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Is there an Oklahoma Octopus?

Hosty's Oklahoma Octopus Wallet
Rachel Hopkin
Hosty's Oklahoma Octopus Wallet

KGOU’s How Curious is dedicated to stories about Oklahoma’s unique inhabitants, places, and events. I’m Rachel Hopkin and this episode’s subject was suggested by celebrated Norman musician and composer Michael Hosty (he prefers to go by his surname). Hosty recalls becoming interested in a local cryptid known as the Oklahoma Octopus after a friend gave him a wallet which had a purple octopus wearing a t-shirt bearing the state flag on its cover. ‘So I got the wallet and I go ‘Oklahoma Octopus? What is it?’ And you just hear people talking about it: ‘There’s an octopus that lives in …’ Lake Tenkiller was the first. I think it has a Native American origin – a story of a giant creature, size of a horse, with tentacles, that lived in lakes somewhere."

Norman musician and composer, Michael Hosty
Michael Hosty
Norman musician and composer, Michael Hosty

A cryptid is a strange creature whose existence has never been proven. Think of Big Foot or the Chupacabra. But whereas those beasts are sighted all over the place, the Oklahoma Octopus is ours alone. It’s said to inhabit three specific lakes here – Thunderbird, Tenkiller, and Oolagah – where it uses its massive tentacles to pull humans down to watery deaths.

Folklore Professor David Puglia has been researching local cryptids from around the US for years. He refers to them as legendary monsters which are not – he makes clear - the same thing as fictional monsters: “People are frequently interested in monsters that there’s no idea out there that they actually exist - so Frankenstein and Dracula and Godzilla. But a legendary monster – which is synonymous with a cryptid – the most interesting and perhaps important part is that there’s this idea that this creature might exist in our real world."

There’s a popular YouTube channel called Fun and Crazy Kids which follows the light-hearted adventures of an Oklahoma family and they did a video about the Oklahoma Octopus. In it, mom Mellisa and daughter Aubry are out looking for the creature and Aubry mentions that she's heard a legend "that for hundreds of years there’s been a giant octopus just waiting in the middle of the lake for unsuspecting humans." After several minutes, there’s a sudden cut to Aubry fleeing from the lake and both she and Mellisa sound panicked. As David Puglia said, with legendary monsters or crytids, it’s the potential for belief that’s important, not actual belief. To me, it’s pretty clear that Aubry and Mellisa are playing with this idea, not least because it’s a well known fact that no Oklahoma lakes of any size have been around for “hundreds of years." They were all man-made during the 20th century.

But wait – what about the Native American roots which Hosty mentioned? Oklahoma is home to 39 tribal nations, the majority of which were forced to relocate here from elsewhere. Could it be that one or other of them brought with some kind of seed tale?

If they did, I couldn’t find it. There are Native American narratives featuring octopuses but they’re mostly from tribes located in the Pacific Northwest. For example, the Devil Fish’s Daughter is a Haida legend in which a female octopus does drag a native man down to the depths but to marry him rather than kill him. Closer to home, I found references to a number of lake monsters – for example, the Cheyenne Mehne - but while the Mehne does hunt humans, nowhere does it sound anything like an octopus. It’s more of a horned serpent.

Cleveland County Fair Octopus
Rachel Hopkin
Rachel Hopkin recently found this Oklahoma Octopus at a stall at the Cleveland County fair

I began to wonder if the whole Native American origin thing might be a red herring. David Puglia agreed: “Tellers of legendary monster tales are frequently looking for ways to give their legendary monster validity. One of the most common, if not the most common – right up there with ‘I heard it from a friend of a friend’ – is to ascribe Native American roots to a particular legend. It’s one of the most common tropes you’ll find in monster legend telling across North America."

In August 2023, news outlets around the world – including NPR – reported on a massive weekend long search for the Loch Ness monster. They didn’t find her, but at least the Nessie legend really does have genuinely ancient roots – with the first recorded sighting dating from the 6th century. So what about the Oklahoma Octopus? Given that none of its three preferred lakes existed before 1950, I was surprised to get hits for its name decades earlier while digging around in a newspaper database. However, it turned out that the term Oklahoma Octopus used to be applied to local corporations deemed to be over-expanding – such as the Continental Creamery in 1906 and the Mutual Telephone Company a year later. But the Oklahoma Octopus cryptid? That's a much more recent thing.

The earliest reference I could find was a brief entry in a 2007 book called Monster Spotter’s Guide to North America. I reached out to its author Scott Francis but didn't hear back. In any case, as my investigation continued, it became clear that that Oklahoma Octopus sightings and stories only really began in earnest a couple of years later – after a TV pseudo documentary about the cryptid was broadcast as part of the Lost Tapes series on the Animal Planet network. The episode in question follows five kids as take off for a local lake to celebrate graduating from high school. Alas, after quite a bit of splashing around and the brief appearance of something that looks like tentacles, only two of them survive.

According to David Puglia, it’s not uncommon for a so called “legend” to originate in some form of popular culture following a very particular pattern and he speculated on what happened when the Lost Tapes Oklahoma Octopus episode aired in 2009. He suggests that "a contingent of people who are interested in cryptids then recorded that finding to a cryptid wiki where it can be found any time that people are interested in a cryptid of a particular place, specifically Oklahoma. This has happened elsewhere, most notably with the Slenderman, where a legend is openly fabricated from the beginning for fun, then a community that cares to do so then invests time in creating a narrative and images and in that way, the legend grows, and takes on a legendary life of its own."

