Tuesday 2 May 2023

1933 - King Kong and the Loch Ness Monster

This year marks the 90th anniversary of two famous monsters. The first was King Kong when that great ape appeared in his first film, released in America to critical acclaim on March 2nd 1933 in New York. Two months later, the first media report of many concerning a strange creature in a Highland loch was published by the Inverness Courier on May 2nd under the title of "Strange Spectacle at Loch Ness". After those debut days, the two monsters followed parallel paths into 1933 as more reports to intrigue the public came in from the loch about the newly named Loch Ness Monster, while anticipation of the King Kong film coming to Britain fueled excitement about monsters real or imagined.

King Kong would have its premiere at the Coliseum Cinema in London on Easter Monday, April 17th as seen in the contemporary advert below, which was around the time that Aldie Mackay, the eyewitness to the "strange spectacle" in Loch Ness, had her encounter. In scenes unfamiliar to modern cinema goers, a report from the Daily Herald the next day said that thousands gathered at Charing Cross trying to get in to see the film with police being called in to control the crowd. Those who were successful had to stand in queues hundreds of yards long wrapping round the block. By the end of the day, 15,000 were the first to see this literal blockbuster.

Such was the impression that the film had on the general public that a question has been raised in the ninety years since as to whether these two monsters did follow parallel paths or did their paths cross and influence each other in some way? To that end, it has been speculated in recent times that the prehistoric monsters depicted in the King Kong film had a subliminal effect on the eyewitness accounts that came out of Loch Ness in the months after the release of the film in the United Kingdom.

While the film was preparing to go on general UK release in the Autumn of 1933, the Loch Ness Monster story ramped up with a sensational story from the Inverness Courier of August 4th concerning the monster out of the loch on dry land crossing a road in front of two witnesses in their car. The couple were the Spicers from London and their account became one of the lead stories of the coming worldwide media interest. This interest was to be sparked by one national newspaper, The Scotsman, sending a team up to investigate local claims and publishing it to a wider audience in September.

King Kong and Nessie now had everyone's attention. And this is where King Kong first enters the Nessie domain. Lt. Cdr. Rupert T. Gould interviewed the Spicers for his book, "The Loch Ness Monster and Others" published later in June 1934. During his meeting with George Spicer, the film came up in the conversation:

While discussing his experience, I happened to refer to the diplodocus-like dinosaur in King Kong: a film which, I discovered, we had both seen. He told me that the creature he saw much resembled this, except that in his case no legs were visible, while the neck was much longer and more flexible.

It is not clear when George Spicer saw the film. Was it before or after his experience at Loch Ness in July 1933? The film had been screening in London for three months before the Spicers' encounter at Loch Ness which sounds like plenty of time to see it. But then again, maybe monster films were not his thing until he saw something monstrous up north? Nobody knows for sure, but after this no author made any mention of King Kong and the Loch Ness Monster that I could find for fifty years.

That came in 1983 with Ronald Binns' sceptical work, "The Loch Ness Mystery Solved". In his concluding argument that people need monsters and will therefore see them, he refers to the exchange between Spicer and Gould and conjectures that:

It is probably no coincidence that the Loch Ness Monster was discovered at the very moment that King Kong, the masterpiece of the genre, was released across Scotland in 1933.

This "pioneering argument" (as Binns self-describes it) was not developed further and speculation about any connection between the two monsters disappears again for another thirty years. That came with the publication of another sceptical book entitled "Abominable Science" by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero in 2013. This book was a general diatribe against cryptozoology with a large chapter on the Loch Ness Monster. I reviewed it at the time here.

Binns' initial thoughts were taken and developed by the authors who suggest that the scene in King Kong with the diplodocus-like dinosaur mentioned by Gould was transposed by George Spicer onto his story. It was not clear what was meant by this, did George Spicer take that scene and totally fabricate a similar incident at Loch Ness or did what he saw at Loch Ness go through some kind of mental diplodocus filter? So questions were left unanswered, as well as the involvement of Spicer's wife, the co-witness and as mentioned above whether one or both of them had even seen the film by that time?

A couple of years later, researcher Charles Paxton had an article published in the January 2015 edition of Fortean Times entitled "Nessie, Daughter of Kong?" in which he took a different view to the King Kong and Nessie connection. He argued that King Kong being a major influence on the Loch Ness Monster was too simplistic and failed to address various factors at play, such as a strange creature in the loch being reported at least as far back as 1930 and the issue of the film not reaching Inverness until October of 1933. However, he did not dismiss the idea of some degree of cultural influence.

