How would you react if a stranger at a dive bar or your chatty 70-year-old neighbor told you they’d seen Bigfoot? Would you make up an excuse to exit the conversation ASAP, or would you pull up a chair and hear them out? For his latest book, The United States of Cryptids: A Tour of American Myths and Monsters, author J.W. Ocker did a ton of listening. He spent a year bouncing across the country to wherever cryptids—animals that many people believe might exist but aren’t officially recognized by science—have been spotted and memorialized in the form of news clippings, statues, plaques, museums, and annual festivals.
The resulting work is a deliciously nerdy chronicle that celebrates thinking about life beyond—somewhat of a lost virtue in an era when the U.S. government’s big UFO reveal in 2021 conjured a collective “Eh, OK” from the general public. No sighting is too marginal for Ocker: My favorite entry is about a pair of sentient pants that slunk a single time through Fresno, California. According to him, cryptids are a key thread in the American fabric and a lifeline for small towns that would otherwise be left off the map entirely. “There are more than 70 monsters in the book,” Ocker told VICE. “None of them are just fables—99 percent are validated by newspaper accounts and eye-witnesses.”
We spoke to Ocker about what it’s like to be in an especially weird line of work, why Bigfoot is overhyped, and why the U.S. loves its monsters enough to build PR campaigns around them.
VICE: How did you get into cryptids in the first place?
J.W. Ocker: Cryptids have always been there since I was a kid. I picked up a book by John Keel, who made the Mothman famous. He went to Point Pleasant, got involved in the story, and wrote The Mothman Prophecies. I remember picking up one of his books, and the cover had a Sasquatch, Mothman, and aliens—like four or five different monsters. I loved monsters as a kid, and then I realized, “Oh, these, these monsters that aren’t like Dracula and Frankenstein—these are purported to be real.” They’re a whole different class of monsters, and that just kind of fired my imagination. I’ve been following them ever since.
How do you explain your job to people?
I tell them I write about weird and spooky things. I’ve been doing that for over a decade in my books and website. Often, it’s weird stuff that can travel to—oddities in nature or art or history, religious relics. If there’s a body part on display somewhere, a strange graveyard, I want to see it. And with cryptids, I’m taking pictures of things, visiting things. So if there’s a statue, a festival, a plaque, or a whole museum, I’m traveling to go see it. I write both fiction and nonfiction. But it’s all spooky, weird stuff that I write about.
What was a typical day like working on this book? There’s the travel aspect, but then it’s clear you did a ton of archival research too.
Oh, that’s the beauty. There are usually two types of my day for a book like this. I would throw my family car and go to Burlington, Vermont, to see the Champ stuff up there, then keep going through New York, hit Silver Lake, and do a stop there—basically a road trip full of cryptid towns. And then the writing—of all my nonfiction books, this one was a little bit unique because I would say 90 to 95 percent of my research was in actual newspapers. That’s what’s great about cryptids. Believe what you want about them: hoax, fake, real, whatever. Whatever kerfluffle happened around them was real. It was a documented thing. So there’d be a report of some creature, and then the entire town would go crazy for weeks, months, years. And it’d be reported in the local newspaper almost daily. It’ll get picked up by national news, get picked up by international news. So there’s a trail you can follow of the excitement and the twists and turns. Like, “Oh, it was spotted! No, it wasn’t. Whoa, somebody shot it? No, they didn’t. It was a hoax.”
What’s the vibe in a cryptid town versus any random small town where you might stop at a gas station?
Often, tourism is kind of the last attempt at viability for these towns. If you go to Whitehall, New York, which is famous for its Bigfoot sighting and has Bigfoot statues of it all over the town, it’s a little rundown. It’s clearly had some hard times, a lot of closures of local businesses, stuff like that. So that’s often when it feels like. But it’s a nice celebration thing. It’s always divisive, too, right? Like, “Oh, we shouldn’t be celebrating monsters. Should that be what we’re known for?”
But the other thing is that nobody else can offer that specific cryptid. Every non-cryptid town that tries to use tourism as a draw, it’s basically all the same. We have the same battles, the same natural landscapes:” Come see our pond,” or “Come see our mountains!” Like, whatever—a lot of states have mountains. Very few places can say, “Come see our giant turtle festival from this one time a gigantic turtle was found in our pond in the 1950s.”
