Image Credit: "Chupacabra" by Simon Fraser, taken from Deviant Art. Image retrieved November 18, 2020.
"The Legend of the Chupacabra, and How the Legend Lives On"
Abstract: The following article discusses the Legend of the Chupacabra, in terms of social context. Although the contemporary legend itself is significant from a folklorist perspective, this article will primarily focus on factors that allows legend narratives to survive in the modern world. The narrative content of the Chupacabra legend will be included in this article, however, the concept of cautionary tales and social interaction will be the primary basis. Students, scholars, and many others often wonder how contemporary legends survive in a world with seemingly endless resources at our disposal. The answer to that relies on social interaction, as well as the validity of belief in these legends.
The cryptid species known as the Chupacabra, also known as the "goat-sucker" has been prominent among contemporary legends since the 1990s with cases reported from New Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other parts of the United States. Moreover, reported sightings of this contemporary legend (the Chupacabra) have gained significant attention from the mass media in the years since its original sighting in the early 1990s. With respect to contemporary legends, the Chupacabra much like other narratives of its kind exists in variation and details can change significantly because of this concept of narrative variation and context. While conducting interviews in late 2018, I learned three different versions of the Chupacabra narrative from two of my good friends, as well as through consultation with my mother. However, despite similar root elements featured in each version of the narrative- narrative variation provides content that differs from previous iterations based on personal belief and perception. Something to keep in mind are factors which allow contemporary legends to survive. Nevertheless, retelling the legend of the Chupacabra plays a vital role in the survival of contemporary legends through its prominence in social contexts. Despite fundamental narrative variation, root components of the Chupacabra legend are consistent with motifs of blood-sucking and the mutilation of livestock.
Determining what makes something an Urban Legend:
Throughout the narrative world stories containing similar characteristics exist in variation, which allows for different versions of the same story to exist. However, in most cases legends like the Chupacabra are classified as contemporary/ urban. The process of distinguishing urban legends from other legend narratives can be somewhat complex. With that in mind, the issue of the validity of belief is always a necessary factor in classifying a legend as a contemporary legend. Writer Bill Ellis of Ohio State University discusses the factors that classify a narrative as being a contemporary legend. In his book Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults Bill Ellis states:
Not all legends in the contemporary tradition are newly born, nor is the genre limited to "modern times". For this reason, folklorists suggested "contemporary legends" as a more accurate term. This suggests that such legends may in fact be quite old, but in that context they are perceived as immediate or modern. (Ellis, 2001)
Ellis' description of contemporary legends suggests that classification of a narrative as contemporary means it must hold significance within a modern context. Essentially, a contemporary legend has to fit the modern way of life for it to actually be plausible. As the context of the narrative resonates with modern culture, contemporary legends present in modern culture evokes fear and anxiety from the audience and consumers. Despite Ellis' acknowledgement that narratives must fit a modern context to be considered contemporary, his argument demonstrates that narratives frequently draw inspiration from ancient legends of the past. Therefore, the idea that contemporary legends often draw from ancient narratives of the past ensures that ancient narratives remain important throughout modern culture and society. The following section of this article provides my good friend Tyler's statement during our consultation in late 2018. Furthermore, Tyler discusses what makes a legend contemporary:
I think it has a lot to do with if the person telling you this (say, legend of the Chupacabra) is usually a critical thinker. If it's the kind of person that's real skeptical but then they say, "man you know what? I really think I saw something out of this world." In that case, I think you're more inclined to believe them. In my opinion, stories change as they get passed around because it differs on perspective. Two people could see something and neither one of them are going to tell someone else the story in the same way. In that situation, people sometimes add their own unique details and make it their own. To me, that really defines an urban legend. (October 23, 2018)
Tyler's definition of contemporary legends resonates with Ellis' statement concerning legend narratives, and their narrative value. Moreover, a major aspect of contemporary legend is the inherent narrative value. The concept of narrative value influences persons to share their unique versions of existing legends. With respect to Tyler's testimony during our consultation in 2018, the social act of transmitting stories containing unique details classifies the legend as "contemporary". (Photo above is taken from the 2003 film Scooby-Doo! and the Monster of Mexico). With respect to the social function of contemporary legends, sharing stories with others and allows the opportunity for legends to survive when subject to constant change. Details of legends often change, leading to individuals disputing the validity of versions of the legend. Consequently, urban legends remain relevant especially in social contexts. The social role of urban legends demonstrates function, which is highlighted through debating details and various plot elements with others. For instance, teenagers on a camping trip primarily contextualize the social role of contemporary legends through story-telling as the value of story-telling pertains to entertainment aspects of legends. In social environments teenagers often compete to tell the best version of a legend, such that constant debate between individuals attributes to the social function of story-telling and its significance. Urban legends are significant in social contexts, because not only narratives serve as entertainment, but legend narratives contribute to conversation and social interaction.
