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
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