Werewolves have staked out new territory within the field of cryptozoology. What does this mean for cryptid-credibility? I explore the ideas and patterns spotted at a recent cryptozoology convention and discover that the paranormal is alive and well in monster research.
September 9-10, 2017 was CryptidCon in Frankfort, Kentucky. I drove 8.5 hours for two days and two nights of listening to those who believe cryptids exist and seeing how these mysterious monsters are represented in our popular culture. And I was glad to do it. I met up with Dr. Jeb Card (academic archaeologist and spooky enthusiast) and Blake Smith (skeptical paranormal researcher and host of Monster Talk podcast). The three of us wanted to see firsthand the current state of cryptozoology. What topics would be covered? How would they be presented? What was the evidence provided in support of these incredible claims? What was new?
In Episode 24 of my podcast 15 Credibility Street, I discuss the different ways one can approach the field of cryptozoology that may not be so obvious. It may be a question of biology and ecology, folklore and myth, sociology and cultural influences, or human psychology and behaviors. You can view the subjects from all those angles at this convention.
I took notes as each speaker described the accounts they collected and volunteered their own conclusions about what was going on to explain these bizarre reports. On the evening after the first day of talks, Jeb, Blake and I recorded a discussion of the themes we noticed and reflected on the qualifications and lines of reasoning evident from some prominent cryptid researchers today. That’s coming up on #25, the next 15 Credibility Street. (Please subscribe.)
The first observation was the demographics of the audience. After noticing many folks over 65 in the bar on Friday night, we wondered if the crowd would be mostly retirees! That turned out not to be so. Many in attendance were young, 20-40 years old. There were a significant number of teens and even a few small kids. There were families in the crowd. They unsurprisingly flocked to the television personalities there like Cliff and Bobo from Finding Bigfoot and Nick Groff from Ghost Adventures. We estimated the attendance was about 300 spread out between two medium-sized meeting rooms and the larger vendor room.
At first, it seemed like the conference was run by a ghost as there were no hosts for sessions, and no programs or directions – it was very basic organization and speakers were on their own. The registration desk was staffed by two girls and a guy who all wore light-up devil horns. This fashion choice was appropriate for the vibe of the conference – edgy tinged with sci-fi fantasy and horror. This was not a stuffy academic conference. With only one deliberately science-based talk (Blake’s on “Science and Monsters”), “Capital S” Skeptics would have had a hard time swallowing the content. This was definitely more of a fan convention than conference. However, discussion remains a key feature of these “in real life” events where you can meet face to face with people you may have disagreed with online. In person, social etiquette is respected and we can have cordial and productive conversations.
Cryptids are mainstream, just like other paranormal-themed topics today. Monsters are cool. The vendors’ tables included many selling merch including artwork, t-shirts, toys, books, films, and various fun and creative monster wares mixed with horror themes, some metaphysical items (like crystals), and other paranormal paraphernalia. It was a blend of the classic old and notorious new monsters. Heavy on Bigfoot, namely the Boggy Creek relative, my eye was drawn to the depictions of the Chupacabra (alien type “A” as opposed to blue dog type “B”), Dogman (“Rougarou”), Mothman, and the Wendigo (all of which, notably, are bipedal and frequently reported with the ubiquitous cryptid characteristic of “glowing red eyes”).
While the recent eclipse brought the Kelly Hopkinsville Goblin tale screaming back into the public sphere, and Lyle Blackburn’s presence injected considerable focus on the Fouke Monster, the monster du jour was very much the Dogman. Only Ron Murphy talked specifically about this topic – though it was in a historical context beginning with werewolves and then wrapped in black dogs . But it was striking how many other speakers name-dropped Dogman in their presentations.
What about Dogman? Well, its strangeness epitomizes certain characteristics in today’s cryptozoology discourse that deserve some attention. The consensus from my small circle of observers is that the Dogman is making the traditional Bigfooters twitchy because it’s clearly paranormal, outside the scope of scientific zoology. Such forays to the fringe will seriously undermine your scientific street cred.
A dog-man is evolutionarily impossible. There are no plausible means for hybridization of these genetically distinct animals. No biological creature even resembles it. Zoologically, it does not, and can not exist as described. A scientific basis for dogmen was not even broached here . So what should the cryptozoologically-inclined person think about such reports? The options presented ranged from paranormal to supernatural. Those two words are anathema to several old-school cryptozoologists who aim for cryptozoology to be recognized as a field of biology. Not long ago on Facebook, I put cryptozoology under the “paranormal” umbrella and John Kirk jumped on me for it. Talking with Loren Coleman at CryptidCon, I mentioned the paranormal air around the place and he was quick to disavow that label as well. He aimed to situate the new International Cryptozoological Society as an entirely science-based effort.
