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Bigfoot on the brain

by Donald Prothero, Jul 04 2012

Daniel Loxton’s new painting of Bigfoot, one of his many new illustrations for our upcoming cryptozoology book

As Daniel Loxton and I completed our upcoming book on cryptozoology, we tried to analyze and dissect  the psychology of cryptozoology, and the followers of cryptids like Bigfoot. What motivates these people? Why do they think this way?

Writer Joshua Blu Buhs provided an interesting portrait of the Bigfoot community as typical of the amateur cryptozoologists. Studying the Bigfoot fans in the Pacific Northwest, Buhs documents a group of mostly white working-class men who are Bigfoot’s biggest boosters. To them, Bigfoot is an icon of untamed masculinity, a populist rebel against scientific elites, the last champion of authenticity against a plastic, image-conscious, effeminate consumer society. (Yet as a supreme irony, Bigfoot has a career as advertising mascot and tabloid fodder, making him a major purveyor of consumerism.) Buhs shows that many Bigfoot stalkers follow the subculture because it has the same attractions as other types of hunting: getting back to nature, tramping through the woods in search of elusive prey, testing their manhood against the wilderness, and play at being “real men”. He quotes Thom Powell, who says, “I think I became interested in the Bigfoot thing because it gave me an excuse to get out and use my wilderness skills. My live-long love of the wilderness exploration has a purpose beyond just getting there and back.” Contractor Tom Morris said, “Maybe I’m only trying to justify all my trips to the mountains by calling them research. I like wildlife, I like to see anything I can. The more I go, the more I’m amazed at how elusive wildlife can be. I’m happy just to be up there, watching the animals move around. I want to come back with the best pictures I can. The ultimate would be a shot of Bigfoot.”

Buhs also points out a common theme in the conflict between amateur cryptid hunters and professional scientists. The amateurs usually have a big chip on their shoulder over their treatment by academic scholars. They feel that if they can find the elusive creature that science rejects, they will be able to triumph over people who have ignored, ridiculed, and disrespected them for decades. In the words of veteran Bigfoot hunter René Dahinden, “I’d take the scientists by the scruff of their collective necks and rub their goddamn faces in—actually, I would like to see all the people—the scientists—who have opened their mouths and made their stupid, ignorant statements, fired from their jobs….They should totally, absolutely, right then and there, without pension, without anything, just be taken and thrown out the front door. Then and there.” Buhs follows this statement with “and when that dream was realized, those who had always known the truth, those who had come to the right conclusion by the dint of hard work and the application of skill, would receive the dignity that the world had otherwise denied them .” According to Bigfooter Peter Byrne, “More credibility should be given to the common postal worker, the truck driver, the policeman, the housewife, the fisherman, the farmer, the surveyor, the bum off the street, hippies, hitchhikers, milkmen, shop-janitors, bookkeepers, etc. ..The simple genuine honesty of the country people” would at last be celebrated, and the world put right.

Bader et al. (2011) provide a slightly different look at the culture of Bigfoot “researchers” based on their experiences in the Bigfoot community of East Texas. (We used the quotes around “researchers” here because they don’t really do true scientific research in the sense of lab experiments, testing hypotheses, or scientific publication; their “research” consists mostly of reading the Bigfoot literature and tramping through the woods). Like fans of any particular topic (from NASCAR to the vampire series Twilight or True Blood), the Bigfooters form their own “subculture” of people who believe strongly in the reality of Bigfoot, and spend a significant amount of their time and resources researching Bigfoot. They have their own meetings, their own jargon, their own shared body of accepted knowledge, and their own distinctive way of looking at the world.

Bader et al. describe the people and events at the annual Texas Bigfoot Research Conference (TBRC) in Tyler, Texas, and also followed one of the dedicated Bigfoot hunters on his late night hunts for Bigfoot. As they describe it , the conference of nearly 400 dedicated Bigfoot “researchers” is much like any other meeting or convention of an established organization or interest group. It is populated by mostly conservatively dressed, white, middle-class people attending a daylong slate of presentations. Exhibitors selling books, DVDs, T-shirts, and every other sort of Bigfoot merchandise fill the hallways. Most of the membership are people who know the Bigfoot legends and evidence backwards and forwards, and speak in shorthand about “the Skookum cast”, the “PG [Patterson-Gimlin] film”, the “Ohio howl”, or the “shoot/don’t shoot” controversy (whether a Bigfoot hunter should actually shoot or not if they find Bigfoot). As sociologists have long pointed out, the argot or distinctive lingo of a subculture is part of the process of becoming a member of the subculture, distinguishing insiders from outsiders, and a mark of acceptance when you master it.

The “celebrities” of the cryptozoology world (like Loren Coleman of, Smoky Crabtree of “The Legend of Boggy Creek”, and Bob Gimlin of the Patterson-Gimlin film) spend much of their time in the hallways and auditorium posing for photos with star-struck Bigfoot “researchers” and signing books and autographs. Even more striking was the lack of obvious crazies or even colorful characters, like one might find at a typical sci-fi conference like ComiCon or DragonCon. Reporter Mike Leggett of the Austin American-Statesmen attended the 2009 TBRC and wrote an article entitled, “Texas Conference more boring than you might think.”

