In 1964, the LA Times published reports of a strange beast haunting the abandoned concrete structures of the old Billiwhack Dairy in Aliso Canyon, Ventura County. The beast of Billiwhack had reportedly been seen several times by local high school students, who seemed obsessed with undertaking valiant quests into the monster’s territory. One youngster said that he had encountered a “snarling, hairy man in a hole,” and other reports unanimously described a tall, furry, muscular hominid with claws and ram-like horns. He was said to be half man and half sheep, and to be extremely aggressive.
Reports have largely been confined to the 1950s and 60s, yet people are still discussing the beast to this day. How can one account for this very time-specific legend that continues to have significance? Perhaps a bit of background is in order. The second half of the twentieth century has seen the rise of the notion of the government as ‘mad scientist’: according to popular culture, the secret bureaus of our nation since WWII have been sponsoring programs and experiments meant to change the very makeup of the human body.
Part of this is based on reality. Our government has indeed created programs that furtively transgress the body’s boundaries, such as the fluorination of tap water or the 1932 Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. And in popular legend, ‘anti-governments’ like that of Communist Russia have, in turn, made a move to poison the American water supply. Postwar thought was highly suspicious of government in all its incarnations.
The decades following WWII sprouted a deep mistrust of our own government’s military and scientists in particular. The legends surrounding Roswell since the 1970s and the Billiwhack monster from the 50s and 60s are only two examples. Before the war, the government was lambasted for idiocy, backwardness, or outright oppression. After the war, many of the citizens of the United States began to suspect that their government was keeping from them earth-shattering secrets. This was perhaps most evident in the West, where vast expanses of open desert facilitated the creation of military and nuclear complexes whose exact activities could not be easily discerned.
I see the Billiwhack monster to be very much a product of this. According to legend, the creature had been created by the old owner of the Billiwhack Dairy, one August Rubel, during the war. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which had an outpost training camp on nearby Catalina Island, had supposedly commissioned him to undertake experiments in the underground tunnels below the dairy. He was directed to create a “super soldier.” The beast of Billiwhack was apparently an escaped experiment gone wrong.
When the war enterprise industrialized in the twentieth century, and each individual soldier seemed to become a machine (or, perhaps, cogs in a much larger machine), the notion of the supersoldier was born. The “Captain America” comic series, whose first installment was published in 1940, was one such supersoldier: according to the story, a secret, government-administered serum had transformed a weak young man into the ultimate fighting machine. Captain America was what happened when these governmental experiments turned out right. The Billiwhack monster was what happened when they went horribly awry.
This is only the most popular explanation for the beast of Billiwhack. In addition to this legend, some have dismissed it as the product of the adolescent imagination (most eyewitnesses are, indeed, high school students), and cryptozoologists suppose that it is some form of deformed bigfoot. But here, I’m not interested in origins. What I’m interested in is memory. What this story throws into high relief is another aspect of our memory of WWII. On one side, we have the so-called “Greatest Generation.” On the other, we have a deep-seated uneasiness about and suspicion of wartime governmental activities. We look back on the war years and see a time of secrecy, deceit, aggression, and, ultimately, monstrosity. The embodiment of this memory has, apparently, been lurking in a dilapidated dairy surrounded by Southern California’s sunny orchards.