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Mistaken Memories of Vampires: Pseudohistories of the Chupacabra

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Benjamin Radford

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 40.1, January/February 2016

Most people assume that the chupacabra, like its cryptozoological brethren Bigfoot and Nessie, dates back many decades or centuries. However, as discussed in my book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore and in the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer, the origin of the mysterious vampire beast el chupacabra can be traced back to a Puerto Rican eyewitness who saw the 1995 film Species, which featured a nearly identical monster. Though both vampire legends and “mysterious” animal predation date back many centuries, there seems to be no evidence of any blood-sucking “chupacabra” before the 1990s.

The beast turned twenty last year, and its recent vintage poses a thorny problem for those who wish to claim it exists, because any evolutionary provenance for these unknown monsters is glaringly absent. Real animals don’t simply appear out of nowhere; all animals are subject to the same evolutionary pressures and must have descended from earlier, equally known animals. The tree of life simply doesn’t have a branch for the chupacabra, any more than it does for Bigfoot, Nessie, dragons, or the Jersey Devil.1

When forced to account for this conspicuous lack of historical record, proponents often co-opt native myths and legends of supernatural spirits, taking them out of context and mischaracterizing them as actual eyewitness accounts of encounters with unknown corporeal creatures. (For more on this process, see Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero’s Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids; and Michel Meurger’s Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross-Cultural Analysis; as well as the book I coauthored with Joe Nickell, Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World’s Most Elusive Creatures.)


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The chupacabra has two origin stories invoked to help explain its sudden appearance: the first is that the creature is an extraterrestrial brought here by visiting aliens; the second is that the chupacabra is an escaped entity created in a top-secret U.S. government genetics laboratory experiment gone wrong—essentially a classic conspiracy-laden Frankenstein scenario. Not coincidentally, these two origin stories are identical to those of Sil, a chupacabra-like monster in the film Species (see Figure 1 and Radford 2014).

The alien/Frankenstein’s monster explanation, though embraced by many Puerto Ricans and others soon after the chupacabra’s 1995 appearance, was unsatisfactory (and perhaps too outlandish) to some, who then offered their own histories of the vampire beast. A blank slate history creates an information vacuum easily filled by mystery-mongering speculation. (For analysis of historical chupacabra claims since the 1950s, see my SI columns “The Mystery of the Texas Chupacabra” in the March/April 2014 issue and “Texas Monsters and the Chupacabra” in the May/June 2015 issue.)

Figure 1a. The movie monster from the film Species.
Figure 1b. The “chupacabra” first described in 1995 in Puerto Rico by eyewitness Madelyne Tolentino, which she’d recently seen. Illustration by the author.

Chupacabra Lore Attributed to Early New Mexico

Because the chupacabra first appeared in Puerto Rico and for several years was mostly reported in Spanish-speaking countries, it’s not surprising that Latin America would serve as a plausible setting for an origin story. In his book Enchanted Legends and Lore of New Mexico, Ray John De Aragon includes a fanciful tale titled “The Sheepherder and the Chupacabra,” in which a shepherd named Francisco recounts a story:

Dona Serafina, the old curandera [medicine woman] . . . said that many, many years ago, people were finding dead cattle, dead chickens, dead cibolos (bison), dead sheep, and goats and even a person who seemed like the blood had been drained out. Since whatever it was mainly attacked goats, she said—a goatsucker—the people called the mystery animal a chupacabra. Dona Serafina went on to tell them that ancient Indians had this strange breed of animal. She said that she herself had seen one with her own eyes following an Indian witch doctor who had it as a pet. “The chupacabra stopped and stared at me,” she said. “It was an evil stare that sent a chill up and down my spine. But I was not going to show it that I was afraid. I just took out my detente, my picture with an embroidered edge that said [in English] The Sacred Heart of Jesus is with me. Detentes are to keep evil away from you and protect you. When the chupacabra saw the detente, it gave me a mad stare and followed its master, dragging its long skinny tail and turning to look back at me every now and then. I just held my detente out with my hand toward him. I don’t go anywhere without my detente. You never know when you’re going to see a chupacabra.”

