The iconic Universal Monsters are a diverse lot of creatures that hail from all over the world, but they all share three common traits; a great character design, films with emotional resonance, and an origin that stems from literature, myth, or legend. For most, the inspirations are well known. The source for The Creature of the Black Lagoon, however, is a little more obscure. Since we’re belly deep in Aquatic Horror this month at Nightmare on Film Street, we’re going to delve into the Amazonian myth of the Yacuruna, how it directly lead to the The Creature From the Black Lagoon, the other aquatic monsters it may have inspired, and how things came full circle when Guillermo del Toro brought the Yacuruna to life.
According to legend, the Yacuruna is a god that lives in an underwater city located in the depths of the Amazon river. Accounts of their appearance vary but they are often described as hairy with their heads turned backward, accompanied by other creatures such as a black crocodile that it’s often depicted riding. It’s also believed that the Yacuruna have transformative powers, shapeshifting into pink dolphins and handsome human men. And of that’s not enough, the Yacuruna is also revered by shaman because of their healing abilities.
“According to legend, the Yacuruna is a god that lives in an underwater city located in the depths of the Amazon river.”
One of the most common threads in the varying Yacuruna myths is the being’s interest in humans. Most iterations of the myth revolve around the aquatic god transforming into a handsome man to lure female humans down to their underwater cities. Once there the abductees gradually transform into Yacurunas themselves.
Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa had grown up aware of the legend of the Yacaruna, and he shared it at a dinner party during the filming of Orson Welles 1941 classic Citizen Kane. Present at that dinner were Welles himself, Mexican actress Dolores del Rio, and William Alland who played reporter Jerry Thompson in the film. Figueroa’s recounting of the Yacuruna legend fired Alland’s imagination and inspired him to develop a movie with Universal.
That movie was 1954’s Creature From the Black Lagoon directed by Jack Arnold and starring Richard Carlson as David Reed, Julie Adams as Kay Lawrence and Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman as the titular Gill-Man. The film is science fiction so the Creature lacks any of the Yacuruna’s supernatural abilities, but there are a number of homages to the legend.
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The first is that it’s set on the Amazon river and at one point it’s mentioned that the native people of the area have a number of legends relating to the Creature. The second and biggest is the Gill-Man’s fascination with Kay. When Figuroa was telling the story of the Yacuruna, he mentioned that once a year the Yacuruna claims a maiden. And you may remember that near the end of the movie the Creature abducts Kay and brings her down to his lair. Said lair is an underground network of caves that the Gill-Man can access from underwater in the river, which is clearly a reference to the aquatic cities of the Yacuruna.
Universal’s Creature would return in two more sequels; 1955’s Revenge of the Creature and 1956’s The Creature Walks Among Us. His likeness would also go on to inspire countless pop culture characters like Marvel Comics’ Manphibian who debuted in 1975’s Legion of Monsters #1, Abe Sapien from Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics and later film adaptations, and the Gill-Man from Shane Black and Fred Dekker’s 1987 cult classic Universal Monsters tribute film, The Monster Squad.
While there are definite links to the Creature it’s possible that the Yacuruna might have also inspired another more obscure, but enduring aquatic horror: H.P. Lovecraft’s Deep Ones, who were some of the central characters in his 1936 novella, The Shadow Over Innsmouth. That story tells the tale of a town, which is a secret enclave of humans who have been breeding with Gill-Man style creatures that live in a nearby underwater city. Part of the terror of the story comes from the revelation that Innsmouth’s residents are slowing transforming into the monstrous Deep Ones.
I couldn’t find any evidence that the Shadow Over Innsmouth was directly inspired by the legend of the Yacaruna, but if you’re familiar with the myth it’s hard not to look at the transformative aspects of Lovecraft’s story and the fact that the Deep Ones have undersea cities and not think of the Amazonian legend. Folklore around the world is full of tales about undersea humanoids who abduct people, but few of these legends involve the abducted being transformed and living in undersea cities. So, I would argue it’s possible that The Shadow Over Innsmouth and it’s numerous adaptations, like director Stuart Gordon’s 2001 film Dagon, may have directly or indirectly been inspired by the Yacuruna.
The most direct adaptation of the Yacuruna myth came in 2017 with the release of The Shape of Water. The seeds for the film were planted back when writer/director Guillermo del Toro was a small boy and watched The Creature From the Black Lagoon for the very first time. In a number of interviews, the Mexican filmmaker has recounted his disappointment that the Gill-Man and Julie Adams’ Kay did not end up together. He tried in vain for a number of years to rectify that and along the way he got experience telling stories with aquatic humanoids in his Hellboy films.
In The Shape of Water del Toro finally got to give a cinematic Gill-Man a happy ending, with a story that sidesteps the tropes of The Creature From the Black Lagoon films and embraces the Yacuruna mythology that inspired the Universal Monster. In the film, Doug Jones’ Amphibian Man is never directly referred to as a Yacuruna, but in one scene Michael Shannon’s Richard Strickland explains that the natives of the Amazon worshipped the Amphibian Man as a god. One of the biggest indicators that Jones’ character is a Yacuruna though is his healing abilities. In the movie, he not only heals Giles’ (Richard Jenkins) open wound he also revives Elise (Sally Hawkins) with his powers.
Plus, in the film’s finale Elise develops gills and is finally able to make a life with her beloved Amphibian Man. This is, of course, a reference to the Yacuruna’s ability to transform humans into fellow amphibious humanoids. In a Talk Film Society article titled, “The Mythology Behind the Shape of Water” writer Christopher Aguiar writes that “By utilizing the tale of the Yacuruna as a vessel, Guillermo created one of the most beautiful fairy-tale romances that storytelling has blessed us with. The subversion of the imperfect, horrific monster works to solidify the film’s commentary on xenophobia, racism and fear of the other – it replaces judgement and hatred with acceptance and love.”
63 years ago the Yacuruna myth was framed in a predatory light that shaped and influence the way we looked at pop culture Gill-Men. In 2017 Guillermo del Toro reframed the myth and our perspective on amphibious men to one of love, not terror. It was a take that captured the imagination of the world and won several Oscars including Best Director and Best Picture. Now the question becomes what’s next for the cinematic Gill-Man? A return to its terror-filled roots? Or perhaps something more nuanced?
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“63 years ago the Yacuruna myth was framed in a predatory light […but] Guillermo del Toro reframed the myth and our perspective on amphibious men to one of love, not terror.”
Have you ever seen a Yacuruna? Who is your favorite aquatic monster? Would you kiss a Gill-Man? Let us know over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Reddit page, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!