The Legend Itself:
The Chupacabra legend exists in various forms, which makes the legend one which experiences frequent changes to details. However, each version draws from familiar narrative elements. For instance an individual tells the Chupacabra legend, the blood-sucking from the creature is a necessary motif to describe its narrative content. Narrative elements are often dynamic. Therefore, it is necessary to maintain familiar elements in order to successfully transmit the legend. Something to keep in mind, when major aspects of a story change it is less believable and also becomes an entirely different story. The Chupacabra legend involves unexplained bodies of livestock drained completely of blood, such that stories of the supernatural and monsters emerge when victims of the Chupacabra cannot explain the fate of their livestock. Consequently, the aforementioned event further generates fear on a larger scale. Following Chupacabra reports, stories of supernatural creatures heighten interest not only for the media but for large portions of society. The legend of the Chupacabra itself dominated the media during the 1990s as expressing supernatural iterations of the legend leads to people sharing personal accounts of the creature, and gaining wide-spread attention. Furthermore, the inability to determine factors for livestock drained completely of blood increases the transmission of the supernatural version of the Chupacabra- often drawing from personal beliefs of the legend’s content. Writer Joe Nickell shares his research of the goat-sucker containing reports from Miami, Florida. Nickell refers to a report by Cox News from 1996 in The Mystery Chronicles,
“The creature is part space alien, part vampire… and a Dracula-like thirst for sucking blood.” (Nickell, 28)
Nickell demonstrates how stories are gathered by the media, and face changes when wide-spread transmission occurs. Moreover, accounts of real events often lead to stories that appear supernatural based on circumstances that cannot be explained. Nickell addresses why stories change and create new stories through variation, such that domination by media as wide-spread fears are drawn from personal fears from the victims. Nickell refers to a comment made by police officials during the initial emergence of the Chupacabra in the 1990s,
“I don’t know about the rest of Mexico or the rest of the world, but here the goat-suckers are just dogs.” (Nickell, 29)
This statement serves as a primary function of contemporary legends which is evoking fear, such that Nickell signifies the police official’s comment as a means of debunking the Chupacabra legend despite a large amount of people being convinced of its content. Legends such as the Chupacabra circulating the media highlights the media’s social role in transmission of legend narratives, such that the media’s access to contemporary legends allows instant wide-spread attention to specific happenings almost exclusively based on the fact that people believe what they see and read. The media is one the largest places for communication, considering that media outlets transmit urban legends like the Chupacbra due to an immense amount of social power established from these large broadcast networks.
Joe Nickell describes Chupacabra reports from a town near Mexico City, in which the goat-sucker is presented in a supernatural context. However, Nickell immediately dismisses any supernatural claims,
“Some news sources reported that a nurse who lived in the village near Mexico City had been attacked by the goat-sucker. Neighbors rushing to her aid saw a black-winged form, thus the rumor was born.” (Nickell, 30)
Nickell provides a component of ostension in which misinterpretation of a flock of swallows as a supernatural entity serves as an ostensive act, considering the Chupacabra had been previously reported in other areas. Nickell states the rumor is born from this attack. However, Nickell also acknowledges witnesses referring to the creature as the goat-sucker suggesting the legend has already existed. Nickell demonstrates variation from previous examples of the Chupacabra attacking livestock, however, this specific version portrays the Chupacabra attacking humans. The issue of the Chupacabra attacking humans had not existed from previous iterations, such that Nickell's recordings are quite different. Furthermore, James' version of Chupacabra description is quite similar to Nickell’s report as James describes a man-like creature attacking villages and breaking into homes during the night. Although James acknowledges the motif of mutilated livestock drained of blood, his description of a man-like creature demonstrates the legends variation of the creature’s appearance, such that despite familiar motifs legends are constant subjects to change. James’ depiction of the Chupacabra does not dismiss the supernatural version, such that this version of a man-like beast attacking villages and humans corresponds with and signifies the entertainment value of legend narratives. With that being said, in order to determine various functions of urban legends it is vital to acknowledge the relationship between parents and children in the context of story-telling.
Parents versus Cautionary Tales:
Contemporary legends often serve as cautionary tales between adults and children, whereas parents often tell children scary stories for protection from real-life dangers. Legends such as the Chupacabra pertain to social functions of parents disciplining children as James states,
“There’s still this idea of a three foot tall, alien like thing sucking blood and that’s a really good way to get your kids to listen to you.”
Despite contemporary legends serving as a function of entertainment, the Chupacabra is a cautionary tale used to protect children from danger. In a social context, parents often share stories to transmit various methods of discipline. Legends such as the Chupacabra are used to evoke fear from children through discipline, and this is successful in most cases. From my perspective, it certainly worked for me. When I was a child, my mother used to tell me that she had "eyes in the back of her head". With that being said, my mother successfully evoked my own fears through making me believe she was constantly watching me. Furthermore, the issue of teaching children legends of scary monsters is a useful tool in social and educational value of urban legends. Dan Heath highlights narrative variation and its success in his book, Made to Stick. Heath writes:
If the world takes our ideas and changes them- or accepts some and discards others. Ultimately the test of our success an idea creates isn’t whether people mimic our exact words, it’s whether we achieve our goals.(Heath, 240)
There is a significant relationship between Heath’s statement and good parenting, whereby Heath highlights in order to successfully transmit information genuine success is achieved if the message is delivered. For instance, parents telling scary stories do not have to emulate the exact words of another parent in order to successfully discipline children. If children legitimately believe scary stories despite variation, the social and parental function of urban legends is often achieved.
