In this hyper-political age we’ve seen what seems to be an almost unending debate among the political class of this land over the highly charged topic of immigration reform. Countless hours are spent arguing whether this person or that person should be allowed citizenship for this country, whether still others should even be allowed into the country at all, and of course whether or not we’re giving some “a free pass” to citizenship. But what we have not seen, my friends, is the much more important question addressed. Should these people be able to bring their monsters with them? Because, let’s face it, until this is addressed they will continue to come and eventually you will be faced with a kill or be killed situation with a creature that doesn’t follow the rules as you know them. Since we can’t count on legislation, we’ll have to turn to education. To that end, this series will give you the basics on the monsters that you only think you know but in fact play by other cultural rules.
No, no, no… Not doing that today. Yeah, the idea of this concept was to look at an unfamiliar form of a familiar monster, to look at the other versions of the classic monsters we know and love from American popular culture. But it seems that when it comes to lake monsters we know more about the international beasties than we do our own homegrown critters. Yeah, we do see variations on the “Lake Monster” theme set in America, but more often than not it’s about a giant octopus, a giant alligator, a giant snake, or a bunch of prehistoric piranha. It’s actually relatively rare that we see something like a Crater Lake Monster. And, of course, thanks to Syfy Saturday Nights we frequently get the Megaboacrocsupergatorsharktapusnado monsters, but the less said about them the better.
And it seems like Hollywood has no great desire to change that. A few days back I caught the tail end of a conversation on a SiriusXm entertainment program where they were discussing upcoming creature features being looked at in Hollywood. One of the things that got mentioned was a Loch Ness Monster project.
The Loch Ness Monster?
Look, I’m a child of the 70s and 80s. I grew up during the wild craze of the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, and UFO explosions. I was there when it seemed like you literally couldn’t channel surf the cable stations without hitting at least five programs dedicated to the unknown and the unexplained. I understand the appeal of it all and I have absolutely no problem with it. Well, maybe I have a problem with Finding Bigfoot. Can someone please just tell me that their show is really just one giant, Andy Kaufmann-like gag that they’re pulling on the viewing audience? I mean, those clowns can’t be serious, can they? Anyhow…
Yet another film project is apparently at least being floated in Hollywood about the Loch Ness monster. This will bring the number of films that have had the Loch Ness Monster in them that are out there to, what, an even 5 million or so? Okay, maybe there aren’t quite that many, but Nessie is a well that’s been returned to far more times than I’d care to count in a number of projects covering pretty much all of the various mediums in storytelling.
The Scottish Tourism Board’s favorite monster has even faced off against a fictional who’s who over the years. Hell, even Sherlock was supposed to square off against the mystery of the Loch at one point.
Oh, calm down, fangirls. It wasn’t that Sherlock. It was supposed to be the older one from years ago who starred in all those black & white films.
Yeah, that’s him. That’s the one.
At least a few films have even had some really head scratching twists to them considering the alternate (i.e. American based monsters) storyline paths they could have taken. One semi-recent low budget film, Loch Ness Terror, couldn’t afford to actually shoot in Scotland, so they created a weird plot device where a really long underground river or some such contrived device connected Loch Ness to a body of water here in the states. No, that really made no more sense in the film than it sounds like it did. Apparently Nessie likes to live in Scotland while birthing babies in America or something. It must be a dual citizenship thing.
Now, I get the reason that they’re doing this. It’s a brand name thing, and brand names can be a powerful promotional tool. Mention the Loch Ness Monster and you’ve eliminated loads of ad time that would otherwise be spent explaining what the featured creature for your creature feature is. But you’re also telling your audience that you’re lazily dipping back into that same old well that everyone else has taken a dive into. But, the thing is, the filmmakers don’t have to do that.
Unfortunately, as it stands these days, the Loch Ness Monster is a little bit like Paris Hilton, and not simply in the fact that I wouldn’t want to be locked in a small room with either of them. No, the Loch Ness Monster is a little like Paris Hilton in that the Loch Ness Monster is famous pretty much just for being famous. When the Nessie craze first struck big, it felt almost as if the media simply threw a dart at a dartboard and decided to make its poster boy monster whichever one they hit while ignoring or downplaying others.
Don’t believe me? Nessie isn’t the only lake monster in the world with a centuries old pedigree, stories of sightings that go back generations upon generations, and modern sightings that come complete with video and photographs. Hell, for that matter, Nessie isn’t even the only lake monster that this can be said about in Scotland. There are stories of local lake monsters in Asia, Africa, and South America. Do you know where else age old lake monster legends can be found? Right here in the good old US.
