Reasonable Doubt

American Monster

Everything you need to know about the mess that is America in 2019 can be explained by our deepening national belief that Bigfoot is real

Illustration: Erlend Peder Kvam

I. Patterson’s Beast

This begins, as it must, in childhood. The year is 1982, and I am six years old, sitting cross-legged on a living room carpet, transfixed by the television. The show I’m watching concerns monsters — no doubt a documentary with a tautology for a title, something similar to Unexplained Mysteries, or else a docudrama kin to In Search Of. What I see in this television program, whatever it’s called, causes all the plates in me to quiver and shift. Something truly tectonic happens. It’s almost — religious.

Across a bleached creek bed, in fluid, calm possession of its hirsute bulk, strides a monster. For a full 50 seconds, it ambles into the woods, obviously set on fleeing whoever has just invaded its domain with a handheld movie camera. At first the footage jolts and quakes, because the invader has arrived on horseback, and upon spotting and smelling the bipedal beast, the horse reared up, chucking its rider. But then the rider finds his feet and poise, and for a few seconds the film settles down. And there, for all the world to witness, is Bigfoot.

I can see her hairless face — Bigfoot is a she, you understandand I can see her buttocks and massive back muscles tense beneath the shine of silken hair. Her smooth swinging-arm gait, part person, part ape. Her chilling shoulder turn, gorilla-like, to glance over at whoever has just interrupted her afternoon. It’s clear that what I’m seeing now is no backwoods bilker in a monkey getup. What I’m seeing now, I intuitively know, reveals every hallmark of an actual animal, and it means something special — very special. It means that monsters exist and that existence is monsterful, as Chaucer employs it: astonishing, extraordinary, shot through with amazement, with the sublime.

What I watched that day was, of course, the footage that for the past several decades has kept the improbable on life support and launched many an awed apostle into the thickets of the American Northwest: the infamous Patterson footage of Bigfoot, filmed by Roger Patterson and his sidekick Bob Gimlin in 1967 in Northern California.

Patterson’s film is both the True Cross and Turin Shroud for Bigfooters, and like the supposed physical relics of Christ’s crucifixion, it courts about equal shares of votaries and disbelievers. And let it be said, as Bigfooters are always saying: In more than 50 years, nobody has been able to reproduce the gait precisely as the footprints and film have it. Nor has an expert seamstress been able to replicate a suit that convincing. Nor has any high-powered computer or big-brained maestro of science been able to prove conclusively that Patterson faked his film. Or at least that’s what the many recent documentaries and pro-Bigfoot books leave you thinking, despite Roger Patterson himself being of — what’s the word? — dubious character.

More than 20 percent of Americans believe Bigfoot is real — the same number who believe the Big Bang actually happened.

If Bigfooters have been saying that Patterson could not have faked the film, scientists have been saying that the beast is not possible: Everything we know about evolution, ecology, biology, history, and what used to be called “common sense” says that Bigfoot does not live. No bones or scat or hair have ever been found. The climate is all wrong for a half-ape. There’s little for it to eat in the coniferous woods of the Pacific Northwest. If there is a single Bigfoot, then there is obviously an entire society of the things. And can you really believe that an entire society of goliaths secretly lives in Washington state?

In Bigfoot Exposed (2004), a broadside of careful, rational coherence that shows how Bigfoot is both a zoological impossibility and a psychological necessity, anthropologist David Daegling writes, “Stinking like a landfill, hirsute beyond confusion, and impossible to miss at 8 feet tall, Bigfoot plods through our backyards pressing the feeble soil clear through to the earth’s mantle, and yet our luck is so astonishingly, incomprehensibly bad that we just miss it, day after day, year in and year out.”

And yet, Roger Patterson believed, and he’s not alone. According to Chapman University’s Survey of American Fears, more than 20 percent of Americans believe Bigfoot is real, the same number who believe the Big Bang actually happened. More startling is that the belief is spreading: “Americans have become seven percent more likely to believe in Bigfoot in only two years,” the survey reports.