It therefore does not seem coincidental that the Oklahoma Octopus’s Facebook page began in 2011 – started by none other than Hosty, a local resident with an interest in cryptids.

In the closing sequence of the Lost Tapes episode, a voice-over mentions “the extensive phenomena of lake monster sightings around the world." That statement actually is true. Caleb Lack is a clinical psychologist who teaches critical thinking courses at the University of Central Oklahoma and he’s looked into this subject: “There’s a large number – both recently and throughout history – of cryptids and monsters who have lived around water. There are mermaids in Ancient Greece, Gilgamesh’s fighting with various creatures, to the Loch Ness Monster, to Champ. Why? You don’t see cryptids walking down the street. We see cryptids in places where it’s hard to get to, it’s hard to explore. What’s harder to see to than the bottom of an Oklahoma lake? It turns out not much, since they’re not very clear for the most part."

Couple this some of the psychological motivations for story-telling and the popularity of scary cryptid stories becomes clearer. “A lot of times," Caleb explains, "people use story to communicate something important, or we’re trying to learn something. And monster stories help us do a couple of things. One is explain the unknown. And two is explain why it’s dangerous to do certain things: here’s why you don’t go in the forest at night, here’s why we don’t swim in the lake alone. And it turns out we learn more effectively when something is tied to a very strong emotion, and if that emotion is fear, we very quickly learn not to do certain things." It’s worth noting here that, unfortunately, drownings in Oklahoma’s lakes are not out of the ordinary though not because of a man-eating octopus.

That said, there have been many instances of creatures once deemed fearsome monsters actually turning out to be real. Witness the gorilla.  According to Caleb Lack: “If you went back to the 1880s and you asked most European explorers if the gorilla is real, they would say it’s a legend. And then what did they do? They went to Africa and they found and shot them. There’s tonne of examples of that. And people say ‘well, why shouldn’t we keep an open mind about the Oklahoma Octopus too?’ And we should keep an open mind, but not so open that our brain falls out – meaning that if you have good evidence to support something existing, bring it forward. But if it’s eyewitness stories or tales told around the camp fire, that’s very different from ‘we found this tentacle.' It would be very exciting and interesting if the Oklahoma Octopus existed, but do you have the evidence?"

In the end, I did come across an octopus swimming in Oklahoma waters – albeit in a tank at the Oklahoma Aquarium where Hallie Moss and Teagan Smith - the Education Specialists - took me to meet him. He’s a Giant Pacific Octopus and when I asked if he had a name, Hallie said he did not: “We don’t usually give them names because they have very short life spans. In captivity and managed care, we can usually get between 3-5 years, but in the wild, they’re more likely to live 2-3 years."

GPO at Oklahoma Aquarium
Rachel Hopkin
The Oklahoma Aquarium's Giant Pacific Octopus

So an octopus doesn’t typically last a decade, let alone “hundreds of years." However, for our local cryptid to actually exist, there’s an even larger challenge it needs to overcome, according to Hallie: “The biggest problems is that those lakes are freshwater and octopuses live in salt water. And when you put a saltwater animal with gills into freshwater, it is usually going to kill that animal due to osmosis and how the water is diffused through the cellular membranes. Eventually it’s going to cause the octopus cells to swell and explode. So right off the bat, it is going to be impossible for a saltwater animal to survive in freshwater if they are not adapted for that. There are some animals, like bull shark and salmon, that can go between saltwater and freshwater but that is because their bodies are adapted for that. Octopus are not."

Apparently it’s unlikely that an octopus could survive in freshwater for longer than a few minutes. So when a fisherman found a small but real octopus alive in an Arkansas lake in 2003, the theory was it had just been dumped by the owner of a private aquarium.

One thing that I learned that actual octopuses do have in common with the Oklahoma Octopus is a preference for living alone. “Octopuses are extremely solitary creatures" Hallie said. "They do not live in groups or with mates. A male and female do need to come together to sexually reproduce but other than that they’re completely solitary creatures."

And it’s this aspect of octopus nature – whether real or crytid – that Hosty finds so compelling, which in turn led him to contact How Curious. “I think it’s the idea of cryptids and loneliness that draws me to it. Because learning to live alone with yourself is the most difficult thing to do and something to achieve."

Thanks to Michael Hosty for his subject suggestion (again, here is the link to his Oklahoma Octopus Facebook page) and to all this episode’s contributors. Thanks also to Misha Broughton, Nelson Dent, Sarah Kopp, Matthew Nolen, Laurie Scrivener, and Gordon Yellowman.

How Curious is a KGOU Public Radio production. The producer/host is Rachel Hopkin. The editor is Logan Layden. The theme music is composed by David Graey.

If you’ve got an idea or a question for How Curious, please send it to the team at curious@kgou.org

Rachel is a British-born and U.S.-based radio producer and folklorist with a passion for sound and storytelling. At KGOU, she is host and producer of the How Curious podcast and various special projects.
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