The Loch Ness monster's Hollywood origins

Nessie was not born in Scotland

King Kong still
(Image credit: (AP Photo))

OF ALL THE "real" monsters that stir the Western imagination, there are few so romantic as the Loch Ness monster. I'm not even slightly immune to that romance. My love affair with Nessie blossomed early and strongly. What could be more wonderful than the idea that a living plesiosaur might slide undetected through the frigid waters of a Scottish lake?

I studied the famous cases, marveled at the amazing photographs of arching necks and underwater flippers, and absorbed the standard arguments. "Loch Ness is connected to the sea through underwater tunnels," I told my classmates at recess. (I was unaware that the surface of Loch Ness is more than 50 feet above sea level.) "Do you know why Nessie wasn't reported until 1933?" I asked on the playground. "Because that's when they finally built the road beside the loch!" (I now know that the road predates Nessie by more than a century.)

Years later, my love of these wonderful stories led me to the skeptical literature. Eventually, I found myself a magazine writer, which offered me the professional opportunity to pursue my childhood dreams of investigating monster mysteries. And so, it is with great pleasure that I turn now to the enduring mystery of the Loch Ness monster.

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LOCH NESS IS a long, deep lake that lies on a geological fault line — a country-spanning cleft called the Great Glen. Bisecting Scotland from coast to coast, the Great Glen features several large lakes, of which Loch Ness is the largest. At 22 miles long and around 754 feet maximum depth, Loch Ness is the United Kingdom's largest body of freshwater.

Since 1822, Loch Ness has been part of a shipping channel called the Caledonian Canal. Composed of a series of canals, locks, and natural lakes, the Caledonian Canal allows ships to cross Scotland from coast to coast. Thus Loch Ness has been busy and well traveled for almost 200 years. Indeed, Loch Ness was well used and well populated even before the construction of the canal, crossed for centuries by boats and bordered by roads, towns, villages, and the sizable city of Inverness.

As we look toward the emergence of the Loch Ness monster in the 1930s, it is important to understand that a teeming menagerie of water-based super-natural creatures had already lived for centuries in Scottish folklore. Scotland's feared folkloric monsters include the boobrie (a giant carnivorous waterfowl), the buarach-bhaoi (a nine-eyed eel that twists its body into a shackle around the feet of prey), the biasd na srogaig (a clumsy one-horned water beast with vast legs), and even the 12-legged "big beast of Lochawe."

Among this horde of folkloric creatures are the widespread traditions of kelpies (associated with running water), water-bulls, and water-horses (each uisge, which haunted lochs and the sea). Today, these related but distinct mythological creatures are harnessed in service of the legend of the Loch Ness monster, but there are strong reasons to think that this linkage is in-appropriate. First, none of these creatures is anything like the modern Loch Ness cryptid [a term for a creature that may or may not exist]. Second, none of them is indigenous to Loch Ness.

In Scottish folklore, water-bulls are small black bulls that are encountered when they venture onto land; they sometimes breed with terrestrial cattle be-fore returning to the water. Water-horses (whether each uisge or the distinct but similar kelpies) are lethal, shape-shifting demons. They are likewise encountered on land in the form of ordinary-looking horses, often with weeds in their manes and wet-looking, adhesive skin. If anyone is foolish enough to climb onto the back of a water-horse, he or she will become stuck in place — and the water-horse will carry the rider screaming into the water.

Water-horses can be identified with modern cryptids only by badly distorting Scottish folklore. They do not act like or resemble Nessie in any meaningful respect. Moreover, they are part of global folklore and have no unique association with Loch Ness. Water-horses are said to lurk in most of the bodies of water in Scotland. Nor are they restricted to the United Kingdom. According to folklorist Michel Meurger, water-horses "are very widespread: the British Isles, Scandinavia, Siberian Russia, France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and Southern Slavic countries."

In 1933, REPORTER Alex Campbell heard that his friends Aldie and John Mackay had spotted something in the water while driving along the shore of Loch Ness. Campbell wrote the story for the Inverness Courier: "Loch Ness has for generations been credited with being the home of a fearsome-looking monster, but, somehow or other, the 'water kelpie,' as this legendary creature is called, has always been regarded as a myth, if not a joke. Now, how-ever, comes the news that the beast has been seen once more, for, on Friday of last week, a well-known businessman, who lives in Inverness, and his wife...were startled to see a tremendous upheaval on the loch, which previously had been as calm as the proverbial millpond... There, the creature disported itself, rolling and plunging for fully a minute, its body resembling that of a whale, and the water cascading and churning like a simmering cauldron. Soon, however, it disappeared in a boiling mass of foam."

Presto: Loch Ness was home to a "fearsome-looking monster" and suddenly had been "for generations"!

Between the Great Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany, media audiences were ready for a diverting popular mystery. The centuries-old folklore traditions of water-horses and sea serpents had the potential to supply such a mystery, but something more was needed — a catalyst.

