Hans Rudolf Giger looks like a stereotypical mad scientist. He has silver-grey hair, piercing, almost hypnotic eyes, thick lips and jowls; more often than not he’s photographed scowling. He is reclusive, eccentric, and often works at night – or continuously for days on end – at his art studio in Chur, Switzerland.
Influenced by Surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí and Ernst Fuchs, Giger is best known for his macabre paintings and sculptures filled with imagery that is often sexual and grotesque, organic yet mechanical, and somehow alien. Giger’s work has graced famous album covers (including those of Debbie Harry; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; and the Dead Kennedys), museums, and even two bars. He has also done design work for feature films, and won an Academy Award for his visual effects work on Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien.
HR Giger’s work is highly distinctive, and he is one of the world’s most successful commercial artists. Like a Dr Frankenstein, Giger has created many haunting monsters in his half-century of work – demons, devils, poltergeists, aliens, and even HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu.
But there is one unique piece of design work for which Giger has never received credit, a remarkable achievement of which even he is probably unaware: creating the Hispanic vampire beast el chupacabra.
Giger’s role in designing the monster is a bizarre case of life imitating art that has never been revealed – until now.
ENTER THE CHUPACABRA
Although the chupacabra’s fame is widespread – it’s now the world’s third-best-known monster after Bigfoot and Nessie – it has been the subject of little serious, empirical research. Proven facts and wild speculation mix freely and indistinguishably in literature about the chupacabra. Indeed, Karl Shuker has lamented the “immense confusion and contradiction” surrounding the creature, making it “almost impossible to distinguish fact from fiction, and reality from hearsay and local lore”.
I have spent the past five years investigating the chupacabra, including a field expedition to the jungles of Nicaragua; the full story will be told in my forthcoming book Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore.
By 2009, my research had answered nearly all of the central questions about the chupacabra, save perhaps the most important: its origin. Why was the goatsucker first sighted in Puerto Rico in 1995 [FT85:9] and not before? Real creatures don’t just appear out of thin air, and even if the chupacabra is a product of folklore, it still must have come from somewhere. To understand where the monster came from, we must return to that very first sighting.
A woman named Madelyne Tolentino gave the most important chupacabra description on record, not only because of its remarkable detail but also because it is the “original” eyewitness description upon which most subsequent images of the creature are based. Tolentino claims that she saw the creature near her house in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, during the second week of August 1995.
Tolentino said the chupacabra she saw had dark eyes that went up its temples and spread around the sides; it was about four feet tall, walked like a human on two legs, and had thin arms and legs, with three fingers and toes at the end of each limb. It had no ears or nose, but instead two small airholes. She also noted a row of distinctive spikes on the creature’s back. It stood outside a window, then moved into the road and leaped off into tall grass in a neighbouring vacant lot. Her account appears in Scott Corrales’s book Chupacabras and Other Mysteries, and is summarised and paraphrased in dozens of books and websites as a credible and important sighting. However, a close examination reveals that the account is riddled with implausible details, contradictions, and inconsistencies.
For example, after Tolentino claimed to have seen the monster, she didn’t panic but instead joked to her mother about the chupacabra’s apparent lack of an anus. That she could possibly have noticed such a detail from a distance defies credulity; then she recalled that her mother ran into the street to catch the monster. She failed, but Tolentino said a local boy chased and grabbed the menacing chupacabra and pried its mouth open before releasing it into the wild. There was not a shred of evidence supporting Tolentino’s incredible story, yet her eyewitness report has been treated by many writers (and the media) as valid and truthful. In fact, her description was used as the basis for a famous drawing by UFO researcher Jorge Martin that became the “standard” chupacabra image, soon to be known all over the world.
But, as the entire phenomenon arguably began with Tolentino and her sighting, the chupacabra is in big trouble; if this gold standard eyewitness account isn’t credible, then Tolentino’s description, and much of the information that followed it, is irrefutably tainted. Other Puerto Rican sightings followed (often producing wildly different descriptions of the creature) and reports soon spread beyond the island.
But for the past 15 years the chupacabra’s origin has remained shrouded in mystery. What, if anything, did Tolentino see? Was she lying, telling tall tales, or did she actually encounter some mysterious creature? Where did she come up with the detailed description? Scott Corrales has written that “It is almost certain that the creature’s origin will never be clearly established,” but I will show that this pessimistic assessment was premature.
Events, even strange ones – indeed, especially strange ones – do not occur in a vacuum. There are always pre-existing physical, psychological, or sociocultural conditions that help set the stage.
In Puerto Rico in early 1995, stories and rumours spread that some mysterious vampire was preying on the island’s animals, though the reports were sensationalised, unconfirmed, and lacked any significant description of the beast. Just before Tolentino’s report, a new element was added to the island’s social and cultural mix – something that had not existed there before and could, credibly, have spawned chupacabra sightings. The creature Tolentino described might bear no resemblance to any known animal; it does, however, look almost exactly like a fictional creature seen by hundreds of thousands of people in 1995 – a creature called Sil.