The towns I’ve been to, there’s usually no other reason for you ever to go to this town. There’s no reason for you ever to see Fouke, Arkansas. You’ll never accidentally pass through Fouke, Arkansas. But if you’re there, you’re there for Bigfoot. And that’s why I was there, and why I bought stuff and put my money into their economy—because I was there for their monster.
When were cryptids most popular? And is there a cryptid hotspot in the United States right now?
The golden age of cryptids is probably the 1950s through the 70s. You go back into the papers of those days and relive those indelible moments in time in those towns.
The state that beats them all is West Virginia. West Virginia has the best cryptids and the most variety of cryptids. They’ve got the Flatwoods Monster, which is very unique looking—it’s a robot alien in a dress, basically. And they celebrate that. There’s a museum downtown where they sell these ceramic lanterns based on it, and they have chairs shaped like these Flatwoods Monsters all over the place, and they’re really cool. They also have the Mothman, which has become kind of the favorite. Obviously, Bigfoot is everybody’s favorite, but the Mothman is the one on the side that the cool people like.
What I like about Point Pleasant, West Virginia, is that they have the Mothman statue right in the middle of town, not even behind some eccentric business owner’s property. They have a Mothman Museum and a giant Mothman Festival that is pretty much the template for all cryptid festivals and explodes that town with people every September. And then you can investigate the places where the Mothman was found the most, by yourself, at night. There’s these gigantic cement igloos the size of houses—they used to store weapons in there, and now it’s empty and graffiti-covered. You can walk around with flashlights and feel like you’ll find it any second. And obviously, West Virginia has Bigfoot. Every state has Bigfoot. Every state has a lake monster. But West Virginia has the most. There’s the tagline, “Wild and wonderful!” West Virginia still feels like the most unexplored place in America.
Why do cryptid towns tend to be small and remote?
The reason why they are usually rural cryptids is that you need nature to have cryptids—someplace to disappear into, with woods and ponds and mountains. Also, you need an element of boredom. You need to be in a situation where, if you hear something weird in the woods, you get out of your house and go form a hunting party. Now, it’s almost a worldwide problem, not just rural versus urban, but if you hear there’s a monster in the woods in your town, you might follow it on social media for a while before you flip over to the next story, but back then that’s all you had to do. If you heard something exciting was happening, you would get involved.
You mention in your entry on Skinwalkers that those cryptids have a big following on TikTok—I get served videos like that on my For You Page pretty often. How do you think social media has changed the culture around cryptids?
I do a weekly newsletter, and I’m always looking for news items. There’s almost always something somewhere about a weird creature sighted in a forest or a pond or in the ocean. Back in the day, just that one piece of blurry footage was enough to fuel opinion pieces and magazine coverage and newspaper coverage and Unexplained Mysteries episodes, all those things. Today, you take 30 seconds, maybe 2 minutes, then you’re on to the next thing. Oh, a monster, great. OK, what else you got? You’re flipping through the news at the speed of light. If TikTok had been around for the Loch Ness monster, the most famous cryptid of all time, the person who saw it would have put it on TikTok, and it would have been over in two seconds. We wouldn’t have a hundred years of obsession about it.
Obviously, all cultures have monsters, and there are rich traditions of stories about those monsters. But you say cryptids are especially popular here. What do you think it is about cryptids that clicks with the culture in the U.S. specifically?
There are a couple of things. There’s a weird relationship between science and belief in America. We go through periods of extreme belief in religion, then we’ll go through periods that are more secular, then we’re trying to do both at the same time. Other cultures are better at embracing the spiritual side, so monsters to them are kind of like, of course there’s monsters.
But the biggest difference between the way America does it and what other countries do with their monsters is that we invented marketing. We are the marketers. When we find a monster, we’re not just throwing hunting parties to find it. We’re throwing parties, we’re theming balls and giveaways, and all the restaurants are putting themed meals on their menu. That’s why these festivals come around and these statutes come around, because we’re marketing this thing. That’s really the biggest difference, between how we handle our monsters and how other countries handle theirs.
Also, we have a very short history of the country. So when I say the golden age of cryptids was the 1950s to the 1970s, that was only 50 years ago. This is pretty recent in our memory. It’s not just like, oh, in 1543, there was a dragon sighting in Perth, Wales, or something like that. We can read the newspapers and see that story.
Can we go back to your beef with Bigfoot—I think it’s really funny that you say he’s over-hyped.
