Misunderstood Monsters | Drowning in Loneliness with the ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’
By Matt Konopka
Welcome fellow monster kids to Misunderstood Monsters. This is where I, Matt Konopka, sink my fangs into all sorts of beasts, ghouls, and creatures from above while I search for the humanity behind their frightening exteriors. From monster favorites such as The Wolf Man to obscure monsters like the whistling Shadmock, there is more to these fiends than bad hair days and gooey tentacles. Within them all is a piece of ourselves.
It broke my heart to learn of the passing of Ricou Browning. I didn’t know him. We weren’t friends. I’d see him at a horror convention once in a while, but never found the courage to approach him. I wish I had now, so I could’ve told him just how important his performance as the Gill-man from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was to me. That the Gill-man was one of the first characters to make me feel like I wasn’t alone in this world.
See, I didn’t have many friends growing up. My best buds were monsters from the movies. The Wolf Man. The Mummy. Frankenstein’s Monster. These were the unfortunate souls I felt connected to (and the reason I write this column). I was and am still a monster kid through and through. Like the misunderstood creatures on screen, I was an outcast. Whether undead or howling at the moon or wrapped head to toe in bandages, we shared the same need, which was simply to be accepted. And in good ‘ole Gill-man, I saw a creature like me, alone in his lagoon, desperate for an honest-to-God connection with someone.
Director Jack Arnold’s legendary creature feature stars the great Julie Adams as Kay and Richard Carlson as David, two in-love scientists in search of a rare fossil in the Amazonian jungle which leads their team into an unexplored lagoon. There, they get more than they bargained for when they discover a half-man, half-fish creature that is the descendant of the very thing they’re looking for. It’s mean. It’s green. And it takes quite a liking to Kay.
Makeup designer Milicent Patrick created one of the most memorable movie monsters to ever stalk the screen. Most people who watch this film sink deeper into their seats with bated breath upon glimpses of the creature’s webbed hand reaching from the water. They scream at the sight of the Gill-man’s appearance, and some cheer when David heroically shoots the unarmed creature to rescue Kay from its scaly grasp.
Notice the sarcasm?
That’s because I’m one of the few who doesn’t cheer. I don’t see a hideous monster. I see something which others perceive as ugly. I see something which they run away from. I see me.
Everyone from my wife to my therapist’s dog would wave me off and say stop, you’re not ugly. Maybe not. But try telling the Invisible Man he’s handsome. My body issues date back to when I was a kid suffering from a bad case of rosacea. It wasn’t that big of a deal, a little extra blush in the cheeks. Kids are cruel, though. They look for anything that makes you different. For years I was called names, which led to me becoming introverted, which led to other kids avoiding me. I was the Creature from the Red-faced Lagoon. I decided I was ugly. There was no one at that age to tell me otherwise, except my own mother. Moms are great, but we can all acknowledge they’re a little biased toward their own kids.
In my loneliness, I found monsters. In monsters, I found friends. And in Gill-man, I found a creature that assured me I wasn’t the only one swimming in a sea of grief.
Before we ever even see that first glimpse of Gill-man’s fishy eyes, the desperation for any kind of human contact emanates from him like a lighthouse beacon on a stormy night. As Kay stands near the water, his hand reaches out. Closer and closer his talons inch towards her ankle until the moment is interrupted and he sinks back beneath the surface. For all intents and purposes, the moment is meant to terrify. The wails of the Creature’s orchestral theme drown the audience in horror. Yet underneath techniques meant to scare is an implication of something searching for love. It frightens the audience because it’s unknown. Hideous by human standards. But that’s the cruelty of humans, isn’t it? That something they deem ugly is undeserving of love.
Eventually, Kay delivers a metaphorical middle finger to the chauvinistic men surrounding her onboard by throwing caution to the wind and diving into the lagoon by herself. It’s the moment that cements the Creature’s attraction to her, as well as an iconic place in film history.
This is where Ricou comes in. Time spent playing the Creature was split between Ricou and Ben Chapman. An experienced diver, Ricou donned the suit in the underwater scenes, while Chapman handled the performance on land. In what is arguably one of the most beautiful moments in horror, we watch from a wide angle as Kay swims and the Creature follows beneath her, matching every stroke. That foreboding theme returns. We’re meant to fear for Kay. But captured on screen is a breathtaking perception of the very human need to be loved. A ballet of movement in which the love interest is completely unaware of the person — in this case, creature — that they’ve captured the heart of. It’s a sad dance in which that love remains just out of reach, for the terrifying inevitability that once Kay sees the Creature she’ll scream and the dance will be over, imaginings of any possible connection disintegrated like salt in water.
That’s the dread anyone who considers themselves ugly lives with. The horrible belief that love is forever out of reach, because in a human society “ugliness” is so often deemed as “monstrous.”
So, yeah, I cry when the Creature dies. He isn’t perfect. He performs some questionable (at best) actions. A crush is certainly no excuse to kidnap said crush. But the men of the film train their guns on the Creature long before he ever touches Kay. Why? People fear ugliness. And in Creature, the monster’s punishment for Its appearance is a series of harpoons and bullets to the heart.
He was only a small part of a greater picture, but I hope wherever he is, Ricou knows how much those few minutes of screen time meant to kids like me. That underwater dance captured a feeling I couldn’t express at the time. He and the Creature are forever immortalized on screen like that fossil at the beginning of the film, letting audiences know that they’re not alone in this big, dark lagoon. 🩸
Matt is a writer and wannabe werewolf who began his love of horror at the ripe old age of 3 with Carpenter’s Christine. He has a horror podcast called Killer Horror Critic which he does with his wonderful wife and has previously been published on Bloody Disgusting, Shudder’s The Bite, and Daily Grindhouse. You can also find more of his reviews and ramblings at his blog, KillerHorrorCritic.com.
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