TEXAS (KAMR/KCIT) – The state of Texas covers vast expanses of rolling plains and craggy canyons, rocky shores, sun-dappled forests, winding rivers, and reaching deserts. Its land has also been marked by the creatures and communities that have shaped it, leaving every inch of it etched with ghost stories.
Some of these stories are told through things named for them, while others are not the tales of just one person or community but are felt across every field and drying riverbed, in the spirits of bygone buffalo and the Native American peoples alongside them, or the soldiers of crumbling forts and battlefields, or the fallen cattle and cowboys that mark the trails of Texas history.
However, each region of the Lone Star State not only has memorial markers and homages to the people who came before, but also home-grown whispers of beasts and spirits that lurk just beyond the bounds of the backyard.
Here’s a look at a few of the most iconic ghouls and ghosts of Texas, for region locals and travelers alike.
In June 2022, the Texas Panhandle saw a spike in spooky notoriety with the appearance of an “Unidentified Amarillo Object (UAO)” at the Amarillo Zoo, which as many people took this to be a sighting of a local cryptid and took it as a wildly successful publicity stunt.
However, the Panhandle-Plains region has always had a history of things going bump in the night, whether the culprits are said to be locally grown or out-of-this-world.
The Amarillo Natatorium
One of a number of Amarillo destinations listed on the National Register of Historic Places as well as highlighted as a stop along Historic Route 66, the Amarillo Natatorium opened on Sixth Avenue in July 1922. Standing as a refuge against the blistering summer heat of the High Plains, “The Nat” was an enclosed open-air swimming pool, which was then updated into a covered structure in 1923 for the purpose of being open all year.
However, as noted by the Texas Historical Commission, “The Nat” shifted from a proper natatorium and into a maple-floored dance palace in 1926 after its purchase by JD Tucker. Local and touring big bands and musical acts brought their sounds to the stage, and in the ensuing years The Nat welcomed other attractions including raffles, vendors, and a cafe. From airmen to musicians to local youths looking for an entertaining night out, The Nat became one of the more popular local haunts of the community until the 1960s.
In 2023, The Nat currently houses a vintage and handmade vendor market, though the iconic maple flooring and the hints of chlorine in the air still remain – as well as some of the dancers, according to area locals. A few of the more common spirits reported being seen at The Nat in the modern day include a young woman wearing a white dress (occasionally stained with a red spot, after an accidental wine spill while dancing), a dancing couple gliding across the hardwood when bands visit the antique stage, ghostly drumbeats and singing echoing from the days of the dance palace’s prime, and swimmers still taking laps around the long-covered pool.
The Lubbock Lights of 1951
Although in 2023 residents around the High Plains can often look up to the star-speckled sky and see the blinking array of Starlink satellites, those around the region can also remember unexplained incidents such as “The Lubbock Lights” of 1951, and numerous other UFO sightings and experiences in the 1950s.
As previously reported by KAMC News, more than 700 cases of alleged UFO sightings out of 12,000 investigated by the US Air Force in the 1950s and 60s remained unexplained. This included an incident known as “The Lubbock Lights,” when a formation of between 20 and 30 bright lights was seen in the skies of the Hub City on Aug. 25, 1951.
Although the federal government originally claimed that the bizarre lights were light reflecting off birds flying overhead, declassified files from the Air Force investigations showed that the original photos were authentic and also could not be replicated. While officials later admitted that the lighters were not birds, nor spaceships, they also said they were unable to reveal what the Lubbock Lights truly were.
Other strange lights and UFO sightings in the region have continued into the present day, to the point that Texas stands as one of the states with the highest number of UFO sightings in 2023. In the wake of recent national attention being paid to Congressional hearings on UAPs and UFOs, NASA appointed a director of research to study the phenomena and lawmakers have called for further hearings on the matter.
However, the people of the High Plains continue to tell their stories and turn their eyes to the sky as they wait for further developments and, eventually, definitive answers.
Big Bend Country
The Marfa Lights
Marfa, Texas not only has one of the more notorious otherworldly light phenomena in the state, but also one of the best places to consistently view them.
In the Big Bend region, locals and area officials note that sightings of the colorful dancing lights have been recorded since the 1880s. Often most clearly reported in the highest point between Marfa and Shafter, the orbs of light flicker and float over the Mitchell Flat, sometimes compared to the pattern of a distant sparkler.
While people at times write off the Marfa Lights as car headlights, others – including former NAA engineer James Bunnell, author of “Night Orbs” and “Strange Lights in West Texas” – believe that this is a mistake stemming from looking toward Highway 67 on the way to Presidio instead of toward the flats.
