The coelacanth as a red herring

This post is updated from its original publication in 2009.– SH

In researching three areas of what I concluded were mostly “scientifical” fields of inquiry for my book – cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and creationism – I was amused to find one example used to the same end for all three – the discovery of the coelacanth in 1938. Its frequent use, however, as a symbol of hidden nature and incomplete science, is not what scientifical claimants portray it to be.

In an attempt to showcase how orthodox science is “wrong” or “blind”, proponents of ghosts, creationism, and cryptozoology all cited the finding of the rare, bottom-feeding coelacanth fish as a scientific shocker.

Coelacanth in the wild

Paranormal investigators cite the coelacanth

Ghost hunters say the coelacanth represents unexpected findings still left in nature.

Joshua Warren, in How to Hunt Ghosts (2003), highlights that the discovery was unexpected and the fish’s existence unknown to scientists. Therefore, he surmises, there may be many more unexpected findings left in nature to come to light. Perhaps, paranormalists suggest, we are just around the corner from scientifically proving ghosts exists. That’s quite a stretch – to compare a cave-loving, rare marine fish with spirits of the dead (or whatever ghosts might actually be). It’s hardly a reasonable comparison.

Creationists love so called “living fossils”

Creationists love the prehistoric-looking coelacanth because it appears to not have evolved – looking much like it did from the last fossil find 65 million years ago. If evolution is true, they proclaim, why didn’t it sprout legs and walk by now? (From M. Issak, The Counter-Creationism Handbook, Univ of Calif. Press., 2007, p. 99.) One can find many examples in Creationist-based information that point out similar examples where species alive today do not appear to have changed much from their fossil ancestors. These examples, they say, are weaknesses for evolution as the method of creating diversity on earth. Such claims egregiously misrepresent evolution and life on earth across deep time.

Coelacanth as cryptid symbol

The coelacanth is an iconic species for cryptozoologists – those who pursue mystery sightings based on conjecture that such sightings represent a scientifically unrecognized animal. The fish is frequently used as an example of the possibility of large, interesting animals that might yet be discovered. Several cryptozoology books cite a statement by Georges Cuvier in 1812 who proposed we already know all the large animals out there and that it was likely no more would be discovered. This was a “rash dictum” indeed, and was unreasonable for the time and still is even now. To over-generalize and paint all of the scientific community as a naysaying, closed-minded lot is a silly and unreasonable argument. We know there are plenty of new species yet to be found in the deep sea, in the dense forests, and in the dusty, unattended drawers of the museum.

The coelancanth is a dubious cryptid, regardless of its prominent place in cryptozoology. It had no substantive legend attached to it. No one was actively seeking it. Sure, it was a surprise when found and it was a new species (contrary to the Creationist arguments that emphasize it hadn’t evolved). But a slow, bottom-feeding, fish that was occasionally caught by locals does not compare to the more elaborate tales of Yeti, Bigfoot, large lake creatures, and sea serpents. It does not follow that modern discoveries of new species are support for the claim that certain legendary creatures are real animals.

Coelacanth as a wonderful surprise

This poor fish has been abused as a symbol for the weaknesses and failures of science – but the version of science invoked by pseudoscientifical researchers is false. The coelacanth is serving as a red herring – distracting the viewers from seeing the lack of rigor in these fields through a dramatic but misrepresented example. No reputable scientists are pronouncing that there is nothing new to discover in the world. It’s not the fault of science that many scientific-minded thinkers doubt the reality of ghosts, God, or Bigfoot. That’s entirely due to lack of evidence and suitable explanatory mechanisms.

The finding of the coelacanth was in no way an example of how science as an institution or method is misguided or inadequate. Instead, the finding of the modern coelacanth is a testament to the wonderful ability of nature to still hold surprises for us. And we must credit the fast-thinking museum curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who preserved the carcass as best she could, then contacted a genuine expert to examine it before declaring the jaw-dropping discovery. One can only hope if a sasquatch is found, someone will be that diligent instead of negotiating a fee for viewing the remains. We must realize that scientific efforts by careful, experienced and legitimate researchers are useful and should be supported because another amazing discovery most certainly awaits.

Many pseudoscience proponents will jump at a chance to show that science has a flaw because they wish to promote their own wishful views that can’t quite compete. The lovely coelacanth doesn’t deserve that association.

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Freak Out Over Hairless Mysterious Animals

Weird hairless animals attract morbid attention. Is it a mutant? A monster? Well, it’s most likely an unfortunate local animal who fortunately left remains for us to photograph, gawk over, get grossed out about, and share around the world on social media.

The spring/summer season brings us multiple reports and images of mysterious animals on the beach. They are strange and disgusting, but those who find them and post them on social media are compelled by their disturbing nature. Viewers won’t pass up a chance wildly speculate (usually with little zoological background) about what it is.

Let’s examine some infamous examples of hairless and so-called mysterious animals that have surfaced over the years. It turns out their identity is not much of a mystery if you ask a knowledgeable source.

Tenby, Pembrokeshire, U.K.

The Tenby mystery animal was hairless and photographed at a weird angle. The best guess for this is likely a badger, judging from the size, head, teeth and claws. It may look large and horse-like but note the footprints, it’s not large. It’s about medium-dog sized. Scale is important for these photos. Most people forget about that.