Some time after hearing this emotional story, while out on the plains tending sheep, Francisco encountered

a strange creature . . . sniffing and giving the shepherd a mad stare. . . . It was a chupacabra, and it hungrily looked around at the scared sheep. Francisco took his detente out of his shirt pocket, and while holding it in his hand he recited the Lord’s Prayer several times in succession. The chupacabra looked at him with its red eyes and growled fiercely, then turned and walked away. His detente had saved his life. (De Aragon 2012, 91–92)

Anyone familiar with folklore or the true story of the chupacabra—and I modestly count myself in both categories—will recognize that it has no basis whatsoever in fact or history. If it is indeed a “legend” of New Mexico, it’s a new one fabricated in 2012 by De Aragon with no truth or historical provenance. It’s a brand new story featuring a creature that first appeared in 1995, retroactively providing the beast with a fictional—and to many readers likely plausible—ancient heritage. The idea that a chupacabra was kept as a pet by a Native American witch doctor centuries ago is a novel twist, and the theme of a threatening demonic beast being scared off by the faithful who invoke Jesus is straight out of standard Catholic canon. (For more on the chupacabra being used as a symbol of Satan by religious authorities—primarily Pentecostals—see pages 53 to 55 in Tracking the Chupacabra.)

This fictional story, while making for an entertaining tale, runs the very real risk of being taken as a genuine historical legend by the book’s readers. Though De Aragon clearly created the story, he implies that it is based on a legend told to him as true. Folklorists are careful to give references and citations for the stories they offer, to demonstrate both scholarly diligence and proper attribution, but these are unfortunately absent in De Aragon’s book.

Figure 2. A garbled—and possibly nonexistent—legend suggests that conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado encountered knife-wielding cannibal dwarves while exploring what is now New Mexico in the 1500s. Illustration by Celestia Ward.

Even if De Aragon had heard some odd kernel of a demon vampire story that he embellished into his chupacabra tale, the details and facts he offers are so far removed from the original sources that any historical account of a real chupacabra encounter is hopelessly lost and garbled. Absent even a shred of corroborating evidence (for example, a written historical mention of the creature or even an independent “eyewitness” account of an encounter with one), it’s safe to assume that this “legend” is wholly fictional.

Coronado, Zuni, and the Chupacabra

Another “legendary” claim to a natural history of the chupacabra comes from Bob Curran in his book Vampires: A Field Guide to the Creatures That Stalk the Night. He describes early explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado’s encounter with the goatsucker (see Figure 2). In a chapter titled “El Chupacabra,” Curran writes:

A legend says that as he camped during the night, Coronado’s livestock were attacked. It is told that some of his men drove off the attackers—described as small, dark, horny-skinned men—with torches and spears. In the morning, many of the cattle, which made up the main herd (1,500 animals), were dead, drained of blood. Despite this setback, Coronado was able to buy cattle from local Indians, replacing most of those that he’d lost, and press onward in his quest. In the Zuni Indian pueblo at Hawikuh in Western New Mexico, he heard tales of strange grey men “with knives on their backs” who had sporadically fought with the Zunis in times long past. They could jump, the Zunis told him, and drop off their warriors from above, killing them with pointed sticks. It was said, the Zunis went on, that they drank blood. These tales were of little interest to Coronado, as his destination was the legendary Cibola, and all this talk of ferocious dwarves was only a distraction. (Curran 2005, 46)

There are many clues that this story—confused as it is—is not true. To his credit, Curran does offer several caveats about its veracity (“a legend says . . .” “it is told that . . .” etc.), and as with De Aragon’s legend it’s important to pay attention to this story’s fifthhand provenance: Curran is describing what a legend says that Coronado claims about what he heard from Zuni Indians when they told him about what their forefathers told them they did a half-millennia ago.

I have no idea what, if anything, this alleged legend means, and Curran clearly doesn’t either. Spanish conquistador Coronado was of course attacking and killing Zunis, not swapping friendly stories with them, and it’s possible that the tribe told him the stories of the savage knife-spined dwarfs as an indirect warning to Coronado of the dangers his men faced in the area unless they moved along. Even if the legend is true—and there’s no reason to think it is—there’s also the problem that Spaniards and Indians didn’t speak the same language; in fact, the two groups communicated largely through hand signals and rough interpretations.

In his book Cities of Gold: A Journey Across the American Southwest in Pursuit of Coronado, Douglas Preston (1992) describes several instances in which the meanings of words and messages got mangled and mistranslated between Coronado and Zunis (chickens were mistaken for turkeys and cattle for buffalo, for example). When communicating important messages from Coronado “it is unclear just how much of this the Zuni understood,” Preston notes, which is not surprising since messages between the groups were “explained through signs” (285). Preston states that Coronado “asked the Indians to paint a cloth for him showing all the animals in the area, which they did” (304). It depicted buffalo, elk, coyotes, and other known animals—yet the chupacabra was conspicuously missing.

