Sunday, July 01, 2018

Thinking About the Pope Lick Monster

On the whole, my television tastes are decidedly more low-brow than you might expect from a graduate student. Then again, by the end of a day of thinking, maybe junky TV is just what the doctor ordered. My biggest weakness is paranormal documentaries – bigfoot, UFOs, hauntings – I just love them. They are dramatic, often over-the-top and just plain fun. I’m pretty sure that many of these documentaries are simply fake. Their stories are simply too bizarre and improbable, but I just can’t stop watching them.

Recently, I was watching Monsters and Mysteries in America, a 3-season series that appeared on Destination America and is now all over the internet (especially on DailyMotion). Each episode is made up of three different stories of real-life encounters with monsters and unexplained phenomena in the United States. People retell their stories, while actors re-enact the events. Plenty of glowing red eyes, smoke machines and shadows make this very addictive viewing.

During the first season, one of the episodes depicted the Pope Lick Monster. This axe-wielding half-man, half-goat haunts the Norfolk Southern trestle bridge in Fisherville, Kentucky. Legend has is that this creature entices teenagers to climb up on the bridge, where they are sure to meet their death when faced with an oncoming train and nowhere to run. According to the show, the first stories of the monster appeared in the 1940s and 1950s and since then a number of teens have indeed died on the bridge, most recently in 2016. The origin of the monster is, unsurprisingly, shrouded in secrecy. Some say it escaped from a circus train crossing the trestle. Others say it is the result of bestiality. Some even say it’s Satan himself. It’s a local tradition for teenagers to climb the bridge in the hopes of encountering this creature.

If the show is to be believed, the brother of their featured witness was out with friends one night in 1988 and suddenly had the urge to climb up on the trestle and walk across it. Sure enough, when he was about half-way across, he encountered an oncoming train and was killed. Grieving the loss of her brother, the witness went to the bridge herself a few days later and became convinced that her brother had been enticed by the Pope Lick Monster. While filming for the show, she breaks down on camera as a train rumbles by overhead, apparently signifying the creature's return.

Let’s step away from the entertainment value for a moment and think about this story and how it was presented. The United States was founded by Protestants and its early folklore is full of satanic encounters. Associating this beast with satanic imagery is carrying on a long tradition of American narratives. The appearance of the creature in the 1940s and 1950s isn’t a coincidence. After all, this was when the modern teenager we know and love became a distinct part of American culture. Post-war suburban affluence increased the amount of leisure time and disposable income available to white middle-class Americans. For their teenage children, the relentless consumer culture and proliferation of automobiles encouraged greater autonomy. Media culture at the time was also important. That late 1950s saw a wave of interest in monsters as Universal’s classic monster movies were dusted off and shown at drive-ins and on syndicated late-night television. Throw in a good dose of Cold War paranoia and you have the perfect conditions for stories of a monster terrorizing the next generation of Americans.

But let’s say that the stories were older. Where might they have come from then? The Pope Lick Monster shares all the common characteristics of any parent’s cautionary story. How better to keep young children away from danger than to invent some sort of monstrous entity to scare them away? Who among us hasn’t been told Little Red Riding Hood or Sleeping Beauty in the hopes that we will grow up to be cautious and wary of strangers? Of course, for teenagers, such stories only heighten the appeal of dangerous locations. Throw in hormones and an appetite to impress their peers and you’re basically inviting them to get into trouble.

What are we to make of the idea that her brother suddenly had the urge to cross the bridge? Enter the teenage brain, one of the hottest topics in behavioural science. What scientists have come to realize is that, while society defines most teenagers as being fully-fledged adults somewhere between the ages of 18-21, they really aren’t and still make poor decisions. The current thinking is that the decision-making centres in the human brain do not reach what we would consider to be sober, mature, adult capabilities until around the age of 25. When a teenager is asked to explain a stupid decision and claims “I guess I wasn’t thinking,” they are probably telling the truth. The decision processes that keep us adults alive are still under construction. So, why did her brother go up on that bridge? It might have been because he was entranced by a goat-thing, but it’s more likely that the mixture of thrill-seeking teenager with an immature decision-making ability pushed him to try something dangerous and his luck ran out.

And what of her conviction that a monster is responsible for the loss of her brother? If we take the story presented in the documentary as her sincere belief, and these shows do not seem all that credible, then it strikes me as a case of our primal desire to understand what we cannot comprehend. When something happens that we cannot explain, we search for explanations that bring us some form of closure or comfort. For many, this is where religion comes in. Unable to process the loss of a loved one, attributing it to a local legend would help a distraught relative to answer that really difficult question: why?

Is there a Pope Lick Monster? Probably not. But it’s that “probably” that makes these shows so entertaining and keep viewers hooked.

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