Carcasses on the beach are unpleasant. They are smelly, bloated, and missing important parts. There may be trauma to the body. Decomposition will make the creature look nasty and also makes it difficult to comprehend what they looked like alive, possibly so much so that we can’t relate them to a known animal. Often, as part of the decomposition in water, the hair falls out with just a little bit remaining as clues to what it looked like alive. Covered in seaweed, one of the most interesting was dubbed the San Diego Demonoid due to its overall weirdness and HUGE canine teeth.

San Diego possum demonoid

It looked plastic, baked and dried out in the hot sun, but it really was an animal carcass, not a fake. The teeth were noticeably big (helped by the drying and shrinking of the face), and there was a tuft of white hair that remained along the top of the head. Since the fur and color of an animal are often its most obvious identifying characteristics when alive, the fact that this thing has basically no hair left but odd tufts of fur compounds the confusion over what it actually was – an opossum. No kidding.

The Seal Beach creature was also determined to LIKELY be an opossum.

Seal Beach Thing

In 2022, an Australian carcass was popular on Instagram. It also was labeled “creepy” and “alien” in the headlines. But it wasn’t hard to discern that it was likely a local animal, probably a brushtail opossum.

Brushtail opossum carcass from Queensland, Australia

The Montauk Monster phenomenon

A new hairless mystery beast appears about two or three times a year in the media and circles the globe for months through internet channels, featured on mystery-mongering sites and even “reputable” news outlets, Tweeted, Facebooked, and Googled by the curious public who haven’t a clue about what it is.  The creepy picture is often accompanied by the speculation that it’s a new species unknown to science, a mutant, an alien or a government experiment gone wrong.

The gold standard for mysterious animals found dead on the beach is the Montauk Monster of the summer of 2008. In fact, often when these stories come out in the news, they will reference good ol’ MM. Did you know that it was actually identified? Probably not because that’s not as good of a story.

Montauk Monster (July 2008) was a raccoon.

This bloated body, missing some flesh as well as hair, was discovered on a Long Island, New York beach. Speculation was that it was an escapee from the offshore laboratories of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Amateurs were stumped by the “beak-like” skull, and, of course, the lack of fur that would have made identification more obvious. Paleontologist Dr. Darren Naish provided a direct comparison of skulls to show, definitively, that this poor beastie was a raccoon rendered hairless and deformed by the action of the seawater and natural decay with perhaps some assistance from hungry sea and shore creatures. Ah, nature at work. Mystery solved. Long live the monster. What happened to the carcass is unknown.

Son of Montauk Monster

East River monster (July 2012)

A second “Montauk Monster” appeared near the Brooklyn Bridge in July a few years later. The story originated in a local news outlet with people speculating it was a pig or a dog or something worse. The authorities didn’t help as they just ignored the questions or made up a lame guess (leftover roasted pig?). But it was such a disgusting mystery that the photo went viral and appeared everywhere. Again, this mysterious animal was hairless and bloated – indicative of being dead and in the water for a spell. Actually identifying the creatures is not too hard for experts to do if photos are taken of the feet, skull (especially teeth) and the entire body with a scale to determine the size. Even though it looked quite a bit different from Montauk Monster version 1.0, this 2.0 version was another raccoon.

Hairless animals freak us out

Hairless animals (that we conventionally think of as having hair) are weird-looking.  Hairless dead animals freak people the hell out. You can easily tell if it is a mammal (cat, rat, groundhog, dog, seal, whale) compared to, say, a fish, but without a close-up examination, it’s very difficult to determine exactly what species it might be. Regardless, there is no sense in jumping to monstrous conclusions like “alien” or “sea monster”. It’s more likely NOT a new species, but a dead thing we aren’t used to seeing so… dead.

How do land animals end up on the beach? A reasonable explanation is that they died near the inland rivers or streams, fell in or were dumped in, and then washed downstream into the ocean. After bobbing around for a bit, they lose their hair through water action, bloat from the gasses of decay, and get picked at by other animals before washing up on shore quite the worse for wear.

Not a chupacabra

Away from water-based hair removal techniques, hairless coyotes, foxes, dogs, raccoons or pretty much anything that is not immediately recognizable is now automatically referred to as a chupacabra. Originally described as a goat-sucking vampire beast native to Latin America, it now is a catch-all for any weird or mysterious carcass with teeth.

There are perfectly natural reasons why these pathetic animals are follicularly impaired.  It’s not unnatural or mysterious and it’s not a reason to shoot them on site or assume they sucked the blood out of your livestock (not true by the way, only a select few animals can actually suck blood). Why do the hairless dead trigger morbid fascination and disgust? Other than those who work with animals, we are not familiar with the many ways that hair follicles can be damaged or destroyed – bacterial and other skin diseases, burns, parasites, poisoning, nutritional deficiencies, hormone problems, allergies, and friction. Perhaps hairlessness provokes strong imagery associated with the effects of nuclear radiation or chemical burns. It’s unnatural and disturbing, leaving a mammal vulnerable and sick. We are pretty clueless about what lives just outside our door and comes out only at night. We avoid bodies left to decay or remove them quickly from sight, unaware of how nature reclaims them. We live sheltered lives. Nature is weird.

