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.

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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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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 »

Monsters (and sciencey-sounding nonsense) among us – Book Review

I feel I should preface this book review with an explanation of why I, a person that rejects paranormal explanations (for good reason), would be interested in reading books about cryptozoology and strange accounts. I think stories are valuable and people like them. I have no problems with authors collecting and relating stories from history or eyewitness interviews. Therefore, I often like books from professional writers who provide interesting accounts and details I’ve not heard before. Where I lose my patience is when authors exceed their areas of knowledge (such as with sciencey-sounding explanations), use unreliable reference material to support extreme conclusions, and suggest to their readers that there is merit to supernatural or bizarre explanations when they fail to thoroughly examine the situation.Read More »

Strange Pennsylvania Monsters: Book Review by a strange PA monsters aficionado

Strange Pennsylvania Monsters by Michael Newton (Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2012) is the second book of this type that I’ve read and reviewed. It is considerably better than 2011’s Monsters of Pennsylvania by Patty Wilson which I reviewed here.

These local guidebooks to monster lore are commonly categorized by type of animal. Pennsylvania’s most famous cryptids are Bigfoot and the Thunderbird, but we have an array of weirdness.

Even though I, personally, find rather little value in these stories which can’t typically be confirmed and lack any worthwhile detail, I think it’s nice to have a comprehensive volume about the monster tales associated with certain areas with one caveat – THERE MUST BE REFERENCES. This was my major gripe with Wilson’s version to the point where it was almost useless.

Newton’s book has references although some are highly questionable such as personal accounts gained privately or through newspapers. In the section on giant snakes, the stories were not believable. The memories were old and, as we know, memories change tremendously with age into something that may not resemble the original situation at all. These types of stories read more like tall tales and skew the data set of anecdotes by suggesting there are many of these odd animals around and there must be something to it.

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Meaning of monsters (Review of a trio of books)

I’m in a reading phase. I have 168 on the list of books I have and need to read. I recently got through three and here are my impressions. They sort of have a monster theme. From imaginary/real to some people think are real to YES ABSOLUTELY REAL AND IN MY BASEMENT!

I heard the author of Monsters in America (Poole, 2011) interviewed on Monster Talk and knew I had to get the book. It was not like any monster book or any history book I have read before. Monsters are complicated. This book expresses that. It’s not so simple to just trace the roots of the folklore, the monsters are ever changing in response to how we need to use them. The research that went into this book is outstanding and deserves to be in every monster-lovers library (cryptozoology or horror fan). It’s not the easiest read because of the density of information but because I love this stuff, I had no trouble plowing through it quickly. I learned a lot of new stuff. While I won’t always agree exactly with the interpretations, this is a great mind-opening array of ideas that helped me understand American pop culture a bit more deeply.

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Bigfoot “facts” for kids?

Bigfoot Evidence has posted a link to a website called “Is Bigfoot Real” [refrain from clicking unless absolutely necessary] which contains a page called “Bigfoot Facts for Kids”.

The so called “facts” given are as follows:

  • Where Has Bigfoot Been Seen? Bigfoot has been spotted all over the world. People often see Bigfoot in wooded areas or high in the mountains.
  • What Does Bigfoot Eat? Bigfoot is an omnivore. This means he eats both plants and animals. Researchers say Bigfoot eats nuts, berries, fish and deer.
  • How Does Bigfoot Act? Bigfoot is shy. He likes to live with others of his own kind but doesn’t like being around people. He doesn’t like to have his picture taken so it’s hard to get him on film. Bigfoot talks to each other by making loud calls across long distances.
  • Does Bigfoot Hurt People? No, Bigfoot doesn’t try to hurt people on purpose. Sometimes though, when people accidentally wander into his territory, he’s been known to throw rocks at them to frighten them away. Bigfoot isn’t trying to be mean. He’s just trying to protect his home and family.Read More »

Your friendly neighborhood mon$ter

In a recent post on Skeptoid blog, I suggest that paranormal-based tourism, such as ghost tours and monster festivals, which are growing in popularity, border on fraud.

“Even if there are long-standing legends of strange events occurring at some location, to suggest that a place is haunted just to freak people out is contemptible.”

“Ghost tours and monster festivals are fun. But, their apparent frivolity disguise an underlying invitation to buy into an idea just because it’s entertaining while having no basis in reality.”

Commenters remarked that I might be getting too worked up over it. Meanwhile, I found this commentary from a local who thinks his town needs one of them monsters to draw tourists and he is not beyond creating one from scratch.Read More »

Bigfoot researchers making big leaps

A few behaviors really irk me: acting like an authority to the public when you don’t deserve to be authoritative and making shit up to give a good story. The scientist in me would like experience, credentials and an exhibition of expertise. I also need evidence for wild claims. Because, well, you know… I doubt it.

One group in particular is very fond of putting these behaviors together – self-styled Bigfoot researchers.

I’m fed up with Bigfoot proponents pulling “facts” out of thin air and telling me what Bigfoot likes and doesn’t like, where he sleeps at night, how he avoids detection, how he communicates. They tell the public that wood knocking and nighttime howls are from Bigfoot. They find locations where one passed through or slept. They even apparently know about their “culture”. How can you, Bigfoot researcher, justify these fantastic claims? I’d like to know.

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Chupacabra gets a necropsy: Ben Radford’s new book does the dirty work

We were given a teaser of the stunning new findings about the chupacabra in Ben Radford’s preceding book Scientific Paranormal Investigation, which I reviewed here. I was excited to dig into the entire story in Tracking The Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore.

