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.

Miniature Edens

It’s impossible, for that reason, to separate the historical phenomenon of cryptozoology from its parallel and opposite: the proliferation throughout the Renaissance and in subsequent centuries of the Wunderkammern. Also known as the Kunstkammern, or, in English, “cabinets of curiosities,” these rooms (or, in later centuries, vitrines) existed in royal homes and wealthy merchants’ houses alike as indicators of a very particular kind of cognitive as well as colonial power. The traditional Wunderkammer would feature “curiosities” acquired in the course of the owner’s travels (or, more likely, the travels of others with whom the owners did commerce). These might include taxidermy, rare plants, saints’ relics, chipped pieces of artifacts from antiquity, or those pesky narwhal horns, masquerading as those of unicorns. These chambers, often overflowing with arbitrarily arranged curios, doubled as miniature Edens: worlds over which the owner-scientist had absolute dominion.

The first Wunderkammer we know of appeared, in art at least, in 1599. The Neapolitan apothecary Ferrante Imperato depicted his personal cabinet in a labyrinthine engraving titled Dell’Historia Naturale. The interior-decorating equivalent of an author photo, the engraving depicted a room befitting a man of great learning and even greater cognitive control of the world around him: taxidermied animals (including fish), vitrines filled with various birds and stones, even a stuffed crocodile inexplicably suspended from the ceiling. Imperato, we are given to understand from this depiction, was not merely a man of science, but indeed a kind of private God: systematizing and rearticulating the chaos of nature behind the closed Wunderkammer doors.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Wunderkammer became an increasingly integral part of the home of any self-respecting patron of the sciences or arts. Wunderkammern were all the rage in royal palaces—Christian I of Saxony had one, as did the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Archduke Ferdinand II had one best known for its various paintings of people with disabilities (evidently, they counted as curiosities), as did Charles I of England.

These cabinets doubled as a kind of visual representation of Renaissance humanism and, later, Enlightenment rationality. They were celebrations of human potential: of our ability to categorize and taxonomize, to preserve and detail—above all, to know. Everything under the sun was fundamentally intelligible and, moreover, controllable. The implicit eschatology of the Wunderkammer was that everything else would end up, one way or another, under glass.

The cryptids complicated all that.

Resisting the Wunderkammer

Fantastic creatures were a necessary feature of any Wunderkammer, but they occupied an ambiguous dual role. On the one hand, they (which is to say, their purported relics) were ostensibly scientifically validated, with the vitrine providing their raison d’être. A narwhal tusk, or the remnants of a Scythian Lamb (a half-vegetable, half-sheep hybrid prominently featured in the cabinet of the Danish seventeenth-century naturalist Olaus Wormius, commonly and endearingly known as “Ole Worm”), were legitimized as part of an existing implicit taxonomy.

At the same time, however, cryptids also managed to defy categorization, to muddle known categories. The Scythian Lamb, after all, was equal parts Venus flytrap and baby lamb, a mysterious woolly gourd. In 1781, Dr. Erasmus Darwin wrote rhapsodically in his long poem The Botanic Garden of the creature and its unsettling in-betweenness:

And round and round her flexile neck she bends,
Crops the grey coral moss, and hoary thyme,
Or laps with rosy tongue the melting rime;
Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,
And seems to bleat—a vegetable lamb.

Cryptids, in other words, resisted the logic of the Wunderkammer, even as their skeletons and spleens stood on their shelves. The hint of mystery that surrounded cryptids—creatures of legend and folklore, rather than scientific enquiry—gave them a liminal space within the collector’s cabinet. They suggested that the world was richer, stranger, than could be contained within any glass case. They are the kind of “in-between” creatures the God of Israel has proclaimed, in any case, definitely not kosher.