Bigfoot is boring.
Correction. Bigfoot conferences are boring.
Bigfoot would not be boring if the conference speakers weren’t so dull. Heck, most of them were barely breathing.
I went to the 2009 Texas Bigfoot Conference expecting people in gorilla suits milling about among semi-crazed gangs of gonzo, tattooed, barrel-chested beandips. I found instead only a polite, older crowd of mildly sleepy true believers who only came alive at the mention of the TV show “MonsterQuest” or the movie “The Legend of Boggy Creek.” I thought surely someone would be selling BLT—Bigfoot, lettuce and tomato—sandwiches and Abominable Snowman cones during the lunch break, but there were only Cokes and Subway sandwiches.
Trying not to sound breathlessly moronic and relentlessly off kilter must be hard work. The stream of people calling themselves Bigfoot researchers … droned on all day, talking about satellite imagery, global rainfall patterns, Bigfoot territorial behaviors and specialty field work searching for Bigfoot signs. Even the crowd of believers was nodding off by the afternoon. I was asleep and drooling down the front of my shirt.
The discussion was arcane, jargon-laden and focused often on something they call cryptozoology—basically, the study of animals not yet proven to exist.
And I guess that’s what the conference was all about, attempts to prove that Bigfoot, or Sasquatch if you prefer, does live some place other than in legend. Actually, what they’re trying to do is get mainstream science to admit that all the misshapen plaster casts, bad photographs and over-dramatic TV shows are evidence that the creature lives in Texas and other states.

Given this conventional, humdrum appearance, and their attempt to portray themselves as serious scientific researchers, it should not be surprising that Bigfoot “researchers” think of themselves a true scientists and “Bigfoot naturalists,” trying to track down just another undiscovered species of primate. They try to avoid any association with other paranormal beliefs, like aliens and UFOs, which they scorn as unscientific. They are offended if you include them among the other paranormal followers. But the link is strong, nonetheless. Bader et al. describe an alleged incident in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1973, where both Bigfoot and UFOs occurred in the same story. Other Bigfoot followers claim that Bigfoot communicates telepathically with humans, can vanish into thin air, or has become a shape-shifter.

In 1983, logger Stan Johnson claimed he saw Bigfoot praying to the Christian God. After allegedly talking with Bigfoot Allone of the Rrowe family of Bigfeet, Johnson learned that the Bigfoot Peoples are from the fifth dimension. These Bigfoot peoples were originally from the planet Centauris, but rescued from their planet when it was about to be destroyed by beings from the nearby planet Arice. They then lived happily on that planet until an evil ruler compelled some of them to come to earth during the last Ice Age, where they competed with dinosaurs and rampaging cave men. [This story has all the confusion of prehistoric events that you find in pop culture like The Flintstones, as well as creationist chronology]. Then there was a war on earth between good and bad Bigfeet, both of which supposedly still exist in remote parts of the earth.

But the biggest persona non grata of the conventional Bigfoot “researchers” was the late Jon-Erik Beckjord, who regularly appeared on radio talk shows, the Today Show, and Late Night with David Letterman before he died in 2008. During many public appearances, he asserted that Bigfoot is a shape-shifter who cannot be caught or shot and who can “manipulate the light spectrum they’re in so that people can’t see them.” Bigfoot uses its telepathic powers to sense the presence of humans, and share a “space-time origin and connection with UFOs and come from an alternate universe by a wormhole.”

Needless to say, the more conventional Bigfoot “researchers” try to disavow any connection to the paranormal crazies like Johnson or Beckjord, but the boundary between the subcultures is very faint and frequently crossed. More importantly, Bader et al. (2011) showed that most Americans who accept Bigfoot also accept the ideas of UFOs, Atlantis, psychics, ghosts, and other paranormal beliefs. To most Americans, all these paranormal ideas are more or less equal, and there is no real distinction between cryptozoology and the UFO cults.

23 Responses to “Bigfoot on the brain”

  1. Chuck007 says:

    Why not just write about the evidence influencing those persons interested in Bigfoot. Read BFRO reports for a week and tell me if you might want to look into the subject more ? There are nutjobs who are quite vocal in this community but they are seen for what they are and discounted regularly.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Both Daniel Loxton and I did precisely that as we prepared our book. Everything is “eyewitness” testimony, or “sounds” or tracks of uncertain meaning–and LOTS of hoaxing. Daniel Loxton dealt with this exhaustively in his chapter. As long as evidence remains as flimsy as this–and there’s not a SINGLE bone, hair, or other reliable piece of evidence after decades of looking in a well-traveled part of the world–the scientific community awaits better evidence.
      SO far as those “eyewitness” accounts–check out my earlier SkepticBlog post about the problems with human perception and memory and why they are not good evidence of cryptids, or even in a court of law

  2. Clara Nendleshaw says:

    On the one hand I like the article, on the other hand I don’t yet see how the woodchucks and the bores fit together, like the article leaves something unsaid that I should probably have picked up on implicitly.
    As a side note, going out into nature *is* cool. I don’t see why you should go out there just to hunt for something, even big-foot. Or why you’d need an excuse.