A more serious problem is that—even assuming for the moment that details of the legend are true and that Coronado accurately understood and reported what he heard from the Zuni—there’s no clear connection with the chupacabra. Chupacabra have appeared in various forms and been reported to have a disparate variety of features including wings, a tail, red eyes, and so on—none of the reports described “small, dark, horny-skinned men” or “strange grey men” or “ferocious [warrior] dwarves” armed with torches and spears. Even assuming the description has some basis in fact, the “knives” mentioned on the backs could simply describe where these mysterious “dwarves” sheathed their blades. The vampirism claim, though also superficially aligned with the chupacabra, is in fact unremarkable and standard lore universally used to demonize enemies (with echoes of the blood libel myths as well).

Curran offers another (even more confusing and improbable) version of this story in his book American Vampires: Their True Bloody History from New York to California. It concerns Coronado’s expedition whose cattle were attacked one night.

The attackers were “little gray men” with hard and spiky skins, which set upon the animals in order to draw their blood and consume some of their internal organs. They were only driven away by fire—the men held lighted torches to push them back. Local natives later told the Spaniards that these were chupacabras (goat suckers) and that they lived in the surrounding hills. They were cannibals who drank blood, and, if confronted they would attack humans as well as animals. It was said that they only came at night. . . . Locals told them that the beings . . . had lived there for a very long time, attacking their goats and cattle and sometimes themselves, and that there were some among them who could change shape, taking on the guise of a bird or coyote. (Curran 2013b, 190)2

Cannibals, of course, eat their own kind and therefore the “chupacabras” Curran describes would be neither extraterrestrial nor canid nor demon but instead human—an identification reinforced by the descriptions of them as “little men” using spears. But of course this “legend” is not internally consistent, as these “chupacabras” are also magical shape-shifting creatures.

Thus we see that the dramatic, specific, and mysterious details offered in the legend are unlikely in the extreme. Even if the Zuni did in fact try to describe some animal unknown to the invading Spaniards, who knows how garbled the description must have been (between Zuni hand signs and drawings translated into Spanish and later to English) to end up with something like “strange grey men with knives on their backs.”

If this story is not made out of whole cloth, then its fabric content certainly approaches 100 percent. Again, despite the legend repeatedly invoking the label chupacabra to describe the mythical cannibalistic, vampiric, gray dwarves that Coronado is dubiously reported to have heard about, the connection to the chupacabra is virtually nonexistent. To clarify the question about the source—and therefore historical veracity—of this story I contacted Curran, who told me “I’ve used the Coronado story in a couple of books but I’ve no idea whether it’s true or not.”3

Ancient Alien and Pre-Atomic Age Chupacabras

Other pseudohistories of the chupacabra can be found in a sensational, special edition of the Spanish-language magazine Contacto OVNI (UFO Con-tact), which contains an article titled “El Chupacabras Hace 70 Anos” (“70 Years of the Chupacabra”) and offered wild conjecture about the creature’s origins, including a section titled “Chupacabras of the Pre-Atomic Era,” which tries in vain to link the beast to a wholly unrelated 1925 news story about animal predation in Africa (Romero 1996).

In the archives of the Universidad Interamericana at Bayamon, Puerto Rico, I discovered another Spanish-language booklet, rather boldly titled La Verdadera Historia del Chupacabras (The True History of Chupacabras), which purports to reveal the true history of the beast. After beginning with long-since discredited accounts of the chupacabra by UFO researcher Jorge Martin, the ninety-six-page book—written under the name Redaccion Noticiosa (1996)—suggests that the Taino Indians (an Arawak-related group who inhabited many Caribbean islands when Columbus reached the Americas) knew of the chupacabra. It notes that “figures of beasts are prominent in the mythology and artifacts found in the Taina culture” (translation mine); and “We here at Redaccion Noticiosa believe that the presence of the chupacabra dates back to the pre-Conquest days when the Tainos ruled the island.”

The booklet goes on to theorize that the Tainos’ reverence for the El Yunque rainforest and the deities they believed existed there (claimed by some to be the home of the original chupacabra) allowed the animal to thrive there. Nonetheless, the Tainos would apparently hunt—and sometimes eat—the chupacabra, as depicted in a fantastic drawing illustrating a stereotypical scene of an armed Taino man watching a woman preparing food next to a chupacabra being roasted on a spit over an open fire (see Figure 3).

