Leave it to “The Simpsons” to concisely encapsulate the competing images of dinosaurs in under three minutes.
In last week’s episode, “The Book Job,” the Simpson family takes a trip to the local arena to see “Sitting With Dinosaurs”—a more aptly named send-up of the Walking With Dinosaurs live show in which animatronic dinosaurs stomp around the stage. The seats are packed with children and their families. Kids love dinosaurs, right? And, after all, the show is supposed to be educational. But when the dinosaurs appear, they terrorize the show’s tiny attendees. Families bolt for the exits. Tragically awkward Milhouse protests by throwing his Barney doll—a “kid-friendly” version of Tyrannosaurus—at the more accurate and scary Tyrannosaurus looming over him. Less snarling, more singing.
With most of the crowd gone, the Simpsons sit back and watch the rest of the show. The announcer wraps things up by explaining that the dinosaurs probably went extinct when an asteroid struck the earth a little more than 65 million years ago. Ah, the science-based take-home message.
The episode reminded me of my own early encounters with robotic dinosaurs. When I was five years old, my parents took me to see a traveling “dinomotion” show at a local New Jersey museum, but as much as I adored dinosaurs I was frightened by the mini-sized Tyrannosaurus that jerked and roared in the exhibit. All the facts I had absorbed about dinosaurs at that time—admittedly not very many!—didn’t do me any good when faced with the carnivore itself. My dad walked up to the robot and touched it to show me that nothing bad would happen, but I still stayed behind a nearby doorway until I was absolutely sure that the dinosaur wasn’t just playing a trick.
Dinosaurs are terrifying when brought back to life, but they are also symbols of deep time, evolution and the scientific understanding of our world. They can be used to scare or educate. How things balance out depends on presentation. It can be difficult to recall the mindset of our younger selves when dinosaurs seemed bigger, toothier and more monstrous. The way I see dinosaurs at 28 is vastly different than how I saw them at five. Childhood monsters, emblems of extinction, objects of scientific scrutiny—dinosaurs are all these things and more.