What would cause Patterson and innumerable others like him to believe something so palpably absurd? Stupidity and mental illness won’t always suffice as answers; many of the individuals who believe in monsters are otherwise average, functioning citizens. Nor does mere profit motive fully explain it, since most Bigfooters lose money in their pursuit. No, Bigfoot must provide a necessary psycho-emotional ballast, some avenue to our understanding of ourselves, and not just for the many Roger Pattersons of the world.

What is clear, however, is that so much of our current national tumult and moral stasis can be better understood by looking at so many Americans’ need to believe that an unknown bipedal ape to this very day stomps through the Pacific Northwest, the panting irrationality required to nourish this marvel, the collective willingness to be swindled by obvious and pernicious untruths in order to do so, and what that means for the rest of American life. As journalist Michael McCleod put it: “If people can delude themselves into believing in the existence of an eight-foot-tall ape-man, what on earth might they be thinking about truly important matters?”

II. We Are Food

We don’t have to wonder very long about whether or not monsters have always been part of our imaginative toolbox, because for millions of years, monsters weren’t imaginary at all. We human animals began as diminutive, apish, baffled adapters, and toothy monsters, much bigger and less baffled and supremely well-adapted, were out to eat us all.

Ever since, from Hesiod’s Theogony to the Tanakh and New Testament, from Beowulf to the Persian episodes of Sinbad to J.R.R. Tolkien’s modern mythos, monsters have been a fixture of the stories we tell to make sense of the world. Every people has its Bigfoot. We see hairy monster-men as early as the Sumerian epics, circa 2100 BC, epics that eventually cohered into Gilgamesh. But we can actually do one better than 2100 BC, because about 23,000 years ago, Cro-Magnon Picassos were putting mannish monsters on the walls of their cave condos in Spain and France.

There’s a theory by the scholar Adrienne Mayor which says that the Greeks, Romans, and other ancients drew their monsters from the megafaunal fossils they found in the Mediterranean. Imagine being a 10th-century BC fisherman and coming upon the skeleton of some dinosaur jutting from a rock-ribbed shore: You’d soon start telling fantastical tales to make sense of this monstrosity before you. In The Book of Imaginary Beings, Jorge Luis Borges calls the dragon “a necessary monster,” but regardless of whether or not they have their genesis in reality, all monsters are necessary in what they impart about our psychic coordinates, what D.H. Lawrence liked to call our “blood-knowledge.” We have a monster instinct.

Counterclockwise, from top: A Mesopotamian seal depicting Gilgamesh (Werner Forman/Universal Images Group), Beowulf facing the first of three battles with the daemon of evil (Historica Graphica/Collection), and a paleolithic cave scene of a mysterious bird-headed man at the Lascaux cave in France (VCG Wilson/Corbis). All photos: Getty

In his book Bigfoot: The Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality (1972), British anatomist John Napier has this to say: “Hominoid monsters appear to possess some of man’s worst characteristics, and in this sense they can be looked upon as scapegoats, the traditional means by which man exorcises the burden of his own frailties.” For Dr. Freud, monsters are — what else? — the crop of our multihued repressions, instinct incarnate, ravening ids, because civilization functions only by the strangling of instinct.

We have birthed our monsters just as we have birthed our deities, which is what Ludwig Feuerbach posits about God: a grand projection of an embattled psyche prone to wonder and fear. Bigfoot is a human phenom, designed by humans and sustained by humans. People from every region on earth spot it, in all terrains and in every mood of weather. It’s practically a prerequisite: If you’re going to have a culture, you’re going to have a hirsute half-man monster: the hirsute hominoid beast that both threatens and beckons us.

III. Bigfoot Gets Born

What we now know as Bigfoot came about this way: In British Columbia in the mid-1920s, John Burns, a teacher on the Chehalis Reservation, after hearing hairy legends of wildmen from anthropologist Charles Hill-Trout, began asking the Chehalis about these legends. You could hear yarns of hairy wildmen no matter where you asked in the Pacific Northwest; in 1929, Burns published a magazine article that conflated the various narratives and traits and christened the beast “Sasquatch,” a catchy Anglicization of the name given to it by the native peoples of British Columbia.

