Odds are you’ve heard of the chupacabra, the mysterious South American vampire. It’s shown up in The X-Files, been riffed on in Futurama and given a name to one of Nick Kroll’s characters. It’s also an incredibly satisfying word to say.
It’s easy to assume the chupacabra is an old folktale, one passed down over the generations like Sasquatch or the Yeti, but it actually dates from as recently as 1995. It’s the same age as Season Two of Friends. Rather than some ancient myth, it has its origins in a combination of Hollywood magic, gossip, paranoia, conspiracy theories, the idiosyncrasies of human memory and a naked woman kissing a dude and sticking her tongue through the back of his fuckin’ head.
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In March 1995, in Puerto Rico, eight sheep were found with puncture wounds in their necks and seemingly drained of blood. That August, another 150 were killed in and around Canóvanas, outside San Juan. Was there some kind of vampire on the loose? The same month, a woman named Madelyne Tolentino reported seeing a mysterious creature outside her home. It walked upright like a person, but was silver in color and had spikes down its back — both humanoid and yet very, very alien.
One story was connected to the other, and the creature was given a name — el chupacabra, or “the goat-sucker.” By early 1996, some parts of Puerto Rico were in the grips of a chupacabra panic. The tabloid press ran regular stories about chupacabra attacks, and the rural community in particular was worried. It didn’t matter that the mainstream media didn’t spread these stories — if anything, that just made it all the more real to the people who felt they had something to fear from the chupacabra. To a farmer with a handful of animals who was just about making ends meet, the creature represented a real threat, and the mainstream media’s decision to ignore it just emphasized the urban-rural divide. Jose “Chemo” Soto, mayor of Canóvanas, started holding press conferences and rallies about protecting the public from these monsters. (He remained mayor until 2014. The current mayor? His daughter.)
In March 1996, the chupacabra seemed to reach Florida, killing 40 animals outside Miami. The Miami-based El Show de Cristina — the Spanish Oprah — did a segment on it, broadcast to millions of Spanish speakers all over the world, and incredibly quickly, it began to feel like something that had been around for a long time. By 1997 there was an episode of The X-Files about it, Season Four’s “El Mundo Gira,” which treated it as an established myth told to children, rather than something that had just happened two years ago. In 1999, Futurama’s second-season premiere, “I Second That Emotion,” featured ‘el chupanibre,’ a parody of the creature that, again, belied its very recent origins. When more goats died in Nicaragua in 2000, there seemed to be no mystery involved: This was clearly the work of the chupacabra. The year 2007 in Texas? The chupacabra.
Not until 2011 did a journalist, Benjamin Radford, figure out something fairly important: The creature Madelyne Tolentino had described was Sil, the alien from the extra-1990s sexploitation horror film Species.
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Species isn’t exactly held up as a classic. It did respectable business at the box office, but it’s primarily remembered for featuring Natasha Henstridge, in her first film appearance, wearing very little clothing. The film, which also stars Sir Ben Kingsley, Forest Whitaker, Michael Madsen, Alfred Molina and Marg Helgenberger, got a two-star review from Roger Ebert, who described it as “an explosion at the special-effects factory” and “just a version of Friday the 13th if Jason was a bug-eyed monster.” It’s an entertaining film that has much more to it than the two or three scenes a generation of teenagers wore out on their VHS copies, but it probably won’t ever get the Criterion treatment.
Henstridge plays the adult human form of Sil, the result of an experiment splicing human and alien DNA. Toward the end of the film, Sil morphs into her alien form, a spiky silver monster. Tolentino had seen Species at the theater shortly before her encounter, and in fact, she referred to it when describing the creature she saw, something nobody at the time opted to look into. (Henstridge didn’t respond to a DMed request for comment, which seems understandable because, holy shit, imagine the kind of DMs Natasha Henstridge gets.)
“Tolentino gave this account describing the creature in pretty remarkable detail, down to its lack of genitals and its lack of an anus,” says Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine, a research fellow with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and author of Tracking the Chupacabra. “She said she got down on the ground and looked through this plate-glass window to check out its junk or lack thereof, and made a joke to her mother about how it might defecate. It seems to have stood there for several minutes because she gave a pretty good description of its fingers, its toes, its big round eyes and the feathery spikes that were on its back.”