That’s right. We have lake monsters here in the US with stories of encounters that predate the colonial days. In modern times the reported sightings include photographs and video just like with Loch Ness sightings. We have them in all shapes and all sizes right here in the lower 48. We’ve got the unknown, mysterious monsters, monster turtles-like creatures, gillmen, horned serpents, and a host of others all over these United States. And, of course, since it’s the popular model, we even have a few well established beasties in the Nessie/plesiosaur mold to play around with.
Now, certainly, one could argue that the believability factor of setting such a story in America can be stretched a wee bit too far; especially with a Nessie type monster. After all, a monster in the Nessie mold, an air breathing, aquatic dinosaur, would, much like turtles, spend a fair amount of time during its average day up on the surface or the shores. One would think that this would lead to far more definitive proof of existence by now. My answer to this would be- That doesn’t seem to stop people from believing in, at least for film purposes if not actually in real life, Nessie. Loch Ness isn’t exactly in the uninhabited wilderness far, far from human activity. As a matter of fact, thanks to Nessie inspired tourism and the researchers covering the loch pretty much 24/7, there’s more human activity there than on some American lakes known for their lake monsters. So deal with it.
Here’s a short list for you.
Probably the most famous lake monster in the United States is a little cutie living in Lake Champlain, a 125 mile long strip of water bordering Vermont and New York while making its way up into Canada. The first sighting by anyone of European descent of the creature, now known as Champ, was in 1609 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, but the Native Americans local to the area had stories of the creature, called the Tatoskok by the Abenaki, dating back centuries before that.
Starting in the late 1880s, scores of reported sightings, some even from law enforcement and military personnel, launched an almost 100 year frenzy of Champ sightings. The interest in Champ was so intense at one point that famed showman P.T. Barnum offered a reward of $50,000 to anyone who could deliver the beast’s corpse to him for display in his show. Champ has even made national headlines as recently as 2009 by appearing on ABC News and other news broadcasts.
A giant lake, generations of sightings, and a monster in the Nessie mold. It seems like a perfect alternate fit for the film projects looking at Loch Ness. There are still other variations on the lake creature to be found elsewhere.
Not far from Lake Champlain is New York’s 38 mile long Cayuga Lake and an eel-like pair of creatures known as Old Greeny and Cayuga Katie. The Cayuga Lake monsters actually break the Nessie mold in two ways that would be perfect for a horror writer. For one thing, as I described them above, they are a more eel-like or serpentine form of creature. For another thing, their recorded sightings include a presumed taste for human flesh. Indeed, one of the more famous sightings of the creatures comes from the 1970s when a teenager swimming in Cayuga Lake was attacked, the force of the bite breaking the bones in his arm.
Despite all of the horror films and books, especially the more recent ones, that have turned Nessie into a man eater, there has never been a single modern report of the Loch Ness Monster having a taste for human flesh. One would think that having such stories already established, combined with their more menacing appearance and the deep woods, isolated setting, would make Old Greeny and Cayuga Katie naturals for the horror treatment. It’s a real shame that no one has gotten around to using them on film.
You know, living in the Central Virginia area, I’ve occasionally joked that my fellow Virginians were, back in the day, simple people who liked simple names for things. I occasionally say that because of one of our local roads. If you’re in Williamsburg and you want to figure out how to get to Richmond, the way you do that is by getting on Richmond Road and heading west. It was so named back in the day for the simple reason that it was the road that went to Richmond. If you’re in Richmond and you want to figure out how to get to Williamsburg, all you have to do is find Williamsburg Road and start heading east. It was so named back in the day for the simple reason that it was the road that went to Williamsburg. It’s actually only one road that changes names somewhere around the halfway mark.
Lake Leelanau in Michigan has a monster that makes the unimaginative people that named that road look like the imaginative geniuses of the naming game. You see, Lake Leelanau is the home of Leelanau. No, not the Lake Leelanau Monster like you might refer to the Loch Ness Monster, just Leelanau. So Leelanau lives in Leelanau, and you find them by heading up towards Leelanau County. That lack of creativity with their local monster is actually a bit of a shame since the creature in that lake is actually one of the more unique lake monsters out there.
Leelanau, while having a long, serpentine neck and tale, isn’t described in any other way that the usual “living dinosaur” lake monster is. As a matter of fact, you can’t even tell that the thing has a head unless it opens its abnormally large eyes. That’s actually a part of encounter stories. People boating through the marshy areas at dusk find themselves about to bump up against a long, thick stump protruding from the waters when suddenly the stump opens its eyes and quickly submerges, displaying a great length of body as it splashes away to the deeper parts of the lake.
