5 Monsters That Were Just Optical Illusions

Legends tell of a lady that was also a vase
5 Monsters That Were Just Optical Illusions

We tend to feel pretty high and mighty about the average human’s knowledge level nowadays: “Ancient civilizations thought there was a wolf god in the sky, what idiots!” Remember, you were lucky enough to have someone explain eclipses to you, and the ability to do a quick Google search in case you forgot. Let’s be honest, if you’d never seen a rhinoceros in your life, and you suddenly were in charge of explaining them upon your return from a great voyage, you’d probably end up creating some folklore too. All you need is one confused human with a talent for storytelling, and boom, you’ve got a new mythological creature.

Here are five myths and legends that turned out to just be uninformed observations...


Alvin Padayachee

Turns out that some dog-like creatures are just… dogs.

Some fabled experiences with legendary creatures start with a moment of majesty — seeing a magical-looking animal drinking from a deep forest stream, shrouded in twilight. A brief, meaningful moment of eye contact before they leap away into the brush. Experiences with a chupacabra are not like that. They usually involve seeing a goat getting bled out in your backyard.

According to the most magical of descriptions, it’s a small, scaly creature with spines on its back that has a particular taste for goat blood. Early artist interpretations give us something straight out of the D&D Monster Manual, kind of like a tiny, dry Creature from the Black Lagoon. The generally accepted truth at this point is much less compelling, and more or less gross, depending on your affinity for reptiles. It’s thought that what people were seeing, not helped by the fact that it was almost always the middle of the night, was a dog or coyote with mange. Mange causes itching, which the affected canine scratches until they’ve traded their fur for scabs, a famously scaly-looking healing process. Owing to their shoulder orientation, the one place that’s the hardest for them to reach, and therefore scratch, is their spine, leaving a ridge of matted fur sticking up rather spinily.



Whoa! This building is getting me horny!

Probably one of the best-known cases of mistaken mythological identity is mermaids. It’s an enduring myth and character even today, thanks in part to Hans Christian Andersen and Walt Disney’s further work on the subject. A sexy forbidden ocean lady with the tail of a fish has, ironically, proven to be a tale with legs. Not particularly surprising, of course. If you want men to keep talking about something for a couple centuries, all you have to do is give it tits.

It turns out that unchecked horniness might not only be part of the reason for mermaid’s continued relevance, but also for their origin. Most people now think that the most likely culprit behind the sea sirens were manatees — a huge confidence-booster for something also known as a “sea cow.” There are even accounts of them from actual verifiable figures and not just generations of unnamed sailors in heat, like Christopher Columbus. He recorded his own sighting of mermaids in 1493, calling them, understandably in hindsight, “not as beautiful as they were painted.”

Jack O’ Lanterns


No, they were not terrified of this cute lil fella.

First off, no, not the pumpkins. They’re a delightful piece of seasonal home decor, and aren’t exactly mysterious in origin. We’re going back to the actual folklore namesake of the Jack O’ Lantern, from the marshes and moors of Europe. The idea was that there was a ghostly, lost traveler who wandered the wetlands with his lantern. According to the tales, he’d been turned away from the afterlife, and so, with a resigned “fuck me, I guess,” he took to the mists for eternity.

If you’ve got a tenuous grasp of science and keep seeing lights in the marsh, it’s about the best you can do. And they were, indeed, seeing lights. Though the cause of ignition is still debated, with the leading theory being an interaction between phosphoric acid and oxygen, pockets of gas can catch fire and produce a flash above a swamp’s surface. Basically, wetlands occasionally light their farts like an environmental Steve-O, and the phenomenon led to, as so many do: ghosts.

The Mothman


Hello? Animal control? Send your best men.

By far the most recent of the fantastical critters on this list is West Virginia’s own Mothman. Even so, he wasted no time storming the collective consciousness, earning roles in both mediocre movies and excellent video games. The general description of the monster is consistent: a man-sized creature with bright red eyes and large wings, clumsy on the ground but a powerful flyer.

It’s a fun story for sure. Unfortunately, the most likely culprit here is probably the first thing you should consider when you see a flying creature: that it’s a bird. Specifically, the sandhill crane. You’d have to think that if someone had a description of the sandhill crane handy after the first sighting and read off its characteristics, this myth may have never gotten off the ground, no pun intended. That’s because the crane in question is a couple feet tall, with a correspondingly large wingspan, and to top it off, has another unique feature: red eyes, surrounded by circles of bright red flesh.


Public Domain

“Man, I wish I had depth perception.”

This one’s a little unusual compared to the others, because it was, in fact, based in science. Just deeply flawed, dumb science. It’s now thought that tales of cyclops didn’t come from mead-sauced warriors telling tales of daring, but from an inaccurate interpretation of real archaeology. Specifically, they think people were digging up mammoth skulls (the animal, not the descriptor, though to be fair they both apply) and noticing their massive, central nasal cavities, which often collapse into a single big hole in the skull… right about where a single eye might go.

Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week, on Apple PodcastsSpotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.

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