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Getting the Creeps from the Deep

Deep, dark water – and that which swims within -- inspires our most primitive fears

As a fishing and horror film fanatic (two separate endeavors, I assure you), I can’t help but think during this Halloween season about films featuring sadistic anglers, horrific sharks, and torturous fishing trips. I’m also reminded of those film adaptations of classic literary works such as Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that boast frightening creatures and narrate thrilling oceanic adventures. With Halloween rapidly approaching, I also can’t stop thinking about horror’s scariest beasts from the deep.

Which got me wondering…why is the ocean, and water in general, so damned scary?

Regardless of type – ocean, bay, river, lake, etc. – bodies of water contain depths, and within those depths lurk great mystery and surprise. If there’s something citizens of every nation are afraid of, it’s The Unknown In the Depths. Thousands of species of marine life lurk in deep waters, yet most people encounter only a miniscule percentage of those creatures. Worlds of life thrive unseen, unknown. Possessing power and darkness, those depths are a living abyss, which to conjure the famous Nietzsche quotation, when you try to see into it, it stares back at you.

Through its reflective and fluidic characteristics, water is an effective metaphor for dreams and our psychological states. Watching water helps soothe our spirits and places us in deeply meditative states, and the fluctuating tides and waves remind us of our minds’ ebb and flow. Lacking boundaries and tangible form, water, like a dream, defies shape, logic, and space. Water is therapy because when we watch it, we see ourselves.

Water’s impermanence is riveting. It can dry before our eyes and harden into ice, yet its diversity and abundance are overwhelming: water exists in three states of matter – solid, liquid, and gas – and approximately 75 percent of the Earth’s surface is water. It surrounds everyone and never discriminates, and subsequently, every culture on this planet has established words, rituals, traditions, and festivals to honor water’s sacred place in its experience.

The elemental, contradictory qualities of water are equally awe-inspiring: life started in the oceans, and nothing living can exist without water; however, as recent natural disasters have demonstrated, water, because of its sheer power and volume, can destroy and overwhelm entire cities, regions, states, and countries with floods, hurricanes, tidal waves, etc. Although water itself is universal, each body of water assumes its own identity, reflecting the geography, geology, climate, flora and fauna, and people of its respective place.

Also, water inspires our most primitive fears. Some people suffer from aqua-phobia, which is sometimes triggered by a fear of drowning. Of course, the critters lurking beneath the surface also stimulate our basest fears, and thanks to Steven Spielberg’s seminal Jaws and the water-monster movies it inspired, many associate our oceans and rivers with dangerous creatures including sharks, killer whales, squid, alligators, piranhas, anacondas, etc.

Thus, with my obsession for fishing and horror films fueling many of my decisions, the list below, which probes how horror has capitalized on the fear water and its dangerous critters possess, was inevitable. But first, a caveat: I didn’t include shark films since they warrant their own list and are too abundant, and too easy, to list here.

In fact, my top five “beasts from the deep” are technically not even fish. If we associate the ocean with fish, what about those creatures that dwell along the periphery? These beasts are marine outsiders; they represent exaggerated, enormous, and grotesque versions of water’s most exotic creatures. Although plenty of horror films focus on mutant or voracious fish besides sharks, these beasts demonstrate just how intimately connected Hollywood’s monsters are with our nightmares.

Typically in these stories, these creatures were unleashed because of our behavior, and each film suggests we have no idea what those salty depths, and our own selfish and destructive tendencies, may or may already have produced. In a sense, because these critters are not fish, they represent the abnormal mysteries lurking within The Deep.

It Came from Beneath the Sea

Honorable Mention: It Came from Beneath the Sea

With a clever plot, Ray Harryhausen’s impeccable stop-motion animation, and some memorable scenes, It Came from Beneath the Sea had to be considered for this list.

Due to the effects of hydrogen bomb testing, a gigantic octopus lurking in the Pacific’s crater-like depths is transformed into a radioactive monster and, since the testing depleted its food supplies, it heads toward the Oregon and California coasts to dine. This film was among the first to effectively marry the science fiction and horror genres.

Robert Gordon’s classic leaves indelible impressions: images of a giant octopus, animated by Harryhausen, destroying the Embarcadero section of San Francisco, and engulfing the Golden Gate Bridge with calculated movements rivals King Kong’s great New York City scenes. What is it about these beasts and their hatred for American cities? Their contempt for urban settings strikes a more serious socio-political tone, and combined with the film’s commentary about the potential environmental impacts of military weapons testing, they've a morality tale to tell.

The main reason this one didn’t make my Top 5 is because of its timing: with three films released prior to It Came from Beneath the Sea, this one jumped on the bandwagon…it didn’t start it.

Dive further with me, down, down into the deep, dark waters …

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