Cover Story - Blake Smith busts mythic beasts on MonsterTalk””

Smith and his co-hosts use science to poke holes in deceptive claims of cryptid sightings

Beware, all of you Mothmen, Bat Boys and Bigfeet on the loose in the shadows. On the free audio podcast “MonsterTalk,” Kennesaw’s Blake Smith and his co-hosts Ben Radford and Dr. Karen Stollznow use science and skepticism to poke holes in some of the more spurious claims of cryptid sightings. Smith pays his mortgage with computer programming and web design, but has a passion for paranormal research, podcasting and writing. He discusses the appeal of creatures like the Altamaha-ha and the hazards of discussing “the Zapruder film of monsters.”

When did you first become interested in cryptids, and what do you do for your day job?
I first ran into monster stories back in elementary school where I tore through our little library’s collection of books on the topic. From maybe the second grade through present day I’ve just been fascinated with stories of the paranormal and cryptozoological. Researching paranormal topics and writing up my findings is a tremendously rewarding hobby, as is podcasting.

Why do cryptids like Bigfoot and the Altamaha-ha have such lingering appeal?
Creatures like “Altie” and Bigfoot have several vectors of engagement that make them “culturally sticky.” First, their existence is usually announced with compelling first-hand stories. Second, unless aspects of the creature break well-understood rules of biology, the existence of such unknown animals isn’t explicitly impossible. And finally, such stories tap into our storytelling and folklore behaviors— a compulsion with enormous power to preserve information.

Do you and your colleagues believe any cryptids could be real but as yet unidentified?
In our show “MonsterTalk” we had on paleontologist Dr. Darren Naish, a scientist who also has an interest in cryptids. He expressed the opinion that the creature called Orang Pendak (a tiny hominid, some call “Little Foot”) may turn out to be real. I still have a lot of doubts about that one, but I agree with Dr. Naish that the phenomena of Alien Big Cats (ABCs) is plausible. This is a class of cryptid that is comprised of sightings of exotic cats in areas where they should not be, such as in the suburbs of London. I’m willing to say that ABCs could be real because there is nothing inherently impossible about large cats being out of their normal environment. The majority of those cases turn out to be errors in observation — but Dr. Naish assures me there is likely at least one wild species of cat that has successfully established itself in England.

Do you think most cryptids sightings come from pranksters, or by people sincerely believe they’ve seen something extraordinary?
I’m inclined to think more people make mistaken sightings and don’t know what they saw. There are definitely pranksters out there too, but once a person has been primed for a monster, then any anomalous critter can become that monster in the mind’s eye.

Which cryptids do the “MonsterTalk” listeners contact you about the most?
Most of the “MonsterTalk” audience appears to be skeptical, though we do get occasional critiques about our details. You have to understand that when you talk about the Patterson-Gimlin film of Bigfoot in 1967, you’re talking about the Zapruder film of monsters. People fret over every frame as though they’re going to tease out some bit of incontrovertible detail that will prove or disprove the creature or the film’s veracity.

Although I’m a bit tired of Bigfoot as a topic, that’s the thing most people in our audience write us about. Fortunately we do get a good mix of other monsters in there and plan to cover some of the more “fantastic” monsters like dragons and unicorns in the future. Hopefully we’ll get to griffins soon as well. They’re one of those monsters that turn out to have an interesting tie-in with science and history - and a surprising basis in reality.

Could Altie be a prehistoric marine reptile or mammal that’s still alive but undiscovered, or is such a thing impossible?
It isn’t explicitly impossible for Altie to be a surviving relic of the Mesozoic, but for such a thing to be true it would have to be part of a large population. There would likely be many more sightings since such creatures had to surface for air. And despite the many classic descriptions of lake monsters with swan-like or serpent-like necks, actual plesiosaurs didn’t have that kind of neck flexibility. More interesting, and perhaps more easily explainable, are the reports of the animal as having multiple “humps.” There are real animals living in Georgia’s rivers and lakes that can appear to be an extremely long creature travelling through the water with humps. The common river otter sometimes exhibits a following-behavior where several of the animals will swim in a line surfacing and dipping — creating a very compelling illusion of a single undulating creature. Dolphins, and presumably manatees or dugongs, could also exhibit the same kind of behavior. People usually overestimate their own powers of observation, and the mind is far more adept at creating an explanation for what you’ve seen than at accurately replaying what you actually saw.