Further descriptions of the creature over years of sighting also separate it from the stereotypical lake creature that can be found in so many other bodies of water around the world. See, most lake monsters are described as looking like serpents, lizards, eels, or dinosaurs in some way or another. The skin is usually smooth, sometimes compared to a whale or seal in texture. In a way, Leelanau is kind of the stick insect of the water monster world as it’s always described as having a similar natural camouflage.
Leelanau’s skin is almost bark-like in appearance. This gives it the ability to hide amongst the sunken trees and floating brush of its environment. And, like the stick insect, it apparently knows it can hide like this. Some sightings have reported boaters getting right up on top of it, completely unaware that it wasn’t a log or stump, until it would finally move and retreat from the approaching boat.
Leelanau sightings didn’t start until the late 1800s. There is a reason for that though, and it’s a reason that when combined with the history of the sightings causes my Crypto friends to find aspects of the creature’s history fascinatingly “authentic” even as it may create an issue with storytellers looking for a contemporary setting. The creature was never reported as a resident monster until after the construction of the Lake Leelanau dam. The dam closed off the largest outlet for the lake, increasing its depths, spreading it further into the surrounding marshes, and, according to believers, trapping the monster in the lake.
From that point forward, generations of locals reported seeing the monster. Interestingly, while basic descriptions didn’t change, some aspects of the sightings did change over time. The later sightings didn’t describe the creature as having the speed that the earliest sightings did. Some later sightings report the creature moving flat out slowly, even when supposedly startled by a boatload of fisherman or hunters. Eventually the frequency of sightings became fewer and fewer until they stopped all together by the late 1900s. Some crypto hunters consider this actual proof that something really existed in the lake since the stories follow a realistic path of existence a single creature trapped in a lake would have, a finite lifespan and eventually death. Moviemakers might find it a stumbling block for a modern monster movie. But then, hey, why should that stop them when their industry gave us the ever so realistic concepts like a pterodactyl/shark hybrid?
We also have a few creatures that are ripe for homegrown fiction since they have almost no history whatsoever. That means that a writer or a production team can basically make up anything they want with very few people complaining about “not getting it right.”
Sink Hole Sam is such a creature. Yes, that really is the thing’s name. It’s really a monster called Sink Hole Sam.
Sam’s home is Lake Inman in Kansas. The first known reports of the large, serpentine Sam come from just last century. Sam is a legend barely older than 50 years in the making. Locals talk of seeing massive, snake-like shapes moving in the water, rolling and boiling just under the surface before disappearing again into the muddy depths.
While Sam is easily one of the youngest lake monsters out there, it’s also one that comes with a built-in theory for its relatively recent appearance. The theory is that the growing sinkhole in the lake eventually uncovered a sealed, underground cavern that had supported an isolated ecosystem, freeing the unknown creatures and allowing them access to the lake. Yes, that’s basically the plot for the Piranha remake from a few years back, but Sam’s story came roughly 50 years earlier. It’s a concept that could easily be expanded upon by a storyteller as the appearance of a story’s bigger killer beast could easily be explained as the cavern’s opening never having been big enough until just that point in time to allow the big versions of Sam out into the wider world. Which, actually, when I think about it, also sounds like the ending moments from the Piranha remake. So maybe not…
The newest monster in the American lake monster landscape is also the least well defined. Meet Florida’s Muck Monster. Spotted in Lake Worth Lagoon, its sightings are pretty much limited to ripples on the water with people excitedly declaring that there’s something large and sorta, kinda, maybe visible under the surface. I only include the Muck Monster at all because, sadly, this is probably the one that will attract the attention of a low budget film crew. Even more sadly, as Florida has been the home to a number of these productions, it will most likely be for Syfy Saturday Night as one of their Megaboacrocsupergatorsharktapusnado monsters.
I weep whenever I get near cable these days and see what The Sci-Fi Channel has become.
Lastly for my shortlist, I give you the least Nessie-like American lake creatures that have probably the goofiest “origin sighting” story out there. These would be the Dublin Lake Monsters of Cheshire County, New Hampshire. They’re also the lake monsters with the least amount of evidence behind them. However, they are perfect fodder for horror stories.
The story goes that a diver in the 1980s went down to explore a cavern believed to be at the lake’s greatest depths. Days later the diver is found in the woods by hikers. The diver was naked, in a state of shock, and rambling incoherently about monsters in the cavern. Versions of the story differ on one key point however. In one version the diver finds a large cavern filled with trapped but typical lake monsters. In the other version the cavern was filled with air, and the things in it were a form of unknown, subterranean creatures. Either way, there’s the basis for a good monster horror story setting there.
