A MONSTER OF AN IDEA|jon_downes|jon@cfz.org.uk|11/03/03 at 12:14:59|jon_downes|xx|0||JEFF SMYTH: A MONSTER OF AN IDEA TO BOOST TOURISM

[Wed Oct 29 2003]

If Southern Illinois is to become the tourism hot spot many desire, it needs a gimmick. We need something out of the ordinary. Something so unique that it will make people want to drive here from hundreds of miles away to buy our T-shirts.

We've tried touting the region's natural beauty, its rich history, mild weather, wine trail, golf trail, orchard trail, Trail of Tears and trailer parks, but we've been unable to find the hook to distinguish ourselves from other tourist traps.

If what already exists here isn't enough of a draw it's time to make up something that will bring in visitors. In short, we need a monster.

Other towns and regions around the world have them and it has proven lucrative, so why not Southern Illinois?

Roswell, N.M., has the UFO and the body of an alien no one has seen. The Pacific Northwest has bigfoot tramping through its forests and only a snippet of celluloid of a guy in an ape suit to prove it. There is a dinosaur that has been swimming in Scotland's Loch Ness the past 65 million years and captured only once by a photographer using grainy black and white film.

Still, for all the skepticism that these creatures exist or have existed, people like to investigate and hunt them and see for themselves if they are real. In doing so they spend lots of money.

"Nessie," the dinosaur with the snake head, has been a cash cow for the towns around Loch Ness. Roswell survives off the curious who travel to this town off the beaten path in New Mexico's upland desert in hopes that, just because they've arrived, the U.S. government will fess up to hiding the ET.

Southern Illinois can take a cue from these communities and begin hyping legend and lore of a beast of some kind like no other seen on earth.

There was an effort years ago to create monster lore in Southern Illinois. Sightings of what was dubbed the "Big Muddy Monster" surfaced in 1973. "Mongo," as it was also called, was described as being between 7 and 10 feet tall with light colored hair, red eyes and yellow teeth and smelling like a skunk that had rolled in a deer carcass. The problem is that described any of a number of bubbas and bikers who used to roll out of Midland Inn into the night back when it was a true roadhouse.

The Big Muddy Monster created quite a stir in these parts even gaining Southern Illinois publicity in The New York Times. Alas, the hullabaloo subsided after only a few years. My theory is that Mongo was too similar to Big Foot -- a copycat monster -- and people wised up to the hoax.

We need an original ogre if we are to dupe unsuspecting tourists to come here and join the hunt. What form it will take is the biggest question.

I queried a few people on the subject and they conjured some interesting monsters, but their ideas need to be fleshed out.

With the raising of freshwater prawns becoming more popular in Southern Illinois, one suggestion was that we create a myth about a local fish farmer who used hormone drugs to grow super-sized crustaceans. His experiment got out of hand and some of the prawns grew to be as large as the fabled giant squid, escaped from their holding pens and are now terrorizing fisherman on the region's ponds, strip pits, lakes, rivers and streams.

A variation of this would be to use mutated catfish that "walk" like fish found in Florida and eat small cattle and family pets.

Since many believe there is a government conspiracy to reintroduce mountain lions in these parts, we can springboard from here. Pumas themselves wouldn't be much of a draw, but what if we circulated rumors that saber-toothed tigers are prowling our forests?

This has the right mix of which great myths are made. A prehistoric creature, a government cover-up and danger.

A final suggestion I heard was of an apeman who lives in our underground coal mines and terrorizes miners. I'm told a mythical subterranean creature already exists in the minds of some coal miners. The "Gob Monster" is a creature that attacks miners when their cap lamps go out.

I like the idea of resurrecting the Gob Monster, but there is a downside. The mines are off limits to the public so few would have a chance to hunt for the creature. On the other hand, Area 51 in Nevada isn't open to the public and it still draws scores of the curious.

The experts I assembled on the subject had some good ideas, but the possibilities are endless. I'm certain there are many pranksters out there creative enough to come up with their own beast. The best way for such a creature to "grow legs" and become local lore is to just launch it with no fanfare. A few chance sightings, some media coverage and we are on our way.

We'll have a great opportunity tomorrow night to get inspiration for a Southern Illinois monster. The streets will be filled with ghouls, goblins and unworldly things that go bump in the night. They may come to your door, but don't be afraid. Just feed them some sweets and they will go on their way. Happy Halloween.

jeff.smyth@thesouthern.com 618-529-5454 x15073