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Giant Monsters and the Psychology of Hiding

Frankensteinconquerstheworld1 “Monster: Misshapen creature; prodigy; horribly cruel or savage person; huge object.” – Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology

Monsters come in all shapes, sizes and personalities. But however important the “horribly cruel” and/or “savage” varieties have become in recent cinema, the huge ones have a large — and important — zone of the unconscious staked out all for themselves.

The first and foremost giant monster is, of course, King Kong. The two models that Willis O’Brian and Marcel Delgado created for the original Kong were just 18 inches high and covered with a distinctly un-monstrous coat of trimmed rabbit fur that shifts and shimmers with each stop-motion frame. Is King Kong scary today? Nope. But there’s something about the jumpy, jerky old Kong that speaks to me in a way that Peter Jackson’s super-fast-moving, CGI-reptile-wrestling incarnation of him just can’t match. Rabbit fur or no, King Kong LOOMED on the screen — and when you get right down to it, looming is what being a giant screen monster is all about. 

Not that you have to be a stop-motion monster to give off scary monumentality — or at least you didn’t back when I was eight years old. In my Ultraman-obsessed childhood, even a guy in a monster suit kicking over plastic buildings – if done properly – could bring on that weirdly addictive can-he-see-me-down-here? thrill that a good giant monster movie gives. I haven’t seen Furankenshutain tai chitei kaijû Baragon – AKA Frankenstein Conquers the World – since shortly after it came out in 1965. It was terrifying back then, but its membership in IMDB’s Fifty Worst Films Ever Made suggests that, were I to watch it today, Koji Furuhata’s building-toppling, flat-headed, loincloth-wearing giant would leave me more bored than shaken up.

Just about all monsters – the ordinarily scaled ones included – are usually at least partly lovable. Being scared by a monster doesn’t mean that you don’t also identify with it and feel sorry for it too, of course, and – secretly or openly – I rooted for most of the favorite movie monsters of my youth, be they giant or regular-sized.

An exception were those uniquely unsettling creations of special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen. The stop-motion monsters that show up in Harryhausen classics like Jason and the Argonauts and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad move in the same labor-intensive, jerky way the old Kong did, but unlike the personable Kong they didn’t make you torn between wanting to make friends with them and wanting to run and hide. Harryhausen’s uniquely inspired mythical creatures — especially the giant ones like the Cyclops — had no half-hidden lovableness to them at all. Hulking, vaguely mechanical, and empty of all pity for the bearded, spear-carrying mortals who scurried around at their feet, they were monsters in the original dictionary senses of the word, and running and hiding was the only sensible option.

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