J. Nathan Couch. Goatman: Flesh or Folklore? Createspace, 2014.
A constant theme of Fortean/Magonian analysis is how to draw boundaries between phenomena which are physically real, actually experienced, genuinely believed, rumoured, or imaginary. Indeed whether there is really any way we can define these various levels of experience. This is a topic I first touched upon in a MUFOB article back in 1977, suggesting that these are all points on a spectrum of experience ranging from apparently objective reporting, to a form of artistic creation.
Some phenomena seem to have established a fairly stable position in this spectrum. UFOs, no matter what you think of their objective existence are clearly a phenomenon that people actually experience. The same with ghosts and creatures like sasquatch. Vampires are a bit more doubtful, and we ask if there was ever a genuine, actually-experienced vampire phenomenon rather than a collection of folk-tales and rumours. Werewolves perhaps also fell into the category of rumour, legend and lore, but following the investigations of Linda Godfrey into stories of wolf-men in the American mid-West it seems that some at least of these stories can be traced to genuine anomalous experiences. We even have at least one instance of an experienced encounter with a troll in modern Europe. This does not mean of course that we have to accept the consensus-reality of the fur-and-claw creatures themselves wandering the back-roads of middle America or the tram-tracks of Norway.
But goat-men are different, aren't they? Pan and all those randy man-goat satyrs of Greek mythology, they can safely be filed away in the box marked 'mythology/legend'. Surely? Well, it doesn't seem that they can.
Nathan Couch first became aware of the contemporary legends of half-goat half-human creatures after moving to Wisconsin, where at a meeting of a local history society he heard stories of a creature that haunted a nearby road. The original story dated back to the early nineteenth century, and involved a pair of newly-weds setting out in a horse-drawn wagon to set up their new home. I won't spoil the story for you, but it involves a broken wheel, the young man setting off in the night for a replacement, and the dreadful end he comes to at the hands of a hideous half-goat creature. Oh, sorry, I have rather spoiled it, haven't I? However, this was just the start of a whole tradition of 'Hook-Man' type urban legends around the area, usually pointing out the dangers of illicit sexual activities (those randy satyrs again?) or in later years, the perils of drink and dangerous driving along lonely country roads.
These seem like the regular sort of urban legend and 'legend-tripping' stories that provoked teenagers to seek out these danger-haunted locations, rather than avoid them as the people spreading the stories might have hoped. However, when looking deeper into these tales, Couch discovered a few which seemed to be, at least marginally, real-life experiences: a county workman collecting road-kill sees a large hairy creature with a long muzzled head attempting to pull a deer carcase from his truck; strange footprints around isolated homesteads; hairy, bi-pedal creatures glimpsed seemingly eating their prey.
He also starts to discover the explanations that people give for these stories: lonely goatherds driven mad by marauding teens, escapees from bizarre animal hybrid laboratories, or hideous phantoms seeking revenge on those who caused their – usually cruel – death.
Goatman Central appears to be Prince George's County, Maryland. This once rural but increasingly suburbanised area just on the outskirts of Washington DC is home to the original Goatman, or so many of its inhabitants claim. John Keel has pointed out the attraction that the fringes of expanding urban areas seem to have for bizarre, half-real creatures. It certainly seems to be home to the most comprehensively documented collection of Goatman tales as well, in the University of Maryland Folklore Archive.
As he delves deeper, Couch discovers Goatman stories from pretty well every US state, as well as aquatic Goatmen, shape-shifting Goatmen, and even kindly Goatmen. He eventually manages to track down one historical, well-witnessed and very flesh and blood Goatman who seems an even stranger phenomenon than the mythical kind. He examines Goatman's peculiar attraction to bridges, particularly bridges which hold an attraction for suicides. Is this where Goatman meets the Trolls and Billy Goat Gruff?
But is Goatman 'real'? Couch is too good a Fortean to fall for that question. He understands the liminal landscapes in which these creatures lurk, and knows that a suburban lot can hold as deep a terror as the remotest forest. This is a fascinating account of a search for mystery, a real search involving the author travelling to some of the weirdest spots in the US, not just clicking 'search' on a computer screen. This is Fortean writing at its finest, and recommended to all Magonia readers. – John Rimmer.