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Creature from the Black Lagoon | The Forgotten Mother of Monsters

We speak to author Mallory O’Meara about the life and work of artist Milicent Patrick, the strict Hollywood patriarchal systems and detective work…

“Writing a biography is like becoming a living external hard-drive for the story of a person you have never met,” writer-and-producer Mallory O’Meara told SciFiNow when interviewed about her new book, The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick.

Indeed, for her biography, which rediscovers and reclaims the life of the enigmatic artist and female trailblazer, Milicent Patrick, O’Meara had to delve deep into the life of someone whose influence and artistic endeavours have been purposely wiped from the history books. 

So how do you fill a hard-drive with information intentionally erased? “Privately investigating someone’s life is very difficult,” O’Meara explained, “especially if they lived in the age before the internet. The learning curve was steep, but it was also exciting. I love solving puzzles, and that’s essentially what this project was.” 

Milicent Patrick was the first woman ever to be employed by a special effects makeup department and was responsible for the amphibious Gill-Man, one of the few original creations in Universal Studios’ collection of creatures, first seen in 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon.

We speak to author Mallory O’Meara about the life and work of artist Milicent Patrick, the strict Hollywood patriarchal systems and detective work…

“Writing a biography is like becoming a living external hard-drive for the story of a person you have never met,” writer-and-producer Mallory O’Meara told SciFiNow when interviewed about her new book, The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick.

Indeed, for her biography, which rediscovers and reclaims the life of the enigmatic artist and female trailblazer, Milicent Patrick, O’Meara had to delve deep into the life of someone whose influence and artistic endeavours have been purposely wiped from the history books. 

So how do you fill a hard-drive with information intentionally erased? “Privately investigating someone’s life is very difficult,” O’Meara explained, “especially if they lived in the age before the internet. The learning curve was steep, but it was also exciting. I love solving puzzles, and that’s essentially what this project was.” 

Milicent Patrick was the first woman ever to be employed by a special effects makeup department and was responsible for the amphibious Gill-Man, one of the few original creations in Universal Studios’ collection of creatures, first seen in 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon.

However, for almost 70 years, Milicent has been lost beneath the murky waters of the past and patriarchy following Bud Westmore, head of Universal’s makeup department at the time, claiming credit for her work. Work which was the primary contributing factor in the film’s success and legacy.

When he first swam onto our screens, the studio was at the tail-end of their monster movie movement. At this point, the romance, tragedy and majesty of their earlier pictures had dwindled; their output had become the Lon Chaney Jr factory line, with these titans of terror delivering two-handers to Abbot and Costello before finally being laid to rest. 


Despite this, Creature from the Black Lagoon and its Gill-Man came to stand alongside the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf-Man as an icon of horror, permeating into much of pop-culture, from The Munsters, The Monster Squad and, most recently, heavily inspiring Oscar Best Picture Winner, The Shape of Water.

Beloved though the beast was, the brains behind it were banished to a margin that many women still find themselves in. When O’Meara discovered Milicent’s story, she felt an affinity to the artist and realised that in writing it, she couldn’t merely recount what happened to her, but had to go further, giving readers a reason to truly care about her: “About six months into the process, I realised that because she was unknown, I needed to give readers a reason to care about Milicent,” she told us. “The easiest way I knew how to do that was to show why I care about her.”

While writing The Lady from the Black Lagoon, O’Meara realised that the mysteries of Milicent’s life went far beyond her time behind the gilded gates of Universal. She also learnt that, although Milicent Patrick was the name she chose for herself, and the name with which O’Meara uses to tell her story, Patrick had a penchant for reinvention and went by many, which hindered Mallory’s investigative process: “The biggest challenge was tracking down her different names,” Mallory laughed. “Milicent had so many different and sometimes false identities for herself while she was alive that I really had my work cut out for me.”

Times, unlike the tides, rarely change and O’Meara’s biography is not just an expose on the female experience in Hollywood’s golden age but also through to today, with Mallory’s career as a movie producer providing a unique insight and comparison between the past and present. It was why it was so crucial to O’Meara that this story was told with a woman’s voice: “It’s the only way it could have been told,” she told us.

It is also the reason the novel not only focuses on Milicent’s life but also on her own: “The things that happened to Milicent and her career are still happening to women today,” she explained. “They happened to me. Writing about them was an emotionally difficult process. But it was very important to me to show readers a first-hand look at what misogyny in the film industry is like.”

O’Meara’s film industry background also influences The Lady from the Black Lagoon’s framing, with all its chapter titles named for movie transitions, from ‘establishing shot’ to ‘fade out’, and every cut in-between. This reflects not only the industry upon which the biography is based, but also Milicent’s stranger-than-fiction life. “Using types of cuts as chapter headings made sense because The Lady from the Black Lagoon is a book about the film industry,” she told us. “Plus, Milicent’s life was so over-the-top and cinematic in tone that each chapter felt like a scene!”

Perhaps except when slashers were in season and proceedings became more about how characters perished rather than prevailed, the horror genre has always been one of empathy, arguably above any other. We sit in the dark, white-knuckled, praying that these would-be victims find their way to freedom and the light.

In the case of Universal’s classic films, it’s often the monsters themselves with which we root and become attached. Meme’d though it has become, the adage that knowledge is knowing Frankenstein isn’t the monster, while wisdom is understanding he is, still stands true. Monsters are metaphors for the marginalised, so, unsurprisingly, O’Meara manages to mine so much through one of their creators’ story. 

Mallory has described writing this biography as feeling like “Milicent had taken residence in my brain” and it’s no surprise that her love of the trailblazer only intensified the more she found out about her. “I love her even more,” O’Meara revealed to us. 

However, despite Mallory’s love for Milicent, and her desire for us to fall as deeply as she did, it was also important to include not only her feats but also her failings: “At first, learning about her character flaws made me very protective of her and even inclined to leave them out of the story. But then I realised that by doing so, I’d be the one judging her. Women are worth writing about even if they fuck up.” 

“It became very clear to me that it was just as important to write about her mistakes as it was to write about her accomplishments. I wanted women reading it to see that you still matter, even when you make mistakes.”

It seems O’Meara’s intentions have well and truly been met with the Universal (see what we did there?) positive reactions to the book: “The reaction to The Lady from the Black Lagoon has been overwhelmingly positive. I was honestly surprised by it,” she told us, “Before the launch, I assumed that only a small group of hard-core Creature from the Black Lagoon fans would be interested in her story and even just that would have been enough to make me really happy. But so many readers who don’t like horror or monsters have read the book and feel deeply connected to Milicent. It’s amazing.”

However, movement still needs to be made, and Mallory told us that the biggest piece of advice she’d wanted to give to both men and women who read the book was “hire more women and consume more media by female creators”. 


With Milicent Patrick’s life, losses and labours once again her own, we asked O’Meara whether the investigative bug had bitten and, if so, whose story she would like to tell next. “I am,” O’Meara teased, “right now, though, my next subject is a secret.” 

Ah, we should have realised. As with any good Hollywood story, you have to keep audiences wanting more…

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick is available now through Rebellion Publishing