This bizarre, foliage smothered synthesis of mammal and plant was alleged to have cast an ominous shadow over a stretch of east Florida beach throughout a decade long reign of terror that ended as abruptly as it began… and there are ancient legends which suggest that this creature’s sphere of influence might have covered the bulk of the American south.
Wedged between the salt churned waters of the Atlantic and the biologically diverse wonderland that is the Florida Everglades is the prosperous coastal city of Boca Raton. Littered with townhouses, condos, golf courses and the sweet, vaguely corrupt stench of affluence, the pristine beaches of Boca Raton’s Red Reef Park is the last place on Earth that one might imagine would give birth to a slimy, muck ridden monstrosity, but in the late 1970’s that is precisely what happened.
THE RISE OF THE MOSS MAN
The first reported sighting of Florida’s infamous Moss Man hails from 1978. According to the account, a young -- and unfortunately unidentified -- couple was enjoying a romantic stroll on South Beach not far from Red Reef Park, when they claimed to have spied something out of the ordinary huddled on a covered beach deck at the end of nearby Palmetto Road.
The couple -- understandably preoccupied with the both beauty of the ocean and their own burgeoning desires -- paid little mind to what they initially believed was just a thin, peculiarly positioned man in a tattered raincoat nestled amongst the sea grape undergrowth above the dunes… that was until this “man” stood up.
The would be lothario later reported that as the skinny, ragged figure rose up “he” glared down at the couple with what the young man described as eerily: “bright, amber-colored eyes,” which he instantly realized did not belong to a human being. As if that weren’t disturbing enough, the man also claimed that what he had mistaken for a frayed coat was actually a grassy, leaf-like substance that appeared to emerge directly from this bipedal, dark green entity’s epidermis.
The young lovers -- displaying uncharacteristically good judgment for amorously inclined youths -- decided to suspend their ocean side stroll and swiftly made their way back to the South Beach Pavilion, stealing glances over their shoulders the entire way and no doubt mumbling silent prayers that they would not suddenly spy a vicious, green fiend pursuing them over the speed impeding sand.
The terrified couple ran into a group of vacationers and wasted no time in relaying the tale of their potentially harrowing run-in with the skeletal, green beast. Others gathered to hear their frankly frightening story and within minutes a makeshift search party had formed and six courageous (or foolhardy) souls decided to go back to see if the verdant monster still occupied its perch.
These intrepid amateur sleuths scanned the precipitous dunes, which inclined sharply toward the dense scrub and Australian pines that formed a natural barrier separating the beach from the roadways which wove through the palatial townhouses of Red Reef Park. Eventually the undergrowth became impenetrable and the posse was forced to retreat, but not before they stumbled on copious clumps of damp, Spanish moss littering the area where the creature had been seen.
Within days word of this mysterious Moss Man had spread throughout the region and almost instantly a local legend was born. During the next two years the creature would sporadically rear its’ creepy, moss covered cranium -- most often spotted when the slow rolling ocean fog would creep in and overtake sundown beach walkers -- but it wouldn’t be until the dawn of a new decade that this beast would return with a vengeance.
In 1980 the all but dormant bog beast began appearing with alarming frequency in the Red Reef region. Eleven disparate sightings were reported in Red Reef Park as well as other beaches, including West Palm Beach and Hillsboro Beach. Most of the eyewitnesses depicted a man-like being, but others described a more ephemeral entity akin to a wraith or in one case “water spirit.”
After the 1980 flap things seemed to settle back down for awhile. This hiatus was broken by a short lived wave of sightings in 1982, but it wouldn’t be until the summer of 1988, when this vine wrapped villain would have its final and closest encounter ever reported.
The event occurred in a division of Red Reef Park known as Gumbo Limbo Park. The 67-acres of coastal land serves as a marine preserve and environmental education center and includes a 20-acre Nature Center. It would be in this fairly isolated preserve that an elderly couple would have a run-in with the unknown that would shake the very core of their perception of reality.
At dusk on that seasonably warm summer’s eve, an aged pair was making their way from the isolated heart of the park toward the gravel path that led to the exit. That was when they noticed a sudden movement in the shrubbery next to them.
The woman -- at this point more curious than concerned -- leaned forward in order to get a better look at the murky green form huddled in the obscuring bushes. At first the pair assumed that it must be one of the great birds that call the park home, but just as they were about to move away from the partially concealed life form they got the shock of their long lives.
Without warning, a shadowy, leaf shrouded figure turned and the woman found herself face to face with a creature that was unlike any she had ever seen. Their faces were uncomfortably close as the mossy monster locked onto her wide eyes with its’ own eerily luminescent amber orbs.
