Imagine this: you’re on holiday down in Cornwall. Sun, surf, pasties, fish and chips, ice-cream that could send you into a bliss-coma. So far your fortnight of freedom has been great fun, the odd grey and drizzly day aside. Yet today you’ve eschewed the beaches and the tacky souvenir shops, and paid a visit to the little town of Mawnan Smith.
It’s a pretty little town, with thatched houses and a small church. Not much to see, or to do. But it’s pleasant just to wander around, have a mug of tea and a scone with clotted cream (Cornish cream, of course). You finish your day with a stroll out to the small church. Your eyes fix on its resolutely square tower – square shape, square bricks, square battlements. You’re just about to lose interest when a shadow flits across the very edge of your vision.
You glance upwards without much interest. You might have moved on, except that what is hovering there is looking back at you.
You have no idea what it is. It’s huge – at least the size of an average man, if the comparison with the church tower is anything to go by. It’s got wings, dark and ragged and were it not for the feathers you’d think they were the wings of some monstrous bat. Its eyes are huge and glow red even in the golden light of late afternoon. Its beak is cruelly curved, as are the claws that adorn its human-shaped feet. Its legs and trunk are human, but nothing else is.
For an iota that seems endless you stare at one another. Then it beats its wings and in two or three swift strokes, is gone from view, flying off over the trees. You stand there, stunned, incapable of rational thought or any kind of movement. And despite the warmth of the summer evening, your skin, your muscles, your very bones are as cold as snow.
You’ve just seen what is only spoken of in whispers, with the doors locked tight and the windows firmly shut. What lurks in the chiaroscuro shadows cast by the fierce Cornwall sun and the blackness of an unlit night. You have just seen the Owlman of Mawnan Smith.
You were lucky. He wasn’t hungry… this time.
By monstrous standards, the Owlman is a baby. Sources differ on the date it was first spotted: one website gives the date as 1926, when two boys were attacked by a large, vicious bird. The encounter was dramatic enough to be reported in the Cornish Echo.[i] The report doesn’t describe an Owlman, however. The article describes a 6 foot 3 inch wingspan, a powerful beak, ‘its short legs ended with full webbed feet, which were striped with green and yellow, and it had a duck-shaped body.’[ii] The mysterious corpse has apparently been lost in the mists of time (that happens a lot with cryptids… just saying).
The next recorded sighting of him/it was in 1976, when two young girls on holiday for Easter spotted a strange figure hovering over the church tower. They were so frightened the family apparently cut their holiday short. A drawing made by one of the girls shows a vaguely man-shaped creature with pointy toes and bat-like ears. Subsequent sightings occurred over the years, with details such as a silvery-grey colouring being added. The Owlman has been quiet for most of the twenty-first century, but who knows? Perhaps he’s preparing a grand return for this very summer, ready to terrorise some hapless tourists.
So where did the Owlman originate from? Unlike the previous monsters on this blog, rather than solely inhabiting literature and song, the Owlman dwells in the murky realms of the Urban Legend. The dictionary definition of ‘Urban Legend’ is: ‘an often lurid story or anecdote that is based on hearsay and widely circulated as true.’[iii] The Owlman fits this definition well, although it is unusual in that its origin story can be easily identified. The vast majority of urban legends (at least in my experience) are so tangled and convoluted that finding where they originated is unachievable. But why should an Owlman be the subject of such a cool urban legend?
There are precedents for animal-human hybrids in Urban Legend. Several people have pointed out the similarities between the Owlman and the more famous Mothman, who was spotted around Point Pleasant, West Virginia, from 1966 to 1967. Intriguingly, both the Mothman and the Owlman are both described as having glowing red eyes. But unlike the insect-human hybrid from North America, the monster from Cornwall is a bird-human hybrid. This is unsurprising on one level. Owls feature in any number of myths and legends connected with the British Isles. There’s the Welsh legend of Blodeuwedd, turned into an owl for betraying her husband to death. Barn Owls in particular were commonly associated with death and darkness due to their habit of haunting graveyards – though the perfectly rational explanation behind this is that Barn Owls prefer short grass for hunting and graveyards were well tended! Also in Wales, if an owl was heard hooting among houses, a girl had just lost her virginity!
Owls, then, are strongly associated with myth and magic, and an owl-like monster does have some basis in British folklore. But why should an Owlman suddenly appear in Cornwall – and why does he appear to have exerted such a hold on the imaginations of writers and other creatives? (More on this in a later paragraph…)
There have been various theories put forward as to the Owlman’s origins, some practical; such as the suggestion the Owlman was actually an escaped eagle owl. The eagle owl is a massive bird, and not native to Cornwall – it’s easy to imagine an escapee from an aviary or a foreign visitor getting transformed into something progressively more monstrous with each retelling of the girls’ story.
The Eagle Owl in flight.
Other, more outlandish theories speculate that Mawnan Smith is built upon a series of ley lines. Ley lines are alignments of landforms, both artificial and natural, that run in a straight line and are thought to have spiritual significance. The energy emanating from these is thought to have possibly brought the Owlman into being. Other theories include his being summoned in some bizarre occult ritual or even that the whole was a hoax designed to emulate the mysterious Mothman.
Regardless of where he came from or why he appeared suddenly, the Owlman has caught the imaginations of quite a few people – including yours truly. There’s plenty of artwork available on the internet. And one of my earliest published pieces of short fiction is entitled ‘The Owlman of Mawnan Smith’ and was published in A Face in the Mirror, a Hook on the Door (ed. Kate Garrett and Charlotte Aspin) by Three Drops Press (what can I say? I love to boast, despite the normal self-effacement that proceeds such bragging).
The Owlman has also been the subject of the 2013 horror film Lord of Tears (dir. Lawrie Brewster). The film differs from the original Owlman legend in that it is set in Scotland and takes inspiration from Scottish folklore. I’ve got to admit, I haven’t come across any Owlman legends based in Scotland, but if anyone knows of them, give me a shout. Regardless, the film got good reviews and produced a truly terrifying Owlman:
Isn’t he brilliant?
The Owlman legend altogether is brilliant in my humble opinion, regardless of whether there actually is a monster out there. Given that the Owlman has never actually hurt anyone, beyond scaring a few people witless, his monstrosity lies in his grotesque appearance and power to frighten. He’s a hybrid, like a great many other monsters out there, disrupting the boundaries between human and animal and making us question what’s out there that we have yet to discover.
Till next time, dear readers.
Don’t go out alone.
[i] Reverend Lionel Fanthorpe, ‘This Spectred Isle – The Owlman of Mawnan Wood,’ 24th March 2009, Countryfile, [online] http://www.countryfile.com/countryside/spectred-isle-owlman-mawnan-wood
[ii] Neil Arnold, Shadows in the Sky: The Haunted Airways of Britain (Stroud: The History Press, 2012) https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=p3c7AwAAQBAJ&pg=PT165&lpg=PT165&dq=cornish+echo+owlman&source=bl&ots=QgybL3CuxN&sig=mL87d7yrygV06IAw1iUPGTAywPw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi-zdjWqsjUAhXLblAKHUkUBJAQ6AEITjAH#v=onepage&q=cornish%20echo%20owlman&f=false
[iii] ‘Urban Legend’ in Merriam-Webster Dictionary [online] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/urban%20legend