Burns’ article stoked the curiosity of readers across Canada, so naturally he published more of them, turning the myth into something of a media hit for a time. In their stylish annihilation of pseudoscience, Abominable Science! Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids (2013), Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero offer this about Burns and his articles: “All modern Bigfoot mythology grew from this regional seed: spreading across the North American continent and beyond, mutating and hybridizing with later reports, hoaxes, and popular fiction.”

British Columbian folklore didn’t describe monsters, though — it described, quite clearly, people. People who were different, yes, taller and with longer hair than average, but still, people. Then, in 1951, English mountaineer Eric Shipton took what became one of the most famous photographs in history: the alleged footprint of the yeti in the Himalayas.

Yeti lore in the Himalayas was centuries old by that time, but the photo spurred a global attraction to the half-man monster. Every myth requires an image if it is to be implanted in our understanding — humans are hopelessly visual thinkers — and Shipton’s photo did just that: It delivered the abominable snowman to the masses. In the midst of this yeti obsession, expeditions were expedited, searchers began searching. The British, the Americans, even the envious Soviets: They all went out to catch it — and they all came back with zilch.

The alleged footprint of the Abominable Snowman, taken near Mount Everest on December 13, 1951. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty

Before long, North America had yeti envy. And North America would not be outdone. We have lots of montane wilderness and centuries of lore here, too, so why shouldn’t we have our own celebrity monster? So, in the late 1950s, the North American Sasquatch got a makeover. Officials in the town of Harrison Hot Springs, in order to win a grant to celebrate the centennial of British Columbia, devised, say Loxton and Prothero, “a scheme to dust off and exploit a largely forgotten local legend: Why not fund a Sasquatch hunt?” Why not indeed.

“Scheme,” you’ll find, is a common term whenever the history of Bigfoot comes up. Somehow, for whatever confluence of reasons, the hype for this homespun ploy made it to every literate pocket of the world. And you can probably guess what happened next: a freshet of tourists in and around Harrison Hot Springs. An influx of business. To sustain this influx, the townspeople were urged — incentivized might be more accurate — not to publicly doubt their lucrative Sasquatches. In lieu of serious proof, it was money that made Sasquatch real.

Inspired by the media melee over Harrison Hot Springs, a Canadian hunter named William Roe plodded forth with what became the model for most subsequent Sasquatch sightings: a story about an encounter that had occurred in British Columbia, Roe claimed, two years before the Harrison Hot Springs stunt. Loxton and Prothero quote Roe’s sworn statement at some length, and I should too, because it’s really something. Roe was, he said, “close enough to see that its teeth were white and even.” Sasquatch, you see, has a skilled orthodontist.

And then this:

My first impression was of a huge man, about six feet tall, almost three feet wide, and probably weighing somewhere near three hundred pounds. It was covered from head to foot with dark brown silver-tipped hair. But as it came closer I saw that it was female… Its arms were much thicker than a man’s arms, and longer, reaching almost to its knees. Its feet were broader proportionately than a man’s… When it walked it placed the heel of its foot down first, and I could see the grey-brown skin or hide on the soles of its feet… The head was higher at the back than at the front. The nose was broad and flat. The lips and chin protruded farther than its nose. But the hair that covered it, leaving bare only the parts of its face around the mouth, nose, and ears, made it resemble an animal as much as a human.

Loxton and Prothero consider this the ur-tale of Sasquatchia, the first to tag the mystery biped as an ape, and, relevant to our purposes here, the clear influence for the Patterson film. Because William Roe goes on to say this: “Finally, the wild thing must have got my scent, for it… straightened up to its full height and started to walk rapidly back the way it had come. For a moment it watched me over its shoulder as it went, not exactly afraid, but as though it wanted no contact with anything strange.”

Roger Patterson knew Roe’s tale — he’d even written about it — and all of Roe’s details just happen to make an appearance in his film. But that last bit, about the female beast looking over her shoulder without fright, is Patterson’s money shot: uncontestedly the most famous Bigfoot image in the world. Loxton and Prothero say that “to a profound extent, Bigfoot lore stands or falls on Roe.”

