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The (Mostly) Unseen World of Cryptids: Legendary Monsters in North America

Department of English Language and Literature, Bronx Community College of the City University of New York, Bronx, NY 10453, USA
Humanities 2024, 13(1), 1;
Submission received: 24 August 2023 / Revised: 29 November 2023 / Accepted: 15 December 2023 / Published: 19 December 2023
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Seen and Unseen: The Folklore of Secrecy)


North America is steeped in legends of cryptids, (mostly) unseen creatures woven into the fabric of its folklore. From legends told by early explorers to contemporary legends told today, these enigmatic beings shape societal perceptions and reflect communal anxieties. Monsters have long fascinated scholars, from ancient luminaries such as Pliny the Elder to modern researchers in “monster theory”. Plodding along diligently since before monster studies became a formalized thematic field, folklorists remain hot on the trail of these secretive creatures and their hidden cultural meanings. Through a conceptual exploration of North American cryptids, this essay seeks to bridge the gap between the unseen and the seen, spotlighting the significant role of legendary monsters in community narratives and urging a resurgence in their academic exploration.

1. Introduction

North Americans harbor legends of secretive monsters or “cryptids” that lurk across their vast landscape, often unseen yet deeply felt. These creatures, hidden in plain sight, form an essential part of the continent’s mystery, with legends of their existence often preceding personal contact. During the Age of Discovery, explorers such as Columbus and Magellan told of encounters with unknown beings, creating an aura of secrecy and wonder around the New World. This unseen, misunderstood realm, in turn, led some Europeans to perceive native inhabitants as monstrous themselves, a perception that justified their conquest and subjugation. As the continent revealed itself, legends of creatures such as mermaids, sea serpents, and wildmen arose. Later legends, such as those of the Mothman and the Chupacabra, became symbols of hidden fears and anxieties within communities. While the study of monsters has deep roots, with scholars as ancient as Pliny the Elder hinting at their unseen, mysterious nature, modern “monster theory” delves deep into these creatures’ roles in shaping societal perceptions.
The realm of monster studies is a journey into the unseen, delving into the shrouded representations of monsters that span from ancient myth to contemporary fiction. Throughout world folklore, monsters stand as guardians to secrets and as beings obscured in shadows in myth, legend, and folklore, including the Minotaur in his Labyrinth, the riddle-posing Sphinx of Thebes, gold-hoarding dragons, and the triple-headed Cerberus guarding the entrance to the Underworld. Always sensitive to local legends hidden in the shadows, folklorists have long probed the enigma of monsters, seeking to uncover the secrets of these figures and their reflection of human fears and desires. Legendary monsters offer a glimpse into the layered psychological secrets within communities, emphasizing the close bond between monsters, the unseen, and a community’s collective group identity.
Before monster studies crystallized into a thematic field, folklorists were already peeling back layers of mystery, deciphering cryptic legends woven around mysterious creatures. The Motif-Index of Folk Literature, for example, includes the building blocks of many a shadowy being (Thompson 1955–1958). These include mythical animals such as the Phoenix (B32), magic animals with treasure-seeking abilities or profound wisdom (B100-169), various transformations such as werewolves (D0-699), marvelous entities such as Thumbling (F535.1), and diverse kinds of ogres (G10-599) and witches (G200-299).
Since folkloristic’s dawn, these legendary beasts, cloaked in mystery but pivotal in community narratives, have beckoned for folklorists’ attention. While in-depth folkloristic examinations of American legendary monsters or cryptids might be scant, a closer examination reveals their conceptual significance as one part of unseen American folklore. This essay casts an eye to those murky corners in an attempt to reveal the importance of legends of purported living creatures bound to specific locales, such as the Grassman inhabiting Ohio’s dense forests, the Fouke Monster lurking in Arkansas’s swamplands, or the Skunk Ape skulking through Florida’s marshes, as opposed to ethereal ghosts and spirits that haunt historic buildings and tourist towns, such as the eerie specters of Alcatraz Island, the restless souls at the Tower of London, or the lingering apparitions of Gettysburg battlefields. While some may dismiss monster topics as unworthy of study, their cryptic allure draws an eclectic band of scholars, including folklorists, who seek to unravel the arcane community-based monster narratives.
In analyzing this understudied thematic field, this study aims to make the unseen seen and spark a renaissance in scholarly legendary monster exploration. Legendary monsters, serving as mirrors to environmental anxieties, perceptions of otherness, commercial motivations, and regional identity, have evolved in their representation over time. This study aims to demystify these enigmatic creatures, examining their pivotal role in expressing societal dynamics and advocating for a renewed academic interest in their significance.

