by Paul Bowers
The Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp is back. Maybe.
Ever since ABC News 4 published a hilariously grainy photo of the mythical South Carolina monster Sunday afternoon, followed by an extremely zoomed-out video of something moving in the woods, the internet hasn't been able to stop talking about the possibility that a Bigfoot-style Southern swamp beast is walking among us here in the Palmetto State.
What, or who, is the Lizard Man? And why does he hold our interest more than two-and-a-half decades after his first appearance? Here's a primer:
1. The Lizard Man is at least 27 years old.
The first known sighting of the Lizard Man took place around 2 a.m. on June 29, 1988, near a swamp in Lee County, S.C. Christopher Davis, a 17-year-old, told authorities he was driving home from working a night shift at McDonald's when his '76 Celica blew a flat tire on Browntown Road, about a mile past the Scape Ore bridge, and he pulled over to put on a spare.
As he was placing his tools back in the trunk after changing the tire, he said he saw something moving toward him from the treeline. In an interview with The Item, he described the creature as "green, wet-like, about seven feet tall and had three fingers," with "glowing red eyes."
Here's how Davis described the encounter to the Houston Chronicle after the story had gained national attention:
"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. I looked in my mirror and saw a blur of green running. 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."
Christopher Davis isn't around to tell the tale anymore. He was murdered in his home in 2009. In his seminal 2013 cryptozoological book, Lizard Man: The True Story of the Bishopville Monster, author Lyle Blackburn mentions that a few other Lizard Man witnesses have died of unnatural causes, establishing what he calls "a peculiar pattern of death surrounding anyone who had seen the Lizard Man."
2. He's a biter.
Davis only came forward with his story after the Lee County Sheriff's Office started investigating a mysteriously damaged car in the rural Browntown community on the outskirts of Bishopville.
Blackburn describes the incident in "The Lizard Man Cometh," the opening chapter of his book:
"A family by the name of Waye reported that their 1985 Ford LTD had been 'mauled' during the night while they slept. The vehicle, which had been parked under an open metal carport, had suffered extensive damage to the molding, sidewalls, and hood. It would have seemed like the work of a vandal, but hair and footprints found on the car led them to believe some kind of animal might have been responsible. But what kind of animal would sink its claws and teeth into the metal skin of a car?"
The hair fibers were determined to have come from a red fox, and a biologist said the footprints on the car could have come from a black bear — a not-uncommon sight in the nearby swamp. Still, why would a wild animal attack a car, Moby Dick style?
The rumors started flying about a monster on the loose, and after Davis gave his account, other witnesses started telling their stories. Before this week's newly surfaced photograph, Lizard Man sightings had been reported as recently as 2011 in Bishopville and surrounding communities. Here's a short SCETV documentary about the Lizard Man legend from 2008:
3. He's a cultural icon.
For a brief time in 1988, Bishopville became world famous, and of course people capitalized on it. Christopher Davis signed autographs and answered questions at the makeshift "Lizard Man Information Center" inside Bishopville's Cottonland Restaurant, according to Blackburn. Lizard Man T-shirts and hats became hot sellers as far away as Myrtle Beach, the county started hosting a Lizard Man 5K race, and at least three songs were written about the Lizard Man. The string of sightings proved to be a small economic boon in Bishopville, and some locals have called for a statue to be erected of the creature.
And then there's the S.C. Cotton Museum, a Bishopville institution that includes an exhibit to this day about the legend of the Lizard Man. Executive Director Janson Cox, reached by phone today, says interest has picked up since the latest sighting.
"Oh, there's always interest anytime they show anything about the Lizard Man. People call, people want the T-shirts and all of that. So we're here to supply your fantasy," Cox said.
Wait — so is it just a fantasy?
"You have to come here and find out for yourself," Cox said. "What you have to understand is, even back to the dinosaur age, there was a lizard-looking creature that stood on its hind legs like the Lizard Man is described. The Native Americans talked about men with tails that came to live with them. So the stories have been going on for centuries. Makes you wonder, doesn't it?"
4. We want to believe he's real.
In August 1988, Kenneth Orr, an airman stationed at Shaw Air Force Base near Bishopville, told Lee County Sheriff Liston Truesdale that he had crossed paths with the Lizard Man while driving to the base at 6 a.m. He said he fired a warning shot with his revolver before shooting and wounding the creature. The State picked up the story with a tabloid-worthy front-page headline: "Florence man says he wounded 'Lizard Man.'"
According to newspaper reports at the time, Orr drew a sketch of the creature and presented some blood and scales that were on the hood of his vehicle as evidence. But the sketch looked suspiciously like one that was being sold on T-shirts in town, and the scales appeared to have come from a fish.
There was one other problem with the story: Orr was lying. Orr eventually admitted he had perpetrated a hoax and was charged with a misdemeanor count of filing a false report, according to newspaper reports. In a signed statement to the Sheriff's Office that was reprinted in Blackburn's book, Orr wrote, "I made the report just to keep the legend of the Lizard Man alive."
There is, of course, little evidence to prove the existence of the Lizard Man and plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise — starting with the fact that the latest "sighting" appears to be of a man in a rubberized costume. Eric McElroy, a College of Charleston biologist who traveled to Bishopville in 2011 to study the Lizard Man's legacy, told the City Paper in 2012 that he was highly skeptical about any creature that looks like a reptile-human hybrid, a biological impossibility. "These animals are eight feet tall and furry," McElroy added. "I have a hard time believing that there's a population of these in existence that we've never seen a carcass and no one has ever kept one in captivity."
But Kenneth Orr wasn't the only person who wanted to keep the Lizard Man's legend alive. CofC history professor and Monsters in America author Scott Poole, who accompanied McElroy on the Bishopville fact-finding expedition, said that legends like this one have deep roots in the hopes and fears of American frontier settlers.
"I tend to think that beliefs about Bigfoot, beliefs about UFOs, beliefs in the paranormal, this current fascination with ghosts and specters and hauntings, it comes in part from a religious impulse and an effort to re-enchant the world," Poole said in 2012. "We want to reject the idea that the world has been explained for us, that there's order, that there's rationality, and that science can answer the big questions."