Eco-Minded Monsters: Horrifying Reactions to Environmental Destruction in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Posted by Christopher Scott on November 02, 2015 in Blog, Christopher Scott tagged with , , , , , ,

With another Halloween season come and gone, I cannot help but recall youthful memories of the anticipation that always preceded the last day of October.  Macabre house and lawn decorations, pumpkins, and seemingly ubiquitous hues of black and orange saturated neighborhoods while eager children counted the days before they could transform into their favorite monsters for a night.  Yet out of all the preparations, those that contributed the most to the overall ambience—at least for me—were the horror productions that dominated television channels.  Such horror “classics” as Universal’s Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Wolf Man (1941), and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) resurfaced to convey—some more than others—their interpretations of familiar Gothic stories and/or themes.  One monster from Universal’s pantheon, however, may have accomplished more than merely frighten its audience.

coverphotoProduced during the 1950s, Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon suggests a novel way to interpret the horror narrative.  Current scholarly discourse highlights the adhesion of American horror films of the 1950s to their contemporary political climate.  The decade following the Second World War experienced a growing polarization of political influence between the two dominant superpowers in the world: the United States and the Soviet Union.  As both nations rivaled one another in such spheres as exploration, technology, and militarization, tensions heightened and led to fears of another catastrophic war—this time involving the use of multiple atomic bombs.  Andrew Tudor maintains that American horror films during this decade evince plots that hinge on the perils of “mad science” and atomic energy (141).  David Punter and Glennis Byron also endorse this position by noting how these films “encode arguments about the Cold War” relating to “fears of [Soviet] invasion” and “communism” (66).  Black Lagoon, however, follows a different formula.  Invasion in this film derives from an environmental rather than political mold.  Instead of implicitly propagating Soviet-aggression paranoia, inherent in such other films of the era as Radar Men from the Moon (1952) and Invaders from Mars (1953), Black Lagoon introduces a story set in a politically tranquil world with characters who, representing civilization, constitute an invasive force responsible for damaging the natural environment and experiencing the subsequent horror of that landscape’s monstrous reaction.

Set in the far reaches of the Amazonian rainforest, Black Lagoon’s story explicitly illuminates the notion of human invasion and danger to the natural environment. In an attempt to subdue and capture the eponymous creature, Doctors David Reed (Richard Carlson) and Mark Williams (Richard Denning) urge Captain Lucas (Nestor Paiva) to concoct a chemical compound called “Rotenone” to poison all marine life in the lagoon with the hope of affecting the monster.  Without hesitation the group agrees to use the toxic substance, which causes all fish in the lagoon to float lifelessly at the surface.  Injecting unnatural chemicals into the monster’s natural environment alters the state of that setting and disturbs every living organism within its immediate area.  The film’s titular creature reacts to these environmental threats by attacking the human perpetrators and causing them to flee for their lives.

PesticideBlack Lagoon’s presentation of human recklessness through an indiscriminately destructive chemical agent anticipates Rachel Carson’s seminal environmental text, Silent Spring (1962), by utilizing her paradigmatic demonstration of collateral damage to the environment.  In the volume’s narrative portion titled “A Fable for Tomorrow,” Carson presents a fictional story of a small American town that experiences catastrophic change by the destructive effects of the chemical pesticide DDT.  The anthropogenic disaster, what she refers to as the “evil spell,” silences all nonhuman life within and around the town (21).  Like the devastated organisms in Silent Spring, those in Black Lagoon encounter chemical poisons and suffer death as a result of human irresponsibility.

In short, Creature from the Black Lagoon conveys an environmental discourse that evinces a human-centered relationship between humanity and the wilderness.  This cinematic narrative explores how scientists approach the natural landscape with a blatant disregard for anthropogenic damage.  Mistreating the biosphere thus renders the wilderness a victim of anthropocentrism, and the environmental monstrosity in this movie constitutes a collective nonhuman reaction to this detrimental mindset while simultaneously illuminating its disastrous effects.  This brief examination highlights the possibility of adding an ecocritical lens to the limited scope through which current scholars read this period of American horror cinema.   Rather than alluding to the dangers of an impending Soviet invasion, Black Lagoon ultimately raises an environmental awareness of universal anthropocentrism and its deleterious consequences for the natural environment which anticipate Carson’s movement-inaugurating publication in the years that followed.

Works Cited

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. 1962. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965. Print.

Creature from the Black Lagoon. Dir. Jack Arnold. Universal Pictures, 1954. Film.

Punter, David, and Glennis Byron, eds. The Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. Print.

Tudor, Andrew. Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie. Oxford: Blackwell, 1989. Print.

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