Where the wild things are

By MIKE MILIARD  |  January 12, 2009

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.

"Cryptozoology is not the study of things that don't exist," says Jeff Belanger, a cryptid true believer and author of Weird Massachusetts (Sterling). "It's the study of stuff we haven't yet categorized or understood."

In search of . . .
Even the most committed cryptozoologist might draw the line at keeping 50-year-old Yeti stool samples in his kitchen. Not so Maine's Loren Coleman.

It all started for him one Friday night in 1960, when he stayed up late to watch a B-movie called Half Human. The film starred John Carradine as a scientist who (in footage that was spliced into a pre-existing Japanese mock-documentary) goes in search of the Himalayan Yeti. When it re-ran the next morning, Coleman watched it again.

"I went to school on Monday and asked my teachers, 'What is this about the abominable snowman?' They all said, 'Don't waste your time. Don't read anything about it.' "

So he promptly did the opposite. Coleman pawed through every book and devoured every article he could find about the search for undiscovered or unsubstantiated creatures. He dashed off letter after letter to experts in the then-still-nascent field of cryptozoology. Within two years, by the time he was 14, he had corresponded with 400 people across the world. About that time, he also started doing some field work of his own, accompanying game wardens in his native Illinois "in search of black panthers and little apes and giant snakes."

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