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Monster of the Week: Bigfoot

This is it, guys. Numero uno. The one you’ve all been waiting for. The big kahuna. The big…

Foot.

From Monty Python's Flying Circus: a giant foot descends from the sky

No, no, no! Not that big foot. The hairy one — and don’t bring up hobbit feet, I’m talking about the tall, humanoid North American forest dweller that some folks believe is a missing link between humans and our ape-ier forebears.

You know. Sasquatch.

Now, let’s get one thing out of the way real quick: I’m not here to say whether or not Bigfoot is a real, living, breathing manimal. Personally, I’m a skeptic. But that’s completely beside the point of this blog — because Bigfoot the story is an inarguably real part of our pop cultural discourse. The stories that we tell about it, whether or not we believe they are true, say something about who we are and what things we value.

Why do we want to believe in Bigfoot?

Honestly, I think that’s a lot more interesting. So let’s talk about that — let’s talk about the story of Bigfoot.

It goes back pretty far. Yeah, there are the legends told by First Nations peoples of modern day British Columbia — like the Sts’Ailes people whose Halkomelem word sásq’ets became anglicized as Sasquatch — but they were far from the only culture with stories of near-human monsters lurking in the darkness. For every Sasquatch or yeti, there’s a werewolf, a Grendel, a satyr, a wildman who could be anything from an ungodly monstrosity to a guy who’s just let himself go.

These mythical beings are universal.

And of course they are — we’ve always struggled to negotiate the line between human and animal, where we stand between nature and civilization. People have always had something to be afraid of. Something to tell scary stories about when they’re sitting around a campfire. Wherever “monster” stands in contrast to “human,” the way we define our monsters says as much about what we think of ourselves.

So then, what makes Bigfoot special? Why is it different from any of the countless other creatures that fit that archetype?

Well… it’s not. Except that it’s now, and we are also now, and so it gives a very shaggy mirror to look at.

But maybe I should hold off and let you answer that question for yourself once you’ve heard the rest of the story.

Bigfoot and its cousins first broke into the modern Western consciousness in a big way during the 1950s. For decades, western climbers had been throwing themselves at Mt. Everest and bringing back distorted retellings of Nepalese yeti lore. Several different Nepalese myths got mashed into a single Western understanding of an “Abominable Snowman.” Things really took off when, in 1951, mountaineer Eric Shipton took some photographs of what he claimed were yeti footprints — and, in 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first known duo to reach the top of Everest, reporting that they had seen yeti footprints on their historic climb.

The press went nuts. What had been a flurry became a blizzard. You could say that the Abominable Snowman took the world by storm.

Americans did not want to be left out of the story, of course. Excited by the mythic wildmen stories told by some Native American tribes along the west coast — and the Canadian equivalent, Sasquatch — some wondered if there could be a North American Abominable Snowman hiding in those dense forests.

In 1958, they got one.

Construction workers in California’s densely forested Humboldt County reported that they had seen strange footprints at nearby Bluff Creek. Huge footprints. Huge human-ish-but-not-quite-human footprints. And the workers whispered stories about the mysterious monster that could have left them — a big-footed creature which they creatively called, uh, Big Foot.

The press loved it. The Abominable Snowman-crazed USA ate it up. Big Foot became Bigfoot, and Bigfoot became legend.

Of course, there were plenty of skeptics to raise eyebrows at the whole thing even then, and now we’ve got both culprit and motive. It turns out the man who ran the construction site, Ray Wallace, planted the footprints for his workers to find. He profited off the buzz for years. His family confessed to the hoax after his death in 2002, and they even offered up the fake feet to prove it.

But they didn’t know that in 1958. Enough people believed it — or at least believed in the fun of it — for Bigfoot to become a rising star in American culture.

Which brings us to Bigfoot’s most infamous starring role: a tape known as the Patterson-Gimlin film.