Roger Patterson’s infamous alleged photo of Bigfoot. He said pictures of the creature, estimated at 7 1/2 feet tall, were taken northeast of Eureka, California. Photo: Bettmann/Getty

The problem, though, is that nobody seems to know a thing about William Roe, neither the circumstances of his alleged encounter nor the character of the man. No Sasquatcher ever took it in mind to interview him or vet his ludicrous tale, and when Daniel Loxton, like any responsible journalist, tried to find information on Roe, he couldn’t do it.

So we are confronted now with only two strong possibilities: All of the Sasquatch reports match Roe’s telling because these creatures have common anatomy and behavior, as you’d expect from a species, or else all of the reports are fabrications or delusions based upon a fabrication or delusion.

IV. Bigfoot Gets Famous

Now let’s get American, because as everybody knows, you aren’t truly famous until you’re famous in America.

In 1958, just a year after the Harrison Hot Springs circus, prodigious footprints began appearing in Northern California, at the far-out road construction site presided over by one Ray L. Wallace. A machine operator working for Wallace, Jerry Crew, got a little peeved and probably a lot scared by these big prints, so he did what you do: made a plaster cast of one and presented it to the local newspaper, the Humboldt Times. Crew, by all accounts, was a lily-white, God-minding churchman incapable of dupery. Wallace, by all accounts, was not.

What happened next is the moment Bigfoot got its big break. Crew told the editor of the Humboldt Times that he and his road-forging comrades had named the beast Big Foot, two words. On Sunday, October 5, 1958, readers woke to a photo of Jerry Crew holding the cast on the front page, and inside there waited another photo—Crew looking at the cast most solemnly—atop a caption that read, in part: “This impression was made either Wednesday night or early Thursday morning by ‘Big Foot.’”

With that caption, a star was born. “Big Foot” got economized into a single term and ricocheted round the land from newspaper to magazine to TV show. The publicity incited a new guard of bipedal-ape fanatics, all those devoted gents who as lads had no doubt imbibed the Tarzan stories and King Kong films, and who understood that the search for the missing link was scientifically and spiritually important while also being potentially lucrative.

Tarzan of the Apes was published in 1912 and followed by 23 sequels, all of which were off-the-charts popular: They are believed to have sold between 30 million and 60 million copies in Burroughs’ lifetime. The first two films appeared in 1918. Between 1933 and 1976, five King Kong movies premiered. Add to those the five Planet of the Apes movies between 1968 and 1973 and the television series in 1974, and you have a nation with apes on the brain concurrent with the pop-culture ascension of Bigfoot.

Some go after Bigfoot with aspirations of glory, with the nonnegotiable hope of being the first to bag the missing link, but Ray Wallace didn’t care about glory — he cared about gags. The title above Jerry Crew’s photo on the inside page of the Humboldt Times read: “Huge Foot Prints Hold Mystery of Friendly Bluff Creek Giant.” That’s right: Ray Wallace stamped his foolishness adjacent to a tributary called Bluff Creek, in the Siskiyou Mountains. Where did Roger Patterson make his movie nine years later? Bluff Creek. You’d have a hard time inventing a more suitable name for a locale in which all this buffoonery could unfold.

An incurable jester, Wallace spent years clomping all over Northern California in wooden feet, wherever his road operations landed him. He once claimed to have netted a living Bigfoot and then tried to sell it for a million bucks, but when the time came to show it, he said he’d been forced to let it go: The thing was eating all his Frosted Flakes. After Wallace died, his family revealed the wooden feet to the press. As reported by Loxton and Prothero, Wallace’s son said, “Ray L. Wallace was Bigfoot. The reality is, Bigfoot just died.”

But Bigfoot didn’t just die. Bigfoot was just getting started.

V. The Cryptozoologist

Now, let’s talk about Loren Coleman. Frequent television commentator and author of numerous books on Bigfoot, monsters, and cryptids of every ilk (a cryptid, says my OED, is “an animal whose existence or survival is disputed or unsubstantiated”), Coleman has become the nation’s most consulted cryptozoologist.

Cryptozoologists hunt for and study cryptids, though, admittedly, they do more hunting than studying since there aren’t any actual animals to examine or observe. Certain insults get hurled their way — pseudoscience, quackery, cult — since all you need to become a cryptozoologist is an imperviousness to ridicule and guts enough to call yourself one.

