I came across this fishy monster in Hartlepool Museum the other day! For a moment I was convinced it was a Victorian fake, one of those curios cobbled together from the body parts of real animals. Then I moved closer and saw the a sign in the corner of the frame.
The monster was real. A ribbon fish! Taken in Seaton Carew in the Spring of 1866 and stuffed at a local taxidermist. Turns out quite a few of these little beauties have been caught over the years. They are not frequently seen alive because they usually inhabit very deep waters. What made this prizewinner venture up to the surface to be caught, I wonder? It seems gales can sometimes cause currents that sweep monster fish into the shallows where they get stranded. In the far East, they are known as the earthquake fish, because they surface when their habitat is disturbed by underwater tremors.
The ribbon fish is a harbinger of destruction. You can imagine the scene in an adventure story. A kid is playing alone on the shore. He sees a giant ribbon fish in the water. No one believes him but the next day there is an earthquake. And the sea is suddenly full of huge, undulating monsters. It’s a story that would have kept me hooked when I was a child myself.
Our fascination with monsters goes back to the beginning of the human existence. Look at paleolithic cave paintings and they’re already there, wild beasts that dwarf humans. By the time of Ancient Egypt, the beasts had morphed into animal headed gods. Ancient Greece teemed with monsters: the Hydra, the hippocampi, the minotaur, the medusa, the sphinx, and the cockatrice whose look and breath could turn you to ashes.
In the first century BC, Diodorus wrote of the Sphinx as a real creature. He reported that herds of Sphinxes lived in captivity in Ethiopia, trained to do man’s bidding. This mix of fact and fiction continued up to fairly recently, and in some ways goes on today. But what makes us so fascinated by monsters?
Perhaps it’s because we need to make sense of the unknown. We need to asses the danger around us. In his book Danse Macabre, author Stephen King says that the scariest the monster is the one in the cupboard, the one that is still unseen. The moment we see the monster, no matter how lethal or dangerous, it becomes less scary because out mind can start weighing up our chances of survival. We make monsters out of rarely glimpsed beings, out of hearsay and legend, because we need to fill in the gaps. Our mind needs to start assessing our chances.
Which, of course, leaves the biggest monster of all to conquer. The monster in our minds. Fear of the unknown! I call that the King Kong effect. Makes us look mighty but ultimately turns us weak and vulnerable. But how do we deal with the monster in our minds? It’s a question I’ve been asking all my life…
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