Every culture around the globe creates mythical tales. And a lot of them involve scary creatures: Scotland's Loch Ness Monster, for instance or the Himalayans' Yeti, or Abominable Snowman. It's part of our human DNA.
But why is that? "We tell ourselves stories because we (humans) are storytelling animals," said Shira Chess, assistant mass media professor at the University of Georgia in a Washington Post article. "And, to that end, horror stories take on a specific significance and importance because they function metaphorically — the horror stories that are the best are often metaphors for other issues that affect our lives on both cultural and personal levels."
America is no exception to the horror story genre. There is a rich trove of tales thanks to Native American folklore coupled with that of ensuing immigrants. Many of the stories were created long ago, when presumably a lack of education, mass communication and critical thinking made such fables easier to believe. However, a surprising number have fairly recent origins, and don't seem to be going away. One on our list even began in the Internet Age. How many of these 10 monsters have you heard of – and do you believe in?
Canadians call him Sasquatch. Americans prefer Bigfoot. No matter: All monikers refer to a giant, hairy, ape-man who supposedly has been wandering around North America for at least a century. Most sightings have been in the Pacific Northwest, but there have been Bigfoot reports from nearly every state and Canadian province. (You can check the locations on this handy map).
Although sightings were reported as far back as 1886, and possibly earlier, Bigfoot really established a toe-hold in North American culture in the latter half of the 20th century, when an article ran in the December 1959 issue of True magazine detailing the discovery of large, mysterious footprints in California. Soon people were producing everything from hair and blood samples to grainy photos and, yes, more footprints which they claimed proved the shaggy creature's existence [sources: Bigfoot Encounters, Radford].
North Americans aren't alone in their Bigfoot fanaticism; many cultures around the globe have stories about strange ape-like creatures mysteriously walking around. But who really believes in Sasquatch? According to a 2012 Angus Reid survey, a full 29 percent of Americans and 21 percent of Canadians do. That's almost more intriguing than the beast himself.
It wanders around attacking livestock, namely goats, then sucking out all of the blood. It's mangy. Deranged. And clearly vicious. It's a chupacabra (choo puh KAH bruh), the Spanish word for "goat sucker." Seeds for the creature's existence were planted in 1970s Puerto Rico, when a rash of farm animals and pets inexplicably died.
People began whispering that the deaths came at the paws of a mad animal. Fast-forward to the mid-1990s, when a Puerto Rican woman reported seeing a monstrous being near her home. Although she described a red-eyed alien-type figure covered in spikes (and had just seen the movie "Species" featuring a similar being),the creature was dubbed a "chupacabra" and described as an animalistic figure. The legend exploded around the tiny island and across the U.S., becoming an especially popular tale in the Southwest [source: Ross].
Some said the beast was spawned from a failed NASA experiment; others claimed that the disease AIDS originated in the chupacabra [source: Ross]. One Texas woman even brought in a strange-looking dead critter – a suspected chupacabra – to scientists at Texas State University-San Marcos and the University of California-Davis for DNA testing. Unfortunately for her bragging rights, the results said it was a coyote-Mexican wolf hybrid [source: Radford]. Maybe next time.
How can you not love a story about the spawn of Satan? This myth says that in the 1700s, a woman in New Jersey's Pine Barrens area had 13 children, the last of whom was a devil who flew out the chimney and disappeared shortly after birth. There are several variations to the story, including one where the woman cursed her unborn child by invoking Satan (she wasn't too happy to be pregnant again).
No matter the exact scenario, the Jersey Devil is depicted as having a horse head, bat-like wings and claws – although it's rarely seen. Instead, it makes its presence known via eerie wailing, awful cries and rampaging sounds throughout the forests of the Pine Barrens area. One notable sighting came in 1909, when Trenton councilman E.P. Weeden reported being awakened in the night by flapping wings outside his bedroom window; in the morning he found cloven prints stamped into the snow. As soon as the news broke, hundreds of people suddenly claimed they, too, had spotted the Jersey Devil [source: The New Jersey Historical Society].