It was then that the duo realized that this was not some kind of avian anomaly, but a humanoid being. The terrified couple moved as swiftly as their aged legs would carry them to the park ranger’s station near the exit. Breathless, the seniors told the rangers of the self luminous bayou beast they had just seen.
The rangers did their best to calm the panicked couple and then went out to investigate. Sadly, by the time they arrived at the scene, there was no sign of the creature. After this encounter rumors swirled throughout the 1990’s regarding other eyewitness encounters, but as none of them were “officially” recorded it is difficult to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff.
As a young man on summer break from the military school, Greg Jenkins -- who would one day author “Chronicles of the Strange and Uncanny in Florida” -- became one of the first field investigators to seriously examine the Moss Man flap of the early 1980's.
Rather than squander their youthful days on surf and sunshine, Jenkins and his buddy -- with diligence rarely displayed in individuals so young -- decided to dedicate every waking moment to trying to break this frightening case during their relatively short summer break.
While they were unable to nail down any physical evidence of the monster, they were able to turn up some intriguing leads and the investigation fostered in Jenkins a lifelong fascination for this enigmatic entity as well as other strange Floridian phenomena. In his own words:
“It was while spending the weekend with a friend that I first heard that a strange creature had been seen on the beach, so we naturally went in search of any information on the alleged creature. We looked high and low at the spots where people had seen the thing. We climbed the sand dunes and made our way through the thickets and sea grapes, but found no sign of a monster. After we interviewed a few people about it, however, a bigger mystery soon evolved.”
This mystery would involve a park ranger and terrifying, but little known legend regarding a supernatural being that had reputedly haunted the region for centuries.
According to Jenkins, while he and his friend where making inquiries about this bizarre beast, they came across a veteran Red Reef Park Ranger who had not only been intrigued by the recent reports of the Moss Man, but also had an theory regarding its unnatural origins.
The ranger was an amateur historian who regaled the curious youths with a tale of Spanish invaders, a native princess, a heinous crime and a distinctly supernatural vengeance for the perpetrators of said crime. Jenkins described this bizarre episode thusly:
“When my friend and I asked some of the locals about the moss-covered monster, we were entertained to a plethora of stories that only fueled our interest. One of the most interesting stories came from a park ranger who had a keen interest in such things, and who had worked at Red Reef Park for several years, knew of the tale, and told us that that particular legend was much older than people thought. In fact, a creature, which resembles a man, but is covered in seaweed or other ocean-like grasses, was born from a Native American curse, which originated during the 1500s.”
The ranger went onto explain that after Spanish conquistadors invaded the region one of the men took it upon himself to not only kidnap a Native American princess, but rape and then decapitate her. Following this brutal atrocity this vile soldier, for reasons known only to him, decided to tie the head of the princess to a tree.
Legend has it that the hair of the butchered princess took root in the tree and that eventually her spirit “infected” all of the plant life in the area. The plants, under the spiritual influence of the deceased girl, managed to drive the Spanish from her ancestral land. Legend had it that a medicine man carried on the princess’s vegetative vengeance by creating the Moss Man in order to wreak havok upon the descendents of the Spanish soldiers who had been foolhardy enough to remain in the region.
While this legend would explain the existence of this evolutionary anomaly, it could also be -- like so many myths -- an explanation concocted by perplexed locals to explain away a natural (or perhaps fabricated) phenomenon. So if we’re not dealing with a real creature and not just a pile of cursed moss then the dilemma that remains is…
When considering the origins of the Moss Man, the query that demands to be answered is: "what the hell is this thing?" It goes without saying that in all the zoological (or botanical) records of our world there are exceedingly few biological precedents for the existence of animals with plant like properties or vice versa.
We all know about carnivorous plants like the Venus Flytrap or Cobra Lily, but on the other side of the coin we have single celled animals like “Mesodinium chamaeleon” and “Mesodinium rubrum ,” which have characteristics of both plants and animals. There’s even the vastly more advanced, chlorophyll producing “Elysia chloroticaor” or green sea slug, but there's nothing that has these traits that comes even close to the complexity of a human being... nothing that we know of anyway.
Nevertheless, in the long history of the development of the flora and fauna of Earth these evolutionary oddities have proven to be the exception and not the rule, which leaves us, the intrepid investigators, with one heck of a quandary. Of course, the easy answer is that this whole darn thing is all nothing more than one big pop culture inspired…
After the mostly dormant Moss Man suddenly began appearing with alarming frequency in the Red Reef area in 1980, Jenkins claimed that some of the more skeptical citizens in the neighborhood felt that this spate of sightings was likely inspired by John Carpenter’s unappreciated fright fest “The Fog,” which was released on February 8th of the same year.
