While there’s a lot we don’t know about Bigfoot, his enthusiasts generally agree that he smells terrible, enjoys leaving footprints where people can find them, and frequents the deepest woods of northern California—a region not coincidentally inhabited by marijuana growers and tall-tale-telling lumberjacks. Primitive, hairy, big-buttocked, and benign (except when he kidnaps local women and takes them home to meet the parents), Bigfoot represents an all-natural alternative to megamalls, the Internet, and TV. Oh, and another thing—after thousands of purported sightings, there’s still not a single piece of evidence that this wise, benevolent naturist actually exists. Perhaps this is because Bigfoot isn’t a creature of the unknown so much as a hypothetical alternative to the world we know too well. And let’s face it, these days we can use all the hypothetical alternatives we can get.
Even though Bigfoot hasn’t bequeathed a single carcass (or even a fragment of one) to museums, his genealogy dates back to Pliny’s Historia Naturalis and the first-century AD, when human beings started mapping nations and postulating the bizarre creatures that lived outside them. As Joshua Blu Buhs explains in his smart, wide-ranging, and sometimes humorless book, Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend, the “wildman” has long roamed the margins of what cultures call “civilization.” When these bearish creatures aren’t being used to scare children into behaving or to justify the slaughter of native populations, they give our tabloids something to write about besides Elvis.
What makes Bigfoot great, Buhs argues, is that such stories allow people to conspire with their own junk culture of urban legends and conspiracy theories. In other words, it’s not that people believe what they’re told; rather, they enjoy wondering at what might be true, even while recognizing that it might not be. As P. T. Barnum noted in the 1860s, when he made bundles of cash displaying the “What-Is-It” in his traveling circus, “The public appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived.” In this case, the What-Is-It turned out to be a large, shave-headed black man, who wore what looks in photographs like a black shag-carpet jumpsuit. In the long run, the What-Is-It wasn’t simply a hoax but a sort of placeholder for subsequent sightings of the Abominable Snowman, Sasquatch, and Bigfoot. He represented that half-familiar something that human beings could marvel at while dimly suspecting that somebody might be pulling their leg.
The notion of extraordinary creatures grows more attractive to our collective imagination as the world grows more mundane, predictable, and dull. Well before Bigfoot began stomping his hairy feet in the muddy woods of California, Sir Edmund Hillary’s expedition to Mount Everest in 1951 returned with photos of what some claimed was a Yeti’s footprint. Many found the possibility of marvelous, huge, apelike creatures wandering the snowy peaks more fascinating than the fact that men had climbed an impossible mountain. The ensuing media blitz made the Yeti a star. Nepal began selling hunting licenses, the London Daily Mail dispatched an expedition to hunt the beast, and Hilary himself led a return trip during which he decided that the Yeti didn’t actually exist. The footprints, his team concluded, were formed by sublimated snow, and widely reported Yeti pelts turned out to be bogus. This didn’t bother the public, though. Bogus was OK. Sure, it meant that somebody was trying to take advantage of their belief in the marvelous. But the more convincingly these marvelous events were discredited, the more people reported them, and the more they were reported, the more they were believed. Go figure.
The Yeti became known as the Abominable Snowman, and as the Abominable Snowman became harder and more costly to find, it moved to the Canadian wilderness and became known as Sasquatch, darker and stronger and prone to meddling with heavy machinery. Tabloid stories begat tabloid stories, and eventually the creature moved down to northern California, where it inspired the building-contractor brothers Ray and Wilbur “Shorty” Wallace. Big footprints began showing up throughout Humboldt County, construction equipment was found vandalized, and Ray’s sightings grew so frequent, bizarre, and unbelievable that people tended to believe him, even when he claimed to have captured a Bigfoot baby, keeping it alive on nothing but Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. Most didn’t find these reports funny; they took them as evidence that the world was a lot more interesting than it seemed. Journalists and filmmakers began prowling the area and spending their money in local diners and motels; scientists, academics, and big-game hunters came looking for the missing link, tenure-worthy subjects for their next scholarly article, and trophies for their living-room walls. As one of Ray’s close friends, Rant Mullens, later declared, “These higher educated guys are dumber than anybody.”
In 1957, Tom Slick, cofounder of Slick Airways and a friend of Howard Hughes, mounted an expedition in search of the Abominable Snowman, but when he ran into trouble in Nepal, he transferred the whole shebang to California, where his forest-roving band of peculiarity-seekers nailed soiled sanitary napkins to trees (Bigfoot was reputedly fond of human females) and pawed through animal droppings. George Haas, a warlock, gardener, and sci-fi fan from Oakland, began publishing the Bigfoot Bulletin in 1969 in order to stay in contact with other afficionados; in two years, circulation of the newsletter hit three hundred.
By the late ’60s and early ’70s, it became increasingly difficult to tell the scientists apart from the crazies. Take Grover Krantz, who staged “scientific experiments” that consisted of wearing prosthetic brow ridges in order to better relate with Homo erectus. A faculty member at Washington State University who liked to compare himself to Sherlock Holmes and Leonardo da Vinci, Krantz published an academic paper on Bigfoot’s posture based solely on footprints that someone claimed belonged to a beast that nobody had ever captured. Krantz helped create a new academic field: cryptozoology, the search for and study of legendary animals.
Then there was Roger Patterson, author of Do Abominable Snowmen of America Really Exist? (Guess what? They do!) A former acrobat and rodeo performer, Patterson captured a Bigfoot on twenty-four feet of celluloid, a film that resembles a sketch for The Blair Witch Project. In this remarkably mundane piece of cinematic history, a Bigfoot female strides casually through Bluff Creek, California, pausing to glance over her shoulder before strolling into the woods. Patterson first screened the brief encounter at the University of British Columbia in 1967 and then allowed the clip to be incorporated into a feature-length “scientific” film, which sold ten thousand tickets in two showings at its premiere in Spokane, Washington. Like the Zapruder film, this clip has been shown so many times that it’s taken on a reality of its own.
As Michael McLeod decides in Anatomy of a Beast, his funny, well-written memoir about chasing down the believers, the hardest part about a subject like Bigfoot is trying to separate what can be believed from what we want to believe. And from the evidence so far, what we want to believe is pretty preposterous. So until we can all visit Bigfoot in a zoo and snap his photo with Auntie Marge, we’ll have to settle for Bigfoot burgers, Bigfoot rafting, Bigfoot campsites, Bigfoot motels, and Bigfoot miniature golf. The truth is definitely out there, and this is it: You can buy a plaster cast of a nonexistent being’s footprint for twenty bucks.
Scott Bradfield’s fifth novel, The People Who Watched Her Pass By, will be published next spring by Two Dollar Radio. He recently joined the permanent faculty of the new MFA program at Kingston University in London.