Chupacabra and the Nightjar: Response to Colavito

July 6, 2017

Following up on my book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore, I have occasionally written about varied speculative pseudohistories of the chupacabra, and indeed the subject is ripe for conjecture. In a blog titled “The Secret Prehistory of the Chupacabra,” Jason Colavito asserted that there is a link between the subject of my book and the nightjar bird. I responded to him in a blog last month, and he replied in a recent blog titled “Skeptic Benjamin Radford Says I Was Wrong about Goatsuckers Six Years Ago.”

The significance of Colavito’s several references (three in the first three paragraphs) to “six years” having elapsed since my book was published is opaque. Unless Colavito has since revised his opinion on the topic–which does not seem to be the case–then Colavito was not merely wrong six years ago, but remains wrong to this day and is indeed currently wrong! Alternatively, perhaps Colavito is suggesting that errors in books, blogs, and other writings should be pointed out within five years or fewer, and should be off-limits to correction or criticism beyond an arbitrary, specified time. The rationale for this is murky, and as is sometimes the case with Colavito’s writings, his meaning and intent is not quite clear.

At any rate, in responding to his claims I noted that “Colavito does not account for (or glosses over) the notable absence of chupacabra (as referring to the now-familiar vampiric monster, not the bird) between the time that ‘chotar’ became ‘chupar’ and the eve of this century.” In response Colavito writes, “That, I would posit, is a question for [radio DJ Silverio] Pérez, who might have made up the word independently from its component parts or might have, in speaking off the cuff, modernized an older word. I don’t know what went on in his head. He’s still alive, so I guess I could ask, but he’s a famous TV personality and unlikely talk to me, and anyway, at this point he’s unlikely to provide a definitive answer; we don’t usually remember our subconscious influences.”

Colavito misunderstands my question as an examination of why Pérez coined the word “chupacabra.” Instead my question was specifically about the absence of the word “chupacabra” in the Spanish language generally “between the time that ‘chotar’ became ‘chupar’ and the eve of this century.” That is an academic, folkloric, and linguistic question which (contrary to Colavito’s suggestion) is entirely irrelevant to “what went on in [Pérez’s] head.” I agree with Colavito that “at this point he’s unlikely to provide a definitive answer; we don’t usually remember our subconscious influences.” I never expected Pérez to offer that information, definitive or otherwise.

The mischaracterizations keep coming as Colavito writes, “Radford has published an article stating that I am wrong and that Occam’s Razor suggests that it is simply less cumbersome to assume that the story emerged ex nihilo than to suggest that folklore contributed, even indirectly, to the emerging story.” I have to assume that Colavito is feigning confusion on this point, as my position is quite the opposite: that folklore contributed both directly and significantly to the chupacabra story. In fact I devote several chapters of my book to exploring the various folkloric sources that contributed to the chupacabra, including vampire folklore (Chapter 2, pp. 23-28), religious folklore (p. 53-55), and pop culture lore (Chapter 7, pp. 119-145).

My approach is referred to as “reductive,” “dismissive,” and “simplistic” by Colavito and his commenters, apparently under the misapprehension that I ignore the folkloric and cultural context to the chupacabra story. In fact I have for nearly two decades urged people to examine the cultural and folkloric contexts to various claims. In my 2010 book Scientific Paranormal Investigation I specifically emphasize the importance of understanding the cultural context of a claim: “Look for the social context of a claim; reports of mysterious phenomena do not occur in a vacuum. For example, the story of the Amityville Horror hoax was created just as The Exorcist was hugely popular in pop culture and the public’s consciousness; that fact by itself doesn’t ‘explain’ the case, but it does provide a context in which to view the story” (p. 73-74).

Indeed, I made the point again in my book Tracking the Chupacabra: “Events, even strange ones–especially strange ones–don’t occur in a vacuum. There are always some preexisting physical, psychological, or sociocultural conditions that set the stage. In early 1995, stories and rumors spread that some mysterious vampire was loose and had been preying on the island’s animals, though the reports were sporadic, sensationalized, unconfirmed, and lacking any significant description of the mysterious beast. One curious question is why, in the midst of what one writer described as Puerto Ricans’ “near-fever pitch” about the creature and the mutilations of “near-epidemic proportions across the island,” the chupacabra was able to go about its bloody business attacking animals every few weeks for nearly half a year without being seen even once. Could it be that the chupacabra got sloppy with its disappearing act, and just happened to finally be sighted during the second week of August 1995? Or perhaps something happened just before Tolentino’s sighting–some new element had been added to the mix, something came to the island that had not existed there before–that could have spawned chupacabra sighting and given visage to the heretofore unseen creature” (p. 129).

Over and over I explicitly draw upon folklore to inform the understanding of the chupacabra and other mysteries. (The Occam’s Razor analogy he references specifically refers to “how the chupacabra name came to be affixed to a mysterious bloodsucking creature claimed to attack goats in the Puerto Rican summer of 1995,” not to any suggestion that “the story emerged ex nihilo” and in a folklore-free context. This is quite clear in my article.)