This area of interest — vocation doesn’t seem quite accurate — throbs with zealots and stooges and tricksters. I discovered this when trying, for the sake of this assignment, to read some of their books, although “read” might be too generous, since you mostly look at fluorescent artwork and bewildering graphs and then try to decipher what they call English. Some think (if that’s the word we want) that Sasquatches have arrived from deep space or parallel dimensions and come equipped with supernatural mojo: ESP, psychokinesis, levitation, and what have you. The more sensible cryptozoologists (if that isn’t a contradiction) have full-time work combating and distancing themselves from this unrelieved wackiness that gives them all such a sullied name.

Coleman isn’t like those others — well, not anymore. His early books are dotted with tacit and not-so-tacit support for extraterrestrial inanities. Now, though, his boots remain solidly on the soil of the Pacific Northwest. His 2009 book, Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes in America, although the title contains that breathless exclamation point and a rather specious use of “true,” does a decent job at keeping his zeal from bursting into hyperbole. In the introduction he writes, “I’m convinced these creatures are out there to be discovered,” and then, a few pages later, “I’m convinced that ordinary people are having extraordinary but real encounters with these creatures.” So, you see, he’s convinced. And he founded a museum to prove it.

Near the water in Portland, Maine, in a one-time bus repair warehouse that’s been renovated into business blocks, you will find the International Cryptozoology Museum—“the world’s only,” as its website proclaims, and I don’t doubt it. Its two floors bulge with art and artifacts and sculptures — “the result of more than five decades of field research, travel, and dedication to gathering representative materials, native art, footcasts, hair samples, models, and other cryptozoological samples” — including an eight-foot replica of a Bigfoot.

From top left, clockwise: Loren Coleman in 2005 with an eight-foot taxidermy model of Bigfoot (Photo by Jack Milton); in 2009, Coleman packing up artifacts to be moved from his home (Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette); visitors at the International Cryptozoology Museum in 2016 (Photo by Ben McCanna). Photos via Portland Press Herald/Getty

On a wet weekday morning in early November, I met Coleman at this giddy lair, hoping to understand the causes of his belief. I found not a far-eyed ranter donned in faux safari gear, but an exceedingly sober, generous 70-year-old gentleman with insistent white hair and beard, so composed and easy-spoken that he could offer succor to the damned. Coleman’s likability is immediately apparent, and indeed this father of three sons has an extensive background in social work and behavioral health. His duty to those sons when they were young prevented him from completing his PhD in social anthropology at Brandeis. But Coleman can hold forth in all the relevant fields, from zoology to anatomy to paleoanthropology.

Coleman knows the genesis and data on each of the hundreds of items in his museum, from the casts of footprints and the supposed yeti scat to the hair of unidentified beasts and the always-on Patterson film. As he walked me down both floors, I thought it noteworthy that although he’s given this tour perhaps hundreds of times, he didn’t at all seem exhausted by it. No: He was an authentically enlivened chaperone, still taken after decades of study and not a nod from science. He even snapped a selfie of us standing in front of his eight-foot model of Sasquatch.

We sat at a table near the museum’s entrance, watched over by a life-size bust of Gigantopithecus, the extinct ape some believe is Bigfoot, the largest primate ever found, 10 feet high and 1,200 pounds. It had a head like a wrecking ball but not brains enough to weather the weather. After a stint of 6 million to 9 million years in Asia, climate change killed it during the Pleistocene.

“Much too big for Bigfoot,” Coleman told me. Referring to the work of Bernard Heuvelmans — the French researcher who became the inaugural president of the International Society of Cryptozoology, and who was, along with Ivan Sanderson, the father of the field — Coleman said, “If you see a hairy creature in the woods, in the dark, and you’re scared, you overestimate size by one-third. So people are seeing Bigfoot that are six-and-a-half feet tall, and they’re saying they’re nine, 10 foot. Bigfoot are not nine to 10 feet tall,” Coleman said. “They’re probably a little over the human range.”

