Our Tentacular Obsessions

Collectively, the Internet is obsessed with a lot of things, but there are few that seem to unite the senses of everyone in collective rumormongering and delight. Here’s an exception: Weird things that the ocean burps up onto land. Whether they’re totally unidentifiable, the stuff of nightmares, things that don’t belong on land, or just really big dead things, they grip the Internet for at least a few days (and sometimes weeks) as people come together in mutual morbid fascination.

What is it about the contents of the ocean that we find so interesting as a collective species? We can trace the roots of our fascination with ocean creatures to a larger phenomenon, cryptozoology—the “study” of mythological creatures (some prefer to say that the focus is on “cryptids,” rare and little-known creatures, rather than the stuff of true myth, like, say, centaurs). You’ve probably heard of Bigfoot, the Yeti, and Nessie, but every culture has its own mysterious creatures that people claim to have seen, threaten each other with, turn into inside jokes, and use in an attempt to make the environment around them a little less frightening.

See Australia’s drop bears, used to frighten tourists but also a bit of a tongue-in-cheek joke about the nation’s infamously hostile landscape where everything seems dedicated to killing passerby. In the Northwest, the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus waits patiently for the unwary hiker. Selkies haunt the coastlines of Scotland and Ireland, while sirens are prepared to lure you to disaster.

The ocean in particular seems to furnish ample examples of myth and folklore, perhaps because even now, it’s largely a terrifying, unknown, and unexplored land. The ocean is violent, hostile, and highly secretive, in a way, with most of its interesting bits hidden far below the waves. It can swallow up entire planes, as Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 can testify, and it breaks ships, making a mockery of even the largest and most robust of vessels.

Terror from the deeps has manifested in almost all seagoing cultures since people started going out on boats, and no wonder: As it is, some rather strange things surface from the ocean. Aside from the occasional legitimately large squid, there are also weird creatures like anglerfish, monkfish, giant tube worms, blobfish, and boxfish; it’s no surprise that a surprising number of entries on WTF, Evolution? come from the sea.

A 58-foot fin whale recently washed ashore on Long Island. Beaching events do happen occasionally, creating a massive mess for local fish and wildlife officials (literally—imagine, for a moment, what’s involved in disposing of a multi-ton carcass). What made this one interesting was the massive holes in the body, some the size of small dogs. The official story, of course, is that animals like sharks probably had a snack before the whale hit the beach, and it’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, but the story still has traction on the Internet (where it became a trending topic on some corners of Facebook and Twitter) because there’s something strange and almost whimsical about it: Who expects a whale to visit Long Island? Something about the story brings the tale of the shark on the subway to mind. While that, too, had a mundane explanation, the Internet greatly enjoyed the furore of speculation over it.

in 2013, a giant squid washed ashore in Spain, providing a unique opportunity to take a look at one of the ocean’s most legendary and shy inhabitants. Earlier that year, Japanese researchers had taken the first video footage of the giant squid cruising on its home turf, deep beneath the waves. For cephalopod enthusiasts around the world, the news was a fascinating source of hours of looped video and discussion. Meanwhile, a year ago, some eager beavers were duped by a giant squid hoax set on a California beach.

Just last summer, mysterious red blobs popped up on Aussie beaches. Three years ago, the colorfully (and descriptively) named “penis worms” made their way to the mass media. We can’t stop talking about what comes out of the ocean, in a sort of intensified microcosm of our obsession with all things weird, narrowed down not just to mystery animals but specifically to those that can theoretically tolerate the intensely challenging environment underneath the waters. It’s dark, it’s cold, the pressure is absurd (enterprising scientists have attached styrofoam cups to ROVs and submarines just to watch them turn into shrinkydinks), and it seems like the most extreme place on Earth; much more unconquerable than Everest, which is a metaphor for the nearly impossible.

Here’s my theory about why the Internet can’t get enough of weird shit that came from the ocean: It provides a strange sense of relief, a stress valve, as it were, from the terrors of the outside world. In a new century filled with war, rapidly accelerating technology, increasing social demands, and mounting stress, humans are experiencing situational and cultural saturation, with growing drags on their attention. Life as a human, to put it bluntly, is exhausting.

Humans tell each other stories as a form of escapism, not just to entertain notions of mythology and folklore, not just to entertain each other, not just as a way to exercise their creativity, but specifically as a way to take themselves outside their environment. Spooking each other is also one of our favorite pastimes, and it doesn’t escape notice that many mythological sea creatures are also creepy, and in many cases actively threatening.

The kraken isn’t a gentle giant in mythology, a creature that pops by to rescue sailors or wave merrily at the occupants of a boat. Ahab’s whale, likewise, is a malevolent creature bent on destruction and the domination of what he sees as invaders on his own territory. As we tell ourselves stories about frightening things that don’t really exist, in the mutual understanding that they’re fictional or have rational explanations (someday, we’ll understand what that weird thing that washed up on the beach was, because science will always come to the rescue), we make the world itself less frightening, too.

In the hours or minutes we spend browsing cryptozoology forums or chatting with friends on Facebook or falling into a wormhole of YouTube videos, we get a chance to take a break from society, and we emerge refreshed. The Internet has greatly facilitated this by creating a landscape not only for the rapid exchange of information, but for the dissemination of endless high-quality hoax videos and photos for people to pore over, delighting in the expansion of their obsession from grainy and dubious photographs to high-quality Photoshop jobs. Whether we’re disgusted and entranced by actual animals or making up our own for a new generation, we’re doing something other than staring at the television and being depressed by the news.

After all, things might be hectic, but at least we’re not really being attacked by giant tentacled monsters.

Image: Giant Squid Fresco, Brian J. Geiger, Flickr