Sunday, January 31, 2010

Monster Walks: The Mainstreaming of Cryptozoology Continues

Of course, calling it mainstreaming is a bit disingenuous. Monsters, politely called "cryptids" by some, have had lots of popular interest for decades now. If Bigfoot isn't defending his beef jerky, he's fighting the Six Million Dollar Man (youtube link)(and by the way, six million dollars in 1974 would be $25,000,000 today. Steve Austin's cutting-edge cybernetics weren't much more expensive than an AH-64 Attack Helicopter, and I never saw an Apache fight an alien-controlled Sasquatch or go solve mysteries on the moon).

But when I read this article/friendly plug about a monster walk business set to open in London, it grabbed my attention. If ever any urban city in the world was going to be home to an entertainment experience focusing on monsters, London's going to be your best bet. From the Highgate Vampire, Springheeled Jack, and possibly even (though the article doesn't mention this) stretching the definition out to Jack the Ripper (more on that in a sec), London's got more than its fair share of historical monster tales for an urban environment. Then you get all the stories about monsters either set in London (the various werewolves of London, Gorgo, the dinosaur loose at the end of The Lost World, I imagine that's how they'll work in the Hound of the Baskervilles, etc. etc.).

And in a larger sense, London was the heart of the colonial empire that produced cryptozoology's most basic narrative: an intrepid explorer goes to "exotic" places to search for an animal never seen by civilized eyes (in colonial days this would have been explicitly White eyes), guided by native folklore that has mythologized the beast. While earlier studies of sea serpents can be considered the origins of cryptozoological ideas, the first great star truly owned by cryptozoology was the Abominable Snowman (or its various local names, mangled or otherwise), which was the stuff of British exploration and derring-do, propagated by the sensationalist media that still thrives in London.

And arguably, the very concept of the non-magical monster, a flesh-and-blood giant from the past, was born in London with the classification of dinosaurs, and their exhibition to the public at the Crystal Palace in 1854. At that moment, giants and dragons were declared real by science, and the only question was whether some of them still might be wandering about, in the exotic colonial lands (or Scotland) in the gaps where civilized history couldn't see them. Billions of dreams and fantasies by the young and young at heart were soon to follow.

Ghost walking tours have been around for years. In New Orleans, where I used to live, these spawned not just numerous ghost tours, but vampire tours inspired by the works of Anne Rice but soon including other monsters of the city's past, and in one case during the first year I lived there, a tour group witnessed a real-live murder. Folklorist Heather Joseph-Whitham has done some research on the New Orleans vamp tours. And in London, similar Jack the Ripper tours have been a staple for decades (while I've never been on one, my ex went on one as a teenager, and her description makes it sound very similar to many a ghost tour, and reminding me that a little drama and performance study in school never hurt anyone). UFOs had a higher-rent version of this, when one group would host paying would-be-contactees as they signaled UFOs with high-power lights as well as sound and thought. Bigfoot research has its pay-to-go expeditions too in the BFRO, though this year they are apparently limiting the expeditions to those who have previously joined in the hunt. So I guess with numerous television shows and other media dedicated to cryptozoology, a tourist walk would eventually emerge. We'll see if it has the same reproductive success other evening quests into the dark and mysterious.

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