2. When Folklorists Find Monsters

While legendary monsters or “cryptids” frequently parade in modern media, their origins often remain hidden in the unseen depths of world legendry. The terrifying creatures in literature and film often harken back to monster legends passed down through generations. These legends, though mysterious, pulsate with life, undergoing continual metamorphoses within the communities that host them. Monsters, oscillating between the realms of threat and entertainment, inhabit not only myths and folktales but also literature and films, including frightening creatures such as the Hydra, the Big Bad Wolf, Dracula, and Godzilla. Each media portrayal is influenced by legend and, in turn, reshapes the legend. The folklorist’s goal is to cast a lantern’s light on those creatures that most lurk in the dark periphery of our understanding: legendary monsters such as Loveland Frogmen, Ohio’s creepy bipedal amphibians; Tessie, Lake Tahoe’s own watery denizen; and Wisconsin’s Beast of Bray Road, an enigmatic fur-covered nightmare on two legs. Folklorists discern in these secretive legends, preserved by local communities, intricate yet obscured windows into collective values, worldviews, and the covert facets of daily life. Endeavoring to illuminate the oft-neglected folkloristic dimension to monster studies—a realm where the voices of folklorists are still but whispers—this essay hopes to shift that lens. Instead of delving into famed literary behemoths such as Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula, it encourages those of a folkloristic persuasion to seek out the local roots of traditional monsters, probing the delicate interplay between media and the shrouded legends from which they emerge.
In 2014, Yasmine Musharbash revealed a hidden gap between anthropology and monster studies, sensing a myopic focus of the latter on popular media and its monsters (Musharbash 2014). Anthropologists, she argued, held the disciplinary skills to expand the domain with secrets from realms beyond the West. Folklorists were also equipped to aid this ethnographic endeavor. The close kinship of folklore and anthropology, though distinguishable, tells a shared family tale of cryptid legends. Adept in deciphering the unseen layers of narratives, folklorists can assist anthropologists in journeying down untrod paths in monster studies. While anthropologists hunt the hidden monsters of the non-Western shadows, folklorists draw out creatures that have lurked unnoticed in our very backyards. As a starting point, folklorists often recollect personal monster legends and relics from their childhood’s hidden corners (e.g., Bronner 2019; Seemann 1981; Leary 1973). Folkloristic methodologies unmask rich, varied monster traditions, revealing the dynamic shifts in perceptions as monsters scurry across times and terrains. In delving into the unseen, folklorists lend an ethnographic lens to monster studies, charting the spectral pathways of monsters in congruence with their era and environment. On the flip side, monster studies offer folklorists a deeper dive into the cryptic definitions and constructions of these creatures. While certain folkloristic compositions verge on “all-fieldwork, no-analysis”, the “monster studies” mantle unfurls broader, interdisciplinary theories and cross-cultural revelations. This interdisciplinary collaboration illuminates the hidden, benefiting both realms immeasurably.

3. Between Vision and Belief

Tackling the enigma of the term “monster” plunges researchers into a world where the seen meets the unseen. This realm of obscurity defies easy definitions, urging many scholars to forgo the quest and instead embrace the many cultural insights these elusive creatures provide. Monster philosophers such as Stephen T. Asma (2009) and Peter Dendle (2013) acknowledge this intricate interplay with the unseen, accepting the term’s inherent ambiguity. W. Scott Poole (2011) and Michael Dylan Foster (2015) prefer to embrace expansive, open-ended definitions, while Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (2020) sees monsters as the embodiment of that which remains cryptically undefined. Occasionally, the term takes on a metaphorical guise, encompassing vast or non-normative ideas, further blurring the boundaries between the known and the unknown. This study embarks on an expedition to decipher the concealed definition of the synonymous terms “legendary monster” or “cryptid”, challenging though it might be. The journey will traverse the labyrinth of past definitions, critique their depths, and dare to propagate a new, albeit tentative, interpretation borne from the arcane understandings of critics.
The quest to define legendary monsters often feels like navigating through a mist, with interpretations varying as one moves between disciplines. Foster glimpses them as “weird or mysterious creatures” (Foster 2015, p. 5) and embodiments of the unknown, while Marjorie Halpin perceives them as beings acknowledged in the whispered tales of humans yet eluding the clinical eye of natural science (Halpin 1980, p. 5). Carpenter, keen on shedding perceptions of negativity, opts for “extraordinary beings” (Carpenter 1980, p. 107). Richard M. Dorson, in crafting a framework for the American legendary monsters, delves into their obscured presence in oral tradition, their enigmatic dualities, and their cryptic traits (Dorson 1982, pp. 12–14). These myriad definitions, such as fragmented shards of a mirror, reflect the complex roles monsters play in the collective psyche. As we grapple with the challenge of definition, perhaps Foster’s approach, focusing on illustrative examples and overarching tendencies (Foster 2015, p. 8), or Dendle’s historical excavation (Dendle 2013, pp. 438–39), might guide us closer to the heart of the mystery. In our quest to define legendary monsters, we must wade through the blurred lines between what is real and imagined, believed and dismissed, to unveil the very essence of these beings.

