12 “scary” critters right out of a horror movie (& where to find them)

Barn owl.

Credit: Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, flickr.

In honor of Halloween, a gallery of “scary” (and often misunderstood) American wildlife and where to see it.

There is no such thing as an evil animal. Indeed, even those creatures we deem merely “scary”—and on which we base countless horror movies—have gained that status through generations of cultural conditioning, the effects of which become even more pronounced the more detached we are from nature in our day-to-day lives (after all, we especially fear the unknown).

That said, our brains may be hard-wired to find certain animal attributes frightening (for example, dark coloring or sudden, unpredictable movements). At this point, some animal fears are so widespread as to be effectively “normal.” This is true even if, as in the case of spiders, our fear and discomfort is completely disproportionate to the actual danger they pose to us.

Whatever the root cause, wild animals have featured prominently in our horror traditions, from tales around the campfire to the mostly-terrible “animals attack” genre of movies. As another Halloween rolls around, and with it yet more wildlife news presented to elicit maximum “clicks,” it may be time to salute the “scary” animals in our midst and, especially in cases where a little image rehabilitation is in order, find out where we can observe them on their home turf.

From the legitimately scary to the merely misunderstood, the following creatures make an ideal Halloween menagerie. 


Credit: Alan Vernon, flickr.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary…” With the immortal passages that followed, Ravens earned the spooky animal equivalent of a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, courtesy of Edgar Allan Poe.

While these inky black creatures, the Americas’ largest member of the bird family that also includes crows and jays, aren’t usually observed tormenting melancholic young students with the word “Nevermore,” they can learn to mimic other birds’ calls and are generally regarded as being extremely intelligent and resourceful—even mischievous. The latter has led to their prominent place in Native American lore, especially legends passed down by tribes in the Northwest. Modern-day scientists have credited ravens’ big-time population rebounds in parts of the country to the birds’ extreme adaptability, and especially their tendency to exploit the presence of human development.

Where to see it: Ravens are common through most of North America, but staff at national parks and other public lands has noted fascinating behavior from these feathered geniuses. At Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah), rangers have observed pairs teaming up to steal food from bear-proof garbage cans. At Yellowstone National Park, there have been reports of ravens figuring out how to do everything from open snowmobile storage compartments in order to nab visitors’ lunches, to trick eagles out of their carrion. Suffice it to say, if you go someplace to see ravens, watch your wallet.


Credit: Brian Gratwicke, flickr.

In addition to its devilish common moniker—what’s more “Halloween” than “Hellbender?”—this huge salamander boasts a wide variety of extremely colorful nicknames, including “snot otter,” “mud cat,” “devil dog,” “Allegheny alligator” and “lasagna lizard,” bespeaking its legendary status throughout the Appalachians.

But though they are famous, these slippery amphibians are both timid and extremely scarce. Feeding mostly on crayfish, worms, insects and small fish, each animal restricts itself to very limited home range. Disease, pollution, invasive predators and habitat loss have left hellbenders in dire straits, and it is thought that early-20th century bounties, imposed due to fears that the salamanders were eating too many fish, also played a role.

Where to see it: The Ozark hellbender, one of two American subspecies, can be found exclusively in the rivers of the Ozark Mountains (fewer than 600 exist in the wild). Ozark National Scenic Riverways (Missouri) is a good place to try and spot one, but even there they are extremely scarce. If you see one, consider yourself lucky and don’t get too close.

Desert tarantula

Credit: Anne Reeves, flickr.

Well, they made a movie called “Arachnaphobia”—so of course a list of “scary animals” needs to include at least one spider. And tarantulas are indeed big, hairy and imposing, with long curved fangs that seem more like a bad special effect than something you’d find on an actual earthbound animal.

But take a closer look; despite an appearance that may trigger revulsion in some, the desert tarantula, one of dozens of species found in the U.S., is docile and extremely shy. It will bite if provoked, but its venom is comparable to that in a bee sting, posing little danger to humans. Desert tarantulas spend most of their time hidden away in underground burrows, coming out mainly at night to hunt insects and other small prey (they are considered valuable pest control allies) without drawing the attention of predators themselves. Simply put, tarantulas are our friends, and there’s no real reason to fear them. Unless a laboratory accident causes one to grow to the size of a house. Then, there might be an issue.

Where to see it: Desert tarantulas are common in stretches of the dry American Southwest, including spots like Joshua Tree National Park (California), Zion National Park (Utah) and Death Valley National Park (California). Your best bet to see them is to look around when it’s dark and cool out, though males will emerge to mate in the daytime.

Gila monster

Credit: Jason, flickr.

Packing a painful (though non-fatal to humans) venomous bite, these slow, thick-tailed beasts are among the signature species of the American Southwest. Contrary to the 1959 film “The Giant Gila Monster” and 1981 paperback novel “Gila!”, they only grow to two feet in length, and are generally shy and harmless, belying their fearsome moniker. As such, they are unlikely to rampage through small desert towns and devour people by the hundreds (or even the ones).

