Two very important things happened to Loren Coleman when he was 13 years old, growing up in Illinois. The first was reading Charles Fort’s “Book of the Damned,” a 1919 book detailing anomalous phenomena, such as UFOs, mythological creatures and strange things falling from the sky. The other was watching a 1958 Japanese monster movie titled “Half Human,” featuring a giant, Bigfoot-like creature terrorizing a village.
“I’ve nearly pinpointed it to the exact day. March 20, 1960,” said Coleman, a Maine resident since 1983. “I was so fascinated by these creatures and these ideas, and when I went to school the next day and asked my teachers about it, they said, ‘Don’t waste your time. None of that is true.’”
Naturally, Coleman kept on with it, studying anthropology and social work in college and graduate school. His fate was sealed: he went on to become a cryptozoologist, one who studies animals thought to be legendary or that are not yet accepted by mainstream science. And not just any cryptozoologist, but one of the world’s foremost experts on everything from the yeti to Mokele-Mbembe, a water creature that purportedly inhabits the Congo River.
After nearly 40 years of study, Coleman is finally seeing his research and collected cryptozoology ephemera go on permanent public display, as his International Cryptozoology Museum opens on Sunday, Nov. 1, at 661 Congress St. in Portland. Six years in the making, the museum is now in a more visitor-friendly space, after being housed in Coleman’s own home since 2003.
“It’s been a long time coming, certainly,” said Coleman. “And I have other people to staff it when I’m not around, if I get called off to do a talk or a show in Hawaii or Nepal. We don’t have to close if I’m not there. I’ve got some great volunteers.”
Coleman’s expertise is in demand the world over — he has published more than 10 books, from “Cryptozoology A to Z,” co-written with Jerome Clark, to “Mysterious America.” He was a regular contributor to Art Bell’s “Coast to Coast A.M.,” the long-running paranormal syndicated radio show, and whenever a high-profile cryptid is in the news — like the Beast of Turner, Maine, in 2006 — Coleman is usually the first to be called.
The museum takes up one large room and is packed full of models, specimens and other artifacts of cryptids, collected over Coleman’s life. There’s a display case that traces the evolution of portrayals of Bigfoot in pop culture, from a more humanlike Bigfoot wearing a loincloth that dates from the 1920s, to the 1980s craze for “Harry and the Hendersons,” a film that features Bigfoot moving in with an American family. There are several shelves for the yeti, and another for the Loch Ness monster.
Hanging from the ceiling is a full-scale model of the Civil War pterodactyl, a long-lost prehistoric reptile supposedly killed by Union soldiers during the war. On the right-hand side is Coleman’s FeeJee mermaid, modeled after the one owned by P.T. Barnum, which sits next to his Jackalope and his furred trout.
“None of those things are real. They’re models. And none of them were ever actually real to begin with,’” said Coleman. “One of my goals is to show both the pop culture side and the scientific side to cryptozoology. I’m a student of the media, as well. I’ve got Bumble from ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,’ and I have hair specimens from Nepal here in the museum.”
Coleman shares his space with the Green Hand Bookstore, a new shop specializing in the supernatural, run by Michelle Soulier. Soulier founded the Strange Maine blog (strangemaine.blogspot.com), a Web site devoted to the odd, weird and paranormal in Maine. Soulier decided to open her bookstore after getting laid off from her job last June. She found a large, open space on Congress Street in downtown Portland, and while the spot was perfect, it was too expensive for only Soulier to pay for. Having collaborated with Coleman in the past, Soulier called him up.
“Loren was on board from the start. It’s a really natural pairing,” said Soulier. “We both are fascinated by a lot of the same things. He really needed a more permanent space for the museum, and I needed someone to split the lease with me. It makes perfect sense. And an 8-foot-tall Bigfoot in the front window helps drive people in.”
While the “Big Three” cryptids are tied specifically to their places — Bigfoot in the American Northwest, the yeti in the Himalayas and Nessie in Scotland — Coleman has plenty of examples of lesser-known cryptids. There’s Orang-Pendak, a small, apelike creature thought to inhabit the forests of Sumatra. There’s the Myakka Skunk Ape, an ape sighted in South Florida. There’s the Mongolian Death Worm, a 5-foot-long bright red worm that kills by spewing sulfuric acid.
And then there are Maine’s own cryptids, such as Cassie, the Casco Bay Sea Serpent, or the famed Beast of Turner, Maine — the subject of a nationwide media frenzy in the summer of 2006. Coleman doesn’t think the creature that was found was the Beast, but he doesn’t deny that a real cryptid might still be roaming the western Maine woods.
“The Beast of Turner, Maine, is a very unfortunate example of a cryptid, because there isn’t really any connection between the most likely feral dog that was found in 2006 and the earlier reports of a hyenalike creature killing livestock,” said Coleman. “But that’s how stories like this move through the media and get taken hold of by pop culture. It gets distorted.”
Coleman points to the chupacabra, or “goat sucker,” a bloodsucking, usually upright creature that also preys on livestock, as a perfect example of a cryptid report that has very little basis in reality.
“The chupacabra first appeared in the early ’90s in Puerto Rico. Within a few years, it was in Texas, and then as far north as New England,” said Coleman. “Stories like that make it harder to figure out what’s true and what’s not. It’s still very interesting, from a media studies perspective, but it’s probably not real.”
As for other cryptid sightings in Maine, Coleman hears regularly about black panther, or puma, reports — something that Maine Fish and Wildlife will not comment on, as there have been no scientifically verified reports.
“They need a body to prove it, even though hundreds of people come forth every year saying they’ve seen one,” said Coleman.
For those who scoff openly at cryptozoology, Coleman offers up a defense based soundly in science.
“The giant panda wasn’t confirmed to exist until 1926. The okapi wasn’t discovered until 1901 and was thought to be a mutant zebra at that. The thylacine, the Tasmanian Tiger, may still be alive,” he said. “The coelacanth, our mascot of sorts for the museum, was believed to be extinct until 1938. There is basis in science for discovering cryptids. Just because some scientists laugh us off doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still use their standards and practices. And I feel confident that more will be discovered as the years go by.”
The International Cryptozoology Museum opens on Sunday, Nov. 1, at 661 Congress St. in Portland. A grand opening party is set for 5-9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6. For more information, visit www.lorencoleman.com, or check out his blog at www.cryptomundo.com.