A pilgrimage to a small town in America
One of my hobbies is dragging my patient wife to small towns to study beliefs and practices related to cryptozoology – the hunt for creatures, from Bigfoot to the Loch Ness monster, whose existence has not been scientifically proven.
In 2018, our summer âvacationâ included a stop in Bishopville, SC to attend the first annual Lizard Man Festival. Scape Ore Swamp Lizardman terrorized Lee County in 1988 – and, according to some, continues to do so today.
Bishopville isn’t the only city to turn local reports of terrifying paranormal encounters into annual festivals. Point Pleasant, West Virginia, a butterfly man party, while Flatwoods, West Virginia, has a festival honoring the Braxton County Monster. And every year you can go to Fouke, Arkansas, to celebrate the beast of boggy creek.
Cryptozoology is not a religion. But in his book “Haunted Ground: Journeys Through Paranormal AmericaDarryl Caterine argues that some “paranormal hotspots” function as sacred American spaces – at least for some people.
As a professor of religious studiesI am fascinated by the people who visit these small communities in search of strange creatures, and why many of these small towns have come to assume their role as places of pilgrimage.
The legend of the Lizard Man
Cryptid researcher Lyle Blackburn probably gives the best account of the Lizard Man saga in his book “Lizard Man: The True Story of the Bishopville Monster. ”
In July 1988, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office received a call from a resident of a small community called Browntown complaining that his car had been “mutilated” overnight, apparently by an animal.
When Sheriff Liston Truesdale began interviewing residents of Browntown, several described seeing a 7ft tall creature with red eyes – what someone eventually called “the lizard man.” Truesdale has made it known that if anyone knows anything about the damaged car or a strange creature, they should contact them.
On July 16, resident Tommy Davis brought his 17-year-old son Chris to the sheriff’s office. Chris Davis explained that when he returned home from his night shift at McDonald’s, he took a shortcut on a rural road and suffered a flat tire. After he finished changing it, he saw a green creature 7 feet tall, with three fingers on each hand and red eyes. When Davis tried to pull away, he jumped onto the roof of his ’76 Celica. Swinging back and forth, Davis dislodged him and escaped. Truesdale – who had after all asked the community for information about strange creatures – believed Davis was telling the truth. Chris even took a polygraph test and passed.
After Davis’ story became public, other sightings were reported, some plausible, others clearly made up. Soon armed groups were exploring the swamp. The media have descended on Bishopville. Locals began to sell Lizard Man t-shirts and other merchandise. Sheriff Truesdale has been interviewed by CBS’s Good Morning America and Dan Rather, and newspapers as far away as South Korea have made headlines for Lizard Man.
To date, the mystery has not been solved, with presumed observations as recently as 2015. But the chain of events – strange sighting, media attention, more sightings, followed by visits from curious tourists and monster hunters – unfolded in cities across the country. , from Point Pleasant to Roswell, New Mexico.
A mystery that terrifies and fascinates
If you thought a monster was real, why would you go to its supposed lair?
Many find legends like the Lizardman fascinating. But some become obsessed, eager to learn more about something both mysterious and frightening. In these monster hunters, I see elements of religion.
Theologian Rudolf Otto believed that there was an essence to religion which he called “the numinous”.
Otto asserted that religion is best understood by observing distant cultures where “its primitive quality of impulse and instinct” remains intact. For Otto, the numinous is experienced as a mysterium tremendum and fascinans – a mystery that terrifies and fascinates. This feeling arises from an encounter with “the whole other”, or what we cannot understand.
Listening to a lecture in Bishopville by Matthew Delph from Mountain Empire Cryptid Research Organization, I thought of Otto. Delph described his encounter with a Bigfoot on a hunt in Indiana, when the creature threw a log that narrowly missed its head. (Some believe Lizard Man was an misidentified Bigfoot.)
Delph recalls: “I was seeing something that is not supposed to exist.” He was scared but also haunted by the experience. He explained that his research was not so much about proving the existence of Bigfoot, but rather a personal need to “face this fear”.
Other festival-goers sought less direct links with the mystery using material and ritual objects. A researcher explained why he took bricks and lumber from a famous ‘bean shed’ near Davis ‘alleged meeting, adding:’ You want to take something tangible with you because the mystery is intangible.
While visiting Scape Ore Swamp, I heard an anecdote about the Boggy Creek Festival in Fouke. Someone said he was such a fan of the legend of Boggy Creek they wanted to be “baptized” in the swamp. The comment was facetious, but it betrayed a desire for something more closely related to the mystery.
Cryptozoology may not be a religion, but the early stages of ancient religions may not have been much different from the practices forming around these cryptid legends.
Margins and locals mix
To me, what makes Monster Festivals weird isn’t the creatures they celebrate, but rather the way they facilitate the blending of cultures that have traditionally defined themselves in opposition to each other.
Conventional wisdom is that struggling small towns should appeal to a nostalgic era when America was more conservative, more Christian, and simpler – not alien. Granted, monster festivals always attract local families with smiling children. But to bring back tourist dollars, they must draw other elements difficult to reconcile with what the professor of architecture Kirin J. Maker calls “”the myth of the main street. “
There is certainly what one might call a “cryptozoology tribe” that turns out for these festivals – the cryptid fan culture overlaps heavily with horror movie fans, conspiracy theorists and a “psychobilly“aesthetic. Black t-shirts, tattoos and badges for” The Misfits “abound.
These quirky tastes may be part of the reason why small towns typically don’t invest in monster festivals until they have to. The transformation of bizarre police reporting monsters into community emblems seems to go hand in hand with the destruction of small town economies by the forces of globalization and urbanization.
John Stamey, the mastermind of the Lizard Man festival, modeled it directly at the Mothman Festival in Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Like Point Pleasant, Bishopville has a struggling Main Street with empty storefronts.
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Here I see another link with religious traditions. Pilgrimage has always been an economic phenomenon and many medieval towns depended on local miracle accounts to attract pilgrims. By inviting the cryptozoology tribe, today’s small towns celebrate aspects of the local culture that were once pushed to the periphery or mocked. But like medieval towns of the past, their local economies are also getting a big boost.
At the same time, these festivals attract middle-class city dwellers like me who want to learn more about places that many Americans have forgotten or forgotten about. do not understand.
Granted, some in Bishopville would rather forget about the Lizardman, while some Americans might not want to know more about Bishopville. But the strange American pilgrims continue to draw our attention to the edges.