Why the Legend of the Montauk Monster Will Never Die

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The Montauk Monster
The Montauk Monster’s legend lives on. Eli Neugeboren for Observer

“It looked like nothing I’d ever seen before,” Ryan O’Shea told Newsday reporter Joye Brown. “It looked like it died angry… I kept thinking, ‘Boy, I hope its mother isn’t around.’” He was referring, of course, to the Montauk Monster, a house cat-sized… something that washed up on the shore of Ditch Plains, a popular Long Island surfing beach, in July of 2008. Most people who encountered the story—i.e., just about everyone—agreed it was an animal, though some floated the idea that it could be a marketing stunt for the Cartoon Network’s Cryptids Are Real. What no one could agree on was what kind of animal. Or even if it hit the beach dead or alive.

In the same Newsday piece, one Ryan Kelso reported seeing it up and about, roaming the dunes. “It looked about the size of an average fox, gray in color, eyes like a mole, hairless and was breathing quite heavily,” he told Brown.

Cue the conspiracy theorists. Montauk, they say, is a magnet for monsters thanks to both the top-secret Montauk Project, with its psychically-generated Bigfoot, and the village’s proximity to Plum Island, the one-time home of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. There, the credulous maintain, government researchers not only invented Lyme disease and accidentally released it into Connecticut but also created hundreds of mutant hybrids as part of a cross-species breeding program.

Some of these creatures naturally escaped their cages and swam for the mainland, coming ashore in Montauk (as with 2008’s Montauk Monster and the lesser-known 2020 Montauk Globster) or possibly much further down the coast. There have been, some will recall, several East River Monsters along with the monster of Wolfe’s Pond Park in Prince’s Bay on Staten Island.

Theories abound as to what these creatures are. Allegedly, the New York City Parks Department told Animal New York that the 2012 East River Monster was “a pig left over from a cookout.” Other fantastical and pedestrian possibilities include: dead dogs, bloated raccoons, the fabled chupacabra, turtles mangled by the sea, rotting otters, government-manufactured bioweapons or Satan himself.

But does it even matter what Montauk’s monster and its ilk actually are? The Montauk Monster wasn’t the first of these presumed cryptids to lodge itself in the public consciousness—every single time the bloated, decaying body of some unfortunate unidentifiable animal ends up on a beach, people with cameras are never far behind. There’s the Tasmanian Globster and the Newfoundland Blob. Trunko and the Monster of Folly Beach. The Stronsay Beast of 1808 and the St. Augustine Monster, which washed ashore in 1896. Wherever there are shorelines, there are monsters.

There’s something universally compelling about a weird old corpse that could be just about anything. Maybe because humans love a good zoological mystery. We want to believe there’s more out there for us to discover—stretches of the twisting tree of animal phyla that haven’t yet been mapped. Somewhat ironically, scientists estimate there are millions of undiscovered species waiting to be cataloged, but most of us don’t have the time, knowledge or patience to invest in finding them. The most exciting zoological discoveries are often preceded by years of tedious study, research and observation, so the notion that any one of us might happen upon an undiscovered species on a summer stroll is an appealing one.

And then there’s the fact that the shared drama of the Montauk Monster provides a reliable dopamine drip. We all want to be a part of something, and keeping the legend alive lets us tap into virality and snag a fraction of the monster’s fifteen minutes—now stretched to fifteen years—of fame. It’s a little hard to believe that people are still, to this day, talking about what was just a dead and decaying animal of the non-cryptid variety, but on the internet, legends spread fast and never die.

Former President Barack Obama fistbumps the Montauk Monster. Picasa 3.0

The East Hampton Independent was the first to go to press with the story but it wasn’t until the OG Gawker picked it up that the lore took hold. From there, news outlets as big as CNN and Fox and as niche as the Hamptons Plum carried the story. The Jewish Journal published at least five articles about the monster, including one with the headline “Montauk Monster Anti-Semitic?” DISCOVER magazine made sure to let the world know that its “official stance” was that the Montauk Monster was a raccoon. Wired, on the other hand, asserted that the monster was “a pit bull, a dogfighting washout who washed up a Long Island beach.” New York Magazine published a story about East Hampton bureaucrats denying it was a “beast from hell.” And after the mainstream media disseminated the story, the cryptozoology and clickbait sites kept the momentum going.

Full disclosure: Observer published not one, but two Montauk Monster pieces. The second was a deep dive into the creature and the coverage, published to mark the tenth anniversary of its discovery, that included an interview with Loren Coleman, a veteran cryptozoologist who claims to have coined the Montauk Monster moniker. The first was a quick take published about a week after the creature’s discovery that mentions the monster in the context of Gawker Media properties generating twice as much traffic than the country’s fourth-largest newspaper in July of that year, including millions of views on Richard Lawson’s Montauk Monster post.

Today, Montauk Monster lore lives on across the internet, on the cryptid sites as you’d expect, but also in memes and on Twitter, where there’s a tweet referencing the creature at least every few days. People compare their chunky pets to the bloated beast. Conspiracy theorists point to it as evidence of New York’s secret bioweapons laboratories. And then there are those for whom the monster seems to evoke a gentle, if bizarre, nostalgia. “Not a day goes by wherein I don’t think about the Montauk Monster,” tweeted baker and writer Susie Heller last December.

Tweet after tweet asks the same question: Remember the Montauk Monster? We remember, the internet collective shouts back, though what we remember differs. Most of us remember the hype. Cryptozoologist Coleman remembers a decomposing raccoon.

“All you had to do was look at it and know a little bit about zoology, which I do,” he told Observer in 2018, “and you would see that it was barely second-day disintegration and the decaying of a [raccoon’s] body.”

Why the Legend of the Montauk Monster Will Never Die

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