Cryptozoology: Creating Cosmic Critters

Matthew

The Call of the Weird

The difference between the cosmic Moby Dick and a man in a suit.

It’s 1933 and one hapless couple has spotted an “enormous animal” in the waters of Loch Ness. As the hysteria grew, our favourite scaremongering newspaper, the Daily Mail, hired a famous big-game hunter, Marmaduke Wetherell, to investigate the sightings (what a name!). After mistaking the tracks of an umbrella stand for the monster’s footprints (it was a simpler time), Wetherell and our lizard friend retreated back into obscurity. But, luckily for the press, a few months later, Nessie was back as pictured by British surgeon, Colonel Robert Wilson. We all know this picture well and its history is now as iconic as it is.

Claiming the photograph was taken on the morning of April 19, 1934, this picture confirmed the existence for many that a monster did, in fact, reside in the waters of Loch Ness until as late as 1994. Known as ‘The Surgeon’s Photo’, this toy submarine meets dinosaur was the brainchild of Christian Spurling, Marmaduke Wetherell and Robert Wilson. Quite the conspiracy, as revealed by Spurling before his death, it appears that Wetherell’s humiliation with the umbrella stand drove him to forge the whole thing.

From sirens and mermaids (dugongs and sea lions) to Nessie and the Chupacabra (one toy submarine and probably a feral dog spotted by an overexcited local), we are often enamoured by a lost world (excuse the reference) of mythical beasts. Although we now know that the fabled ‘Nessie’ was nothing more than a rudimentary camera trick (much like the delusive flicker of air rods) and that Bigfoot was merely a hairy man in an even hairier suit, our curiosity for the beasts that inhabit the darkest corners of the globe still endures. And, despite the innovations of intrepid robotic explorers like the Benthic Rover (usually found somewhere deep in the ocean) and the Martian Spirit[1] (I think we know where we are going to find that little guy), scientists speculate that mankind has categorised less than 5% of its ocean floors[2], not yet made contact with up to 100 indigenous tribes across the world[3] and knows only a fraction of the void that birthed us, space. With so much left to explore, many have taken it upon themselves to seek out the unknown.

Cryptozoologists, Cryptobiologists and the hunters of ‘cryptids’ are a fringe and widely discredited bunch that believe some mythical creatures have existed throughout history (and may possibly still in some form today).[4] Coined by Belgian-French researcher Bernard Heuvelmans in his book On The Track Of Unknown Animals,[5] cryptozoologists haphazardly take on the responsibilities of seeking that which lurks in the caves of our imaginations, attracting many an occult enthusiast and some of the internet’s boldest and brightest… Over time, they have tried to prove the existence of many an earth dwelling cryptid, leading the eminent cryptozoologist George M. Eberhart to categorise them in his book Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology.[6]

In truth, Palaeontologist George G. Simpson put it best when he famously listed cryptozoology among the examples of human gullibility, along with creationism and aliens:

“Humans are the most inventive, deceptive, and gullible of all animals. Only those characteristics can explain the belief of some humans in creationism, in the arrival of UFO’s with extraterrestrial beings, or in some aspects of cryptozoology. In several respects the discussion and practice of cryptozoology sometimes, although not invariably, has demonstrated both deception and gullibility.” [7]

Today, its scientific counterparts Zoology, Palaeontology and Biology lovingly hunt for new and strange animals. But just because the study of cryptozoology is predominately undertaken by a slew of Indiana Jones hopefuls, that doesn’t mean that the spirit of exploration, brow furrowing and the plucky Victorian collector in search of something for their wonder cabinet isn’t alive and well in many an educated scientific heart. And for every new and incredible species (that isn’t some kind of legendary missing link), such as the ‘Skywalker Hoolock Gibbon’[8] or the ‘Beelzebub Bat’[9], there will be, in the words of William Laurance at the New Scientist, a ‘call of the weird’ that no one can resist.

The Call of the Weird from the Forest?

Mapinguari, the new Big Foot.

Depending on the interests of those reading this, you might very well be familiar with the legend of the Mapinguari. By the standards of many cryptozoologists, the Mapinguari, or Mapinguary, is the modern incarnation of Bigfoot or the Yeti. Described as a 7-foot tall creature with matted fur, a carapace, one eye (maybe two, catching sight of this beast would almost spell certain doom) and an odour that could strip the hair from your nostrils, the Mapinguari is proposed to be a descendant of the pre-historic Megatherium (an ancient ground sloth) and is actually one of the few intriguing modern myths to date. Pronounced ‘ma-ping-wahr-ee’ and loosely translated as ‘the roaring animal’ or ‘fetid beast’, this cryptid was brought to the attention of many by Dr Glenn Shepard Jr. in an article for the New York Times in 2007.[10] The American ethnobiologist and anthropologist was a humble sceptic until 1997 when he undertook some local wildlife research amongst the Amazonian Machiguenga people of Peru.

