Today, I’m making some general observations on the subject of strange animal sightings. I recently visited Lake Champlain and am convinced that many sightings of Champ, the lake monster, were logs or other mundane objects or animals. There are no cryptids there. But there is a granite marker and a friendly-looking fiberglass Champ depiction at Perkins Pier in Burlington, Vermont. Champ is stylized as a huge dragon-like sea serpent. It’s a mascot of the lake and the local baseball team. I can’t help but love this, while at the same time be frustrated by the remaining trend to suggest Champ is a prehistoric reptile or rare animal. The legend is sustained by the location and people’s sense of imagination.

Champ as the mascot of the Vermont Lake Monsters baseball team, Burlington, Vermont

Strange animal stories have always had, primarily, a theme of wonder and amazement. Even when the animal is clearly visible, such as with clear videos or carcasses, many spectators opinionate that the creature is a “mutant” or a new species. They don’t recognize the obvious, natural, and better explanations. Or, they refuse to accept them because it is more fun to speculate.

Could our need for fantasy creatures be contributing to cryptozoology failing as a scientific field?

The area of study that was called cryptozoology gained scientific credibility with a society and a journal established in 1982. A group of scientists and people interested in animal research founded the International Society of Cryptozoology. Its mission was to investigate and analyze reports of unexpected animals with the goal of determining if they were new species that could be cataloged and scientifically known.

That didn’t work out well. The society dissolved in 1996 with no clear successes other than to document the optimistic nature of the participants. The scientific credibility declined, but some zoological hope still lingers, as several followers of the field insist that it can be a legitimate means of discovering new animals. The prospects for this goal grow weaker every year. Instead, the popular mythical and romantic view of cryptozoology has swamped the idea of cryptozoology as a scientific endeavor. The cryptid legends seem ever more immune to scientific thinking. The skin and blood of cryptids are made of human imagination and the spirit of place.

The Hodag of Rhinelander, Wisconsin

In the 2000s, there was still a strong tone of cryptozoology as a science-based endeavor. But, by then, it was almost entirely the domain of amateurs. Unlike fruitful areas of scientific investigation, the evidence never got better – there were no bodies, no DNA, no tested theories, just better hoaxes and more media circulating with enthusiastic commentary.

There also was more attention to local promotion. Festivals associated with local creatures became popular. Public displays became more prominent. New social media featuring existing legends, and creating entirely new ones, expanded the reach of cryptids to the younger online generation. This promotion, done on TV, YouTube and TikTok was done by non-scientists, even teens who knew little about the origins of cryptozoology.

A Bigfoot mascot in Whitehall, New York (at the Southern reaches of Lake Champlain)

Many cryptids are almost always associated with particular locations. The obvious are lake monsters because they are bounded by the water. (Almost every large lake has a story of a monster.) This is reasonable, as the legend is rooted in and grows around a cluster of reports. Land animals are naturally attributed to an area, like a forest or swamp. Here are some examples:

  • Dogman – Forests of Wisconsin and Michigan
  • Mothman – West Virginia and later Chicago area
  • Bigfoot – Typically tied to the PNW but by the 1970s became popular in many states, often referred to by a local name [Beast of Boggy Creek (Arkansas), Momo (Missouri), Skunk Ape (Florida)]. Certain areas were associated with ape-like beings and other paranormal concepts and entities – Chestnut Ridge (Pennsylvania), the Appalachians, and Skinwalker Ranch (Utah).
  • Ultra local stories include Loveland Frog, Dover Demon, Beast of Bray Road, Lizard Man of Scape Ore swamp, Goatman.

Of course, there are exceptions:

  • Chupacabra – Started as a Hispanic legend and became a catch-all term for any weird animal anywhere.
  • Yeti – Began as associated with the Himalayas but became iconic worldwide even though still connected to its origins in cold, mountainous regions.
  • Entities that may be considered “fantasy creatures” like merfolk and fairies (and related beings) show up everywhere people have brought their culture and stories with them. The same can be said for Bigfoot (wild man) and lake monsters.

Cryptids tied to locations seems to be a product of the environment + promotion. The legend will often readily morph into a mascot for a town or area. The locals may eventually embrace their monster and make the most of it. The commodification and exploitation of the cryptid aids in the drift away from the prospect of a serious scientific endeavor to find it. It also promotes fakery for attention or fun.

The Comegato
The latest invented cryptid is the Comegato of Maine, a weasel man creature featured in a “documentary” on YouTube. While I’m sticking to the U.S. in this post, see also the British Cryptid (1974) YouTube channel for invented local cryptids.

As the depiction of cryptids turns more towards entertainment and whimsy, the thought of the “-ology” part becomes less emphasized. Many people will admit they don’t want their local creature found or identified. They love the mystery and will actively seek to preserve it. Thus, the cryptids’ value lies not in zoological discovery, but in social needs. The field of cryptozoology may be doomed to further slide towards a fictionalized, pretend idea of science.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating your local legends. I think the depictions of Champ, Bigfoot, the Fresno Nightcrawler, the Hodag, and all the other crazy critters are awesome, and I want to see the statues and swag. Celebrate your local monster for all the human reasons it exists.

3 thoughts on “Location and imagination equals ‘cryptid’

  1. A lot of it is just outright pranking. Right after highschool I and some friends heard about something called the Steinthal Monster. Steinthal is a tiny, tiny little town, not much more than a few houses and a bar, located in a rather swampy, wooded area reached only by narrow, winding old roads. At least back then. Nobody had ever actually seen it but everyone in the area supposedly knew someone who had. Descriptions of it were very vague. So we decided to have some fun with it. Someone got their hands on a beat up old mannequin that had been thrown out by a department store. We dressed it up in a bulky old winter coat and nailed old reflectors from a bicycle to the head. Then we set it up in a window in an abandoned farmhouse right on a corner so at night when a car would make the turn it would briefly illuminate the reflectors. I’m afraid we were responsible for several allegedly “haunted” abandoned old farmhouses for a year or two.

    I am ashamed… Who am I kidding? I’m not ashamed, we had great fun doing it. It’s amazing how much fun you can have with a few bits of trash and an abandoned house.

  2. The same combination of location and imagination can account for many ghost and poltergeist phenomena also, e.g. ghost of borley rectory, the Enfield poltergeist, etc.

  3. I would have to say that it really should be location plus imagination plus lots of tourist money. It’s easy enough to believe in cryptids when your salary depends on it.
    And if we’re talking about pranks, there was one pretty damn clever one in NZ in the 1950s, where a group of people – mostly university students I think – got together and decided to do flying saucer sightings. They each phoned up the police at a given time to report a flying saucer that was allegedly speeding up the length of the country. Took a certain amount of coordination to get the timing is right and of course this is long before any technology that might have made it easier.

Leave a Reply (Comments are reviewed. There may be a delay before they appear.)

Back To Top