The octopus is the witch king of the strange and terrifying realm beneath the sea.
At least that’s what Americans of the 19th and early 20th century believed. Was ever a creature more maligned? Maybe not, not if you believe the stories, of young Ethel Seymour seized by one of the tentacles of a ‘giant devilfish’ at Long Beach, of the three leisured boaters pursued across a Californian bay by a terrifying octopus, of the brain-sucking octopuses of the Congo river.
So terrifying were these sea dwelling creatures to the American imagination that they became the name and image of all things sinister, voracious, and grasping, a metaphor for everything from influential figures, political cabals, and corporations to a general term for any monopolistic power born out of fact or paranoia.
Rockefeller was the Octopus. Southern Pacific was the Octopus. The Louisiana State Lottery was the Octopus that drained the pockets of Louisianans and controlled political and civic affairs with its financial power.
Anything that gained power over the individual and appeared to drain them of power was the Octopus. And vehicles of the imagination, responsible for the original distortion of the octopus and its currency as metaphor, carried on the slander. Jules Verne’s 20000 Leagues Beneath the Sea made it to the movies in 1918. Then in 1919, appearing in so many cinemas as to be the very tentacles of a sinister, mysterious, far-reaching power, The Trail of the Octopus, a 9hr plus serial cast its influence over the lives of countless Americans. In New Orleans, it played out on a weekly basis in Foto’s Folly Theatre in Algiers.