The “near-threatened” reptiles come out of their burrows in the spring to feed and mate, and otherwise keep themselves scarce. Like so many creatures on this list, and “scary” animals the world over, Gila monsters aren’t looking for people. You’re pretty lucky if you see one in the flesh.

Where to see it: Arizona’s Saguaro National Park is one of the best spots in the country to see these reptiles, but they are sprinkled throughout the Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Though spotting one is a rare treat, visitors should be careful to keep their distance, especially if it is hissing and baring its jaws in warning. Above all else, do not try to pick Gila monsters up.

Grizzly bear

Credit: Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith, flickr.

Modern grizzly populations are just a fraction of what they were when Lewis and Clark first traveled to the west coast—only 1,000 to 2,000 remain in the continental U.S., with significantly more in Alaska—but these muscular beasts still enjoy a fearsome reputation as America’s alpha predator (though they are technically omnivorous).

Grizzlies do not generally attack people unless defending cubs or somehow provoked, but this hasn’t prevented them from being portrayed in the media as terrifying man-eaters. To wit: B-horror movies “Grizzly” (1976) and “Prophecy” (1979), among many others. The latter centers on a toxic waste-mutated grizzly somewhat improbably rampaging through Maine, and is now best known for an unintentionally hilarious scene in which the bear smashes a sleeping-bag-bound camper against a rock, causing her to explode like a feather pillow. Grizzlies have not actually been observed doing this in the wild.

Where to see it: northwest Montana and the greater Yellowstone National Park ecosystem are the only areas south of Canada that still contain large grizzly populations (though Alaska contains a number of good spots to see them). While they aren’t monster-movie dangerous, you should still exercise caution if you decide to go grizzly touring.


Credit: Matthew Allen, flickr.

Believe it or not, these majestic carnivores—among the world’s largest and most powerful—have already been the subject of a big budget horror movie, 1977’s succinctly titled “Orca.” That film, one of a wave of releases intended to cash in on “Jaws” frenzy, was not well-received (the Washington Post’s review noted that the headlining monster “resembles the vinyl blow-up toys one associates with the wading pool” and wished the movie itself might follow the fate of the film’s human protagonist by “quietly sliding off an ice-berg [sic] to a watery grave”).

Real, wild orcas are indeed deadly hunters, but they spend their time pursuing fish, seals and other ocean-going creatures (certainly not exacting revenge on callous boat captains, as in the movie—attacks on humans are exceedingly rare). They are among the oceans’ most beautiful and beloved creatures, social and intelligent giants that enjoy a place on the “to-see” lists of wildlife watchers everywhere.

Where to see it: San Juan Island (Washington) is considered one of the easiest places to spot an orca, and the nearby Orcas Island (of course) isn’t far behind. San Juan Islands National Monument, designated by President Obama in 2013, protects those islands, among others.

Townsend's big-eared bat

Credit: BLM via Wikimedia Commons.
How much do we really need to say? Bats are the “horror” animal par excellence, indelibly connected to vampire legend and general creepiness since time immemorial. Townsend’s big-eared bat is a great example of the order, and pretty close to what most people probably imagine when they think “bat”: broad, leathery wings, short lumpy snout, small, furry body, pointy teeth and (of course) huge, blade-like ears.
As is the case with virtually all its cousins, a Townsend’s big-eared bat isn’t out to get you in any way (those pointy teeth are used to catch and devour flying insects, making bats incredibly ecologically valuable) and will flee if disturbed. The primary danger associated with bats is their connection with rabies and other dangerous diseases (although, weirdly, that too carries a caveat: reports from the Peruvian Amazon suggest that, over time, vampire bat bites may lead certain people to develop natural anti-rabies antibodies). National Bat Week, which focuses on conserving bats, overlaps with Halloween in 2014.
Where to see it: Bats in the eastern and central parts of the U.S. are in danger, largely due to a disease called white nose syndrome that has already killed millions. But Townsend’s big-eared bats, though vulnerable—two subspecies are listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service—are doing relatively well, with populations widespread throughout most of the western U.S. Oregon Caves National Monument (Oregon), Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area (Montana and Wyoming) and Santa Cruz Island in Channel Islands National Park (California) are good places to see them. If you visit an area where bats are present, you must be careful to avoid cross-contamination from caves that may contain white nose syndrome and, as always, avoid disturbing mothers and pups.

Coconut crab

Credit: Laura Beauregard (USFWS), flickr.

Notorious for their great size and voracious appetites, coconut crabs are thought to be the largest terrestrial arthropods alive today. They possess mighty claws capable of cracking their namesake fruit or lifting other heavy objects, and may as well have stepped from the hastily-written screenplays for such illustrious films as “Attack of the Crab Monsters,” or from the pages of Z-grade horror paperbacks like “Crustaceans,” “Clickers,” and the immortal “Crabs: The Human Sacrifice.”

