I look for the creature in a Florida spring, but I don’t see any signs of him. There’s no gilled body in the hydrilla. No webbed hands in the sand.
Instead, I see other creatures. A turtle glides toward the dock. A fish jumps like a skipping stone. Two manatees float far outside the swim zone. Everyone knows Florida for its beaches, but those of us who have lived here long enough know its springs hold magic, too.
My poet/artist friend Eleanor and I are on a summer book tour. We stopped at the Wakulla Springs Lodge on our way from Gainesville to Atlanta. A financier built this lodge in the late 1930s, and it still holds old-school elegance with local cypress columns and wildlife scenes ornately painted on ceiling tiles. I was told filmmakers shot the iconic horror film Creature from the Black Lagoon here in the 1950s. The Wakulla spring gave them the “uncharted” look they wanted to portray for the movie’s Amazon setting.
Eleanor and I are at the top of the spring’s 20-foot tower plunge. She’s less worried about the creature and more concerned with the threat of alligators. Signs around the spring warn visitors not to feed the ancient reptiles.
We know alligators lurk somewhere in these giant waters, but we don’t see any. I tell myself they’d be more interested in the skipping-stone fish anyway.
I tell myself it’s better to take the plunge than to overthink it.
I jump from the ledge and briefly fly like the vultures that circle overhead. My entrance into the water feels spiritual – or, healing, as these springs have been marketed throughout the state’s history. Florida has over 1,000 springs, the largest volume in the world. The water stays 72 degrees year-round. Its coldness makes my teeth chatter, yet, thankful to live in this state.
Lately, it’s been difficult for many Floridians to feel grateful to live here. The summer brought a montage of bans – of books, of bodies. Pride events were canceled in some Florida cities because of new ordinances on drag performances. The NAACP issued a travel advisory to the state because they deemed it “openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.” Members of the LGBTQ+ community started to leave. They didn’t feel safe in the state.
I’ve written about my home state for over a decade, and people have long asked me what’s going on down here with all our Florida Man headlines and polluted politics. But the summer made them apprehensive. They wanted to know when — not if – I was going to leave.
Their questions made me think about the Floridians who lived here before us. I’d been working on a series of essays about Florida’s state-sanctioned homophobia – from the Johns Committee in the 1950s to Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign in the 70s to now. I tracked this Florida lineage and ways the state’s LGBTQ+ communities had withstood these waves.
Many Floridians before me fought to make the state a safer place for us, and I told the question-askers that I have nowhere else to go. I’m in my mid-thirties and most of my family lives in Florida. So do so many friends and community members I love. These are the waters I know best.
The waters that have long called my name to this sand.
I poke my head through the spring’s surface. Sharp air fills my lungs. I yell to Eleanor our recurring joke, “Did you know Creature from the Black Lagoon was filmed here?”
She laughs as she walks down the tower’s steps. I swim to meet her at the ladder and think just because I didn’t see an alligator doesn’t mean there isn’t one. I pick up my pace.
A part of me wonders if the lagoon’s famous creature watches me do so.
Eleanor and I change for dinner then head to the lodge’s formal dining room to eat crab cakes and key lime pie. After dinner, we go to the family game room. It’s a weekday, and few families stay at the lodge. The lack of guests may also have something to do with the broken air conditioner. Lightning struck the spring, which somehow powers the lodge’s AC system. I lived with my grandmother for a whole summer without AC, so I don’t mind the heat.
Old photos hang in the hallway leading to the game room. Shots from the set of Tarzan, also filmed at the springs, guide our path. I don’t spot any stills of the black lagoon’s Gill-Man, though.
We decide to draw some of him and pull up photos on our phones. A vintage promotional poster shows the creature hovering over a redhead woman. A man crouches next to her. He holds a speargun toward Gill-Man whose spiky claws reach toward us.
In the film, a scientist finds a fossilized claw in the Amazon. He discusses it with the exceedingly handsome scientists David and Mark. The two men decide to search for the rest of the skeleton and then compete about science, ethics, and Kay, a female scientist who makes the trek to the Amazon with them.