4. Obscured Realities

Monsters, whether lurking in the shadows of our imagination or concealed within the boundaries of reality, epitomize the interplay of the seen and unseen. It is tempting to dismiss monsters as mere products of horror-tinted imaginations, as Asa Simon Mittman suggests, considering them mere phantasms (Mittman 2013, pp. 4–5). Scholars such as David Gilmore relegate them to the realm of supernatural figments (Gilmore 2003, p. 6), while Jacqueline Woolley forthrightly dismisses their existence (Woolley 1999, p. 440). Michael Ames and Marjorie Halpin tread carefully, noting the scientific invisibility of human-like monsters (Ames and Halpin 1980, p. xiii). However, what if the lines between folklore, anthropology, and reality are not so clear? Dendle ponders on the nature of the monster, suggesting its identity is bound to its elusiveness (Dendle 2013). In a world where the unseen slowly morphs into the seen, a mere hiker’s tale of an unfamiliar entity could straddle the liminal space between a legendary monster and a real yet unknown creature.
Our understanding of monsters stretches and molds itself. Rare creatures, be it a hairless bear or a swift black mamba, can instill the same terror and awe that legendary beasts of old once did. Dendle posits that the true essence of the monstrous is not just in its form but in the shivers of the vulnerability it invokes (Dendle 2013). However, over time, these once-feared beings may emerge from the depths of obscurity to be recognized as familiar parts of our world, as gorillas, opossums, and even giant squids have. Musharbash probes the ever-shifting nature of the term “monster”, suggesting the definition is as elusive as the wind, constantly reshaping itself in response to changing beliefs (Musharbash 2014, p. 5). In this ever-evolving process, Jeannie Banks Thomas highlights the folklorist’s approach of embracing fluidity over rigid definitions, prioritizing collective perceptions (Thomas 2015, p. 18). Echoing this sentiment, Dendle expresses reluctance to consign monsters merely to fiction, alluding to their mysterious past (Dendle 2013, p. 442). He muses that monsters, in all their enigmatic glory, forever hover on the periphery of our understanding, holding court in the murky zone between the familiar and the hidden.
In folkloristics, an evolution has occurred: a transition from considering folklore as a concrete artifact to recognizing it as a fluid shadow play, oscillating between the tangible and the ethereal. Monsters, the envoys of the unseen, are no exception to this paradigm shift. Rather than etching them in stone, modern discourse emphasizes the act of “monsterizing”, through which we craft the unknown (Weinstock 2020, pp. 39–44). Monsters, it appears, are not the age-old ghouls we imagined but projections born out of our cultural secrets, fears, and power dynamics. In this liminal space, folklorists bring forth an invaluable perspective. Echoing the transformative winds of the 1960s and 1970s, folklore’s very essence metamorphosed from a static text to an ever-evolving process—and so should our understanding of monsters, not as fixed beings but as enigmatic beings reshaped by whispered legends around metaphorical communal campfires. Rather than accepting the monster as a given, folklorists decode the processes sculpting these creatures from the hidden recesses of our psyche. By unraveling the act of “monsterizing”, they journey into the heart of what we secretly fear and revere, favoring the hushed whispers of everyday legend over the glaring spotlight of mainstream monster portrayals.
When faced with the age-old question, “Are monsters real?”, we must first tread into the gray zone of what constitutes a “monster”. Consider the opossum or the mystical tanuki from Japanese tales—both real and yet once branded as creatures of the dark unknown (see Foster 2015, pp. 186–93). Should “monster” be simply a label for purely fictional beings, they will, of course, remain unseen. However, if “monster” is a tag for the misunderstood hidden in plain sight, then indeed, monsters roam among us. Thus, in the haunting dance with legendary monsters, we must embrace ambiguity, avoiding the binaries of real and imaginary.

5. Between Sight and Certainty

At the heart of whispered legends and hidden secrets lies the beating pulse of belief. Woven from the threads of legend, monsters are more than myths; they inhabit the liminal space between the seen and unseen. Some argue that the essence of such legends resides in belief itself, while scholars such as Mittman contend that it is not the creature’s existence but its shadow of possibility that casts darkness upon our psyche (Mittman 2013). It is not the reality of the monster that matters but the tingle of its potential presence, setting it apart from tales told merely for entertainment. In times past, belief in cryptids was viewed through the lens of naivety. Eminent folklorists such as Louis C. Jones wore his skepticism armor (Jones [1959] 1983, p. vi), while Michael Meurger perceived the tales as mirrors reflecting misunderstood experiences (Meurger 1989). Bacil Kirtley posited that the human mind, lost in the mists of experience, would retreat to age-old myths (Kirtley 1964). However, these explanations, fading with time, no longer hold the allure for today’s seekers. In all fairness, even past thinkers, such as Andrew Lang, long dismissed frail explanations and thirsted for deeper wells of understanding of the supernatural (Lang 1894).
Treading softly through ancient lore and hidden legends, folklorists gift the realm of monster studies with a perspective drenched in nuance. Legends are not just folktales; they shimmer with “potential fact”, resonating with possibility. Anthropologists, cousins to folklorists, traverse the labyrinth of belief through cultural lenses, favoring the communal story over scientific evidence and perceiving reports of legendary beasts as plausible texts. What distinguishes the legendary monster from its popular kin is the collective whisper of its traits and its hinted existence in the hidden corners of our world. Here, folklorist David Hufford’s perspective emerges, emphasizing a deeper look at the concept of belief in general (e.g., see Hufford 1977, 1982, 1995). While some scholars may distance themselves from belief to protect their scholarly credibility, others, such as Hufford, encourage an “experience-centered” journey, where the lines between belief and experience blur (Hufford 1995). This path suggests that folk beliefs are not flights of fancy but are grounded interpretations of moments rationally lived and felt.
In the realm of human belief, against a backdrop of scientific strides, a perhaps startling narrative arises—the undying belief in monsters among the general public. While many surmised that the torch of science would cast away the shadows of legendary beasts, these creatures continue to lurk in the recesses of our collective psyche. Folklore scholars such as Karl Bell (2019) and Jeannie Banks Thomas (2015) emphasize an intriguing truth—technology’s gleam has not dimmed the allure of the supernatural. Instead, as Diane Goldstein posits (Goldstein 2007), this dance between the known and the unknown might just be the rhythm of our world, a sentiment echoed and fortified by Dendle’s meticulous data scrutiny. In a 2005 Baylor University survey, Dendle unearthed a curious discovery: almost half of those queried thought cryptids such as Bigfoot would one day be discovered (Dendle 2013). Contrary to the expectation that technological advancements would silence monster lore, belief in these enigmatic beings not only thrives but may be fueled by the very tools of modernity, for instance, enthusiasts using drones to hunt for cryptids, internet forums and social media groups allowing for the rapid spread of sightings and theories, digital enhancements of grainy footage lending credence to dubious evidence, and smartphone apps aggregating and mapping purported encounters in real-time. The digital age, with its serpentine networks and dots-per-inch, serves as a breeding ground for legends of terror and wonder. Far from relegating monsters to forgotten history, technology might have breathed new life into them, sculpting digital dragons and cyber chimeras (e.g., see Peck 2015).
Venturing into this mysterious world, I suggest we cast our net wide, defining “legendary monster” as a strange, frightening, or unusual human or creature, real or imaginary, believed or not believed, that is, at the time of the telling, purported but not scientifically verified to exist in our world (see Puglia 2022b, pp. 7–16). Often depicted as misshapen humans, beastly creatures, or eerie hybrids, the term “legendary monster”, while lacking a universal definition, serves here as a vessel to encompass the spectrum of scholarly dialogue. The shades of interpretation may vary among researchers, but the undercurrent remains—the persistent and pervasive appearance of the monstrous in the modern world.

