When I got involved in Snake Identification in Facebook groups, I had no idea there was a culture, and subculture, that revolved around snake myths, and snake identification. I should have known, for if you get ten people together in a room for a week, by the end of that seven days, you’ll find narratives that have no basis in fact at all. Three people will believe the narrative, three will accuse the first three of lying, three will be indifferent, and one will have never heard of it.
Even before we are able to fully understand our mother language, as infants, we are fed the myth of Santa Claus. Every year, as we grow up, we see photos, videos, movies, hear songs, listen to adults and other children talk about Santa Claus, so we believe, because why wouldn’t we? Why would all of this be based on a lie?
But it is a lie. It’s not a misunderstanding, or some tightly held religious belief with no evidence, no, it is an outright lie.
Whether you want to admit it or not, whether or not you think it matters or not, parents teaching their children about Santa Claus is teaching those same kids, once they discover the truth, that lying is acceptable, and even more desirable, than the truth. To use a lie to modify someone’s behavior, like parents do when they tell their kids if they misbehave Santa won’t come, is perfect.
Here’s the fallout: Children will so reverently believe this lie they’ll repeat it to other children, and among the kids, will be stories of how one or the other, or some group, stayed up late, or got up early, and actually saw Santa. Others will see something in the sky and know, really know, deep down inside, they truly and honestly saw a red nose, brightly leading the sleigh through the sky. Moreover, as the kids get older and the lie gets harder to defend, and the truth becomes glaringly clear, both parents and children will pretend to believe, as to keep the lie alive, for just a little while longer.
Gee, Mike, that’s certainly a buzz kill, but what’s any of this got to do with Cottonmouths?
Here in The South, as I was growing up, I was told the tale of Hoops Snakes who would grab their tails in their mouths and roll like a hoop to chase you. Then there was the story of how Coachwhip snakes would chase you and whip you with their tails. And rattlesnakes had a poison dust in their rattles that would kill the unwary. Snakes hypnotized birds to catch them. And if you killed a rattlesnake, its mate would hunt you down by the next day. And there was the story of the water skier who fell into a nest of moccasins, and as rescuers tried to drag the lifeless body from the lake, the snakes were still hanging on!
Also, Cottonmouths would chase you.
None of this is true, of course, and most of these myths have slowly evaporated as videos become more and more ubiquitous, and the evidence for such snake activity becomes more and more impossible to prove.
Yet the one myth that seems to be the hardest to dispel is the one of Cottonmouths chasing people. In ID groups, long and irritating threads will stretch on and on, with the person claiming to be chased never relenting, never giving an inch, but yet never producing a photo or a video that their claim is true. They grew up hearing about people being chased, and they feel they are not part of their own culture if they do not produce a story about nearly being killed as they barely escaped the deadly fangs of the moccasin.
Yet there are issues here, and those issues are based in reality. The truth of the matter is while these snakes do strike swiftly, on land they are remarkably slow. The Cottonmouth got its moniker by its eponymous mouth agape position, showing its fangs. But it is impossible to chase anyone from this position as it is a purely defensive posture! Moreover, there have only been four recorded deaths from Cottonmouth bite in the United States. If these animals are so dangerous, and they do chase people, why is it so few people have been killed? Why is it so few people are bitten? Why is it we have no videos, why not hundreds of them, if the myth is not a myth?
The truth is we have “The Santa Claus Effect” here. People have been fed a lie, by people who were fed the lie, and each generation passes it own without thought. It’s true not because it happened but because it’s part of the culture. People lie about it, and find a ready audience for their lies, because they have already told the lie themselves. To argue this point is to find a group of people emotionally invested in what they are telling, and what they have been told.
If you really want to piss people off, tell the truth. Tell a four year old child the truth, Santa doesn’t exist and watch their parents explode in anger. It’s magic, the parents will tell you, it’s wonderful, that is, until the bill comes due after Christmas and all the fake snow and tinsel has really brought is credit card payments and a child who believes no amount of toys is quite enough to keep the magic alive.
The Cottonmouth tale is much like this. People want excitement, and safe fear. They want to feel brave and heroic as they blast away at a creature that will run away if given a chance, and who has harmed no one. They want to feel like they have, once again, conquered the wild by beating to death a snake they have always heard was dangerous, and they have always told people was dangerous, without giving a single thought to the truth.