Radford noticed differences in Tolentino’s recounting of the story, between her initial description, a second interview a few months later with the Puerto Rican Research Group and his own later conversations with her. Sometimes she reported being terrified and screaming, other times everything was calm enough that she was cracking jokes to her mom about how the alien loitering outside her home could shit without an asshole. On one occasion she recalled herself being drawn to the window to get rid of a man parking sketchily outside her house, only to see him gaping at the creature — that guy isn’t named or mentioned any other time. In another retelling, her elderly mother chased the creature away, while later, she said a local boy who regularly dealt with snakes caught it and took a look at its teeth before letting it go.
Everyone has misremembered things now and then, or conflated two memories, but seeing a creature so reminiscent of the one in a movie she’d recently watched raises the question: What was so special about Sil that Tolentino thought it came to her house?
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Sil’s alien form was conceived by H.R. Giger, the eccentric Swiss artist famous for his biomechanical airbrush art, which often involved fairly nightmarish interactions between human genitals and intricate machinery. This wasn’t his first big-screen extraterrestrial — in 1977, he designed the instantly iconic xenomorph for Ridley Scott’s Alien. Giger (pronounced to rhyme with eager) was living in Switzerland, and a lot of his involvement in Species came in the form of faxed sketches and lengthy, emotionally charged phone calls to the man in charge of realizing his ideas into three dimensions, Steve Johnson.
Johnson is something of a legend in the visual effects world. He’s the guy who sculpted Slimer in Ghostbusters and did the effects for Big Trouble in Little China, but he’s also famed within the industry for innovations like color-changing opaque contact lenses. He’s worked with Steven Spielberg, Spike Jonze, Guillermo Del Toro, Ang Lee… He’s been there, done that and designed the rubber head.
Species was set to combine physical effects with then-pioneering digital ones, and the ideas everyone had for Sil were pretty ambitious. “We had to make it on time, make H.R. Giger happy as he’d never been happy with anybody who had recreated his work for a film, make a female alien that was both beautiful and terrifying and make it fucking translucent,” says Johnson. “A stretched-out, nubian, gorgeous puppet, a full-body animatronic. That was really, really, really, really, really, really, really hard because we didn’t have the materials we have now — we didn’t have translucent silicones flexible enough to do this kind of thing.”
This led to a lot of sleepless nights for Johnson. He had worked with Giger before on Poltergeist II, but the artist had changed his approach. “On Poltergeist II he had done these incredible paintings, these gorgeous lithographs, but by the time we got around to Species, what we got were these scribbled pen drawings,” he says. “Giger worked very, very fast — he’d get an idea and try to vomit it from nebulousness into the real world, and the faster he could do that, the closer it would be to that first feeling. So we had scribbles, and I said, ‘Okay, God, what are we gonna do?’ But all we had to do was look at Giger’s book Necronomicon and there was Sil. She was basically already designed. We filled in the blanks.”
Giger still made his presence known, though. “He would call and ramble at me for hours, alone in his Swiss castle. I’d be thinking, I got fucking shit to do out here and he just wants to talk to me about pickles. His accent was very strong, and he’d be saying, ‘Pickles must come from the girls, they must be exploding like pickles!’”
There is indeed a scene where a young Sil, played by a pre-Dawson’s Creek Michelle Williams, grows into her adult form, played by Henstridge. This involves throbbing pustules growing beneath her skin, eventually exploding into tentacles.
“Until the digital effects take over — and the digital work on that film is unfortunately not very good — the effects on Michelle’s face and hands are actually little plates that were under foam rubber appliances that were surrounded by slime and hoses,” says Johnson. “We were working on this big pickle shape that would grow out of her. Giger saw our work and said, ‘What are you doing? This isn’t what I described,’ and eventually, we found out he meant pimples.”
As production went on, Giger became irate. Johnson would arrive at the office to find the fax machine out of paper and a pile of angry drawings awaiting him. “He would draw these horrendous cartoons of everyone on the film being raped by Sil in a horrendous way and fax them to us.”
