Subscribe to the OSS Weekly Newsletter!

The Mythical Creature Known as the Chupacabra Walked Out of a Movie

You may think the blood-sucking monster is an ancient vampire, but a paranormal investigator found a funny connection to a bad blockbuster.

Monster stories, like roller coasters, allow us to safely experience one of our most intense emotions: fear. The existence of vampires can alleviate our dread at the thought of dying, while werewolves symbolize the animalistic impulses we are scared still exist underneath our civilized veneer. Besides, monster stories can just be fun. 

And the monster doesn’t need to have been around for generations. Swiss artist H.R. Giger famously crafted a nightmare of a creature for Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien, using his biomechanical style to conjure up a monster whose peculiar life cycle culminated in an adult form with a glistening phallic head and a mouth within a mouth. 

Real-life monster stories, like claims that there is a beast in Loch Ness, are not just scary fireside tales, though. Investigating them can actually help us hone our critical thinking skills. 

Take the chupacabra, for instance, a well-known blood-sucking creature. When we pull back the curtain, we find out that H.R. Giger might as well have made it up. In fact, he kind of did. 

A blood-loving fiend 

Dim down the lights and grab a blanket because we’re about to indulge in the scariest version of the chupacabra story, which begins in the mid-1970s. 

Imagine a field full of dead animals, the blood completely drained from them. No slash wound, no evidence of a predator brutally attacking their prey’s neck with a mouth full of teeth. Instead, you witness two small holes on the neck, too regular to have been made by hand. The blood-loving fiend is nowhere to be found. 

Over the years, it migrates from the island of Puerto Rico onto the American mainland. The mysterious creature is glimpsed by eyewitnesses, who describe with horror what they saw. It was a five-foot-tall creature with glowing eyes and bat-like wings, standing on its hind legs. It had spikes on its back. It smelled of sulphur. 

Hispanics call it el chupacabra, which translates to “goat sucker,” but it might as well have been the Devil himself. 

Surely, something truly inexplicable and demonic is happening here. Because the evidence trail is no longer limited to sightings. We now have bodies—dead chupacabras whose DNA, we are told, has never been seen before. These creatures are very real and they are attacking our livestock surreptitiously, digging their vampiric fangs into the animals’ flesh and gorging themselves on the bloody nectar. 

It's a fantastic story, but underneath it are some very mundane facts. 

A mangey dog story 

Lesson #1: we can’t simply throw out the theory of evolution in order to account for the existence of a fantastical creature. All living things come from somewhere. 

From the perspective of a scientist with a degree in molecular biology, the idea that an unknown animal—and not a tiny insect, but a fairly tall humanoid—with no apparent ties to existing species suddenly appeared in the 1970s in Puerto Rico is a hard one to swallow. Believers will point to the presence of the Caribbean Primate Research Center on the island and raise the spectre of genetic manipulations gone awry, but we barely managed to clone a mammal for the first time with Dolly the sheep in 1996. The reality of genetic engineering is a lot less fanciful than the fears the public tends to have. 

A naturopath in Texas once claimed she had found the bodies of dead chupacabras. Far from the imaginative descriptions that emerged from Puerto Rico, hers were very dog-like. In fact, the American chupacabras that have popped up over the years are all quadrupeds, and DNA analysis revealed them to be canids. Canids include dogs, wolves, foxes, jackals, and coyotes, and they can interbreed, creating coydogs, wolfdogs, and other hybrids. 

You might wonder how your average dog, or even a dog-coyote hybrid, could be mistaken for a blood-sucking mythical creature. The answer lies in mites: tiny arachnids, some of which can carry mighty diseases, like mange. The so-called dead chupacabras often have mange, whereby mites cause the hair to fall out, the skin to thicken and develop folds, and the canid to become emaciated. In a domesticated dog, mange can be caught early enough and treated, but in a wild animal, it can transform an ordinary dog into a hell hound. It’s no wonder that someone not accustomed to seeing uncontrolled mange would say “this was no dog.” 

None of this, of course, explains the bizarre description that first put the chupacabra on the map. Though there was a rash of livestock attacks in Puerto Rico in the 1970s, the first eyewitness description of the mysterious creature known as el chupacabra only dates back to 1995. 

Madelyne Tolentino and her mother saw the monster in front of their house in Canóvanas, Puerto Rico. A local UFO enthusiast drew a picture based on her description and the myth spread, earning the nickname of chupacabra from a local comedian and getting popularized on a successful, Oprah-like Spanish-language television show called El Show de Cristina. But what exactly had Madelyne seen? 

It would be easy for me to wildly speculate from the comfort of my chair. But Benjamin Radford, a scientific paranormal investigator and research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, didn’t speculate. He went to Puerto Rico and spoke to Madelyne. This was part of his five-year investigation into the chupacabra, trying to put aside the hearsay and telephone game rumours and get to the facts. 