Sil was the name of the alien monster played by Natasha Henstridge in the science fiction horror film Species. The film begins as scientist Xavier Fitch (Sir Ben Kingsley) injects extraterrestrial DNA into human eggs, the result of which is a seemingly normal human child called Sil. But Fitch aborts the experiment when Sil begins ageing at a fantastic rate and, during REM sleep, alien spikes emerge from the girl’s spine. Sil escapes the laboratory, forcing Fitch to assemble an assassination team to track down his creature over the remainder of the film’s length.
The movie, directed by Roger Donaldson and written by Dennis Feldman, was a massive box office success. It earned over 113 million dollars worldwide and spawned a series of successful sequels.
Sil was designed by HR Giger. “When we thought about the creature, we felt that Giger was the only one who could give us what we wanted,” said Species producer Frank Mancuso Jr. Giger’s Sil and the chupacabra bear a striking resemblance; is it possible that the original chupacabra eyewitness might simply have described a monster she saw in a movie? It’s certainly possible; other monster witnesses have confused “real-life” monsters with ones they actually saw in films.
This lead seemed promising, but I needed more information. I reviewed the movie’s press kit and production notes, and interviewed the film’s production coordinator for insights into the development of the Sil alien design. I also bought a book called Species Design, which contained dozens of photographs of HR Giger’s designs for the Sil creature.
So, just how similar is Sil to the Puerto Rican goatsucker? Well, if Giger were God, his art could have been used as a blueprint for creating the chupacabra. Sketches of the chupacabra’s long, thin fingers and claws appear on page 24; its distinctive spine spikes can be seen on the Species creature on pages 25–29 and throughout the book. In the end, I identified over a dozen morphological similarities (see “Sil and the chupacabra”). The parallels grow even stronger when we consider Tolentino’s account of the chupacabra’s actions: she described it as hissing – something Sil does in the film – and also leaping fantastic distances with superhuman agility; again, something the Species creature also does.
An internal 9 February 1994 memo from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producers Roger Donaldson and Frank Mancuso Jr to HR Giger about the creature design provides a fascinating inside look at the ideas for Sil’s nature, behaviour, and physical description. It foreshadows the later description of the Puerto Rican chupacabra so well that the famous sketch of the creature could have been produced directly from the MGM studio production notes rather than Madelyne Tolentino’s memory (or imagination). Donaldson and Mancuso wrote: “In the monster form, Sil must be able to move easily and fast; She must have in her biology the means by which to kill without effort… We discussed the possibilities of things like bone spurs, tentacles, and/or a barbed, sharp tongue… she should be able to burrow into the ground… she has extra-sensory ability.” As for the creature’s victims: “When Sil kills she should leave her victims dead in a very identifiable way. For example, if she broke or sucked all the bones [or blood] out of her victim, this would show that the body was killed by some extraordinary circumstances… Sil should leave behind some evidence that she has been at a location… (i.e. bodily fluid… odour, slime… scratches, suction marks, etc.)”
Indeed, this is a near-verbatim list of characteristics claimed for the chupacabra. The parallels are unmistakable, including the body shape, locomotion, burrowing ability, distinctive method of killing (“sucking” blood or internal organs), telepathic/ESP claims, leaving slime, distinctive odour, and so on.
The more I researched the alien monster in Species, the more similarities to the chupacabra emerged – they even have identical origin stories. The two main explanations for the chupacabra are that it is either an extraterrestrial alien life form or the result of top-secret US government genetics experiments gone wrong. These happen to be exactly the two origin explanations of the Species creature: Sil is both an extraterrestrial alien and the result of top-secret US government genetics experiments gone wrong.
Furthermore, Species was released in Puerto Rico on 7 July 1995 – just before the Puerto Rican chupacabra hysteria reached new heights, and less than a month before Tolentino had her famous sighting.
A REEL-LIFE MONSTER
But how did a movie monster come to be seen as the dreaded chupacabra? Could Tolentino have made the leap from seeing an alien in a movie theatre to seeing it stalk the Puerto Rican countryside? Great pains were taken by all involved, from the screenwriter to the director to the special effects staff, to make the film (and especially the creature) as realistic as possible. The film’s special effects were state of the art, helmed by Academy Award winner Richard Edlund (who also did visual effects work on the Star Wars trilogy, Raiders of the Lost Ark and many other films), and Emmy winner Steve Johnson of XFX, Inc. The result, in 1995, was a creature far more realistic and lifelike than any previously seen on film.
Species was set in the (then) present-day of 1995, and the very first scene of the film is of a real place – in Puerto Rico no less! – the Arecibo Radio Observatory. For Puerto Rican audiences, it was a case of watching a movie set not far from their hometown, and at the very time they were seeing the film.
Even the Species story itself borrows heavily from real science. Indeed, screenwriter Feldman went to great pains to make sure that the film was as realistic and plausible as he could make it. By mixing actual events, real places, and genuine science with speculative elements, Feldman achieved a very high degree of credibility. This blurring of the line between fact and fiction, science fiction and reality, helped propel Species into the Puerto Rican consciousness.