They Shouldn’t Exist, but They Do

Like its Enlightenment-era forebears, contemporary cryptozoology is rooted in that same hunger for strangeness, and for an enchanted world. It’s telling that the contemporary iteration of the phenomenon saw its first major resurgence during the wider postwar optimism of 1950s—when Belgian zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans, often lauded as one of the forefathers of the field, published On the Track of Unknown Animals in 1955. (Heuvelmans also coined the terms cryptozoology and cryptid.) Featuring entries dedicated to the abominable snowman and Nandi bears alongside examinations of platypuses and gorillas, Heuvelmans’s book celebrates the potential of a world teeming with creatures the scientific record has not yet ossified into fact.

“The world is by no means thoroughly explored,” Heuvelmans writes in his introduction. “It is true that we know almost all its geography, there are no more large islands or continents to be discovered. But because a country is on the map it does not mean that we know all about its inhabitants. There are still more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Horatio’s philosophy.”11xBernard Heuvelmans, On the Track of Unknown Animals (3rd ed.), trans. Richard Garnett (New York, NY: Kegan Paul, 1995), 4. Neither technological progress nor scientific expansion can expunge the delightful possibility that the abominable snowman (or Bigfoot, or the Mothman) might well be out there.

Cryptids are rarely coded as dangerous. More often than not, they are benign, even (often) cute. Bigfoot, Mothman, the Jersey Devil (a winged, kangaroo-like creature whose story dates back to pre-Revolutionary New Jersey)—all these are, at most, a danger to livestock rather than people. If cryptids represent the unknown, they are, unlike the diabolic entities of gothic novels, largely benevolent messengers of its promise. Vampires or werewolves might kill you. Cryptids will do no worse than take a sheep or two, or steal crops left undefended. They ruffle a bit of reality without upending it. The only real violence they commit is against those scientific strictures that would corset the world into the binary categories of fantasy and the real. It is this fundamental benevolence that underlies cryptid culture.

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

This existence, furthermore, is highly localized and specific. It’s an existence by and for the human beings who tell tales by firelight. The very manner in which contemporary cryptid culture largely perpetuates itself—by storytelling, rather than ostensibly empirical examination—tells us as much about cryptids as any individual account of the feats of a flying dog-man, or a half-frog half-wolf.

By and large, cryptids don’t exist in the pages of natural history books—a few bestiaries excepting. Rather, they exist in oral histories, in folklore, in family tales. They exist at the local level: by and for individual people and individual communities, who may not know the genus or phylum of what they have seen but nevertheless know that they have seen it. Knowledge of cryptids is intuitive, imaginative. In many cases it is nonpropositional. All statements about cryptids, after all, can be boiled down to one thing: This creature exists. There is something more out there. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, and more animals, too.

Most cryptids are beasts not of the natural world, in the abstract sense, but of a particular place. An article in the online travel magazine Atlas Obscura lists a full twenty-four local cryptids, most of which occur in America. There is the Dire Wolf of Uintah County, Utah, and the Honey Island Swamp Monster of Louisiana. There is the Michigan Dogman, specific to Wexford County, and the Ohio Loveland Frogman, and the hyperlocal Beast of Bray Road, of Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Each of these creatures is inextricable from the land, the swamp, the water, the legends, and the people that make up these places. The Michigan Dogman is not merely a subgenus of all other Dogmen roving the earth, but rather its own, utterly irreducible entity. Those who believe in cryptids (or who affirm their belief in cryptids, which is not exactly the same thing) are making a statement that the kind of knowledge they possess—traditionalist in the literal sense—is more accurate, more real, than the kind of bloodless taxonomizing one finds in the Wunderkammer.

As cryptozoographer Jason Offutt writes in his 2019 guidebook Chasing American Monsters: Over 250 Creatures, Cryptids, and Hairy Beasts, “When people move to a new land, they bring with them more than just their families, their heirlooms, and their traditions. They bring with them their legends...the things that have always lurked in their shadows and hidden under their beds.”22xJason Offutt, Chasing American Monsters: Over 250 Creatures, Cryptids, and Hairy Beasts (Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publishers, 2019). Kindle edition. Cryptids are rooted, both to the earth itself and to the people who live upon it, in a way that “ordinary” animals, insensible to human myth-making, are not.

