An octopus with tentacles looming

Monster of the Week: The Oklahoma Octopus

I adore octopuses.

They are so strange, so unlike us, that they are one of the few known lifeforms that can make an honest go at being called “alien.” Add a healthy dose of Lovecraft, a dash of Verne, and, hey, maybe you’ve even seen enough hentai to know where this is going — but our cephalopod buddies have inspired some of the creepiest crawlies to grace our collective nightmares.

Get used to seeing them on here, is what I’m saying.

One of the most recent — and outlandish — stories of a monstrous octopus comes from Oklahoma. This makes sense because of Oklahoma’s prominence as a great shipping region. Yes, the Oklahoma coast is among the best in America. The wharfs! The boardwalks! The surf! Not a night goes by that I don’t drift off to sweet dreams of an Oklahoma beach vacation.

Uh, wait, what now? Oh, California.

So Oklahoma is landlocked. But no self-respecting cephalopod would let that stop them from dishing out a hearty dose of terror.

Back in 2008, Animal Planet aired an episode of Lost Tapes — a fictionalized mockumentary series inspired by urban legends — that highlighted rumors of a monster terrorizing three Oklahoma lakes. The story goes that, after an increase in drownings, locals began to talk about a monster in the lake. Combine that with rumors about feeling something grab at people in the water, and they made the leap to tentacles.

Their lake monster was an octopus.

Not just any octopus — a big one. The size of a horse.

Like most urban legends, there are a few holes in the story. The skeptic will note that the lakes in question, Lake Thunderbird, Lake Oologah, and Lake Tenkiller, are each a two to three hour drive away from each other. Unless there’s a sea monster epidemic in Oklahoma, our poor lake monster would be too busy commuting to attack anybody.

More importantly, they are freshwater lakes. Octopuses are saltwater creatures. In fact, there has not been a single recorded instance of a cephalopod surviving in freshwater for more than a quick jaunt.

But wait, you might be thinking. What about that adaptation thing?

Sure, Oklahoma might be plains now, but rewind a couple dozen million years and the Joad homestead was indeed at the bottom of a shallow, salty sea. Octopuses could have lived there happily. So, what happened to the little guys who got trapped behind in lakes when the water receded? Who’s to say they didn’t just adapt to freshwater over the years?

It’s a neat idea, but Scientific American’s not having it. There’s no evidence to suggest that a cephalopod could adapt in that way. And if you’re not up on your biology, the history doesn’t add up — these lakes were all man-made within the last century.

Certainly newer than the oft-cited centuries-old Native American legends of a monster in the depths.

Oh, I didn’t mention that?

That’s where the description comes from. Supposedly, legends told of “a demon the size of a horse with long tentacles and leathery, reddish-brown skin.” These are the only physical details I’ve been able to find about the monster, because there have been no documented sightings.

Of course, the supposedly Native American legend is undocumented, too. What descriptions I have seen fail to name the creature or even specify what tribe these legends are meant to be attributed to. It’s almost like someone just made up a legend.

Hm.

You may ask why I even bother to debunk a myth like this. After all, the Oklahoma Octopus is a particularly easy target.

Well, as I searched articles for stories about this creature, I noticed a pattern: comments from Oklahoma natives who had never heard of the legend. I know — comment sections, the pinnacle of reliable sources! And no matter how popular an urban legend gets, there will always be somebody who’s out of the loop.

But all this got me wondering — what is the origin of this story?

I couldn’t trace the octopus story back to any single incident. All of the discussion and articles I found online were dated after the 2008 episode of the Lost Tapes aired. When I searched pre-2008 — nothing. The closest thing I could find to a citation traced back to a 1973 incident at a different lake where two brothers claimed to have seen a monster that they likened to a lizard, a frog, even a cow — but definitely not an octopus.

Now, maybe I didn’t look hard enough. Maybe it’s just the way of urban legends that they are passed through word of mouth and not clear, documented sources. But all of this got me wondering…

Did the Lost Tapes popularize the story — or originate it?

