The mysteries of the unexplained — UFOs, ESP, ghosts, and so on — were an integral part of growing up in the 1970s, just as the threat of global thermonuclear war was in the 1980s. And, just as, sometime in the mid-90s, I found myself looking back and thinking, ‘Hey, it seems we’re not going to die a horrendous radioactive death after all,’ I’ve recently found myself looking back on those unexplained mysteries I grew up with, wondering what happened to them.
In a sense, the Loch Ness Monster is the purest example of a ‘mystery of the unexplained’. Belief in UFOs implies belief in technologically advanced aliens; belief in ghosts implies belief in life after death; but belief in the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t imply anything other than belief in a ‘large living creature of an anomalous species’ in one particular body of water. It doesn’t even have to be, as the popular image has it, a plesiosaur — a reptile, and hence entirely unsuited to living in a cold-water loch, and, what’s more, a creature whose fossilised bones reveal it to be entirely incapable of raising its neck above the vertical, Nessie-style — it could be any dark, humped, long-necked, small-headed, giant water beastie, just so long as it (a) can be described as a monster, and (b) is in Loch Ness.
One of the things that fascinated me about the story of the Loch Ness Monster, as detailed in Gareth Williams’s comprehensive A Monstrous Commotion: The Mysteries of Loch Ness, was how, despite its having no religious or idealogical baggage, belief in the monster nevertheless inspires religious levels of devotion (as well as inter-factional and cross-factional squabbling). One sighting of an anomalous, glistening hump travelling across an otherwise glassy-calm loch can change lives. It can certainly ruin careers, as it did to Denys Tucker, only 26 years old when he was made Curator of Fishes by the British Museum in 1949, but sacked eleven years later, in part because of his insistence that the Museum investigate the Loch Ness Monster — but also because he was ‘shortfused and easily goaded into “intemperate” language and firing off abusive memos’. A martyr to the monster, maybe, but no saint.
Sir Peter Scott, son of the famous explorer and a natural history presenter for nearly three decades of BBC documentaries, planning a serious scientific expedition to Loch Ness, was advised (by the Assistant Private Secretary to Her Majesty, no less):
‘I’m sure that you would be right to enlist a psychologist amongst your team, as there is obviously something about the Loch Ness Monster which makes normally sane and balanced people behave in a highly emotional manner. Even if of no use to you, he would have an interesting time examining the causes of the Loch Ness Monster neuroses.’
And, as Gareth Williams says of another scientist/monster hunter:
‘Roy Mackal was knocked spectacularly off course by the Monster and became almost schizophrenic as a researcher. Back home in his molecular virology lab in Chicago, he was a methodical experimenter who published good work in high-quality journals. At Loch Ness, however, he behaved as though the water contained some mind-altering substance that made him throw away the basic principles of his research training. He bent facts, re-wrote evolution, invented new species which had no grounding in zoology and covered pages with lengthy calculations that were obviously wrong.’
As a piece of modern cultural history, the Loch Ness Monster story is fascinating in its own little way, starting out with several sightings in the early 1930s, including that of a large ‘prehistoric’ animal crossing the newly-built road around the loch, it quickly attracts further sightings, rebuttals, parodies and hoaxes (when big-game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell was financed by the Daily Mail to track down the beastie, he found footprints — that were later identified as the foot of a hippo, and just the single foot, not a pair, and a withered, dead foot at that, as these had been produced by an umbrella stand); it moves from the local paper to the nationals, and gets mentioned in Parliament, and on radio, and TV. It has films made about it (the first being The Secret of the Loch in 1934, edited by David Lean!). Books are published, books that collect the evidence, books that focus on particular theories, books that disprove other books. Photographs appear, and snippets of film, and, as technology moves on, underwater images, and sonar. Submarines are used, and a gyrocopter (straight off You Only Live Twice). The Loch gets dynamited, and peppered with biopsy darts. The Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau is formed as a scientific investigation of the monster in the 1960s, and quickly gets derailed when an over-enthusiastic MP gets on board (who later loses his Brighton seat for spending too much time by a Scottish Loch). Then, in the 1970s, the Americans come along, with their money, and their new technology, and the whole thing gets a new lease of life. Photographs (enhanced first of all by cutting edge computer-scanning methods, but also, perhaps, by dodgy-but-traditional paintbrush methods) are printed in the most prestigious scientific journal of all, Nature. It even gets onto Blue Peter.
How can this mystery, fixated on one large but limited loch, go on for so long? At every stage, each new method for finding the monster, often driven by new technologies and new ideas about what it is and how it must behave, brings it own unique grey areas. Sonar scans, for instance, find anomalously large, fast-moving objects deep in the loch that get everyone’s pulse racing, but are later explained as artefacts caused by reflections off the thermocline, the border between regions of water with different temperatures. The loch itself, with its deep, deep bottom, can produce powerful underwater waves with startling effects on the surface, and even boat-wakes can reflect and linger in all sorts of monstrously deceptive ways. The most persistent and convincing pieces of evidence (to believers, anyway) are almost always found, later — often, as in the case of the celebrated ‘Surgeon’s Photograph’, much later — to be hoaxes. It’s not, as Denys Tucker insisted, an Elasmosaurus neck standing a clear twelve feet out of the water, but a home-made model on a clockwork submarine, and much smaller.
The mystery of the Loch Ness Monster isn’t so much a cryptozoological one, as a human one. The monster hunters are, as Gareth Williams puts it, ‘a wonderful collection of one-offs’, and their quest:
‘…a magical mystery tour, complete with a yellow submarine, a flying machine lifted from James Bond and electronic wizardry straight out of Tomorrow’s World.’
In this purest of all quests to plumb the ‘mysteries of the unexplained’, it’s the quest for mystery itself, whatever form it takes, that comes out the strongest. It only takes a human pair of eyes, and something deep enough, or dark enough, or fuzzily-edged or murky enough, or simply something (like the Loch’s waters) that does something strange every so often. That, and a nudge towards an interpretation: a myth, a story, a bit of folklore, a modicum of fear and of excitement. ‘Am I seeing a monster? What else could it be?’ After all, as recent political events have proved, human beings can find monsters anywhere.