The Oklahoma Octopus

The following is an excerpt from my first book People are Seeing Something:

According to local rumors, a swift and deadly killer stalks several manmade lakes in the Sooner State. If true, this stealthy predator is perhaps the most bizarre, intriguing, and frightening lake monster in all of North America.

It has been said that a dramatic rise in drowning accidents, accidents which have occurred under unusual circumstances,1 have many Oklahoma residents believing that their lakes are being stalked by an underwater predator. Some have claimed that this mysterious creature is a type of freshwater octopus.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers office in Tulsa, as of 2008, occurrences of drowning were happening at a rate not seen since 2001. The Oklahoma Lake Patrol reported in mid-2008, that there had already been a 40 percent increase in drowning from 2007.

A heartbreaking incident occurred in 2007, when a boy who had swam too far from shore started to drown. As the boy struggled to stay afloat, he cried out that something was pulling him down. A rescue was attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, and the child drowned; his body was never recovered.2

The Lakes

Three of Oklahoma’s lakes, each man-made, are thought by some to hold a species of freshwater octopus. Lake Thunderbird, Lake Tenkiller, and Oologah Lake are the supposed homes of the “Oklahoma Octopus.”

Oologah Lake is located in northeastern Oklahoma and provides drinking water for the Tulsa metro area. The 46 square mile lake was created decades ago when the Verdigris River was dammed.3 The Army Corps of Engineers constructed the dam and manage it to this day.

Between the years of 1947 and 1952, the Illinois River was dammed in eastern Oklahoma. The river gave way to a large manmade body of water—Ten Killer Ferry Lake, or Lake Tenkiller as it is alternately known. Located in Sequoyah and Cherokee counties, Lake Tenkiller spans an area of 12,900 acres or nearly 20 square miles and has about 130 miles of shoreline. Being one of the few clear water lakes in the state, Lake Tenkiller is a popular destination for scuba divers.4

The murky waters Lake Thunderbird, known to many locals as “Lake Dirty Bird,” provide water for Norman, Del City, and Midwest City. The 6,000-acre lake, located in central Oklahoma, is the centerpiece of Lake Thunderbird State Park, a popular recreational destination.5

An Octopus?

The three lakes all share a common origin; they are all manmade, and their construction was fairly recent. The three lakes also share rumors of an octopus-like creature. This monster is said to have reddish-brown, leathery skin, long tentacles, and is said to be about the size of a horse.6

Skeptics make a good argument against the existence of a killer cephalopod living in Oklahoma by asking the questions:

“How did an octopus adapt to freshwater?” and, “If a freshwater octopus does exist, how did it come to inhabit man-made lakes?”

Believers in the possibility of a freshwater octopus will point to adaptations that can be observed throughout the Animal Kingdom. Given enough time, and under the right circumstances, seemingly miraculous adaptations can occur in a species. Believers can direct the skeptics to freshwater jellyfish, which live in North America, as an example of nature’s ability to change an organism over time.

In the prehistoric past, Oklahoma was covered by shallow seas. Could an octopus population have been trapped in lakes and rivers as ancient sea levels receded? If so, could the modern-day Oklahoma Octopus be a descendant of the octopi that were landlocked many millennia ago?

The second question is harder for a freshwater octopus advocate to answer. This question has bothered me since first learning of the Oklahoma Octopus:

If a freshwater octopus does somehow exist in modern-day Oklahoma, how did it take up residence in three manmade lakes?”

This is a question that I cannot satisfactorily answer. In order for the freshwater octopus to be living in a manmade lake, it would have to have been trapped when the dam was constructed. This means there would have to have been breeding populations of freshwater octopi living in Oklahoma’s rivers as recently as the 1940s. There is no evidence of this.

While a stray octopus entering a river from the sea, and even staying there for a short time, is something that has been observed before, there is absolutely no evidence or reason to believe that three rivers in Oklahoma recently held breeding populations of octopi that adapted to live and thrive in freshwater.

Native American Legends

When researching cryptids, the legends and folklore of indigenous peoples are of great interest to the researcher. Although these legends cannot always be taken at face value, they do provide context for the monsters, and most importantly, establish a pattern of sightings centuries before modern technology. There is little in the way of credible Native American legends that validate the existence of the Oklahoma Octopus. Scouring the internet yields very little. About the only claim available is that the natives believed in a leech-like creature with white tentacles that lived in ponds and would snatch unsuspecting people as they came to the edge for a drink.

Of course, stories and folklore of Native Americans are often hard to document. However, in this case, there are not any sources that I can find that clearly point to an Indian belief in a freshwater octopus. With other cryptids, such as Champ, there are petroglyphs of a sea serpent near Lake Champlain. The Ogopogo has well established Native American lore associated with it, and European settlers to the area corroborated the fact that the native population believed in a giant serpent that inhabited Okanagan Lake. This is not the case with the leech-like creature that Indians in Oklahoma supposedly believed in. About all that is available is the same thing on the internet repeated over and over, without pointing to a source. Even if the information is true, that there was a belief in a giant leech, it still does little to help prove the existence of a freshwater octopus living in manmade lakes in Oklahoma, because the question still remains—how did it come to inhabit man-made lakes?

