Paul Crehan is welcoming guests at a backyard book release party for his new young-adult novel, The Secret of Alpine Valley, when the ape walks in.
It's a mild June evening in the Westwood hills and Crehan's family, friends and colleagues from the TV production world had been lounging at outdoor tables, snacking on kale salad and listening to a jazz duo. But then up lumbers the ape, or rather a woman in a slightly grotesque ape suit — furry, brown, hulking. “Mmmf,” the ape grunts, as guests gape and laugh. As if greeting a long-lost relative, Crehan puts his arm around the beast and smiles.
The ape is more than an entertaining party stunt — it's a nod to an important, if rarely glimpsed, character from his novel. The book depicts a struggling northwestern mill town, which teeters on the brink of collapse until residents launch a plan to attract tourist dollars by capitalizing on local lore: something, a tribe of somethings, rumored to live in the nearby woods.
Crehan is more familiar with creature sightings than most. As a one-time producer on Unsolved Mysteries and Proof Positive, he immersed himself for years in the murky world of cryptozoology. He even refers to the better-known beings by nickname: “Nessie,” say, or “Champy.”
“I'm on a first-name basis with them — we're mishpocha,” he says.
Crehan, 56, learned the elements of storytelling at an early age. He grew up in L.A. sharing a dinner table with vaudevillians and comedians who were close family friends, plus Catholic priests his mother had befriended from the family's parish. “You didn't share your day in any expository sense — it was a whole three-act drama,” he recalls. “I developed a fondness for shtick and wordplay.”
Working as a summer tour guide at the La Brea Tar Pits during high school, he'd catalog specimens with a sense of wonder: mastodons, saber-toothed cats, prehistoric camels and horses. “I'm looking at these fantastic creatures,” he says. “They're more incredible than anything you could invent.”
After college, Crehan got into TV writing, working for a producer of documentary series and making-of specials. He spent four seasons behind the scenes at America's Funniest Home Videos, and went on to serve as a writer and producer of docudramas. His credits span a vast range of topics, including the Bible, ancient civilizations, criminal justice and the sometimes-bizarre cases doctors handle in the ER.
Tales from his own life sound like segments ripped from the shows he has produced. He once crashed an A-list comedian's brand-new Ford Bronco in a parking lot, and ruined the sale of a TV movie when he accidentally mixed up two letters destined for competing networks. He also gave an Academy Award–winning director the scare of his life when Crehan unwittingly embroiled his production team in an FBI sting; agents had long sought a reclusive survivalist living in a cloistered Kentucky encampment but he refused to emerge — until Crehan persuaded him to appear for an interview.
Few stories, perhaps, have been stranger than the narratives he chased for Unsolved Mysteries and Proof Positive. “I learned a hell of a lot about Bigfoot, the chupacabra, the Mothman, the Loch Ness Monster,” he says. Over the years, he conducted hours of interviews with people who claimed to have seen, heard or sensed the presence of a cryptid — a creature believed but not proved to exist. He listened to their tales. He smiled and nodded politely. Eventually, the basis for The Secret of Alpine Valley coalesced in his mind.
“I was fascinated by these creatures, but more why people need to believe in them,” he says.
Humans, he believes, crave fantasy to buoy them through life. “We are locked in by mini-malls. We don't lift our heads. We have a real need for frontiers and what's beyond the horizon. It's why we go into space. Bigfoot is always going to be with us, because we need him to be with us,” Crehan says. “We need the great 'what if.'?”
Plus, it makes for compelling TV. “I always got a slight thrill whenever I listened to someone who was not a kook tell me about his experience with one of these creatures,” he admits.
It happened often. A USC professor once swore to Crehan that he and his son saw Bigfoot while hunting boars in the California wilds: “He said it was clear as day, walking right across their path.”
A man in Arkansas called him to report that he had found — and preserved — a dead alien. “He sent me some photos of what was clearly a wilted toadstool,” Crehan recalls. “It looked like this little, tiny creature with its hands on a steering wheel — I have to give him that.”
While researching a segment on the Lake Champlain monster, Crehan located a bioacoustics expert who provided a tape of some “very interesting” noises she had recorded in the lake. The noises turned out to be fabricated, but that didn't clear up the mystery surrounding the famous 1977 photograph that launched the Champy legend, showing a slender-necked, plesiosaur-looking animal rising from the water. “That was taken by a woman named Sandra Mansi,” Crehan recounts. “I've interviewed Sandra. There's nothing about her that raises any red flags. She's highly intelligent and has all of her teeth. While she's not a disinterested party, she's not a party that cares whether you believe her or not.” The riddle itself might be more entertaining, anyway.
The Secret of Alpine Valley is Crehan's first book and, he hopes, the start of a prolific second career as an author. The novel dovetails with the recent popularity spike in supernatural YA fiction, which he only partly intended. “I had one eye on the marketplace, certainly, but the story fell into my head as a coming-of-age narrative,” he says. The tale's protagonist, a preteen girl, is a quirky and compelling observer of the ethical minefield her town enters when it disturbs the habitat of an unpredictable species.
Crehan is tackling other moral dilemmas in his upcoming books — his favorite manuscript is a ticking-clock novel that questions the justice of the death penalty. He's giving cryptozoology a rest for now, but as vice president of development at L. Plummer Media in Burbank, he helps produce the Oxygen hit Preachers of L.A. — a show that chronicles believers in no less an unverified being than God.
“If I have a theme, it's that we don't know shit,” Crehan says. “Creature stories are just a small way of hooking into that — of saying, 'Let's cool our jets when we think we know everything.' I don't believe in any of these creatures, but I would like them to be real. It would reinforce the idea of how little we know, how much is out there, how exciting the world really is.”
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