“The only way you can kill a mapinguary is by shooting at its head…but that is hard to do because it has the power to make you dizzy and turn day into night. So the best thing to do if you see one is climb a tree and hide.”

Domingos Parintintin, a Tribal Leader in Amazonas State.[11]

Following on from many an eerie discussion of a sloth-like creature said to inhabit the woods of the region (much like the one above), one member of the tribe candidly mentioned that he had seen this creature in a museum in Lima. Utterly puzzled by the notion, Dr Shepard checked the museum. To his astonishment, he found that it contained a diorama of a giant prehistoric ground sloth.[12] Now, many consider that with the rapid deforestation and destruction of the Amazon, more encounters would have been reported. However, Shepard has concluded that, at the very least, there might be some kind of ‘ancient remembrance’ of a giant sloth out there, ‘…just because we know that mermaids and sirens are myths doesn’t mean that manatees don’t exist’.[13]

The Call of the Weird from Space?

Space Whales of Europa.

The Mapinguari is a good example of how ‘cryptids’ are indeed plausible within the realms of scientific rationalism, if not a tad improbable. And perhaps, ‘improbability’ is key to humanity’s greatest leaps towards the mysterious, the outlandish and the unknown. The need to explore, discover and pin-down the world around us is intoxicating, if only because certainty and safety too often go hand in hand. For the explorers of what exists ‘outside of our world’, this uncertainty is commonplace; it sits as a constant foe and inspiration, a great void of wonder and awe, it is space: the final frontier.

With the voyages of the Star Ship Enterprise but a twinkle in NASA’s eye, the prospect of gorgeous green people making contact with us is equally as illogical. So, here we are, the grandfathers of time and space, for now, the only intelligent beings in the universe, but are we the only sentient ones? The question of creatures and ‘cryptids’ from outer space is slightly more intriguing. And despite the outlandish protestations of ‘believers’ and men with unruly hair, the recent discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 system and the Habitable Zone exo-planets, suggests that there might just be the conditions needed for life elsewhere, although further research is required (creating life just isn’t easy as you might have been lead to believe in school).[14] The current scientific research suggests that there might, in fact, be something a little weirder, a little closer to home.

Enter the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, a desolate and barren wasteland once thought to be uninhabitable to all (except for maybe tardigrades). It sits around 630 million km away from the Earth and is potentially home to oceans ten times as deep as our own. In 1979, NASA’s Voyager 2 Spacecraft flew past the sombre moon and noticed cracks in its icy surface. The crevasses that covered the entire planet indicated that something had penetrated its upper crust from beneath.

Now, this doesn’t suggest the existence of mighty space whales dwelling below its surface, primed for an Astro-Ahab to hunt tirelessly with a cosmic harpoon (as cool as that would be). It does suggest, however, minerals, and with them, the existence of subterraneous salt-water oceans, the possibility of a thermal vent or two and maybe the base conditions for life itself. From research over the last 50 years, we know that simple organisms can survive in perilous conditions. Scott Rogers and his team at Bowling Green State University Ohio discovered a variety of different types of fungi and bacteria in samples of ‘accretion ice’ from Lake Vostok, Antarctica (ice that sticks to the bottom of a glacier). Although Antarctica’s conditions aren’t quite the same as Europa, they are close (well, the closest thing we have). So, in 2022, scientists from the European Space Agency are sending the JUICE probe (JUipter Icy moons Explorer) to determine if the conditions of Europa and its atmosphere are indeed suitable for life. At best, Europa might very well be our own intergalactic SeaWorld and the finest space aquarium of microorganisms this side of the Milky Way. At worst, life has never existed there and we are still the masters of the universe.

And yet for some of us, this is just not good enough, the allure of the cosmic unknown is endless and lifelong. The verdict is clear for the rational majority as to whether space can actually offer intergalactic beasts or nebulous beings from another dimension. But for some, ‘things’ from the Planet Zog have already come and been in a variety of forms and are as common as strange lights in the sky. And, as with most of these myths, the illusive characters behind so many alien cryptid visitations is the real mystery here.

The Call of the Weird from Next Door?

Mr Gray, the Men in Black and the Mothman.

The most famous examples of humanity’s close encounters are, of course, the Roswell UFO hysteria of 1947 and the adjoining ‘alien autopsy video’ hoax in the 1990’s. The realities of Roswell were nothing more than a downed set of weather balloons used for monitoring cold war nuclear launches.[15] The famed autopsy video was one very large prank perpetrated by British born jokers Ray Santilli and Gary Shoefield.[16] However, of all the creepy alien beasts that lurk in the forests, one is most enduring. I speak of course of the cosmic harbinger/spooky space demon known as the Mothman.