6. North America’s Hidden Legendary Monsters

Regardless of personal beliefs, we can acknowledge we live enveloped by the enigmatic world of legendary monsters. These creatures emerge from the whispers of contemporary legends, tales that teeter on the tightrope between plausibility and fantasy. They do not demand our unwavering belief but gently stir our imagination, thriving in the fog between what is real and what is imagined. The landscape of legends is not black and white; it is painted with shades of gray, where H.P. Lovecraft’s overtly fictional Cthulhu can command a following, and where creatures such as the gorilla, once relegated to legendary status, are now caged in zoos and grace the pages of biology textbooks.
Legends are masterfully tuned, striking chords that harmonize with the listener’s surroundings and societal pulse. The storyteller’s recounting of chilling, first-hand confrontations with eerie beings is music to a folklorist’s ears, signaling a legendary monster tune. Indeed, these creatures find their niche within folklore studies. As time passes, recent years have spotlighted “contemporary legends”, mirroring the rhythm of our modern-day worries and wonders. While some label these tales as “urban myths” or “urban legends”, the folklore community fondly christens them as “contemporary legends”. From light-hearted escapades to gripping tales of nefarious figures, these legends, monster or otherwise, are a barometer of society, portraying hopes, trepidations, and deep-seated anxieties.
In North America, contemporary legend stands shoulder to shoulder with polished journalist reports, both providing news of the day. These legends captivate with tales of the extraordinary occurring amidst the mundane, proving that our age, with all its advancements, still reserves a corner for the unseen, unknown, and unexpected that touches the lives of everyday people. Contrary to their grandiose title, legendary monsters often remain in obscurity, their lore resonating more in back alleys than global avenues. In the vast theatre of folklore, these monsters do not always steal the limelight with flamboyant performances but are acknowledged simply for their very existence, characteristics, and appearance. While the silver screen and literature may paint them in bold strokes of supernatural drama, folklore often presents them in softer hues. Occasionally, to add depth to their tales, these monsters intertwine with other urban yarns, such as the “Boyfriend’s Death” or the “Vanishing Hitchhiker”, endowing them with purpose and movement.
Sorting through the historical scholarship, monsters were once synonymous with the far-off and the unknown. These enigmatic creatures whispered about in hushed tones and dwelled beyond the familiar are far removed from the daily routines of civilization. However, the tides of time have turned, and the once-remote monsters have now encroached upon our doorsteps. The exotic has become local; the monsters of yore now lurk in the very interstices of our modern societies, casting their shadowy forms on the boundaries we once thought safe. Legends of North American monsters, instead of dwelling in distant realms, have claimed specific local territories as their haunting grounds, intriguing folklorists with the (useful but false) dichotomy of migratory versus local legends. While migratory legends roam freely, shape-shifting to adapt to different terrains and cultures (see Christiansen 1958), local legends remain steadfast, rooted deeply to specific geographies, echoing the unique tales and histories of these places.
As we leaf through various folkloristic monster studies, we are offered various lenses through which to view the enigma that is a legendary monster. Though the perceptions may vary, a common thread ties them together: the uncanny and eerie nature of these creatures, bound to specific locales. The spotlight here shines predominantly on monsters that are not mere passing rumors but those firmly etched in the lore of particular regions. Names such as the Jersey Devil, the Maryland Goatman, and the West Virginia Mothman leap off local lips, inviting audiences into their regional mysteries. The journey this subject offers is not just through legends but through the very heartbeats of localities, illuminating the mysterious creatures that lurk therein.

