Why the Fresno Nightcrawler Is So Popular
One of my favorite things about my job is learning why certain stories become popular and grow long legs... and yes, that turn of phrase is a little bit of a play on today's subject. There are a very few cryptids that have strong believer communities — none more so than Bigfoot, which has legions of followers who have absolute faith that it is a real animal. But there are many more cryptids that exist only as bits of folklore, and whose followers are not ardent believers so much as they are students of the legend. There is some little interesting thing in the backstory of every cryptid, at least enough to keep a small community of followers intrigued. But today's example is something of a curiosity. The Fresno Nightcrawler is supported by little or no actual belief by anyone that it's a real creature; there's nothing particularly thought-provoking in its backstory; and yet, it has a prodigious community of supporters that is only likely to continue growing. Today we have two mysteries to solve: What are the true facts of this creepy cryptid; and why is it so popular?
The Nightcrawler is a relatively new cryptid, and it's known from only a handful of eyewitness reports and security videos. It looks like a pair of child-sized white sweatpants, pressed flat, and walking around by themselves as if worn by some skinny invisible child. Although no details are visible in the videos, depictions of Nightcrawlers often include a pair of eyes on the front of the area atop the legs — it's hard to know whether to call that a head, torso, or hips. They don't move fluidly like a walking person, but more with a jerky sort of almost rhythm, like a marionette artist was taking care to get every individual leg movement. The videos tend to always show a pair of them, one taller and one shorter. The overall impression they give is not so much scary, but really almost cute.
The story got its start way back in November 2007 when a man who gave his name only as Jose (and who has since passed away) brought his home security videotape into the Fresno office of Univision, the Spanish-language TV network. The tape showed two short white creatures, like small pairs of white pants, walking across his front yard — the one in front was taller, the following one was smaller. Seeking some expert commentary on the tape, Univision called Victor Camacho, host of the late-night paranormal radio show Los Desvelados (the "sleepless ones"). They asked him to come on the air and state that the creatures in the video were aliens.
Camacho told this story at the 2008 MUFON UFO Symposium in San Jose, California. He explained to Univision that he couldn't say that because he didn't know what the creatures were, and so he met with Jose, but Jose was too scared to say much. A few months later in February 2008, Jose called Camacho and asked if he had learned anything new about his video. Camacho went and met with him at his house. Jose showed him the yard where the video was taken and it was clear that the creatures had been quite small, no more than half a meter high. And, that was basically it. So far as either Jose or Camacho have said, nothing further was ever learned. It's a cool video on YouTube, and that's where the story sat.
Then in 2010, the paranormal TV show Fact or Faked did a segment on the video. The hosts dubbed it the Fresno Nightcrawler, and declared — as was their habit on the show — that the video was authentic and could not have been faked. And with a national TV show giving it a great bump in the public awareness, the Fresno Nightcrawler officially became a new face in the annals of cryptozoology.
Following this publicity is when more videos of Nightcrawlers began to appear. The next popular one was posted to YouTube in April 2011, by UFO and gaming YouTuber Dovus X-Life Operior, who said it was security camera footage recorded the month before by retired friends of his who live inside Yosemite National Park, not far from Fresno. In this footage, a pair of Nightcrawlers — again, one taller and one smaller — walk down a paved pathway. He said he visited at his friends' request and took a daytime photo of the pathway from the vantage point of the security camera, placing a baby stroller on the pathway for scale. He superimposed the video onto it to show that the taller Nightcrawler is about the height of the stroller, and the smaller one is about half as big. This video is clearer than the Fresno original, though still not clear enough for any real detail. Taking about a minute to traverse the frame, these creatures seem like loose fabric and may have something like a small head on top. One notes the fortuity of Dovus X-Life Operior, an obvious fan of UFOs and the paranormal, happening to be the one to receive the call from the anonymous and apocryphal retired people who caught incredible unknown creatures on video.
Beyond these two accounts, there are only a handful, of which two are usually included in articles on the subject. Both are almost uselessly vague and completely anonymous. The first, from Carmel, Ohio in December 2014, is known only by a single short paragraph, copied and pasted without attribution. It is an account by a couple driving home one night when suddenly a 7-foot-tall "alien" ran across the road in front of them. It was tall, gray, had no arms, and its knees bent backwards. In other words, it seems to be a very different biped from the Fresno Nightcrawler. It's even given a different name, the "Carmel Area Creature".
