"For every square mile that man has walked on the Earth, three hundred square miles exist that have never been touched by human feet — but MAY INDEED HAVE BEEN TOUCHED by the hooves, paws, tentacles, and horrid tongue-foot-pads of the CRYPTIDS."
— John Hodgman
Venture out into the waters and woodlands of New England, and there's a chance you'll bump into "Champ," America's own Loch Ness Monster, who allegedly plies the muddy ripples of Lake Champlain. Or, perhaps, the Gloucester Sea Serpent. Or the Granite State Bigfoot. Or Connecticut's Winsted Wildman. Dare you wander into the dark-woven forests of Maine or the eerie and unexplored Hockomock Swamp, smack in the middle of the Bay State's allegedly supernatural "Bridgewater Triangle"?
You well may. After all, could what's living in there be any scarier than what's living out here? We find ourselves in a world where presidents swindle their countries into wars, governors shake down children's hospitals, and con men abscond with $50 billion from their investors, many of them charities. Is it any wonder that some people spend hefty chunks of each day dreaming of a world inhabited by unseen creatures untouched by the mean banality of mankind?
Can it be a coincidence that the field of cryptozoology — literally, the study of "hidden animals" — has evolved from a discipline cloaked in shadows and pooh-poohed by science into a full-fledged pop-cultural explosion? In short: the world of late has gone cryptid crazy.
At the Museum of Science, the "Mythic Creatures" exhibit (on display through March 22) delves into the folkloric and ethnozoological aspects of cryptids, from the Kraken (Norwegian sea beast) to the Chupacabra (Latin American livestock muncher). In Egleston Square, the 826 Boston writing center — a chapter of the San Francisco workshop established by Dave Eggers — disguises itself behind a think-tank named, fancifully, the Greater Boston Bigfoot Research Institute. (Slogan: "We exist because he exists.") Even Harpoon Brewery's new line of high-octane beers is called the Leviathan Series — named for that gargantuan but seldom-seen creature of the lower depths.
That's to say nothing of the new books by the likes of tweedy fabulist John Hodgman, a son of Brookline whose latest almost-true almanac, More Information Than You Require (Dutton), devotes space to discussion of the Pope Lick Monster and Mongolian Death Worm, and delves even deeper into the hollow-earth netherworld of the mole-men. Or the forthcoming Beasts! (Fantagraphics), which features stunning, full-color portraits of more than 90 cryptids, demons, and sprites — from the Ajattar (a grotesque Finnish dragon lady) to the Yuki-Onna (a cruel snow harpy from Japan) — by such comic book artists as Peter Bagge, Kim Deitch, and Lightning Bolt's Brian Chippendale.
Or the popular TV shows that revel in the unexplained — be they documentary (MonsterQuest, Destination Truth) or fantastical fiction (Lost, with its polar bears pawing through the jungle brush). Or Quatchi, the Sasquatch mascot of the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games. Or even, we suppose, the politically disillusioned Minnesota citizen who, in this past fall's US Senate race, given the choices Norm Coleman and Al Franken, preferred to vote for "Lizard People."
It shouldn't be surprising that we've seen an upsurge in pop-cultural references to cryptozoological creatures, be they in passing, like the "Bigfoot Lodge" featured in the new Jim Carrey flick Yes Man, or in blockbusters like the forthcoming remakes of The Wolf Man (starring Benicio Del Toro) or The Creature From the Black Lagoon (with the redoubtable Bill Paxton).
Because, as the economy spirals downward, it's worth remembering that it was during the tail end of that first depression (1941, to be exact) that Lon Chaney Jr. bristled his whiskers as the first Wolf Man — a "night monster with the blood lust of a savage beast!" — and allowed moviegoers to trade their real-world fears for screams on the screen.
"Cryptids are recession-proof," says Loren Coleman (no relation to Norm), who lives in Portland, Maine, and is perhaps the world's foremost promulgator of cryptozoological wisdom.
And it's not just the big three. (Which, of course, are the Loch Ness Monster, Yeti, and Sasquatch/Bigfoot.) Cryptids real and imagined are all around us. Consider the creatures who've set the Web abuzz just these past couple years: the body of the so-called Maine Mutant, splayed motionless in the tall grass; the Montauk Monster, washed ashore ingloriously on Long Island; the Georgia Bigfoot, gaped at by millions in his Styrofoam coffin; the Texas Chupacabra, glimpsed fleetingly across a highway patrolman's dashboard.
Yeah, so what if each of those ended up debunked, either as a hoax or explained away as a more mundane animal? (Respectively: a black chow dog, a raccoon, a gorilla costume, a dog with mange.) Does that mean there are no creatures out there left to find? Certainly not. Why, just last month a whole host of never-seen but quite real beasties was discovered and identified by zoologists in the Mekong Delta, including 88 frogs, 279 fish, and the Laotian rock rat, which was thought to have been extinct for 11 million years.