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Scary Monsters

Fiction is fiction and monsters are not predators: they’re monsters. As such they’re human projections, our worst nightmares made flesh.

A picture of a cat footprint in Africa by Jyoti

Experts are often incensed by mistakes in fiction.

In his hateful little book, Lord of the Flies, William Golding famously made Piggy short-sighted, only to have him light a fire with his glasses! Like duh! As any physicist will tell you he’d have needed long-sighted lenses. Every time a coma patient wakes up to a zombie apocalypse and rips the intravenous drip from their arm, a thousand nurses scream ‘do you know how long that cannula is?’ And if Thames Valley Police really solved crimes by pontificating their way around the pubs, colleges and other landmarks of Oxford, we really would be living in the murder capital of England.

a predator/parasitoid would

go extinct rather quickly

As an ex-ecologist my pet annoyance is monsters. In particular, the way in which monsters always announce themselves with a blood-curdling roar. So prevalent is this cliche that its hard to think of a Hollywood monster movie in which it doesn’t occur. Jurassic Park, Avatar, Life of Pi, Alien (actually, that’s more of a blood-curdling hiss) – I could go on.

A picture of a cat footprint in Africa by Jyoti
Now as any biologist will tell you, and as anyone who’s ever watched any nature programme will concur, predators do not announce themselves to their prey. The moment you know a jaguar is after you is when it lands on your head.Any lion that gave a herd of wildebeest a blood-curdling roar would be a very hungry lion indeed. Every time it happens in a movie, therefore, I find my annoyance levels rising. (And don’t get me started on the ecology of Alien – I mean, a predator/parasitoid would go extinct rather quickly – didn’t anyone think about this stuff?).

No, the only time predators roar is when they’re fighting each other, or, more strictly speaking, when they’re trying not to fight each other. Here, the blood-curdling roar is a handy non-contact way of saying ‘I could have you.’ Much less costly than actually having to fight.

Now before you accuse me of missing the point entirely, no one has ever let the facts get in the way of a good story, nor should they. Fiction is fiction and monsters are not predators: they’re monsters. As such they’re human projections, our worst nightmares made flesh. No wonder that they behave like humans. The blood-curdling roar is just movie shorthand for ‘I could have you’, or worse, that ‘I’m coming to get you.’ Horrible.

Who doesn’t remember the roar of the ogre in Jack and the Beanstalk?

Fee, fi, fo, fum
I smell the blood of an Englishman
Be he alive or be he dead
I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.

It terrified me in childhood and chills me to this day, even if bakers everywhere are clenching their floury fists and muttering darkly “that bread’ll never rise.”

Photo: Jyoti

2 Replies to “Scary Monsters”

  1. Avatar Alexander Hay says:

    Andy, firstly thanks a lot for a good article. Secondly, my only sticking point is that the Alien seems to have been a bio-weapon of some sort or another (this is based on watching the first film; I like to pretend the big steaming turd that was Prometheus never happened) that burnt itself out when it ran out of hosts. The extended universe, meanwhile, suggests the xenos harvest cattle (including humans) as hosts, so there is some internal logic at play here.

    Roaring monsters making a dramatic entry do of course make no sense.

    I’m reminded of Oscar Wilde’s maxim that people will believe the impossible but not the improbable. With that in mind, what would a probable predatory monster be like, if we were to make a film about one?

    Keep up the good work.

    • Avatar Sean says:

      My understanding of the Alien xenomorph’s life cycle comes from watching the first three films, as well as having read the comics sometime in the early 90s. A bit vague, and mostly lost to the mists of distant memory, but something like this:

      An alien queen lays eggs – as we see at the end battle in Aliens. This is a type of assexual semi-reproduction, as the eggs are lacking a secondary source of genetic information – the queen hasn’t mated.
      The eggs, on sensing a viable lifeform in close proximity, burst open and release a facehugger. That facehugger exists solely to implant a gamete in it’s unfortunate host. Once implanted in the host body, the gamete gene-splices with the host body, deriving the missing genetic information it needs from the host body. If you note the morphology of the xenomorph in Alien 3 – it moves on all fours and is more doglike than the ones we see in Alien and Aliens. It drew its secondary DNA from the dog in which it gestated.

      My guess is that only the queen xenomorph is fertile, these offspring, in their ambulatory form, don’t seem to show any interest in reproduction – just awesome molecular-acid, shiny exoskeletal carnage and thuggery. Yee haw!

      The graphic novels made a point that the xenos (or the queen at least) were capable of telepathic communication/influence/empathy, which explains a shot toward the end of the Aliens film in which Ripley and the queen xeno face off for a few seconds. Many viewers cried ‘Pah! Why doesn’t the queen just stab Ripley with her extendable inner mandibles and get this over with?’. As it happens, at this point in the graphic novel, the queen was communicating with Ripley, manipulating Ripley’s unfulfilled-mother complex, in the hopes that she would leave the queen xeno’s unborn children unharmed. Ripley is, for a moment, like, totally conflicted about this, before snapping back to herself and flame-grilling the lot. Hooray!

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