Influential Swiss artist H.R. Giger has died at 74, injured in a fall at his home in Zurich. A Reuters news piece offered the following typical overview of his career:

“Famous for creating the otherworldly creature in Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror film ‘Alien’, Giger was awarded an Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects in 1980. The son of a chemist, he studied architecture and industrial design in Zurich, and first experimented with ink drawing and polyester works before moving onto large freehand airbrush works showcasing nightmarish dreamscapes. His work explored the relationship between the human body and the machine, and he created surrealist images of humans fused with industrial parts, a style he described as ‘biomechanical’.”

Giger (pronounced “GEEG-ur”) was influenced by surrealist artists, including Salvador Dali, and is best known for imagery that is often sexual and grotesque, organic yet alien and mechanical. His work has been exhibited throughout the world, and last year he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

PHOTOS: Chupacabra Legend Inspired by Horror Film Beast

But Giger was also influential in a bizarre and little-known way: He unknowingly helped create the Hispanic vampire beast el chupacabra, one of the world’s best-known monsters which has been reported throughout Latin America attacking and sucking the blood out of animals — typically goats and chickens. Though many people mistakenly believe that the chupacabra has been reported for many decades, it was first sighted in Puerto Rico in 1995.

A woman named Madelyne Tolentino claimed she saw the creature near her house in Canovanas, Puerto Rico, during the second week of August 1995. She said the creature (later named “chupacabra”) had large eyes that went up the temples and spread around the sides. It was about 3 or four 4 high, walked on two legs, and had thin arms and legs. It had no ears or nose, but a row of distinctive spikes on the creature’s spine. This original eyewitness description became the basis for many early images of the creature.

For many years this chupacabra report — the first and by far the most influential — remained a mystery. What, if anything, did Tolentino see? No known animal matched her detailed description. It does, however, look almost exactly like a creature seen by hundreds of thousands of other people right around the same time, in the 1995 science-fiction film “Species,” a monster named Sil.

Creating the Chupacabra

The Sil creature and the chupacabra creature that Tolentino described are remarkably similar. Giger’s book about designing Sil, “Species Design,” contains dozens of his sketches and designs showing what would later become the chupacabra — from the creature’s distinctive feather-textured spine spikes to the bipedal stance to the earless, oblong head, oval wraparound eyes and long, thin fingers and limbs. Despite some differences in details, overall the resemblance is clear.

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As I discuss in my book “Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction and Folklore,” both Sil and the chupacabra also have the same origin stories. The two best-known explanations for the chupacabra are that it is either an alien life form or the result of secret U.S. government genetics experiments gone wrong — a sort of Frankenstein scenario.

These are also the origin explanations for the creature in “Species.” Sil is both an extraterrestrial alien and the result of secret U.S. government genetics experiments gone wrong. The similarities between Sil and the chupacabra — both physically and in the stories told about them — are unmistakable.

Thus the original and most influential chupacabra eyewitness in history described a monster she’d seen in a movie as a mysterious beast she encountered in real life. Over time the chupacabra has changed form, and most modern reports are not of the original chupacabra that Giger designed (and Tolentino described) but instead resemble mangy dogs, coyotes and even raccoons.

It’s unlikely that Tolentino intentionally created a hoax that spawned a famous monster. Instead she simply confused a real-life memory with something she experienced in a film. This is a common — and harmless — phenomenon known in psychology as confabulation. We all do it, usually unknowingly, but most of us don’t spawn monster mysteries.

In a case of truth being stranger than fiction, Giger helped create what is among the world’s best-known monster mysteries, right up there with Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster.


Photo: Film poster from the movie Species. Credit: Courtesy Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer