Review: “The United States of Cryptids”

At first glance, J.W. Ocker’s The United States of Cryptids: A Tour of American Myths and Monsters (Quirk Books; 2002) looks similar to other surveys of American monsters, with Jason Offut’s Chasing American Monsters, Scott Francis’ Monster Spotter’s Guide to North America and W. Haden Blackman’s Field Guide to North American Monsters all coming most immediately to mind. As in those works, Ocker takes readers on a tour of the country, stopping at each monster to tell its story.

What differentiates Ocker’s work, however, is he’s not merely telling the stories of monsters, but he’s laying out a guide of sorts to monster tourism (or what might be considered a form of legend tripping). When discussing the monsters he does, Ocker pays special attention to how the creatures are recognized by the people who can lay claim their stories, noting statues, museums, plaques, festivals and the like…or the lack of them, and why he thinks they should be celebrated.

If you have a monster legend, the logic goes, you might as well take advantage of it.

“But if you’re the town that found a giant turtle living in your local pond in the 1970s or were attacked by a vampire cat in the 1950s?”Ocker writes in his introduction, “That’s yours alone to own, and you can name a park after it, theme a business around it, build a museum or a statue honoring it, and propose legislation to protect it and its habitat.”

It’s certainly worked for places like Point Pleasant, a small West Virginia town of just 4,000 that brings in thousands of visitors each year to see the Mothman Museum and Mothman statue during their annual Mothman Festival.

Ocker’s specific approach informs some of the cryptids included in his book.

Several belong the world of UFOlogy more than cryptozoology, like the Hopkinsville Goblin and the Grey Alien (not to mention the Pascagoula Elephant Man), but they are included because of the former’s recognition during Kelly, Kentucky Little Green Men Days and the latter at Roswell, New Mexico’s annual festival and general embrace of aliens and UFOs as a source of civic identity.

Additionally some of the monsters included aren’t ones that were actually seen by anyone in a particular locale, they were just embraced by city leaders as a way to promote the town, as in the Norfolk, Virginia mermaids, the Dawson, Minnesota gnomes and the Mount Horeb, Wisconsin trolls.

One entry is for a “monster” that no one has ever claimed to see anywhere or believed in at all, The Rhinelapus. This “sculptural” monster is a found object that was so weird-looking it was painted and put on display as a strange, three-legged monster sculpture in front of first a bar, and then a park. It was originally just a crazy-looking tree stump. 

In other words, it’s not the sort of creature you’d find an entry for in any other bestiary, but it makes a sort of perfect sense for Ocker’s, which is as much about monsters you can visit as it is creatures of folklore or cryptozoology.

Part travel guide and part legend survey, Ocker’s United States of Cryptids should be a particularly pleasurable read for fans of cryptids regardless of their level of enthusiasm (or should that be fanaticism?); whether you’re the sort who likes to encounter monsters from your couch at home with a book on your lap, or the sort who would rather buy monster merch in a small town after a long drive, the book is for your.

Ocker adopts a sly, conversational tone throughout the book, intimating stories of his own travels and opinions about the creatures within without ever appearing too credulous about the reality of such creatures as undiscovered animals. “I sometimes joke that when I say I’m hunting cryptids,” he writes, “What I mean is that I’m driving to a town to drink a craft beer named after one.”

Still, he regards cryptids in general as” real,” through various levels of reality. They’re real as real stories, they’re real as the source of various celebrations, ranging fromsouveneirs to festivals to the those craft beers, and they are real “more as symbols of the natural world than as secrets of i.t”  

Writes Ocker:

Cryptids are hopeful concepts: hope that the world is still a diverse place full of discovery. Hope that humankind hasn’t zoned every square inch of the planet for McDonald’s franchises. Hope that we haven’t grown bored with our mother planet, that she still harbors wonders for us. Cryptids exist: As stories, as monuments, as symbols. Maybe even as more than that. But those three ways already make them as much a part of this planet as any officially acknowledged creature in a zoology textbook. 