Now, why should we see these American Made Monsters get their fair shake at the screen, breaking the lake monster stranglehold that Nessie has on cinema? I can give you that answer in two simple words.
What? Oh, no, not employment of American actors. We already get that with most of the low budget lake monster films about Nessie. Even if the film is set around Loch Ness, we usually get American characters played by American actors who are interacting with other American actors playing Scottish characters while speaking with accents that drive most people actually from Scotland up a wall.
No, no, no… I’m talking about the employment of American stereotypes.
In every story set around Loch Ness there is a group of Scottish Stereotypes that always get crammed in there. The thing is, in order to freshen up the stale lake monster stories a bit, they can easily be given a new coat of paint, effortlessly turning them into American stereotypes.
You’ve always got the old man of the loch who has a family duty to watch over the waters and protect the integrity of the loch. He’s usually wise, sometimes spiritual, and always ends up befriending the visiting American scientist only after first treating him like an unwanted intruder. He may also very well know that there is a monster, perhaps even from personal experience, but he denies the existence of such “fantasies” in the early acts of the story.
Touch of paint on the stereotype gets you the wise old Indian Medicine Man serving the exact same storyline purpose.
You always have the headstrong, strong-willed, sassy Scottish lass who has a modern feminist way about her. She’s single, having rebuked the advances of the local drunkards for years now, and, despite working for the family inn, revels in her independence and freedom. So, of course, she ends up falling in love with and then sleeping with the American come to investigate Nessie roughly three or four days after meeting him.
Touch of paint on the stereotype gets you a tough young American woman fresh out of college serving the exact same storyline purpose and sleeping with the lead actor in half the time because she doesn’t view him as as much of an outsider.
Then, of course, having introduced the lead female character of the piece, you have to have her childhood suitor. He’s usually a drunken oaf who will eventually get into a fight with the American scientist, losing decisively despite being the toughest guy in five towns.
Do I even need to go over touch of paint on that one?
Another regular stereotype to find is the new friend for the American of the story. He’s often a slightly younger local who has been following the American’s work for years, having a shared interest in the monster. He works as a convenient tool in the story, instantly explaining anything specific to the locals to the American (and the audience) whenever exposition is needed. At least 50% of the time, this guy is going to die badly before the end of it.
Touch of paint…
You can also frequently find the corrupt or thuggish law officer character. He hates the idea of all of these foreigners running around his town, chasing after a monster that they should be leaving alone/that he doesn’t believe in. He usually bullies the American at every opportunity, eventually jailing him at least once for no real reason other than to be a bullying ass. He’ll also be the reason that the American can’t be there when his buddy most needs him and thus meets his untimely death at the hands of the drunken oaf who wants the girl or the monster itself.
A touch of paint gets you the same guy who just hates out of towners and/or academics.
Then there are all of the little stereotypes. Apparently we as the audience love seeing Americans go to foreign lands and have minor misunderstanding based on word usage or see them looking aghast at the food they were served, usually a favorite of the locals, which the Americans then cannot bring themselves to eat without looking like the fear of God is upon them. Anyone who has ever known a Northerner that has moved south, or vice versa, knows how easy that touch of paint is.
I mean, come on here. There really isn’t a single cliché or stereotype in any of the stories set around Loch Ness that can’t easily be transitioned to an American monster setting.
Then of course there’s the employment of American accents. Low budget Loch Ness films typically give you American actors playing Scottish characters while speaking with Scottish accents that make the Irish accents used in the Boondock Saints sound fantastic. Now you can have American actors playing American characters with accents that don’t make you wince. Well, unless it’s set in the South. Then you might have actors using southern accents that make the Irish accents used in the Boondock Saints sound fantastic. But still, even if it’s just an American accent, it’s a form of American employment.
Look, I like the Loch Ness Monster. I grew up on the loch Ness monster. Hell, I grew up on the Loch Ness Horror. But when everybody from Doctor Who to Scooby-Doo has had an adventure with you, it’s time to share the limelight a bit. Come on storytellers, it’s an easy thing to do. Shift the stories over a bit. Yeah, you’re giving up the monster that’s famous for being famous and thus giving up the easy story sell, but, really, it’s not all that difficult to sell the concept of a lake monster to the movie viewing audience if you’re missing the words “Loch Ness” in your title. All you really have to do is say “Lake Monster” and people will get it easily enough, and, hey, you won’t have to try to figure out some really convoluted way to have the Loch Ness Monster showing up in Minnesota for your film.