The last is known only by a single post to YouTube from August, 2017 and is always said to be from Poland, on the strength of the video's title being FRESNO NIGHT CRAWLERS FOUND IN POLAND. It has no description (other than a couple of hashtags) and is posted anonymously. The 35 second video is almost completely black, but for five seconds you can see a partial view of what appears to be a Nightcrawler — illuminated, like the other videos, by a consumer video camera's near-infrared night mode. The figure appears to be rigid, yet twists along in about the same deliberate style as the others.
And that, my friends, is the extent of the evidence and the legend surrounding the Fresno Nightcrawler — with the exception of the inevitable copycat videos and commentary and made-up stories surrounding any legend, but even these don't really seem to be out there to any huge degree. The number of people who firmly and passionately believe that the Fresno Nightcrawler must represent an actual undiscovered species probably approaches zero. And yet, we find that online cryptozoology communities — and even in-person events — are increasingly populated with little Fresno Nightcrawler avatars, stickers, pins, other artwork, and even plush toys available on Etsy. For some reason — and this is one thing that sets this otherwise unremarkable cryptid apart from its associates — the Fresno Nightcrawler has become more of a popular icon than its history seems to merit. Why?
Now we're getting into the absolute, innermost soul of the Skeptoid podcast, and that's understanding why freaky stories and false beliefs are popular. How can we learn from them to better tell what's true from what's not, and how can we do so in a way that does not denigrate the believers?
The answer lies in a clue visible in many of the Nightcrawler artworks, especially the physical items you can buy from artists on Etsy. Have a look around, and you'll see that many of them sport LGBTQ flair, such as rainbow suspenders, rainbow capes, rainbow — well, there really aren't that many garments that a Nightcrawler's abbreviated anatomy can sport. But those they can, they do. Especially in recent years, the LGBTQ community has increasingly embraced cryptids, and have begun adopting many cryptid characters, not just the Nightcrawler, as community icons.
The reasons might not seem so intuitive to people outside that community, so instead, take the word of the many LGBTQ authors who have written on the subject of why they see a growing overlap between theirs and the cryptozoology communities (some articles are here, here, and here). Think of famous cryptids: Bigfoot, the Mothman, the Jersey Devil, the Chupacabra — these are characters who are ostracized, wrongly vilified, and misunderstood, exactly the same life experience endured by many who identify as LGBTQ. And so there's a sort of natural identification between the two communities. The cryptozoology community is already self-defined as one which accepts ideas that are not well accepted in the mainstream; so it can be seen as something of a safehouse for people who share a similar background. And when you can top it off with a nifty little mascot like a Nightcrawler in a rainbow superhero cape, what's not to love?
An important moment in this particular history came in 2017, when an Australian horror movie called The Babadook, about a creepy monster from a fictional children's book, was accidentally miscategorized by Netflix into their LGBTQ movie category. This launched a whole debate over whether the movie and the character actually had this context or not. Now, it's not clear whether this Netflix miscategorization actually happened or whether someone just shared a fake screenshot showing such a miscategorization; it doesn't really matter. Whichever it was, it launched a half tongue-in-cheek adoption of the Babadook monster as an icon by the LGBTQ community; and for whatever influence this may have had, it helped make the embrace of monsters and cryptids in general — by many who identify as LGBTQ — mainstream.
The only unanswered question is why the Nightcrawler seems to be more popular as an LGBTQ icon than most other cryptids. There doesn't appear to be any explicit reason for this, so the one I'm going with is that it's simply really cute, and lends itself very well to plush toys and other items of flair that artists can make. There is at least one more possible explanation. Nightcrawler is also the name of a minor X-Men comic book character who appears in a couple of the X-Men movies — this is completely unrelated and coincidental, as the character predates the Jose video. But the character's limited appearances include clear homosexual overtones, including an actual comic book cover where a drunken Wolverine glowers at a nude Nightcrawler's crotch. So if your name is Nightcrawler, you make an awesome cute rainbow-flaired plush toy, and your LGBTQ credentials are well in order.
And so that's where we're going to leave it today. It's a simple urban legend, grafted onto an elegant example of how and why such stories can flourish in our gloriously diverse human population. Do arguably untrue urban legends like the Fresno Nightcrawler constitute harmful misinformation? I argue that no, they most emphatically do not. Because each such story, when understood in its proper context, encloses a poignant lesson in understanding human nature. And in doing that, we better understand ourselves — the most valuable lesson of all.
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