Modern Monsters (Better Late than Never)

Mythical creatures are strange creations. They can be metaphors for human fears and desires, representations of the forces of nature, a commentary about the human condition, and so on. At the same time, they’re much more complex than that. Sure, at some point back in the day one man must have created each of them, but most of them are hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. As a result each one is the sum of many parts, reinterpreted by many different cultures, filtered through many traditions, and reinterpreted by billions of people who have come before.

Except when they’re not.

See, we often think of mythical creatures as relics from a time long past, and that’s largely true. It is not the whole truth, however. We’re still creating them, and some people still believe in them. They fill a niche in our collective psyche, in the space between man and the gods. For a writer, looking at these relatively young mythical creations can be helpful, because they give us a window into how the process may have worked over the centuries, give us an idea of where all the flavor and odd quirks came from. If you want to try creating your own monsters, but find they lack a certain something, this might be the article for you.

We’ll  talk about three different examples today, starting with the most well known and youngest of the bunch, the chupacabras. Many of you have probably heard of the goat-sucker, in the same vein as bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. However, while sightings of Nessie and sasquatch go back decades and have underpinnings from folklore, the chupacabras is only about twenty years old.

If you’re unfamiliar with the creature, the chupacabras is a child or dog sized monster, of human shape. The typical description includes a spindly build, spikes or quills growing out of its back, and black or grey skin. Red eyes are often mentioned. Its primary occupation is annoying farmers, attacking their livestock at night and drinking the animals’ blood. Goats are a particular favorite, hence the name. Depending on the story the chupacabras is either supernatural, the result of a government experiment, or an alien.

The stories first cropped up in 1995, after a rash of unexplained animal deaths in Puerto Rico. The first detailed description came from a woman who admitted to having recently seen the movie Species a couple of weeks before she claimed to have sighted the creature. She even drew a picture of the chupacabras, which has been a major inspiration for most depictions of the monster in later art.

chupacabra-300x293

It’s not hard to see similarities between this drawing of the chupacabras and the alien monster (created by government scientists, incidentally) in the Species movie. It’s an interesting look at the creation of a legend, really. A lot of mythical creatures probably got their start like this. Something unexplained happens (death of livestock due to unknown predator/parasite/disease). People start to theorize about what did it. Some people claim they know what did it, looking for attention, or because they thought they saw something rustling in the bushes one night. Other people make up their own explanations for the purpose of entertainment. Over time it all becomes conflated.

Then you’ve got the Mothman, who’s a similar case.

Mothman_statue_2005

Mothman is older than the chupacabras, going back to the mid 1960s. He started out with a bunch of sightings around Point Pleasant, West Virginia. The most notorious were from a few young couples who claimed to see a man sized creature that either had no head or only a very squat one, with a pair of luminous red eyes near the shoulders, and wings for arms. In one story, as the teens hightailed away in their car, Mothman flew after them for some distance. More people came forward with their own sightings, many of them contradictory.

There was a big UFO craze during the Cold War, and a number of UFOlogists descended upon the town, claiming Mothman was an alien. The most notable was probably John Keel, who wrote the book The Mothman Prophecies (later adopted into a mediocre film starring Richard Gere). Keel went around recording (or, according to some, making up) stories in the area of not just Mothman, but other sightings of strange creatures, lights in the sky, men in black, and psychic phenomena. Interestingly enough, Keel ultimately offered up a supernatural, not an alien, hypothesis for Mothman, and famously attached the creature to the collapse of the Silver Bridge that stretched from Point Pleasant, across the Ohio River, to the town of Gallipolis.

Keel’s book immortalized Mothman, but it also showcases the inconsistencies of the numerous Mothman stories. Some describe him as a giant bird, others as a winged man, some say he flapped along like a bat, others describe him taking off vertically like a helicopter, just hovering through the air without flapping his wings. Despite many inconsistencies, Mothman survives, an amalgamation of dozens of original stories, and many later ones from fiction and entertainment.

It’s a refining process; some details get left by the wayside, like the early birdlike descriptions, while others get added in. Even then, we have no idea where some of these details come from, like the lack of a head or the strange levitation. The chupacabras’ appearance seems to be based on a distorted version of a movie monster, but Mothman has been around for longer, and the logic behind many of its features has been forgotten.

Finally, we have the the popobawa, the oldest of the bunch, if only by a little bit.

popobawa-illustration

The popobawa is a cycloptic, bat-winged demon-ogre from Tanzania, whose stories started around 1965 but really took off in the 1970s and 80s. Local folklore says that the popobawa flies around at night, enters people’s homes, and sodomizes them. The creature is much feared, and Tanzania has had a few popobawa panics; the creature is thought to be able to possesses people or shapeshift into a human form,  and these panics are a bit like witch hunts, where those people suspected of secretly being a popobawa are persecuted or attacked.

The popobawa has no clear origin, though it seems to be an offshoot from Muslim myths about the spirits known as djinn. What’s especially interesting about the creature is the social dynamic. Here is this supernatural being, unheard of fifty years ago, and yet now so well known that not only do people believe it exists, but are willing to inflict physical harm on others because of that belief.

The popobawa is often reputed to specifically target men, sexually assaulting them , and then demanding that they tell others of the assault before flying out the window. Supposedly the demon becomes quite upset if it doesn’t get gossiped about, threatening violence and future assaults. It’s not hard to see a fear of homosexuality personified here, or at the very least a fear of your neighbor and what secrets he might be keeping.

Approaching monsters as metaphors is pretty old hat. At the same time, a simple metaphor often fails to explain them fully. We don’t know exactly how popobawa’s story got started, but it clearly has come to mean a great deal to the people who fear it. We know where the first mothman and chupacabras stories originate, in a small American town during the Cold War and with a confused Puerto Rican woman. Yet why those first stories were told can only be speculated on. Was it for attention? To merely prank the gullible? Or did the people in question actually think they saw something? In each case, the original intent is only part of the story. Other people took the idea and ran with it, warping it, shaping it, adding their own spin.

When this process goes on for hundreds of years, the effects can be even weirder. Consider the griffin. It’s a classic mythical creature, a very simple one. It’s just part lion and part eagle. Except, notice the ears.

521px-Griffin_(PSF)

They don’t look much like those of a lion, and for some reason they’re on the eagle’s head. This is because they were originally symbolic. In medieval artistic representations of the time, the ears represented the griffin’s great hearing. Likewise ancient Scythian art often shows griffins with the horns of an antelope, symbolizing its swiftness. This detail is mostly forgotten, and today you’ll see griffins in book illustrations and other media with those same little ears, just taken for granted as a physical feature.

When creating a “mythical” creature from whole cloth for your own fiction, this quality can be hard to imitate. It adds flavor to the character, odd little details that stand out in the reader’s mind. Hopefully, with a better understanding of the process that creates these fictional beasts, you can duplicate it more successfully. Once you’ve come up with a premise and look for your creature that you enjoy, perhaps try to imagine how different cultures and peoples might view it or reinterpret it, and what changes they might make to the concept. Try to work through a smaller version of the process in your mind, and your creation might come out stronger for doing so.

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1 Response to “Modern Monsters (Better Late than Never)”


  1. 1 forgingshadows June 4, 2013 at 2:57 am

    I never realized the chupacabra was so young. Thanks for this post, it’s really cool.


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