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.

The continuing adventures of The Peninsula Python

Are people still telling stories of the Peninsula Python, over 70 years after it fist appeared in and terrorized the village? A few recent-ish mentions of the legendary snake in local books suggest that it’s still being talked about, but in the present, rather than the past, tense.

The tale of the Python was originally told by local reporter Robert Bordner in a 1945 story in The Atlantic with the suspiciously defensive title of “The Peninsula Python: An Absolutely True Story.” As this absolutely true, definitely not hoaxed story goes, in the summer of 1944 a 15- to 18-foot-long snake began slithering around local farms, leaving a trail like an automobile tire that went into and came out of the river, and scaring the heck out of those that saw it, eventually inspiring posses to gather and fruitlessly hunt it. 

As to where the beast came from, the rumor was that a truck containing it had crashed and disgorged its contents in the process. As to where it went, since it was never caught or found dead, the popular theory was that it crawled into a hole somewhere and died as the Ohio winter set in, temperatures plummeting far below those favored by a tropical snake. 

In any case, it, or its children, couldn’t still be around, could they?

Apparently talk of the python is still around, and its since been linked to Helltown, another, more colorful Northeast Ohio legend.

The stories about Helltown are innumerable, and many of them are shared between teenagers visiting or planning to visit the area to explore them for themselves (which they absolutely shouldn’t do). The real story is this. Boston, Ohio was settled in 1806 by New Englanders, and was, by all accounts, a particularly scenic part of the state. So scenic, in fact, that there were those who wanted to turn it into a national park. Finally, in 1974, the federal government began grinding its gears forward on the project. The Ford administration ordered the town to be evacuated and as residents and businesses fled and were bought out, it became a ghost town practically overnight, awaiting its destined demolition and transformation into a park—which never came.

Instead, Boston was left in tact but deserted, the buildings slowly starting to deteriorate as rumors about the queer area began to proliferate There’s was a massive toxic waste spill that drove everyone away (There was a toxic waste spill, but it wasn’t what drove people away).. There’s an empty, haunted school bus there that was scene to a terrible slaughter of its young riders (There was a bus, but no one was murdered on it). There’s a church with upside down crosses that Satanists gather and worship at (There was a church, but there’s no evidence of any Satanists). Terribly deformed people are hiding just out of sight in the many abandoned houses. (Houses? Sure. Mutants? No.) An ax-wielding madman makes his  home there, awaiting curious visitors to make into his latest victims. (You get the idea by now).  

In the ruins of Boston, Helltown was born. 

In her book Myths and Mysteries of Ohio: True Stories of The Unsolved and The Unexplained (Globe Pequot; 2014), Sandra Gurvis discusses Helltown in her chapter “Cuyahoga Valley National Park/ Hell ‘No, We Won’t Go’ Town.”

“Even back in 1945, the alleged escape of python during a carnival truck crash ‘sent posses of armed residents out scouring farm fields for the slithering horror’, states [Brian] Albrecht’s Plain Dealer article,” Gurvis writes in passing at one point. “But to this day, the thirty-foot—and still growing, thanks to all that tasty toxic waste!—’Peninsula Python’ supposedly still wanders the woods and river looking for crunchy granola hikers with a Melon Head chaser.” 

Here we should pause to note the appearance of another Ohio monster, the Melonheads. Gurvis mentions them on the previous page when discussing the toxic waste a hiker supposedly found leaking out of an oil drum in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park that accounted for the emptying out of the area (“Of course, no newspaper or magazine account substantiates this,” she writes of the tale).

Of urban legends regarding the toxic waste, Gurvis writes, “Why not also blame the alleged proliferation of marauding, hydrocephalic, feral ‘Melon Heads’ said to roam the nearby woods of Chardon and Kirtland on the dump as well?” 

Chardon and Kirtland aren’t that close to the park—it’s about a 40-minute drive from Kirtland to Peninsula—although here we can see urban legends bleeding into one another. Just as the Melonheads—or Melon Heads, if you prefer spelling it two words, as Gurvis does—were said to be an isolated, independent community of malformed people, so too were the people in some versions of the Helltown story, where it is known as Mutant Town or Butane Town.

When I first encountered Gurvis’ book, which really does offer a nice, concise retelling of the Helltow story, I was struck by the mention of the Python and Melonheads in a single, not-usually-related-to-either-of-them narrative, and took note of it, but didn’t pursue it any further, as it seemed an aberration to the traditional stories of both monsters.

But then I read Nicky Perry’s Hello Cleveland: Things You Should Know About The Most Unique City in the World (Microcosm Publishing; 2002). Like Gurvis, he also has a chapter on Helltown, and his begins with several scenarios, each a legend about the location, and he too mentions the Python:

…After a massive chemical spill, the citizens of a small nearby town became grossly mutated. Years of inbreeding followed and their offspring still patrol the surrounding forests, feasting on the flesh of anyone foolish enough to wander the woods. The humanoids fear nothing except the Peninsula Python, an enormous snake who was exposed to the chemicals and grew to monstrous proportions. The python is the only thing keeping these deranged creatures in check…

Here again, then, we see the Python linked to nearby Helltown, the suggestion that it is no ordinary python thanks to its exposure to toxic waste (though Perry doesn’t give us an estimated size, as Gurvis did) and even the fact that it eats forest-dwelling monstrous humanoids, creatures that sound not completely unlike the Melonheads

That’s two mentions, then; I’ve heard three makes it a trend. But it is apparently worth keeping an eye and ear out for more stories of the Python in Helltown or as a mutated monster that exists in the present, rather than just an out-of-place animal from a story in the past. Though it started in the 1940s, it would appear the Peninsula Python’s story isn’t quite over yet.

Illustration by Janie Walland