In Defense of the Octopus: A Meditation on Animals in Fiction

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Okay, this is kind of a random and weird one. Are you ready?

So I’m a huge fan of The Twilight Zone, the classic series by Rod Serling from the 1960s, and naturally as a longtime devotee I’ve been devouring the remake by CBS that started last year featuring writing genius Jordan Peele (sometimes to my delight, and others my disappointment). However, last night I watched a new episode that rubbed me the wrong way and got me thinking about an intriguing subject: how animals are portrayed in Hollywood in general, and not always in a good way.

This particular episode, “8”, wasn’t even a particularly strong entry in the series. Not only was star Joel McHale’s comedic talents completely wasted on this dry, more horror-themed story, but I found the “villain” of the piece a bit problematic. Said villain wasn’t human: it was an octopus. And this particular octopus was no ordinary cephalopod. Apparently the scientist characters had been secretly searching for this particular breed of octopus to exploit it for the company they work for due to its unique abilities of camouflage, genetic variation, and so forth. Of course, the creature ends up being much smarter than its captors and sneaks out of its tank, slowly offing them one by one in increasingly gory ways, eventually somehow learning how to operate a cell phone and human computers and escaping back into the ocean with a genetic formula to create an army of super-octopuses that can climb onto land and kill all humans.

Yeah, I’m not kidding.

Look, I’m always a fan of a good creature feature, and it was kind of satisfying in a twisted sort of way to see these stupid scientists underestimate their eight-armed captive and get what was coming to them. However, besides the obvious, glaring factual inaccuracies of the piece, including the reality that an octopus can’t live for long out of water (this one was walking around on dry land for like half an hour!) and they definitely don’t seek to murder people, I took a bit of issue with the overall message of the story: in that an evil animal is out to destroy humanity and dominate the world.

Where have I heard that before?

Oh, right: in pretty much every other movie ever made. When you think about it, animals are villainized a lot in Hollywood: Cujo made us all terrified of rabid dogs, an unfortunate but very real fact of life. Jaws gave us all shark phobia, including me: I’m still a little nervous about going in the ocean after that movie scarred me as a child. And countless other films about monstrous bugs, spiders, snakes, and various animals have scared the pants off us time and time again. But are we doing the animals, and ourselves, a disservice?

Don’t get me wrong: the classic conflict of man vs. nature is at the heart of many great stories, including my guilty pleasure film franchise, Godzilla. However, there’s a big difference here: Godzilla is a giant, radioactive, fire-breathing lizard. Obviously not something that can happen in real life. Some of the other films I’ve mentioned, including the recent Twilight Zone episode, are using very real creatures in ways they would never, ever behave, and putting fear into us to no adequately explored reason. I know not everyone may share my fascination, but honestly, I think octopuses are so cool and interesting. I’ve always been intrigued by animals, and the more bizarre, the better: I’m one of those people who will watch spiders or slugs go about their business rather than step on them because they’re just so different. So naturally, I felt a little defensive about this evil octopus as portrayed in “8.” Why not some kind of weird alien creature? This is The Twilight Zone, after all. All I can think is that someone, somewhere, in the writers room decided arbitrarily that octopuses are creepy and would make for a good horror creature. And that’s my problem.

Why an octopus, of all things? Or for that matter, why a shark, or a spider, or a snake, or any of these villainous animals in the last century of movies? The only answer I can come up with goes back to a simple principle, one we’re becoming all too familiar with in the world today: things that are different scare people. All we have to do is turn on the news to see how skin color, religion, or any number of factors can translate into irrational, unfounded hatred of our fellow man. How much easier is it to hate and feel revulsion toward a gelatinous, boneless creature from the deep sea with eight arms and no real face to speak of? I know a lot of people who are afraid of snakes especially, and while I’m not trying to deny that any or all of these animals can be dangerous given the right circumstances (and would I want to find a giant spider in my bed? Hell no), none of them are actively out to get us or have hatred in their hearts toward humans–at least, as far as we know.

I’ll give you another example. Everyone can agree monkeys are cute, right? Or at least entertaining. We love monkeys because they remind us of ourselves: we can more easily ascribe human behaviors to what we see from them. But suddenly, take away a few arms and legs, or add a couple limbs and eyes, and our compassion gets a lot shakier. Do you have second thoughts about pouring water on an anthill or swatting that spider on the wall? Would you do the same if a monkey happened to swing in your window?

My point here is that I don’t think it’s fair to villainize any animal, from an octopus to an ape, for the purposes of entertainment and clearly slot them into narratives they don’t have any need to be in. “8” would have worked entirely fine if the creature in question was some sort of bizarre alien, but instead, we have an extremely negative and stomach-turningly creepy portrayal of an amazing animal that never did anything to anyone. It’s a microcosm of our fear and loathing toward things that are different than us, and it does harm because entertainment shouldn’t be about cheap thrills: it should be about raising each other up and understanding ourselves and the world we live in. Especially from a series like The Twilight Zone, which has a long history of incisive social commentary and a moral justice imperative, blatant fear-mongering of that which is different like this falls flat and seems to be contrary to the very basis the show was founded on.

Come on, guys. We deserve better. Leave the poor octopus alone, already.

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