By Ken Newton
In the archive of hairy creatures that no one can really explain, Momo has an honored place.
The name stands as shorthand for “Missouri Monster,” though the beast has a lineage of storied but non-genetic kin.
Think Sasquatch. Think Bigfoot.
This one just happened to be in our neighborhood, if northern Missouri can be called a neighborhood. Jason Offutt gets a kick out of the tales of Momo.
The story: Momo showed up on the edge of some woods around the Pike County town of Louisiana. In July 1972, three children of the Harrison family spotted the beast, haired-over and maybe seven feet tall, carrying a dead animal and stinking like sun-baked garbage.
Other townsfolk had their own sightings. Strange noises came from the woods. Unfamiliar tracks could be found.
“There were a whole lot of people who either saw Momo, heard Momo or saw the footprints of where he had been,” Offutt said. “The more people reporting the same thing, the more validity it gives to it.”
Offutt has a storyteller’s interest in this. A journalist for nearly two decades and author of 15 books, many about supernatural things and places, he does not sell paranormal incidents so much as relish their recounting.
His most recent book, this year’s “Chasing American Monsters,” features Momo as not only a home-state nod but one of many half-man/half-whatevers that have become regionally distinct legends.
Whether the folklore extends to the diminutive and arrow-shooting Pukwudgie of New England or the raucous flapping of thunderbirds in the Pacific Northwest, these creatures have been present throughout history.
“Those stories and those creatures have been on every continent in every civilization, even before we had known travel across the oceans,” the writer said. “How did that happen?”
Offutt grew up around Orrick, Missouri, a small town without a cinema but within reach of a Kansas City independent television station.
“Saturday nights were monster movies. And there would be sci-fi movies on in the afternoon,” he recalled. “I’d come home from school and watch ‘Godzilla.’”
His undergraduate years yielded a degree in broadcasting and film, and he later got a master’s in mass communication. (Offutt now teaches in the School of Communication and Mass Media at Northwest Missouri State University.)
He attempted a book just out of college. “My first one took me two years, and it was absolute garbage,” he laughed.
The writer then settled into a newspaper career, 17 years’ worth. When he next approached book writing, Offutt said the deadline mentality helped.
That book, in 2007, was called “Haunted Missouri: A Ghostly Guide to the Show-Me-State’s Most Spirited Spots.” The author intended it as a spooky tour manual for his native state.
It mattered to him that, unlike many paranormal books that focus on private residences, these haunted places be accessible to the public. Besides, he said, the history and the storytelling compelled him to the task.
“I don’t go to a spot looking for ghosts. ... I’m a storyteller. I tell other people’s stories,” Offutt said. “The people I use in print, I’m either convinced that they saw something or that they’re sure they saw something. There is a difference there.”
His approach also includes a good dose of whimsy. One book, a cheeky how-to, bears the title, “How to Kill Monsters Using Common Household Items.” Another, in the genre of zombie fiction, has the name, “Bad Day For The Apocalypse.”
In the latest offering, he researched all 50 states for the monsters people hold frightfully dear, at least in their imaginations. That includes the Wampus Cat of Alabama, the Melon Heads of Connecticut and the Hogzilla of Georgia.
Traveling in gathering material, the author admits some situations have put him on edge. Still, he takes in most of what he hears with a newsman’s detachment.
“Thankfully,” Offutt said, “I haven’t had a Bigfoot walk up and ask me for an apple.”