Urban legends are all around us, playing a part in our every day lives and becoming ingrained in our culture. Most people are familiar with the more common legends like The Killer in the Back Seat, Bloody Mary, or Bigfoot, but there are others that you might not be as familiar with. Here at Nightmare on Film Street, each month I’ll be taking a look at a different urban legend and revisiting a famous movie (or, sometimes, one that’s not so famous) that plays off that particular myth. For this installment, I’ll be talking about alligators that are rumored to be living below city streets, down in the sewers, and what happens when those creatures resurface, sometimes in the form of mutated, hungry monsters.
The legend of alligators below New York City dates back for nearly one hundred years, but is it rumor or fact? As with many urban legends, there are various spins on the subject. According to my research, one version of the legend originates from the fad of people going on tropical vacations and buying baby alligators which they took home for pets. The story goes that when the vacationers returned to their small NYC city apartment, they discovered their new gator getting (a lot) bigger than they originally hoped and planned for. Freaking out and not knowing what to do, many people disposed of the reptiles the most logical way imaginable: by flushing the live alligator down the toilet! People say those gators continued to live in the sewer system below NYC, increasing in size over time.
Another version dates back to a 1959 book titled The World Beneath the City, in which a man named Teddy May, who was the superintendent of sewers in New York during the 1930s, reported that, in 1935, city workers spotted alligators living in the sewer system. May says no one believed the men, and he decided to do his own investigation. May goes on to say that he spotted a family of alligators himself. The account should be taken with a grain of salt, as there are reports that Teddy May was a man who enjoyed telling tall tales. Coincidentally, it was also during 1935 that The New York Times reported on a large alligator that was found at a manhole and killed by a group of teenagers who were out shoveling snow. It’s important to note that, at the time, no one thought the alligator was actually living in the sewer. Instead, they believed the reptile had somehow found itself misplaced within the big city.
“..It’s important to note that, at the time, no one thought the alligator was actually living in the sewer. Instead, they believed the reptile had somehow found itself misplaced within the big city.”
Over time, there have been both documented and undocumented alligator sightings all around NYC. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to determine which of the stories are true and which aren’t. All of you monster hunters out there, I hate to burst your bubble, but, as for the possibility of alligators actually living in the city sewers, scientists say it’s not likely. For one, it would simply be too cold in the winter. Also, the habitat is not be appropriate for alligators to be able to survive. Putting all logical answers aside, the legend has lived on, and, as urban legends tend to do, it has become part of modern-day folklore. There have been many twists and variations to the legend over the years, including one that says the sewer-dwelling gators became albino due to the lack of sun and another that suggests that, because of toxic wastes dumped into the sewer, the reptiles have mutated into dangerous and deadly monsters.
Up until the 1970s, the alligator legend was circulated via newspapers, books, and word of mouth, all with various incarnations and details added along the way. Fittingly, it was only a matter of time until the legend would be reborn all over again, this time in the form of a full-blown monster movie that added its own embellishments to the myth. Released to theaters in 1980, the simple and appropriately titled Alligator, tackles the decades old urban legend head on. It all begins with the most well-known version of the story. In the movie, a young girl gets a baby alligator while on family vacation. Later, after returning home to Chicago (not New York), her father flushes the small reptile down the toilet. Flash forward twelve years later, and… guess what! The alligator is now a mutated beast that begins killing off city residents.
Alligator stars Robert Forster (Mulholland Dr.), Robin Riker (Stepmonster), and Michael V. Gazzo (TV’s Kojak). The movie was written by John Sayles (Piranha) and directed by Lewis Teague (Cujo). Alligator takes the decades-old urban legend and amps it up to the next level, creature feature style. While the real-life accounts of the legend usually stop with the alligators being spotted, the movie is full of gory, gator-chomping mayhem. From pets, sewer workers, journalists, and kids – nobody’s safe. What I like best about the movie is the fun it has with pushing the well-known urban legend to the extreme. Not only does the screenplay take off from the most popular origin of the story, but it also acknowledges the rationality that it’s not possible for alligators to survive in the environment of the sewer system (even though, with this being a horror movie and all, the scientists are very wrong). The filmmakers also add a new element to the myth: the titular alligator has been feeding off of hormone injected animal carcasses, giving an explanation and reason for it growing into an enormous beast with an insatiable appetite.
“..[Alligator] is full of gory, gator-chomping mayhem.”
It’s obvious that the movie was created in part to cash in on the massive success of Jaws (1975), but director Lewis Teague handles the material in a way that gives the film its own memorable style and personality. In all of its practical effect, monster movie glory, I could watch the scene where the alligator bursts through the city street over and over again. I believe the sequence is an over-the-top nod to the 1935 incident where those teenagers discovered an alligator inside the city manhole. There’s also a cool scene that shows what sometimes happens after so-called “monster sightings”: people sell merchandise!
While not taking a big bite out of the box office, the movie did turn a profit and was followed eleven years later, in 1991, by the simply titled Alligator II: The Mutation, which was directed by John Hess. While neither movie adds any lasting new element to the already established alligator-in-the-sewer legend, both are a lot of b-movie fun, and each of them offer a glimpse at how a horror fan can take something like an urban legend and let his or her imagination run wild.