Parade of mysterious animals

Here is a parade of repulsive remains that became postmortem media stars:

Cerro Azul Creature / Blue Hill Monster (September 2009)

A group of kids in Cerro Azul, Panama reported that they observed this animal crawling out of a cave near the shore. Fearing it, they killed it. (Note: their stories changed over a few days.) Hairless, bloated and pale, it did look like Gollum. Yet, at my first glance of the thing sprawled on the rocks, it was rather easily identifiable as a sloth because of the distinctive hands. This pathetic thing was very dead when it washed up on shore and likely lost its hair due to being submerged for a while. The kids most certainly didn’t have to “beat it to death” as they reported.  The National Environmental Authority of Panama necropsied the body and confirmed it as a brown-throated sloth. Sloths are native to South America and should have been quickly recognized. But not to the rest of the world. That version didn’t make such an interesting story.

“Omajinaakoos” (May 2010)

Two women with a dog discovered this bald, snarling-faced animal along the waterfront of the Big Trout lake in the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug reserve in Northern Ontario, Canada.  They took pictures and later returned to collect the carcass but it was gone. Locals told the story of the legendary creature called ‘oomajinakoos’  or “the ugly one”. They said the finding was a bad omen.  A professor from the University of Toronto was quoted in the news saying, “It is silly. This is a dead carcass that has fallen in the water.” He identified the animal from pictures as a mink, common to the area, and sounded a bit peeved at the idea it was anything more mysterious.

Minnesota Mystery Roadkill (August 2011)

A white body with remnant tufts of hair and long front claws lay along an Alexandria, Minnesota road looking awful.  It didn’t look quite dog-like enough to be a dog so people labeled it all sorts of things, including chupacabra.   The media reported that local wildlife officials were “baffled”.  I’m skeptical that they were all that confused. Pretty quickly, they pointed out it looked like a really messed up badger left lying in the summer sun, a bit contorted due to being hit by a car. Badgers aren’t commonly seen, being mostly nocturnal and living underground, but are native to American prairie lands. This photo never included scale so it was difficult to judge size. Several people went with the explanation that it was a R.O.U.S. (Rodent of Unusual Size like those from The Princess Bride). Let’s not get crazy, here.  Tests confirmed badger.

Finally, this pathetic guy lived another day.

Prince Chupa (August 2011)

Hairless but not mysterious fox

It’s a deer! It’s a kangaroo-fox-rat thing! It’s (you guessed it) a chupacabra!  Hospital workers on a smoke break at a Maryland hospital noticed this frail, dark grey, hairless critter skulking in the nearby woods months earlier and bestowing a most embarrassing name upon him.  Chicken and some Chinese leftovers served to entice the skinny, long-tailed guy into a cage trap. The workers took photos and video before releasing it back into the woods (without calling animal control?) The local media picked up the story and ignorantly promoted it. The most frightening aspects of this story were, one, people who work in a hospital thought that nature would produce a 3-species hybrid and, two, they couldn’t use Google to figure out they had trapped a fox with mange.

In all these sad cases of animal alopecia, the witnesses went by their gut reaction, ran through their memory bank (no match), and assumed something fantastical. Why do people move to an extreme explanation instead of the more obvious explanation that it’s a variation of a native animal? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s related to our almost entire disconnect from the natural world around us or the simple need to make a story even better.

Poke the dead thing with a stick (No, really, don’t do that*)

Today’s media feeds us these stories in an uninformed way. They often fail to fact-check and find a qualified consultant to comment. Instead, they quote a confused witness and embrace the bizarre and scary, thus creating or justifying community concerns.  “Weird news” stories are picked up from other outlets and allowed to propagate with information from unqualified “experts” and eyewitnesses who spout their otherworldly ideas about what it is. That’s not news. That’s sensationalism and it’s irresponsible. It spreads misinformation and unsubstantiated fear.

Far fewer news outlets follow up when the real identification of the animal is revealed.  By that time, most people embraced the drama and ran with it, leaving the real answer to languish behind, decaying, forgotten, and eventually lost. Even though the most famous of these mystery beasts, the Montauk Monster, was rather quickly revealed to be a raccoon, that part of the story was ignored and people STILL refer to it as a “monster” or “mutant”. It’s not that. For a while, it’s a mystery. It’s nature.

*It may explode.

Toy tiger

Fake tiger tales and other plush hoaxes

Police in the Steyning area of West Sussex, England, were called to a public park on the evening of July 23, 2020 to respond to a report of a big cat on the loose. The Horsham police were likely familiar with the popular idea that large, non-native, “alien big cats” are roaming the UK. Hundreds of reports have been made across Britain alone in the past few years. Many areas have their own local “beasts” that many people believe are real and dangerous. But, hard evidence is scant.

All we know of this latest report is based on a tweet from the police.

The police found a specimen of a “black panther” except it was a stuffed toy. It’s not clear if a hoaxer called in this report on purpose or if someone had mistaken the toy for a real animal.

It would not be the first time that authorities discovered plush animals misinterpreted to be living large cats. In my several years of covering odd stories for Doubtful News, I’d come across several similar incidents. One can bet it won’t be the last, either.

In 2013, local tales of big cats in Essex seemed to be confirmed when officials driving through Epping Forest saw a large black panther perched in a tree.

Epping Forest cat. The Independent. December 12, 2013.

Someone had placed the discarded toy in the position as a joke. The location is known for illegal dumping.

