Loch Ness monster Nessie
This undated file photo shows a shadowy shape that some people say is a Loch Ness monster in Scotland, later debunked as a hoax. The Loch Ness Centre in Scotland is calling for 'budding monster hunters' and volunteers to join in what it dubs the largest search for the Loch Ness Monster since the 1970s. Image Credit: AP

It was last weekend when so many of us found themselves watching, all the while both mesmerised and bemused, those hundreds of monster hunters, equipped with drones, infrared cameras, a hydrophone used to detect acoustic signals and heaven knows what other high-tech gear, gathered in the Scottish Highlands with one goal in mind.

The goal? To be the folks who, finally, were able to spot the so-called Loch Ness Monster, the folkloric creature engagingly known as Nessie, which legend has it lives in the deeps of the freshwater lake Loch Ness, in Inverness, Scotland, one heck of a smart monster who has eluded capture or proof of its existence since its first recorded sighting in the 6th century.

If the search, the biggest ever mounted in decades, attracted global attention, it was simply because of the sustained global fascination with Nessie, the most benign, not to mention the most popular cryptid of all time, who inhabits the dark waters of the most famous lake in the world, Loch Ness, which is 28 miles long, 788 feet deep (the Empire State Building, by comparison, is 1,250 feet tall) and 380 million years old — pretty comfortable digs for a Jurassic-era creature to live in, wouldn’t you say?

The search for Nessie ended on Sunday night, with Alan McKenna, leader of the project, declaring that sorting through the data collected by the volunteer search team, separating fact from wishful thinking, will “take a long time”.

Read more by Fawaz Turki

We enjoy feeling fearful

Bummer! We all wanted to hear of a confirmed sighting of Nessie, or at the least proof that she exists. And, yes, as to who determined that the creature was female, well, this has long been buried in time and is beyond recall.

The Nessie legend, after all, was born nearly 1,500 years ago, when what was described as a “ferocious monster” leapt out from the lake and, it seems, decided to have a poor local farmer for lunch.

What we were left with on Sunday was what we are always left with when we as humans ponder our love-hate relationship with monsters.

We want to “slay” them for the putatively menacing creatures they are and, at the same time, we want them to walk the Earth alongside us because we know — or at the least we sense — that their presence there, otherworldly though it may be, would trigger in us those ancient fears that lurk in what Carl Jung called the Universal Archetype. We enjoy feeling fearful. It is so primordially encoded in us.

Boats and drones were deployed in the two-day hunt for the Loch Ness monster in Scotland on Sunday. Image Credit: Washington Post photo by Jennifer Hassan

The Nessie quest

Look, monsters have haunted our collective human imagination ever since we became human, insinuating themselves into our literature, our mythology, our metaphor and even, if only allegorically, our conjectures on human meaning.

We fear and yet are drawn to them, deriving implications at once so rich and so violent from their phantom presence in our lives. They are, thus, at times benign, like Nessie, who invoke in us not horror and fear but pathos and compassion.

Consider, in this case, Boris Johnson, once Britain’s prime minister, who in September 2019 revealed that he had always “yearned to believe in the Loch Ness Monster” when he was a child, wanting the creature to be real, adding — in an echo of the beliefs that those who followed news of the Nessie quest last weekend held — “and a part of me still does”.

And there are monsters whom at times we see as destructive creatures that need to be “eliminated with extreme prejudice”, as it were, say, like Godzilla, King Kong and Frankenstein. So consider here, conversely, the reference to monsters by John Quincy Adams, the American secretary of state, who in his 1821 Independence Day address to the nation, declared: “[America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to slay”.

The reference, of course, was figurative, implying that America should not interfere in the affairs of the European great powers, but rather focus on its own neighbourhood. (Perhaps the early 19th century American president was also mindful of Nietzchie’s warning that “He who fights monsters should ensure that in the process he himself does not become a monster”.)

Tourists pose for a picture with a Loch Ness monster sculpture at Nessieland in Drumnadrochit in the Scottish Highlands on August 27, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Loved and hated at once 

In fact — a fact you find difficult to believe — during the Second World War, members of the German High Command were so convinced the Loch Ness Monster, so beloved by the people of Britain, did indeed exist that they actually dropped bombs on the loch in Inverness in an effort to kill Nessie and thus damage British morale.

Monsters, we want to believe, indeed walk the Earth. They navigate the depths of its oceans, lakes and rivers, haunt its castles, wander its forests, inhabit its snow-capped mountains and even appear as lead actors on horror movies on our silver screens — and we at once love and hate them.

Despite experts’ insistence that such creatures do not exist (Bigfoot is just a myth, for crying out loud, they tell us), we continue to insist in turn that they do — genetically predisposed as we are to believe in them — allowing them to insinuate themselves into the fabric of our imagination and the repertoire of consciousness.

We love it when they inspire fears in us, fears that cause the biochemicals in our body to release adrenalin and thus trigger in us surging energies, primordial impulses we inherited as an archetype from our ancient ancestors who, in their time, did indeed confront real monsters, both benign and menacing.

So, Nessie, hang in there, baby. And it doesn’t matter whether you are indeed a creature of the deep or a phantom of our fevered imagination.

Keep us company as we battle those true-to-life monsters in our midst, our monsters de jour, like greedy bankers, environmentally destructive corporations, politicians whose divisive rhetoric has polarised our societies, along with other like-minded schmucks in our time.

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in the US. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.