Day of the Tentacle?

Posted by kevincorstorphine on June 10, 2011 in Dr Kevin Corstorphine, Guest Blog tagged with , , , , , ,
I’ve been thinking recently about squid, and their place in the canon of Gothic literature and film. This has been inspired by reading China Miéville’s novel Kraken (2010); a dark urban fantasy centred around the theft of ‘Archie’, an Architeuthis Dux (Giant Squid) specimen from London’s Natural History Museum. Miéville uses this premise to explore a mythos of doomsday cults and magic. Archie is in fact real, although the existence of a shadowy ‘Teuthist’ cult in London remains unverified.

'Archie' at the London Natural History Museum

In this post I will explore some representations of these creatures and analyse their function within the Gothic. In a recent blog post Marie Mulvey Roberts discussed vampires, including sparkly ones, pointing out that they are largely interesting in terms of the broad spectrum of social and political themes they represent. A useful starting point for this voyage into the depths, then, is whether or not the same could be said of squid. Could tentacles ever be the new fangs?

From Twilight to True Blood, vampires are currently experiencing massive popularity Rather than being linked to their monstrosity, I would contend, this is a consequence of their intrinsic humanity. Vampires are best understood not as true products of folk legend (such tales are vague and largely unrelated to the creatures as we know them), but as literary creations. John William Polidori’s Lord Ruthven, the title character of The Vampyre (1819) was based on his occasional friend and patient Lord Byron, whose dark and brooding persona has become the dominant motif in contemporary vampire fiction. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) and of course Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) further reinforce the connection between vampires and sex, exploiting the tension between Victorian moral norms and the primal urges soon to be analysed by Freud. Vampires fit neatly into a Judeo-Christian framework of symbolism: temptation, damnation, blood, and the resurrection of the flesh. Their danger comes from their familiarity, from what we recognise of ourselves. Squid, on the other hand, do not lend themselves so easily to teen romance.

‘Mixed Blood and Marine Pursuits’

The Granddaddy of all cephalopod horror, of course, is H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu. Although known best for its squid-like qualities, the creature is presented to us in ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ through a series of Gothic misdirections and tales within tales. Inspector Legrasse, investigating a voodoo cult, discovers a stone idol representing, ‘A monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.’ This is somewhat confirmed by a Norwegian sailor’s diary entry telling of an attack by the beast. ‘The Thing cannot be described’, the narrator tells us, before paradoxically describing it as having an, ‘awful squid-head with writhing feelers’.

Great Cthulhu

All this, however, can be dismissed as the desperate fumblings of the human brain to comprehend the alien, for Cthulhu is indeed alien, not supernatural. It represents nothing less than the unspeakable horror at the realisation of humanity’s insignificance in the universe (probably not a popular theme with the Twi-Hards). The notoriously racist element of Lovecraft’s fiction rears its head here, with particular regard to the mixing of the races, portrayed as ‘degenerate’. It is appropriate then, that Cthulhu should bring together elements of human, cephalopod and dragon to create a hybrid monstrosity. It leaks between categories not only of taxonomy but the boundaries of life and death. As the prophecy of the ‘mad Arab’ Abdul Alhazred foretells: That is not dead, which can eternal lie,

And with strange aeons even death may die.

If we are to view this as representative of the loss of religious faith and uncertainty about the strange vistas being opened by science, then we should go further back to Tennyson, whose creature in ‘The Kraken’ lies under the sea, in an ‘ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep’ (Lovecraft readers, of course, will note that Cthulhu does dream, in deep R’Lyeh no less). Drawing together natural history, specifically the concept of deep geological time that so awed the Victorians, with Christian eschatology, he uses the poem as a means of looking back on the age of the Earth, as well as forward to an apocalyptic future. The Kraken will stay beneath the sea:

Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;

Then once by man and angels to be seen,

In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

The myth of the Kraken, crystallised so perfectly by Tennyson, tells us much about humanity and the way we create our monsters. The giant squid, likely to have inspired these tales, is a massive creature, but in no way capable of attacking ships, as in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869).

Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville and Edouard Riou's illustration from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

There is perhaps something imaginatively compelling in such a mysterious creature, living at depths so remote from human reach that we are only now beginning to learn about their true nature. The first time a mature giant squid was photographed in the wild was not until 2002 in Japan, where it rose to the surface and did indeed die (after being tied to a quay). These creatures are remote from our mammalian perspective in so many ways that it is unsurprising they so often stand in for aliens. It is unknown how they breed, but the common supposition is that the male injects sperm directly into the female, an oddly vampiric image, but again quite far from vamp-romance. It does, however, bring out the Freudian implications of Gothic squid; the tentacles literally as well as metaphorically phallic. The squid, in fact, oscillates between male and female symbolism, with the phallic reading disrupted by the gaping maw of the monstrous feminine. The Kraken, as with Cthulhu, represents not a single meaning, but rather a lack of meaning. The beast is a floating signifier, or at least symbolic of something beyond everyday human concern. It is the apocalypse, the collapse of meaning, Hamlet’s ‘undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveller returns’. It remains always on the horizon.‘Bring Me That Horizon!’

Squid and Octopuses have enjoyed popularity in adventure films without entirely losing the edge of Gothic horror, again operating as a symbol of the unknown and threatening. The Lost Continent (1968), based on Dennis Wheatley’s Uncharted Seas (1938), is a great example of tentacled beasts in the ‘lost world’ genre. Have a look at the trailer here: The Lost Continent.

This sense of exoticism is carried through to the recent blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean films, where Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow fights not only a Kraken (which rises from the depths like Tennyson’s creature, or alternately the Freudian id, disrupting the male symbolic order that dominates the films), but a Cthulhu-like Davy Jones.


Oversized cephalopods of terror appear in Deep Rising (1998) as well as the gloriously tacky Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus (2009). An entire sub-category could no doubt be based around Dr Who’s pantheon of rubbery monsters, but special mention should be made of the Kraken-like Kroll, as well as the more recent Ood, behind whose tentacled faces there is blankness. With their brains amputated, they are used to transmit the will of others through their natural psychic abilities, once again taking on the role of empty signifier (interestingly, to come back to gender politics, only the Doctor can differentiate their sex).


In terms of horror films, of direct relevance is The Mist (2007). Based on a Stephen King novella where the eponymous mist cuts off a small town and prehistoric creatures roam, director Frank Darabont adds some distinctly Lovecraftian tentacles that snatch the unwary to their doom.

Dimension Films

This synechdochic use of the tentacles hints at something larger and more terrible, left in the realm of the imagination. It speaks for something beyond itself, something never fully realised but oscillating hauntingly between its absence and presence. This is where squid and their kin differ from vampires. Despite internet meme culture taking Cthulhu into the mainstream, they have little personality. Indifferent symbols of apocalyptic doom, they lack human motivation and are unlikely to invoke sympathy. Yet all may not be lost for the squid in Gothic horror: in the lowest depths of the tropical oceans there lives a creature called the vampire squid, and guess what? It sparkles.

The ‘Vampire Squid from Hell’

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