More frequently, replicas of tigers are mistaken as genuine. I found many such stories. On the same day as the Essex plush panther, “someone” reported a tiger in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. When a news crew arrived, a tiger toy was perched on a stroller.

BC tiger. Global News, July 23, 2020.

I suppose it’s possible that a very credulous person could have thought this was real in these upside-down days, but come on!

In 2011, in Hedge End, Southhampton, England, police consulted zoo personnel and prepared a tranquilizer dart after several people reported a white tiger on the loose. Observers had viewed the animal through a zoom lens and were convinced it was the real deal. Before the police could take action, the toy blew over in the wind and it was clear they’d been fooled. What wasn’t clear was who did it. The incident caused public fear and some wasted emergency efforts.

Hampshire police released this photo of the Hedge End fake tiger. (The Guardian online May 22, 2011)

A farmer in Aberdeenshire, Scotland called police after he saw a tiger near his cows. Police mobilized, but after 45 minutes of observation, the animal failed to move and the farmer concluded it was just a toy. He didn’t know who had put it there. (The Telegraph, February 6, 2018)

Scotland tiger, from Facebook February 2018.

Here is a more realistic case. In 2015 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an animal control officer responded to a report of a tiger in a backyard. As he peered into the yard, he viewed a scene he saw as all too real and shocking. A small tiger, facing away from him, was lying in the yard. He called for backup.

Michigan toy tiger. ABC 27 News May 29, 2015

It was only when another officer arrived that they realized the animal was just a toy. No one lived at the vacant property so it’s unclear if this was a deliberate hoax. “I can’t blame the caller because it had me,” the officer said.

A month prior to that, a caller to emergency services in Camas, Washington reported he’d seen a live Bengal tiger with some teens. The 911 caller was convinced that it was NOT a toy as it was “wagging its tail”. “The more I think about it, it seems pretty dangerous,” the caller added. “At first I thought, well it must be a big stuffed animal and then it started moving and it wasn’t stuffed.” You can listen to the call where he says he thought it perhaps their pet and was concerned about laws against such dangerous animals. After joking around with it by the car, the kids tied it to the roof and drove off. Many drivers who passed them had honked and laughed about the rooftop hitchhiker. Offices then flagged them down.

Washington tiger. Good Morning America, June 10, 2015.

Another lifelike toy tiger placed on the roof of an abandoned hotel caused traffic trouble in Humble, Texas, near Houston in 2012. The Houston Fire Department said they received calls about the animal and responded, only to find it was a toy. They removed it to avoid further trouble. (ABCNews Jan 19, 2012)

There is something about tigers, it seems. One of my favorite misidentification stories is from 2018 when NYPD responded to a call from Harlem saying a tiger was on the loose. It turned out to be a raccoon.

The lesson to be learned here is that our observation skills are just not that good. When we get an initial thought about what we see, our brain then fills in details to support that idea. Sometimes, we see things that just aren’t there and even inanimate objects can become alive. These incidents are not infrequent, noted by the handful examples above. There are countless more cases of misidentification that occur every day. Yet, people still think they know what they saw. This does not bode well for the claims that people see unusual creatures, or UFOs, or apparitions. Mistakes and misinterpretations must always be a primary consideration before jumping to any more exotic possibilities.

Update March 2022: Police in Oldham, England respond to a call about a tiger loose in a neighborhood garden that was actually a stuffed toy.

Copy-paste cryptozoology

A review of Chasing American Monsters: Over 250 Creatures, Cryptids, and Hairy Beasts by Jason Offutt (2019).

I’ve been thinking a lot about cryptozoology lately. While consuming content about many other subjects, I see excellent examples in cryptozoology to illustrate public attitudes towards and understanding of science, paranormal thinking, colonialist themes, misperceptions about evidence, media depictions of factual events, and sociology. I still am in love with the idea of monsters. I require, however, some substance in the discourse. As such, I am a tough book critic. I expect some quality standards. When the world is full of good books, I resent wasting my time on poor ones. I expect a nonfiction book to contain solid references and useful, preferably original, information. If a book is not specifically marketed as juvenile non-fiction, I assume it will be written for adults to enjoy. I probably should not assume those things.

Chasing Monsters (on Kindle) sounded interesting. I’m very sorry to say that this volume lacked the positive qualities I expect and committed several major blunders common to books on anomalies.

It gets off to a bad start with attribution to mystery-mongering personalities associated with the Mysterious Universe website (a site that blocks me from commenting because they reject fair criticism). When I was about halfway through the book, I discovered that all of the content was previously published on MU. While Chasing Monsters contains the standard language that “no part of this book may be used or reproduced…including Internet usage” the text is still up at MU. This doesn’t make sense. Also, why would Llewellyn publishing want non-original content to begin with? More on this copy-paste lit in a bit because it’s ubiquitous with paranormal topics. 