In recent years, coconut crabs have gained notoriety online because of sensational photos and reports that they sometimes attack kittens and, uh, may have eaten Amelia Earhart (the latter is hotly contested). Despite these horror-ish bona fides, coconut crabs are not considered dangerous to humans. In fact, they are highly vulnerable to mankind’s activity, including hunting, coastal development and invasive predators.

Where to see it: You are unlikely to see coconut crabs anywhere in the contiguous U.S., but they do inhabit parts of the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument, which was recently expanded by President Obama. While there’s little reason to be afraid of them, they do have mighty claws, and are as likely to employ a frightened defensive response as any other animal—so overzealous and oblivious beachcombers should mind their bare or sandaled feet. 


Credit: NPS.

Alligators have been the subject of more bad horror movies than almost any other animal, so it may just be time to clear their name: left alone, these scary-looking, broad-snouted carnivores thrive in the swamps of the Southeast (where they are ecologically critical) and do their best to steer clear of humans.

Additionally, far from being mindless, dead-eyed killers, these cuddlier-than-you-thought prehistoric throwbacks are caring parents and may mate for life. So if those urban legends about sewer-dwelling 'gators turned out to be true, it might not even be exciting enough for celluloid.

Where to see it: American alligators have made a comeback from previous scarcity to the point that they are no longer very difficult to find. Everglades National Park (Florida) and Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (Georgia), each of which contains extensive wilderness areas, are among the best places to see them. Though visitors should exercise caution and not get too close, fatal attacks are exceedingly rare (unless you happen to be a turtle or fish). 

Barn owl

Credit: Joaquim Coelho, flickr.

With their haunting, vaguely ovoid pale faces—imagining one of these nocturnal phantoms swooping silently past you in dead of night—it is no surprise that barn owls have been suggested as the inspirations behind paranormal phenomena including claimed alien abductees’ memories of archetypal “grays,” the “Flatwoods monster” and the famous “Mothmanincident.

But like so many “spooky” animals, they pose no threat to human beings, despite videos you may have seen of cornered barn owls’ sinuous bobbing movements and rattling hiss. Barn owls’ eerie, almost alien faces may actually help to funnel sound to their ears, making them more effective hunters when they venture forth from their roosts in hollow trees, caves and abandoned buildings in search of birds and small mammals.

Where to see it: Barn owls can be found in most of the continental U.S., but some populations have been decreasing as hunting and nesting areas are lost to development. Your best bet to see them is wildlife refuges with abundant bird populations, such as Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge (Utah), Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico) and Willapa National Wildlife Refuge (Washington).


Credit: Vance Crain (Florida Fish and Wildlife), flickr.
Practically lifted from the pages of H.P. Lovecraft’s 1936 story of twisted amphibious creatures, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” this voracious, semi-terrestrial fish is native to Asia, but popped up in a pond in Maryland back in 2002 and has since spread elsewhere in the U.S.
Thankfully, early predictions of invasive species catastrophe have not come to pass (snakeheads can slither on land, but reports of long-range “walking” were overblown; they do have natural predators, contrary to some claims; and they have not quite wreaked havoc on American freshwater ecosystems). Still, snakeheads are considered a risk to disrupt waterways and muscle out native species (the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries offers these zombie-esque directions for anglers: “Kill the fish by … removing the head”). Naturally, snakeheads have inspired more than one schlocky, made-for-TV monster film already.
Where to see it: Frankly, you shouldn’t want to; it would be bad if these guys spread too far and wide. But snakehead may be found in the Potomac River (if nothing else, they are considered good for fishing).

Sea lamprey

Credit: T. Lawrence (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory), flickr.

Another star of terrible monster movies, lamprey certainly look the part thanks to a jawless, suction-cup maw lined with raspy inward-hooking teeth. There are a few native freshwater species of lamprey in the U.S. that exist in harmony within their habitats, but the sea lamprey is a different story: these 19th century invaders from the Atlantic (they came via manmade locks and shipping canals) prey on large fish in devastating fashion. A single sea lamprey may kill 40 or more pounds of fish over the course of its lifetime, and most of the fish they latch on to don’t survive the encounter. These parasites have upset ecosystems in the Great Lakes, and in turn hurt commercial and recreational fishing.

Where to see it: Why?!? But seriously, these eel-like fish can be found throughout the Great Lakes.

In contrast, Pacific lamprey were historically widespread in the U.S. and are ecologically important because they improve water quality and provide an abundant food source for larger animals. You should go see them instead. Unfortunately, Pacific lamprey are imperiled by dams, stream pollution, habitat loss and climate change impacts, and a concerted effort is underway to bolster their numbers. A geocaching project was recently launched to raise awareness about their importance. Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, between Washington and Oregon, is a good place to try and see them—check the fish ladders of lower Columbia River dams during the summer.