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13 Nov

Chapter on Megalodon and Spectral Animals

Written by Michael Fuchs
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The Monster Shark Still Lives: The Lazarus Taxon and Spectral Animal Bodies

In the controversial mockumentary Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, which opened Discovery Channel's 2013 Shark Week, the narrator explains, "The coelacanth was thought to have become extinct with the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. Then, in 1938, this living fossil was discovered off the coast of Africa." Based on the "evidence" he collects in the course of the mockumentary, Collin Drake, whom the film introduces as "a marine biologist" who is "the first guy to get called when something strange is happening out in the seas," suggests that Megalodon "may still be alive today." Indeed, in the 2014 follow-up to The Monster Shark Lives, Megalodon: The New Evidence, the incertitude implied by the modal verb "may" has vanished, as Drake claims, "Megalodon is out there." The truly astounding fact related to the two Megalodon productions is that a whopping 71% of the original program's viewers were convinced that "[t]he evidence for Megalodon can't be ignored." (Two remarks here: First, maybe this result is not so surprising in our age of alternative facts. Second, these numbers are taken from an online poll which ran on Discovery's website in the hours after the mockumentary's original broadcast. Discovery—or users finding it entertaining and/or satisfying to manipulate the results—could have easily tampered with these numbers).

Drawing and expanding on insights from John Berger, Akira Mizuta Lippit, and others, I will suggest that the viewers' belief in the truth claim of the fantastic images showcases that we (that is: the majority of people living in the Western world) primarily experience wildlife in mediated form. To be sure, both Berger and Lippit have argued that the increasing distance between human and nonhuman animals was spurred by nonhuman animals' disappearance from human habitat (i.e., the city). Scholars such as Hannah Velten have elaborated on these ideas, suggesting that humans have deliberately removed animals from the urban environment in an attempt to maintain the veneer of human control over nature, while Jean Baudrillard has concluded that animals have been removed from the (human) world through the excessive use of symbols.

Accordingly, my proposed contribution to this volume on Gothic animals will argue that the reactions to Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives, in particular, testify to an ontological shift: Mediated encounters with nonhuman animals do no longer substitute first-hand encounters in an attempt to fill a void left by the disappearance of nonhuman animals; instead, these mediated encounters have replaced the actual first-hand experience altogether, removing the nonhuman animal from the equation. Animals are thus no longer based on, and bound by, physical reality, but become (re-)created in a sign system. That The Monster Shark Lives deals with a prehistoric fish simultaneously makes these processes more explicit and more convoluted, as the actual animal never was part of the equation, to begin with. I will thus suggest that Megalodon's becoming-real in the minds of the viewers epitomizes American culture's hauntedness caused by the purging of wildlife from the material reality of the average American. As the long-extinct chondrichthyan invades the present moment from the past in hyperreal form, the Megalodon, as represented (or, rather, created) in The Monster Shark Lives, usurps the Megalodon science knows. I will demonstrate that the mockumentary format exacerbates the ontoepistemological confusion thus caused, as the documentary discourse frames digitally manipulated images and film clips displaying digital visual effects. In the end, I will show that the two Megalodon productions transform animals into pieces of information—"scientific" data and binary code. In this way, human-made discourse is used to control a beast which is, in fact, much more powerful than humans, as the brief clips of a Megalodon purportedly sinking a boat (which are constantly repeated) demonstrate.