members of society, not eccentric radicals. Nevertheless, each borrows something from the Walton and Thoreau templates.

Santiago, the stoic old wise man in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, is the archetypal solitary fisherman, but a rugged individualism and graceful stubbornness, along with an acute acceptance and understanding of nature, forms the basis of his intellectual life. While Thoreau and Walton philosophize about why they fish, Santiago just fishes. His angling exploits are also inspired not by a transcendental thrill of the hunt, but rather, by more practical economic necessities.

Kino in John Steinbeck’s The Pearl demonstrates similar traits: while his son falls victim to nature’s cruelty (a scorpion bite), his fishing adventures are designed to earn money to pay for his son’s medical care. Although pearls are his quarry, Kino is still a “commercial fisherman” because his fishing is economically induced, and the story’s primary theme is how economic greed exposes the inherent evil lurking in every soul.

More recently, the depiction of fisherman as “blue collar warriors” in television shows such as Deadliest Catch and Lobster Wars offers another economically based depiction of anglers. Building off the Santiago and Kino prototypes, these commercial fishermen risk their lives to put seafood on our dinner plates. Of course, they also earn impressive bounties for their large harvests. Their quests resonate with heroic myth making that would make Joseph Campbell smile.

However, one of the more peculiar portrayals of fishermen in modern cinema depicts the fisherman as a bloodthirsty, vengeful, hungry monster. I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997) features a fisherman struck by a car full of teenagers. When they dump his body in the local harbor, he returns a year later as a demented, corpse-like angler sporting rain gear, a gaff-like hook, and an intense need for revenge.

Stuart Gordon’s Dagon (2001) is a creepy adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s 1917 short story of the same title. As a couple vacations off the coast of Italy, they encounter a storm and head for shore toward a quaint fishing village. However, fish-like humanoids inhabit the village, and as the couple discovers how much trouble they’re in, they learn what’s lured the villagers: the fishermen in this village sustain themselves by sacrificing innocent victims to the ancient fish-god known as Dagon. In both films, Gorton’s Fisherman has turned into a homicidal maniac.

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.