The longstanding theories about the origin of the Marfa Lights range from headlights to ghosts, the remnants of the Native Americans that gave the Chinati Mountains their name. However, some others, including Bunnell, put forward the theory that the Marfa Lights may be caused by ball lightning generated by underground electrical energy.
Some other researchers have brought up the possibility that the Marfa Lights and other similar phenomena, such as the lights of Bragg Road and the Six-Mile Light near Llano, are the results of some kind of geomagnetic disturbance related to their latitude – many of them rest just to the north of latitude 30 degrees N.
Those looking for their best chance to see the Marfa Lights can visit the Marfa Lights Viewing Center throughout the year, which is also conveniently near Big Bend Ranch State Park, known as one of the best places in the world to stargaze.
While almost every community in the world shares some kind of “boogeyman” figure in myth and legend, one said to be found in Texas is the same as one in Spain, Portugal and Latin America: El Coco, or El Cucuy.
Authors such as J.A. Hernandez and other folklorists have noted that El Coco is a creature that resides in caves in the hills or mountains near a community (such as the Davis Mountains in far West Texas) and is said to listen for unruly children with large, batlike ears. El Coco has also been described as a man with the legs of a goat and long, sharp horns by some, while others say it resembles a humanoid alligator or has an empty pumpkin for a head.
However, folklorists and common traditions note that the exact appearance of El Coco is less important than its use as a way to discourage children from misbehaving or staying up too late at night.
As previously reported on MyHighPlains.com, several 17th-century nursery rhymes described El Coco as a shadow lurking outside of children’s windows and on rooftops at night, watching for those that it might catch and take to eat. Traditions and popular consciousness treat El Coco similarly to other figures such as Baba Yaga, the Sack Man, Krampus, and La Llorona, though some have set El Coco apart for its specific and broad reach across nearly the entire Spanish-speaking world.
Central Texas – Hill Country, Prairies and Lakes
Nestled among the prairies and lakes of Texas, the Goatman of multiple Dallas-area legends has occupied a number of roles: An alleged monster prowling the banks of White Rock Lake and Lake Worth, the tortured soul of a murdered Denton-area goat farmer, and even the devil himself.
Described as a creature appearing as a part man, part goat, with scales and long, clawed fingers, the Goatman is credited to sightings near lakes and bridges. In 1969, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram greeted readers with the front-page headline “Fishy Man-Goat terrifies couples parked at Lake Worth” after couples reported seeing the monster to local police, which led to weeks of armed search parties making nightly trips into the nearby woods and fields to try and find the creature.
After the incident, the “Lake Worth Monster” haunted the popular consciousness of the community, and later combined with another local legend: The Goatman of Old Alton Bridge.
According to local legend, those who visit the Old Alton Bridge at night and knock on it three times will be faced with the murderous Goatman who will attempt to throw them off the bridge. Further, those who stop their cars and honk twice near the bridge are said to see the Goatman’s glowing red eyes appear in the darkness.
As noted by the Denton County Office of History and Culture, the Old Alton Bridge was built in 1884 and stands now over a Hickory Creek tributary as the area’s oldest remaining Pratt-truss iron bridge. While the bridge is no longer open for vehicles, it remains part of a popular horse and hiking trail and is known as both a Texas Historic Landmark and part of the National Register of Historic Places.
County officials and local folklorists described that the most well-known story behind the origin of the Goatman is about an African-American goat farmer who was lynched on the bridge by members of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1930s.
“Though the story has not been proven,” said the county office, “it is an awful tale rooted in a terrible time in our history.”
Other theories about the origin of the Goatman include that the creature is the spirit of a goat farmer’s murdered wife, that it is an amalgamation of the spirits of people buried in Old Alton Cemetery, or even that it is a demon summoned by local practitioners of dark magic.
The Wampus Cat
The Wampus Cat has been reported from the western oil fields of Texas through the Ozarks, and claimed by multiple schools across states such as Texas and Arkansas as a mascot – including Itasca High School.
As recorded by the Texas State Historical Association and noted by reports from the Corsicana Daily Sun and The Oklahoman, the Wampus Cat as it is known in Texas was created in part by one of its prolific historians, satirists, reporters, and state representatives: Don Hampton Biggers.
Biggers is known for having a prolific career of writing and publishing across West and Central Texas, including at least ten newspapers (three of which were satirical), more than a dozen books, and numerous papers and pamphlets focused on the region and those who lived there, as well as any injustice or hypocrisy he saw. He served in the Texas House of Representatives for Lubbock in 1915, and remained an avid writer and political activist until his death in 1957.