While Jenkins conceded that this sharp rise in Moss Monster sightings may have been indirectly related to the glowing eyed, seaweed slathered spirits of retribution depicted in the motion picture, it’s worth mentioning that the first contemporary sightings of this beast (or beasts) occurred for a full two years prior to the release of “The Fog.”
Another contender for prankster inspiration was a monstrous character created by Berni Wrightston and Len Wein for DC comics almost a decade before. The creature was the result of a biological experiment gone dreadfully awry, transforming a once handsome scientist into a hideous amalgamation of bayou vegetation and human DNA known as the “Swamp Thing.” This repulsive -- though ultimately heroic -- monstrosity made its first appearance in a 1971 issue of “House of Secrets.”
While it’s easy to see the physical similarities between the Swamp Thing and the Moss Man, the fact that the legend traced back for centuries would seem to exclude this fictional marsh monster as the inspiration for the Moss Man, though it may have colored the imaginations of those who thought they encountered the beast.
In his “Chronicles of the Strange and Uncanny in Florida,” Jenkins would dub this aberration of natural selection the “Spanish Moss Creature,” in homage to the classic paranormal TV show and “X-Files” progenitor “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.” In the early 1970’s an episode of this influential series titled “The Spanish Moss Murders” depicted a homicidal being (played by perennial Bond nemesis, Richard Kiel) very similar to the Moss Man.
There is also the original cinematic adaptation of “The Thing from Another World,” which pitted humans against a half-humanoid half-plant monster at the top of the world and Roger Corman’s 1961, schlock fest “Creature From The Haunted Sea,” which features a bipedal, bug-eyed, foliage infested fiend.
There are some (myself included) who have wondered whether these outlandish monsters might not have inspired some hoaxers to create a kind of ghillie suit (camouflage designed to resemble heavy foliage) in order to mimic myths surrounding the appearance of this curious creature, but there are others who believe just as fervently that the opposite may be true.
These others speculate that the allegedly real beast upon which the Kolchak series based its one shot, sewer dwelling villain might actually be the responsible for all the uproar in Red Reef. A creature known as the...
As unprecedented as a plant/human hybrid may be in the annals of academia, there are an astounding amount of myths and folklore concerning just such entities, and arguably the most famous example is the Louisiana bayou lurker now known as the “Père Malfait.”
Described as looming, vine covered, mud slathered monstrosity that stands 7 to 8-foot tall, this creature has been said to look like a tangle of willow branches and is known to be able to mimic a tree in order to conceal itself. This, one must admit, would be a perfect camouflage for any beast native to the miles of swamp that cover so much of both Louisiana and Mississippi as well as a good portion of the Florida Everglades, which, incidentally, lies mere miles from Boca Raton.
When the French speaking Acadians migrated into Louisiana at the tail end of the 1700s, they -- unlike almost every European immigrant that would follow -- adapted to the customs and language of the indigenous Native tribe known as the Bayogoula, which translates as the "bayou people."
These Acadians -- or "Cajuns" as they would eventually come to be known -- received a crash course in bayou fauna (as well as its more ethereal inhabitants) from their hosts, and one of the most intriguing was an entity who the Bayogoula had dubbed the “Father of the Leaves." When they adapted this legend into their own culture, the Acadians converted the fiend’s name into the French "Le Père de Mille Feuilles," which translates as the "Father of a Thousand Leaves.”
According to the Bayogoula, this Le Père de Mille Feuilles was a mystical being that dwelled deep in the soupy morass of the swamp only to appear as a vengeful spirit that sought retribution against anyone who, with malicious intent, did harm to the Bayou or its inhabitants. It goes without saying that as the population of the wetlands increased with the arrival of European settlers, so did the acts of iniquity, which (according to oral reports) increased Le Père de Mille Feuilles activity from once or twice in a generation to numerous times in single a decade. Eventually encounters with this vicious creature became tragically commonplace.
It was during this terrible onslaught that the terrified Acadians started referring to this leafy menace as “Père Mal Feuilles” or “Father of Bad Leaves,” eventually distilling it to “Père Malfait,” the “Father of Bad Doings.” A name which -- justified or not -- this creature bears to this day.
As the 20th Century dawned and the light of scientific progress and rationality began breaking into even the darkest corners of the Earth, belief in this monster began to wane in all but the most remote sections of bayou. Cajuns stopped fearing the Père Malfait and began using it as a sort of bogeyman figure to scare wayward children and to keep them from exploring the treacherous and often uncharted regions of the swamp.