Bigfoot was a huge thorn in my side in this book. I wanted it to be The United States of Cryptids, as wide a variety as I could find. But everywhere I went, everybody was celebrating Bigfoot. Just everywhere. There’s been a Bigfoot sighting in all 50 states. Tiny Delaware. Hawaii, an island in the middle of an ocean far away from the rest of the country. And not only is he everywhere, he’s celebrated everywhere. For example, we just talked about Flatwoods Monster, which is a very unique creature. It’s got a pointed cowl, it floats, it has claws—there’s nothing like the Flatwoods Monster in the entire annals of zoology or cryptozoology. They do a great job of celebrating it, but then, I think last year, just a block away from the Flatwoods Monster Museum, they opened the West Virginia Bigfoot Museum. They have this unique thing and they put money into something that every single town has.
I talked about that with Loren Coleman, who runs the International Cryptozoology Museum in Maine. I just asked him, “Why is there so much Bigfoot everywhere?” He said, “Back in my day, when I was a kid, the only cryptids we had were the Loch Ness Monster and the Abominable Snowman. In the Himalayas, there were faraway or exotic creatures, but to go see them or go hunt for them, you had to be rich enough to mount an entire expedition and mountain climbing skills and all kinds of skills.” Basically, he said, once Bigfoot came out, all you have to do to be a Bigfoot hunter is walk out in the woods behind your house. He’s popular because he’s just very accessible.
But the big reason that he’s the most popular cryptid is that we’re narcissists. Bigfoot looks like us. Have you seen Harry and the Hendersons?
No, I don’t think so.
It’s this movie from the 80s starring John Lithgow where this family in Seattle hits a Bigfoot and then takes them home and he becomes part of the family. It’s a comedy, and you can only do that movie with Bigfoot. If you tried to do The Enfield Horror and the Hendersons, which is a three legged monster-monster thing, or The Lizard Man of South Carolina and the Hendersons, it wouldn’t be a funny, family-friendly comedy. It’d be a horror show.
What was your favorite story you learned over the course of your research for this book?
I think the favorite thing I learned about was the Silver Lake Serpent in New York. This is a pretty typical story: People see a creature in their local lake, it’s reptilian, serpentine. There’s a few twists where the witnesses sign affidavits to say they saw something, and then people come in with spear guns to try to catch it. But then, the end of that story is, a few years later, a local hotel burns down, and in the hotel, they find the ruins of a sea serpent—metal wires and bladders and stuff. So it was a hoax. Which again, is pretty typical.
But then, there’s another twist where Phil Nichols, who’s a famous skeptic—he’s always like, you know, bursting everybody’s balloons, proving things aren’t as cool as you think they are—he actually has an interesting twist. He says he thinks the hoax never happened. He goes through all these newspapers and says, “You know what, there’s no record of a hotel fire, no record of this person who admitted to faking it.” So it’s a real reversal—the hoax never happened. So what about the monster? Is it real or somebody else’s hoax?
It’s a twisty story, and the people of Perry—that’s the town’s name—they don’t care if it’s real or fake. They just have monster puppets everywhere you go, there’s like four or five statues, I think they have festivals and parades, it’s on their welcome sign, it’s on their town seal, it’s on their bike racks. The serpentine creature that may have been a hoax, might not have been, might have been seen, might not have been… It’s weird in a way that most people’s stories aren’t weird.
So who’s going to all of these cryptid festivals? Who’s a typical cryptid fan?
A lot of times, you hear somebody say, “I saw Bigfoot.” You immediately think, “Oh, this guy’s a little bit off right here. They think they saw this creature that probably doesn’t exist.” But when I hear somebody say that, besides thinking, “Oh, I want to hang out with this guy,” I hear a sense of wonder. What he means is, “I’m hoping that the world has more surprises for us.” If we’ve already cataloged everything on this planet, that’s a sad day, right? That’s a sad day when the world has no more new wonders for us. So really, the pursuit of cryptids is just the pursuit of wonder. We’re hoping for something new. And even if those things never come to pass, and you never find a pukwudgie or you never find these other cryptids, you still spend time hoping and really relying on wonder. I think it’s kind of a beautiful thing.
That’s how I see people who have strange ideas about anything, not just cryptids. They’re hoping the world is much more interesting. Most of our lives are really boring, mundane, so if anything is new and wonderful and beautiful, we’d love to welcome it. Cryptozoology is very hopeful, very much an -ology filled with wonder. There are tons of creatures out there, millions of creatures, and they’re full of variety. And you say, “No, I want more. I hope for something more than this.” Sometimes it’s executed in ignoble ways, but it’s definitely a noble idea.