It’s telling that belief in cryptids has persisted in those pockets of America most affected, one might say most devastated, by industrialization and globalization. Cryptids  are rarely seen in cities—urban legends of sewer alligators aside. Rather, they tend to be spotted in small towns and country lanes: pockmarks in the Rust Belt or the foothills of Appalachia. They are creatures like “Momo” (short for the Missouri Monster), a seven-feet-tall, foul-smelling, dead dog–toting Bigfoot analogue who hailed from a town with the unlikely name of Louisiana, and who was the subject of numerous reported sightings in the 1970s before interest in the creature waned roughly in tandem with Louisiana’s economic and social decline. Cryptids speak to our human contingency: We are rooted creatures, whose consciousness—and, in the case of cryptids, whose very physical sighting—is not absolute, but, rather, funneled through our contingent bodies, in our contingent place, under the rubric of our contingent stories, wedded to our contingent time. The children who saw Momo in 1972 weren’t seeing with the hypothetical “all-seeing eye” of rational thought, but as beings whose physical senses and localized narratives were inextricable from one another.

One Is the Loneliest Number

Cryptids aren’t just particular. They’re also singular. Modern cryptids tend not to be members of an identified species, but, rather, to repurpose a term from linguistics, hapaxes: creatures that cannot reproduce, or be reproduced. There is only one Mothman, one Jersey Devil, one Momo. They don’t just problematize scientific taxonomy on the level of species—Here’s a species that those high-falutin’ scientists haven’t discovered!—but problematize the very concept of species. The irreducible and irreproducible cryptid suggests that there is something inherent in existence that transcends nominal categories. If there is something out there that there is only one of, whose identity and haecceity are one, then the Enlightenment vision of universalism, and its attendant metaphysics of the nominalized generic, collapses inwardly. If there exists a Bigfoot, a Loch Ness monster, or a Momo, not only are scientists insufficient—in the sense that there are more creatures on earth than in their philosophy—they are flat-out wrong. The idea of the “species,” and with it of predictable natural law itself, gives way to a zoology in which things are only, and fully, themselves.

Within this paradigm, the theological underpinnings of cryptozoology are even clearer. The world of the cryptid is one governed not by disembodied laws but by the sheer strangeness of facticity. It is a world in which things happen because they happen, and in a way nobody can predict. It is a world in which folk wisdom, local lore, rooted tradition, all take epistemic precedence over the disengagement, the purported neutrality, of the Enlightenment philosophical method. It’s a world of animals—beings with blood and guts and roots—rather than rational human beings. It’s a world, too, of absolute contingency: If these in-between creatures indeed exist, they do so not because a logical evolutionary process has mechanized them into being, but—implicitly—because something has chosen to create them. Cryptids may be the result of chaotic chance, or divine will. But they can never be the result of an orderly process.

One of the most counterintuitive alliances forged in the cryptozoology world is between cryptozoologists and conservative, creationist Christians. “Young earth” creationists share with their cryptozoological counterparts a distrust of traditional “scientific” authority, with its unwelcome tendency to unweave the rainbow. Creationist groups regularly fund cryptozoological expeditions, in the hope that the discovery of a modern-day dinosaur like the Loch Ness monster might help overturn scientific conventions about the age of the earth, or evolution more broadly. In 2000, for example, an expedition in search of the dinosaur-like Mokele-mbembe in the Republic of the Congo received $50,000 from a Canadian businessman (and creationist) named Paul Rockel; a 2003 follow-up was funded by another creationist, Milt Marcy. The journeys were heavily publicized by the Institute for Creation Research in Texas.

Creationists likewise often purchase cryptid “relics” for their own purposes. In 2009, for example, the discoverer of the body of an alleged chupacabra, Jerry Adler, was able to sell the carcass to John Adolfi, the founder and president of the Lost World Museum, in Phoenix, New York, which attempts to cast doubt on modern evolutionary theory. (The “chupacabra” was later loaned to another creationist facility, the Mt. Blanco Fossil Museum, in Crosbyton, Texas.