For the Species alien to leap from the silver screen to the Puerto Rican countryside in search of goats’ blood, it wasn’t necessary for all, most or even a few Puerto Ricans to believe that what they saw in the movie was real. It only took one influential person, one seminal description (and some media sensationalism) to forever crystallise the chupacabra’s form in the public’s mind.
Let’s return to Madelyne Tolentino. There is a direct connection between the film Species and the Puerto Rican version of the chupacabra, but unless we know that Tolentino saw the movie – and was thus exposed to its very chupacabra-like alien – prior to her seeing the chupacabra, the link is strong but not conclusive.
As it happens, Tolentino is on record as saying she did see the film before her chupacabra sighting. She told me this herself in a 2010 interview, and the claim also appears in an interview reprinted as chapter five in Scott Corrales’s book Chupacabras And Other Mysteries. Tolentino states that she saw “a movie called Species. It would be a very good idea if you saw it. The movie begins here in Puerto Rico, at the Arecibo observatory. [The monster] made my hair stand on end. It was a creature that looked like the chupacabra, with spines on its back and all… The resemblance to the chupacabra was really impressive.” Later in the interview Tolentino says, “I watched the movie and wondered, ‘My God! How can they make a movie like that, when these things are happening in Puerto Rico?’” She is then asked, “In other words, does [Species] make you think there might have been an experiment in which a being escaped and is now at large? [in Puerto Rico].” Tolentino responded: “Yes.”
This interview suggests that Tolentino believed that what she saw in the film was actually happening in real life in Puerto Rico at the time. This confusion between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, leaves a gaping hole at the heart of chupacabra evidence. The most influential chupacabra eyewitness in history described a monster she’d seen in a movie as the mysterious beast she encountered in real life.
Though Tolentino’s description is widely accepted as definitive, it is not representative of most other contemporaneous Puerto Rican chupacabra sightings. It’s not as if dozens of other eyewitnesses at around the same time described an identical creature – in fact, many offered dramatically different descriptions. (Loren Coleman, for example, mentions “a relatively small number of sightings of an upright grey, spiky-haired primate in Puerto Rico”).
To some, with scant knowledge of psychology, the idea that a person could or would confuse something they saw in a movie with something they personally experienced in real life may seem unlikely. However, a robust body of studies show that exactly such a phenomenon can, and does, happen – and probably more often than people realise. It could be as simple as “remembering” a personal, first-hand experience from your childhood that you were merely told about. There are several examples in the world of cryptozoology in which eyewitnesses have reported encountering creatures, aliens, and monsters that they actually saw only in films.
Did Tolentino make the story up? Did she dream the whole experience, and convince herself and others that it was real? Did she actually see some animal or person or object she didn’t recognise and unconsciously fill in the details with memories of the monster from the Species film? Or did she actually see a chupacabra that, by some astronomically unlikely coincidence, just happened to look exactly like the monster in a movie she’d recently seen? Was it all a hoax? I interviewed Tolentino at length, and in my opinion she is a sincere, honest eyewitness who – like all of us – simply has a malleable and fallible memory. With the original and most famous chupacabra sighting and depiction revealed as a cinematic creation, the case for the creature’s existence is weaker than ever.
Of course, the chupacabra is a widespread and complex phenomenon, and HR Giger did not create all its details or variations. But he – along with a Hollywood filmmaking team – did unwittingly create the image of the chupacabra that is recognised by millions of people around the world. The idea that something mysterious had been killing Puerto Rico’s animals had existed for some time, but before Tolentino’s report no one had put a face or form to the phantom menace – and when it did happen, the form that Tolentino described was one that had been sketched out years earlier in Chur, Switzerland, by HR Giger. If Tolentino had seen a different alien or monster film at the same time, the world might have a very different image of the chupacabra.
Since 1995, several low-budget horror films have been made about the chupacabra, their creatures often based upon Tolentino’s “real” sighting and description. Thus the cycle continues. Truth is indeed often stranger than fiction.
1 UFO Magazine, Mar/Apr 1996.
2 For example, Loch Ness researcher Steve Feltham describes many Nessie sightings as having been inspired by the 1996 film Loch Ness, and Daniel Loxton (2010) has written about how descriptions of British Columbia’s Thetis Lake monster were taken directly from early 1970s horror films.
Scott Corrales: “How many goats can a goatsucker suck”, FT89:34–37”, Aug 1996; Chupacabras and Other Mysteries, Greenleaf Publications, 1997.
HR Giger: HR Giger ARH+, Taschen books, 2001.
HR Giger: Species Design, Morpheus International, 1995.
Mark Pilkington: “Chupacabras Fever”, FT140:22–23, 2000.
Benjamin Radford: “Tracking the goat sucker”, FT257:48–53, 2010.
Species press kit, MGM studios, 1995.