My argument for lumping cryptids into the paranormal scope is that the creatures themselves and their behaviors are so unusual that they transcend biological features entirely: no remains, no DNA, uncatalogued by science for centuries. This is beyond normal. Stan Gordon, one of the stalwart investigators of eyewitness accounts, remarked that peoples’ experiences were often so weird, they were afraid to speak about them to others. The creatures disappeared in uncanny, unexplainable fashion, seemingly defying physics and leaving no trace. Stan said that a lot of recent reports of lights and “alien” craft are normal celestial bodies, drones, or Chinese lanterns, but when it comes to the Bigfoot-UFO flap of 1972-3 in PA – the largest number of reports in a concentrated area – he admits that the phenomena may be inter-dimensional in nature. He couldn’t come up with an explanation. During his presentation, Stan admitted that many of those old “Bigfoot” sightings from the 70s corresponded mighty well with today’s Dogman reports – the creature was sometimes said to possess a defined snout and ears. He showed some witness sketches that resembled Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolfman. There has been discussion bubbling up about discerning Bigfoot sightings from Dogmen. The presence of muzzle, upright ears, and a tail are typically mentioned but those aren’t always discernible under poor observational conditions. I’d also note the legs and feet would be different. Dogmen tracks are not as prevalent as the iconic bigfoot prints. Or they don’t leave trackways. Dogmen and Bigfoot are reported in the same locations. It’s all very fuzzy…
The man-canine theme was also strongly evident in David Weatherly’s discussion of Skinwalkers. Skinwalkers are Native American legends about the use of black magic to gain power. In the 2000s, Skinwalkers gained attention in association with the paranormal tales from Skinwalker Ranch in Utah. These creatures were primed for paranormal media stardom. The mythos has translated to real world physical encounters. Magic created real-life monsters that people believe they have encountered on barren roadways in the American southwest. Weatherly noted that activity on Skinwalker Ranch, along with phenomena such as Black-Eyed Kids, appears to hint at inter-dimensional travel where portals allow these things to appear and disappear out of our reach. He also suggested that quantum physics will eventually provide a scientific explanation for this. Skinwalkers are so very fantastic that they stretch the tent of cryptozoology that traditionally eschewed fantasy creatures. Unlike dragons or sea monsters which could be related back to unknown or misidentified biological organisms, Skinwalkers are unnaturally conjured; there is no way around that.
Such talk harkens back to the concepts popularized by journalist and author John Keel. In fact, by the end of day one, Jeb, Blake and I proposed a John Keel drinking game. The theme was borne out the next day as several speakers again either used Keel’s name explicitly or put forward a hint of this grand unifying theory of paranormal phenomenon. More is to come on this topic, I’m certain.
Supernatural creep has been on the rise for a while in cryptozoology. Those who espouse a strictly flesh and blood explanation for cryptids are losing the battle as the tales get weirder and weirder and incorporate decidedly mystical and unearthly elements. The longer the cryptid remains elusive, the larger the fringe notions loom, propagate, and gain acceptance.
Brian Regal espoused that Darwin’s idea of evolution might be the bullet that killed the werewolf as a scholarly interest. He says “if you look at the writings on werewolves up the mid-nineteenth century, they’re generally believed in even by scholars, but then after Darwinian Evolution comes along, they begin to go into decline and reports of werewolves, especially in the industrialized world, begin to drop off dramatically.” But then the idea of ape-like humans, our ancient ancestors, was now plausible. Though there are giant problems with Bigfoot evolutionarily, it does not fly in the face of science anywhere near the degree as other fantastic hybrid creatures. Oh sure, we still had the lore of hybrid creatures like mer-people, satyrs, and many other were-beasts, but these remained in the fictional or mythological realm.
Werewolf origins were historically associated with witchcraft and the devil. Bigfoot didn’t have “magical shapeshifter” in his primary description. Worth noting is how today’s Bigfoot tales tend to be more menacing and violent and there does seem to be a trend away from characterization as a biological animal to that of a mysterious entity. The supernatural creep is accelerating and seems to be spawning more extreme monster claims . Check out the transcript from Regal’s interview on MonsterTalk for more on this contrast. Were-monsters have come raging back in just the past few years with the media resurgence of a dogman, lizardman (Scape Ore swamp monster), goat man (Pope Lick monster), and even mermaids (thanks, Discovery Channel).