7. What Lurks Beneath

North America’s legendary monsters are more than just eerie entities lurking in the shadows; they are reflections of our collective psyche’s intricate dance with the vast, untouched wilderness that is North America. Cryptids reside in places just beyond our reach: thick forests, deep lakes, and other territories that elude our understanding. Their very existence challenges the boundaries of science and logic, hinting at a world yet to be fully uncovered, one that holds mysteries beyond the grasp of empirical knowledge. Legendary monsters are a testament to humanity’s undying spirit of adventure and the age-old thirst for discovery in the face of the unknown.
For folklorists, legends are not mere tales spun around campfires; they are crucial narratives that encapsulate societal sentiments, often brushed off by mainstream academia. Monsters, particularly, face the arduous challenge of breaking free from the shackles of perceived triviality (Sutton-Smith 1970). In an age where information can both illuminate and obscure, what resonates with our beliefs and seems plausible can profoundly shape our actions, almost akin to undeniable truths. The modern age paints a gallery of figurative monsters too—terrorists, criminals, and shadowy figures that embody society’s deepest fears. The allure of legendary monsters goes beyond their spectral existence; it is the raw emotions, perspectives, and insights they draw out from communities that make them truly captivating. Far from mere tales to scare or entertain, these legends act as societal barometers, reflecting our collective hopes, fears, and evolving dynamics. Their origins, often rooted in honestly reported encounters, provide avenues for communities to grapple with and articulate their deepest uncertainties, revealing intricate facets of the human soul and the myriad forces shaping it.
Despite their significance, the study of these legendary monsters remains a path less traveled, typically reserved for dedicated aficionados, enthusiasts, and a handful of researchers. However, there is also a dim yet brightening scholarly spotlight on these enigmatic beings, underlining their persistent resonance in contemporary society. A recurrent narrative uniting monster studies is the role of legendary monsters in channeling, articulating, and engaging with our dormant fears and debates. These creatures often personify our collective anxieties stemming from societal changes, environmental upheavals, or encounters with the unknown that challenge our established frameworks and identities. In their legends and lore, they bring to the fore cultural frictions, spotlight moments of societal dissonance, and highlight perplexing contradictions inherent to life. Delving into these narratives offers a profound exploration of North American cultural terrains, communal anxieties, and intricate societal interplays. A consensus among scholars is that these monsters encapsulate larger societal and psychological narratives, intertwining with diverse areas such as history, literature, religion, and the multifaceted debates surrounding cultural and regional identities.
In the realm of monsters and the supernatural, the true detriment is not merely the challenge of their existence but the unseen cycles perpetuated by academia’s reluctance to embrace them. Gillian Bennett’s (1987) analysis describes the tragic spiral: the unseen biases of the academic realm discourage genuine exploration, further pushing these subjects into the shadows. This dearth of academic inquiry masks the topic in misinformation and potentially erases significant findings. This perpetuates the belief that these tales are merely the seen fabrications of popular culture rather than the unseen hiding in plain sight. The role of folklorists is not just to explore but to unveil and spotlight the unseen intricacies of such subjects. The hidden depths of legendary monsters, though eluding the mainstream, contain significant cultural and societal revelations. A dive into these obscured legends is more than academic curiosity; it is a quest to uncover the cultural impulse shaping and reflecting our society’s beliefs and identity.
In the realm of folklore, the line between the visible and the hidden is ever-blurred, especially in the sphere of legendary monsters. Current folklorists, diving into the obscured depths of beliefs, identify monsters not as mere fabrications but as veiled truths derived from rational observations. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen underscores the significance of pondering the monster’s existence, suggesting the monster’s very nature might harbor important insights (Cohen 2013, p. 452). Bill Ellis, introducing the “Rumpelstiltskin Principle”, reveals an intriguing facet: these monstrous tales might be linguistic bridges to those unseen, mystic experiences on the fringes of reality (Ellis 2003, p. 63). Ellis and Foster (2015, p. 93) argue that the act of naming these beings, pulling them from the shadows, allows for a connection to phenomena that would otherwise remain obscured. This revelation, therefore, is not just a mere categorization but a communal tool to disclose, process, and relay shared clandestine anxieties.
However, this unmasking of secrets is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Some postulate a hidden truth at the core of monster legends. Bernard Heuvelmans (1958) delves deeper, suggesting that beneath the fabrications, a trace of facts might linger. Meanwhile, Gilmore ventures into the enigma of the human psyche (Gilmore 2003), whereas Loren Coleman (2007, pp. 287–88) paints a picture of monsters as manifestations of society’s concealed collective psyche. Ames (1980) discerns two primary chambers where monster legends might originate: the psychological dimension suggests they are mirrors reflecting our private, unseen anxieties, while the structural perspective offers a more tangible secret: the existence of beings eluding traditional classifications, lingering in the spaces between the known and unknown.
Within the obscured recesses of folklore, monsters emerge as embodiments of secrets, symbols that resist easy categorization and challenge the established boundaries of knowledge. Cohen delves into the enigma of these beings, suggesting they represent things both seen and unseen, often standing at the brink of esoteric truths (Cohen 2013, p. 452; 1996, p. 6). Anthropological insights from Mary Douglas and Victor Turner pull the veil further back. Douglas perceives monsters as creatures hidden within cultural classifications, stirring mysteries within the established cosmic order (Douglas 1966). Aligning with this view, Cohen (1996, p. 13) elaborates on monsters as manifestations of concealed boundaries, truths that are not readily revealed to all.
Joseph Campbell ([1988] 1991, p. 278) paints legendary monsters as silent disruptors of societal norms, covert agents that sway between the visible and the invisible. Turner’s analysis (Turner 1969) sheds light on their secretive nature by focusing on their liminality, emphasizing their ties to those fleeting moments and spaces that often elude common understanding. Folklorists attest to this, noting the shrouded emergence of these creatures in borderlands or during liminal moments, times, and places that resonate with the themes of secrecy and revelation. By their very essence, monsters possess dualities, often merging human and animal traits, suggesting a secret blending of realms. This is echoed in Foster’s portrayal (Foster 2015, p. 87) and further supported by Claude Lévi-Strauss and Gilmore, who visualize monsters as intricate mosaics, interweaving elements hidden and revealed (Lévi-Strauss 1962, p. 11; Gilmore 2003, p. 21). To decode them is to navigate a labyrinth of classification, where each step unveils yet another layer of secrecy.
The human experience with monsters delves into a realm of the obscured, swaying between overt manifestations of fear and covert fascinations. Central to this dynamic is the duality of emotions they evoke. Looking through the lens of the unseen, Cohen sees monsters hiding deeper truths within this apparent contradiction (Cohen 1996). Gilmore (2003, p. ix) speaks of monsters as whispered enigmas, eliciting a mingling of horror and hushed reverence, while Asma (2009, p. 6) alludes to the hidden allure that monsters possess amidst their overtly terrifying presence. Explorations into the secret dualities of monsters bring forth notions of them being both outwardly horrifying and subtly endearing (Brzozowksa-Brywczyńska 2007). Stewart (1982, p. 42) unravels their mystery further, suggesting monsters oscillate between the familiar and the unseen opposites. In essence, monsters serve as clandestine liaisons between our visible fears and the obscured affinities we might hold for them.
Diving deeper into the lore of secrecy, legendary monsters prove to be keepers of covert cultural symbols. Thomas proposes that these beings guard secrets of cultural values and tensions (Thomas 2007, p. 31), while Dendle (2007) suggests they are silent indicators of hushed societal distress. Rupert Stasch connects them to anthropology’s unseen depths (Stasch 2014, p. 196), Judith Halberstam to veiled meanings (Halberstam 1995, p. 22), and Cohen hints at their significant ties to specific cultural epochs (Cohen 1996, p. 4). These monsters, though overt in their appearance, remain shrouded in mystery, understood fully only by the initiated few. Gilmore (2003, p. 1) sees them as hidden sanctuaries for humanity’s deepest fears, while Asma (2009, p. 283) believes they reflect not just the explicit horrors of an era but also the unseen anxieties lurking within. Halpin’s analysis suggests that the universality of monsters hints at a veiled yet crucial role they play (Halpin 1980, pp. 10–11). Central to their existence are secrets of societal tensions, the hidden facets of identity, and the interplay between our visible world and the unseen.

