Mil­lions will be flock­ing to cin­e­mas this week­end to see King Kong re­turn in his lat­est in­car­na­tion. Here Barry Did­cock in­ves­ti­gates why hu­man­ity has been ob­sessed with mon­sters since an­cient times, and why we con­tinue to crave the thrill of be­ing scared

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As king Kong re­turns, we ex­plore why we all love mon­ster movies

IN the in­tro­duc­tion to his trans­la­tion of Be­owulf, the Old English epic in which the tit­u­lar hero fights three bat­tles against two de­mon trolls and a dragon, Ir­ish poet Sea­mus Heaney warns of the “slightly card­board ef­fect” the word “mon­ster” tends to pro­duce. Fair enough. But try telling that to the thou­sands of peo­ple scream­ing out loud in cin­e­mas around the coun­try tonight as they watch a 100ft tall King Kong swat he­li­copters out of the sky in Skull Is­land, the lat­est it­er­a­tion of the so-called Mon­sterVerse movie fran­chise which also fea­tures Godzilla.

To them, as they sus­pend dis­be­lief and let the darker parts of their imag­i­na­tion come out to play, the mon­sters on screen are very far from card­board. Be­sides Kong there are gi­ant spi­ders, an enor­mous horned wa­ter buf­falo and fear­some, fast­mov­ing rep­tiles called Skull­crawlers, and they all feel as real as the ter­ror they in­duce. As they clutch their pop­corn in the dark, those cin­ema­go­ers would be ly­ing if they said they didn’t love the feel­ing.

“When you’re bring­ing a myth to the screen not as a sym­bol but in the flesh, it’s crit­i­cal to place him in an en­vi­ron­ment that feels tac­tile, real and ab­so­lutely alive,” says Skull Is­land di­rec­tor Jor­dan Vogt-Roberts. “I want peo­ple to look up at the screen and say‘I be­lieve that could ex­ist’.”

Be­owulf is the old­est mon­ster story in the English lan­guage and in his ver­sion, Heaney rev­els in his lit­er­ary de­scrip­tion of its hero’s ghastly, non­hu­man en­e­mies. Be­owulf first bat­tles Gren­del, the “grim de­mon haunt­ing the marshes” who “ruled in de­fi­ance of right” and comes “greed­ily lop­ing … down through the mist-bands”. Later he takes on Gren­del’s wa­ter-dwelling mother, a “tarn-hag” and “mon­strous hell-bride”. And lastly, he en­coun­ters a fire-breath­ing dragon whose bite con­tains the fa­tal poi­son which fi­nally sends our hero into the here­after.

Skull Is­land, on the other hand, is sim­ply the lat­est in a long se­ries of mon­ster yarns (or crea­ture fea­tures, in Hol­ly­wood par­lance). The King Kong story first en­tered pop­u­lar cin­e­matic cul­ture in 1933, cour­tesy of Fay Wray’s fa­mous scream and a stop-mo­tion fi­nale set atop the Em­pire State

Build­ing, and this 21st-cen­tury up­date is set in 1973, as the Viet­nam war is end­ing and Nasa’s pi­o­neer­ing Land­sat pro­gramme is be­gin­ning its project to map the en­tire planet from space.

Its themes are greed, the pre­car­i­ous bal­ance of na­ture, and what hap­pens when hu­mankind’s van­ity and be­lief in its own pri­macy is shaken by an en­counter with some­thing big­ger, faster and tougher – and which doesn’t take kindly to be­ing shot at by Samuel L Jack­son and his team of hard-bit­ten Viet­nam vets.

“We tell our­selves that we are gods of our do­main,” says Vogt-Roberts. “But when you look at this thing [Kong], all you can rea­son and rec­on­cile is that you’re look­ing at a higher power. Whether they ac­cept it, whether they fight it, or whether they just want to sur­vive, that’s the path they all have to ne­go­ti­ate in­di­vid­u­ally.”