His appearances have been ‘numerous’ over the last 40 years, recently being spotted as late as 2014 (probably because of the ominous effigy now situated in Point Pleasant for tourists). There is little evidence to suggest that we know anything more about ‘him’ (if I can accurately give a gender construct to a part-human-part-moth) other than he might have wings and piercing red eyes.[17] Many will know the Mothman from Mark Pellington’s film, ‘The Mothman Prophecies’, starring Richard Gere. Despite being a film that claims to be ‘based on actual events from 1966 and 1967’, it was not a rousing success at the box office and contains little factual accounts (a great PR move for the time though). Based on John Keel’s book of the same name, he is depicted as a prophesier of death, doom and destruction, and was most famously linked with the tragic collapse of the Silver Bridge. Strangely, many of Mothman’s earliest reports were more closely linked to Barn Owl encounters (with sightings in headlights and bushes, rather than face to face).[18] So, how exactly this extra-terrestrial moth creature rose to such heights is the bigger mystery here, one that has a suitably mysterious answer. Enter the enigmatic world of Gray Barker.

Born in 1925 in West Virginia, Barker was the head of the outlandish Saucerian Publications and author of numerous books about aliens, UFO’s, the Mothman and the Men In Black. In fact, it is arguably Gray who is responsible for the proliferation of the Men In Black phenomenon (and for a nice chunk of Will Smith’s career), via the publication of his book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers in 1956.[19] Starting out his career as a member of the eccentric Albert K. Bender’s International Flying Saucer Bureau, Gray was above all enigmatic.[20] Despite his writings openly ‘advocating’ the existence of the paranormal, he was renowned for hoaxes and general tomfoolery, being a private sceptic of the UFO community and generally understood sensationalism and embellishing to be a key part of his work. Stories of Gray’s pranks range from disguising his voice during phone calls reporting UFO sightings to forged government letters detailing the official awareness of supposed ‘abductees’.[21] It is from the mind of this mysterious man that we give thanks to much of the UFO folklore we have today, including the space cryptid the Mothman. The legend goes that Barker and Keel worked together on the original book that would become The Mothman Prophecies. The only problem being that Keel, as a kind of believer, was appalled by Barker’s lack of credulity and penchant for the absurd. Eventually, after Barker had adequately destroyed the lines of fact and fiction, leaving Keel rather wound up with part of a book, Barker released his own tome, The Silver Bridge. It is here that the Mothman and his nefarious antics on the Silver Bridge were first introduced into the public mind, along with a myriad of other ‘first-hand’ spectacular UFO based theories.[22] It was this connection that would supplant the Mothman into the minds of generations to come, a fact that Barker had no problem with.

In fact, Mr Barker seems to be the genesis for heaps of American UFO folklore, and his motivations only serve to raise further questions about the enigmatic man. Few documentaries and writings have been released on Barker himself. What can be gleaned are starkly conflicting views that are at best unverifiable; some portray him as a secretly queer man, struggling to integrate into a small rural town in a time where an understanding of sexuality was primitive; some as a nefarious alcoholic who ran into serious problems with the law; some as a man whose bouts with mental health shaded his entire life. We may never know the true truth about Barker, but his actions definitely serve to present the question – why do we create and become our own monsters?

Our Call of the Weird?

Drawn from the ideas of Fred Botting, and his seminal work The Gothic a New Critical Idiom, can we understand ‘monsters’ and cryptids as a site of, or repository for, our own cultural anxiety? Perhaps these beasts, formed from the lagoons of our imaginations, are really affirmations of much deeper fears; the search for ancient creatures that could have survived for 1000s of years, despite our environmental abuse and neglect; the hope that life on other planets exists, despite our own fragility in a world that still surprises us; the need to construct hoaxes and creatures to escape the realities of a world that threatens to tip into chaos.

[1] https://www.wired.com/2009/09/benthicrover/

[2] https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg23130872-900-plunging-deep-beneath-the-sea-in-a-tiny-sub-to-map-the-ocean/

[3] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn24090-how-many-uncontacted-tribes-are-left-in-the-world/

[4] https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21328502-300-lost-treasures-the-loch-ness-monster-that-got-away/

[5] Check Reference

[6]https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Mysterious_Creatures.html?id=z9gMsCUtCZUC&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f =false Check Reference

[7] https://www.scribd.com/document/251459797/Mammals-and-Cryptozoology

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jan/11/new-species-of-gibbon-discovered-in-china

[9]http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/earthpicturegalleries/9753208/New-species-found-walking-catfish-Beelzebub-bat-and-two-legged-lizard.html?frame=2431147

[10]http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/08/world/americas/08amazon.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&

[11]http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/08/world/americas/08amazon.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&

[12](ibid)

[13] (ibid)

[14] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2017/02/23/seven-earth-sized-exoplanets-discovered-does-nasa-announcement/

[15] https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4079

[16]http://www.bbc.co.uk/manchester/content/articles/2006/04/07/070406_alien_interview_feature.shtml

[17] https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4159

[18] http://www.csicop.org/sb/show/mothman_revisitedinvestigating_on_site

[19] https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4351

[20] https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4351

[21]http://www.csicop.org/si/show/gray_barkers_book_of_bunk_mothman_saucers_and_mib

[22]http://www.csicop.org/si/show/gray_barkers_book_of_bunk_mothman_saucers_and_mib

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