So how did this story arise? It likely had its origins with one Daniel Leeds of 18th-century New Jersey. A former Quaker, Leeds publicly butted heads with Quaker leaders on religion, occultism and politics for years. When stories of the Jersey Devil arose, it was said to be the child of a Mother Leeds and looked much like the winged dragons on the Leeds family crest [source: Regal].
Driving home late on the night of Nov. 15, 1966, four young adults noticed two red lights in the shadows of the West Virginia Ordnance Works, a former TNT factory from the World War II era. Stopping to investigate, they claim to have discovered a 6- or 7-foot (1.8 or 2 meters)-tall creature that resembled a man with large wings. The two red lights they'd noticed were its eyes. As they raced home in their car, the beast flew after them. Once the news got out, more than 100 people in the Point Pleasant, West Virginia region reported seeing "Mothman" over the next year [source: History]. (Interestingly, a 1966 Associated Press article quotes a West Virginia professor as saying that what the people actually saw was a rare species of crane which had wandered out of its normal migration route.)
On Dec. 15, 1967, a major bridge in the area collapsed during rush hour, killing 46. The sightings abruptly stopped, leading locals to think that Mothman had been trying to warn them – or was responsible for the tragedy. However, Mothman sightings subsequently cropped up around the globe. While no photos of him exist, reports consistently place him at around 7 feet tall with piercing red eyes (sometimes on his head, other times on his chest) and either bat-like or feathered wings. Point Pleasant, meanwhile, embraced its moment in the spotlight, erecting a Mothman statue and creating the Mothman Museum and Mothman Festival.
The story of the Wendigo comes from Native American folklore and is linked with cannibalism. The creature, which tends to be found in Northern Minnesota and Canadian forests, is typically described as a 15-foot (4.5-meter) tall man-beast with large eyes and claws, an emaciated frame and an insatiable appetite for human flesh.
Many Native Americans and white settlers spoke of the Wendigo, blaming it when friends or family members went into the forest and mysteriously disappeared. Another tale says the Wendigo, also called Windigo, isn't a creature, but instead is a cannibalistic spirit that possesses people. In this myth, if a Wendigo possesses you, you'll go out and start eating people. Such was supposedly the case with Swift Runner, a Native American. In 1879, he killed and then ate his entire family. Before the noose was slipped around his neck, he claimed it wasn't his fault – a Wendigo had gotten inside of him and made him do it. He was hanged anyway [source: Animal Planet].
Oh, La Llorona! This tragic figure dressed in white wails along riverbanks, mainly in the Southwest U.S., mourning her two young sons – who she killed. Yikes. According to this popular Hispanic tale, a woman named Maria is La Llorona, which means "the weeping woman" in Spanish. She was a beautiful girl who would only deign to marry the most handsome man. She found and snagged him, and they had two wonderful sons. The couple was very happy. But then Maria's husband began staying away from home for extended periods, drinking excessively and seeing other woman. When he did come home, he only wanted to visit his sons. Enraged and jealous, Maria threw the boys into the river and they drowned.
Another version of the story says Maria was the wild one, going out at night to entertain men and often leaving her young boys home alone. One night, by themselves once again, they wandered down to the river and drowned. Both versions say that Maria became consumed with guilt and sorrow after the boys' deaths, and began walking alongside the river crying out for them. After she died (either by drowning herself in the same river or wasting away), her ghost continued the ritual, with one ugly twist. Besides mourning her sons along the riverbank, La Llorona would murder whoever crossed her path. The tale is often used by parents to scare their young kids away from dangerous rivers [sources: Hayes, Weiser].
Often called the Southernmost Bigfoot, the Florida Skunk Ape is described as a large, hairy ape-man that gives off a horrendous smell and roams around the state of Florida. Numerous sightings have been reported over the years, with the beast showing up in the day and at night, and in all sorts of environments, although it appears to favor swampy areas [source: Florida Skunk Ape].
Much like Bigfoot, the evidence collected over time consists of photos, hair samples and a few foot casts. (The Skunk Ape apparently has four toes unlike Bigfoot, which has five.) A website devoted to the creature, The Florida Skunk Ape, says it receives several reports of sightings each week. Swamp creatures have long been part of human folklore, so it's probably not surprising that a state with vast tracts of swampland birthed such a myth.
