(THE CONVERSATION) — 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 hasn’t been scientifically proven.

In 2018, our summer “vacation” included a stop in Bishopville, South Carolina, to attend the first annual Lizard Man festival. The Lizard Man of Scape Ore swamp terrorized Lee County in 1988 – and, according to some, continues to do so today.

Bishopville isn’t the only town to turn local reports of terrifying paranormal encounters into annual festivals. Point Pleasant, West Virginia, has the Mothman festival, 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 isn’t a religion. But in his book “Haunted Ground: Journeys Through Paranormal America,” Darryl Caterine argues that certain “paranormal hot spots” function like American sacred spaces – at least, for certain people.

As a professor of religious studies, I 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 embrace their roles as pilgrimage sites.

The legend of 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 in a small community called Browntown complaining that their car had been “mauled” overnight, apparently by an animal.

When Sheriff Liston Truesdale began interviewing Browntown residents, several described seeing a 7-foot tall creature with red eyes – what someone eventually referred to as “the Lizard Man.” Truesdale put the word out that if anyone knew anything about the damaged car or a strange creature that they should contact him.

On July 16, resident Tommy Davis brought his 17-year-old son, Chris, to the sheriff’s office. Chris Davis explained that when he was heading home from his night shift at McDonald’s, he took a shortcut down a rural road and got a flat tire. After he finished changing it, he saw a 7-foot tall, green creature, with three fingers on each hand and red eyes. When Davis tried to drive away, it leaped onto the roof of his ’76 Celica. By swerving back and forth, Davis dislodged it 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 went public, more sightings were reported, some plausible, some clearly fabrications. Soon armed parties were exploring along the swamp. The media descended on Bishopville. Locals began selling Lizard Man t-shirts and other merchandise. Sheriff Truesdale was interviewed by Good Morning America and CBS’ Dan Rather, and newspapers as far away as South Korea ran Lizard Man headlines.

A mystery that terrifies and fascinates

If you believed a monster was real, why would you travel to its alleged lair?

Many find legends like the Lizard Man enthralling. But some become obsessed, longing to know more about something both mysterious and frightening. In these monster hunters, I see elements of religion.

The theologian Rudolf Otto believed there was an essence to religion he called “the numinous.”

Otto claimed that religion is best understood by observing remote cultures where “its primal quality of impulse and instinct” remains intact. To Otto, the numinous is experienced as a mysterium tremendum et fascinans – a mystery that terrifies and fascinates. This feeling arises from an encounter with “the wholly other,” or that which we cannot understand.

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