The Social Context of Story-telling:
Within the social world, a major component of urban legends is the social contextualization that resonates with story-telling. Writer Christopher Booker writes in The Seven Basic Plots, “… the stories told by even the greatest of them are not their own… they manage to find outward clothing… latent not only in their own minds but in those of their audience.” (Booker, 543) Booker highlights that transmitted stories are all drawn from pre-existing sources, which is often the case with urban legends. Story-telling remains important in a social context because it provides people with the chance to connect with others, and share personal narratives and ideas. With that being said, the inherent goal of story-telling is to transmit knowledge from one person to another, which is often achieved through social circumstances. During my interview with my mother, she discusses her story-telling experienced as a child:
We would spend a lot of time after playing spotlight and just hangout on my cousin’s patio, telling each other freaky stories, but we never knew where they came from… we just heard them somewhere. The whole experience was so cool, we just got to pass around stories to each other so we could freak each other out. It was a lot of fun. (Interview conducted November, 2018)
My mother describes the social significance of story-telling from when she was a child, whereby she and her friends dedicated a specific time to share scary stories with one another. Although the social context of story-telling often appears on camping trips, my mother describes her recollection of liminal places in which she and her friends interacted in social circumstances though story-telling. As a result, transmitted narratives remained constant within my mother’s brain which is the ultimate goal of story-telling. Academic scholars Bernard Guerin and Yoshihiko Miyazaki demonstrate the issue of story-telling in the article, “Analyzing Rumors, Gossip, and Urban Legends” as they state in reference to transmission of information:
“ as materials were passed on in conversations, people attempted to make sense of them or find meaning in them… people made them into something more meaningful.” (Guerin and Miyazaki, 24)
Guerin and Miyazaki address the significance of sharing narrative content, in which information becomes meaningful as individuals attempt to understand it and explain information to others. In the context of urban legends, Guerin and Miyazaki’s argument supports the reason contemporary legends serve such importance as individuals continuously analyze and share their interpretations of legend narratives. Consequently, legend narratives become significantly more important when subject to constant analysis and social prominence.
From my personal opinion, I do not necessarily believe the Chupacabra as being a legitimate creature. However, I do understand its significance in a social and cultural perspective. In terms of a folkloric perspective, whether one individual believes in the creature is not what allows the legend to live on. Instead, the concept of the validity of belief (whether it is plausible) allows a creature of legend to survive as time progresses. With that being said, urban legends remain relevant because such narratives are of constant discussion within the media, and especially among friend groups during parties and camping trips. For instance, at work my coworkers and I frequently discuss the content of urban legends and compete to tell the best version. Moreover, the issue of competition is evidently a major function of urban legend transmission. From my personal opinion, the most important aspect of urban legends is the cautionary tale. The legend of the Chupacabra was my example for this article, such that it is notable to consider how the Chupabra legend and others of its kind serve as a method of discipline between parents and children. Thus not only do contemporary legends demonstrate an entertainment value, such legends serve as a vital component of social interaction and I believe this will continue as legends are preserved for future generations.
Apparently the Chupacabra just attacks livestock, but more specifically goats… The Chupacabra would always attack specifically goats, and farmers would never find any evidence of injuries to the animals other than small bite marks and the animals would always be drained completely of blood. It was a case that took place in Texas, maybe in the 1990s? This farmer shot what he believed to be the Chupacabra.
I remember hearing about one case specifically, there was a farmer from… I want to say New Mexico. The farmer shot what he believed was attacking his animals, where you have the goats being drained completely of blood. I also heard stories where the Chupacabra is a giant man-like creature, not only terrorizing livestock and that but attacking villages and breaking into homes.
The animals we have that suck blood are nowhere near the size of the Chupcabra. It’s supposed to be a monster the size of a six year-old boy, something that feeds on blood and is depicted as the stereotypical tall, grey, saucer-eyed alien with nostrils the size of a soft ball.
Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Continuum. 2004. (543)
Ellis, Bill. Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live. University Press of Mississippi. 2003. (46)
Bernard Guerin and Yoshihiko Miyazaki. “Analyzing Rumors, Gossip, and Urban Legends Through Their Conversational Properties.” University of Waikato. The Psychological Record. 2006. (24)
Chip and Dan Heath. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Penguin Random House, LLC. 2006. (240)
Nickell, Joe. The Mystery Chronicles: More Real-Life X-Files. The University Press of Kentucky. 2004. (28-30)
(c) The Modernist Son, 2020