Probably. And by the way, there’s no agreement in the “Bigfoot community” — that’s a real thing — on what the plural of “Bigfoot” should be, so you hear “Bigfoot” plural, “Bigfoots,” and “Bigfeet.” I rather like “Bigfoots.”

I asked Coleman how he handles the fusillade of mocking and scoffing that must daily harass him from every direction. “I don’t spend a lot of negative energy arguing with skeptics and debunkers,” he said. “I try to share with them my passions, my interests, my patience, and it’s up to them to accept what I’m doing.”

He isn’t kidding: Coleman doesn’t appear to have a zealous strain anywhere in him. He can be critical of those proselytizing Bigfooters, and he refuses to lend his name or experience to unrepentant charlatans out for their 15 minutes and a buck.

“People overdramatize how frequently encounters with Bigfoot occur,” he complained. “TV programs, YouTube, and all of that have created a mess in which there’s what I call the sociological Bigfoot. There are not Bigfoot running all over Rhode Island or Virginia. They’re just not out there. Because of the show Finding Bigfoot, every state needed to have a Bigfoot so that the film company could go there. That’s not helpful.”

The promise of the American dream, like the promise of finding Bigfoot, runs on a childish idealism forever rubbing away against the unhappy facts.

As a kid in Decatur, Illinois, Coleman began reading the work of Charles Fort, the early 20th-century popularizer of the paranormal and “anomalistics,” a faux scientific endeavor that aims to explicate what seems inexplicable by scientific method (ghosts and UFOs and all manner of abracadabra). Then, in 1960, at 12 years old—Coleman even recalls the day, a Friday—what happened to me had happened to him: He saw a movie and, right then, his route in life unfurled before him.

The movie was called Half Human, a Japanese drama about the abominable snowman. The next morning, Coleman watched it again, as kids do, and on Monday at school, he asked his teachers about this Himalayan man-beast. That didn’t go well.

“They had three answers,” he told me. “They don’t exist, get back to your studies, and leave me alone. That meant I got very motivated to get answers to my questions. I got very curious and went from yeti to Loch Ness monster to Bigfoot to understanding that there was a real relationship there in terms of animals being just beyond discovery.”

Seeing that movie was Coleman’s road to Damascus, the psycho-emotional activation of a brand of passion often indistinguishable from obsession. Recall, too, that reverberant line by Graham Greene in The Power and the Glory: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” That movie was Coleman’s moment.

When he first became smitten with cryptozoology, it was called “romantic zoology,” which has quite a nice timber to it and also should tell you something, that slightly condescending use of “romantic.” “I would ride with game wardens to check out panther sightings or giant snake sightings,” Coleman said. “Before I was 14, I had 400 correspondents around the world. Remember letters? For me, this interest became the gateway to my dreams.”

In the introduction to Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes in America, Coleman writes: “I grew up with dreams.” Yes, I did too; we all did. The difference for the rest of us is that uncaring reality rushed in to dampen those dreams or else extinguish them altogether. The wonder is gone, and with it, portions of the hope we had for extraordinary things. For most of us, adulthood requires the ceaseless handling of disappointment and dream-death.

Not so for Coleman and his fellow delvers into the untamed. All the great Bigfooters of yore and lore were dogged dreamers, and some had trouble keeping those dreams from morphing into mania and obsession. Though Coleman himself comes across as too poised or placid for mania and obsession, Bigfooting both attracts and begets those traits. It’s hard enough to respect cryptozoology, but pour mania and obsession into the mix, and it becomes well-nigh impossible.

In the slate light of the Portland morning, rain like BBs on the glass door, Coleman grinned at and welcomed each visitor who passed us, sincere greetings prompted not by a proprietor’s self-interest, it seemed, but by a willingness to encourage reception to the extraordinary.

I almost hitched “childlike” to “reception” just then because, after all, is that not what we’re really dealing with here? Childishness? The compunction to believe in magic because magic is so much more exciting than all the world’s staid facts forced upon us? And what could be more childish than the belief in “alternative facts”?

Childhood anguish is key here, because when I asked Coleman about why the movie Half Human caused such heat in him as a child, he said, “As soon as I saw it, it just lit a spark in me, a spark that allowed me to escape from the mundane and the abusive. I wanted to get out of that. Even at 12, I knew that was the escape from my family.”