If you live in San Antonio, Texas, the Donkey Lady might get you. According to the legend, back in the 1950s there was a terrible house fire in San Antonio. Two children died, and their mother was horribly burned. All of fingers and toes were gone, leaving hoof-like stumps on her hands and feet. Her face was a charred, unrecognizable mass of flesh. Driven insane by her tragedy, she began to roam the county and terrorize anyone who drew too near. Another version of the tale says she lives under an old stone bridge crossing Elm Creek in south San Antonio. The bridge became dubbed the Donkey Lady Bridge; honk three times if you want her to come out [source: Weird US].
Some believe that the legend got conflated with a real-life eccentric old lady named Doc Anderson who was known as the Donkey Lady because she lived in shack by a road and took care of donkeys. During the 1970s, people would report seeing a strangely dressed woman popping out of the woods, leading some donkeys to water [source: McCullough].
It smells awful, like skunk spray and wet dog. It has glowing yellow eyes and fangs. It kills animals, kidnaps kids and terrifies all it meets. Creepiest of all, it's half-cat, half-woman. This terrifying creature is the Wampus Cat. Generally on the prowl in northeastern Tennessee, the creature has also been spotted in eastern Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and, intriguingly, at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
Some claim it lives in Knoxville's fetid sewers. Despite innumerable reported sightings, no photos of the creature exist. There are several stories about how the Wampus Cat came to be. Here are two. One says a Cherokee wife hid beneath the skin of a mountain lion to spy on her husband and his buddies while they were hunting. They discovered her and, as punishment, the tribe's medicine man said she had to wear the lion's skin forevermore, turning her into a cat-woman. Anguished, she roams around bemoaning her fate. Another tale says a Cherokee warrior went on the hunt for a beast that was terrorizing his tribe. When he tracked it down, it looked him straight in the eye, causing the warrior to go insane. The warrior's wife wasn't happy about this, so she hid under the skin of a mountain lion and stalked the beast to exact revenge. When she found it, the beast took one look at her and fled, petrified. To this day, the woman's spirit still wanders the area, dressed as a mountain lion [source: Pickens].
Slenderman is a notable legendary figure for two main reasons. He's the world's first mythical creature spawned on the Internet, and there's no question as to whether or not he really exists. Slenderman was created by Floridian Eric Knudsen in 2009 on the Something Awful web forum, where people doctor photos and then write stories about them. Knudsen's photo depicted a tall, willowy, fuzzy figure. He didn't initially write much about it, but hinted at its evil character.
Fellow forum posters added details, as did Knudsen. Over time Slenderman spread onto other forums and his description began to morph. Sometimes he had multiple arms, other times none. Sometimes he killed his victims, other times his followers killed people for him. Often, you never knew what happened when he caught someone – just that it likely wasn't pretty. Although Knudsen eventually stopped developing the Slenderman character, it lives on through the Internet and its fans, many of whom are teenagers. Tragically, in 2014 two 12-year-old girls almost killed a friend by stabbing her 19 times, in the hopes of pleasing Slenderman, who they thought was real [sources: Biggs, Dewey]. That's the most terrifying Slenderman story of all.
Fire can turn our teeth to dust. But what about dragons'? HowStuffWorks looks to science to see how fire-breathing dragon's teeth would survive.
Author's Note: 10 Mythical American Monsters
I'd certainly heard of Bigfoot before I dug into this article. And Slenderman, since the awful near-killing of a child to please him took place in my home state of Wisconsin. But who knew there were so many other monsters out there? I sure didn't.