When they reach the Black Lagoon, David and Mark immediately dive shirtless with their aqualungs into the water. They collect samples and analyze them in the boat’s cabin. Kay capitalizes on her lone unsupervised moment to jump into the water. As viewers watch her glamourous strokes, so does Gill-Man behind ribbons of eelgrass. He’s infatuated with her. Begins to mirror the motion of her backstrokes. Plucks at her feet.
The creature swim-follows Kay and gets caught in the team’s net. Kay believes the creature won’t hurt anyone who doesn’t bother him. Some of the men disagree. After one of them uses a harpoon, Kay asks “Why did you shoot, you weren’t attacked.”
It’s hard not to feel for Gill-Man. He’s been minding his business for thousands of years when suddenly these dudes come and mess with him, and he protects himself.
In the end, though, the creature must be tamed.
The men drug Gill-Man by putting poison in the water (and, subsequently, killing the fish). Drugged and hazy, Gill-Man then grabs Kay and takes her to his cave. He doesn’t harm her, but the men riddle his body with bullets.
In the movie’s sequel Revenge of the Creature, a new group goes to the Amazon to hunt Gill-Man. In my opinion, the movie is mistitled; Gill-Man doesn’t get any kind of revenge. Again, he’s just chilling in the Amazon when a group of men drug him and capture him. They transport Gill-Man to a Florida aquarium and charge people to see the creature. A different dashing scientist hears of their expedition and travels to Florida to study Gill-Man. A beautiful grad student goes to Florida so she can do the same.
Of course, the two fall in love. Of course, Gill-Man escapes. Of course, he kills the men. Only the men. They’ve taken him from his home to poke and prod him.
Again, the men riddle his body with bullets.
My attempts to sketch Gill-Man are bad, but they make me see the half-man, half-fish differently.
I notice his eyebrows are arched. His claws, manicured. He’s wearing lipstick – a good kind, too, because it stays shimmery even though he spends so much time in the water.
Basically, Gill-Man is in drag.
Articles tell me costume designer Milicent Patrick streamlined his features like an eel and gave him “feminine qualities.” At the time, she was one of few women in horror, and a male makeup artist downplayed her role to the public. It took almost 50 years for her to get credit for designing, as the producer described Gill-Man, the “sad, beautiful monster.”
People have interpreted “sad, beautiful” monsters like Gill-Man – and Mothman and Big Foot – as metaphors for queerness. These creatures are ostracized and lonely. They scare people just by existing.
But I’m not scared by Gill-Man. And neither was Kay in the original movie.
So, I want to imagine a different ending for him:
The men do not shoot him, and he becomes best friends with Kay. Over brunch, they drink mimosas and decide to go on an epic road trip. They plan to stop at all the little Florida cities with their bougainvillea and old-school charm.
Gill-Man is a Capricorn, and Kay is a Libra, so he books all the hotels. They pack her electric car and drive for miles as they talk about art and listen to Taylor Swift’s discography. At charging stations, they read poetry to each other and share organic cheese puffs.
The roadside blurs into sunset.
Gill-Man booked one night at Wakulla Springs where he grew up. He wants to introduce Kay to his turtle friends. The turtles tell them the water isn’t as clear as it was when he lived there. They urge him to be the voice of the spring. He reminds them he was once the voice of the spring but then the men put him in a cage. Some modern viewers interpret Gill-Man as a metaphor for climate change, so it’s a touchy subject for him.
Today, it would be difficult to shoot a remake of the film in this water. According to the Wakulla Spring Alliance, invasive plants obstruct its clarity. The darkening water also limit the food supply of the limpkin, a wading bird that became a symbol of the area. They went hungry for so long that the native birds no longer call this spring home.
Gill-Man quickly changes the subject.
