Six years ago, skeptical investigator Benjamin Radford released his book Tracking the Chupacabra in which he traced the modern story of the goat sucking monster back to 1995, when a series of events in Puerto Rico gave birth to the legend. After a series of mysterious attacks on animals in the spring of 1995 that left farmers thinking that sheep and other livestock had been killed and drained of blood (no evidence ever confirmed exsanguination), in August a woman named Madelyne Tolentino claimed to have seen a monster, describing what Radford correctly identifies as a description of the creature from the then-current movie Species. Shortly afterward, comedian and entertainer Silverio Pérez connected the monster and the mutilations and attached the name “goat sucker” (el chupacabra) to the monster.
I do not dispute any of these facts, and in so far as they go they are undoubtedly correct. But when Radford released the book he made a big point of the fact that no evidence of a vampire-like chupacabra existed prior to 1995, and he offered a $1,000 reward should anyone find such proof. After reading his brief dismissal of a known animal that has long been (falsely) accused of sucking the life out of goats and also passes under the name of goat-sucker (Latin: caprimulgis; Spanish: chotacabra; Portuguese: chupacabra)—known in English as the night jar—I wrote an article explaining that the development of the chupacabra legend seemed to owe something to the preexisting lore of the nightjar and that this myth seems to have influenced the shape that the chupacabra legend took. Nor was I the only one to say so: George M. Eberhart, writing in Mysterious Creatures (2002) said the same, based on still earlier sources, including a 1997 Fortean Times article that specifically compared chupacabra to the nightjar.
Six years after I wrote, Radford has published an article stating that I am wrong and that Occam’s Razor suggests that it is simply less cumbersome to assume that the story emerged ex nihilo than to suggest that folklore contributed, even indirectly, to the emerging story. This is a bit of a challenge to evaluate because the two of us are talking at cross-purposes a bit. Radford is probably correct that no, the people involved did not sit down and purposely assign nightjar legends to the lizard-monster. But I believe he is too quick to dismiss the idea that cultural background and older ideas influence the shape that new stories take.
As Radford wrote this past week, we differ in considering whether folklore and culture, rather than strictly the media, informed the development of the story:
Where we part ways is in seeing clear links between the subject of my book and the bird of lore. I briefly discuss the goatsucker bird in the first chapter of my book (see page 4). The chupacabra monster is very specifically a vampire: it sucks blood from its victims. The "goat sucker" bird that shares its name instead sucks milk from goats, which is a different theme--there are few reports of surviving chupacabra victims, as the monster's actions are typically said to be lethal. Also the word chupacabra (as specifically describing the subject of my book) was, from all indications referred specifically to rumors of goats being killed and drained of blood in rural Puerto Rico, not to the milk-drinking whippoorwill bird.
Radford goes on to criticize me for providing no evidence that the word chupacabra was associated with blood-sucking monsters before 1995. As I wrote at the time, the obsolete Spanish word chotar, meaning “to suck,” gave way to the modern Spanish chupar centuries ago, accounting for the difference between the older word-form of chotacabra and the newer chupacabra. “Colavito does not account for (or glosses over) the notable absence of chupacabra (as referring to the now-familiar vampiric monster, not the bird) between the time that ‘chotar’ became ‘chupar’ and the eve of this century,” Radford writes. That, I would posit, is a question for Pérez, who might have made up the word independently from its component parts or might have, in speaking off the cuff, modernized an older word. I don’t know what went on in his head. He’s still alive, so I guess I could ask, but he’s a famous TV personality and unlikely talk to me, and anyway, at this point he’s unlikely to provide a definitive answer; we don’t usually remember our subconscious influences.
The question, then, is whether the chotacabra of folklore bears any resemblance to the stories told of the chupacabra at its origin in 1995 that might suggest a connection. According to Radford, material prior to the first appearance of the legend in 1995 is not relevant unless there is a direct path of transmission. Zeitgeist doesn’t figure in.
To that end, we get into the issue of how similar stories need to be to show influence, and whether and how we should look for that influence. I’m not stupid; I know that it’s almost impossible to show a step-by-step direct set of translations and influences that lead from one story to another, especially when you are dealing with oral transmission of half-remembered stories. But they do happen. For example, current West Virginia stories of Mothman (a creature that almost certainly originated in a bird sighting) claim that it came out of a bunker built atop “an old Indian burial ground.” This element of the story seems a clear derivative of the old colonial legends, current down to the Victorian era in that same region, that Native American burial mounds were possessed of ghostly guardians. That story, in turn, comes out of European folklore translated to an American context. Is the influence direct? Probably not in the sense that one story was consciously modeled on the other. But the cultural background seems impossible to divorce from its modern expression. However, if we were to apply Radford’s rules, the deeper background is irrelevant since Mothman didn’t exist before 1966.