- Angus Reid Global. "Americans More Likely to Believe in Bigfoot than Canadians." March 4, 2012. (Oct. 15, 2014) http://www.angusreidglobal.com/polls/americans-more-likely-to-believe-in-bigfoot-than-canadians/
- Associated Press. "Wild Story Produced in Wildlife Preserve." Spokane Daily Chronicle. Nov. 24, 1966 (Oct. 23, 2014). http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1338&dat=19661124&id=GA4zAAAAIBAJ&sjid=__cDAAAAIBAJ&pg=7343,4106464
- Animal Planet. "Lost Tapes Wendigo." (Oct. 16, 2014) http://www.animalplanet.com/tv-shows/lost-tapes/creatures/wendigo.htm
- Bigfoot Encounters. "State by State Sightings List." (Oct. 15, 2014) http://www.bigfootencounters.com/sbs/sbs.html
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- Biggs, John. "The Story Of Slenderman, The Internet's Own Monster." Tech Crunch. June 30, 2014. (Oct. 13, 2014) http://techcrunch.com/2014/06/30/the-story-of-slenderman-the-internets-own-monster/
- Dewey, Caitlin. "The complete, terrifying history of 'Slender Man,' the Internet meme that compelled two 12-year-olds to stab their friend." The Washington Post. June 3, 2014. (Oct. 13, 2014) http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/06/03/the-complete-terrifying-history-of-slender-man-the-internet-meme-that-compelled-two-12-year-olds-to-stab-their-friend/
- Florida Skunk Ape. "What Is The Florida Skunk Ape?" Oct. 13, 2007. (Oct. 16, 2014) http://www.floridaskunkape.com/what-is-the-florida-skunk-ape/
- Hayes, Joe. "La Llorona - A Hispanic Legend." Literacy Net. (Oct. 13, 2014) http://www.literacynet.org/lp/hperspectives/llorona.html
- History. "Mothman." (Oct. 16, 2014) http://www.history.com/videos/mothman#mothman
- Mothman Festival. "13th Annual Mothman Festival." (Oct. 15, 2014) http://mothmanfestival.com/
- McCullough, Chuck. "Donkey Lady tales travel around area." San Antonio Express-News. Oct. 25, 2012 (Oct. 25, 2014). http://www.mysanantonio.com/entertainment/halloween/article/Donkey-Lady-tales-travel-around-area-3979768.php
- Pickens, Sunny. "The Wampus Cat: Kills Animals, Steals Children, Smells Awful." Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association. May 30, 2011. (Oct. 13, 2014) http://sunnytennessee.wordpress.com/2011/05/30/the-wampus-cat-kills-animals-steals-children-smells-awful/
- Radford, Benjamin. "Bigfoot: Man-Monster or Myth?" Live Science. Nov. 6, 2012. (Oct. 13, 2014) http://www.livescience.com/24598-bigfoot.html
- Radford, Benjamin. "Mysterious Texas 'Blue Dog' Claimed to be Chupacabra." Discovery News. Aug. 29, 2013. (Oct. 15, 2014) http://news.discovery.com/animals/mysterious-blue-dog-in-texas-claimed-to-be-chupacabra-130829.htm
- Regal, Brian. "The Jersey Devil: The Real Story." Skeptical Inquirer. November/December 2013. (Oct. 15, 2014) http://www.csicop.org/si/show/the_jersey_devil_the_real_story
- Ross, Philip. "Is The Chupacabra Real? Why The Legend Of The 'Goat Sucker' Endures And What Science Says About It." International Business Times. April 9, 2012. (Oct. 13, 2014) http://www.ibtimes.com/chupacabra-real-why-legend-goat-sucker-endures-what-science-says-about-it-1569567
- Taylor, Troy. "The Wendigo." Ghosts of the Prairie. 2002. (Oct. 13, 2014) http://www.prairieghosts.com/wendigo.html
- The New Jersey Historical Society. "Legend of the New Jersey Devil." (Oct. 13, 2014) http://www.jerseyhistory.org/legend_jerseydevil.html
- Urban Legends Online. "Mothman." Aug. 8, 2012. (Oct. 13, 2014) http://urbanlegendsonline.com/mothman/
- Weird U.S. "The Legend of the Donkey Lady." (Oct. 13, 2014) http://www.weirdus.com/states/texas/local_legends/donkey_lady_bridge/
- Weiser, Kathy. "La Llorona – Weeping Woman of the Southwest." Legends of America. December 2012. (Oct. 16, 2014) http://www.legendsofamerica.com/gh-lallorona.html