Reader, bear those sentences in mind, the terms “escape” and “mundane” especially, because they are of central importance to our discussion here. All obsession is a species of escapism polluted by idealism. And for all of our swaggering might and influence, and despite a history splashed with gore, the promise of the American dream, like the promise of finding Bigfoot, runs on a childish idealism forever rubbing away against the unhappy facts.

VI. Lost Boys

Bigfooters believe they are questing for bipedal apes in California, but they are really questing for their own lost boyhoods, their Boy Scout days, those formative experiences in the woodlands of fancy and faith, and for the thrill of certain belief as it was before the adult world broke in to bludgeon it.

Remember that preadolescent frisson, the dread-tinged excitement of knowing, absolutely knowing, that monsters were real, not the myths, folklores, and allegories that adulthood insists they are? If Wordsworth laments adulthood’s injection of sobriety and rationality into the childhood sublime, Bigfooters aren’t having it. They’ve found a means of resurrecting that boyish wonder, of plugging back into the child’s reciprocal, imaginative bond with nature. If it comes at the cost of evidence — to say nothing of dignity — since when have children ever bothered with evidence? These scientists and their mocking, scoffing facts are a drag. What did John Keats says about Isaac Newton’s achievements with light? “He destroyed the poetry of a rainbow by reducing it to a prism.”

In concert with their wish to plug back into their boyhoods, these men, loose in the woods, are searching for the approval and acceptance of other men.

As you can see for yourself on YouTube, and on Animal Planet’s documentary series Finding Bigfoot (which ran from 2011 to 2018), monster hunting is mostly the province of male yahoos in need of brotherhood with other male yahoos, man-boys out romping through the wilderness to reassure themselves of their machismo, all of them exuberantly ignorant of the basal tenets of evolutionary biology and ecology. Here we see the sylvan shenanigans of the determinedly gullible, those blue-collar dupes with, maybe, too little to live for and nothing much else to hope for.

In Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend (2009), the most culturally comprehensive of recent Bigfoot studies, Joshua Blu Buhs, writing of the great Bigfooters of the 1960s and ’70s, refers to them as “hunters who hoped to find a better world and never did… working-class men who bet their dignity on a beast that never existed.” They went to monsterdom after having floundered in life’s normal ventures, all that humdrummery that includes having a job, rearing a family, earning a degree — getting ahead, as it’s called, though ahead never comes. They tried to flee the mortification of their social defeats and ended up being laughed at anew.

In concert with their wish to plug back into their boyhoods, these men, loose in the woods, are searching for the approval and acceptance of other men. No optional male group endeavor, none, is exempt from this law, one that hearkens back to the mastodon hunt, during which a male proved himself worthy of the clan and thus worthy of the protection and resources the clan controlled. That male urge to belong among other men, to prove themselves, has never left our double helix. In his book Anatomy of a Beast: Obsession and Myth on the Trail of Bigfoot (2009), Michael McLeod makes the adroit observation that the Bigfoot phenom coincided with the apex of the TV Western’s allure: For many men, Bigfoot “represented a powerful, self-reliant symbol of the frontier that had nourished the American dream,” a symbol Americans could adore, “big and strong and afraid of no one.”

Something else (and they’re going to hate me for this, though they hate me already): If you find Bigfooting a bit homoerotic, you aren’t alone — mighty, hairy, rugged men lusting after a mightier, hairier, more rugged beast, tenting and bathing together in rusticated seclusion. It’s no accident that the heyday of Bigfoot hunting happened in the 1960s and ’70s, during those volcanic disruptions to culture, the overdue victories of civil rights and feminism, victories which further humiliated and ostracized the white working-class male — not just the cadre of core Bigfooters, but the millions of men who saw in the beast a chance to return to the austere purity of the wilderness, the austere purity of each other, many miles from the hysterical requests of womanhood and the defeats culture kept dishing them.