8. Eco-Cryptids

In the concealed folds of society’s narratives, monsters emerge as cryptic symbols, embodying fears of the unknown. In study after study, these creatures appear not just from unseen terrains such as mysterious forests but also from the anxieties around societal non-conformity. Of those legendary monsters highlighted in the North American Monsters casebook (Puglia 2022a), for example, many monsters revealed ecological secrets: Leary’s Boondock Monster whispers environmental truths (Leary 1973); Ashton’s Webber subtly hints at covert power struggles over land (Ashton 2001); Elizabeth Tucker’s Lieby cryptically addresses pollution (Tucker 2004); Puglia’s Goatman silently speaks of hidden crime anxieties (Puglia 2013, 2019); Torrez’s Donkey Lady showcases the silent societal judgments against independent women (Torrez 2016); while Radford’s chupacabra uncovers the buried tales of colonialism (Radford 2011).
Monsters become vessels of covert environmental discourse, mirroring the hidden cultural landscapes. As noted by Thomas (2015, p. 14), they serve as subtle communicators of cultural, political, and environmental dialectics, hinting at obscured community concerns. Legends such as these, while overt in their narrative, are deeply shrouded in the meanings they convey. Ames points out that these cryptids often dwell in areas that are either untouched by human hands or, conversely, threatened by them (Ames 1980, p. 301). These habitats serve as discreet reflections of society’s internal dynamics with nature.
Looking at urban landscapes, Bell sees monsters as symbols of unspoken anxieties, revealing the unseen feelings of societal disempowerment arising from environmental issues (Bell 2019, p. 18). On the other hand, in rural backdrops such as Canada, Carpenter perceives monsters as the quiet voice narrating the awe and vulnerability people feel towards nature’s concealed might (Carpenter 1980, p. 106). These creatures, in their liminal existence, bridge the seen world with its unseen emotions, societal pressures, and hidden narratives.

9. Monsters on the Margins

In legend, monsters covertly mirror society’s nuanced understandings of social distinctions such as race, class, gender, and disability. While overtly monstrous, they harbor hidden truths about societal prejudices, subtly revealing underlying biases, especially those rooted in ableism. Cohen points to monsters as representations of the “unseen differences”, concealed challenges to accepted societal norms (Cohen 1996, p. 20), and Musharbash elaborates on how these enigmatic entities, though visible in tales, defy clear categorizations, revealing concealed cultural norms of societies (Musharbash 2014, p. 11). The evolution of monsters reveals our shifting, sometimes cryptic perspectives on humanity, inclusion, and alienation.
Through these creatures, societies covertly manifest ideas of “otherness”, which might be seen but not openly discussed. John Friedman uncovers how hidden cultural biases have historically marked certain races as “monstrous” based on subtle differences such as diet or customs (Friedman 2000, p. 26). Diving deeper into these obscured waters, Tucker underscores the role of the supernatural in subtly spotlighting marginalized groups, bringing narratives of the marginalized to the fore (Tucker 2007, p. 11). Claudia Schwabe captures the modern wave, where folklore’s monsters are being vigorously reimagined, not just to terrify but to promote a call for acceptance and diversity (Schwabe 2019). To truly grasp the essence of monsters is to delve into the unseen layers of society’s construction of “otherness”.

10. Monetizing Monsters

In the enigmatic realm of legend, monsters possess a golden allure, lying beneath their surface as vessels of hidden commercial potential. Halpin unveils the covert side of monsters, where their mystery translates into marketable symbols, increasingly hidden in plain sight amidst commercial ventures (Halpin 1980, p. 22). Dendle sheds light on the obscured practice of transforming monsters into commodities, silently adapting them into mainstream entertainment, often beyond the public eye (Dendle 2013, p. 438). Jason Harris reveals how St. Augustine’s supernatural lore, commercialized yet esoteric, taps into our modern draw to the unseen that can be revealed only by a select few (Harris 2015). However, Foster cautions against this shadowy commercialization, which might silently strip these creatures of their intrinsic folklore essence, rendering them mere items for sale (Foster 2015, p. 79).
The notorious narrative of exploiters disguising themselves, fooling the unwary—much like the masked villains in Scooby-Doo—underscores the unseen manipulation of legend for profit. While major corporations harness the allure of monsters in global blockbusters, communities too, in their quiet corners, secretly leverage their unique legends. The legends of the Mothman of Point Pleasant or Rhinelander’s Hodag, though rooted in local lore, have, for example, morphed into lucrative ventures, from merchandise to tours to media.
The American entrepreneurial spirit, often operating behind the curtains, has adeptly transformed these creatures. Behind t-shirts, concealed within statues, or at the bottom of a cryptid-themed cocktail lies the unseen influence of a monster legend. While some argue that this commercial shift might cheapen the original spirit of these legends, it is also a testament to the nation’s entrepreneurial acumen. Amplified by media influences, legends once whispered about in regional enclaves now echo across vast territories, such as the Hodag, with its reptilian spikes and fierce visage from Wisconsin woods; Sharlie, the secretive sea serpent lurking in Idaho’s Lake Payette; and the Jersey Devil, with its chilling howls and winged silhouette in the Pine Barrens.
Often unacknowledged or underappreciated for its role in monster dissemination, local media not only disseminates these legends but becomes an oft-unacknowledged part of the narrative. Moreover, behind the legends of some monsters lie the concealed motivations of hoaxes and exaggerations steered by commercial interests. In addition, as local legends fade into obscurity, the powerful yet hidden hand of popular culture stealthily shapes and perpetuates monster legends. In this play between the seen and unseen, folklorists trace the creatures’ journey from whispered folkloric roots to the overt glare of mainstream media.