The book has high praise and positive reviews already. Of course, I loved it – not because I love every monster book. I don’t. Most popular ones are quite terrible since they rehash the same old stories without references or critical thought. I loved it because this was a unique and comprehensive look a very “pop culture” monster. There was a ton of new stuff in here.Read More »

Monster Stories from Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is the locale for oodles of strange stories, from the ghosts of Gettysburg to Thunderbirds of the northern forests, from the Jersey Devil sightings along the Delaware to UFOs in Kecksburg (and all across the state).  A 135-page book by Patty A. Wilson chronicles, specifically, Monsters in Pennsylvania: Mysterious Creatures in the Keystone State. As a monster fan myself (I hold a PhD in Cryptozoology from Thunderwood College [wink, wink], I was eager to check out the tales of local monsters.Read More »

Studying modern day amateur scientists and researchers or “What the hell was that?”

I’m off inside my own head these days…

My main project is my Masters’ thesis in Science and the Public. I started gathering data this summer; fall will be consumed with crunching data, making sense of it and writing it up. I’ll graduate in February, barring any unforeseen disasters.

The hardest part about a thesis is formulating a research question and designing a low-cost, reasonable study that will appropriately answer that question. It took me months to work that out. This was an important struggle because it teaches you that science has rules. These rules are pretty wicked to follow if you want to do it right – you must be perfectly clear about what you are asking and the results you expect to get. No ambiguities allowed. Everything must be defined. You must do the work. No shortcuts.

I’ve decided to focus on something that means something personal to me and can answer a question that hasn’t been addressed before in this context.
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Footprints that go nowhere

Tom Biscardi’s Searching for Bigfoot gang appears to have taken up the reins where MonsterQuest left off, by leading expeditions to stake out sights where evidence of Bigfoot surfaces. In response to a highly dubious piece of evidence, that looked more like a clump of leaves than an ape, they rushed to PA a few months ago to camp out for a day or so. Recently, they went to North Carolina to follow up on the collection of a footprint.
http://www.wsoctv.com/news/23937399/detail.html

Maybe they can get their own TV show too? Join the crowd of seekers seeking to prove the unknown on television. I’d watch.

The breaking story about the new footprint didn’t even make me pause. We have 50 over years of Bigfoot prints and stories. No shortage there. I even have a colleague who mentioned he thought he found a Bigfoot print in his garden in central PA. Ideally, trace evidence (and anecdotes) should be a clue to lead you to a bigger story. But they are questionable if interpreted on their own. So little data is available from them that we head quickly off the cliff and tumble into wild speculation.

How many have prints and anecdotes have lead us to hoaxes? Many hoaxes have been foisted on the public, media and scientists alike.
How many are unresolved (because so little information is available to decide on a cause)? Most would fall into this category. We just don’t know what happened. Don’t jump to an unwarranted conclusion.
How many have lead us to better evidence to support the existance of an unknown animal out there? Still waiting. The trail goes cold real fast.

Bigfoot prints are news because they are iconic pop culture references. Bigfoot = footprint. We all know what the footprint is supposed to look like before we see it. We are conditioned to respond to it. I’m now conditioned to respond to it with a “meh”. Do they really give us any new information at all? Nothing comes from them.

Footprints take us nowhere. Bigfoot researchers have to raise the standards. We’ve been around and around this block too many times. There’s nothing new to see here, just one’s own tracks covering the same old ground.

End of Monster Quest

I’ve heard that this is the last season for Monster Quest on the History Channel. There are efforts afoot to try and save the show but, I’m not going to add my voice to that. I’ve always had serious problems with MQ (see here for a start). It presents a distorted and poor quality view of scientific investigation.

I’ll concede that it is designed to be entertainment, not science. But, they DO mention their intent to use science in process. Science, frankly, doesn’t always make great TV – lots of waiting, rechecking, thinking… Not much action there. There have been a few interesting and decent episodes where they have concluded that there was no good evidence to support a “monster”. Far more have ended by concluding that “We didn’t find what we were looking for but [we didn’t prove animal x isn’t here so] we’ll keep on looking.” Not the best plan. A short investigation isn’t enough. I often wondered why they can’t let a group stay in one place for more than a few days. I supposed that gets prohibitively expensive.

I didn’t appreciate the rampant speculation, the drama, the repetition and the deceptive habit of interpreting the evidence in a very narrow, biased way. There were many times when I screamed “What the hell are you talking about? It’s so obvious!” at the TV. The concept started out good but the episodes were, frequently, rather silly. Too many casual viewers, like my 10 yr old, could spot the sloppiness in their inquiry and unjustified leaps of logic.

I would watch more cryptid shows. But, I would like a better quality program – one that tells me something new in an honest manner. As you might expect, I’d prefer a skeptical investigator. Too many of the people on MQ came with a clear agenda to find a critter. NOT, as it should have been, to figure out what is actually going on. That is what made it sad and seriously unscientific.

Update: Good writeup of reactions to the finale on the Gable film here.

The Decade in Cryptozoology: fun, frivolity and frustration

The 21st century in cryptozoology began with promise of scientific investigation and attention. Available technology and dedicated researchers came together over the internet to share ideas and data. Their goal was to amass a body of evidence compelling to the scientific community and the greater public. They sought biological evidence and, as always, credibility and respect.

The decade in Bigfootery began with pondering over the Skookum cast (2000) but ended with the Big Guy a greater star in the commercial circles than the scientific ones. What happened to the rest of the cryptid critters? Did they find their place amidst scientific nomenclature? Or, did society simply reinvent them in a new form? I took a look at all the top stories in cryptozoology from the past 10 years to see what transpired. (Thanks to Loren Coleman for compiling these lists every year. I never miss it.) Here are my observations (along with undue commentary and speculation).

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