Even if they’ve never seen a horror movie, every kid in America knows about Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. These characters and archetypes have been around long before movies existed, but the film adaptations from Universal Pictures created the iconic versions of the characters that people still picture today. Though these legendary cinematic monsters are household names, none of them seem to have the passionate fan base that the titular Creature from 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon boasts.
Officially, the Creature has only appeared in two other films, 1955’s Revenge of the Creature and 1956’s The Creature Walks Among Us; the first two were directed by Jack Arnold and the final was directed by Arnold’s longtime assistant director John Sherwood. The Creature was the last of the classic Universal Monsters, and never appeared in the crossover films like his brethren The Wolfman, Dracula, or Frankenstein’s Monster, nor has he had a remake or reboot, despite the attempts of filmmakers as notable as John Carpenter and Guillermo Del Toro (whose 2017 film The Shape of Water drew heavy inspiration from the 1954 film). Still, the Creature has lived on in the form of toys, models, comics, novels, apparel, and even a popular pinball game. In the documentary Return to the Black Lagoon (available as a special feature on Creature DVDs and Blu-rays), film historian David J. Skal speculates that the Creature may actually have made more off-screen appearances than any other Universal Monster thanks to the ever-growing mountain of creature merchandise, tie-ins, and homages.
What is it about the Creature that inspires such a devoted fan base though? Like most of the other Universal Monsters, there’s an element of sympathy and tragedy to the Creature. Creature from the Black Lagoon tells the story of a group of scientists who venture to the Amazon searching for a fossil that may be the missing link between man and fish, only to discover the real thing in the flesh. The Creature finds himself attracted to Kay, the lone woman among these interlopers, and things soon escalate to violence. As the Creature makes several attempts to abduct Kay, there’s a growing tension among the scientists over whether the creature should be killed or studied. David, Kay’s boyfriend, seems to feel a bit of sympathy for the monster, seemingly understanding that they are invaders on the creature’s turf, and at the end stops his fellow explorers from finishing off the already wounded creature in favor of beating a hasty retreat from its jungle home.
Of course, there’s a sequel. Revenge of the Creature picks up soon after the events of the first film with another expedition coming to the Amazon to catch the creature. This group of humans succeeds in capturing the monster and bringing it back to Florida where it is put on display for the paying public. These researchers seem less interested in studying the creature than they are in bending it to their will, and subjecting it to cruel, negative reinforcement training before the Creature inevitably escapes. In the final film, The Creature Walks Among Us, the Creature is less monster and more victim as its gills are sealed up so that it can appear more “human.” The real monster of the third film is a classic mad scientist who keeps the creature prisoner in his private zoo while he experiments on it. In the end, the Creature breaks free, kills its captor, and the tragic final shot of the film is of the Creature wandering towards the ocean as the film fades out. Since the Creature can no longer breathe underwater, the implication of the closing moments of the film is that the creature will try to return to its aquatic home but will drown in the process.
One thing that separates the Creature from the other Universal Monsters is that he has a clear arc. While the first two Frankenstein films tell a close-ended story about the monster, eventually The Frankenstein Monster returned for more sequels where he devolved from a lonely, childlike outcast to a mindless beast. Even the Wolfman, one of the more tragic and sympathetic of the monsters, runs in place as a cursed man looking for release over the course of several films. The Black Lagoon trilogy though tells the story of the Creature’s capture, corruption, and eventual death at the hands of man. It’s the same journey as King Kong, except spread out over three films with the first one being the discovery of the monster at its home, the second being its capture and journey to civilization, and the third being its tragic demise. By spreading this story out over three films, the audience forms a greater sense of attachment and sympathy for this creature who at the end of the day is just an animal plucked out of his natural habitat.
Of course, also like King Kong, there’s a Beauty and the Beast element to the Creature’s story. Though at first, the Creature is hostile towards the human interlopers in its home, it quickly develops an attraction to Kay, and in each subsequent film forms a similar attachment to the female lead.
Presumably the last of its kind, the Creature seems to long for a connection or companionship of some sort, though it is always met with violence as a result. The perpetual loneliness of the monsters is a running theme in the classic Universal monster films, but there’s an extra layer of sympathy for the Creature as he doesn’t really seem to understand what makes him different from the humans, nor does he understand their intentions towards him.
Many horror fans have often spoken of how they have felt like outcasts or misfits and no doubt many of these people see a kindred spirit in the Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s a dichotomy many feel, lonely and wanting companionship yet also wanting to be left alone, and it perfectly sums up the Creature, who wants the humans gone from his home yet also feels drawn to them. The Creature’s longing for companionship proves to be its downfall, leading to the Creature being forcibly brought to civilization where he is transformed to the point where he no longer resembles the graceful, powerful being he once was. Its final act of wading into the ocean, and to its own death, is one of self-destructive defiance from what outside interference has turned The Creature into. Like the Creature, we all must eventually journey away from our familiar homes, transformed by the effects of the outside world and others trying to make us more like them — but that spark of our old selves always lives within. Creature from the Black Lagoon is the ultimate outcast of all the monsters because, despite all that it endures, it always remains true to itself. There’s a human side of this monster that has always shined through and may be the answer to the Creature’s lasting appeal through the decades.
James Reinhardt is a screenwriter and podcaster with nine years of experience in the film industry and four years of experience scaring people professionally in the haunted house industry. Follow him on Twitter @JamesReinhardt.