The chapters of Chasing Monsters are alphabetical by state with 4-7 very short snippets about a local cryptid or monster lore. Many subjects are repeated because similar stories (and folklore motifs) aren’t contained by state boundaries. (The only state without a Bigfoot-type creature is Hawaii.) Thus, a state by state layout is not a good way of presenting mysteries or paranormal ideas. It is disjointed, worse than alphabetizing by the first letter of the name. Worse than that, the entries are so short that the reader can’t really grasp the story. Most are woefully incomplete. Several subjects have widely known or readily available interesting proposed explanations or outright conclusions but these are not mentioned. We are left to think that there is some mystery that remains when there isn’t. For example, there is no cave in the Grand Canyon filled with Egyptian artifacts or giant humans – these were fictionalized news stories. The legend of the Jersey Devil does not go “exactly like this” – the story has always varied with different versions. And, readers are not provided the rather important fact regarding the “green clawed beast” near Evansville, Indiana – that it was reported the year after the movie Creature from the Black Lagoon was released. Such omissions of critical context borders on deception, unless it’s just incompetence. I can’t say which it is here but I really dislike it. On the flip side, the author sometimes includes ridiculous explanations instead of substantiated ones, such as saying one explanation for the Honey Island swamp monster is that circus chimpanzees escaped and bred with alligators. Maybe absurd inclusions like that are meant to be entertaining. Offutt can’t decide if he wants us to take this seriously or just for fun.

I couldn’t work out what this book aimed to accomplish. If this was to be an entertaining book of stories, the content is too skimpy. If it is meant to show cryptids are worthy of investigation, it is confounding. Offutt makes the claim in the intro that all animals were once “hidden”, therefore, cryptozoology is important because people are seeking answers to mysterious animal reports. However, he fails to distinguish between tall tales (he admits some stories in this book qualify for that label) and legitimate zoological investigation, which so few self-styled cryptozoologists actually do. The standard hand-waving “cryptid success stories” of the okapi, mountain gorilla, Congo peacock, megamouth shark, and coelacanth are trotted out, again confusing normal zoological discovery with the unstructured and nebulous “cryptid hunting”, and misconstruing a scientifically discovered new species as a validated cryptid (after the fact). Later, the book includes descriptions of the Squonk hoax beast and the legendary cannibalistic Wendigo. How exactly are those monsters comparable to an unusual zoological specimen that is definitively documented not long after it is sought? (Or, fortuitously found without any pre-knowledge?) 

Things gets really cringey when Offutt invokes the naive reasoning that if all these once unknown creatures are now real, why couldn’t something like Bigfoot be out there – a possible remnant Gigantopithecus, Neanderthal, or unknown species of North American ape.

“Whatever Bigfoot is, I think it just may be out there. I have faith in you, big guy.”

Ugh. So is the purpose of this book to promote belief in legendary monsters? I don’t know. 

Adding to the overall problems with this volume is the use of recent anecdotes pulled from unreliable internet sources (such as forum posts). This is an awful practice that should only be used when there is a clear justification (e.g., to note first use or trends). I was glad to see some original news sources in Chasing Monsters but the good sources are outweighed by some stinkers. For example, he uses a story from “an account on about.com by an anonymous author who posted as ‘Bob'”. For some entries, there are no sources provided and these are cited as “cases not specific enough for a reference”. That is unacceptable. If the stories exist, they have a source. 

I kept going in the book, getting more annoyed, until I got to the New York chapter. Included was the illustrator’s dramatic depiction of the Montauk Monster. Except it wasn’t; it was another one of these same critters sighted along the East River years later. Why not include the more popular Montauk Monster? The only reason I could guess was that the Montauk beast has its own Wikipedia entry that clearly states it was a raccoon carcass. This “East River monster” had fewer internet references (because we’d already exhausted the Montauk Monster hype) so it couldn’t be as easily googled for an answer. There was no mention in the entry of it being a dead raccoon. I became so irritated by this point, I stopped reading and skimmed the rest. 

Stop me if you’ve heard this before

Cryptozoology is remarkably deficient in original, scholarly content. The literature largely consists of the same stories repeated from source to source often without fact-checking or new information included. It makes the body of work repetitive and intellectually weak. I can’t fathom why any publisher thinks we need yet another encyclopedic book with hundreds of uninspired short entries. In a quick search for cryptozoology on Amazon, I counted 12 field guides, encyclopedias, collections, or compendiums. There are many more short-entry type volumes grouped by themes. This format – generally quick to cobble together and lacking depth – applies to too many modern cryptozoology books! Only a rare few have any analysis or original ideas.

Cryptozoology is not unlike its sibling topics in the paranormal neighborhood – UFOs and ghosts – where there is considerable copying and even outright plagiarism that occurs. Note the recent Zak Bagans and Troy Taylor scandal with Ghost Hunting for Dummies. In 2013, Ben Radford called out blatant plagiarism in a vampire “encyclopedia”. And I’ve seen hundreds of websites that copy directly off other sources without attribution. It is not uncommon. Another MU writer, Nick Redfern, also recycled his previous work into an encyclopedic book that had similar issues as Chasing Monsters with poor sourcing and short, incomplete entries. Each writer wants to be viewed as knowledgeable and produce readable content but copy/pasting isn’t research. It’s lazy and I don’t feel bad calling it out when I know these writers can do better. (Well, maybe not Bagans…). 

Cryptozoologists who promote their interests lament why the field isn’t taken seriously. It’s partly the parade of overtly similar content that is sloppy, shallow, and illogical. It’s fine for kids or casual consumers and that’s it. There is little new to build on.

