Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Terror Below

Humans, we’re told, are a species of ape. Descended from monkeys, tree dwellers, evolved to expect danger from three dimensions—some monkeys have three distinct instinctual danger cries: one for eagles swooping from above, another for snake slithering along the branches, and a third for jaguars, leaping from below. Humans, on the other hand, have one cry: “Heads up!”

No surprise as our species migrated to ground where danger from below is seemly eliminated. But consider three personal tales. First, a great uncle, working for the CCC in Florida during the 30s. Out for a hike in the swamps and he steps on a gator. It lunges, grabs his leg, and starts to spin; this is its instinctual means of breaking limbs which it will follow by releasing the leg, grabbing the shocked victim’s torso, and dragging it below for drowning. My uncle, however, is a Florida cracker, having once with my grandfather captured baby alligators for the zoo and placed them in their rain barrel for temporary safe keepings, much to my great-grandmother’s alarm. So my uncle drops into a roll with the gator, spinning his body so that his legs are not broken, and when the gator lets go to grab his torso, he leaps up and limps off safely back to camp. “Boys,” he announces bleeding, “I been gator bit.” He wears the scar with pride for a lifetime.

Consider, secondly, a good friend who was bit and nearly killed by a rattlesnake as a youngster, also in Florida. When I know him, during cross country in high school, his snake-spotting skills border on E.S.P. On the surface of the tale, this does not sound like death from below, but consider the snake beneath those sticks where your foot is very nearly planted….

Finally (thirdly) consider the horrifying occurrence of my wife, seven months pregnant, getting up to pee for the third time in the night. “Pissss,” and suddenly there’s this squeaking. Her urethra clenches and the pee stops and the squeaking stops. She starts to pee again and the squeaking starts again. “I guess,” she thinks, “that pregnant ladies must squeak when they pee. Huh—nobody told me about that.” Stops peeing, reaches behind to flush the toilet, and turns around … just in time to see a bat swirling down the toilet. And then my son was born with wings and fangs!!! Okay—just kidding on the last bit—but seriously, there’s a horror tale in there, no?

My “heads up” example was, of course, a joke. But try this simple thought experiment. Imagine yourself in a crowd. Yell, “look out!!!” How many people in your imagination looked slightly upward or scanned left and right, turned around? More importantly, how many people looked down?

I have, perhaps, misconsidered the sailor. But the long and short of all this is that there is something instinctually terrifying about danger from below. Above—a pop fly to center field while we’re distracted by picking our nose?—we can deal with that. Sideways—a fist to the face?—well it hurts, but it’s the kind of danger we’re programmed to receive. But attack from *below*?!? Danger Will Robinson! Does not compute!

In some upcoming postings, I will take a look at few real-life animals that dwell below, before looking to fiction and the mythological. Danger still lurks from below, and our primordial instincts cringe. No wonder, then, that we equate hell and Gog and Magog with the Underneath?

1 comment:

  1. Death from Above:

    The motto ("Mors Ab Alto" in Latin) of the 7th Bombardment Group in the 101st Airborne Division in January 1933

    The motto of the helicopter of Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now

    Haven't seen any submarine units with the Death from Below motto, however....


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