Lesson #2: these tales of the paranormal are allowed to persist because few people investigate them properly. They tend to be approached with gullibility and not skepticism. The claims they make are extraordinary, and the evidence we should ask for before believing in them, hook, line, and sinker, should be equally extraordinary. 

Because there are many conflicting accounts of exactly what this creature is supposed to look like. Putting aside the mangey dogs of the mainland, descriptions of the Puerto Rican chupacabra are all over the map. It has wings… or not. It has the ability to change colours… or not. It has a prominent tail… or no tail at all. Its ears are huge… or absent. 

But what did Madelyne see, exactly? Her original description beggars belief. For a creature she had spotted on the road in front of her house before it disappeared around the corner, the details she remembers are extremely precise. When Radford interviewed her in person—the first to talk to her about this 1995 event since it happened, he reports—she even said the creature didn’t have an anus. If I glimpsed a never-before-seen animal with spikes down its back, I don’t think I’d be observant enough to look for the presence or absence of an anus. 

Those spikes, by the way, Madelyne would subsequently describe them as feathers, before settling on “feathery spikes.” 

Radford was puzzled. How did a Puerto Rican woman in 1995 witness something that led her to this incredibly detailed and odd description? What could possibly have been in the air at the time to explain this? How does a strange monster, looking like it walked straight out of the pages of a comic book, suddenly appear in the mid-1990s on a Caribbean island? 

Radford checked to see what was happening in Puerto Rico in 1995. An outbreak of dengue fever. A hurricane. Oh, and the release of a science fiction movie, poorly received by critics, that gave MGM its biggest film opening at the time.

Not exactly a new species 

In the movie SpeciesNatasha Henstridge made her film debut playing Sil, a sexualized alien-human hybrid. Sil has a human form, but she eventually morphs into her alien shape: an insect-inspired humanoid with long fingers, reddish slanted eyes, and spikes on its back. The artist who designed Sil’s alien form was none other than H.R. Giger, and the resemblance to the creature he had drawn for Alien is quite strong. 

Species was released in Puerto Rican theatres on July 7, 1995, a month before Madelyne sighted her mysterious creature. In an interview done after Species had been shown in theatres but before it was released on home video, she admitted to having seen the film, Radford reports. 

Did she have a waking dream? A nightmare? Some sort of hallucination? We don’t know. But the parallels between her detailed description of the chupacabra and Giger’s design for Sil are impossible to ignore. Species even begins at the Arecibo observatory in Puerto Rico, and its story involves two of the common explanations for chupacabra’s origin: it’s an alien (Sil is made by merging human and alien DNA) or it escaped from a laboratory (which Sil does). 

Appropriately enough, a similar story has emerged to explain how Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, was born. The 1933 classic movie King Kong had opened in London a few months before a Londoner, George Spicer, described for the first time seeing a “dragon or prehistoric animal” crossing the road near Loch Ness with something in its mouth, echoing a scene in King Kong where a brontosaur is seen snatching men with its jaws and shaking them around. Over 6,500 kilometres away and 62 years later, history seems to have repeated itself. 

Lesson #3: once a myth is out in the world, people will attribute all sorts of weird, unrelated events to it. It becomes a catch-all explanation. 

The tale of the chupacabra is a real hybrid mess when we take a bird’s eye view of it. It consists of a number of unrelated events awkwardly strung together. Attacks on livestock in the 1970s, quite possibly by canids like wild dogs and coyotes using their canine teeth to bite the animals, get attached to a sighting, twenty years later, clearly inspired by the movie Species. These are then tied to the corpses of mangey dogs and foxes, and the whole story is suffused with our obsession with blood-drinking vampires. We end up with a Frankenstein’s monster of a tale, whose single, exotic name—¡el chupacabra!—dulls our critical response and encourages us to believe we are faced with an age-old paranormal mystery. 

The chupacabra is a boogeyman. And like so many monsters before it, it has now been turned into a cuddly, fluffy creature designed to please kids, in this case in Netflix’s Chupa. The monster has been defanged. It is now a pop culture icon designed to entertain and sell merchandise

Nessie will be blushing with envy. 

Take-home message:
- The legend of the chupacabra is that a creature, whose description keeps changing, is going around draining animals of their blood
- Some dead creatures found in the United States have been claimed to be chupacabras, but testing reveals them to be canids, like wild dogs and foxes, often suffering from mange, which alters their appearance
- The first eyewitness account of a chupacabra dates back to Puerto Rico in 1995, and the woman who described the creature had just seen the movie Species. Her vivid description of the chupacabra matches the look of the creature in the movie


Back to top