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So Species was fine and Sil was an impressive creature. (“It’s a really good story, and a great script,” says Johnson. “People get hypnotized by Natasha and don’t appreciate how good the story is.”) But, it takes more than that for one woman’s reported sighting of a bizarre creature to gain the traction it did.
That’s where the Puerto Rico of it all comes in. The first scene of Species takes place at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, an enormous facility that was, until 2016, home of the world’s largest radio telescope. You know the ending of Goldeneye, in that huge honkin’ satellite thing? It’s that. It was designed and built in the 1960s by, among others, William Casey, future head of the CIA. In the 1970s, it was used to broadcast the Arecibo Message, the most powerful broadcast ever deliberately beamed into space, designed to tell extraterrestrial species all about life on Earth.
An enormous sinkhole in the jungle being used to beam messages to aliens would always raise a few eyebrows, but all the more so in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory, meaning people who live there don’t get to vote in the U.S., but are governed by it. As National Geographic phrases it: “They send delegates to presidential nominating conventions, but they can’t cast electoral votes in the general election. They are subject to federal laws, but lack voting representation in Congress: Though the Puerto Rican delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives may serve on committees and introduce bills, they cannot vote.”
A huge secretive facility paid for with Washington money was therefore bound to become the subject of conspiracy theories, fueled by the anti-U.S. sentiment of the time. One group that believes a lot of conspiracy theories? The Puerto Rican Research Group, who insist that due to being close to one of the vertices of the Bermuda Triangle and on a geological fault, the whole area is “geomagnetically aberrant,” and laden with unusual phenomena kept undercover by those in power. The group’s Jose Martinez states, “UFOs in Puerto Rico are real. We have been witnesses to this phenomenon and collected evidence about it. … Puerto Rico has serious researchers who work unselfishly as well as alleged professionals who mock witnesses and denigrate their integrity. Such individuals don’t last for long, and are in league with the CIA, the NSA and the FBI.”
As Radford explains, ongoing rumors about top-secret government genetics labs in El Yunque rainforest — not far from Canóvanas — seemed to be confirmed by the plot of Species. The backstory of the chupacabra became that it was either an extraterrestrial or the product of a top-secret U.S. government genetic experiment gone wrong, and the plot of Species involved an extraterrestrial which was the product of a top-secret U.S. government genetic experiment gone wrong. He compares it to devout Catholics watching The Exorcist — aware it’s a film with actors and special effects, but simultaneously sure the events depicted in it are things that do happen.
“Tolentino didn’t call what she saw the chupacabra,” says Radford. “She just reported some weird, alien bipedal thing occurring outside of her house in her suburb. Then this group of UFO believers heard about it, and took her story and put their own spin on it, massaging her narrative to fit their agenda.”
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A woman sees a film that seems to confirm widespread rumors. She later sees something unusual, and her story is amplified by organizations whose agendas it suits. None of this, though, explains what happened to the animals that were killed.
The truth seems to be both less dramatic than the tale of the chupacabra, and neither as sexy nor explosion-filled as Species — these animals were killed by mangy-ass coyotes. Wild dogs infected with the mites that cause mange — Sarcoptes scabiei, which cause scabies in people — end up covered in lesions, losing their fur and sometimes going after livestock because they’re too weak to properly hunt. They really fuck animals up. A paper from the University of Michigan looking into the mites concluded that squirrels infected with them were more likely to be hit by cars. Death does weird things to the body, and animals that seem “drained of blood” are often anything but, with blood simply pooling in some parts of the body and leaving the rest appearing “deflated,” a process known as lividity.
“The chupacabra is basically a vampire, and historically, vampires were blamed for bad things happening,” says Radford. “Crop failures, stillborn children, droughts, locusts and whatnot. People would be looking for something to blame and would oftentimes blame either witches or vampires.”
Having half your animals killed by mangy coyotes is bad luck, but having them killed by a monster is vastly more compelling. Having them killed by a monster created by the people who take your taxes and give you shit-all in return is even more so. There might be cutting-edge sexy Hollywood effects involved in the tale of the chupacabra, but it’s untimely the age-old story of people feeling ripped off. The spiky-backed alien might not be real, but bloodsuckers fuckin’ are.