Sunday, 27 March 2011

Are Chupacabra Recollections Real?

Analysis by Benjamin Radford
Thu Mar 24, 2011 07:08 PM ET

As reported here on Discovery News and elsewhere, the origin of the mysterious vampire beast el chupacabra can be traced back to an eyewitness who saw the 1995 film Species, which featured an identical monster. Most people assume that the chupacabra dates back decades, though in my research the best evidence so far is that it has only been around for about 15 years.

SLIDE SHOW: Chupacabra Inspired by Horror Film Beast

Certainly, vampire beliefs have existed for millennia all around the world, and there was a pre-existing belief that something mysterious was occasionally attacking animals prior to 1995 in Puerto Rico (and elsewhere, including Nebraska). And, as researcher Loren Coleman discovered, there was a 1960 mention of a "chupacabra" in the TV show "Bonanza," referring to a whippoorwill bird.

But so far there seems no reference to a blood-sucking monster called "chupacabra" before mid-1995 in Puerto Rico (or anywhere else).

And yet one common reaction I've gotten from readers about my chupacabra research is that the monster did indeed exist before 1995, because they heard about it as early as the 1950s. A few examples taken from recent posted comments on the story:

LeahMEseny: "I grew up in New Mexico and remember hearing stories about the chupacabra in the 80s."

Hiram Mag: "This story dates back to the 50s and 60s in Texas."

Glory Mooncalled: "I grew up hearing of it in the 70s and 80s."

Mousekakat: "I am just shy of 45, and grew up in Houston hearing about the chupacabra."

AlisonP: "I was at Arecibo Radio Observatory [in Puerto Rico] in 1993, and the legend of chupacabra was already pretty widespread then."

In all, nearly a dozen people insist that they heard about the chupacabra before 1995. (Note that even if there exists a reference to a “chupacabra” before 1995 it has no bearing on the fact that the description of the original Puerto Rican chupacabra was inspired by the film Species. The only question is if the word itself was in use earlier.) What can we make of these reports? There are only a few possibilities:

1) The "chupacabra" (vampiric monster) was known, written about, and discussed decades earlier than current research shows; or

2) We have a fascinating memory experiment in progress, in which dozens (perhaps hundreds) of people are incorrectly remembering the same thing: hearing stories about the chupacabra from decades ago.

Who's right? I honestly have no idea. Just because I didn't find any references to a vampiric “chupacabra” before 1995 doesn't mean there aren't any. I'm a pretty thorough researcher, but no one's perfect, and I might have missed an earlier reference. Surely if a chupacabra was widely known and discussed as far back as the 1950s, there should be plenty of written references in newspapers, magazines, books, folklore journals, etc., dating back decades. It seems there are none.

Then again, memory research has shown that the perception that something has been around for a long time influences our beliefs and recollections.

Experiments by researchers Kathryn Brown, Rhiannon Ellis, and Elizabeth Loftus, for example, shows how people can create false memories of experiencing things that never happened. In one experiment they found that by (falsely) telling people that they had experienced something in their youths, they came to believe it. In one study, after being prompted, adults specifically remembered meeting a Bugs Bunny character at Disney World, which could not have happened (Bugs is a Warner Bros. character). The same thing happened with Werther's Original caramels, which adults reminisced about enjoying as children in the 1950s and 1960s -- but could not have, since they were only created in 1969. (For more on this see Braun, K. A., Ellis, R., & Loftus, E.F. 2002. Make My Memory: How Advertising Can Change Our Memories of the Past, in Psychology and Marketing, 19(1): 1-23.)

As the authors write: “Remembering is often a social activity in which people come to some agreement about the past and it is much more likely to take place in the context of friends, family, or advertising than with psychotherapists. In some sense, life is a continual memory alteration experiment where memories continually are shaped by new incoming information.”

In this light it seems quite possible that people who are certain they grew up hearing tales of the bloodthirsty chupacabra beast may be merely incorrectly remembering the dates and details of when they first heard about it. The irony is, of course, that it was a Puerto Rican eyewitness’s faulty memory that confused a film monster with real life and essentially created the chupacabra.

Mass error, or incomplete research? Let’s find out! I'll offer a public $250 reward (plus a signed copy of my book Tracking the Chupacabra) for the first verifiable written evidence of a blood-sucking monster called the chupacabra (or chupacabras) that dates before 1990. It must be a published, dated reference; I can be contacted via Discovery News.

Let's see what turns up!

Illustration by Ben Radford

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