Of course, it makes sense that the discussion around an urban legend will spread after a TV show airs an episode about it. But, just for the sake of argument, what if there were only a handful of people who knew about this story? Does that count as an urban legend?

Where is the line between popularizing someone else’s legend and making your own?

Think about music. I’ll bet you can think of a cover that you liked better than the original recording. Now, there are issues of attribution and creative integrity that I don’t want to minimize — but when our collective cultural consciousness points to the cover instead of the original, doesn’t that give it a new life of its own?

Sometimes, when you tell a story, you become a part of it.

And that can be pretty cool. It can also be an opportunity wasted.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, why an octopus?

Why did anyone involved in telling this story — from the Lost Tapes producers to witnesses who claim to have seen or felt evidence of a lake monster — decide that it was an octopus?

I’ve already talked some about why we consider cephalopods creepy. One believer has even made the bizarre implication that the Oklahoma Octopus inspired Lovecraft to create Cthulhu. There’s certainly precedent to make the jump from “aquatic monster” to “cephalopod.”

But in this case, that leap undermines the monster’s terror. It’s weirdly specific for a myth that has no physical evidence behind it and not even any detailed descriptions. Through that specificity, it loses its teeth — the unknown and unseen are some of the most powerful tools of horror. When we’re left the freedom to fill in the blanks, our imagination is happy to serve up our personal worst nightmares.

I don’t know about you, but “killer octopus” doesn’t scare me nearly as much as “mysterious, unseen beast with tentacles.”

Maybe the octopus connection was an attempt to square the rumors with reality — after all, that’s a real animal that exists somewhere, so it’s not as unbelievable as an unspecified sea monster.

Except that it is.

That’s the other big place this story loses its potential to instill fear — it’s a step too far away from reality. I know, I know, it’s a little ridiculous to complain about plausibility when we’re already on the subject of urban legend, but we’re talking about the difference between Sharknado and Jaws.

The shark in Jaws is not at all a scientifically accurate representation of a great white, but we buy into it for the duration of the movie because it’s similar enough to scare us. Sharknado, on the other hand, is so far past the point of ridiculous that it could only be comedy. Freshwater might not be quite as bad a home for an octopus as a tornado is for a shark, but it’s absurd enough to gut this sea monster myth.

Final verdict? The Oklahoma Octopus loses points for being too specific. It’s just not as scary as a sea monster could be. Don’t try to tie your monster to reality by comparing it to known animals if the science doesn’t back it up — it’ll end up making it weaker.

And that’s a real shame. I love a good octopus story.

Thoughts, readers? Am I being too harsh on this freshwater cephalopod? Is this guy funny, scary, or neither? Leave a comment!

Resources:

 

Oklahoma Octopus | Lost Tapes, http://www.animalplanet.com/tv-shows/lost-tapes/creatures/oklahoma-octopus/, accessed 7/13/16.

 

“Could an Octopus Really Be Terrorizing Oklahoma’s Lakes?”, Scientific Americanhttp://blogs.scientificamerican.com/octopus-chronicles/could-an-octopus-really-be-terrorizing-oklahomae28099s-lakes/, accessed 7/13/16.

 

“Okie Octopus Myth Pushed By Animal Planet, Easily Busted,” http://doubtfulnews.com/2013/12/okie-octopus-myth-pushed-by-animal-planet-easily-busted/, accessed 7/13/16.

2 Comments

  • Jeremiah Reply

    I have to agree that making it specifically an octopus takes a little bit away, especially when you could try to push it as some unknown tentacled-species. That being said I probably wouldn’t be alright running into a horse sized octopus in a lake. I really liked the discussion of how much of retelling a story can make it your own. It seems pretty far removed from the world of professional writing but retelling classics and making embellishments and additions would have been things to laud from a storyteller before books were able to be mass produced. I find it fun to think about some of the well known myths and wonder how much has changed since its inception.

    • Bex Reply

      Yeah, oral storytelling traditions can be really rich. The only problem is that they’re often not well documented (especially if you go back further into history). In the cases where they are, though, it’s really fascinating to see how they change over time and different storytellers.

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