PORTLAND, Maine — All across America, there are people who claim to encounter the improbable, the mysterious, and the frankly eyebrow-raising: sasquatches and skunk apes, lizard people and black panthers, from sea to shining sea.
Camera crews scour forests in search of ape-like creatures long featured in local folklore. A statue in the Ohio River town of Point Pleasant, W.Va., depicts the menacing “Moth Man” spotted in the skies above town in the 1960s. Even the name of the National Hockey League franchise that plays in Newark pays tribute to legends of the fearsome Jersey Devil.
Perhaps the search for mysterious, undocumented creatures that share our world is unavoidable; even north-central Connecticut has its own fabled beast in Glastonbury’s glawackus, which was hunted as recently as the 1930s. But such pursuits are hardly respectable. Few contemporary scientists spend much time in search of the Loch Ness Monster or the Dover Demon, and telling your neighbors that you spotted Bigfoot while taking the trash out one night is unlikely to win you invites to many dinner parties.
But this strange field, known as cryptozoology, now at least has its own public seat of learning, in the form of a remarkable institution located on the outskirts of downtown Portland, Maine: the International Cryptozoology Museum.
Push open the slightly forbidding doors on the little side street, walk down a long hallway, and suddenly you find yourself in an enchanted space: two huge rooms crammed with more than 3,000 artifacts ranging from a replica of PT Barnum’s famous Feejee Mermaid to a life-size statue of Bigfoot himself. There are hair samples purportedly from Abominable Snowmen. There is a sample of fecal matter from what is described as a small Yeti. There is even a letter from the actor Jimmy Stewart, “as he is linked to the Pangboche Yeti hand mystery,” the display explains.
The museum also chronicles popular culture’s obsession with these creatures, including movie posters, board games, and even a display of beverages with themes based on various “cryptids,” as the mysterious animals are called by those in the know.
There’s plenty to look at, but sooner or later, most visitors stand on the footstool in front of Bigfoot to get their pictures taken.
“That’s definitely our most popular exhibit,” one of the volunteers who keeps the museum running said on a recent visit.
All of this has been assembled over a decades-long career of the remarkable Loren Coleman, author of several dozen books, regular television presence, and something of the Thomas Edison of cryptozoology: no one can have a serious discussion of the field without mentioning Coleman.
Coleman, who is often at the museum but also frequently attending conventions or doing field work, comes across as more of a high school science professor than a wild-eyed wendigo hunter.
“I read some of the reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp,” he recently told the journalist Martin Connelly, “and they say things like: ‘Well, we went to the museum and thought Loren Coleman was going to be a wide-eyed weirdo, and he was really grounded, we really learned a lot, it was really scientific, and now I think about Bigfoot a little different.’”
Coleman sees the museum as, among other things, a “gateway” to the pursuit of more familiar fields in science like biology and zoology. Indeed, one of the most pointed exhibits on display chronicles the surprising number of animals, from the okapi to the giant squid, that once were deemed mythological before being substantiated. The point is clear: laugh at Bigfoot all you want, but today’s scientific orthodoxy was yesterday’s tall tale.
Laugh people still do, though, which is one of the reasons Coleman created the museum: to show that cryptozoology is more than just folklore or campfire stories.
“Once someone has seen something like this, it’s common to put them in a category marked ‘odd’ or ‘unstable,’” says Christopher Maloney, a documentary filmmaker whose latest film, “Cryptotrip,” was screened at the museum in Portland last month. “That’s why so many people are reluctant to talk about it.”
For his film, Maloney traveled across country to sites of famous sightings, interviewing eyewitnesses, and exploring the culture that’s sprung up around those long-ago brushes with the uncanny. It’s a fascinating film that’s about the enduring peculiarities of the American character as much as it’s about cryptids.
“A small town like Point Pleasant, West Virginia, or Willow Creek, California, places that are otherwise unremarkable, can really attract interest from all around the country once they have a creature sighting,” Maloney says. “Cryptozoology has gone from being obscure to something that’s almost mainstream.”
Indeed, Coleman, whose museum began as a room in his house then moved to the back of a wonderful Portland bookshop called The Green Hand before landing in its current location, has become a regular presence on programs running on cable channels like History, Discovery, and Travel. Conventions and festivals can draw hundreds or thousands of visitors, and the discovery of mysterious animal remains are routinely given names like “the Montauk Monster” and covered in the mainstream press.
And while unassailable proof of a Bigfoot or Nessie remains out of reach, an encounter with the unknown may be less of a curse and more of a distinction to be sought, Maloney says.
“It’s maybe a minute in a day out of someone’s whole life, but that one minute of seeing something incredible can change the rest of someone’s life,” he says.
Who can resist that? The International Cryptozoology Museum is usually open every day of the week except Tuesday, and is often open on holidays; it’s worthwhile to check the frequently updated website before visiting.
Admission is $5 for children 12 and younger and $7 for everyone else. The museum is at 11 Avon St., in a beautiful old Portland neighborhood, and parking can sometimes be hard to find.
The Green Hand Bookshop is around the corner, and well worth the time of anyone interested in something like the International Cryptozoology Museum.