Be Scared, Smarter

Monster vs. Myth Series Sorts Fact from Fiction

by Elizabeth Tippet

Personally, I think having a healthy fear of wildlife is, well, healthy. Filmmakers think exploiting my healthy fears is profitable. To explore the age-old Humans vs. Nature struggle, moviemakers have used large beasts and ungodly monsters to thrill audiences since the beginning of film. To extract facts from that fiction — while having a little fun, of course — is the goal of this year’s new Monster vs. Myth film series at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Each of the three film screenings — which already included 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Birds, with Godzilla vs. Mothra coming on May 18 — begins with a short talk from animal experts and scientists, educating the audience about what should frighten and what should thrill. And then the reel roles.

The first daytime screening — of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — was mainly for children, but Jeff Barber, the museum’s education director, aimed The Birds and Godzilla vs. Mothra toward adult film buffs and those looking for something a little different. “We want everyone to be entertained, but also have it be educational,” Barber explained.

After seeing The Birds as a young child, I know that keeping children at bay is the best thing. Without the use of mood-heightening music, Alfred Hitchcock created hysteria in audiences with his 1963 horror film, simply by depicting the behavior of a mass of predatory birds as they descend upon the small, seaside town of Bodega Bay, California. Since birds aren’t usually considered aggressive animals, it’s easy to chalk up the nail-biting effect of the film to Hitchcock’s master craftsmanship in thrill and horror. That is, until meeting the museum’s Krista Fahy, an expert on vertebrate zoology.

“It could happen,” she said before starting her talk on April 5. I wait for her to laugh. She doesn’t. According to Fahy, the bird behavior depicted in Hitchcock’s classic is not merely a figment of a genius director’s imagination. While the original idea came from a short story by Daphne Du Maurier, Hitchcock’s true inspiration was a newspaper account of similar bird behavior in Santa Cruz. Residents reported waking up in the middle of the night to thousands of birds in their neighborhoods, disoriented en masse. Seeing the look on my face, Fahy explained, “The bird behavior in the movie is not out of the ordinary, but attacking humans is.” I’m relieved, slightly.

So, what could cause birds (Hitchcock used a mix of ravens, crows, gulls, and small finches) to gather in such numbers and, more importantly, how can they be discouraged? Fahy guessed that the Santa Cruz incident resulted from the birds’ ingestion of domoic acid, likely from dining on poisoned anchovies, resulting in confusion and disorientation. Since domoic acid is a naturally occurring plankton, not much can be done. Suddenly I wished I didn’t live in a small, Californian seaside town.

In the series’ next screening, Godzilla vs. Mothra, a larger-than-life lizard (Godzilla) takes on a larger-than-life moth (Mothra) in the fourth Godzilla movie to come out of Japan. Whether it’s the appearance of good fairies or the fact that Mothra produces offspring, Godzilla vs. Mothra is often considered a “chick flick” by Japanese monster movie connoisseurs, therefore ideal for those couples looking for a little something different on date night.

James Travers, who cares for reptiles at the Santa Barbara Zoo, will introduce the film, and plans to discuss true lizard characteristics and behaviors. It is possible for a moth and a lizard to have an adversarial relationship in real life, especially with species of lizards that are active at night. However, “the lizard would always win, unless the moth was lucky enough to just fly away,” explained Travers. In his discussion, starting at 8 p.m. on May 18 in the museum’s Fleisch­mann Auditorium, he plans to shed some light on the origin of the movie’s monstrous exaggerations.

4•1•1 The next film in the Monster vs. Myth series is Godzilla vs. Mothra, which screens next Thursday, May 18, 8 p.m., at the Museum of Natural History. See or call 682-4711.

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