While online articles about Biggers (let alone those briefly contextualizing his decades of work, like this one) don’t need to worry about taking up too much ink on a printed paper, Biggers himself and editors like him in the early 1900s did: Not only did they need to worry about having too much on a page, but also too little. When there was space to fill in a day’s paper, editors around the western frontier tended to add extra columns or otherwise create tall tales.
In the case of the “Billy Goat Always Buttin’ In,” otherwise known as the Rotan Billy Goat, one of Biggers’ satirical papers, his space solution, was the Wampus Cat. From the Rotan Billy Goat, then, came the tale of a “ferocious monster that terrorized Fisher County, a combination wildcat, badger and lobo wolf – the Wampus Cat.”
However, by 1910, other books and publications began to circulate around the country referring to the beast and alleged legitimate sightings as far north as Idaho. The Wampus Cat was generally described as nocturnal with a “raucous voice” or a “super-panther,” leaving torn trees and tufts of bloody fur in its wake; though some variations on the cougar-like beast’s description include giving it six legs.
East Texas Pineywoods
Although the Lone Star State isn’t generally known for its thick forests and swamplands, the Texas Forest Service notes that it actually holds more than 60 million square acres of forestland – more than both the states of Oregon and Washington combined.
East Texas in particular also shares tales of one of the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic cryptids: Bigfoot.
The large, human-like, hairy beast was first reported to be sighted in Texas in the 1920s, when multiple communities in southeast Texas and the Pineywoods region reported encounters along the oil pipeline routes. Those sightings predate modern reports of “Bigfoot” in the Pacific Northwest, and its naming, by more than 40 years.
East Texas remains one of the hotbeds of the US for Bigfoot sightings away from the Pacific Northwest, and is even home to the annual Bigfoot Conference in Jefferson, Texas. That town is also home to the Texas Bigfoot Research Center, which has framed the land around Caddo Lake as “a land of Bigfoot.”
(Notably, that conference isn’t held in the town of Bigfoot in Frio County – but that community was actually named for the Texas Ranger William “Bigfoot” Wallace and not the Southern Sasquatch.)
The Bragg Light
Also known as the Big Thicket Ghost Light and the Ghost Road of Saratoga, the Bragg Light in East Texas is considered a sibling phenomenon to the Marfa Lights, though the two areas are opposites in terms of climate, geology and vegetation and the lights differ in appearance.
Described by the TSHA, the Bragg Light is a phenomenon reported periodically on the Old Bragg Road that runs through Big Thicket in Hardin County.
Reports of the Bragg Light often focus on two different lights that tend to appear: One sphere, often described by witnesses as sharply defined and bluish-white and about the size of a basketball, and another smaller spot amid a fog bank. Some have also described the Bragg Light as moving slowly toward those who see it, and there have been numerous scientific and ghostly tales crafted about the phenomenon since its first reported sighting in the early 1900s.
Scientifically, explanations for the lights include car lights, patches of low grade gas, reflections of foxfire, or ball lightning in a similar vein to the Marfa Lights rationalizations.
However, as noted by the TSHA, there are numerous stories about the lights’ origin that are rooted in local history. These stories, among others, include:
- The lights frequent areas where treasure was buried, such as from early Spanish conquistadors who hid gold in the thicket and never returned to collect it;
- The lights are an echo of a fire started or the ghost of a man killed amid the Kaiser Burnout in the Civil War, in which Confederate soldiers attacked part of the forest to flush out Jayhawkers – men in the area who refused to fight for the Confederacy;
- The light is the floating head of a railroad worker who was decapitated in a train wreck on the Saratoga line in the area; and
- The light is from a spectral fire pan carried by a night hunter who was lost in the forest and never found his way home.
El Muerto of the Wild Horse Desert
First reported in the 1850s, “El Muerto” is known across the deserts of Texas as a headless horseman donning the clothing of a Mexican vaquero speckled with arrows and bullet wounds, with his sombrero-topped head tied to the side of his saddle.
According to the Legislative Reference Library of Texas, the story of the Lone Star State’s headless horseman has its roots in historical truth, with its creation in part credited to William “Bigfoot” Wallace and the Texas Rangers.
Around the time of the tale of El Muerto, the state of Texas had an ongoing dispute with Mexico over whether the official border between the two would be recognized as the Nueces River or, farther south, the Rio Grande. Even after Texas was officially annexed into the US and the Mexican-American War, and thus the Texas border, was officially settled, the Texas Rangers reported their struggle against Mexican cattle rustlers and thieves in the area would last another 30 years.