The Lost Tapes Episode

In my estimation, the Oklahoma Octopus, if there is such a beast, owes its fame to the television show Lost Tapes. The Animal Planet program featured the Oklahoma Octopus in an episode that premiered in 2009. Lost Tapes uses a unique blend of facts, either narrated or eerily displayed in text on the screen, with actors who are performing a dramatization using a written script that closely matches what one might expect from an encounter with a cryptid. Perhaps lost on many Lost Tapes viewers is a disclaimer of sorts that states, “The story was inspired by the possibility that hidden creatures exist.”

I do not have a problem with Lost Tapes; in fact, I find the episodes to be very entertaining. It shares similarities with another show that I have enjoyed, History’s Cryptid: The Swamp Beast, a drama involving an animal control team, local police, and a remote community that is being terrorized by a legendary beast known as the Rougarou.

My criticism does not lie with the Lost Tapes television program; rather, my problem is that in my research, nearly everything involving the Oklahoma Octopus can be directly traced back to the Lost Tapes episode. Somehow, be it intentional or coincidental, the events depicted in the show have become recorded as “fact” and used as “evidence” for the existence of the Oklahoma Octopus.

Upon first learning of the Oklahoma Octopus, I was very excited to begin researching this strange creature. However, it did not take long for me to develop a high degree of skepticism. Almost immediately I had my doubts that an octopus could somehow be terrorizing manmade lakes. But putting those reservations aside, as I delved into my research, it became a frustrating exercise. As mentioned earlier, finding anything of substance from the folklore of indigenous people was fruitless. Moreover, I found that there were no real sources available to draw information from, and what was available seemed to always circle back to the Lost Tapes.

The Lost Tapes episode chronicles a day on the lake with five teenagers. The teens get together and head to the lake to celebrate the end of their senior year. As the day goes on, three of the five are taken underwater by a creature with long tentacles and are never to be seen again. Two of the teens narrowly escape but are left with blister wounds, much like what you would expect to see from an attack by a creature with large tentacles.

A Hoax

I feel that I owe a great deal to researcher Zachary Mann for exposing much of the hoopla surrounding the Oklahoma Octopus as a hoax. In my research, I happened upon an article that he had written for the Centre for Fortean Zoology’s blog. The article titled, “Zachary Mann: Further Oklahoma Octopus Research,” brings to light several issues regarding the Lost Tapes episode.

Mann asserted that the episode was: “almost a word for word rip-off of the Stephen King short story, The Raft.” Curious to learn if Mann’s claim was accurate, as soon as I could obtain a copy, I read The Raft. I reached the same conclusion as Mann: at best, Lost Tapes borrowed heavily from King’s short story. At worst, it was a complete rip-off.

The Raft tells a story of four college students on a raft in a remote lake, celebrating the end of summer. As the story goes on, a mysterious oil-like substance preys upon the group, killing them one by one. When a foot or piece of hair touches the oil-like creature, it is able to absorb its victims.

It is easy to see the similarity in the Lost Tapes production and the Stephen King short story. However, the entire Oklahoma Octopus saga gets even more peculiar…

Dear reader, please allow me to ask a favor of you for an experiment: go to your computer and type Oklahoma Octopus into your favorite search engine. Then, visit several of the websites that resulted from your search. I can guarantee that you will read about Bruce Del Roy, Ruthie Simple, and Tyler Shuman drowning and their bodies never being recovered. Many websites will present this information as fact. Unfortunately, these are also the names of the three characters that drowned on Lost Tapes! Moreover, the blister wounds that the two survivors incurred on the Lost Tapes episode has made its rounds on the internet as evidence for Oklahoma Octopus encounters.

Whether through an intentional attempt to deceive and create a hoax or accidentally (perhaps someone believed the Lost Tapes episode was an actual documentary), it is clear that bad information has gotten onto the internet and spread like a virus! Although I would never dismiss the possibility of something lurking in the lakes of Oklahoma, I do not believe that the something is a freshwater octopus.

I feel quite comfortable dismissing the Oklahoma Octopus as nothing more than an urban legend. An urban legend whose origins lie in a television show, and whose growth can be directly attributed to the internet. This tale is a stark reminder that you cannot always believe what you read!

End Notes

  1. “Oklahoma Octopus.” Lost Tapes. Directed by Doug Segal. 2009. New York, NY: Animal Planet.
  2. Johnny Johnson. “Girl Drowns at Lake Tenkiller.” NewsOK. August 12, 2007. Accessed January 8, 2016. http://newsok.com/article/3103660.
  3. “Oklahoma Lakes.” OutdoorsOK. Accessed February 7, 2015. http://www.outdoorsok.com/oklahoma/lakes/.
  4. OutdoorsOK, “Oklahoma Lakes.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Lost Tapes, “Oklahoma Octopus.”

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