In the end, Colavito and I agree on many things. He writes, “I think that context matters, and the reason that some stories succeed while others fail is because of the broader cultural context…Cultural beliefs shape fanciful narratives used to describe inexplicable events. You can’t have ghost stories without a preexisting cultural belief in a soul capable of surviving death. You can’t have stories of demonic possession without a preexisting cultural belief in infernal powers. You can’t have flying saucers without a belief in space travel,” and so on. Colavito is absolutely correct on these points, as well as his summary that “We should not pretend that cultural backgrounds are unimportant in understanding how stories emerge, grow, and spread.”

Colavito seems to think that because I see no compelling evidence for the specific aspect of folklore he’s proposing (a link between the nightjar and the vampiric chupacabra), that I must therefore dismiss all folkloric explanations. This, of course, is wrong; the issue is not one of dismissing the role of folklore in the chupacabra story, but instead distinguishing between folkloric claims that are supported by evidence and those that are interesting but merely speculative.

He claims, without offering evidence or quotes as support, that I “assume that stories are literally transferred, verbatim, from formal written texts created by elite writers.” As a longtime member of the American Folklore Society–and someone who has presented at AFS and contemporary legend conferences–I’m quite aware of the vagaries of narrative transmission and can assure Colavito that his assumptions about my understanding of them is incorrect. I’v
e never written or believed “that stories are literally transferred, verbatim” from one form to another. In fact I have repeatedly written about how stories and legends change over time with each retelling, whether the source is an eyewitness to some miracle or monster, or a La Llorona story with regional variants.

Regarding how the chupacabra was named, Colavito writes, “For whatever reason, goatsucker fit better, and presumably that isn’t just by chance. This is why I feel uncomfortable with Radford’s dismissive idea that the word chupacabra just sounded good, and no other explanation was needed.” Except, of course, I never claimed that the word “just sounded good.” Instead I gave specific, concrete reasons and examples (backed up by citations and references) about the most likely reason that Pérez coined the word “goat sucker” specifically: he was responding to news stories that featured goats being sucked (of blood). It was not random coincidence at all. As for why it was embraced by Puerto Ricans, I offered several reasons including it being coined by a popular radio personality, and it being catchy, humorous, evocative, etc. It’s not surprising that the goat became primarily associated with the attacks (mostly on goats) regardless of any ancillary or coincidental shared name with a bird.

The crux of our disagreement is this: Colavito writes that “The phrase ‘goatsucker,’ even if Pérez stumbled upon it by coincidence, had to have resonated because it fit into a preexisting context of some sort.” Why must the word have been rooted in a pre-existing context in order to have been coined and caught on? Because Jason Colativo says so. It just doesn’t make sense to him that it could happen another way–in his mind there simply must be more to it: the word could not have gained traction without Pérez and/or other Puerto Ricans knowing (perhaps subconsciously) about the nightjar legend. This is of course a logical fallacy known as the argument from incredulity, which occurs when a person decides that something did not happen because they cannot personally understand how it could happen. I spent a paragraph or so providing real-world examples of words and phrases that became wildly popular despite being inaccurate and having little or no pre-existing context that would cause the public to embrace it, though Colavito makes little mention of it.

In the end I agree with Colavito’s point that “that the word ‘goatsucker’ had so many different connections to monstrous, vampirical, demonic, and other nasty connotations that the name and the myth might have taken their current form because a critical mass of early adopters were already primed to see the word in a specific bloodsucking, animal-killing context.” That is indeed entirely possible–and that connection would be greatly bolstered by evidence instead of speculation. Science does not operate on the possible but instead on the probable, on what the evidence shows.

Colavito chides me for expecting too high a standard of proof, suggesting that I expect him to find a clear, concrete, and direct linguistic link between the nightjar legends and the 1995 chupacabra. In this Colavito offers another straw man, and indeed he’s right “it’s almost impossible to show a step-by-step direct set of translations and influences that lead from one story to another.” He briskly moves along to talking about Mothman sightings and flying saucer reports, but I never asked for any such concrete linkage or smoking gun. Finding any pre-1995 reference to a blood-sucking “chupacabra” should not be that difficult; if that connection was made in Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world, that should be easy enough to establish. This is hardly an impossibly high evidential bar.

One of Colavito’s commenters correctly noted that the word “chupacabra” is not alliterative. The person is correct; I should have used the word “assonant” instead of “alliterative” when referring to why Spanish speakers might have embraced the word. My point, that the word contains a catchy syncopation, remains valid. I am always happy to correct demonstrable errors, have updated the piece, and appreciate the clarification.

Unfortunately, as I noted, there is no evidence to support Colavito’s claim that Pérez spontaneously choose “cabra” from all the island’s fauna based upon his conscious or unconscious knowledge of the island’s bird lore; instead, it’s far more likely that mysteriously exsanguinated goats were already part of the as-then-unnamed monster’s lore he was commenting on. When and if Colavito (or anyone else) offers a link between the nightjar and the vampiric subject of my book that is based on more evidence than conjecture, I will happily embrace and endorse it.