Cryptids with Claws: Monsters of the American South
It was around 7 PM, and I was crouched in the middle of a remote country back road, forming a natural bridge between two haves of a brackish pond in a swamp outside Great Falls, South Carolina.
Timber rattlers and Water Moccasins are prevalent in the area during late spring and summer, particularly here in swampy bottoms around the fall line. I’m carrying a walking stick made from tough, dried pine, flexible enough to scoot even a large snake off to the side without harming it… but capable of dealing a death blow in the event that any of my scaly new friends refuse to share the road.
My curiosity brought me here–if not the notion of another kind of scaly critter said to be living in these parts. A subject of interest to those who might gather around nighttime bonfires in the neighboring counties, I’m skeptical of its existence… likely just rooted in local folklore and urban legends. However, I’m not one to take any chances either; across my left shoulder is a pump-action Remington 870 Magnum 12 gauge. The barrel has a full-choke built in, and although this gun is favored by turkey hunters in hunt clubs throughout the region, this evening it’s serving as my designated insurance policy. Wild hogs would be less intimidated by my walking staff than the snakes… but then again, there’s a chance there’s something even scarier than a charging hog lurking out here.
Back in the 1980s, a strange rash of stories began to emerge from the backwoods around Scape Ore Swamp in nearby Lee County. It started in June of 1988 with a late-night encounter described by then-teenager Christopher Davis, who told the local news about a “monster” that chased him down a country road on two legs; clawing at his car as it ran alongside him until he exceeded thirty miles per hour. Soon, locals throughout the community began to describe seeing a large, human-like creature which, although it closely resembled descriptions of “Bigfoot” and other alleged ape-men reported around the country from time to time, instead bore a curious identifying characteristic: scales.
Dubbed “The Lizard Man of Lee County,” it became a media sensation, and to this day, folklore surrounding its presence in the area has lent itself to T-shirts, television commercials, and every manner of odd merchandising. And yet, in spite of the tongue-in-cheek associations made with the thing, many swear it actually did exist–whatever it was.
Like a real-world Creature from the Black Lagoon, one man who witnessed the creature standing near an open tract of property he was working on described it as “something prehistoric.” Another believer was Liston Truesdale, who at the time served as Sheriff of Lee County. Fascinated by the odd reports locals were sharing, he began taking the story seriously, compiling thick folders full of newspaper clippings, witness sketches, and testimonies of those who claimed to have seen the monster.
And then, it just vanished.
As quickly as all the hype had begun, it quickly subsided by the end of July that year, nearly coinciding with one local radio station in the area offering a 1 million dollar reward for anybody who could capture the creature alive. Of course, they were certain they’d never have to pay up, and as I cut through an open field adjacent to an overgrown duck pond, I ponder what might have been the real story behind such a strange legend. Had the people in nearby Lee County really seen a large, unidentified reptilian creature of some sort, or were the stories merely fueled by pranksters and merrymakers who sought to have a laugh at the expense of their more impressionable neighbors? The Scape Ore Swamp, once vast and remote, is now much smaller, surrounded by condominiums and highways. Perhaps the thing, whatever it was, retreated to more secluded areas… as I glance at the pond to my right, barely visible though the trees and thick undergrowth, I imagine this might rank high on the list of such places (see image below).
Suddenly I hear a noise, growing and gurgling so loudly that, at first, I think it’s the sound of a truck coming in off the road behind me. I turn to look, but there’s no vehicle. No, this is the sound of something churning through the water nearby–something huge–and something headed directly towards me.
It’s hard to fathom what’s occurring, and my mind races to try and discern what’s about to come stomping out of the water and crash into the field beside me. Accompanying the growing splashing noises, I also hear odd shrieking; a call not unlike other animal noises I’ve heard, but not identifiable either. I’m wearing full camouflage, and for an instant I consider dashing back across the field into the tree line, where I might find a point of concealment. The splashing continues, and whatever I’m hearing sounds huge… and pissed.
A cool breeze is blowing, but with the fear building in me so suddenly, I notice sweat is now forming on my brow. I pull the shotgun off my shoulder, turn off the safety, and without turning my back to the pond and the thing–whatever it is–moving through the water towards me, I break into a half-run, opting to take my chances at facing the beast with the ultimate hope I can cross the field and get up the bank to where the road continues above me about 150 yards away.
Whether or not some slimy relic of a bygone era is what pursues me, the threat of a charging hog, paired with the cottonmouths I’ve been warned about with heads the size of human fists lying in the tall grass, are daunting enough by themselves. Finally, I make it to the base of the hill, and glance carefully at the ground for snakes before trying to peer through the brush, hoping for a glimpse of this large creature that had startled me so badly. Instead, there is only silence, and the soft sound of the breeze beating the pines that line the hill a few yards away.
As I make my way toward the road above, my heart is still beating at the thought of encountering a beast I’m ill-equipped to face alone in the woods, and I’m reminded again of the encounter Christopher Davis had in the summer of ’88. “I looked back and saw something running across the field towards me,” he had told the press. “It was about 25 yards away and I saw red eyes glowing. I ran into the car and as I locked it, the thing grabbed the door handle. I could see him from the neck down – the three big fingers, long black nails and green rough skin. It was strong and angry.” Davis attempted to start his car and make a getaway, but the creature pursued him. Looking in his mirror, he described seeing “a blur of green” chasing him. “I could see his toes and then he jumped on the roof of my car. I thought I heard a grunt and then I could see his fingers through the front windshield, where they curled around on the roof. I sped up and swerved to shake the creature off.” Recalling such details of the Davis story, perhaps I’m luckier than I realize to have made it to the hill without further incident.
Still, many would assume that Davis had been lying about his encounter; after all, how on Earth could anything so strange, let alone so large, manage to exist… and manage to be so elusive? This, however, wasn’t the opinion of Sheriff Truesdale, who had known Davis throughout his early adult life. Years later, Truesdale recalled to journalist visiting the area that the incident had had more of an affect on him than most realized. “At that time,” Truesdale said of the encounter, “(Davis) was a super nice kid. You know, I bet he told the story more than 100 times every week for several weeks.” Sadly, on June 17th, 2009–more than two decades after the strange encounter that made him famous–Davis was murdered in a drug-related home invasion, with one newspaper account detailing that a narcotics officer “recovered 10 grams of marijuana and two scales from the kitchen of his home.” Truesdale alludes that not only was the teenage encounter Davis had with something horrific in Scape Ore Swamp no tall-tale, but that the pressures of fame that ensued, as well as the lingering fear of something terrible that attacked him, contributed to his growing reclusive nature, and ultimately circumstances surrounding his death.
It’s nearly dark now, and I finally make it to the road. I’m less than a quarter mile from where the truck is parked, but I make haste anyway, preferring the armored shell of a Nissan 4-wheel drive to having to blast through scales with buckshot. Whatever this thing is, and whether it and others of its kind do actually exist, must remain a mystery for now. I have several miles to drive before I return to camp, and if it gets any darker, I may have more than just the darkness to contend with. Still, as I wind along the gravel back roads, I notice the forest is strangely inactive; the usual suspects that include deer, turkeys, and even the occasional fox or raccoon, are all gone. I see no eyes glowing in the headlights, and no shadows lurking by the roadside. If the absence of such critters here in the hilly woods of the South Carolina Piedmont is any indication, perhaps they know the area–and its potential inhabitants–better than I do. That said, I may be better off if I never become better acquainted with the locals.
Some things, after all, remain mysteries for good reasons.