Stories passed down by generations of fishermen off Mexico’s Baja California peninsula are the inspiration behind a new survival thriller movie featuring an 80-foot large-toothed monster.
“The Black Demon,” premiering Friday, tells the story of oilman Paul Sturges (played by Josh Lucas), who desperately tries to save his family on an oil rig while battling a massive primeval shark.
“The movie is like ‘Jaws,’ if Jaws were sent by Indigenous gods to make humanity pay for messing with the ocean,” said David Bowles, a co-creator of the “Black Demon Tales,” a comic book series that expands and develops the story of the film.
Bowles said in an interview that a story about a megalodon — an extinct giant shark that could have been three times longer than the biggest great white shark — can be terrifying and exciting. But both the movie and the comics aim to deliver a deeper cautionary tale from Aztec and Maya civilizations to people all over the world today.
“We spend much of our lives doing things that are of the moment, convenient, without thinking about the consequences. And when those consequences catch up to us, it can be devastating,” he said. “‘The Black Demon’ is a metaphor for the actual environmental consequences that are waiting for us. It may not be a shark that leaps out of the water to destroy our boats as we try to escape. But climate change events cause massive destruction in our lives.”
Because the fishermen who passed on stories claimed that their grandfathers and great-grandfathers witnessed attacks from the same shark over the span of a century, Bowles said, the legend inspired a supernatural twist in the movie and the comics that connects to Aztec and Maya mythology.
A big shark that serves Aztec and Maya gods
Giant sea monsters were important in Mesoamerican cultures.
One of those primordial creatures was known as “Cipactli” in the Aztec language or “Sipak” in Mayan. Bowles describes it as a “leviathan that the gods had to wrestle into submission to create the Earth on its back.”
The sea monster had a single giant tooth that could resemble the fossilized teeth of a megalodon, which archaeologists have found at ancient Indigenous sites in southern Mexico.
For Hector Rodriguez, a co-creator of the “Black Demon Tales” with Bowles, telling the story about the big Indigenous monsters was like writing a love letter to Godzilla and other Japanese monsters known as kaiju.
Rodriguez and Bowles said they grew up watching Japanese movies about Godzilla dubbed in English and Spanish. And while “The Black Demon” is based specifically on Indigenous mythology, fans of big monsters all over the world will recognize something familiar in it.
“We have our own giant monsters,” Rodriguez said, referring to Aztec and Maya mythology. “And part of the idea for ‘The Black Demon’ is to build out a kaiju universe full of massive monsters that are connected with Indigenous gods.”
The comic book series expands the story from the film to show how the Black Demon was created to protect the environment from humanity. And every issue tells a story about the supernatural shark serving Indigenous gods throughout different periods in history and alternate timelines.
The first issue of the comic book series, which was published April 19, takes readers back to the 1980s, when the Mexican navy tries to keep the legend of the Black Demon a secret. The second issue, which will be released in mid-July, is set during the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 1500s, pitting the supernatural shark against the colonial Spanish. And the third issue, releasing in mid-August, will take place in an alternate universe where Mexico is divided between the Soviet Union and the U.S. in the Cold War.
Rodriguez described the Black Demon as a harbinger or warning of nature that connects the fate of ancient civilizations with humanity today.
“You have these civilization-ending events throughout history,” he said. “And legends like ‘The Black Demon’ are created to warn people about the dangers of their actions and how they can tip the balance of nature.”
Boise Esquerra, the movie’s screenwriter, said Indigenous peoples have tried to preach for hundreds of years that humanity is called on to protect the Earth.
“We are supposed to be the stewards of this planet,” he said in an interview. “You can take what you need from it. You can take what you need to survive. But instead, we are literally destroying the world without knowing it.”
Ancient civilizations like the Aztecs faced climate change events, Esquerra said, and we can learn lifesaving lessons from their environmental disasters.
Scientists have shown in a study how tree rings revealed super droughts that lasted almost two decades in Mesoamerica. And such events coincided with famines that could have contributed to the Aztec empire’s decline.
While “The Black Demon” is a story about an ancient supernatural monster, the legend delivers a very sobering message for viewers today, Esquerra said.
“Be aware of what you are doing on the planet. Appreciate the world that we have,” he said.
“Nature is fighting back," he said, and humanity will have to answer for the consequences.