11. Cryptic Pride

Within American legend, some legendary monsters lurk in the shadows, evoking fear, while others scurry in the daylight, inciting playfulness and laughter. Alan Dundes dives deep into the concealed psyche of the nation, suggesting that Americans, ever vigilant, have a penchant for mastering the vast unknown territories of their environment (Dundes 1982). The wit and exaggeration in monster legends subtly reflect the nation’s unique storytelling style. Dorson delves into the obscured legendary monster history, positing that the nation’s youthful spirit quietly birthed whimsical monsters, setting them apart from Europe’s more overtly terrifying legends (Dorson 1982). Dundes uncovers an underlying “inferiority complex”, revealing America’s desire to differentiate its lore from European narratives (Dundes 1985). These creatures, while initially feared in hushed tones, have been embraced and celebrated in modern times, emerging as local symbols that evoke regional identity and rootedness.
Often overlooked, monsters are integral in sculpting regional identities. Even as they silently emanate from societal fears, they also stand as guardians of tradition and heritage, their significance often hidden from the uninitiated eye. For example, in mysterious corners of Japan, monsters (or yokai) are symbols closely tied to tradition, history, and the heart of the community. They evoke not just hushed fears but also profound pride, acting as vessels for hidden heritage and covert commercial prospects (Foster 2013, p. 141). Monsters, in essence, are modest keystones of Japan’s identity, representing a less publicized aspect of its heritage. In a similar vein, the Jersey Devil, once whispered in local legends, has now burst forth from the shadows, becoming emblematic of New Jersey and even serving as the mascot for its NHL team, representing a fusion of the overt and covert. Thus, legendary monsters serve as significant anchors in the quiet depths of local culture and tradition.

12. Charting the Uncharted

The North American landscape teems with the legends of rarely seen monsters, each region or town hiding its own secrets and unique creatures within its bounds. While locals might whisper about their region’s cryptic inhabitants, there is a host of such unseen legends shrouded across the continent. North America’s collective tendency to imagine monsters finds voice in various forms, silently adapting to each locality to speak of covert fears, unspoken needs, and lowkey pride. Legends traverse through the shadows, making these hidden monsters ever elusive. For instance, the statewide, popularized tale of the Jersey Devil is merely the tip of the iceberg, with its obscured counterparts lying in wait in other Jersey localities. Their widespread whispers do not diminish their gravity but amplify the pressing need to unveil them.
While many monsters wear their mysteries openly, others are subdued, making it essential to discern local shadows from overarching cultural silhouettes. Lacking the globally paraded creatures such as leprechauns or fairies, the United States has created its own pantheon of concealed legendary monsters. Some regions, for instance, may openly talk about Bigfoot’s presence, while others keep it hushed. Similarly, while lake monsters may breach waters globally, their secrets drift from lake to lake and pond to pond, from Chessie to Bessie to Tessie to Cressie. Thus, legendary monsters, emerging from the undercurrents of local history and environment, operate in a realm between the overt and the covert.
In North America, secrecy obscures many legendary monsters, presenting a unique blend different from the overt tales of Old World Europe. Europe’s monsters are many, their ancient roots penetrating the very fabric of its history. North America’s narrative, however, is a mysterious confluence of hidden Native American tales, whispered stories brought by settlers from the Old World, and newly formed legends shaped by local experiences. This intriguing interplay between what is revealed and concealed gives North American folklore an enigmatic charm distinct from Europe’s more visible monster traditions. While some creatures tread openly on the global stage, others choose to remain unseen, manifesting differently across continents. In the North American shadow, while fairies—prominent in the British Isles—prefer to remain concealed, lake monsters and wildmen are both seen and unseen, depending on where one looks. The chupacabra, emerging from the Americas’ hidden corners, remains a mystery to European lands.
Dorson pondered on this notable diffusion, suggesting that many Old World supernatural beings stay hidden, unable to cross into the New World, bound by ties to their homeland’s geography and culture. The absence of certain legendary monsters in America might be attributed to rumors that they are daunted by vast oceans or bound in unseen chains to their native lands. In North America, monsters lurk concealed within the landscape rather than emerging overtly from historic ruins. Europe reveals its legends through the “picturesque ruins” steeped in visible history and overt supernatural allure. In contrast, North America hides its tales within the “sublime wilderness”, shielding its legends in unseen pockets of the continent. Folklorists such as Paul Manning have delved into these mysteries, pointing out the cryptic nature of crafting supernatural traditions in such an uncharted expanse (Manning 2017). Nathaniel Hawthorne felt the enigma, lamenting the elusiveness of crafting tales in a territory less bristling with secrets (Hawthorne [1860] 1961).
Instead of legends illuminated by ancient ruins, North America whispers its lore from the depths of its hidden forests and lakes. It is within these covert realms that legendary monsters find their existence, emphasizing the murky spaces that bridge nature and culture. In the North American Monsters casebook (Puglia 2022a), for example, the monsters of North America dwell primarily in the mysterious wilderness. Of the nineteen legendary monsters spotlighted, a mere three can be found elsewhere: the ubiquitous vampires, drawing from deep European tales; zombies, although the secretive Caribbean might hold them within its mystical embrace; and Slender Man, emerging from the digital shadows. However, even the Slender Man hides connections to the wilderness, evidenced by a chilling real-life tale where nature’s hidden depths played host to his legend’s influence. Subtracting these three from the equation, sixteen out of nineteen monsters remain shrouded in nature, whispering their tales from the unseen forests, lakes, or shadowed groves that have cradled their stories for generations.
In the still-developing field of North American legendary monster studies, understanding the dichotomy of the visible and hidden traits of its monsters poses a challenge. At the surface, several patterns manifest: these monsters bear intrinsic connections to their environment, oscillating between the visible traits of humor and the concealed depths of horror. While they might sometimes be revered, they are rarely sacred. They straddle the divide between age-old tales whispered from one generation to the next and the overt commercial allure of modern media. Beneath the humor lies a shadowy layer of playfulness, parody, and occasional subterfuge, reminding us of the unseen facets of these beings. However, these patterns merely illuminate the surface; the heart of the American monster lies hidden in the shadows, urging deeper exploration.