In 1967, almost a decade after Wallace’s big footprints made headlines, a believer named Roger Patterson went back to Bluff Creek to search for Bigfoot. He brought an old rodeo buddy and skeptic, Bob Gimlin, and… well, this is what they got:

And every frame of that footage has been scrutinized out the wazoo, uh, if that’s the correct film terminology. Gorilla suit or not, this little movie made quite a splash. That iconic glance-over-the-shoulder pose is still on T-shirts.

Before this video, Bigfoot was just a few footprints and a rustle in the leaves. Now, it had a face.

Bigfootmania exploded.

Our furry buddy graduated from campfire stories to men’s magazines and tabloids. Between 1969 and 1981 alone, tabloids published one hundred and six articles about Bigfoot. While it was based on an existing novel, the blockbuster film adaptation of Planet of the Apes happened to come out the year after the Patterson-Gimlin film. If that doesn’t do it for you, 1972’s Legend of Boggy Creek made $20 million off of its Bigfoot-inspired story. There were even Bigfoot lunchboxes.

Bigfoot was everywhere, and, apparently, everything.

Sometimes Bigfoot was a docile, misunderstood forest dweller who just wanted to live a simpler life away from the evils of modern man — an extreme version of going back to a more innocent age, but this time on an evolutionary scale. Sometimes Bigfoot kidnapped children and assaulted women. Sometimes Bigfoot lived in family groups; sometimes each Bigfoot was a solitary wanderer.

These stories reflect the same anxiety about human civilization that every culture has experienced for millennia.

And — yeah, in that sense, Bigfoot is nothing special.

But think about the fact that this craze reached its height in the 1960s and 70s in the good ol’ USA — a time of huge social change. The Civil Rights movement. Women’s Lib. Hippie culture and its clash of generations around the Vietnam War and so much else.

Joshua Blu Buhs’s Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend contends that the Bigfoot craze was most popular with white working-class men. He argues that, in a time when people of color and women pushed back against the idea that white men deserved better status, Bigfoot helped them connect to the traits that they associated with that status.

And… you know, that makes a lot of sense. Bigfoot embodies a lot of traditionally masculine values. The creature itself is huge, strong, and primal — manhood unbound by civilization. But the act of hunting Bigfoot also gives those men a way to feel powerful and in touch with nature. It means stepping into the old role of the explorer-hero.

That touches on another part of Bigfoot’s appeal — the longing for an older, more romantic era of discovery.

Science has brought great advances to the modern world, but by answering questions it’s ebbed away at the mysteries of the world. Lots of us idealize the unknown. We watch movies about space explorers, read about fantasy worlds where the maps haven’t been filled in yet, and valorize historical figures who have traveled to parts unknown. Some people hope that Bigfoot is not only real and out there, but that it will never be found — it leaves a little of that mystery in the world.

Plus, who doesn’t love a little of that back to nature schtick? This was the time of hippies, man. I’m pretty sure that at least half of reported Bigfoot sightings were just dudes who didn’t cut their hair or shave.

What we project onto Bigfoot says a lot about our philosophy towards human nature. Is Bigfoot an innocent, curious creature or a ferocious beast? If the mythos establishes Bigfoot as a cousin of humanity that’s untamed by civilization, your answer will reflect what you think we are like in our natural state. You might as well ask, “John Locke or Thomas Hobbes?”

So next time you go out chasing suspiciously large footprints, remember to bring a few books by your favorite philosopher. Our hairy friend might shed some light on the timeless question of What It Means To Be Human.

Or he might just shed some hair.

Okay. A lot of hair.

So, there you go — the USA’s most infamous monster, or at the very least, the Pacific Northwest’s favorite mascot. Got any Sasquatch philosophy to add? Leave some footprints in the comments.

Further Reading:

 

“The Man Who Created Bigfoot” by Leah Sottile, Outside Online

 

“Lovable trickster created a monster with Bigfoot hoax” by Bob Young, The Seattle Times

 

Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend by Joshua Blu Buhs

 

Bigfoot: A Personal Inquiry into a Phenomenon by Kenneth Wylie

 

 

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