This included the time in 1850 when Wallace and other Texas Rangers such as Creed Taylor were tracking a wanted cattle rustler simply known as “Vidal.” According to the TSLRL, Vidal was eventually caught by the Texas Rangers after stealing a herd of livestock that included prized mustangs belonging to Taylor, who had a ranch west of San Antonio.
When Vidal’s camp of outlaws was found by the Texas Rangers, Wallace decapitated Vidal and as a warning to other thieves mounted his corpse on a mustang, strapped his still-sombreroed head to the saddle horn, and watched as the mustang broke away and ran into the night.
“The big mustang drank . . . Gaunt in the thin moon, his rider waited, leaning on his saddlehorn with all the patience of death . . . Even the faint light showed the stump above his shoulders; his head — its sombrero still secured — was a restless pendulum, swinging gently . . . El Muerto was gone at a gallop, his head bouncing against his thigh.”William Edwards Syers, “Ghost Stories of Texas”
Shortly thereafter, stories began to spread about the headless rider seen in the Wild Horse Desert region. Even after a posse of ranchers finally captured the horse and recovered the dried corpse of Vidal, the legend remained and travelers and locals alike continued to see the specter wandering the vast expanses of the south plains. In the modern day, those who report seeing the headless horseman still view him as an omen of misfortune and death.
One of the most well-known ghosts of Texas and Mexico, as well as other regions and cultures, is La Llorona. Called “The Weeping Woman,” who wanders along canals and rivers crying for her lost children, the figure has been framed in Texas legend both as a cautionary tale and a comparison to the demise of indigenous cultures after the Spanish conquest of Mexico.
Described by folklorists, La Llorona often appears as a ghostly woman in a long dress, walking along the banks of running water, such as “Hollering Woman Creek” in the San Antonio area. She has been described as wearing all white or all black while on her nightly journey, taking vengeance on men who cross her path or otherwise taking children back with her into the water.
She is perceived by storytellers and witnesses as a kind of southwestern banshee, a spirit whose screams are an imminent warning of death, and otherwise used similarly to El Coco and other “boogeyman”-style creatures to discourage children from misbehaving.
Because La Llorona appears in many cultures and regions, there are just as many tales of her origin. However, most of the stories follow the same basic framework: A woman murders her children while in a crazed state of desperation or despair by drowning them in a nearby river or creek, and her spirit is doomed to linger until she collects their souls to bring to the afterlife or otherwise makes amends for her crime.
As noted by folklorists and the TSHA, a few versions of this story are specific to South Texas and at times tied in with the development of the region, including:
- That La Llorona is the spirit of La Malinche, who was the mistress of the conquistador Hernán Cortés and, according to tradition, was driven to vengeance after bearing Cortés a child but being replaced by a highborn Spanish wife;
- That La Llorona is the spirit of a peasant girl, often of indigenous descent, who was betrayed by the Spanish nobleman who was her lover; and
- The La Llorona was a settler who drowned her children to “save” them from being murdered by bandits or Native American raiders as her husband had been, and went mad with grief.
Translated literally to “barn owl” from Spanish, folklore in Mexican-American communities describes La Lechuza as a shape-shifting creature appearing often as a barn owl with a human face, who brings misfortune to those who see her and waits in the trees to swoop down and feed upon unsuspecting passerby.
Like La Llorona, most versions of the origins and motivations of La Lechuza follow the story of a woman accused of being a witch and murdered by her community, or otherwise betrayed, and returns for revenge in the form of a shape-shifting owl. However, though the myth has existed in some form for a number of decades, it became a well-known legend of coastal South Texas when it was linked to “El Pajaro Gigante,” or the Big Bird of Robstown, in the 1970s.
In 1975 the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported that witnesses had seen a huge, monster bird swooping down at them when walking along the county roads, claiming that the creature was between two and six feet large and had the face of a human. In the coming weeks, as described by The Texas Standard, there were sightings reported in nearby communities that contributed to a wave of hysteria.
At the time of the panic, the local magazine “La Lomita” published theories about what the bird could be that ranged from the supernatural to the political, and La Lechuza also appeared as a villain in the comic book “Relampago,” the series was credited as featuring the first Mexican-American superhero.
Again similar to other myths such as those of La Llorona or El Coco, many interpretations of the La Lechuza stories are used as cautionary tales against misbehavior or impulsive decisions. However, particularly in more modern versions of the myth, storytellers also align La Lechuza as a figure of vengeance or vigilante justice after being unjustly targeted by her neighbors.