29 May 2017


Darren Naish. Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths. Arcturus, 2017.

As a boy, palaeontologist and zoologist Darren Naish became interested in cryptid creatures, and thought that in time decisive evidence for their existence would be found. This has not happened and he has now come to the conclusion that while there are no doubt new animal species to be discovered, these do not include the headline want-lists of cryptozoologists.
For these - though encounters with real animals and other features of the environment play a part in the development of reports of mystery beasts - at their heart are “self-perpetuating cultural phenomena”, in other words a psycho-social approach to cryptozoology.

Naish examines the contents of the want-lists; sea monsters, lake monsters, hairy humanoids, “prehistoric survivals” and some mystery Australian beasts. He examines some of the classic cases and suggests conventional explanations, pointing out that often the descriptions in the original accounts differ from those in the illustrations which have had the major cultural impact. He notes that lake monsters are sometimes reported in bodies of water that are little more than oversized ponds, that hairy humanoids are reported from all over the world, including Australia where there are no non-human primates, and from Britain of all places. These reports are no different from those in places like the Pacific coast of America.

He suggests that lake monsters represent the wildness and danger of bodies of water, that their origin may be the same as the supernatural creatures such as folklore's Jenny Greenteeth that are said to haunt waters; stories told to warn children away from these dangerous places. Other writers have suggested that bodies of water act as screens on which dreams and fantasies can be projected.
Similarly the hairy humanoids represent folk images of 'ape men' mixed with earlier notions of Wild Men who represent liminal figures between culture and nature.

Naish gives detailed critique of the work of Bernard Heuvelmans, particularly his systematisation of sea monster accounts into nine new creatures and shows both that reports were often arbitrarily placed into one category or another, or his use of extremely dubious accounts to construct some of the categories. He warns throughout of the fragility of human perception and memory and challenges the belief in the inerrancy of eyewitness testimony that lies at the heart of what he calls 'literalist cryptozoology', and of course many other forms of 'literalist Forteanism'.

He is, I think, rather over-critical about these other Fortean topics, as at the psychosocial level they clearly merge. Cryptids, UFOs, ghost, boggarts and all sorts of nameless things are images from the deep imagination called to the surface by ambiguous environmental stimuli, particularly in liminal regions and times.

I wonder if really cryptozoology or ufology and similar Fortean topics ever were scientific enterprises, but might be more accurately described as populist political movements, noted for their hostility to scientists, experts and elites; believing in the wisdom of the folk, particularly those outside the big cities; and with a sense of persecution and the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. While Naish does not bring this up himself, he does refer to the role of creationists in areas of cryptozoology, particularly in promoting belief in surviving dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures.

Perhaps cryptozoology is bound to separate into two disciplines, one looking for real but probably unromantic uncatalogued animals, the other dealing with beasts of the imagination that will never be caught on film or found in a trap. – Peter Rogerson

1 comment: