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International Man of Mystery
Loren Coleman on what’s real, what’s not, and what might be
BY JESS KILBY


There’s a man walking down Congress Street with a plastic gorilla bust under his arm. If you ask him, he will tell you that he bought it on eBay from an over-endowed museum curator, and that, in fact, it is not a gorilla, but a likeness of Lucy, the Australopithecus afarensis discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 and believed to be one of humankind’s earliest ancestors.

Loren Coleman doesn’t get much respect in Portland. Utter his name in the pubs of Inverness, Scotland, though, or in the grocery lines of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and you’re likely to elicit at least a spark of recognition. Because in the lands of, respectively, the Loch Ness Monster and the terrifying Mothman, one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists gets a little credit where credit is due.

" Crypto-what? " you ask. But then your nimble brain, despite having opted for French rather than Latin in high school, begins to parse: crypto, puzzle — mystery; zoology, the study of animals. Cryptozoology, the study of mystery animals.

" Cryptozoology is the study of unknown animals, as yet undiscovered animals, " Coleman says. " So it’s not what a lot of people think — the mythical animals, the legends. Some people call them legendary, but it’s animals that local people, native people, residents, first-nations people, experience — so it has to be an animal that’s large enough. We’re not interested in insects; we’re not interested in minnows and little fish. We’re interested in animals that have an impact on humans, and can be seen. "

You know, like Bigfoot. This sleepy city has a Bigfoot expert in our midst; a man who was Hollywood’s go-to guy on the Mothman Prophecies’s " based on a true story " angle — and most of us don’t even know it.

The Phoenix was lucky enough to be tipped off to the bearded investigator’s existence, however, and, on the occasion of his newly published book, Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes in America (he’s the author of a dozen tomes, many of them cryptozoology related), we picked Coleman’s brain about his career, local cryptozoology lore, spotting fake Bigfoot evidence, and other fascinating things we never knew we’d find so interesting. Here’s a glimpse.

ON BEING MOCKED

Let’s get this one out of the way first because we know at least two-thirds of you are snickering into your shirt sleeves right now. Yes, Loren Coleman has a sense of humor about his eccentric profession. And yes, he takes his work very seriously.

Coleman: I’m extremely passionate about [cryptozoology], but not evangelical. And I think that’s the difference that people sometimes don’t get. One of the first questions I’m asked is, " Do you believe in Bigfoot? " And my response is, " No, I do not believe in Bigfoot. Belief is the providence of religion. I accept the reality of the evidence. " So it’s more a scientific view of it. Yet a passionate view. Just because you put it in your head as belief doesn’t mean that I have to be there with you.

Phoenix: Do you ever encounter people who are just angry at you because of the work you do?

A: I think the ridicule curtain is much more prevalent. Let me get back to the anger, but the ridicule is the thing I get the most, in that people try to make fun of me. I worked at the Muskie School for 13 years and I’ve adjunct-taught all around New England and at USM, and the thing that other professors would say is, " Oh, there’s Loren — he believes in aliens. " Even though UFOs are not at all my interest area. But it was more of a " If he believes in Bigfoot, he believes in UFOs " kind of thing. So it was kind of a put-down. And that’s the sort of intellectual thing that happens a lot.

The other [situation] is, I’ve been on " Coast to Coast " with George Noory, and he had skeptics calling in and saying " There’s no bones, what’s going on? " and " You’re crazy. " And so there is that level of skepticism that gets almost into blindness, and not open-mindedness. So I guess if there’s any anger, it’s from those people, the skeptics who have already made up their minds.

On the differences between Bigfoot, Yeti, and Abominable Snowmen

Should you encounter a preternaturally large, disconcertingly hirsute humanoid while wandering in the woods one day, would you know by name what manner of cryptid you were facing? Sure, your geography might give you a clue — you don’t often hear of Yeti sightings in Oregon, and you don’t hear much at all about the Abominable Snowman these days. But before you scream like a little boy and turn tail, note the following:

Coleman: In the 1950s and before, everything that was seen in the world was called an Abominable Snowman, if it was hairy and gigantic. After the 1950s, everything that was seen around the world that was giant and hairy gets lumped in this generic Bigfoot. But there are very different characteristics.

For instance, the Yeti has a footprint that is much more like a great ape. The toe goes off to the side, the toes are sort of curled in a different way, and so a lot of people think about the Yeti as a rock ape.

But Bigfoot is generally seen as upright. It has a foot where all the toes are straightforward, like a human being. So it’s like a gigantic human being with a giant foot — just like " bigfoot " says.

The Yeti are really much more ape-like. They’re kind of like gorillas, except they’re in the Himalayas. And they’re not all white — that’s another myth . . . There’s a breeding population of these different animals around the world.

ON LOCAL LORE

Maine has a smattering of lake-monster and Bigfoot stories, plus some big cats. Overall, the Northeast is not, shall we say, a target-rich environment, but we’ll get to that later. Coleman fills us in on what little details do exist.

Coleman: In the whole Midcoast area there are black panther reports. Black panthers do not exist in geological terms. Most people think the black panthers are just merely melanistically the black face of mountain lions. But there are no verified, classified phases of black mountain lions, they’re all kind of light gray to deer-color . . . But there’s the reports all across the United States of black panthers that are never caught. They’re also seen in conjunction with things that look like African lions, with the mane and stuff.

So it seems like there’s either populations of escaped animals that are breeding, with people that buy pets, but people don’t have that many exotic black panthers that they let loose in Maine, or in Michigan, or Kentucky. Or there’s a possible other hidden population of mystery cats that we haven’t quite caught up with.

So that’s one thing. There are very few and far between reports of Bigfoot-type creatures in Maine. At the turn of the century, between the 1800s and 1900s, in the Rangeley area, [there was] basically some kind of large hairy creature with red glowing eyes, and it would meet people and scare them if they were berry picking. And it was upright, so it wasn’t a bear — because it would walk or run for a little while.

There’s also a guy in Sidney, Maine — his name is Richard Brown — and he’s reported to me quite a few reports of what he thinks are migrating Bigfoot in the Sydney area to the coastal area. And he thinks they migrate at certain times of the year. He showed me enormous footprint casts of them. And he did so many casts of them that he uses them for skeet.

If anything, if he was trying to sell them on eBay, or if he was trying to show them at all of the conferences, and — back to the evangelical — if he was so convinced that this was real, I would almost be more skeptical. But because he just takes it so casually, and he doesn’t care about them . . . there’s something almost rustic about him and his reports that make me think there might be something there . . . One of the good things about living in Portland is, I actually named Cassie, the Casco Bay sea serpent. Now it’s in all the encyclopedias about cryptozoology. But the Casco Bay sea serpent has been here since the 1700s . . . You know Preble Street? Well, Preble was named after a Revolutionary War colonel, and Preble’s sighting of the sea serpent in the 1700s — he actually saw the serpent and fired a round of cannon fire over it, and it scurried away. And since that time there’s been these sightings of kind of long creatures, serpentine, but almost more bulky, with a little head up.

In 1958 there was a sighting off of Cape Elizabeth, by two Mainers who were from Norway. They were out fishing and they saw this creature. What was really interesting about that sighting to me was that, at the time they had one of those things in the water that emitted both light and sound, lightships, and it would make this noise routinely. And every time this booming sound would come from the lightship — and it did it all the time, not just in fog — every time it made a noise the sea serpent would turn its head. So it’s one of the best sightings that verifies these sea serpents can hear.

Of course, sea serpent is a really bad name. Because they’re not reptiles.

Phoenix: Are they mammals?

A: I think they’re probably mammals — probably a form of giant, long-necked seal. That’s my personal theory.

Q: Do you suspect there’s just one of them in local waters?

A: No, it would be a population. If anything, the sea really supports a lot of these animals.

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