Monsters have always been with us. Through the centuries, stories of creatures have emerged in every culture, with folklore often being taken as fact. The New World didn’t escape this phenomenon; whispers of American monsters are almost as old as the country itself. Here’s a look at eight of the more famous creatures reputed to roam the shadowy corners of the country.
1. The Fouke Monster (Arkansas)
First noted in newspaper reports from the 1850s in an area that includes the towns of Fouke, Jonesville, and Boggy Creek, this monster (dismissed by most as a bear) evolved into more of an ape man or Sasquatch in reported sightings. The first sighting that anyone took seriously occurred in 1953. In 1971, a spate of sightings drew wider attention, particularly after alleged footprints were found. This surge in interest led to the Charles B. Pierce film, The Legend of Boggy Creek, a docudrama that combined interviews and reenactments. Remarkably, the film became the ninth highest grossing movie of 1972. Since then, there have been three unauthorized and one official sequel that keeps the monster in public consciousness, although most experts have dismissed the footprints as a hoax and the various sightings as anecdotal.
2. Mothman (West Virginia)
For a creature with fairly few sightings, the Mothman has generated a lot of lore, books, and even a film starring Richard Gere. Seen in the area of Point Pleasant between November 1966 and December 1967, the Mothmanwas responsible for the November 16, 1966, headline “Couples See Man-Sized Bird…Creature…Something” in the Point Pleasant Register. The consistent theme in reported sightings are the apparently red or glowing eyes of the creature. Many of these reports are dismissed as actually being sightings of larger birds, like herons. Shortly after the Mothman appearances, the nearby Silver Bridge over the Ohio River collapsed. That inspired John Keel’s 1975 book, The Mothman Prophecies, suggesting a tie between the creature and the collapse; the book was made into the Gere film in 2002. Point Pleasant commemorates their famous cryptid with an annual September festival.
3. Champ the Lake Monster (Vermont and New York)
Why should Loch Ness have all the fun? Lake Champlain runs 125 miles, touching Vermont and New York while also extending into Quebec, Canada. That wide area has allowed for over 300 reported sightings of the area’s own lake monster. Dubbed “Champ,” the legend of the lake monster has become woven in the local fabric as a tourist attraction; in fact, Champ is so much a part of life in the region that the local baseball team named itself the Vermont Lake Monsters in 2005. Newspaper reports of sightings go all the way back to 1819; “Champ” got so well-known that P.T. Barnum offered rewards for his capture more than once in the late 1800s. Today, despite a widely circulated photo in 2005, most observers believe that “sightings” can be attributed to things like floating wood, while tracks occasionally found on the banks are likely the prints of larger breeds of snapping turtle.
4. Tahoe Tessie (Lake Tahoe, Nevada & California)
While not as widely known as Champ, Tahoe Tessie has her own fandom, even generating children’s books. Tales of creatures living in the lake stretch back centuries to Native Americans, but the more modern narrative seemed to form around 1844 as more white settlers moved into the area. More recently, wrestling and reality TV star Brie Bella talked about her own Tahoe Tessie experience on a 2018 episode of Total Divas. As is the case with most American monsters, a number of alternative explanations exist; in this case, Tessie sightings are mostly attributed to confusion with large breeds of fish that thrive in the rather deep (700 feet at points) lake.
5. Shunka Warakin (Montana)
With a name apparently derived from Ioway (the language of the tribes known today as the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma and the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska), shhuhnkha Warahwalkin originally meant “carries off dogs.” The shunka warakin is itself a large dog or wolf-like creature, comparable to Ice Age dire wolves (yes, like in Game of Thrones). The creatures drew more interest in 2005 and 2006 when 120 sheep were killed over an 11-month period; a large, unusually colored animal was shot and killed. Despite speculation, it appeared to simply be a larger than normal wolf with a reddish coloring.
6. Jersey Devil (New Jersey)
The Jersey Devil has almost as much of a lengthy backstory as Bigfoot. Said to inhabit the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, legend has it that the winged creature may have been the cursed 13th offspring of the Leeds family. The “Leeds Devil” became a popular folk story in the area, and began to inspire sightings in the 1800s. In 1909, a rash of sightings and reported attacks occurred; these were later dismissed as the product of mass hysteria and outright hoaxing, as some people had created fake footprints. Sightings, track appearances, and hoaxes continued well into the late 20th Century. The Jersey Devil remains one of the most well-known cryptids. It’s also the basis for the name of New Jersey’s NHL team, the New Jersey Devils, which adopted the name after their move from Colorado to the Garden State in 1982.
7. Chupacabra (Puerto Rico, Southwestern states)
The goat-sucker (yes, that’s what chupacabra means in Spanish) is the most recent addition to the monster gallery. It erupted from seemingly out of nowhere in the mid 1990s, when original witness Madelyne Tolentino reported seeing it. The creature was believed to be responsible for a rash of animal attacks that included the draining of blood. Hundreds of animals were found dead, and hysteria around the story leaped from Puerto Rico to the United States. All of the various features of the story would later be explained away in Benjamin Radford’s 2011 book Tracking the Chupacabra, but by then the creature had been cemented in legend.
8. Bigfoot (Pacific Northwest and elsewhere)
In terms of the myth, legends of a “big man” extend back in history among the Native tribes of what is now the United States and Canada (where he’s called Sasquatch, among other names). A boom in Bigfoot sightings happened between the 1950s and 1970s (coinciding with a number of other entries in this list). The high point is undoubtedly the Patterson-Gimlin film, that piece of footage from 1967 that purports to show a bigfoot near Orleans, California. Bigfoot sightings still pop up from time to time, and books and reality shows continue to be created in pursuit of the hirsute recluse.
Believe it or not, America’s oldest magazine has a connection to one of America’s most popular monsters. Saturday Evening Post contributor Ivan T. Sanderson led a colorful life. He earned a B.A. in zoology from Cambridge, followed by M.A.s in botany and ethnology; he also served in British Naval Intelligence during World War II. Sanderson actually coined the term “cryptozoology” and would write about topics like sea monsters and frozen mammoths for the Post beginning in the 1940s. Over time, Sanderson became interested in Bigfoot, and would publish articles elsewhere about the Yeti (Abominable Snowman) and its American cousin.
Taken together, the supposed monsters of America represent an ongoing fascination with the unknown. While story after story has been debunked, and whereas today’s science easily shoots down many suppositions and hoaxes, there’s something oddly enthralling when you hear about a bigfoot sighting. It demonstrates an almost hopeful lack of cynicism, as if there’s most certainly an unnatural natural world that exists just beyond our field of vision.
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