For Bri­tish ac­tor Tom Hid­dle­ston, an­other of the film’s stars, the pe­riod set­ting is key. “It’s a world be­fore the tyranny of global satel­lites, near to­tal sur­veil­lance and in­for­ma­tion over­load,” he says. “We didn’t have the il­lu­sion as we do to­day with the in­ter­net and cell phones and GPS that we knew ev­ery­thing about the world we live in. The pe­riod set­ting also gave us an ex­tra­or­di­nary prism to ex­plore what Kong might rep­re­sent in a con­ver­sa­tion about war, and the ten­dency of mankind to de­stroy what he doesn’t un­der­stand.”

FOR Hid­dle­ston’s co-star Brie Lar­son, mean­while, Skull Is­land “feels like an al­le­gory for the an­i­mal na­ture that’s within us all. We’re so far re­moved now from that part of our­selves. We seem to feel the need to over­come it in so many ways. It also taps into the ways we deal with the world around us – how we treat na­ture and how we value it, and how we value other hu­man be­ings as well”.

But though Be­owulf and Skull Is­land were pro­duced over 1,000 years apart, they and their mon­sters share plenty of DNA. Cast fur­ther back in time, in fact, and you find that myth, mon­sters and a fear of mon­sters are a con­stant. They’re present in Greek myth, in Abo­rig­i­nal and South Amer­i­can myth, in African and Poly­ne­sian myth, and in the folk­lores of Europe, east to west and north to south.

Hol­ly­wood scriptwrit­ers re­fer to them as MUTOs (Mas­sive Uniden­ti­fied Ter­res­trial Or­gan­isms), and King Kong and Godzilla are ob­vi­ous ex­am­ples. But to the peo­ples of the an­cient world they had other, more spe­cific names and of­ten re­lated to other, more spe­cific fears. There was the Mino­taur, a bull-headed mon­ster as­so­ci­ated with a Cre­tan bull cult that in­dulged in hu­man sac­ri­fice. Sasquatch, a rough, gi­ant hu­manoid crea­ture found in the folk­lore of the Pa­cific north-west who car­ries off chil­dren in some ver­sions. Rak­shasa, the fanged, shape-shift­ing, man-eat­ing de­mon of Hindi folkore. Or Azi Da­haka, a crea­ture from the Zoroas­trian re­li­gion which had six eyes and three heads, who bled in­sects and snakes and fea­tured in apoc­a­lyp­tic, end-time proph­e­sies.

There are thou­sands more, in ev­ery cor­ner of the world. The vam­pire is an ob­vi­ous favourite, with ver­sions ex­ist­ing in folk­lores as ge­o­graph­i­cally re­moved from each other as Ice­land and Ghana, and in time from An­cient In­dia to 18th-cen­tury Tran­syl­va­nia, the source for Bram Stoker’s fa­mous novel. But if there’s one mon­ster that is even more ubiq­ui­tous in world cul­ture, it’s the dragon. It’s not the only rea­son Game Of Thrones is a global smash, but it helps that the im­age of the air­borne, fire-breath­ing, ser­pen­tine killer is as univer­sal as it is po­tent.

In his book Deadly Pow­ers: An­i­mal Preda­tors And The Mythic Imag­i­na­tion, Amer­i­can aca­demic and cul­tural the­o­rist Paul A Trout out­lines a plau­si­ble the­ory about why this should be. Es­sen­tially, the dragon is a con­fla­tion of the three main pred- ators which would have trou­bled our pre­his­toric an­ces­tors: the big cat, the snake and the ea­gle. Fear of these be­came hard-wired into the pre­his­toric brain and when the rel­a­tively so­phis­ti­cated tech­nol­ogy of cave paint­ing and sto­ry­telling came along, a sin­gle crea­ture com­bin­ing all the scary bits of the oth­ers could be cre­ated as a sort of short­hand for the dan­gers that lurked out­side the cave or dwelling place.

So in this re­spect, hu­mankind’s fear of mon­sters is an ex­pres­sion of the fear of death. More than that, it’s an ex­pres­sion of the fear of be­ing eaten, “a shame­ful fate”, as Trout calls it.

“Myth af­ter myth con­fronts the stark facts of be­ing con­sumed by a larger crea­ture, ob­ses­sively de­pict­ing in graphic de­tail what both mon­sters and an­i­mal preda­tors nat­u­rally do – turn hu­mans into ex­cre­ment,” he writes. “The archetype of the mon­ster is an ex­pres­sion of this pri­mal fear writ large, ex­ag­ger­ated and in­ten­si­fied to an out­landish de­gree.”

