Any conversation about our culture’s embrace of all things dinosaur must, unfortunately, confront the issue of Barney. Yep, that Barney — the confoundingly cheerful Tyrannosaurus rex who starred in the Barney & Friends kids TV series from 1992 to 2009.
There’s a little bit of nasty business I need to address up front. It turns out that David Joyner, the actor inside the Barney costume through most of those years, took a sharp career detour following the show’s end. I’m both sad and astonished to report that Barney — er, Joyner — currently runs a tantric sex clinic in California ($350 per session). His old job and his new one have one common denominator, he has said: “Love heals.”
Well, no argument there. Barney was undeniably a positive inspiration to a generation of young Americans who learned something about love from the big purple guy. It is what propelled him to stardom, after all. Coincidentally, and notably, Jurassic Park, the Steven Spielberg blockbuster film, was released almost concurrently with the launch of Barney on TV. However, its computer-generated velociraptors were decidedly scary. There was no love.
Together, Barney and Jurassic Park brought dinosaurs back into our lives. Suddenly, reptiles that went extinct 65 million years ago were relevant again. Dino-mania was a thing.
“Dinosaurs are inherently tragic figures because it is hard to think about them without thinking about the fact that they’re not here anymore.”
So what is it about dinosaurs that continues to fascinate? Why are they everywhere in our pop culture? (My favorite item is the Egg-A-Matic that molds hard-boiled eggs into the shape of dinosaur heads.) Theories abound. While it’s not often acknowledged by academics, I would venture that dinos’ size and their scare-the-pants-off-you comportment play major roles in the phenomenon. (Barney, as ever, is the outlier.)
Another plausible point of view: Dinosaurs are stuck in our headspace because of the drama of their demise, a meteorite strike so powerful that it disturbed the very ecology of our planet and killed off the reptiles of that era. “Dinosaurs are inherently tragic figures because it is hard to think about them without thinking about the fact that they’re not here anymore,” science fiction writer Seth Dickinson once said in an interview. A rather romantic point of view. I like it.
My quest to explore why dinosaurs simultaneously terrify and captivate took me one afternoon to see Robert DePalma II, a paleontologist at Florida Atlantic University. “Understanding dinosaurs is a window into the future from the past,” he told me. Studying the long-gone creatures “could be predictive, might help us understand what other life forms might be like elsewhere in the universe.” The scientist quickly added that of course other life exists out there.
Lately, to educate curious civilians and young scientists alike, DePalma has done live video feeds from excavation sites. (One of his projects unearthed an 18-foot Mosasaurus sea dragon that a wealthy physician purchased from a landowner and, with DePalma’s expertise, suspended from the ceiling of his Massachusetts house.)
With all the other disciplines he might have pursued, I asked DePalma why he chose devotion to dinosaurs. He hesitated for but a moment; he had, it seemed to me, a ready answer: “They’re monsters — weird and strange. Incredible creatures. A ‘wow.’”
There is a boyishly obvious truth in that. Dinosaurs are bound to forever be a “wow!” Aside from everything else, they feed the powerful Jurassic Park-ish fantasy of scientists one day bringing the beasts back to Planet Earth. The stuff dreams and nightmares are made of.
In the last issue, Neuhaus wrote about Amazon’s disruptive influence on American habit and culture.
This article is featured in the March/April 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.