It’s a gruesome image: a chimpanzee dressed in a red and yellow sweater that’s covered in blood. Similarly, his mouth, arms, hands, and feet are dripping in blood with an eerily empty studio behind him as the “APPLAUSE” sign blinks. He throws off a party hat as though completely frustrated with the fact that he’s had to wear it. As he does so, he notices the viewer through a green table cloth. He slowly crawls over and sticks out a bloody hand; the tone of his grisly and apparently unprovoked attack lingering at the moment. The onlooker must be holding his breath as he reaches his hand back out to fist-bump the chimp back, wondering if this may be the last time he ever fist-bumps anyone.

Jordan Peele really is a master of terror. That image of course, is but a re-telling of the most frightening one minute and 35 seconds of his 2022 film Nope, which is the latest of a string of movies that feature an ape that has committed acts of violence against humans. Obviously, 1933’s classic King Kong comes to mind, and of course, the 1968 Planet of the Apes franchise (which is actually based off of the 1963 novel La Planète des singes). It’s fascinating to notice that all three depict apes differently, particularly King Kong, but with no less terrifying results.

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From King Kong to Entire Planets

​​​​Without over explaining a well-known plot, Kong is not an ape, but a monster from an uncharted island that just so happens to look like a gorilla. He is portrayed as wild as he is sensitive, but ultimately an untamable, savage beast. Although he is rightfully terrified of the flash of cameras, he nearly destroys a city in his fear, but saves the woman he cares for, famously prompting the phrase, “No, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty that killed the Beast.” Nearly 100 years later, Kong is still regarded as one of the greatest horror films of all time.

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The simians in Planet of the Apes exist in complete contrast to Kong. They are organized, advanced humanoids that have reached a level of consciousness that has allowed them to enslave humans and develop a caste system. In exactly 30 years, the portrayal of science fictional apes vastly changed.

Real World Connection

One of the reasons for this may have been Dr. Jane Goodall’s 1960 discovery in Gombe, Nigeria. There, Goodall discovered five important characteristics of our closest relatives. First, that chimpanzees were omnivores when they were previously thought of as herbivores. Second, that they used tools as a means of hunting. Third, that they engaged in acts of war among each other. Fourth, the close bonds between mothers and their children. Fifth, that they were compassionate creatures that recognized mourning and even adopted other chimps. This discovery eventually led to reshaping how humans thought of both chimps and themselves. We had to come to the understanding of just how similar we were to chimpanzees, and question the lines in which we are different.

Is it possible that this knowledge altogether changed the perception of apes and therefore, their representation in literature and media?

When looking at Planet of the Apes, it seems like a plausible theory. In each film, there are different characteristics of the Gombe discovery, particularly in Dr. Zira’s (Kim Hunter) character. Zira exhibits nearly all of Dr. Goodall’s discoveries. She uses tools, and like all the other apes in the series, is aware of war around her and from the beginning, voices her protest to hostility toward Taylor (Charlton Heston), feeling both stunned and compassionate toward him. Later, she has baby Caesar, whom she loves dearly although sadly for the doctor, only for a short time before being killed. Also, possibly ironically or entirely on purpose, she was a chimpanzee.

A Terrifying Mirror

It’s a scary thought to think that a creature with so many anatomical similarities to humans could also be so capable of cognizant thought. It is clear that chimpanzees have the capacity to analyze an object for its utility as well as have a sense of morality — but just how strong is that compass?

This concept made the Planet of the Apes series. However, Planets did neglect one fact: chimpanzees are nearly twice as strong as humans. If we revisit Nope and the gruesome attack Gordy unleashed on his cast mates, perhaps the most frightening moment of this scene, aside from the obviously ghastly imagery, is the moment just before the viewer is face-to-face with the angry chimpanzee: the moment of frustration as he throws off the party hat. It’s scarily human, as though he was tired of being made a pawn or even a mockery of and had to act out his frustrations; almost reminiscent of the acts of Michael Douglas as Falling Down‘s William Foster. It’s such a conscious decision made by Gordy, too conscious for comfort and unsettling at a primal level. From there, the fist bump is nearly equally disconcerting because you aren’t sure whether he is doing it as an act of brotherhood or because it’s just a habit. As a result, you don’t know what his next move may be.

It’s safe to say that there has been a degree of change in the last century in how we think of apes and therefore how they are portrayed. They are far more intelligent than we initially thought, and there may still be more to discover in terms of that depth. It’s also safe to say that with their strength, even a strong human would be of little match in hand-to-hand combat. The question then is not necessarily why apes are such terrifying killers on the big screen, but why wouldn’t they be? There is a very healthy respect that must be exhibited when observing any animal (including humans), and maybe the greatest perpetuation of why we as humans find apes to be such terrifying killers is because we spent a long time underestimating them in the first place. Honestly, who’s to say we aren’t still?

 

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