Having recently finished Linda Godfrey’s book, American Monsters, I am struck by the fact that most of the creepiest cryptids chronicled therein walk bipedally, like people do. Godfrey mentions various dogmen, a gator man, and the lizard man; and of course, the oft-represented Sasquatch, in her book. She often quotes witnesses as saying how freaked-out they were when they realized the creature they were watching was walking on two legs — because that is the moment they understood this was no run-of-the-mill animal, but something very, very strange indeed.
Godfrey also makes reference to the being some Native American tribes know as the Windigo, which is often represented as a giant, cannibalistic, walking, human skeleton. But aside from terrifying Native American spirit-beings and cryptozoological oddities, Western culture has a tradition of putting a pair of legs beneath our embodied fears.
For example, the Devil himself is depicted on two legs. We also have Beowulf’s nemesis, the monster Grendel; the infamous werewolf; and any number of movie monsters from The Creature from the Black Lagoon to the Aliens from Alien — not to mention those creatures formerly known as human: Zombies, vampires, and Frankenstein’s monster. H.P. Lovecraft’s sea-dwelling, telepathic, ultra-creepy Cthulu is basically a giant octopus, but on top of a humanoid body. Even in ancient times, beings like Medusa, the Cyclops, and the Minotaur – kind of like us, but not quite – were fearsome monsters featured in story and song.
Basically, the creatures we fear most deeply walk on two legs.
What is it about bipedality that makes unknown animals just that much weirder? Why wouldn’t we devise some slithering, slimy, tentacled, multi-eyed, totally bizarre animal to be a classic, legendary beast of terror? Is it a lack of imagination on our part, or is it inherently creepier for us to imagine our scariest creatures as having that little bit of human-ness – bipedality – which we like to think of as a trait peculiar to our own species?
The element of bipedalism figures into extraterrestrial depictions, too. Think about the “greys,” those big-headed, skinny alien beings that have come to be so well represented in our culture. It’s a little ridiculous to assume that creatures from other planets would all evolve methods of locomotion the same as our own, isn’t it? Even within that paragon of culture, Star Trek, the aliens look an awful lot like normal two-legged earthlings. Well, sometimes they look like this:
All Trek aside, perhaps injecting an element of the familiar into what we imagine to be “unknown” is a subconscious representation of our fear of ourselves. Or perhaps “creepy” is just that much creepier if it is a little bit, but not quite, familiar to us.