(CNN) — Rachel Gendreau was driving on a deserted rural road one October night when she decided to take a shortcut through a patch of thick woods.
There was a full moon that night, and the road was tinged with an eerie glow. As Gendreau chatted with her fiancé, she squinted into the darkness ahead and saw something strange: A massive wolflike creature was standing upright in the road, staring at her with shimmering white eyes.
As Gendreau drew closer, the creature leaped from the road and bounded into the woods.
“What the hell was that?” Gendreau sputtered. “Did you see it?”
“I don’t know what it was, but it had dog legs,” said her fiancé.
Gendreau looked into the rearview mirror and had another scare: The beast had circled behind her car in a flash and was watching her again with those glittering white eyes as she and her fiancé sped away.
Gendreau didn’t know it at the time, but she had spotted the Wolfman of Chestnut Mountain, an elusive creature that people had sighted in rural Illinois for years. You may not have heard of the Wolfman, but chances are there’s some strange creature lurking near you — and a group of monster hunters is hot on its trail.
Have you met the ‘Horny Werewolf’?
America may be divided by red and blue states, but virtually every state is a “monster” state. Just as each has its own flag, most have an unusual creature people have been claiming to see for years. Bigfoot is the most well-known, but thousands of people say they’ve seen all kinds of wolfmen, prehistoric birds, giant bats and bizarre creatures living among us.
In this United States of Monsters, some creatures have been sighted so often that they’ve become virtual celebrities. There’s the Jersey Devil, a creature so real that police with bloodhounds reportedly once tried to corner it; the Dover Demon, a Massachusetts monster that climbs walls like an insect and has an egg-shaped head; and the Mothman, a huge winged creature with red eyes that has supposedly chased terrified drivers in West Virginia.
Monsters are so hot that they’ve spawned their own subculture. Cable shows such as “Mountain Monsters” and “Monsters & Mysteries in America” draw big audiences; monster investigators hold national conventions and Sasquatch festivals; and eyewitnesses meet online to swap shaky, blurry videos of monster sightings and swap monster-hunting tips.
Monsters have become so popular that they’ve even become sex symbols. “Monster erotica” is a new book genre. People are self-publishing stories about creatures kidnapping and ravishing women with titles such as “Moan for Bigfoot” and “The Horny Werewolf.” Serious. No hoax.
It all may sound new and bizarre, but people have been swapping stories about monsters since prehistoric man drew pictures of them on cave walls. Greek mythology gave us the fierce Medusa, whose frightening visage turned men into stone; the Bible gave us the massive sea creature called the Leviathan in Job, and the beast with seven heads and 10 horns in the Book of Revelation. Hinduism gave us the Makara, a legendary sea monster — the list goes on.
“People like a good scare,” says Linda S. Godfrey, author of “American Monsters,” which features Gendreau’s Wolfman sighting. “People have been telling campfire stories forever. We like to know that there’s something out there bigger than us.”
But why are so many Americans getting into monsters now? Some suggest it’s a rebellion against modern life.
There are no more uncharted regions of the globe marked by the declaration, “Here there be monsters.” In the sprawling sameness of the global village, everything looks the same: People go to the same chain restaurants, listen to the same pop music and wear the same jeans.
Monster hunters are some of the last romantics; they believe there’s still magic and mystery out there, says Rob Morphy, an artist who has collected accounts of monster sightings at American Monsters since 2000.
“We live in a time when even though the world has been Google-Earthed to death and GPS’d to the infinitesimal point, there are really large stretches of land that have not been explored and thousands of miles of oceans that no human being has set foot in,” Morphy says. “Extraordinary discoveries await us.”
How people discovered monsters
History backs Morphy up.
Monster hunters may seem flaky to some, but there’s historical precedent for their passion. Mythical creatures have been discovered before, as have animals thought to be extinct. The giant squid was a sea legend until one was caught on film in 2006. The Coelacanth, an armor-plated fish, was thought to have gone extinct 66 million years ago but was discovered by a museum curator in 1938 in South Africa.
