In the latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer (January/February 2016), Benjamin Radford has an article on his further research into the folklore surrounding the chupacabra, the legendary vampire-like creature that rose to popularity in the late 1990s. A few years ago Radford proposed that the chupacabra was invented in 1995 by a Puerto Rican woman who confused elements of the movie Species for real life, and Radford maintains that there are no references to the cattle-mutilating monster prior to 1995. In his latest article, Radford reinforces this conclusion and explores some of the latest permutations of the chupacabra myth.
Shortly after Radford published his Tracking the Chupacabra in 2011, I published an article taking issue with Radford’s claim in the book that “no serious researcher would suggest” that the chupacabra mentioned in the writings of Aristotle (History of Animals 21.2) is the same as the Puerto Rican monster. Here I should back up just a bit and summarize my findings: the modern colloquial Spanish term chupacabra (literally: suck [chupar] goat [cabra]) is a modernization of the older Spanish term chotacabra, which means “goat-sucker” and has been the popular name for the bird known as the night-jar since Greek times (aegothelas) and Roman times (caprimulgus). (Chupar succeeded chotar as the verb for “to suck” in the twentieth century, probably from Portuguese influence.) The goat-sucker was so named because the ancients believed it sucked goats dry of milk at night (from its habit of flying between their legs, which they mistook for efforts to reach their udders). By the Middle Ages, the goatsucker’s milk fetish had become conflated with the owl’s alleged vampire-like blood sucking (Ovid, Fasti 6.131ff), thus giving rise to the idea of a bloodthirsty, cattle-killing monster bird. This myth traveled with the Spanish to the Americas, where the nightjar remained known as the chotacabra. In the New World, the nightjar was long associated with death and evil spirits, so it is no great stretch to see how the name chupacabra became associated with alleged blood-sucking monsters. So, while Radford is undoubtedly correct that Madelyne Tolentino mistook Species for real life on a given night in 1995, the reason that the imaginary monster took on the name chupacabra, given to it by comedian Silverio Pérez in the wake of mysterious animal deaths, must be connected to thousands of years of folklore in both hemispheres, which Radford continues to reject because it doesn’t fit his narrative whereby the uneducated latched on to a movie out of ignorance and gullibility.
In his new article, Radford displays a similar noninterest in the historical origins of the claims he wants to dismiss. He recounts a growing piece of modern fake-lore which claims that Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján, in searching for the Seven Cities of Gold in New Mexico, was attacked by chupacabras, which killed his expedition’s cattle. The story is told in Bob Curran’s books American Vampires (2012) and Vampires: A Field Guide to the Creatures That Stalk the Night (2005), which assert that the monsters resembled “little gray men” with “hard and spiky skins” or “horny skin.” According to Curran, the monsters tried to eat the cattle’s internal organs but were repelled with flaming torches and spears, though not without killing many of the cattle, which were replaced with purchases from the Zuni. Later, the Zuni allegedly told Coronado the history of the goatsuckers, that they feasted on their goats and cattle, and that they were shape-shifters.
Radford’s investigation of this story begins with noting its impossibility—Coronado and the Zuni could not speak each other’s languages, for one—and ends with Radford asking Curran if it is true, to which Curran replied, “I’ve used the Coronado story in a couple of books but I’ve no idea whether it’s true or not.” In the books Curran provides no source other than “a legend,” which he doesn’t bother to source. Granted, in an article there isn’t a lot of room for developing an investigation, but surely Radford might have checked the historical sources to see if there is any grounding for the story rather than accepting Curran’s ignorance as an admission of falsity. After all, why speculate when we can marshal facts to at least contextualize the fabrication.
Frankly, it’s hard not to think that Curran’s story takes its inspiration from the famous Trilogy of Terror (1975) sequence in which a Zuni fetish doll attacks a young woman in her apartment.
As it happens, Coronado’s livestock drive across New Mexico was one of the feats of its age and a major foundation for the ranching industry in the southwestern United States. Coronado’s team, traveling in 1540, brought with them 558 horses, 600 mules, 500 cattle, 5,000 sheep, and perhaps a few pigs. These animals they brought from Nueva Galicia in Mexico across Arizona and into New Mexico with exceptionally small losses along the way. These facts are given in the journals of the expedition’s members.
The story, as given in Curran’s text, is clearly a fake (the Natives did not herd cattle, so they could not have sold any to Coronado, for example), but it seems to draw on some real incidents from Coronado’s expedition to give it color. The incident seems to be modeled on two Native attacks on Coronado’s herd of horses, once in July 1540, when Natives shot the horses out from under the Spanish with arrows, and again in the winter of 1540-1541, when the Tiguex captured and massacred more than sixty horses in one night in a dispute over grazing rights. This attack was recounted by Juan Troyano in testimony before Lorenzo de Tejada, charged with auditing Coronado’s governance of Nueva Galicia. (He would charge Coronado with misconduct, but Coronado was exonerated.)
Anyway, Radford rightly concludes that the story is improbable, but his objections never enter into evidence the testimony of the surviving members of the Coronado expedition and the lack of documentary support for the story that Curran gives. Interestingly, the key to the story might be in an offhand aside that some who copied and expanded on the story provide, describing the little monsters as “devil men.” According to an article appearing in the Gallup Independent for November 18, 1946, an archaeologist found rock art depicting conquistadors surrounded by “three or four devil men, figures much resembling the customary representation of devils.” Now, obviously, in one day I’m not going to be able to do the research to discover the actual origins of the story, but Radford has, by his own admission, been studying the Coronado legend for more than two and a half years.
Given that we can find parts of the modern story reflected in history and art—in wildly different contexts—it seems likely that Curran, if we give him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t simply make it up, picked up some modern oral history influenced by the 1990s-era craze for the chupacabra and few real life details and repeated it uncritically as a historic legend.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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