The promise of cryptids is also the promise of a world that cannot be reduced to scientific certainty—a world that, implicitly, might even have magic in it, or even God. Thus, a 1995 textbook by a Texas-based organization, Accelerated Christian Education, teaches children who adopt its homeschooling curriculum that the discovery of the Loch Ness monster—taken as a given—has disproved the existence of evolution:

Have you heard of the “Loch Ness Monster” in Scotland? “Nessie,” for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur. Could a fish have developed into a dinosaur? As astonishing as it may seem, many evolutionists theorize that fish evolved into amphibians and amphibians into reptiles. This gradual change from fish to reptiles has no scientific basis. No transitional fossils have been or ever will be discovered because God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals. Any similarities that exist among them are due to the fact that one Master Craftsmen fashioned them all.33xQuoted in Noah Plaue, “This Louisiana School Want Students to Believe the Loch Ness Monster Is Real,” Business Insider Australia, June 27, 2012,

“Discovering a living dinosaur would help creationists reclaim the reptiles to the glory of our great Creator,” writes one such cryptozoological creationist, Dave Woetzel, in a 2015 edition of the creationist journal Creation Matters, “For example, it would give credence to the many historical accounts of men encountering dragons.”44xDave Woetzel, “Cryptozoology and Creation Apologetics,” Genesis Park, accessed January 9, 2020, First published in Creation Matters (July/August 2015).

Sometimes, creationists have taken cryptids as signs not of the earth’s origins but of its end. James Lloyd, of the end times prophecy media company Christian Media Network, has written extensively on how he believes chupacabras were foretold by the Book of Revelation. (He claims, however, that they were inadvertently created in a lab by modern, diabolically motivated geneticists.) Here, too, the cryptids double as evidence of the existence of a grander and more mythic narrative than the evolutionary record alone can provide: a vision of zoology as apocalyptic, divinely ordained history in which nothing is left to chance.

Even outside its alliance with creationism, however, modern-day cryptozoology reflects its theological promise. To prove the existence of the chupacabra, the abominable snowman, or Nessie isn’t just to expand the boundaries of science but to subvert them. Believing in cryptids means disbelieving that the Wunderkammer can contain all there is in this world. It means problematizing “science,” conceived of in its strictest and most Enlightenment-based terms, and adopting in its stead something far more uncanny. Our love of cryptids reflects our hunger for enchantment, and for the kind of beings that might dwell in enchanted lands. We want, as the X-Files movie once told us, to believe.

“When someone sees a hairy eight-foot-tall apelike man walking through their yard it makes legends real.” Jason Offutt writes in Chasing American Monsters. “It brings the unknown into our homes, and makes the impossible seem all too possible.”55xOffutt, Chasing American Monsters. If cryptids exist, why could the Red Sea not have parted? Why could Jesus Christ not have come back from the dead? A world with Loch Ness monsters and Mothman and Momo and the Jersey Devil is a world where singular things happen, where things more complicated, more joyful, and above all else more incarnate can and do exist. It is a world where folklore is true, and where your grandmother’s reminiscences are as authoritative a source on All That Is as the Journal of Zoology. It is a world that confounds human logic and reveals “natural law” as the boundaries of human cognition. It is a world that is not just enchanted, but also—in its potential for chaos—subordinate to a God who wills things into being, that makes something from nothing, that has fashioned the limbs of the chupacabra. Things exist that should not exist, and that renders our sense of should meaningless. The absurdity of these singular beings, benignly monstrous, makes their existence all the more precious, all the greater a gift. Whatever law governs the birth and death of these rough beasts cannot be contained within the pages of The Botanic Garden.

Ultimately, cryptids are at once the poetic evidence of divine freedom—and of human limitation. They stand at once for what might be, and what we can never truly know. It is only when we see not through a glass darkly but rather face to face, that we may see not just Bigfoot, or the Mothman, or the Loch Ness monster, but the demons and angels, methods and manners, climates and councils, and governments and equations that we grasped only imperfectly before. We may see a Jersey Devil, giving the middle finger to the language, the taxonomies, and the very systems of cognition that make us make worlds into Wunderkammern. But, until then, we have only Bigfoot’s footprints.