Later, he and Kay eat in the lodge’s elegant dining room and share a bit of dessert. They head to the second-story lounge and listen to Loretta Lynn sing about fighting her man’s mistress as the bullfrogs interrupt with their lovemaking.
Around midnight, the friends retire to their shared room. They brush their teeth and apply expensive lotion for their nightly skin routine. They talk about their future as they crawl into bed. They tell each other secrets and get teary-eyed over how bittersweet it is to be an adult.
After their road trip, the two share memes with each other on Instagram. They go to dinner in the city. Talk about local fertility options. One day, Kay tells Gill-Man hey, I think there’s this cool guy you shouldmeet.
She introduces him to me.
He’s, of course, my type – beautiful, mysterious, complicated. On our first date, we go to this cute coffee shop with a piano in the corner. A kid bangs on the keys in an annoying way, but neither of us notice. We’re too busy talking about the new art house film starring our mutual friend Kay. She started to take on much more daring roles after they became friends. Her most recent performance has garnered award buzz.
My other friends tell me, butthe creature’s home is the water and yours is the sky.
I tell them the creature has a name — it’s Gill-Man.
I set out to learn how to breathe underwater, but it comes naturally to me. Turns out, I could always do it, had been doing it without even knowing I could.
The first summer rain comes. I use its mud and the sticks from my failed relationships to make us a house. I grill seaweed on the barbeque. When Gill-Man gets there, I rub his flippers while he laughs at my jokes. He tells me I’m beautiful. I tell him he is, too.
The future comes. Our stick home withstands the waves. The hurricanes. And whatever else comes our way. Our love is ours. That’s all we ever wanted it to be.
Even without air conditioning, I sleep peacefully through the night. I wake up early to feel the spring’s magic before we leave. As I wait for Eleanor to change into her bathing suit, I flip through our room’s guestbook.
People traveled from all over the country to stay here. They’ve visited for family reunions, birthdays, and our first night away in 12 years. They make notes about the fireflies at dusk, the great food, and trying whoopie in the single bed, moved over to the queen. They describe the springs as a sanctuary and the lodge a true step back in time.
A guest writes may the peace I received in this room and lodge be past to the next guest.
A phone call interrupts my peaceful trip through the pages of other people’s travels. My friend wants to ask my advice on something. I excitedly tell him about my trip, about the creature.
“I’m staying at the place they shot Creature from the Black Lagoon,” I say.
“They filmed that in New Port Richey,” he responds.
I’m positive he must be wrong. I’ve been repeatedly told the movie was filmed here. But his confident and quick reply makes me question everything I know. While he says something else, I search the lodge’s website on my phone. It says parts of the film were shot at the springs as well as other parts of the state. It doesn’t say anything about New Port Richey, so I can’t refute his claim. I tell him I’ll call you later.
Eleanor and I check out of our room and make our way to the gift shop, which also has an ice cream parlor with a 70-foot marble countertop. I tear through the shop with a mission. I plan to spend more money than I should on Gill-Man swag. By this point, I’m probably way too caught up in the creature and all its metaphors – about queerness, about climate change, about things Florida doesn’t want us to discuss.
The gift shop lets me down. In it, the creature doesn’t really exist. There aren’t any t-shirts or magnets or coffee mugs. I only find one piece of creature merchandise for sale: a horribly printed movie poster.
The lack of Gill-Man things I can buy makes me sad.
I get the horror icon might be a bad way to market their hotel, but it’s like they don’t think anyone would want to take him home.
I march up to the marble countertop to talk to a teenage-looking employee. I ask him about the Creature from the Black Lagoon lore. He tells me there’s a life-sized statue of Gill-Man tucked away in a building near the gift shop. We’ll have to go out of our way to look for him, but he’ll be there if we do.
Eleanor and I nearly sprint to him. We find ourselves in a little room with information about the spring’s water. It doesn’t look like Gill-Man would live here, but there he is. He’s standing, life-sized, in a corner like he belongs here – like he’s always belonged here.
The creature reaches his beautiful claws toward us. We gladly do the same.
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