IT’S a point that isn’t lost on Skull Is­land di­rec­tor Jor­dan Vogt-Roberts ei­ther. “One of the most amaz­ing things we’ve done as hu­man be­ings is to re­move our­selves from the food chain,” he says. “These char­ac­ters come to Skull Is­land with all the pre­sump­tions of our place in the out­side world and sud­denly none of that mat­ters be­cause they’re back in the food chain. I wanted to ex­plore what that would do to peo­ple: who breaks, who be­comes stronger be­cause of it, who ral­lies to­gether?”

But there is an­other rea­son why so many an­cient cul­tures dreamed up drag­ons and other mon­sters and the sto­ries that went with them: their habi­tats may once have been lit­tered with the bones of enor­mous an­i­mals – whales for in­stance – or even the fos­silised re­mains of di­nosaurs. As re­cently as the 4th cen­tury BC, Chi­nese his­to­rian Chang Qu came across just such a find in what is to­day Sichuan Prov­ince. To his mind it was a dragon.

Fur­ther back in time, an­cient peo­ples may ac­tu­ally have seen drag­ons – or crea­tures like them. The Nile croc­o­dile can grow up to 20 feet in length and may once have for­aged as far as the coasts of Italy and Greece, giv­ing rise to dragon myths in those cul­tures. In Aus­tralia, mean­while, there have been many sight­ings of 30ft-long lizard-type crea­tures and the preda­tory, car­niv­o­rous (and pos­si­bly ven­omous) Goanna lizard can grow up to eight feet in length and has been known to take sheep. Of course, there are the fa­mous Ko­modo Drag­ons in In­done­sia, which are ven­omous, have two-inch claws and sharp teeth, and grow up to 10 feet in length. How would the An­cient Greeks re­spond if they found a mam­moth skull, with its sin­gle, cen­tral hole where the trunk would have sprouted? By com­ing up with the myth of Cy­clops, the oneeyed mon­ster, of course. Mon­sters had other cul­tural uses. They gave a face, a body and a name to mankind’s fear of the un­known and the un­ex­plained. They could come to per­son­ify the wreck­ing ef­fects of nat­u­ral dis­as­ters or the dan­gers in­her­ent in try­ing to cross an arid desert, say, or a fast-flow­ing river. They could be used to de­monise out­siders or to rep­re­sent psy­cho-sex­ual de­sires. They could even man­i­fest fear of plague or ill­ness – wit­ness the pop­u­lar­ity of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel in the years im­me­di­ately af­ter its pub­li­ca­tion, which has been as­cribed in part to the wide­spread fear of syphilis. To­day, as Skull Is­land or any num­ber of hor­ror movies and crea­ture fea­tures proves, we still love to be scared by myth­i­cal mon­sters. Sure, the de­liv­ery method has al­tered – there’s no more sit­ting round an open fire, or in an earthen-floored cot­tage lit by a sin­gle can­dle – and some of the sto­ries have changed too. Oth­ers have fallen by the way­side. But not science nor rea­son nor even Pro­fes­sor Stephen Hawk­ing can ex­plain ev­ery­thing in our world, so as long as we have fears and con­cerns, and imag­i­na­tions which can go to work on both, the mon­sters will stay. In her book A Short His­tory Of Myth, critic, re­li­gious his­to­rian and for­mer nun Karen Arm­strong tracks the pres­ence and im­por­tance of myth from Ne­an­derthal times right up to Joseph Con­rad’s 1899 novel Heart Of Dark­ness and be­yond. “Mythol­ogy,” she writes, “is not about opt­ing out of this world, but about en­abling us to live more in­tensely within it”. What could be more in­tense than the fear that there are mon­sters out there – and that our ir­ra­tional, sub­con­scious, hard-wired pri­mal in­stincts mean we can only ever be 99 per cent cer­tain they aren’t ac­tu­ally real?

Sign of the beast: Alien, above, and the cy­clops from Ja­son And The Arg­onauts Pre­vi­ous pages: the lat­est in­car­na­tion of King Kong in Skull Is­land

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