Similarly, if we did not have the FBI’s records of their investigation into how Ray Palmer generated the myth of the flying saucer out of pulp fiction parts and Kenneth Arnold’s ambiguous sighting, Radford would only say how amusing it is that flying metal spaceships appeared in Theosophy and pulp fiction before Kenneth Arnold saw one in 1947. After all, Arnold had not read the stories, and he wasn’t a Theosophist.
In my own work, my discovery that Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods reflected influence from H. P. Lovecraft wouldn’t quite meet Radford’s standards because von Däniken never read Lovecraft, only writers influenced by him. If his source had been oral rather than written, we would simply never know.
Radford is a minimalist, so he argues that because the Classical legend of the goatsucker, recorded by Aristotle in his History of Animals (9.21.2), referred to the bird sucking milk and not blood until the goat is made blind and not dead, there can be no connection to a blood-drinking, goat-killing vampire creature today. Personally, I find that to be a rather reductive way to look at folklore, which hardly remains static over the course of 2,500 years. Our concern is not what Aristotle believed but rather what connotations and impressions exsanguinated dead goats had in twentieth-century Puerto Rico, a culture made up of Spanish, American, and Native influences.
Here is where I think Radford goes wrong: He assumes that stories are literally transferred, verbatim, from formal written texts created by elite writers. They are not. But texts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries can help us get a glimpse of what people would have thought about when they heard the word “goatsucker” outside of the formal discourse in Classical literature and its academic commentaries. A manual for young ladies, written in 1829, speaks of “a vulgar error, which has been long exploded, that it sucked the blood of goats.” In other words, sometime between Aristotle and the 1800s, the milk had swapped out for blood in some forms of the nightjar myth. (Some scholars see a conflation with myths of blood-drinking owls—a story that even the nineteenth century translators of Pliny’s Natural History conflated with the nightjar and the vampire in their notes.) Other texts from the succeeding century described the nightjar as “poisoning the blood” of goats while sucking their milk. The American Museum of Natural History published as recently as last year a book saying that ancient lore claimed the bird sucked blood, attributing it (wrongly) to ancient Greece. Also in the 1800s, we find that the nightjar becomes lumped in with vampire bats and screech-owls, both believed (rightly or wrongly) to be blood-sucking creatures, further connecting it to vampirism. Here is one such connection in a commentary on the Bible. In short, in bastardized, popular form, the word “goatsucker” had become interchangeable with “vampire” long before 1995, even if the elites who write books didn’t deign to talk about this popular “error” except in passing.
Beyond this, the nightjar was also thought to be an evil spirit who caused a fatal distemper in young cows. But this is just the European side of things. Among native peoples of the Caribbean and the Americas, the bird had a widespread maleficent association as a vicious evil spirit associated with death and the underworld. (Oddly, in some parts of Europe it was considered a psychopomp, and Native Americans considered its song a harbinger of death, both strands of which survive as H. P. Lovecraft’s reference to the closely related whippoorwills in the same role in “The Dunwich Horror.” Spanish translations actually give the birds as chotacabras.) I laid this out years ago, but Radford considers this so much pointless speculation:
This is certainly an interesting theory but obscures the fact that the chupacabra referred specifically to rumors of goats being killed and drained of blood in rural Puerto Rico-not to the milk-drinking whippoorwill bird, nor evil ghosts, nor evil omens, nor Mayan guards of the Underworld, nor any of the other incarnations Colavito tries to group together.
I wasn’t trying to say that there was a coherent program of nightjar studies; rather, my point was that the word “goatsucker” had so many different connections to monstrous, vampirical, demonic, and other nasty connotations that the name and the myth might have taken their current form because a critical mass of early adopters were already primed to see the word in a specific bloodsucking, animal-killing context. After all, it isn’t the goat-drainer, or the chicken-sucker, or any other variant, nor did the explanations for the animal deaths continue down the path of the initially similar cattle mutilation narrative of the United States, which emerged in its own cultural context. (Both, for example were initially attributed to Satanic cults before lighting on a supernatural creature reflective of the respective territory’s lore. America got space aliens; Puerto Rico got a vampire monster.)