Perhaps the most outlandish fictional origin story for the chupacabra presented as speculative fact comes from writer Scott Corrales, contributing a chapter on the beast to a book of conspiracy theories. In it he quotes a Chilean researcher named Ferrer who was told by an elderly man that “‘his grandfather’s grandfathers’ were well aware that these predators [chupacabras] existed and that they were, in fact, gods who came to leave messages. In the past, these messages were articulated as complete sentences, but now they were numerical in nature . . . 666—the mark of the beast” (Corrales 2004, 127). Corrales gives free rein to this fact-free speculation and conjecture, concluding by asking ominously, “Who or what are these strange deities feared and worshipped by the ancient Atacamans [people from Atacama, Chile]? . . . . What would occur if the Atacamans neglected to perform the [blood sacrifice] ritual? Did their deities send monstrous minions [i.e., chupacabra] to collect the blood they needed?” (Corrales 2004).

Figure 3. Taino couple roast a chupacabra over an open fire. From La Verdadera del Chupacabras. San Juan, Puerto Rico: Redaccion Noticiosa.

Conclusion

I’ve discovered several examples of fabricated pseudohistories of the chupacabra, ranging from Zuni medicine man pet to vampiric minions sent by Mesoamerican deities to spear-wielding cannibal shape-shifting dwarves. I don’t begrudge authors their speculative historical fiction—Curran and De Aragon are fine storytellers who offer vivid, engaging stories based on myths and legends—but one false explanation is as good as any other absent references or documentation.

The true history of the chupacabra is a fascinating and improbable story in its own right, full of conspiracy theories, vampire lore, and media hype. Presenting fabricated stories as “legends” only serves to blur the lines between fact and fiction—lines that researchers such as myself have worked hard to clarify (for years I have had a standing, unclaimed $1,000 reward for any verifiable, published pre-1990s reference to a vampiric chupacabra anywhere in the world).The gradual expansion of what is popularly called a “chupacabra” is common; in my book I describe how the word originally referred to a very specific alien-type creature in the mid-1990s but had expanded to include hairless canids by 2000, and by 2010 virtually any animal not immediately identifiable was dubbed (either informally or by the news media) as a chu-pacabra. This same phenomenon has occurred in the literature as well, with stories under the name “chupacabra” retroactively applied to legends and rumors that historical figures claimed to have heard about some strange encounter. Since the references here predate the publication of my research, it’s too soon to tell what effect, if any, it will have in correcting the record.

The migration of narrative themes seen in these and other pseudohistories of the chupacabra is to be expected. Rumor, urban legends, and folklore are not fixed but instead are constantly changing. As the researcher who first identified the origin of the chupacabra, I can lament the confounding stories that have emerged around this Hispanic vampire beast. However, the forces of folklore cannot be stopped, and trying to correct the record is a Canutian task. Folklore has a life of its own, and the best I can do is explain the true origin of the chu-pacabra back as far as I can and help document the monster’s spread in pop culture. The information is there for those who wish to look, but I know better than most that the truth never stands in the way of a good story.



Notes

  1. There have, of course, been various attempts to place mythical creatures within an evolutionary framework. For a fascinating look at taxonomical attempts to find a place for fairies, water spirits, and angels in a Darwinian worldview, for example, see Charles W. Leadbeater’s 1913 book The Hidden Side of Things.
  2. It’s not clear in this legend why animals that look and act exactly like coyotes—which are well known to attack livestock, including goats and cattle—were assumed by locals to not be coyotes at all but instead chupacabras that had cleverly changed into coyote form before attacking the livestock. This seems rather like assuming that a pet dog that soiled the floor must have really been an unknown shape-shifting animal at the time—instead of the dog it obviously was—because a beloved pet wouldn’t do that.
  3. Curran told me: “According to my notes it comes from a book which I was shown in the Biblioteca National in Barcelona a good number of years ago. The book is Las Adventuras del Gran General Francesco de Coronado, Explorador y Goberndor de Nueva Galicia y Otres en America and the date I have for it is 1895. For some reason I don’t have the author but it is published in Madrid or so my notes say. It is in Catalan Spanish (I think that it’s Catalan) but I got a friend to translate some portions for me” (Curran 2013a).

References

Benjamin Radford

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author, co-author, contributor, or editor of twenty books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Bad Clowns; his next, Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits, will be out in Fall 2017.