Part 1: The Real Monsters
Written by Monster Awareness Month team member: Robert Hood
Once upon a time giant monsters were real. They existed as more than a construct of the imagination, belonging to a distant past that predated homo sapiens or its ancestors by several millennia. Yet their reality is verifiable at any natural history museum. Everyone knows of them, is familiar with their general nature, and can name a few at least, even though no one has seen one alive. Since evidence of them was first discovered these giant monsters have exhibited a strong cultural presence. It was English palaeontologist Richard Owen who, in 1842, named them “dinosaurs” or “terrible lizards”, thus in some sense “fixing” the cultural perception of them as reptilian and dragon-like.
Yet despite being “real” and known inhabitants of prehistory, the giant monsters known as “dinosaurs” underwent a sort of mythic transmogrification in the popular imagination, assuming a fictive life within it — thanks to several influential novels, numerous short stories and a plethora of films. In this imaginative world, dinosaurs are related to dragons, humanoid giants, Elder Gods and other supernatural giant fauna. But unlike such fantastical creatures, we can readily accept them as “fact” because we can see and touch and even find evidence of their reality for ourselves. Fossilised bones, reconstructed skeletons and a whole discipline of respectable scientific study tell us that it’s okay to believe in these particular über-beasts without feeling like an intellectual pariah. Dinosaurs are creatures that were, and hence are, almost universally acceptable, even though none of us have seen one alive. We don’t have to believe in dinosaurs any more than we have to “believe” in lions or elephants; they are simply de facto “real”.
Real, natural animals though they may be, we tend to think of them as monsters, monsters from an age of monsters. And we think of them as big. Very big. They fire our imaginations with their size and remoteness. In a literal sense they are the first giant monsters, delicately balanced between the natural and the unnatural in our imaginations. Though mythic giant creatures had long existed as part of all cultures (in the form of dragons and god-human mythical hybrids), it would be the newly discovered “scientific” giants that would most influence the giant-monster film genre that was born in the 20th century. The “reality” of dinosaurs gave them added appeal and lent their cinematic presence greater credibility. It ensured that, in the seductive, if illusory, reality of the motion picture, dinosaurs would provide the template for many of the giant monster superstars.
Of course, on screen they didn’t stay realistically imagined or even scientifically plausible for long.
But what is the essence of the “mythic” dinosaur? As a cultural icon the dinosaur exhibits three key aspects: they’re reptilian (though of course the real ones are not of the reptile family), they’re monstrous (despite being natural creatures) and they’re very big (even though the majority of them weren’t). The last is central as that’s what makes them seem monstrous — that and the perceived viciousness of predators such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex (recent research that suggests that T. Rex was, in fact, a scavenger notwithstanding). Unnatural size is fundamental to the cultural fascination that dinosaurs have provoked. Kids love them for their awesome size; adults feel the same way, though usually with an attitude of assumed nonchalance. It doesn’t matter that of the 500+ and steadily growing dinosaur species identified to date a large proportion are small — the smallest the size of a crow. The fact is, the ones we know well from fiction are gigantic.
For example, though the name “Brontosaurus” has been declared a misnomer and the creature referred to is now known under the earlier designation “Apatosaurus” in scientific circles, the good old “thunder lizard” still holds a firm place in popular imagination as the iconically big dinosaur. Rightly or wrongly it remains one of the best known of them, along with T. Rex, Allosaurus, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and the Pterodactyl (which is technically a pterosaur and not a dinosaur at all). In the early silent film The Lost World (US-1925; dir. Harry O. Hoyt), a brontosaurus would become the first giant monster to rampage through a modern city, a moment in screen destruction that provided a sort of template for its descendents: King Kong (US-1933; dir. Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack), The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (US-1953; dir. Eugene Lourie) and Gojira [aka Godzilla: King of the Monsters] (Japan-1954; dir. Ishiro Honda). These films form a developmental continuum and began a sub-genre that is still as lively as ever today.
At a length of 70-90 feet (21-27 m), height of 10-15 feet (3-4.6 m) and weighing 33-38 tons, the Brontosaurus, a herbivore, has size as its leading cultural attribute. Yet it isn’t close to being the biggest of the dinosaurs. The tallest on record (as of this writing) is the Sauroposeidon, which, at 59 feet (18 m) high, could easily peer at you over the top of a multi-storey building. Similarly, the largest known carnivore is the Spinosaurus, at 50-60 feet (16-18 m) in length. Though these figures are estimates based on often minimal evidence and new dinosaurs are perpetually being added to the literature and re-evaluated by palaeontologists, one thing is certain: these creatures would have towered over a human being, had any humans existed during their reign on Earth.
Cinema lets us see that relationship in a dynamic way by fictionalising the context. The last mentioned giant above, the Spinosaurus, is the lead dinosaurian antagonist in Jurassic Park III (2001), where its size and viciousness are established early on, when it slays that more popular dino-carnivore icon, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, before taking on the human protagonists. Here the Spinosaurus is depicted as very monstrous indeed. It is, no doubt, the thought of such creatures appearing in direct contact with humans that makes us see them as monsters. The size relativities quite reasonably intimidate us — as do all those rather large teeth.
There is perhaps a complementary cathartic appeal inherent in imagining what creatures so large and so primeval might do if suddenly transported into our world from the distant past. In fact, the largest dinosaurs are big enough to do considerable trashing of cities, even if they are of the non-vicious kind — and city-trashing would be established early on in the history of cinema as a popular occupation for a giant monster to undertake. In their own world dinosaurs might have been natural creatures and scary the way lions and other predators are scary; in our world, out of their proper time and place, they are awesome and terrible wonders. In short, dinosaurs are fascinating animals seen from a scientific distance, but if we met one face-to-face it would be undeniably a monster.
Consider this illustration of a monstrous Iguanadon in a cityscape, an image that appeared in Camille Flammarion’s Le Monde avant la creation de l’homme. Origines de la terre. Origines de la vie, a significant geological account of the beginnings of life published in 1886. Even in this early non-fictional context the imaginative lure of the dinosaur as an intruder in our world comes through clearly. It is a scene that would appear many times in giant monster films over the following century — though the monster doing the looming would become more and more fantastical, and in some instances considerably bigger. In terms of influence, though, it’s hard not to see Flammarion’s illustration in this scene from the seminal 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, whether it was intentional or not:
As we shall explore in Part 2 of “The First Giant Monsters”, filmmakers and storytellers have generally taken one of several different narrative approaches to making dinosaurs get close-up and personal with modern humanity and human civilisation — and thus re-imagining them as genuine mythic “monsters”. The main narrative approaches draw on two early novels: Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World.
TO BE CONTINUED
- Image acknowledgement: the first image in this article is of robotic dinosaurs that were part of the Walking with Dinosaurs exhibition in 2009. Photo: [CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images]