Cthulhu. He’s a psychic alien god slumbering in the ocean. He’s everywhere. And he’s also really cute.
Cthulhu was, in Lovecraft’s story, a secret. He was also a giant monster. The incongruity of these two elements was an important part of Cthulhu’s terrifying reveal. Part Godzilla, part psychic storm, Cthulhu is horror overdrive; he’s physically and psychologically intimidating…
Until you see him. Then he’s a big green guy with a squid face and wings. Lovecraft’s formerly underappreciated writing has now become so ubiquitous that the image of Cthulhu is everywhere. He’s a plush doll, a cartoon, and he even has a role-playing game. How is anyone ever going to take him seriously?
On the one hand, Cthulhu is alien proof that humanity is merely a blip in the universe, so insignificant that his mere dreams cause men to go mad. On the other, our modern world is eminently comfortable with a godless universe. We’ve come a long way from Lovecraft’s quaint views of white man’s supremacy over civilization.
Is Cthulhu scary anymore? Are Lovecaft’s alien horrors still relevant?
As a giant monster, Cthulhu might not be that scary. Godzilla movies and imitations thereof have anesthetized us to attacks by kaiju. But then there was September 11, and suddenly it became clear to America that if a giant monster struck a city the results would be horrific. Cloverfield was as much a giant monster homage as it was about our fears of terrorism.
As an abstract concept, Cthulhu might seem trite. He’s an alien … in an age of ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, alien abductions and autopsies, this isn’t new. Of course, Cthulhu is actually the high priest of other beings similar to him. He slumbers in a city on our very own planet. We think we know everything about Earth…but then we somehow missed a valley filled with over a 100,000 gorillas. How would that go over if it were an alien population? District 9 provides some insight.
As a storm of psychic nightmares, we may consider Cthulhu old hat. There are worse horrors in the world committed by people who are quite sane. But a mass panic from an alien invasion is a real possibility; the War of the Worlds radio broadcast is one example, the Battle of Los Angeles being another, and of course there are theories that the witch trials in Europe were caused by a mass outbreak of a psychedelic fungus.
The truth is that Cthulhu as a representative of the alien unknown will always be with us. Each of us holds a core set of values, principles, and beliefs that we hold dear, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. To lose one’s grip on those mortal ties is to lose our grip on sanity. What Lovecraft held as sacrosanct may not translate well across time, but we all have something we fear losing. It could be our health, our loved ones, or even our minds.
Is a giant winged monster scary? Cthulhu is much more than that — he is our modern boogeyman, a devil’s new form cloaked in cartoons and stuffed toys. He may not be scary to you right now. But one day, when he uncoils in that corner of our reptilian brain, Cthulhu will wake up.
Your Turn: How have used Cthulhu in your game?