This article led to a couple of letters being published in the March 2015 edition from an Ulrich Magin and a Martyn Jackson. The first focused more on the account from 1930 but also mentioned the potential influence of water horse and sea serpent necks beyond the dinosaurs of King Kong. The letter from Mr. Jackson changes tack and goes back to 1925 and the release of the silent movie, "The Lost World" which was another dinosaur movie featuring stop motion technology and was seen as the forerunner of the King Kong film. In particular he refers to another diplodocus-type creature which runs amok in London. Did this film released eight years before King Kong have any influence in the matter?

The debate then comes full circle in 2023 as the Fortean Times published another article by the aforementioned Ulrich Magin to mark the 90th anniversary of Nessie. This was a sceptical article and the focus was again on the Spicer land sighting with the statement that he may have been influenced by the movie. That more or less sums up the debate on the connection between the King Kong movie and early sightings of the Loch Ness Monster in 1933.

With all that history behind us, now seemed a good time to review all this with a fresh look. That required new information and so I turned to the British Newspaper Archive to harvest data on what the media were reporting on the two monsters back in 1933 and 1934. It has over 67 million pages of British newspapers digitised and online since the 1700s and is the most complete archive available. It will not have every newspaper for every year, but the amount of pages available should give us a representative view of what journalists were writing on certain subjects back then.

Firstly, all references to the phrase "King Kong", "Loch Ness Monster" and "Loch Ness" were collected for the years 1933 to 1939. The phrase "Loch Ness" was chosen as not all references to the monster used the phrase "Loch Ness Monster". When plotted on a chart, the two phrases had pretty much the same shape and so I will stick to matches for "Loch Ness Monster" although references to "Loch Ness" were almost 50% greater. The chart of newspaper hits for "King Kong" and "Loch Ness Monster" is shown below. The Loch Ness Monster line is the darker one.

Looking at King Kong first, the line rises into May 1933 as the film finally arrives in London and the reviews and chatter begins. There is then a dip awaiting the later nationwide release and then by the end of September, we have a peak in King Kong interest as most parts of the country would have seen the film (though Inverness did not see it until October). Another peak happens in November as the sequel film "Son of Kong" came out at the end of the year to stir further interest. That film was a flop and depicted a lot smaller ape. After that King Kong fever effectively ends and it drops rapidly into a flatter pattern.

For the Loch Ness Monster, things started quietly as news of a monster stayed with the local newspapers in early 1933. It was when The Scotsman took up the story in September that it began to acquire UK interest and launched like a rocket to peak in January 1934 with various key events being reported such as the Wetherell expedition, the first photograph from Hugh Gray and the Arthur Grant land account. Then the reporting likewise dropped off with a small peak in the summer of 1934.

What can be gleaned about any potential relationship here? The King Kong phenomenon had peaked in September with its peak in cinema goers, but the Loch Ness Monster peaked four months later and for its own different reasons. King Kong had peaked just as the Loch Ness Monster was taking off. Both had gathered a similar number of hits up to their respective peaks, but the Nessie one was more of a spike hitting a peak twice as high as anything for King Kong.

As to actual content, most of the King Kong matches would be cinema adverts, reviews and local talk about the film. There would be an overspill into the mainstream where columnists would use the phrase in different ways and the beast would "appear" at local events such as carnivals. The Loch Ness Monster was different as it focused on eyewitness accounts, theories as to what it was, what the experts thought about it and what people were going to do about it. To that can be added the humorous articles, letters and the use of the phrase in a more generic way as well as how it fed into the local cultures in a similar way to King Kong.

How correlated are the two data sets as in how closely do they relate to each other? By using the Excel correlation function, a numerical value can be assigned to this question. This is a number which lies between -1 and +1 and the closer it is to +1, the more positively correlated they are. A value closer to zero indicates there is no correlation between the two and a value tending to -1 indicates they are oppositely correlated (i.e. one rises as the other falls and vice versa). For the two years of 1933 and 1934, taking in the significant highs and lows of the two beasts, the correlation came out at +0.19 which would be regarded as a weak correlation. 

That does not mean that the two phenomena went their own ways throughout those years, it is more suggestive of a degree of influence but not a strong one. The next set may give us a better indication of how one may have influenced the other and that is the number of times both phenomena were mentioned in the same article  Since the accuracy of the newspaper archive search facility gave matches for both on the same page but not necessarily the same article, each hit had to be examined and judged accordingly. 

The search was run from January 1933 to October 1935, which by then both were out of the "mania" phase. The total number of hits for articles mentioning both the King Kong and the Loch Ness Monster was a mere forty three. The total number of newspaper occurrences of King Kong or the Loch Ness Monster on their own or together was 8999 in the same period. That means the media linked the two, for whatever reasons, about 0.5% of the time. In terms of hits for the two just being on the same page, the best total was 73 or 0.8% of the total. The chart below shows the hits for both as a dotted line. Since the number is so small compared to the overall total, it is numbered on the right hand side.