Divided into four sections by rough geographical region, the book is occasionally interrupted by brief, witty one-page articles on some aspect of cryptozoology and illustrations by artist Derek Quinlan, of which, frankly, I could have used more (But then, I am particularly obsessed with seeing the various ways different artists try to draw cryptid creatures like, say, Mothman, whose vague, otherworldly descriptions make him a particularly difficult creature for an artist to try and capture; for the record, Quinlan leans heavily into the “moth” part of the name, in contrast with actual witness reports, giving him two feathery antennae and a furry ruff around his neck). 

Two figures appear throughout the book, both giants of cryptozoology in their own way. The first is Loren Coleman, who wrote a nice introduction, is visited in an entry on the International Cryptozoology Museum and appears now and again as an investigator of some monsters  (like the Dover Demon) or merely being quoted for some bit of wisdom. (Two of Coleman’s books are among the 15 titles offered for “Further Reading” in the back of the book.) 

The other is literal giant Bigfoot, who Ocker has a somewhat frustrated relationship within the book. Bigfoot sightings are so common that each region could have a dozen or so entries on one Bigfoot or another, and so many different places celebrate the big guy in various ways that Ocker has to actually hold back on detailing Bigfoot encounters in real life and in merch form. He limits himself to a few genuinely big places in Bigfoot history and or Bigfootanalia. 

But what about Ohio? 

There are three Ohio entries on three particular creatures, two of which I covered in my own book, the third of which I shied away from as I didn’t want to include creatures from Native American legend: The Loveland Frogman, The Peninsula Python and The Underwater Panther.

Ocker’s Loveland Frogs recount begins with the first police officer sighting, Ray Shockey’s March 3, 1972 encounter, and then flashes back to the 1955 story of an unnamed man seeing a handful of deformed, frog-faced creatures by the side of the road, one of which held a glowing wand. From there he continues with police officer Mark Matthews St. Patrick’s Day 1972 sighting.

Ocker continues with information I didn’t have. He writes that coverage of a 2016 sighting brought officer Matthews, now retired in Florida, to offer commentary: 

He said that most of his story was true, except for how it ended. He had actually shot the creatures, which he said was already half dead from the cold. When he retrieved the corpse, he found it to be a large iguana with its tail missing. He showed its body to Shockey, who agreed that it was what he had seen, relieved that he wouldn’t be going down in the books as the crazy Loveland Frogman cop (oops). Matthews believed the creature to be an escaped pet that had kept warm by sticking around the outlet pipes from the nearby Totes boot factory. According to Matthews, he had told the whole story to an author putting together a book of Ohio legends, but that author had omitted the big reveal.

(Wasn’t me! Maybe James Renner, whose 2012 It Came From Ohio has the Loveland Frog on the cover? Or Michael Newton, who wrote 2013 book Strange Ohio Monsters?)

Ocker notes the Loveland Frogman triathlon and the Cincinnati musical, but notes Loveland is still statue-less and festival-free. I guess the community deserves a C+ for legend-embracing.

A higher grade would go to Peninsula, which threw annual parades for its cryptid, which Ocker notes is an example of an OOPS (Out-Of-Place Species). Ocker quickly recounts some of the sightings in the 1944 flap, and while he doesn’t mention Helltown specifically, he does mention the rumor that the snake  had something to do with mutating toxic waste, writing, “Another theory held that the python was a mutant from the Krejci Dump, which opened four years earlier a few miles south of town…Nobody knew it then, but four decades later, the discovery that its owners were accepting illicit chemical waste would cause the land to be classified as a Superfund site.”

Finally, the Underwater Panther, a “Suburban Mound Monster” is covered in a chapter on the Alligator Mound in Granville, Ohio, seemingly related to The Great Serpent Mound in Peebles, which is the largest effigy mound in the country. 

Ocker notes Alligator Mound isn’t shaped like an alligator, having a small round head and relatively long legs.

Researchers believe that when European explorers were first shown the mound by Native Americans, they mistranslated the Native American name for it. The builders of the mound may have described a water monster, which the Europeans assumed to be an alligator. But alligators aren’t native to Ohio: the underwater panther is.

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