Summer's Bumper Crop Of Monsters

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 19, 2008

America's seeing monsters again, so Mommy needs to open the door a crack and leave the hallway light on:

1. Some sheriff's deputies in Cuero, Tex., released footage captured by one of their dash-cams on Aug. 8 of a . . . something (the legendary Mexican goat-sucker, el chupacabra?) running along a dirt road in broad daylight. This went along with reports (and pix!) of bodies of long-fanged, doglike creatures found in Texas. Weird!

2. A news cycle or two after the Texas chupacabra came the dead . . . something, allegedly a Bigfoot, discovered in the (cue banjo) backwoods of Georgia. Two men have pictures of it and say they've got the body, too. They held a news conference (cue flat trumpet bleat) last Friday, which CNN showed live. Bizarre!

3. Meanwhile, for days, Gawker and other Web sites busied themselves with discussion of the so-called "Montauk Monster," brought to us via photos of the bloated corpse of . . . something (a de-shelled tortoise? a skinned bulldog?) that allegedly washed up on the Long Island shore sometime in July. Yucko!

From one perspective, this can all be taken as a good sign: When people come forth with fresh evidence of cryptids (the sorta scientific term for any creature whose existence cannot be proved), it usually means they don't have anything better to do, which in turn means there's an absence of the very kinds of calamity that would keep people otherwise preoccupied -- such as war, economic collapse or the death of a major figurehead or world leader. The monsters come in summer, when the nights are long and we are camping and telling stories around the fire. The monsters show up when we are most bored. (But, you say, we do have a war! We do have economic collapse! We even have Russia again -- so why all the hokey claims of real monsters?)

From another perspective, when people see monsters it can portend a heightened sense of paranoia and abstract worry -- the spooky vibes that come before the real panic. The monster sightings could be omens, indicating something really bad is about to happen. Among the very last things we were transfixed by before Sept. 11, 2001, were random shark attacks and the eerie disappearance of a Washington intern who went jogging in the woods of Rock Creek Park -- both excellent campfire stories, and both forgotten after the terrorist attacks that soon came.

From still another perspective, it's depressing, isn't it? For all our advancement in civilizing and wiring and figuring out the world, we discover a culture that is still so ready, at a moment's notice, to become villagers with torches.

Once confined to Time-Life books and late-night TV shows, today's cryptids avail themselves of all the latest kookanalia. In the era of Photoshop, it's easier than ever to make up a monster, and it's easier than ever to expose him as a joke. It's no longer enough to come running out of the woods with your stories and your blurry Instamatic proof. You need to upload your video. You need to send a link. You need a press conference and a spokesman. But the story always ends up the same, with the entire world tauntingly responding, nunh-unh:

The Montauk Monster was debunked as a ploy to get buzz for a movie being shot nearby -- which, thanks to the evolving art of gossip blogging, it got. But the filmmakers deny any involvement. The monster now has an L.A.-based publicist, who swears his client is real -- not a turtle, not a movie prop.

The Texas video has enjoyed a nice ride on YouTube and all the tabloid-video TV shows, and the DeWitt County sheriff told CNN he loves the publicity it brings his otherwise overlooked town. (The alleged chupacabra is thought to be some kind of hairless coyote-wolf hybrid, or one ugly dog. Scientific American says it's a pit bull; others say it's a coyote that lost its hair to mange. An examination of a similar creature found dead in Texas last year turned out to be a coyote, according to CNN.)

And poor, dead Bigfoot -- so ignominiously slumped in an ice chest meant for a lot of cheap beer -- seems to be making his way toward Fakesville, while his minders run out the clock on their claims. (Bigfoot hasn't had such a rough go of it since he was teamed up with the Bionic Woman and the Six Million Dollar Man in the late 1970s.)

As adequate heebie-jeebie material, none of these monsters lived longer than a week or two. What seems like a great summer for monsters is also a bad summer for monsters, because everyone's so smart. It used to be hard to find people who believed. Now you go to a science-fiction convention and there are tens of thousands of people who are simultaneously ready to believe and then disbelieve and they are all typing typing typing. The latest "X-Files" tanked at the box office, tanked before it even opened; this was because (everyone typed) it didn't have any unexplained phenomena, no cryptids, no monsters.

Bigfoot, Montauk, Chupie: You have our sympathies. You guys keep it real, and we'll keep it fake.

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