Which isn’t to say that time in the woods is idyllic. Believer and journalist John Green, the grandfather of Sasquatchia, once wrote, “The average sasquatch hunter is so pig-headed that two of them together are pretty sure to have a falling out before long… People who will go hunting for an animal that is rejected by the world of science and almost everybody else are bound to be people who don’t pay much attention to any opinion but their own, and expect not only to have an opinion but to act on it.”

VII. America the Unserious

In a certain mood, one has to admit that the Bigfoot spectacle is so much silliness, another outcrop of the American aversion to the serious. Why do we give this nonsense our attention? Why all the books and documentaries and organizations? Isn’t all this Sasquatch japery just harmless obsession by a gaggle of eccentrics?

But in Abominable Science!, Loxton and Prothero want you to pause before you think so:

Rather than merely wasting time and resources, the widespread acceptance of the reality of cryptids may feed into the general culture of ignorance, pseudoscience, and anti-science. The more the paranormal is touted by the media as acceptable and scientifically credible — rather than subjected to the harsh scrutiny of the scientific method, the rigor of critical thinking, and the demand for real evidence — the more people are made vulnerable to the predations of con artists, gurus, and cult leaders. The more the creationist cryptozoologists manage to damage the understanding of science, the worse off we all are.

We come to the crux of the matter. We are, alas, a profoundly unserious nation, and have been for the larger part of our history. One need only peek at Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter, or The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby, or Fantasyland by Kurt Andersen to see just how unserious we are.

We do a lot of believing in America but not a lot of knowing. Nobody knows how anything works: light, motion, gravity, biology, evolution… feet.

In a 1959 essay, James Baldwin put down these memorable lines: “What passes for serious effort in this country is very often nothing more than the inability to take anything very seriously.” We have, says Baldwin, “the world’s highest standard of living and what is probably the world’s most bewilderingly empty way of life… The trouble is that serious things are handled (and received) with the same essential lack of seriousness.”

Our abysmal science education in this country fuels unseriousness and quackery of every stripe: We do a lot of believing in America but not a lot of knowing. Nobody knows how anything works: light, motion, gravity, biology, evolution… feet. We take classes in self-help but not in logic. John Napier believed that we can easily use reason on what is reasonable, but he admitted the difficulty in using logic on the illogical. Remember Jonathan Swift: “Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.” The voices of frenzy too often prevail over the voices of reason; promiscuous emotion and preposterous hope get more airtime than patient logic.

Anti-intellectualism, radical individualism, masculinity and emasculation, capitalism, con artistry, golden-age nostalgia, and the irrepressible urge to belong and believe: These factors that have established Bigfoot as a permanent fixture in American cultural life have coalesced into the cauldron of our current political moment. When our current president monsterizes the brown Other, be they Muslim or Mexican or African American, he is mobilizing the Paleolithic human malfunction of inflating our sense of threat in the same way that a dark wood puts us on the watch for Bigfoots. That fear creates its own reality. If you want to see disease-bearing hordes storming across our border with mayhem on their minds or Muslims dancing in the streets of New Jersey on 9/11, you will.

“You don’t have to see a hairy monster to be able to remember seeing one,” writes anthropologist David Daegling. “This is not my opinion; it is a fact of human psychology… When people find themselves in an environment where they feel they ought to see Bigfoot, the monster is prone to make an appearance.”

Throughout myth and folklore, many monsters are part human, because in life, many humans are part monster—violent ones with the wish of ruin, sociopaths who will club you for gain or fun or some mad want of blood. We think that if our heroes can venture forth to vanquish or tame the beast — Heracles and his labors with the lion, the hydra, the boar; St. George and the dragon — we might gain control over our own societies and lives; we might be free from a hamstringing fear.

But no: The true monsters dwell inside us, and there’s often no clear demarcation between the heroic and the monstrous. This is the lesson of Bigfoot in America. All monsters mean what we need them to mean at the time and place that we need it. The obsolete symbols are forever finding new garb to don; the ancient monsterizing impulse is forever finding new delegates to circulate its paranoia. Imaginary monsters might be necessary for our psyches, but our current troubles remind us that the true monsters are pure hell on our society.

William Giraldi’s most recent book is American Audacity: In Defense of Literary Daring, and his novel Hold the Dark is now a Netflix film.

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