Coincidentally, during Blake’s presentation on science and monsters, when he casually remarked how “everything is related” as shown by DNA, a lady two rows ahead of me smirked at her friends and mouthed “No”. Is the rejection of evolution and scientific authority in general related to this shift to acceptance of magical origins for monsters? Is it related to the move from traditional religion to a loose spiritualism? It’s far more complicated than that but perhaps it’s a thread in a much larger tapestry reflecting modern anti-intellectualism in America. With the general population ignorant about how evolution and nature works, it may be a more direct hop to considering belief in magical creatures. Notice the popularity rising for fairies, trolls, and elves, too. America is becoming re-enchanted, too!
Thankfully, two other people reminded me that not everyone is invoking fringe beliefs at a cryptid con. The youngest speaker, Colin Schneider, “CryptoKid”, gave a talk on vampiric cryptids using original sources. While he also invoked Keel by name, Colin remained grounded in non-paranormal explanations for the colorfully named media-hyped creatures that terrorized livestock in decades past. This is greatly encouraging and I hope he sticks with the writing and speaking about the topic.
We spent several hours Friday night around the table discussing Bigfoot research and para-anthropology with Cliff Barackman. Cliff and Jeb volleyed back and forth regarding fossil evidence and the current hypotheses about extinct hominins. Cliff thinks they may not all be long gone and eagerly keeps up with the recent scientific literature. He considers it plausible that Bigfoot is a relict hominin, a view also held by Dr. Jeff Meldrum. When I asked Cliff how he felt about the paranormal crossover in these events, he said he actually likes the paranormal audiences. They ask good questions and are reasonable in their expectations of him. The squatchers tend to unrealistically demand he come out to their backyard to see the thing.
With the three buzz words that kept coming up at CryptidCon – “Dogman”, “John Keel”, and “inter-dimensional” – it was obvious to me that cryptozoology has a serious case of paranormalia that isn’t going away, it’s strengthening. This slide to the darker side, in my opinion, is greatly affected by television and internet based media where the stories are becoming more dramatic and lurid to gain viewers. The line between fact and fiction has long been breached and trampled into oblivion.The discussion ran the spectrum from natural to supernatural. On one end, researchers think that the animals CAN be known – identified and placed within our existing frame of understanding. In the middle are many who believe that cryptid explanations are outside of today’s scientific knowledge, paranormal or beyond earth as we view it. Several invoke science fiction-like portals and vortexes, alien visitation, and ultra-terrestrials. On the extreme fringe are those who accept demonic entities are all around us and that black magic can conjure lifelike beings. A knowledgeable critical commentary is rare and often completely ignored . There is no semblance of a grand unifying theory of cryptozoology.
People are deeply influenced by television representations of these stories and what they hear and read on the internet. The current media landscape is cluttered with sensationalized and unsubstantiated claims of extraordinary encounters. There may be a kernel of truth there but it’s extremely difficult to tease that out from the fog and eerie glow that envelops these modern cryptid accounts. The cryptids have become more powerful than cryptozoology.
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1. I think this was a misstep. Black dog descriptions and folklore are distinct but I can see how these concepts can bleed together.
2. Linda Godfrey, who can be credited with propelling the Dogman onto the cryptid stage with her documentation of the Beast of Bray Road, does try to go here. She has suggested that dogs or wolves of a certain type can evolve voluntary, natural bipedal locomotion. It just doesn’t work that way and such an idea has no scientific support.
3. To be clear, the werewolf is a complicated beast. Some shift from human to wolf, some stay wolf-like. Dogmen seem to not revert to any human shape but remain in the morphologically composite state of being.
4. Don Prothero inquired whether anyone mentioned his and Daniel Loxton’s book Abominable Science at the conference. No, they didn’t. I can guess many and various reasons for that. This was not a scholarly event. While many folks there think a LOT about these creatures and their experiences that may involve cryptids, they rarely have the background or desire that would lead them to consider the broader scope of cryptids in cultural and biological contexts. Thus, even though Abominable Science will stand as one of the most outstanding cryptozoology-themed books written, it’s not going to be the most popular because it’s not experiential and feeding the legends. It is explanatory and situates the creatures in a skeptical context. And those who promote the field reject that.