13. Contemporary Cryptids and Their Collectors

Amid the labyrinth of monster literature, countless volumes offer various glimpses of monsters. In this morass, a discerning eye can decode specific genres hidden within cultural “monster studies”, cryptozoology’s enigmatic pursuit, the riddles of skeptical critique, the mysteries behind monster hunting, the codex-style encyclopedic compilations, and the scholarly tomes of science history. Legend studies act as a compass, harmoniously merging these diverse pathways.
“Monster studies” draw scholars from various fields to decipher the mystery of monsters in literature and film, unraveling the complex interplay of otherness, disability, and societal norms. Cryptozoology, sometimes cloaked in pseudo-science, passionately seeks out the elusive beasts out of the shadows. Its advocates use the historical treasures of naturalist findings as a Rosetta Stone, translating ancient beliefs into contemporary validations and challenging the encrypted messages of mainstream science. In contrast, skeptics play the role of codebreakers, demystifying the enigmatic claims of cryptozoologists and monster hunters, revealing the mundane beneath the magical. “Monster Hunter” books serve as treasure maps, laying out routes to uncover legends and sightings, enticing readers to embark on quests. Encyclopedic styles, resembling ancient codices, systematically categorize monster data. However, in doing so, they often shroud the deeper mysteries, obscuring vital cultural and psychological context. Historians of science, especially those delving into the vaults of the Scientific Revolution, act as interpreters in this grand puzzle. Early pioneers not only deciphered nature’s language but were mesmerized by its cryptic dialects, such as the rare, conjoined twins phenomenon or enigmatic species such as the duck-billed platypus. These anomalies, like hidden clues, opened gateways to understanding nature’s profound mysteries, questioning established scientific doctrines.
Navigating the complex terrain of monster studies, legend scholars chart their own distinct paths. While monster hunters tread with unwavering conviction, legend cartographers embark with the understanding that travelers—informants—honestly share their journeyed experiences. Veering away from the skeptic’s shadowy valleys, even when traversing debunked terrains, these folklorists are more drawn to the ancient routes and widespread trails of a monster legend than the bedrock of its reality. Though they may not plant their flag alongside the strict maps of cryptozoologists, who often follow the compass of life sciences, legend scholars maintain rigorous expeditionary protocols. These include precise charting of legends and in-depth evaluations by fellow explorers. Instead of seeking a global atlas of monsters, they delve into the intricate maps of localized realms. However, they still treasure guidebooks, pattern analyses, and journeys across foreign landscapes. Mirroring the curious naturalists of the Scientific Revolution and their historian successors, who were enchanted by nature’s hidden treasures, folklorists too are lured by the enigmatic tales of legendary beasts and other marvels. They interpret these legends as the common traveler’s attempt to reconcile sanctioned world maps with their own explored terrains. While many have drawn maps and debunked trails of North American monsters, the continued goal is to marry folklore’s focus on communal paths, beliefs, and adventures with diligent exploration and verified waypoints of North American legends.
This essay has attempted to delve into the folklore of the unseen world by conceptualizing legendary monsters in their natural environments, coupled with a folkloristic methodology. The concealed nature of these beings, often unseen or misunderstood, connects them directly to the obscurities of folklore. For the uninitiated, the legendary monsters within folk narratives might seem understated or even hidden, unlike the overt portrayals by media. This quiet, elusive nature lends itself to a realm of secrets, where only those deeply engaged with folklore can truly understand their nuances. These legendary monsters, shrouded in the unseen, traverse across media, becoming elusive voyagers that adapt to their narrative surroundings.
Monster legends, though hidden, can merge, producing hybrid legends or taking unforeseen directions. For example, in the digital age, phenomena such as Momo or Loab emerge, becoming viral sensations on platforms such as YouTube and various discussion forums. Momo, with its disturbing image and urban legends of dangerous challenges, exemplifies how the internet can amplify and distort the creepiness inherent in monster legendry. Similarly, cryptic stories of Loab infiltrate online spaces, drawing curious readers into rabbit holes of mystery. These narratives, be they spoken, seen, or digitally shared, become repositories of secretive knowledge, either broadcasted openly or kept hidden online, waiting for the discerning seeker.
The North American monster legendry teems with secrets, but genuine folkloristic research often remains in the shadows, eclipsed by a surge of amateur enthusiasts. Herein lies a call to action for future scholars to venture into these uncharted territories and uncover the hidden legends. Prioritizing quality over quantity, folklorists should continue to embrace the importance of rigorous over cursory online searches. In a field rife with fakelore, the quest for authentic monster legends is more crucial than ever. As scholars delve deeper, the value of legendry monster research emerges, dissolving the line between the seen and the unseen.


This research received no external funding.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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