Monsters Among Us

Michael O. Varhola

Some years back, during a trip to Istanbul, Turkey, I spent the afternoon studying a collection of ancient Assyrian artifacts in a wing of the Topkapi Palace and, while there, had an epiphany. Whether epiphanies reveal any sort of objective truth is a matter that can be a debated but whether the people having them tend to be convinced of their veracity generally cannot, and I have been moved by mine to this day.

Notable to me among this collection were a number of life-sized stone statues of what, by all accounts, were saber-toothed cats. Saber-toothed cats. Beasts of this sort are supposed to have gone extinct some 11,000 years ago, after having walked the Earth in some form for a stunning 42 million years. While the 7,000 years between their disappearance and the rise of Assyria might seem quite profound in human terms, they are nonetheless insignificant when compared to the longevity of the species in question.

What struck me so clearly that day in the ancient palace on the shores of the Sea of Marmara was that the artisans who had sculpted these likenesses had done so from direct observation, firsthand reports, or, at the outside, descriptions from legends passed down from earlier generations.

One could certainly make the argument that these megalithic monstrosities were simply carved from imagination, but I don’t buy that. When the artists of this tradition did delve into the fantastic, they incorporated elements like wings, scales, and horns into their chimeras — they did not painstakingly reproduce in gleaming black basalt prehistoric animals that they could have had no knowledge of if the generally-accepted timelines are correct.

It is not, in fact, unreasonable to think that creatures that lived for untold millions of years might have been almost entirely extirpated from the world except for small populations that survived in the wildest and most remote areas, periodically venturing forth from their isolated redoubts or being encountered in them by adventurous people.

For those who “want to believe,” there are numerous other examples from antiquity that suggest the veil between history and prehistory is a porous and irregular one that has been pierced many times. The legends of Hercules are one of my favorite collective examples. In many of these stories, the ideal man is pitted against creatures far larger and more powerful than the normal types of the kind. It does not take much of a reading between the lines to see these monsters as the remnants of an archaic age that, in the twilight of their existence, sometimes wandered down from the rugged mountain lands of the Mediterranean to menace the early settlements of humanity.

As a result of these contemplations, I have gradually come to be much more inclined to believe credible reports of extinct creatures, supposedly mythological beasts, and various other sorts of cryptids (i.e., creatures whose existence has been suggested but which are generally regarded as fantastic, especially by the mainstream scientific community).

Just about every area has its own indigenous cryptozoological creatures, some of which have become quite well known. These include quintessential exemplars like Bigfoot in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland, and the Jersey Devil in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey — and the hilly region of central Texas where I currently live is especially rife with sightings of all sorts of strange things.

One of the first I heard about, in early 2009, was an incident that happened about a year earlier, when a friend of mine spotted what he believed to be a pair of red wolves trotting across the road not far from my house. Beyond their size, red wolves are distinct from either coyotes or gray wolves in a number of ways and not easily confused with either. At one point, packs of these predators roamed the southeastern United States from Texas to Florida. They thrived from the Ice Age right up into modern times but their numbers began to wane dramatically after widespread settlement of the area began and, in 1980, the federal government declared them to be extinct in the wild. These facts aside, however, I was inclined to believe my friend. A couple of years after he recounted this story to me, I was standing in a grove of trees behind my house — strangely enough, at midnight and under a full moon. Suddenly, I was stunned to actually see a wolf came trotting up the road, which stopped to look at me and then continued on its way — all at exactly the spot where my friend had described his sighting!

Every few months or so I also hear reports about a panther — some say black, some otherwise — that people have spotted near their homes and which many believe lives in a nearby ravine called the Devil’s Hollow. I probably spend more time than anyone else in this deep, rugged, overgrown canyon, which extends in one direction to the Guadalupe River and in the other for miles up into the hills. I have not yet seen any sign of this big cat but keep my eye out for it.

Sometimes, however, Texas Hill Country seems like a virtual lost world and it is certainly possible for all sorts of things to live in an area so large, wild, and relatively sparsely populated. Within just a one-mile radius of where I live, there are densely-wooded valleys-within-valleys only rarely visited by people, at least one large hidden ravine beyond the afore-mentioned one, and dozens of small caves, overhangs, and other forms of natural shelter. A shy and clever creature that spent most of its time in such places, and traveled beyond them via routes like ravines and culverts underneath highways, might remain largely undetected indefinitely. And there are more than enough white-tailed deer and other game animals to meet the needs of any small predator populations. 

One legend in particular that has recently become widespread throughout Texas, and gone beyond the hidden places of Hill Country, is that of the chupacabra. Anytime Texans bump into something these days that they can’t identify right away, someone is likely to claim that it is the legendary creature “goat sucker.” In one incident a few years ago, local news affiliates in the Dallas area rushed to cover the story of a dead creature discovered at a golf course and identified initially as a chupacabra — and thereafter as a hairless, mange-ridden raccoon. This legendary creature has nonetheless become so popular that the north Texas town of Runaway Bay has adopted it as its mascot. 

Hoaxes, misinterpretations, and false sightings aside, however, there may be more running around out there than you might expect — and some of it might even be closer than you think.