A History of Horror #2: Sea Monsters

Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men.

You're a sailor, or a pirate, or a traveling merchant. You've been at sea for a month. The crew are tired, but the sound of sea shanties and the prospect of soon seeing their loved ones gives them motivation to finish the journey. You wake up one morning as a violent jolt nearly capsizes the entire vessel. Climbing up on deck, you narrowly avoid being hit by a giant tentacle that has smashed its way into the berthing.

"Thar she blows!" the captain points and shouts. You turn to look out on the mournful sea, and a giant squid-like monster reveals itself from its depths.

You're being attacked by a sea monster.

The stories of sea monsters originate from any culture that has had contact with the sea or large bodies of water. The Carthaginian Empire, which was existed along the coast of North Africa and islands of the western Mediterranean Sea nearly three thousand years ago, told stories of "...there monsters of the deep, and beasts swim amid the slow and sluggishly crawling ships." In July 1734, a Dano-Norweigian missionary by the name of Hans Egede, reported to seeing a terrible creature resembling nothing he'd seen before. It spanned higher than the crow's nest of the ship he was sailing on, and had giant fins that propelled it through the water.

It has been suggested that Egede's sea monster was a giant squid, or surviving specimens of long-extinct marine reptiles such as the ichthyosaur or plesiosaur. Despite the truth, stories like this have remained a main influencer on stories shared between sailors and ship crewmates. Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick, was a whaler during the 1840s, however the main inspiration for the story may have come from a man named George Pollard Jr. In 1820, the Essex, which was the ship captained by Pollard, was struck by a huge sperm whale. He survived and was able to captain another ship, Two Brothers, which eventually wrecked on a coral reef a few years later. After that, Pollard's whaling career ended, as no owner would trust him with a ship again. Much of Pollard's experiences formed the characterisation of Ahab from Moby-Dick.

Despite the advancement of technology, the 20th century also bore the creation of many sea monster legends. In Cornwall, England, a cryptid now known as Morgawr was purported to live in the sea near Falmouth Bay, with sightings beginning from as early as 1906. Nessie, of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands, was brought to worldwide attention in 1933 after a photograph of the alleged beast surfaced and has been the subject of popular speculation for decades.

The Loch Ness Monster, photograph by Robert Kenneth Wilson in 1934.
In some forms of mythology and folklore, sea monsters are also regarded as god-like, omnipotent entities with supernatural powers. The Hydra from Greek and Roman mythology is a multi-headed serpent (the exact number varies between sources), where each head regenerates into several if decapitated. The Kraken of Norse folklore is a giant squid or octopus that lays waste to ships and may even be sometimes mistaken for an island. It has spikes on its tentacles and cannot be killed. Sirens from Greek mythology take on a very different form of sea monster. Rather than being huge titans, sirens are beautiful women with the legs of birds. They use their enchanting music and angelic voices to lure nearby sailors to shipwreck on their island.

In modern fiction, films, games and books about sea monsters have been heavily inspired by the folklore and myths surrounding the creatures. A lot of creatures from H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos are a prime example, and remain so influential on the horror genre that Lovecraftian horror became its own subgenre. The Cthulhu mythos deals primarily with cosmic horror, meaning something so terrifying and divine that humans are incapable of comprehending its nature. It was a very anti-religious ground for Lovecraft to write about, as he believed that humanity was existentially helpless; at the complete mercy of a vast, empty cosmos. Creatures such as Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep represent this cosmic uncertainty. Illustrations depict them as giant squids, or similar-looking sea monsters, but the truth is that the very presence of them is enough to send anyone insane and unable to describe their appearance.

Jaws (1975) was a sea monster horror movie that remained very relevant and realistic to the time it was released.
The true horror of sea monsters is how helpless one would feel against it. Situated in a rocky boat, you'd be completely at the mercy of this creature. It usually has the will to overpower you, and it's not like you can escape it easily. Unless you can outswim it...


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