Some of the older bayou inhabitants still believe that this mystical monster still haunts the swamp. While it would be presumptuous to discount the beliefs of those who actually live in the swamps, one can't help but to wonder if the legends that sprang up among the Bayogoula and Acadian people might be based not on a being of supernatural origin, but on an extremely rare, yet very “real,” species.
This bizarre beast might be an unknown mammal or amphibian covered in swamp plants for concealment or -- even more preposterously -- amass of vegetable matter that somehow evolved to assume humanoid form.
While it’s tempting to dismiss either of these notions out of hand, when one considers the density of the swamps in the United States alone, then it becomes easy to see how Mother Nature might produce a life form akin to a conscious “plant,”capable of concealing itself in this vast morass.
Admittedly the above hypothesis is wildly unsubstantiated, but the proximity of the Everglades to Red Reef makes one wonder if this exceedingly unique entity might not be indigenous to all of the south’s largest swamps. Perhaps the rarity of sightings has less to do with avenging wrongdoers and more to do with natural biological urges. Or maybe with its distinct physiology this being might have an extended hibernation cycle… like I said, wildly unsubstantiated... but intriguing nonetheless.
Perhaps the most logical theory in support of the Moss Man being a flesh and blood -- or leaf and chlorophyll -- critter is that the Moss man is not a terrestrial animal but some sort of a…
Perhaps the reason why the Moss Man is seen so infrequently -- and with such large intervals of absence -- is because this ostensibly amphibious “animal” is not indigenous to land, but native to the sea. It has been suggested by some that this seemingly insidious version of Sid and Marty Krofft’s “Sigmund the Sea Monster” might occasionally rise from the depths of the Atlantic and lurch its way onto land in search of sustenance, or a mate… or possibly for even more nefarious purposes.
Few would argue that the ocean depths do not harbor mysteries that we can scarcely imagine and perhaps one of these mysterious organisms is a human-like pile of sentient seaweed. The fact that so many sightings of the Florida Moss Man occurred near the beach would also seem to indicate some sort of marine connection, but like everything else in this investigation that is pure conjecture.
It’s worth noting that there are scores of cryptid reports -- from Orange Eyes to the Dover Demon -- that refer to beasts with inexplicably glowing eyes, but two cases are of particular interest as they represent leafy skinned, ostensibly aquatic humanoids. The first is the notorious Charles Mill Lake Monster, which was said to be a massive, seemingly armless humanoid with luminous, green eyes and large, webbed feet, which was first spied in March of 1959.
The second is a enigmatic humanoid which reportedly emerged from the underbrush near the Santa Ana River in California on November 8, 1958. This entity was described as being a fluorescent-eyed “thing” with a protuberant mouth and a body covered with scales that resembled “leaves.”
What (if any) connection these beings may have with Boca Raton’s Moss Man is open to debate, but it does seem to indicate that there is a precedent for leaf smothered, glowing eyed beasties in the continental United States; and that alone merits further investigation into this phenomenon.
While the Moss Man may well be a manifestly “real” rather than mystical fiend, one would be remiss not to considered the possibility that this bog beast might be a misidentified…
The often seen -- and even more often smelled -- bipedal, primate-like monstrosity that Florida is most renowned for is the notorious “Skunk Ape.” This Bigfoot-like beast is said to be a shaggy, mud caked monster that prowls along the rural byways of the Sunshine State.
Due to the proliferation of Skunk Ape sightings throughout Florida it is worth considering whether or not the Moss Man might not have been a misidentified wild man. Perhaps the leafy epidermis was not a part of this entity’s physical body so much as it was a detritus of swamp foliage draped over a hairy beast that is endemic to the Everglades and the surrounding area.
That fact that many sightings are brief and take place from a considerable distance makes this possibility one worthy of discussion. Still, if this were a moss covered ape man, one would assume that witnesses such as the couple involved in the extremely close Gumbo Limbo encounter would have noticed that it was more simian in appearance than, well, vegetative.
There has never been any physical evidence in support of this creature’s existence -- save a pile of Spanish moss, which was undoubtedly left behind back in 1978 -- and, as an inherently skeptical devotee of the unknown, I must admit that the mostly anonymous reports could just as easily be examples of modern folklore in the making as genuine eyewitness accounts.
There's also the fact that there hasn't been a confirmed sighting of the creature since the 1980's. All of this leads me to believe that this may be one big, mucky, tall tale that inspired a lot of fun movies and TV shows.
Still, it pays to keep an open mind about these things... and regardless of how slim my chances are, I can guarantee you that the next time my travels take me down to those long stretches of central Florida shoreline; I’ll be keeping one eye on the sea foam lapping at my feet and the other scanning the tufts of sea grape and Spanish moss searching for the unmistakable flash of amber eyes in the undergrowth.