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‘Far, Far Beneath in the Abysmal Sea…’

April 22, 2013

A while ago I was watching a low budget Sci-Fi Channel junk called Overaggressive Croco-Shark Versus The Insane Atomic Mega-Squid or something along those lines, and thoroughly enjoying it I was too.  My wife was somewhat less impressed, and asked what I could possibly enjoy about such a terrible crime against cinema. The fact is people like to be scared – its what we watch horror films for after all – and I usually find sea monster based films scary. It doesn’t matter how cheesy the plot is or how shoddy the effects are they can still usually spook me to some extent. And this is because I find the sea in general and the nasty things in it bloody terrifying.

I think it all started with a hardback coffee-table style picture book  my Dad owned. If my hazy memory and quick googling are accurate the book was Danger in the Sea by some geezer called Alec Fraser-Brunner.  I think my Mother bought it for him as he was a keen sea fisherman, but you wouldn’t have found any of the nasty critters in this book off the bloody Cumbrian coast. As a nipper I spent many an hour browsing through the pictures of barracuda, salt water crocodiles, killer jellyfish, conga eels and other charming characters. They were scary as hell, but I just couldn’t help but look for some reason. And the section that drew me in most was the one on the oceans ultimate predator – sharks.

Of all the photos in the book there is one that I can still picture as clear as day. It showed the most notorious of the sharks, the great white, in a full-on open mouthed lunge towards the camera. Now I don’t know if it was a trick of the light or some kind of post production tinkering on the this photo, but this shark was truly white. Not grey like they normally are, but a supernatural, pure, ghostly white with black, pitiless eyes. Starting at that kind of picture for too long can have a funny effect on a growing lad. Particularly when he then ends up watching Jaws.

My parents were pretty liberal about the films I watched and I can’t have been much more than six or seven when I first watched Jaws. I was utterly enthralled by it – I might have been  absolutely scared out of my wits but I kinda liked it. My favourite scene in the entire movie is the attack that prompts the expedition to catch the shark, when it gets into the boating lake area. After it flips a few boats over the shark slowly, silently floats up under an unsuspecting fellow clinging to the hull of his boat. One minute he’s talking away quite happily, and the next he finds out he’s nothing more than a floating meat-snack, literally out of his depth in an environment which he is helpless and at the mercy of said environments apex predator. Goddamit, that scene is so good it almost makes up for  the existence Jaws IV: The Revenge.

He's beee-hind you

He’s beee-hind you

So, with this kind of reading and viewing material growing up it’s hardly surprising I ended up just plain terrified of the big blue.  Even the thought of dark, hostile water of unknown depth and what could possibly be lurking in that inky abyss gets my heart beating a little bit faster.  According to good old Wikipedia the fear of deep water is known as Thalassophobia, and it’d be fair to say I probably qualify as being more than a wee bit Thalassophobic. You’ll not find me swimming or diving in open water any time soon after all. It’s a totally hostile environment where a human can’t properly breathe, move or see, but the natives can and they’re not likely to try and help you out. As well as the Thalassophobia I’d say my early reading and viewing choices have left me more than slightly Galeophobic too, which is apparently having a fear of sharks (something that seems totally reasonable as far as I’m concerned). But as I got older and more knowledgeable I cottoned on that there’s a lot more in the briny deeps to freak me out besides sharks. How about sea snakes or puffer fish more venomous than anything on land? Or hideous, clawed and armored crustaceans? Or everyone’s favourite monstrous cephalopods…

Who could possibly fail to be terrified and fascinated in equal measure by tentacled horrors like the giant or colossal squid?  The title of this blog post is of course a line from Lord Alfred Tennyson’s 1830 poem ‘The Kraken’, which along with a range of old woodcuts and such depicting slimy many-armed behemoths destroying boats shows us this fascination is not just a modern phenomena. The mysterious nature of the giant squid no doubt added something to it’s appeal. The fact that for years they were only seen as washed up corpses as they lived at such immense depths no-one managed to film them in the wild for so long must have been so frustrating for the scientists trying to study them. Particularly as massive circular scars seen on whales hinted at specimens much bigger than anything ever found on a beach, judging by the size of the suckers that must have made those marks. Even smaller squid can quite scary.  The image of someone being dragged below the surface by a frenzied swarm of humboldts while they tear him to shreds with their knife-sharp beaks is something so nasty I’m surprised it hasn’t made it’s way into a monster movie already – at least if it has I haven’t seen that one.  Come to think of it there’s not many really good squid-based horror movies as far as I know, which is a shame.  There’s Sharktopus I suppose, but that one’s a bit lame even by my low standards. If you can recommend me one shout up in the comments box.  Till then I’ll just have to wait for Hollywood to pull their finger out and make a kraken-esque monster the star of the show, not some bit-part player like in Pirates of the Caribbean – Dead Man’s Chest. 