However, the dotted line hits a maximum of just over 1% of the total in January 1934 as Nessie media articles hit a peak. So, the dual mention phenomenon is more linked to coverage of the Loch Ness Monster than coverage of the King Kong movie, which would make sense. But it looks like a very small number compared to what it is covering, so that does not look like an indicator of the King Kong movie influencing the Loch Ness Monster phenomenon. This is further seen in what these dual hits actually talk about, which is tabulated into general categories below.

  1. The idea of unclassified or extinct animals surviving - 3
  2. Loch Ness Monster compared to diplodocus in King Kong film - 2
  3. Humorous references to both (metaphors, poems, story) - 9
  4. Appearances in public events (fancy dress, pantomime, carnivals) - 10
  5. Nessie themed films compared to King Kong film (Movietone, Secret of the Loch, Irvine film) - 8
  6. King Kong a better story than Loch Ness Monster - 2
  7. Publicity for King Kong film mentioning Loch Ness Monster - 4

Most of the references are of a trivial nature and do not address the question of how dinosaurs in the King Kong film could have influenced eyewitnesses to objects in Loch Ness. In fact, there was no reference in any of the above to an eyewitness describing what they saw as looking like something from the King Kong movie. The most important references are the two which state that the Loch Ness Monster resembles the diplodocus in the Kong movie. One is explicit and the other is implicit when it only says you can see Nessie in the film, but there is only one scene that fits that statement.

That is two quotes from nearly nine thousand newspaper pieces over two years, not exactly a ringing endorsement of what is called a "pioneering argument". That argument is rather indirectly inferred from the coincidental appearances of the two monsters in 1933 and not anything that could be called direct evidence. This is further demonstrated when the newspaper pieces which mention both the Loch Ness Monster and King Kong are charted against the actual eyewitness reports from 1933 to 1934 as shown below (Nessie reports are the orange line).

The Loch Ness Monster reports just kept coming in long after any media stories linking the two was finished and peaked in July 1934. The correlation for these two data sets is 0.31 which is borderline weak to moderate, or in other words, not strong or compelling in any way. One can only go so far with these statistics, but they present a more quantitative approach to the subject than psychological theories which are notorious for being untestable.

But going back to the history of this King Kong debate, there was one quantitative analysis offered in defense of the theory and that was proposed in "Abominable Science". The claim was that the object described by the Spicers bears a more than passing resemblance to our not so friendly brontosaurus/diplodocus/ataposaur/etc from King Kong. I reproduce below two pictures relevant to that theory.

Now "Abominable Science" claims four similarities between George Spicer's sketch and their snapshot from the brontosaurus scene:

  1. Both had a long neck.
  2. Both had no feet visible.
  3. Both had tail curved round side of body.
  4. Both had victim in mouth.

Now if you watch the complete scene from the film (YouTube), that scenario is not so convincing. Depending on what frame you pick, you could only have two of the list true - long neck and something in mouth. What was claimed as a lamb or some other small animal in the mouth of the Loch Ness Monster by George Spicer equates to our unfortunate crew member in the Kong film. I don't think I have seen a meaner man munching brontosaurus. So much for giant cows with long necks.

So perhaps not the most unbiased choice of the "Abominable Science" authors. If they can do that, well, I choose a still which bears only a slight resemblance to the Spicer sketch. So, the case has not been made and I see no evidence that seeing dinosaurs like the one below from the King Kong movie can make people looking at floating logs or birds in Loch Ness turn them into prehistoric creatures. 

That there may have been cultural influences between the two monsters cannot be denied, people did make connections, but it is a big leap to conceive how this alters peoples' perceptions looking across a loch. Indeed, no serious scientific paper to this day has been published on the subject with convincing experimentation and reasoning.

Finally, I move onto "The Lost World" references. Actually, I watched this silent movie for the first time when I was researching this article. It was available to rent on Amazon Prime and I took some photos. It was a good watch considering its age, although obviously dated in more ways than one. Professor Challenger's captured brontosaurus also features in that movie and does some serious damage to London as the designers of Tower Bridge failed to take into account the weight of a brontosaurus on it and it drops into the Thames. The scene ends with a very Loch Ness Monster like scene but again, the links between this and the later Loch Ness Monster are even more tenuous.

After all that, what can one say but here's to another ninety years of Nessie.

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The author can also be contacted at lochnesskelpie@gmail.com


Now ninety years on we might say the special effects are primitive compared to today while we look over the latest Nessie photograph with no idea what that old critter is. Ninety years from now, I wonder what they will think of our CGI King Kongs? I don't know, but the latest Nessie pictures will be something we can't quite conceive and they still won't know what that old critter is.