Monster on My Campus

coelocanth

There is no living coelacanth in captivity.  Preserved specimens, such as this one that I saw recently at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, give a poor idea, I imagine, lacking as they do all the color and movement and humor (comic in their ancientness) of the living fish. As is widely known, coelacanths were thought to have been extinct for millions of years, but then were rediscovered in various deep sea habitats in the Indian Ocean beginning in 1938, and have been referred to ever since as living fossils. This seems like an odd term. Another corner of the Vienna Museum displays the skeletons of an Ice Age family, but I didn’t walk away from it thinking of myself as a living fossil — rather, I thought of the family as dead humans. Still, the point is there to take — that somewhere deep inside we contain and maintain a bloody thread stretching back into our unimaginable past, and this seems to be the point of a movie that I haven’t seen in years, Monster on the Campus, a Universal horror production from 1958 that tells the story of Professor Donald Blake, who, in the course of unpacking a delivered coelacanth specimen, manages to spill “silicant juices” from the fish here and there. A dog laps some up and turns into an “antediluvian” wolf, a dragonfly sips a bit and enlarges to the size of a model airplane, a drop or two gets into Professor Blake’s pipe bowl, and soon after smoking he turns into a savage hominid, something halfway between Lucy and Mr. Hyde.

In the Vienna museum, it was tempting to request a tissue sample from their coelacanth, to take home to Valley College and see if I could duplicate Blake’s experience in the laboratories of the English Department. However, I think my primitivized self would conform to the idea of our hominid past that we see in current reconstructions: earnest, thoughtful, hard at work hunting and gathering, always poised on the brink of religion, society, and law. Instead of murdering co-eds, I would ingest the transformative substance just before class, and then lecture, a living fossil, on Swift’s yahoos, or Rousseau’s sauvages.

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One Comment on “Monster on My Campus”

  1. John Pulver Says:

    Are we to believe you that you didn’t bring home a tissue sample from the coelacanth? If students start
    speaking in Old English, we will be very suspicious.


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