The kraken may be the most iconic sea monster in all of human legend. So-called sightings of this tentacled terror have been on record for nearly eight hundred years. In the big screen swashbucklers, a ship that wanders too far into unknown waters is just as likely to fall to the kraken as it is to stormy weather.
Today we are scientific; we are skeptics. We know now that the giant squid is a real animal that lives far too deep beneath the waves to pose any threat to human seafarers, and it is about as interested in us as a rhinoceros is in a penguin. The only kraken that’s going to knock you on your ass comes out of a bottle.
I’m a skeptic, too. But I don’t think this monster is going anywhere.
Sure, the legend probably grew out of rare giant squid sightings, but it was a lot more than that. Those murky glimpses through the waves were only the tip of the iceberg. The relatively harmless squid—hundreds of meters out of its depth—is not half as scary as the monster our minds invent to fill in the blanks.
The kraken is scary because it is ill-defined. A jumpy sailor can project its entire terrifying mythos onto any passing shadow. And any passing shadow can be scary, kraken or not, because we don’t know what’s down there. Really—as a species, our knowledge is literally a drop in the… well, ocean. Ninety-five percent of the Earth’s oceans remain unexplored.
That’s the real terror. The unknown.
The unknown is the original fear. Why are children afraid of the dark? They don’t know what’s in there. And that’s where our minds turn against us. With no knowledge of what we’re faced with, we’re free to fill that space with the most terrifying thing we can imagine.
This is why the best horror keeps the monster out of sight as long as possible.
It’s the Room 101 principle: remember 1984? The part with the torture chambers tailored to each person’s worst fear? Well, horror writers can’t create a personalized version of their story for every single reader. Sure, some cool interactive fiction or tabletop games could work towards achieving that effect—but for the most part, the horror flick you’re going to see in the theater just doesn’t have access to Room 101. So, instead of filling it in for you, they leave it blank and let your subconscious do the rest.
How do they know you’re going to buy in?
We’re not just afraid of the unknown, we’re also drawn to it. Your brain just loves latching onto those blank spaces and trying to fill them in. The homo sapiens who didn’t fill that spooky cave with imaginary monsters were caught off-guard when it turned out to be full of bears. We got the paranoid genes because those were the ones who lived. The ones who make their own monsters. We can’t help but look at the unknown, even when we think it’s going to eat us.
There’s an obvious upside to that, which is that sometimes exploring the unknown is rewarding. The old neanderthals who found food sources also passed on those genes.
But that thrill of discovery, of filling in the edges of the maps, does have a downside. It means no more space for “Here Be Dragons.” That means no more monsters, but it also means no more swashbucklers. The horror of the unknown comes paired with the romanticism of it. That’s why it’s so compelling.
The kraken survived so long as a monster because its horror is so inextricably tied to the allure of the open sea. They’re two sides of the same coin, the same way that an adrenaline rush could mean the time of your life or the last few seconds of it.
That’s all the philosophical stuff. But I’d be remiss if I wrote a blog about kraken and didn’t talk about tentacles.
Moist. Slithering. Tentacles.
Yeah, okay, you get it. They’re gross. Tentacles have become shorthand for “creepy.” I’d argue that’s not only because of popular Lovecraftian tropes, but because of the Uncanny Valley phenomenon.
Uncanny Valley comes up a lot in robotics. It’s when something becomes too similar to us without actually being human—the similarities really repulse us because they’re close but not quite right. We understand what tentacles are supposed to do. They’re analogous to our arms and legs, and for the most part, they perform very similar functions. But their movement is off. We see an arm-thing and we expect it to bend at the elbow joint. Tentacles have no bones. Their floppy motions are repulsive because if that were to happen in a vertebrate, something would be seriously wrong. That gets a visceral response out of us.
Tentacles are also scary because the grip on those things is ridiculously strong, even for the smallest of cephalopods, so a kraken-sized one would have some serious squidpower behind it. Get caught by one of those and there’s no escape—so the tentacles feed into a fear of imprisonment, as well.
So there we have it: the most terrifying aquatic monster in all of human legend. (Sorry, Nessie. Well! They can fight for it, eh? There’s a sea battle I’d pay good doubloons to see.) We may have solved the mystery behind the legend, but I don’t think we’ll stop seeing these guys pop up on movie screens any time soon.
Prompt: Come up with a monster that prevents the heroes from striking out into the unknown—but tailor this monster to the setting. Maybe your metaphorical unknown is a desert or a mountain range instead of an ocean. Maybe it’s space. Maybe it’s your front door.
What’s your favorite pop culture kraken? Are you all about that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea giant squid or more into Pirates of the Caribbean? Share your favorite sea monster stories in the comments!