I have a particular fascination with odd and unusual paranormal creatures. I realize that sounds redundant – paranormal is pretty much defined as odd and unusual – but even among fans of the supernatural, a cryptid’s popularity is based on how familiar a creature is, and how likely we judge its possible existence to be.
In the United States, 36% of people believe aliens have visited Earth and 29% believe Bigfoot exists. In Scotland, 24% think Nessie is “definitely” or “probably” real. Of course, ghosts are the royalty of the paranormal kingdom, with 45% of Americans (and a staggering 68% of Brits) willing to admit they believe in hauntings.
But who believes in Springheel Jack, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the Devon Devil, the Phantom of Flatwoods, the Jersey Devil, the Hopkinsville Goblins, and Mothman?
Well, I do. Kinda.
When I was a little girl (probably 8 or 9) my stepfather Chet (a junior-high math teacher) took a summer job cleaning a bar after it closed for the night.
At what felt like random intervals (but was probably every Friday or Saturday night) my mother would come into my room, wake me up, and send me out to the car. I remember my teeth chattering as I stumbled from the house to the driveway through wet grass that clutched at my ankles.
Feeling genuinely cold in the summertime was new to me. My bedtime was eight o’clock; I went to sleep and woke up when it was light out. We had no air conditioning, and my mother thought a fan blowing in my room at night would make me sick. As far as I knew – at least until Chet took that job – summer was just one long, variably hot, variably bright, day.
To me, then, it was a grand adventure when – in the middle of the chill, black night – we’d climb into the car and drive forever along winding country roads.
I was encouraged to lay down in the back seat and fall asleep. I never did. Instead, I watched the trees and the starry sky pass by my open window while the adults talked, argued, played the radio and drank beer.
Eventually, the smooth pavement would give way to crunchy gravel, and a few minutes later, we’d pull into an empty dirt parking lot, lit only by moonlight and a string of yellow bulbs that edged an awning over the back door. On the awning, there was a cartoon image of a winking vulpine face and the words: The Red Fox.
After Chet unlocked the door and flipped on a bank of light switches, my job was to look for lost change. I crawled under every table, and dug in the crevices of every booth and chair. If I found nickles or dimes, I could use them to play the jukebox, but any other money had to be put into a glass my mother set out for me to fill. Meanwhile, the adults would roll up the big mats from the entryways and the area behind the bar, drag them outside, hang them over a rickety fence and hose them off. While the mats dried, my parents would wipe down the bar and tables, sweep, vacuum, and mop.
Once the floor was wet, I had to sit in a booth with my feet tucked under me. Usually, they would give me a bag of pork rinds, a candy bar, or a cute little glass (a shot glass, of course) full of cherries or filberts to snack on while I waited for the floor to lose its shiny streaks.
Occasionally, when all the work was done, my step-dad would go behind the bar and mix a cocktail for each of us. (Mine was a Roy Rogers … NOT a Shirley Temple.) Then he would climb onto the stage – where I was usually forbidden to go – wend his way through the maze of mic stands, amplifiers and drums, and turn on the power to one microphone. He’d show me a space where I could be, (not close to any of the instruments) hand me the mic, and make me promise to sing real songs … not kid stuff.
I did a mean Tanya Tucker.
Then it would be time to go for another long ride through the night. We never used the exact same route to return home. My mother, who didn’t have her license, enjoyed going for rides and my stepfather would indulge her after the work was done. Sometimes we’d cruise to, and through, a nearby town where the stoplights blinked. Most often, though, we’d take a slow, winding tour through an area with several small lakes and ponds.
It was on one of those nights that I saw a creature that looked something like this:
It was crouched high in a half-dead oak tree that stood on the bank of a pond. The moon was full, or close to it, and the wind was still. I had enough time to see the creature, look for its reflection in the polished mirror of water beneath it, then look back up to confirm what I was seeing. I suppose I was wondering if it was a weirdly contorted part of the tree itself.
Then the damn thing moved. At first I thought it was going to dive into the pond, but then I realized it was just turning away from the road. As we swept past it, I twisted around in my seat to keep it in sight. I swear, its eyes flared red in our taillights. Then I saw it had wings folded down its back.
Now here’s the thing: I wasn’t scared. Just that week I’d met my first salamander and – until the day I found one under a rock – I’d had no idea such a thing existed. Every month I received a packet of Safari Wildlife Cards in the mail, which I could then sort and file into a red plastic tray. Each card detailed the characteristics of an animal species. I devoured the information on those cards. Every month, there were animals in the deck that I’d never heard of and that seemed hardly possible. The variety of animal species that populated the world was astonishing to me.
(Weird kid, I know. Keep in mind, that I was raised on hobby farms – and I studied a wide variety of domestic and exotic animals daily. I think, maybe, I was destined to be a wildlife biologist, until the writing bug bit me.)
When I saw the creature in the tree, I knew I needed to note as many identifying details as possible.
I estimated it to be about the size of a large dog or a small goat, though the shape was wrong. It was holding itself in a hunched, compact, almost huddled position. It had arms and legs shaped like those of a monkey or lemur, but much thicker and bulkier. (The glow in the creature’s eyes tilted me toward a lemur of some kind – I’d just received my first lemur card and I’d been struck by its red eyes.) A primate of some sort seemed most likely, but I was puzzled because its body didn’t look furry, but rather rough and scaly, like an alligator. When I caught a glimpse of the wings, I thought they looked like a bat’s.
Of course, I tried to tell Mom and Chet I’d seen something, but when I described it they chuckled and refused to go back and look for it.
I thought of the creature often in the following years. As I learned more about animals, I came to realize such a thing couldn’t exist within the animal kingdom as I understood it. Then, when I was 11 or 12, I started to come across accounts of cryptids like the Jersey Devil and Springheel Jack. There were similarities but the encounters didn’t seem right. I got excited about Mothman for a while, but that description was really off when I dug into it.
Honestly it wasn’t until I saw a book on the clearance table at Barnes & Nobel that I saw anything that looked right.
So. Do I think it was a gargoyle? No, not if you mean as in the popular 90’s cartoon. (Though I do sometimes wonder what those medieval carvings were based on.)
Was it Springheel Jack, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, the Devon Devil, the Phantom of Flatwoods, the Jersey Devil, the Hopkinsville Goblins, or Mothman? I have no idea. If you read the wikis on the obscure cryptids I’ve listed, you’ll see there’s always an expert who comes forward to explain such sightings away by saying that some semi-literate yahoo just mistook an owl for a monster.
I may have only been eight or nine, but I was literate and precociously familiar with biology. Most importantly, I think, I was unbiased as only a child can be when it comes to the difference between “real” and “imaginary” animals. What I can tell you is this: I saw something alive that night, and it was not an owl.