Two major problems rampant throughout cryptozoology literature were exhibited in Chasing Monsters: poor scholarship and a muddled, contradictory depiction of the field. Specifically, this book, and many other paranormal-themed books, have the following flaws: 

  • Dramatic, exaggerated, often unverified anecdotes
  • Recycled material lacking crucial explanatory information, context, and analysis
  • Overly-simplistic, uncritical arguments with illogical speculation in a blatant effort to persuade belief in fringe ideas
  • Noncredible sources used for convenience, or lack of sourcing entirely

This is a fascinating topic – a blend of folklore, human perception, sociology, pop culture and zoology. It doesn’t have to be mostly awful copy-paste media. Is cryptozoology real science or monster stories? Important research or entertainment? Serious evidence or just for fun? The observer can’t tell because the participants and their aims vary widely, usually missing their mark, which compromises any integrity and leaves little substance in the field.

Chasing Monsters is bland and redundant, I recommend skipping it.  I’ll rate it 2 out of 5 on Goodreads and Amazon only because there are minimal grammatical errors and the illustrations were cool.

My three favorite vintage books on monsters and the paranormal

Every once in a while, I remember one of the books from my childhood that I recall with great fondness. Thanks to the Internet, I can usually find a blurb on what I had long discarded or gave away.

I have been trying for a while to locate a kids activity book about monsters that my grandmother bought me in the late 70s at a downtown department store when downtown stores with book departments were a real thing (and were really awesome). I’m not one for nostalgia at all but I recalled this book was my favorite and the information I learned from it was my first exposure to many monster ideas. It had sections on vampires and other movie monsters, but also the Yeti and Bigfoot. I even remembered the cover of the book was orange with purple. I swore it was named Monsters and was possibly one of the large Golden Books featuring puzzles and games.

I was trying every keyword I could think of, knowing if I saw the cover I would recognize it instantly. My searches turned up empty, until today. My results delivered a link to The Haunted Closet Blogspot site featuring vintage kids books, a site that began in 2008 but since 2011 only has a handful of posts per year. It didn’t show what I was looking for and there wasn’t all that much on there but it was fun to scroll through the entries.

I think I searched for “monsters” and, incredibly, there it was on the page. Monsters: Fiendish Facts, Quivery Quizzes and Other Grisly Goings-on was a Golden Book, part of the Family Funtime series. It was sold in 1977 for $0.79.

My favorite monster book (1977)

I was gleeful that there were several pictures of the pages included in the blog post, which reminded me that this was the book that introduced me to voodoo, showed me how to recognize people who were really werewolves, and the story of UFOs over the White House. There was also this neat drawing of a green devil head with instructions to stare at it for a long time and then look at a white wall whereby the afterimage that appeared would be red. It worked!

I’d love to hear from other people who remember this book as a kid in the 70s. (I was probably 8 years old when I got this gem.) They just don’t write quality kids content like this anymore. Two other books that I distinctly remember have also been fondly remembered by friends and paranormally-inclined acquaintances – Monsters of North America by Elwood Baumann that was my introduction to Bigfoot and his southern cousins, and Haunted Houses by Larry Kettlekamp that had classic photos such as the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall and stories that are still discussed today.

I have a copy of Baumann’s book. I noted Lyle Blackburn also referenced it in his latest book on Momo, the Missouri monster. Baumann was my first source of information on this classic small town monster. I also will pick up Kettlekamp’s book soon and am actively looking for a copy of the Monsters book at the top. Well, that was a spooky but joyous walk down memory lane. These books are treasures.

The monsters of cryptozoology: Book review

Cryptozoology literature has a problem. 

Too often, popular cryptid books perpetuate unreferenced tales, elevating certain unwarranted details that are probably not factual, but opinion. Any references are often poor quality work, frequently web sites or blogs. There is a distinct lack of original scholarship, and generally poor scholarship overall. Cryptozoology proponents are notoriously adverse, even hostile, to criticism. This is a downer because I want better books on these subjects. 

What follows is my review of The Monster Book: Creatures, Beasts and Fiends of Nature by Nick Redfern, published in 2016 by Visible Ink Press. Visible Ink sent me this book before it was released but I just got to it now. I have to start with some caveats so I, hopefully avoid being misunderstood. 

First, I like some of Nick Redfern’s stuff. He’s a highly entertaining writer, speaker, and general spokesperson for paranormal subjects. His living is made by writing popular books. This book was entertaining. There is plenty of room for that in the world. It was not written for someone like me, though. It seems to be aimed more at the younger crowd just getting into the subject. Also, the book is not actually entirely on cryptozoology if you consider that some of these “monsters” may be supernatural stories or occult tales (i.e., Hexham’s wolf creature, the dancing devil, vampires). But, it includes many typical cryptids and mentions the word early on. For those other authors and commentators who stress the “scientific” aspects of cryptozoology (note: not Redfern), they sure leave a wide berth for the supernatural to creep in. There is internal confusion about what cryptozoology is today. Is it serious? Or is it monster stories? That’s for another post but consider the issues I found within this book.

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Supernatural Creep: When explanations slide off to the fringes

Originally published as Supernatural Creep: The Slippery Slope to Unfalsifiability for my column Sounds Sciencey on csicop.org May 29, 2013.

I’m taking a step beyond sciencey with the following topic. What happens when science doesn’t cooperate with your subject area? Researchers of unexplained events may get frustrated and disenchanted with the scientific process when the eyewitness accounts they collect are too weird to explain via conventional means. They go unconventional.

Captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel led the hunt for a beast that was attacking and devouring victims in the Gevaudan, France, in 1794. He had a problem. He could not catch and kill the man-eating monster. Being a proud man, he had to justify why he could not conquer this particular foe. Since the option that he was an inadequate huntsman was not acceptable, the creature must be supernatural in its abilities to escape his capture. The characteristics of the beast were exaggerated—it was huge, cunning, and not just an ordinary wolf. Captain Duhamel left defeated by what must truly be an extraordinary beast.

The cognitive dissonance experienced by the French captain is reflected today by those who can’t capture Bigfoot. When normal processes and causes fail to satisfactorily explain events or answers to questions, then the reasoning slips beyond nature, into super nature, beyond the testable claims of science.

I call this “supernatural creep.” Although, I swear I’m not the first one to name it as such. I searched to find where I have seen this referenced before. (If anyone knows, please email me so I can give the originator due credit.) Once I noticed this kind of reasoning, I saw it frequently. Wherever I come across this concept, it reveals a bit about human nature:

If you have to choose between the belief or a rational explanation, the rational explanation may be that which gets rejected.

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Doubt and About: Revisiting Fort and more short book opinions

It’s been a long while since I did a “doubt and about” post detailing what’s going on. I’m in a weird space right now. I don’t really feel like talking about anything but I also want to share some things. Going by that last sentence, I am admitting that I am inconsistent. I have internal conflicts. I know something is bad, yet I indulge it – like talking about Bigfoot. I have changed my mind about things. I have discarded previous modes of thinking. I find there is nothing wrong with that and I am enjoying the exploration. 

Blogs are dead. Yet, people still write them and others read them. I likely will regret this post and others tomorrrow. But it feels natural to write publicly at this moment.

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Science and cryptozoology: The taboo subject of Bigfoot doesn’t add up

Episode 7 of Laura Krantz’ Wild Thing podcast on Bigfoot, science and society explores the contentious relationship between the orthodox scientific community and those scientists who choose to seriously explore fringe topics like this one. Several science-minded Bigfoot advocates are profiled who lament the way society and the “Ivory Tower” of science (a monolithic metaphorical straw man) treats the topic of Bigfoot as a joke or a career taboo. Why, she asks, does other “fantastical”-sounding research, like looking for life on other planets or showing that the universe may be a hologram, not receive the negative rep that Bigfoot study does? [Edit: I originally thought she mentioned wormholes and quantum mechanics so the first version of this post was different.] Well, I’m not sure that talking about a hologram universe is taken to be legit and goes unquestioned, but it’s not equivalent to the well-marketed claim of a huge human-like ape supposedly hiding behind a tree watching our forays into the woods. There is a significant difference between science on the edge and fringe ideas that purport to be scientific.

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Believers are the majority: Paranormal acceptance in America is rising

The results of the 2018 Chapman University survey of American Fears have been released and they suggest that America (that is, even well-educated America) is even more accepting of the paranormal than in the past three years. You can view the entire survey here but let me highlight the major points as well as some possible explanations for the numbers and some problems with applying them.

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Supernatural in Society conference: Bader on Bigfooters

There is a lot of new research happening in academia about paranormal culture and belief. I kid you not. Scholars in sociology, psychology, religious studies, and media studies are noticing that millions of people are deeply affected by paranormal beliefs and personal experiences. There is so much happening, especially regarding ghostly episodes, that it’s difficult to keep up with it all. Even new journals and conferences are springing up in the past few years.

When people ask me why I bother to spend my time on this stuff, I’m amazing at how ignorant they are that over half the population believes in some paranormal idea. Or at least, they are curious about it. This is not fringe. The paranormal is mainstream. It’s a resilient thread in our human history, it isn’t going away. It’s influential, it’s popular, and it’s big business as well.

Speaking of conferences, videos of the talks from the Supernatural in Contemporary Society Conference, which took place at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland in August 2018 are available for viewing. The visuals are awful but you can hear the speakers talk which is the most important thing. The conference purpose as given was “to explore the continuing role of the supernatural.” The conference intent was to “provide an interdisciplinary forum to discuss current and emerging research, and examine these in relation to the impact and value this has on culture, heritage and tourism.”

I may have something to say about several of these talks as I work through them but I advise you to check out the ones in the areas of your interest. There are many – ghosts & hauntings, Slenderman, witchcraft, Satanism, ufology, and anomalistics.

First up is Christopher Bader’s talk on Bigfoot seekers. Read More »

The Doubtful Witness: You don’t really know what you saw

How often have you heard someone say “I know what I saw”. Observations and remembrances of events are deeply flawed but we still rely on our memory to give us a true account and we believe reports of eyewitnesses. These accounts are the primary evidence put forward in support of paranormal reality. Those who believe in the reality of UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts, or anomalous phenomena are heavily influenced by seemingly legitimate and truthful tellings of strange events people say happened to them. They also contend that there are so many accounts that “there must be something to it” and “all these witnesses aren’t lying”. Investigators collect these reports and then derive ideas, theories, and conclusions from them. But if the reports are not accurate, the data is unreliable and misleading – garbage in, garbage out. Here is the second example of why we need to qualify eyewitness accounts as data. (See the first here.)Read More »

