Monsters that remain hidden most of the time but are suddenly sighted. Creatures such as snakes and hairy mammals that betray human characteristics. Communities steadfast in their belief that a strange being exists in their midst. From the Loch Ness Monster to the Mothman, these legendary beasts fascinate us and in our ancient past were often revered as Gods. Yet Cryptids – the technical term for animals whose existence is unproven by science – are often derided as mythical. So why do they pop up regularly on our TV screens?
The medieval Bestiary and belief in Cryptids
The medieval world has a lot to answer for when it comes to belief in Cryptids. From the end of the Roman Empire, literate people loved to read so-called Bestiaries. These were compendiums of animals, real and imagined, detailing their moral qualities and attributes. So alongside entries on bears and elephants, were descriptions of dragons, unicorns and the terrifying basilisk.
The assumption being that all these creatures existed – both the elephant and the unicorn!
It was thanks to the medieval Bestiary that we get the whole idea of crocodile tears. It was claimed that while the crocodile was always up for eating a human being, it would cry as it did so. Stricken with remorse. But of course, given the chance for a repeat meal, it would do it all over again. Hence crocodile tears being essentially insincere.
The Orang Pendek and Yeti Poop
Portland, Maine is home to the world’s only International Cryptozoology Museum, that boasts “actual hair samples” of the Abominable Snowman, Bigfoot, Yowie, and Orang Pendek. Some of these monsters are familiar but the Orang Pendek may be less so. That’s basically Indonesia’s answer to Bigfoot. The translation means “short person”.
Couple of years ago, I appeared in the documentary series Strange Evidence discussing the alleged sighting of an Orang Pendek by a group of off-road bikers who managed to capture footage of this Cryptid running across their path and into dense vegetation.
The museum also boasts, if that’s the right word, some faecal matter (poo to you) from a small Yeti, collected in 1959. Believe the defecating yeti concerned was no longer in the vicinity. Not everybody believes this artefact is genuine. The Ghurka Museum in Winchester, England even sells bags of sweets called Yeti Poop!
The United States – obsessed with Cryptids
Beyond question, the United States is the global home of Cryptids today. As a non-American and having trawled the last century of newspaper reports on Cryptids, it strikes me that as the Wild West receded into the past and genuine frontier life came to an end, belief in Cryptids rose. Especially, it seems, in the 1930s. Maybe the public was retreating into fantasy with the Great Depression and renewed threat of global war?
From across the American border in British Columbia, Canada, the year 1934 witnessed a slew of Sasquatch sightings. A strange race of hairy troglodytes living in the region’s many caves. One Sasquatch even attacking a rowing boat, hurling boulders down on it. These stories leaned into native American legends but now white people began to believe they were more than just folk tales.
FIND OUT MORE: The enduring legend of the Loch Ness monster
The United States has strong regional variations when it comes to Cryptids. West Virginia is home to the Mothman for example. Yet like many Cryptid stories from around the globe, including Scotland’s notorious Loch Ness monster, the Mothman is a relatively recent tale.
This was a creature seen around Point Pleasant, Mason County, West Virginia from 1966 to 1967. The Mothman story was expanded and solidified in the blockbuster novel The Mothman Prophecies by John A. Keel and a subsequent movie by the same name starring Richard Gere. The Cryptid was blamed for the collapse of a suspension bridge in 1967, the Silver Bridge, which spanned the Ohio River. It gave way during rush hour killing 46 people.
As the novel’s blurb explains:
“For thirteen months Point Pleasant was plagued by a dark terror that culminated in a major disaster. Unearthly noises and ghostly lights in the sky gave way to mutilated animals, winged monsters, weird flying machines and worst of all, the fearsomely demonic “Bird” – the Mothman.”
Despite the tragic loss of life back in 1967, the Mothman has put Point Pleasant on the map as a tourist destination. One might say that Cryptids today play the role that saints’ relics did in the Middle Ages. While medieval pilgrims once flocked to touch the bones of a holy person, now we travel to commune with the Cryptids. Every year, Point Pleasant plays host to thousands of people who descend on the city for the Mothman Festival.
I will confess to having a soft spot for this story because my Irish ancestors emigrated to Mason County and the Kanawha area of West Virginia to become miners in the late 19th and early 20th century. With the mines now run down, if a Cryptid is helping the local economy then I’m fine with that. All power to Mothman!