Reported sightings of the beast used to fill people with wonder but thanks to YouTube we understand how fakes are made.
Exactly 80 years ago the Loch Ness monster was invented. Or, it resurfaced, depending on whose account you choose to believe. The modern monster myth was born in the Inverness Courier on 2 May 1933, under the headline “Strange spectacle on Loch Ness”. In his accompanying report, Alex Campbell claimed that “Loch Ness has for generations been credited with being the home of a fearsome-looking monster”. Campbell was writing after the eyewitness account of Mr and Mrs John Mackay of Drumnadrochit, who had seen a giant animal, “its body resembling that of a whale”, rolling around in the nearby loch.
Such was the ensuing frenzy of sightings – and photographs (including the legendary image of a long-necked plesiosaurean taken by a London surgeon and later proved to be a hoax) – that by April 1938 Virginia Woolf was writing to her sister, Vanessa Bell, of a “charming couple” they’d met at a lochside hotel “who were in touch … with the Monster. They had seen him. He is like several broken telegraph posts and swims at immense speed. He has no head. He is constantly seen.”
This most portmanteau-like of beasts, a chimerical escapee from a medieval bestiary, or an antediluvian throwback, seemed, like all such monsters, to shift shape with the changing times. To St Columba, in the 6th century, it was said to be a “water beast” rearing up and about to attack a swimming man, only to be dissuaded by the saint’s command. To the cryptozoologists of the 1960s, it was a symbol of a threatened environment and a fantastical evocation of a world in which they wished to believe.
To my own boyhood self it was an article of faith, to the extent that I persuaded my parents to drive me to the loch, where I filled a plastic bottle with its water and brought it back to Southampton, quite convinced that it contained a sort of monsterishness, as if by homeopathic taint.
To me, the Loch Ness monster was as real as the concrete Victorian dinosaurs that wallowed in the stagnant pools of Crystal Palace. I wanted to believe, and hated the scientists who popped up every time a new sighting was made public, smugly dismissing my irrational belief in a prehistoric survivor.
Each era creates their own monsters. It is ironic that Charles Darwin’s discoveries, following on from the paleontological work of Mary Anning, William Buckland and Richard Owen (all with their own agendas to pursue, and some, such as Owen, not above their own appropriation), should have prompted the public investment in revivified dragons. A cursory glance through newspapers of the period will throw up any number of sea serpents – from the maritime monsters that patrolled the coast of New England in 1819 (and seen by everyone from experienced sailors to US senators) to the leviathanic beast that appeared alongside HMS Daedalus off the Cape of Good Hope in 1848, witnessed by officers of the Royal Navy.
Whether these creatures were basking sharks, baleen whales, or unidentified new species, or whether they were what people wanted them to be, it is notable that they conformed to the culture and fashion of their times. Does that explain why the Loch Ness monster has been quiet of late? Have we, in our plethora of computer-generated images, become cynical about such monsters, now that we realise how easily we can create them ourselves? Arthur Conan Doyle believed in the Cottingley Fairies (and in ectoplasmic spirits) because the manipulative art of photography was still a mystery – just as I believed in Ray Harryhausen’s animated movie dinosaurs.
Now, thanks to YouTube – where there is a new cryptozoological sensation every day, from mammoths filmed wandering in the Siberian tundra, to Sasquatch loping through the Canadian backwoods – we’re attuned to duplicity. Our innocence is gone, along with an era that was trusting, gullible, even. It may be far-fetched to suggest that those 1930s monster-believers were contemporaneous with fellow Europeans who placed their faith in real-life monsters – the totalitarian leaders who offered darker and more dangerous fantasies – but it is undeniable that in the internet age, it is much more difficult to fool us. Or at least, that’s what we think.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010