21st Century Folklore
The Independent called it “The Montauk Monster.” Three kids found it early one morning while surfing and emailed a picture to the editor. Scientists quickly determined that it was likely raccoon or perhaps a possum. The story got a little bit of play in the national media during the slower parts of the 24-hour news cycle, but it was mostly forgotten within a week or two.
A few basic cable “cryptid-hunting” shows ran some episodes about the unfortunate creature for a few years afterwards. Every once in a while another bloated animal carcass will wash up on the shores somewhere else on the East Coast and editors and journalists will pull on their research hats and crib lines from the same few 2008 articles about the Montauk Monster and draw and tie them into the “Brooklyn Bridge” or wherever monster, creating a sort of recursive loop of pull-quotes and easy references that is the hallmark of modern day memory making.
Most nights after work I’ll walk the Ditch Plains and chain-smoke my way through an hour’s wage of Camel Turkish Royals. I like to look out over the dark waves and try to figure out where Plum Island might be. I imagine the Montauk Monster floating and bloating and rising and falling with the waves until it’s carried away from the island to its final resting place in the Hamptons (oh, if we could all be so lucky.)
That’s one of the more popular conspiracy theories about the poor little thing: that it was the result of some cruel experimentation at the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Supposedly there was a lot of that, producing a lot of awful, unfortunate, mysterious things. Plum Island has its own rich tapestry of sleek, polished, information-age folklore. When I stand shivering in the wet spray imagining the voyage of the Montauk Monster, I’m not sure if I think of it as linked to the mythology of Plum Island or vice-versa.
Drawn and tied, the recursive loop.
I’ll walk on, though, and leave that chicken-or-the-egg mystery in the sand. The idea, while interesting, isn’t overwhelming. Too much going on in the Homo sapiens braincase these days to overwhelm with mere riddles of whatever those thoughts imply. I feel like maybe there’s something important to them, but usually I get too irritated by how my cigarettes have gotten too damp in the ocean spray to light properly to think too hard about it and then it’s gone.
I like to make it all the way to the Montauk Point Lighthouse if I can. There’s an old story, legend of sorts I guess, that I like to think about while I watch the sunrise turn the sky pink over the lighthouse. Actually, what I really like to do is imagine it taking place on the old tower in front of me, morbid as that is.
Calling it a story or even a legend doesn’t really do it justice, though, because what happened was true. And true in the actual, factual way and not just in a pseudo-philosophical George Costanza “it’s not a lie if you believe it” kind of way.
Though, I suppose parts of it may not be true. Added post-mortem for dramatic effect. One can never be sure. Not these days. No, that’s not fair. Not any days.
I can see it in front of me like a stage play: the lighthouse, the two old men, and the sea. The sacred duty, the lonely vigil, the themes of honor and sacrifice, of stewardship and responsibility. They are all alone save for each other.
And they hate each other.
One night a terrible accident occurs and one of the men falls to his death on the rocks, the same rocks that he has spent decades protecting sailors from. Weave in some themes of irony. But his partner cannot simply bury him or float him out to sea like some raccoon or experimental diseased animal. No, that would be too suspicious. Everyone knows that the men hate each other. He must prove to them all that he didn’t commit murder, that his partner’s death was a serendipitous accident.
So he takes the body, puts it in a roughly hewn wooden coffin, and lashes it to the outside of the lighthouse tower, right outside the window.
Act II starts and the body is starting to stink just a little, but it’s tolerable so long as it’s in the coffin. But, of course, it doesn’t stay there. A bad storm kicks up and the coffin is blown wildly about and smashed repeatedly against the tower. Then, as a bolt of blue lightning lights up the sky dramatically, the wood splits and the withered, decomposed, horrifying body is exposed. The rain hits it and the wind buffets it. By the time the storm finally passes, it is a ragged, slimy, stringy thing straight out of a nightmare.
From that night on, the corpse dangles just out of reach. Baking in the sun, soaking in the rain, feeding the bugs and birds. To his eternal credit, the living lighthouse keeper continues to man his post. Night after night, in the yellow glow of the lighthouse, he keeps the shoreline safe while his former partner watch him with eyeless sockets. When it’s windy, he watches him swing and sway. It almost looks like he’s waving.
That year was a particularly bad year for storms. It took four months before a ship managed to come ashore. Act III begins and we see the toll that the experience has taken on the lighthouse keeper. He hasn’t eaten properly in weeks. His eyes are sunken. His skin is pallid. Why, he almost looks like the corpse still hanging from the tower. And mentally, he’s just gone. A victim of a Montauk Monster. Fin.
Oh, but there is one last thing. It may have taken four months for a ship to land, but a few had managed to approach closely enough to see a man hanging out of the lighthouse window, waving slowly as if he hadn’t a problem in the world. More irony? Let the audience mull it over. Drop curtain.
This whole tale actually took place 3,300 miles away in Wales, but I secure it to the rope and railing of Montauk Point when I tell the story to anyone who will listen, and the loop grows ever more recursive.
I usually start to head back when I’m halfway through my pack of smokes. One time I twisted my ankle on the return trip. I couldn’t see the ocean that moonless night, but I could hear it. Feel it. I ended up limping in time with the pounding surf. Step, whoosh, drag, slosh. Repeat. Stop for a smoke. Repeat. Think.
If I didn’t make it, if it somehow managed to twist both ankles and fell into the low tide and drowned in the most pathetic way, would I end up a figment in someone’s imaginary beach play? No, I doubt it. It’s sad, but not sad enough.
But what if, in my injured state, I encountered a living Montauk Monster and it did to me what monsters do? What would The Independent say? Dare I hope to end up a footnote of folklore, a minor ghost of the East End?
That’s what I’ll tell them to put on my headstone: A minor ghost of the East End. It’s not a lie if you believe it.
By the time I got home that night the sun had fully risen. I was too tired to shower or change before going to bed. Now my mattress smells like seawater. It’s something I’ve grown to like.