The Doubtful Witness: Masefield’s Montrose ghost story

The primary evidence put forward in support of paranormal reality are accounts of witnesses. Those who believe in the reality of UFOs, Bigfoot, or ghosts are heavily influenced by seemingly legitimate and truthful tellings of strange events people say happened to them. They also contend that there are so many accounts that “there must be something to it” and “all these witnesses aren’t lying”. Investigators collect these reports and then derive ideas, theories, and conclusions from them. Astounding accounts show up in the media, sometimes repeatedly, and those who hear paranormal-themed stories from TV and popular written accounts tend to accept that they are accurate. This is a deeply flawed assumption to make. I recently came across two sources that exemplify why we need to qualify eyewitness accounts as data. Here is the first. Read More »

The Science of Nessie: Then and now

By coincidence, I was reading an old book on Loch Ness that I found in a used bookstore while the news broke of a new scientific project to take place on the lake. The book from 1977 – Search at Loch Ness by Dennis Meredith – was an overly sunny view of the Academy of Applied Sciences work over many years spearheaded by Robert Rines. Using sonar and underwater strobes and cameras, this crew produced most notably the 1972 “flipper” photos and the 1975 body and head (“Gargoyle”) shots among an array of odd sonar traces, all of which they sold to the scientific world, the British House of Commons, and to the public as proof of a large unknown animal that deserved further attention. Oh, how things have changed since this book!Read More »

Let this one be a Devil’s biography (Book Review)

The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster
Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito
Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 2018

Only in very recent years, thanks to Bill Sprouse and Brian Regal, has the connection to Daniel Leeds been made to the Leeds Devil which later became the Jersey Devil – the official demon of New Jersey. The story about Leeds’ alliances, his nasty break with his Quaker neighbors, the production of a controversial almanac, and his family’s feud with Benjamin Franklin has been colorfully described primarily by Regal, a science historian. The premise of this volume is that the Jersey Devil is a beast spawned not from a demon seed but from freethinking, politics, a hoax, and the media.

I’m sold on the idea that the legend of this devil was formed from these threads that reached far back to pre-USA times. But it’s not the story most people have heard. There was no Mother Leeds, no devil child, no cryptid lurking in the Pine Barrens. But there was a notable and chastised family, probably some monstrous births, some Native folklore, and a climate of susceptibility that nurtured the myth we have today.

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Big black cats of the Southern U.S. get their own book (Book Review)

Shadow Cats: The Black Panthers of North America
Michael Mayes
Anomalist Books, 2018.
Paperback, color illustrations, 221pp

Right now was a GREAT time to release a book about the subject “black panther”. I’m being sarcastic because if you Google the term, you get nothing but returns on the comic character and movie*. The “black panther” that author Michael Mayes (TexasCryptidHunter) writes about is the generic term for a big cat (specifically a leopard or jaguar) with black coloration. The color is caused by melanism, which is a recessive allele in leopards and dominant in jaguars. Overall black color has never been found to occur in lions, tigers or pumas (cougar/mountain lion). Since leopards are not native to North America and jaguars are in Central and South America (with a rare few wandering as far north as the southernmost areas of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas), large black cats would be considered “cryptids” because it is doubtful they exist. Science be damned, people report seeing large black cats all over the US (and also the UK, and in 2012-3 the French Riviera.) There is an array of reasonable explanations for these sightings but, as with any cryptid, people who have such experiences eventually settle on their own interpretation and many are convinced they have seen a dangerous predator in the form of a black panther.Read More »

Georgia river monster report is highly suspicious (Updated – hoax)

See UPDATE below.

Since none of the major news outlets are doing justice to this story and I have the day off for snow, I might as well put these pieces together about a so-called “mystery monster” report from Wolf Island, in southern Georgia on March 16. The first report I saw was from local outlet First Coast News via KHOU:

A man from Waycross, Georgia found his own version of the Loch Ness Monster on Friday while at Wolf Island.

Jeff Warren was out with his son on a boat near the Barrier Islands going around Wolf Island when he saw what he thought was a dead seal.

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It’s all very fuzzy: Dogman, Bigfoot, and the scent of paranormalia at CryptidCon

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?Read More »

Monster tales of the southern swamps (Book Review)

Beyond Boggy Creek: In Search of the Southern Sasquatch, by Lyle Blackburn (2017)

This is Blackburn’s third book in a semi-series of volumes on southern bipedal creatures. I reviewed the other two books as well:

Chronicle of the Lizard Man (Book Review)

Definitive guide to the Fouke monster – Beast of Boggy Creek (Book review)

This volume is not a rehash of Beast of Boggy Creek but an expansion of the area with reports of mysterious man-apes. The narrative pulls in both the Fouke monster and Lizard Man. True to form, Blackburn leaves out the most (but not all) of sciencey-sounding speculation that irks me tremendously in cryptozoology volumes and instead provides an entertaining and comprehensive account of the subject matter. This book is a chronicle of many colorfully-named Boogers stomping around the swamps and backwater ways of the southern US. They have characteristics somewhat unique from the traditional Northwest Bigfoot/Sasquatch in that the seem to be meaner, more apt to attack people, and reported to be sometimes smaller (orangutan-like) and move on all fours as well as bipedally. Assuming truth to such reports requires a conclusion that not only is there one unknown primate in the US, but two or more variants or species. That’s simply too difficult to accept on the basis of no solid evidence.Read More »