Someone even found an earlier version of Bigfoot. For centuries, European explorers returning from Africa told stories of massive man-beasts that were covered with hair and had immense strength. One of them then “discovered” the man-beast in the early 20th century. We now know it as the mountain gorilla.
Many monster hunters don’t even like that term. Some prefer to call themselves cryptid investigators, a term taken from the fledgling field of cryptozoology, the study of animals thought to be extinct or mythological.
“There’s a good chance that what we call monsters are actually unknown and unidentified natural creatures that have learned to be very elusive,” Godfrey says.
The people who see these monsters cross all demographics, she says. They’re police officers, businessmen, housewives, doctors. They often remain silent because they’re traumatized or don’t want to be ridiculed.
“Their color completely drops, and they turn completely white as they relive the story,” she says. “They cry; their hands are shaking. You can tell that they’re reliving something that’s very real to them.”
A prehistoric bird in Wisconsin?
John Bolduan, the owner of a light fixture company in Minnesota, is one of those people. He is still bewildered by something he saw on a sunny summer day nine years ago.
He was biking on a deserted road near Webb Lake in north Wisconsin when he spotted an unusual bird in a field. He hopped off his bike and crept into the field to get a closer look. He says he saw something that looked like a prehistoric bird. It stood about 7 feet tall, had an immense storklike beak and was covered with silver-gray feathers. It took off when it noticed him, he says.
“I got a little frightened,” Bolduan says. “It was unbelievably huge, not something you want to mess with.”
Bolduan returned home and went online searching for large birds. He couldn’t find anything that matched what he saw. An evangelical Christian, he says the experience challenged his faith — was the bird a demon, or a prehistoric animal? Some conservative Christians don’t believe dinosaurs ever existed. He says he had never read much before about Bigfoot or other monster sightings. He was too busy running his business.
“That kind of stuff I didn’t have time for,” he says. “I barely knew about it.”
He tried to forget the experience as the years passed, but he gave Godfrey a call one day after hearing her on the radio. She later featured his story in “American Monsters.”
“It doesn’t leave me,” he says of his experience. “It’s bothersome because there’s no explanation for it. It doesn’t make any sense at all. It would have been easier if I had never seen it.”
How monster hunters are upping their game
Some people, though, envy Bolduan. They want to see a monster, and they’re willing to tramp into the woods at all hours of the night to find one.
Monster hunting used to be strictly old school. Some excited hunter snapped shots of mysterious footprints, or squeezed off a blurry photo of an animal moving in the tree line. Yet Bigfoot always seemed to be one step ahead. Nobody could seem to grab him.
Now Bigfoot should be getting nervous. Monster hunters are upping their game. They’re using night-vision equipment, sophisticated listening devices, camera traps activated by motion sensors and even drones that fly over rugged forests inaccessible to human beings.
The high-tech evolution of monster hunting has been championed by television. Cable TV is full of monster documentaries and reality shows depicting grizzled men in camouflage stumbling through the woods with night-vision goggles while blurting out, “Did you hear that?”
One cable network has become monster central. Destination America offers five monster hunting shows: “Mountain Monsters,” “Monsters & Mysteries in America,” “Monsters Underground,” “Swamp Monsters” and the latest, “Alaska Monsters,” which premiered in September.
“We leave no monster unturned,” says Marc Etkind, Destination America’s general manger and the man who helped bring monsters to the network.
“Monsters are starting to pitch us,” he joked.
The network’s most popular show is “Mountain Monsters,” which features a group of elite hunters in the Appalachians wearing overalls and sporting ZZ Top beards while tracking down legendary beasts such as the Fire Dragon and Hogzilla. The first episode of “Mountain Monsters” was the most popular telecast in the network’s history, and the series has been renewed for a second season.
“We’re always finding evidence, but we haven’t found that one crucial clue,” Etkind says. “We haven’t caught a monster in a trap — yet.”
The best monster evidence so far
That “yet,” however, is why so many people are skeptical about the monster hunting business. There’s always a “yet” or a “but” with monster hunting. There have been many stories of monster hunters catching something, but so far they’ve always turned out to be a hoax.
