Monsters   /   Spring 2020   /    Thematic—Monsters

Desperately Seeking Mothman

At their core, cryptids represent the triumph of the particular over the generic. They “shouldn’t” exist, but they “do” anyway.

Tara Isabella Burton

Mothman (detail), 2016, by Michael Broom, @michaelbroomart; courtesy of the artist.

As a child, I used to think narwhals were mythical, a misconception that persisted embarrassingly late into my adulthood. I had misremembered, somewhere in my brain, the old story that well-meaning scientists had, for some centuries, been mistaking narwhal horns for the horns of unicorns, and been taking them as proof of these fantastic beasts’ existence. My version of narwhals—my adult version, at least—was a fake.

My childhood version was somewhat more balanced. As far as my younger self was concerned, unicorns were real. Or at least they were possible, no more or less so than giraffes, or mermaids, or Przewalski’s horses. There was so much I did not know—about animals, about minerals, and also about human beings—that the things that captured my imagination but which I had never seen in person (princes, palaces, platypuses) all belonged to one and the same undiscovered country: a Here be dragons that I would, inevitably, in adulthood, explore. After all, if the world is enchanted, the difference between a narwhal and a unicorn is a matter not of science but of discovery. There are animals that we have witnessed, and animals we have not witnessed yet.

The field of cryptozoology—the occult-tinged study of as yet unbeheld creatures—from the bloodthirsty chupacabra of Mexico to the ponderous Bigfoot of the Pacific Northwest—has often been dismissed (fairly) by the academic world as a pseudoscience. But spotters of Mothman (a red-eyed, winged humanoid first glimpsed in West Virginia in the 1960s), the dinosaur-like Mokele-mbembe, or the Loch Ness monster aren’t doing science so much as practicing a kind of acute antiscience: resisting the notion that the world, with all its inchoate wonders, can fit neatly into any one taxonomy. Cryptids, as practitioners in the “field” call them, aren’t just “undiscovered” animals, but category-crossing ones: creatures whose bizarre juxtapositions render them icons of a world more complex than empirical science alone can explain.

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