The Vasty Deep


I grew up around Washington, D.C., so the first time I went to a museum in New York and was asked for $15 "suggested" admission, I did a double take. I wondered if I had wandered into some incredibly large Imax movie theatre instead of the MoMA. The students around the D.C. area are quite accustomed to all their field trips taking them to some place in or around the Smithsonian Institute. We hear of touring factories or a post office on such trips, and think, "Why would you go somewhere like that, when you could have dinosaurs instead?" I took it for granted. I also took it for granted that, at some point, at least one field trip per year would terrify me beyond my endurance.

I had many powerful, irrational fears when I was young. I feared standing near tall buildings, or under high ceilings, homeless people, alternately cats and dogs, etc. I've gotten past all of those, even going as far with most of them as to learn to love them, in their various ways. I retain, however, my fear of large sea creatures. Even fictional ones. It makes me pretty jumpy even to think of them enough to write the words. Suffice it to say, when you see me having to act fearful on stage, I may just be resorting to a little sense-memory indulgence.

As one enters the National Museum of Natural History, you are immediately confronted by an impressive rotunda and a stuffed elephant smack dab in the middle. That was all well and good, once I got over my fear of being under high ceilings, but to one's left upon entering was a room in which I'm still not entirely comfortable. It contains a giant model of a Blue Whale suspended from the ceiling in such a way as to greet you upon your entrance with its face. The lighting, too, is especially dim and moves in lazy waves, simulating the effect of being deep underwater. If I'm remembering correctly, they even have whale-song playing in there. Relaxing, no?

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! [Man runs screaming from own memories...]

I don't know quite why this manner of thing is frightening to me. The model Blue Whale in the New York museum doesn't scare me quite so badly. It's suspended in a much larger room, with generally brighter lighting. But if I go to the far left corner, to see the diorama of a fight between a Giant Squid and a whale, I get panicky again. That's a much darker scene, and I'm reminded of Natalie Wood's fear of "dark water." I think the dark-water part is key in my anxiety, but certainly there are plenty of creatures to augment anxiety into outright dread.

Case in point: Not only are there Giant Squid out there, menacing the depths, but apparently now there are also Colossal Squid. It's like the giants of the sea are victims of an escalating Japanese advertising campaign. I next expect to hear about the Super-Amazing-Healthiest-Truly-Enormous Squid. Not only is the Colossal Squid scary in its bigness, its suckers have rotating claws within, it has the largest eyes of anything we know of ever, and a freaking "conveyor-belt-like tongue," with teeth jutting from it. If there is a more literal killing machine, would it please step forward now and politely go extinct immediately?

Finally, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I fear fictional animals of the deep. It's true. The supposed Loch Ness creature scares the bejeezus out of me. All I have to do is imagine seeing such a thing in the water, and I am immediately fearful for my life. Do I feel this way when I see a tiger, or someone I think is a gang member? No. Imagine a plesiosaur surprising me from out of a lake, though, and I lose all feeling in my knees.

Why? What does it all mean? Who can ultimately say? I don't really buy into past-life explanations. Reincarnation be what it may, I find it romantic to a fault to presume that "memories" from past lives could exert a strong influence on the present. Repressed memories are another somewhat romantic explanation, in my opinion (though certainly more arguable than centuries-old personal habits). I'm more inclined to explain these things in two ways: in evolutionary terms and psychological theory. From my point of view, most emotions can be pretty directly linked to instinct, particularly survival instinct. Self-awareness brought us to a more detailed evaluation of our inner experiences, and so words like anger and irritation came to replace "that feeling of badly needing to kill something," and the word "hunger" took on multiple duties, applied to all sorts of things unrelated to food. From this perspective, it's natural for me to fear large, unpredictable forces in a dark environment; an environment in which, incidentally, I am not overly capable. Rather a weak swimmer here, actually. But that's a chicken/egg/chicken thing if ever there were one. Am I a'feared of deep water because I don't swim well, or do I not swim well because I'm so a'feared of deep water?

Ultimately, from the more psychological perspective, the connections are pretty explicit. I'm a meticulous sort at heart, someone who needs to understand everything he can and savors spontaneity only so long as it doesn't surprise him too much. Is there anything more surprising than discovering an alien creature right next to you, where one never was before? That's the effect of dark water -- nothing can be seen coming until it's already close, and it can come from literally any direction. The Y axis enters the picture in a big way underwater. Of course, what's most interesting to me about this fear is that the terror is not contained in the creature, be it whale, squid or Dread Cthulhu. The creature involved only actualizes the terror, forcing me to acknowledge it. No, the persistent, inescapable fear, the real psychological consideration, is me, in that deep, dark water, waiting. And given that environment, that solitude, who's to say what I even am to myself? Who am I, that alone? Identity is lost so completely, even crying out may do no good to remind me that I am still there.

These waters deep enough for you? Watch out for the Colossal Squid.
 
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