Benjamin Radford. Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore. University of New Mexico Press, 2011

Benjamin Radford here explores the story of the mysterious blood-sucking Chupacabra from all angles. He first looks at the global history of vampiric beasts in the human imagination, showing these are almost universal, and existed long before the term Vampire became popular. Of particular interest is his treatment of how this myth surface in colonial societies, where the mainly European colonial powers and their representatives were seen as blood suckers. In modern times this has mutated into rumours of Europeans going round stealing organs for transplant, these rumours have led to several foreigners being attacked and even murdered in Central and South America.

This theme of colonial exploitation had a particular relevance in Puerto Rico, where citizens rather see themselves as being exploited by the continental United States, a situation not helped by Puerto Rico's anomalous status as neither a fully independent nation nor a fully integrated US state. This has led to exploitation by the military and its use as a waste dump for environmentally harmful products.

Of course, Radford argues, there is more to Chupacabra than this psychosocial approach might suggest, as people claim to have seen the things, as well as the aftermath of their activities. So Radford goes in search of the beast in the jungles of Nicaragua, where it was once allegedly seen. Needless to say he does not find it there.

If tracking the jungle does not provide evidence of the Chupacabra creature, perhaps the various claimed corpses might. Alas these prove to be mainly mangy old dogs and coyotes, with a battered racoon and neatly sculpted skate thrown in for good measure. One of the principle discoverers of a Chupacabra corpse, having got a great deal of publicity from its discovery was less than happy when a DNA test showed it was indeed a mangy old coyote, though she was rather mollified when another tester suggested it might just have a bit of wolf in it, which would presumably make it more special, though still not a blood sucker.

Radford examine the various claims made that animals have been 'mysteriously' killed and their blood drunk, and shows that much of this speculation comes from false ideas that many people entertain about animal predation and what happens to corpses, perhaps echoing the ignorance that helped feed the ancient vampire legends.

Radford then goes back to the original Chupacabra 'sighting' by Madelyne Tolentino, and shows how her account contains numerous contradictions, suggested she had truly preternatural vision, and that the description of the monster was almost identical with that in the science fiction movie Species which Ms Tolentino had recently seen.

He makes the important point, which goes for a huge range of UFOlogical, cryptozoological and paranormal investigation, which is that few of the 'investigators' actually do any investigation, rather they just record what witnesses say and take it all at face value, often adding in details of their own to spice things up. The same, even more so, goes for the tabloid press. Puerto Rico's version of this looks just the sort of paper Andy Coulson and Rebekah Wade-Brooks would fit into nicely.

The Chupacabra story shows in miniature the complex range of influences which generate many paranormal and Fortean claims: the influence of expectation on perception, peoples' false assumptions about the world and how it should look, the growth of wild rumour, the inadequate investigations by people who are often more interested in generating mysteries than solving them, and the deep background of cultural beliefs, social tensions and fears which give such stories such emotional power. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson.


  1. Anonymous4.8.11

    I haven't read the book but I've been extremely unimpressed with the stuff Radford has written for LiveScience that I have read. And in interviews I've heard with him he comes across as the garden variety, closed-minded, fundamentalist skeptic. In your reviews (at least the ones I've read) you always seem to take issue with any author who thinks there might be something to these sorts of things, yet in this review there only seems to be a casual agreement with Radford- I don't detect a single criticism of his book. Would you consider yourself a Fortean?

  2. Peter8.8.11

    No, I reject party line labels. My own views were set out in the June Northern Echoes. I don't agree that Radford is just another James Randi as he actually investigates things and this book is a quite a good one. When skeptics write bad books (as they often do) they get bad reviews.