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Explore legends in 'The United States of Cryptids'
Quirk Books


Explore legends in ‘The United States of Cryptids’

What’s the most famous cryptid from YOUR state?

In the summer of 1948, the town of Churubusco, Indiana, was riveted by rumors that a 500-pound snapping turtle with a shell the size of a dining room table was living in a lake on an area farm. Various would-be monster hunters tried their luck at netting the gargantuan terrapin, to no avail. While the Beast of Busco, as the creature came to be known, may or may not have existed, the townspeople loved their local monster regardless, and every June since 1950 have honored the Beast with a weekend festival called Turtle Days.

In recent years festivals commemorating such community cryptids have grown in popularity, whether they’re for Arkansas’ Fouke Monster, West Virginia’s Mothman, or South Carolina’s Lizardman. In The United States of Cryptids (2022), Edgar Award-winning author J.W. Ocker invites readers on a cross-country journey through all 50 U.S. states, to meet 72 unique monsters, spread out over four geographical regions: North, South, Midwest, and West.

Explore legends in 'The United States of Cryptids'

Following a brief foreword by International Cryptozoology Museum founder Loren Coleman, Ocker opens The United States of Cryptids with an introductory essay laying out his approach to the topic of “cryptotourism,” as well as answering an all-important first question: ‘What exactly is a cryptid?’

United States of Cryptids begins with the traditional cryptozoological definition: “a creature or species whose existence is scientifically unproven.” Implicit in this definition is the idea that cryptids must resemble biologically known animals whether extant or extinct, a rubric which automatically excludes extraterrestrials and supernatural monsters. Nevertheless, over the years the meaning of cryptid has expanded to “become synonymous with monster, of any kind,” a development which Ocker makes clear many old-school researchers like Coleman are unhappy about.

This new, more liberal definition of “cryptid,” which Ocker adopts, includes not only the aforementioned aliens, ghosts, and robots, but also monsters which exist only as tall-tales (Colorado’s Slide-Rock Bolter, Vermont’s Wampahoofus), suspected hoaxes (New York’s Silver Lake Serpent, Texas’ Minnesota Iceman), art installations (Virginia’s Norfolk Mermaids, Wisconsin’s Rhinelapus), and even publicity stunts like Norton, Virginia’s Woodbooger, a synthetic sasquatch dreamed up in an attempt to get the town onto an episode of TV’s Finding Bigfoot.

But the aim of The United States of Cryptids is not to wade into debates over which creatures are likely real or not; in fact, Ocker feels that such discussions miss the point. “Cryptids exists,” Ocker says, “as stories, as monuments, as symbols. Maybe even as more than that.” It’s an idea he returns to in the book’s epilogue, writing that ultimately “cryptids are more important culturally than scientifically.”

This is an argument that likely sounds familiar to some cryptozoological critics, though Ocker notes skeptics often miss that what makes cryptids compelling is the very possibility of their existence: “Sure, we have fictional monsters is our movies and books, but a thousand Frankensteins and King Kongs and Grendels weigh far less than a single monster that is ‘based on a true story.’” In short, The United States of Cryptids is not so much about cryptozoology as it is about the cryptids themselves, and the communities who celebrate them and the possibilities they see in their hypothetical existence.

Celebration doesn’t mean just passing on spooky stories like some books in this genre, though. While written for general audiences, The United States of Cryptids is a surprisingly thoughtful and well-researched book. As someone who considers himself well-versed in cryptids, I learned things I never knew about monsters I’m familiar with, and found out about a number of creatures I’d never heard of.

Much of this erudition is due to Ocker’s choice to keep away from the tricky question of if cryptids are actually real. By adopting this approach, The United States of Crytpids is free to cite the research of both cryptozoologists and those who are decidedly more critical of the subject. For every reference to the works of cryptozoologists Ivan T. Sanderson, Bernard Heuvelmans, or Lyle Blackburn, there is one to noted skeptics like Joe Nickell, Benjamin Radford, and Brian Regal. As long as a researcher has something interesting to say about a particular monster, Ocker is willing to relay it.

But because of the conversational tone of the book, these references don’t always appear on the printed page. Sanderson’s Argosy article on Alaska’s Kodiak Dinosaur gets mentioned, as does paleontologist Phil Senter’s debunking of a dubious dinosaur petroglyph of Utah’s Kachina Bridge (which Ocker describes as an example of “Christian cryptozoology”), but these are exceptions rather than the rule. However, readers already familiar with Radford’s writings on the chupacabra or Regal’s theories about the Jersey Devil will recognize that The United States of Cryptids‘ information on these monsters has clearly been informed by their work.

One explanation for this lack of credit might have to do with the surprising brevity of the book’s bibliography, which I assume was more a choice of the publisher than the author. The back of  The United States of Cryptids only lists 15 titles, but has an accompanying URL which leads readers to an exhaustive fifteen-page list of books, articles, and websites consulted for this project. If Ocker had assumed this information would be printed, then that would explain why he didn’t feel the need to give a shout-out to every researcher who came before him.

The United States of Cryptids makes some interesting original observations about America’s monster-geography as well. There are apparently more cryptid reports from the South than there are from the North, with certain New England states – New Hampshire, Delaware, and Maine – seemingly bereft of strange beasts altogether. Conversely, Midwestern monsters seem to mostly be concentrated within the states of Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin, which leads the way with five entries in this book. The West, meanwhile, is Bigfoot country, plain and simple.

United States of Cryptids Mothman

The only major shortcoming of this book is that for a work which spends so much time discussing various festivals, statues, monuments, and scenic vistas, it’s remarkable that not a single photograph is presented. Publishing The United States of Cryptids as a small hardcover is a total disservice to Ocker’s research and aspirations. This should have been a huge coffee-table book replete with gorgeous, hi-res photos of the described sites. Should Quirk Books ever feel like bringing out such an edition in the future, I’d gladly put my money down. Nevertheless, the existing version of The United States of Cryptids is still a worthy addition to any cryptid enthusiast’s library.   

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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