Hollywood supplied the perfect catalyst at the perfect time: the gigantic, long-necked water monster depicted in King Kong (and again in Son of Kong, later in 1933). I am not the first researcher to draw a connection between Nessie and King Kong. But I think that a stronger relationship between the film and the myth can be asserted than has usually been argued in the past: in essence, that King Kong directly inspired the Loch Ness monster.

King Kong opened in London on April 10, 1933, just four days before Aldie Mackay's sighting of the "disturbance" in Loch Ness. The film was an instant box-office smash: "Thousands are being turned away from Kong," reported the Daily Express. Those who did make it into the packed theaters came out "white and breathing heavily." It was a sensation — a monster thriller so real and so terrifying that moviegoers cried out in their seats.

A very few vague sightings followed the Mackays' story over the summer of 1933, but those first small embers of popular belief were fading. And then, in August, the legend suddenly burst into incandescence — and the influence of King Kong became unmistakable.

ON AUG. 4, the Inverness Courier published an astonishing letter from a Londoner named George Spicer. He had, he said, recently spotted a strange creature while driving along the shore of Loch Ness with his wife. His description of their spectacular sighting in broad daylight changed the legend forever: "I saw the nearest approach to a dragon or prehistoric animal that I have ever seen in my life. It crossed my road about 50 yards ahead and appeared to be carrying a small lamb or animal of some kind. It seemed to have a long neck which moved up and down, in the manner of a scenic railway, and the body was fairly big, with a high back."

Whereas the few previous witnesses had reported mere splashes or humps in the water, Spicer claimed a close-up view of a long-necked creature that could have been lifted right off of King Kong's Skull Island. And that, I believe, is exactly what happened.

Among the most memorable scenes in King Kong is a night attack by a long-necked water monster. As crewmen from the Venture raft tensely cross a fog-shrouded lake in pursuit of the abducted heroine, something sinister stirs in the water. A dark, swan-like neck arcs out of the water and then slides back out of sight. The men peer through the dense fog, when suddenly the looming neck attacks out of the darkness. The raft is overturned, spilling the men into the lake. In a series of dramatic shots, the huge, plesiosaur-like animal plucks men out of the water and kills them. This creature — with its rounded back, arched neck, and small head — is essentially identical to the plesiosaur-like popular Nessie that would grow out of Spicer's story. As the remaining Venture crewmen scramble to the seeming safety of the shore, they learn a terrible truth: The creature is not an aquatic plesiosaur, but a Diplodocus-like sauropod! The monster pursues the men onto land — and, at this point, Spicer's sighting snaps sharply into focus.

Spicer almost exactly re-created this scene. Spicer's creature crossed the road from left to right, just as the Diplodocus on land crosses the movie screen. As Spicer's beast "crossed the road, we could see a very long neck which moved rapidly up and down in curves...the body then came into view"; for its part, the somewhat implausibly writhing neck of the film's dinosaur enters first, followed by its huge body. The movie's creature gives the impression of having gray, elephant-like skin; Spicer's creature had gray skin, "like a dirty elephant or a rhinoceros." The Loch Ness beast is of roughly similar size to the movie monster: "It was big enough to have upset our car... I estimated the creature's length to be about 25-30 feet."

Finally, there is the troublesome description in Spicer's letter to the Inverness Courier that the monster "appeared to be carrying a small lamb or animal of some kind." This appears to be a direct description of the last shot in King Kong's sauropod scene. Reaching into a tree, the dinosaur grabs a surviving crew member in its mouth and shakes him. In a shot that exactly matches Spicer's sketch, the doomed man looks exactly like a "small lamb or animal of some kind" in the monster's mouth!

What we are left with is familiar to critical researchers of other paranormal topics, such as UFOs: a feedback loop among popular entertainment, news media, and paranormal belief. The Loch Ness monster grew out of an existing genre of fictional encounters between modern humans and prehistoric creatures (plesiosaurs and sauropods, in particular). Audiences for the hit silent film The Lost World (1925) watched a Diplodocus rampage through the streets of London and those for King Kong saw another stop-motion sauropod dinosaur attack a raft full of men. These fictional stories prepared the public imagination to accept similar "true" stories that the press happily publicized. The press hype ensured further public interest, which inevitably generated more reports.

Triggered by the Spicer case, a wave of new sighting reports poured in. The sheer number of accounts not only seemed to show that the monster was real, but also exposed a critical flaw in the newly minted legend. "There is one vital question regarding it which must always cause warrantable doubt," one writer nailed it in 1938. "Why have we heard of it only within the last five years or so, when there is no authenticated record of its existence in the centuries which have gone?"

Adapted from Abominable Science by Donald Prothero and Daniel Loxton. ©2013 Donald Prothero and Daniel Loxton. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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