In 2012, for example, scientists at Oxford University and the Lausanne Museum of Zoology in Switzerland examined hair samples submitted by people from around the globe who claimed to have stalked Bigfoot.
Bigfoot apparently likes to travel. Variations of Bigfoot-like creatures, or “hairy hominids,” have been spotted around the globe for years. In Australia, they call a giant, apelike creature the Yowie; in the Himalayas it’s called Yeti or the Abominable Snowman; in the Pacific Northwest some call it Sasquatch.
Some scientists, though, still call this creature a hoax. Using DNA sequencing, the scientists at Oxford and the Lausanne museum returned the results: All the Bigfoot samples came from animals such as bears, wolves and raccoons.
Still, though, there’s one piece of monster evidence that stands above the rest.
On October 20, 1967, Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin were riding their horses in Bluff Creek, a wooded area in Northern California, when they said they came upon an apelike creature. The creature started to flee, but Patterson said he managed to film it before it disappeared into the brush.
The wobbly film doesn’t last a minute, but it is captivating. It has the look of an old home movie — except it’s of a massive apelike creature walking in a forest clearing in the sunlight. The creature looks over its shoulder at the camera as if it’s annoyed to be filmed.
The Patterson-Gimlin film has been dissected seemingly as much as the Zapruder film of Kennedy’s assassination. Patterson insisted the film was real up until his death from cancer in 1972. But some scientists say the figure in the film was a person wearing an ape suit. Others using computers to examine the gait of the creature say it was nonhuman and that no special effects in 1967 could have created an apelike creature that natural looking.
Virtually every monster hunter dreams of capturing footage like Patterson’s. The film still inspires investigators, says Morphy of American Monsters.
“There has been no official debunking,” Morphy says. “I can’t guarantee it was not a hoax, but if it was a hoax, it was the finest-crafted hoax.”
We’ll always see monsters
Science, though, won’t ultimately explain why we continue to see monsters. But psychology can help, says L. Andrew Cooper, co-author of “Monsters” and a film studies professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
The reason people see monsters isn’t just about what’s out there in the woods; it’s about what’s inside people, Cooper says.
Monster sightings surface in certain locations and at certain times because they reflect local anxieties, he says. He cites stories about Chupacabra, or “goat sucker,” a hairless doglike creature that purportedly roams the border between the United States and Mexico.
“The idea of a Chupacabra as a supernatural force crossing the border between Mexico and the U.S. seems to me a way to look at our anxieties about immigration.”
The political brew in another country may have spawned one of the most famous monster sightings in history — the Loch Ness monster. People had reported seeing an ancient, serpentlike creature in a Scottish lake long before a man snapped a blurry photo of it in 1934.
The photo came at a time of resurgent Scottish nationalism, Cooper says. The Scottish National Party had emerged, and Scotland was rethinking its history and national identity.
“Voilà — the emergence of an ancient, distinctly Scottish creature that became a symbol of Scotland through the world,” Cooper says.
People who see monsters are not just driven by nationalism or politics, he says, but something even deeper — religious faith.
“Monsters are a miracle,” Cooper says. “They stand outside the natural order. Evidence of something that defies what science calls the natural order is also potentially evidence for miracles. If you have evidence for miracles, you have evidence for God.”
Gendreau, the woman who says she encountered the Wolfman of Chestnut Mountain that autumn night in Illinois, isn’t ready to call what she saw a miracle. At first, it seemed like a curse.
“It caught us off guard,” she says. “It kind of ruined the evening.”
She says the experience disturbed her for a long time. At one point, she couldn’t even take her dog out at night for a walk because she lived near a wooded area. She still thinks about it at times when she’s out with her dog.
“It was so hard for me to wrap my mind around it,” says Gendreau, who has a doctorate in behavioral psychology.
“You go, ‘There’s a logical explanation,’ but after dissecting it you say, ‘Maybe I’m just crazy,’ ” she says, laughing.
Now Gendreau views her experience as something else — a “gift.”
“It allowed me to be open-minded,” she says. “There’s a lot of mystery in this world, and if you’re open to it, you’ll see it.”
But then she quickly adds: “I’d rather not go through that process again. It was creepy.”