BY George Pendle in Opinion | 01 OCT 11
Featured in
Issue 142

Monsters Inc.

The Museum of Cryptozoology and its celebration of the unknown and the elusive

BY George Pendle in Opinion | 01 OCT 11

A coelacanth, previously thought to be extinct until one was found in 1938, 1956. Coelacanth courtesy:

It is perhaps unsurprising that the International Museum of Crypto-zoology is hard to find. Tucked into the back of a second-hand bookshop in Portland, Maine, the museum seems as concealed as one of the cryptids, or ‘hidden animals’, it seeks to uncover. The discipline of cryptozoology seeks to apply scientific method in the search for creatures of myth and legend, from Big Foot to sea serpents to Mothman. Within the museum the visitor finds a telling mixture of evidence and memorabilia: grainy photographs of the Loch Ness Monster, casts of a purported Yeti footprint, a replica of P.T. Barnum’s famed Feejee Mermaid, and a vast number of stuffed Abominable Snowman toys. If the discipline of cryptozoology is treated by regular zoologists with something between suspicion and contempt, the Museum of Cryptozoology embraces this borderline status without concern – here we are in the cheerful demi-monde of science.

Cryptozoologists sift through folktales, tabloid news reports, hearsay and rumour in the hope that they might contain a small grain of truth leading to an undiscovered organism. As much as they are motivated by the quest to uncover hidden creatures, crypto-zoologists are also fuelled by a sense of amateur empowerment against the higher bodies of institutional knowledge. Their enthusiasm is nourished by the past discovery of such creatures as the coelacanth, a 1.5-metre-long fish that was presumed to have died out 65 million years ago, before being rediscovered in the Indian Ocean in 1938. Other rallying points include the discovery of the mountain gorilla and the okapi – a zebra-striped giraffid – which had for years been thought to be nothing but the tall tales of superstitious natives before being sighted by Westerners in the early 20th century. At such moments, the accepted wisdom of the scientific community is gloriously upended by undeniable proofs that the lost has been found and the mythical is real.

Even sceptics would do well to heed the lesson that cryptozoology’s successes offer: in a world whose most remote regions have been mapped by satellites, whose flora and fauna have been endlessly catalogued, whose very subatomic level has been scoured for information, cryptozoology restores to us something radical – the unknown. Just when the prying eye of empirical observation would seem to have denuded the earth of magic and mystery, cryptozoology puts us on the frontier once more, lost in the primal forest with no knowledge of where we are, surrounded by theoretical creatures that are seen best in the mind’s eye. If the Latin phrase omne ignotum pro magnifico (every unknown thing is taken to be magnificent) sums up the arguments of the discipline’s critics, it also speaks of the alluring credo of unknowing at the very heart of cryptozoology.  

Of course, cryptozoology is more successful at projecting myth and fantasy into the landscape than it is at revealing brand new creatures to the world. In a telling historical coincidence, Bernard Heuvelmans, the Belgian zoologist who founded cryptozoology in the 1950s, was a friend of Hergé, the creator of Tintin. Heuvelmans helped Hergé in drafting Tintin in Tibet (1960), in which the boy reporter travels to the Himalayas and meets the Yeti. Many have seen Tintin in Tibet as Hergé’s most psychologically autobiographical tale; at the time of its conception, he had been suffering from dreams of what he would call, ‘the beauty and cruelty of white’. Hergé enacted a resolution of these dreams in his story when the Yeti emerges from the dreadful snow-clad mountains to reveal itself not as a ferocious beast but as a tender, misunderstood creature. In doing so, Hergé both borrowed from Heuvelmans – who had suggested, in his seminal On the Track of Unknown Animals (1955), that the Yeti was a much misunderstood animal – and unwittingly dramatized a fundamental but somewhat hidden truth of cryptozoology: that the search for elusive and mythical creatures is as much a drama of self-realization as it is a scientific enquiry.

If this quality will forever separate cryptozoology from the sciences it seeks to emulate, it also illustrates that the search for the unknown is always overburdened with psychological import. Indeed, in the histories of human knowledge the most tantalizingsections have always been the blank spaces. We end up prizing the missing link more than the chain itself. Whether it be Aristotle’s lost Poetics II, Michaelangelo’s vanished Battle of Cascina or Byron’s burned memoirs, these works by their very absence are more compelling than their presence would be. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World retain a pull on our imagination precisely because six of them no longer exist. But what happens when lost legends are rediscovered, when, say, the favourite band of our youth reforms? On 1 November 2011, The Beach Boys’ legendary lost album Smile is to be finally released (following a newly recorded studio version released in 2004). Can its actuality possibly match the significant weight of its absence? What happens if Big Foot is found? The legislators of Skamania County in Washington State have already anticipated this day and with indubitable prescience have passed an ordinance imposing a fine of up to US$10,000 and a maximum of five years in jail for the ‘willful and wanton slaying’ of a Big Foot. An ignominious fate for a phantasm.

This seems to be the reason why cryptozoology courts the mockery of the scientific mainstream so gleefully, by chasing myths and pursuing the near impossible. For if we were ever to find that shadow creature, flickering through the landscape, slinking through the deep, what would we lose?

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA.