Originally published in Edition One (2023) as part of the There Is Something In The Water column.
Content warning: references to violence, murder and killing; minor references to animal
All you had of this creature were its eyes, and while they would make an intriguing artistic composition—framed as they were by limp strands of putrid algae—they would not look well in a gallery. They looked up at you, unblinking; mooned and milky. Transforming this creature into a thing of beauty would be tricky. You had had a Raphaelite Ophelia in mind; an alabaster being rising from the recesses, lazily lounging upon the moss-drenched, lichen-spotted granite circling the water; rivulets crawling down a corpse-like arm and pooling at the foot of an elbow.
Frankenstein and Dracula were beings made tangible by the ink of their stories and the monochrome shots of a clacking film reel. Universal Studios were one of the first to notice the commercial goldmine these creatures could trigger in the 1930s. Contemporary storytellers are not too far behind. The likes of Predator (1987) or Jordan Peele’s Nope (2022), fully utilise the trope of the creature to induce fear and introduce the unsettling in their storylines, and therefore in their respective audiences. The creature is often otherworldly: think the clam-shaped killer of Nope; the ethereal, unnerving intensity of Dracula’s gaze. Or they are positively feral. Think of the creature (Ghost? Bible-esque demon?) in 2022’s Smile, driven by a need to consume the trauma it inflicts on its victims through the body it possesses. The otherworldly creature is manipulative in carrying out its goals; the feral creature, more often than not, leaves a trail of gore in its path. Sometimes, in a truly delicious twist of writing, the creature is both manipulative and leaves a trail of murder in its path.
Years ago, the water had housed all manner of koi, carp and whiskered catfish. You would have liked to mix amber tones and paint them into contrast with shattering light. Instead, you had the smell of putrid algae and questions. A water habitat suggested a reptile; an amphibian perhaps, if it relied on the surrounding water monitors for sustenance. You leaned further down. Your hair gathered algae at the tips. A sinuous worm slid up your spine when the eyes shifted at your movement. You would declare its name with paintbrushes, palette knives and Latin calligraphy; a stamp upon the novelty of your discovery.
The horror of the creature lies, of course, in this exact combination of intelligence and ruthlessness. They simultaneously emulate humanity and the lack of humanity. Jordan Peele’s underground doppelganger in 2019’s Us, for instance, wears a human visage, yet their erratic movements, their underground home and their static communication set them apart as the erratic ‘other’ creature, to fear and unsettle (it doesn’t help that they are nonchalant about serial murder as well).
Whatever visage the creature wears, or the storyteller forces them to wear, it makes them a palatable, digestible commercial item.
The creature would be rigor mortis-cold if you touched it. It would not be enough to see it for yourself. Visions were fragile and flimsy at best. One could not deny, however, the physical undeniability of touch. You thought it might be half serpent. Perhaps it would have the scales of a fish, the eyes of a cat. Could water creatures produce horns? Some part of it must be humanoid, of course, but the rest would be myth.
The creature’s legendary status and animalistic features dresses it up in otherness, and therefore, it is established as something to be killed or exploited. Man is given permission to encroach upon the creature’s territory. The doppelgangers must be murdered lest they murder you; Dracula must be removed from his ancestral castle lest he massacres a village. The audience revels in their sense of pious justice—yes, in killing the creature and in violating its territory, they had done the right thing.
“Right” is subjective, unfortunately (for the moral stickler). Nope features a chimpanzee, exploited for years at a sitcom set, embarking on a murderous, frustration-fuelled rampage against its show-business captors. Who is right here, then? The captive ape, or the human it murdered? Who is the ruthlessly intelligent creature here? An animal finally enacting painful revenge before a posse of cameras, or a human forcing said animal into cages and corsets for the sake of a cheap laugh?
You chose to forget the scar running down the length of your arm. You got it the last time you chose to break the surface of the water and grasp into its depths. It was obvious what had given you that scar, but this time you had come prepared. Leather gloves covered your hands, and you had a camera, a sketchbook, a net and a knife ready on the damp grass beside you.
Or perhaps take 2022’s The Menu. The chef is very much human, yet he orchestrates the mass murder of every wealthy client, food critic and restaurateur who dared encroach on his passion for cuisine. Sure, he decides to murder them by turning them into roasted, chocolate-covered s’mores, but really, who is the monstrous creature here? All those people who were exploited without remorse, or an apathetic, resentful man born of that lack of remorse exacting his rightful revenge?
Right and wrong, moral and immoral, black and white; they are all subjectivities all drowning in buckets of grey. It is just so interesting to see the stickler, however, forget that man is creature too, and insist on dressing up the “animalistic” in black and the human visage in angel white.
Really, you shouldn’t have been so surprised. You should have expected the hand to reach out to yours, just as your fingertips brush the water. For it was a hand: calloused, knuckles, fingernails, chipped and digging into your wrist. It was a torso rising from the depths, sagging and bare. It was a neck coiled beneath a head from which sprouted matted crimps like your own. And really, how could you be so shocked when it begins to dive, and the waterline rises with every inch of your descending skin?