As I said above, Radford is very literal and very limited in how he chooses to view influence. In the 1990s, the formerly widespread nightjar of Puerto Rico was severely endangered and thought extinct. But what neither Radford nor I know since no one has done work on the subject (so far as I know) is how much of the folklore of the goatsucker remained in popular consciousness. I don’t—and did not—claim that the bird directly translated into the blood-sucking lizard monster of 1995, or as Radford claims I say, that “the bird lore influence is a more likely source for the chupacabra name than actual reports of the monster sucking blood from goats.” But given the fact that goats were not the primary victim of the creature (it was first accused of killing sheep and birds, and livestock of various stripes, and Radford conveniently speculates here about why goats might have been the most interesting victims to talk about), I can’t quite get over the idea that Pérez reached for the “goatsucker” moniker. Why did it stick? Surely the word meant something and carried connotations that made it an acceptable title in a way that, say, “blood lizard” was not. Radford would see this as speculation, but people don’t live in a vacuum and names stick because they fit into a cultural context, not just because somebody tried to impose one. The Byzantine emperors tried to impose the title of autokrator to replace the traditional kingly title of basileus, but it never stuck, nor did it when the Russian tsars tried to use it. Words have context, even if a given individual isn’t aware of all of the context that led to a given phrase.
I was also mildly annoyed at Radford for alleging that I was wrong to look at chupacabra stories from the perspective of the people who actually believe in them. He accuses me of assuming the monster existed before its 1995 creation, which is just silly, because I pointed out that stories similar to the chupacabra were folded into its myth even though the creatures assumed to be killing livestock back then weren’t goatsuckers:
Colavito's larger error, however, is in confusing a varied morass of (possibly or likely unrelated) reports of animal predation reports for early chupacabra reports. In other words, the variety of reports he cites as having been attributed to a single source ("the creature") could not have been since those reports predated the naming of that creature. The people at the time did not, and could not have, linked it to the chupacabra except retroactively, hence the varied descriptions of the attacker ranging from Bigfoot to giant birds. The post-hoc attribution of the attacks to the as-then-unnamed chupacabra is Colavito's, not the eyewitnesses or those who spoke to them. This is a common mistake in cryptozoology, in which only superficially related reports are grouped together and offered as evidence for a specific unknown animal…
Ah, but I am not attributing the reports to a single source; rather, the reports have been cited in tellings of the chupacabra legend, demonstrating that there had to be a specific reason that the goatsucker title stuck when giant birds, ape-creatures, and other explanations from the past simply did not. Other explanations had been proposed and failed. Why? The phrase “goatsucker,” even if Pérez stumbled upon it by coincidence, had to have resonated because it fit into a preexisting context of some sort. In more familiar terms: Why do we laugh at PC language? It’s because the constructions seem awkward and unnatural. They lack contextual meaning. For whatever reason, goatsucker fit better, and presumably that isn’t just by chance. This is why I feel uncomfortable with Radford’s dismissive idea that the word chupacabra just sounded good, and no other explanation was needed:
It is in fact logical and unsurprising that the word Pérez coined would and could have gained traction "absent an underlying familiarity with the ancient history of the goatsucker legend." Radio audiences, tabloid headline writers, and the public may have embraced the word because it was humorous, evocative, alliterative, or for any number of reasons unrelated to Colavito's theorized latent familiarity with Nightjar legends. Such an assumption is a textbook example of an unnecessary condition described by Occam's Razor.
Now, it is certainly possible that the word was generated more than once, but I’m not sure about it being “obvious.” We could point, on the plus side, to the chupaflores, which is not a monster but rather a hummingbird, literally a “flower sucker.” But on the other hand, the lack of similar constructions suggests that this is not the most obvious word form.
And there is another problem: I don’t require that Pérez be consciously aware of nightjar legends. I only suggest that the existence of such stories created the context for the word and the idea of a goat-sucking monster to take root in a way that the previous livestock-killing giant bird story could not. My whole point was that Radford, by intentionally dismissing any sort of background material in his pursuit of the claim that the entire story formed ex nihilo in 1995 artificially limits the field of exploration by dividing incident from cultural context. I think that context matters, and the reason that some stories succeed while others fail is because of the broader cultural context. UFO mythology could not have succeeded without Theosophy and pulp fiction laying the groundwork, even if individual UFO witnesses were unaware of the background.
Cultural beliefs shape fanciful narratives used to describe inexplicable events. You can’t have ghost stories without a preexisting cultural belief in a soul capable of surviving death. You can’t have stories of demonic possession without a preexisting cultural belief in infernal powers. You can’t have flying saucers without a belief in space travel. You won’t have stories of a mysterious animal sucking the blood of goats unless there was a preexisting belief that there are animals capable of engaging in vampire attacks on livestock. We should not pretend that cultural backgrounds are unimportant in understanding how stories emerge, grow, and spread. For example, flying saucers could have been conceived as anything. Karl Shuker once argued they were flying translucent jellyfish-like aerial animals. Yet our culture imagined them as technology and not biology because of our preexisting beliefs. These beliefs form the boundaries for what is considered acceptable or believable, and guide the shape we impose on ambiguous events.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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