Sweet zombie Jesus... pictures like this should not be allowed

Size comparison pictures like this should not be allowed

Actually, one of the absolute best moments of spine-tingling deep sea horror that I’ve encountered recently wasn’t a film at all –  it was in book form as it happens. China Mieville’s The Scar is an entertaining tale of floating pirate cities (and sea creatures too big to exist in our dimension) which features a wonderfully terrifying sequence involving a dinichthys (a long extinct, armour-plated giant oceanic predator of the Devonian period, similar to a dunkleosteus). There’s another excellent bit featuring a bathysphere at extreme depths as well, but for me the giant fish attack just pips that one. I don’t want to give too much away – because if you haven’t read this book then you really should and I don’t want to spoil it – but the encounter with the dinichthys. which is referred to a bonefish in the story, encapsulates just about everything about the deep ocean that terrifies me.  The poor souls stuck under the water with the bonefish have no idea from which direction it will strike, given it can move freely through the three dimensional environment.  Even if they knew where it was coming from they can’t see far enough into the murky waters to spot it it time, while the  predator has well-adapted senses.  freed from the size constraints of land animals  the creature hunting them is huge, blessed with abyssal gigantism that makes trying to fight it off hopeless. The poor humans are essentially trapped in a hostile void, a landscape that will try to kill them with crushing pressure or a choking denial of oxygen even if the perfectly designed aquatic killing machine fails to do so with it’s awesome bite force and razor-sharp teeth.

Seriously. It’s a great book.  Even if you don’t enjoy scaring yourself silly with scenes of underwater horror, there’s plenty to enjoy here.

Now I think of it, reading stuff with creatures like dinichthys in it is probably a bad idea. It’ll only get my over-active imagination thinking about the possibilities of there being all sorts of other prehistoric monsters hiding away  in the vastness of the planets oceans,  as if they didn’t get the memo telling them they were meant to be extinct.  Things like mosasaurus, megalodon liopleurodon, or kronosaurus would eat some snotty little great white shark for breakfast and then swallow down a colossal squid for dessert, horrible barbed tentacles and all. Speaking of aquatic dinosaurs reminds me of another book I had as a kid apart from Danger in the Sea. It was a picture book that whimsically imagined what would happen if certain dinosaurs where around today. Cue hilarious pictures of a man walking his dog while trying to avoid a T-Rex or other similar rubbish.  The picture that stuck with me most though was of a chap desperately trying to propel his rowing boat out of the jaws of some massive marine reptile, probably a kronosaurus or similar. I can still see that image quite clearly in my head, and even as a nipper I never found it especially comical.

It’s probably little wonder that I ended up with this little collection of phobias given the books and films I was exposed to in my tender years.  That said, I still maintain there’s nothing irrational about being scared of the sea. As far as I’m concerned there’s nothing irrational in being afraid of an alien realm that we can’t live in and is full of monsters that could kill us with barely a thought, be it by tooth or venom or whatever. Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  It might mean I’ll never be able to take a scuba holiday in the Bahamas or similar, but at least it means I can do something that few others can – find fear-inducing entertainment in junk like Jersey Shore Shark Attack, Deep Blue Sea or Supergator.

I’d say that’s worth it.

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From → Musings

9 Comments
  1. Another good one is ‘The Beast’. Written by the same guy who did ‘Jaws’ and starring the guy who used to play Grissom on CSI. It’s from several years back and dealt with giant squids.

    • I’d forgotten that mini-series – it was a bit cheap and cheerful but still entertaining. I still reckon the giant squid could do with the full Hollywood treatment though.

  2. Hilarious! I haven’t actually seen a one of these fine examples of cinematic excess, but I’m not embarrassed to admit to enjoying them vicariously through your eyes!

    • Well, if someone’s managed to do something vicariously via my blog then I’ve achieved something worthwhile. At least I think so. I’ll have to look up what vicariously means before I can be sure.

      If you do fancy getting into the giant-sea-monster-creature-feature genre I can recommend Two-Headed Shark or Mega-Shark Vs Giant Octopus…

  3. I can’t swim. So that put’s paid to much of my imagining the strange dangers lurking there. Or then, maybe I SHOULD learn swimming?

    • I’m not a great swimmer, but the way I see it even if I could swim like that Phelps chap it wouldn’t matter. The scary things will all still be faster and better in the water than any person ever could be…

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