    • Retired Prof says:

      Going out to hunt for something in particular, as opposed to just walking around, gives an outing focus. The bigfoot hunter (or the birdwatcher, the mushroom picker, the gun hunter, etc.) participates in a quest and turns what could otherwise be a sequence of random scenes into a coherent narrative.

  3. Max says:

    So the Bigfoot “researchers” are more rational than most Americans who believe in Bigfoot and paranormal phenomena?

  4. Chris Howard says:

    A good scientist advances the truth regardless of what they want believe.. Whereas a good pop phenomena enthusiast advances what they want to believe, regardless of the truth.

    • Student says:

      I guess the trouble is which motivation they have, and identifying it as an outsider, especially with the increasingly fantastical and woefully innacurate attempts at journalism by the more mainstream media, which ends up at least as dubious looking, if not worse, than the cryptos and conspiracy theorists.

  5. laursaurus says:

    Has a plausible explanation emerged for the Patterson-Gimlin film? That’s the only piece of Bigfoot evidence that gives me pause. It looks and acts like a real animal. Planet of the Apes was pretty much state of the art at the time. The costumes in the movie aren’t realistic at all.
    For the record, I don’t find the film sufficient evidence to believe these creatures are real. I just wonder about what was actually in that footage.
    On another note, does Donald write anything that without such a condescending tone? A lot of skeptics do in a humorous way. I realize part of it was quoting another writer, but the second source wasn’t exactly charitable either. Why is it not considered racist to stereo-type white “working-class” males? That is a euphemism for white trash. The skeptical/atheist community is mostly white, which they’ve concluded is a bad thing. It’s like the only reason they want diversity is so the pot is no longer calling the kettle black (or white male). But hey! At least you didn’t call them that either of those “P” words.

    • WScott says:

      “It is populated by mostly conservatively dressed, white, middle-class people…”
      I’m not sure how you get “white trash” out of this. Yeah, workign class was also mentioned once, but I think you’re trying too hard to be offended.

  6. Joshua Hunt says:

    Excellent piece, Dr. Prothero! When can we expect yours and Loxton’s book to come out? I’m really looking forward to it.

  7. Pete says:

    What strikes me is the vehemence of whoever it was who appears to hold a big grudge against “real scientists” – that’s a lotta hatred there

    • WScott says:

      Yeah, that sense of “I’ll show them” anti-intellectualism seems to be a common denominator in a lot of conspiratorial movements, from UFOlogists to Creationists. It would be interesting to develop a list of common “pathologies” that groups like this tend to share. It seems like most people have no problem seeing through such delusions when it’s someone else’s pet theory, so it might be a useful way to show them that they’re making the same errors?

  8. Trimegistus says:

    It’s kind of amusing how the description of a Bigfoot “conference” could very easily be a skeptics meeting — quiet, white, older crowd; insider jargon; topics outsiders find hard to get into. We’re not very different from them.

    • Max says:

      For that matter, it could be a meeting of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.
      “Old white guys.” “Talks tend to be very narrow.”

      So that description doesn’t really tell you whether you’re looking at a scientific or a pseudoscientific meeting.

    • It’s kind of amusing how the description of a Bigfoot “conference” could very easily be a skeptics meeting — quiet, white, older crowd; insider jargon; topics outsiders find hard to get into. We’re not very different from them.

      Yes, that’s a fair comparison, in my opinion. (Indeed, I argue as much in the book.)

  9. tmac57 says:

    I sense a movie plot here:
    A group of weekend warrior Bigfoot hunters set out for an adventure in an unfamiliar part of the back country. Their intrusion into to this territory is unwelcome,and fraught with danger from sinister inhabitants.Their trip turns from adventure to chaos and a fight for their lives. (cue banjo music)

    Anyone else have an inexplicable craving for beef jerky?

  10. Ken says:

    They feel that if they can find the elusive creature that science rejects, they will be able to triumph over people who have ignored, ridiculed, and disrespected them for decades.

    True, although I would point out that the shortest word in that sentence (not “to”) is also the most important.

    And tmac57, Hollywood’s way ahead of you; try “The Unknown” AKA “Clawed: The Legend of Sasquatch”, or about any third movie on the SyFy channel.

    • tmac57 says:

      Hmmmm…Maybe they have use of a time machine,and went into the future to steal my movie idea…Yes! that must be the case,what other explanation is there…damn those thieving bastards!!!
      Oooh oooh! that gives me another idea for a movie!

  11. Phil says:

    You can find image stabilized footage of the Patterson film online. To the non trained eye like myself it looks like a guy in an ape suit.
    As far as Bigfoot goes, one needs to remember that a large enough population needs to exist to propagate. We now have photos of extremely rare mammal species from jungles in Asia thanks to remote cameras. Nothing yet from far more accessible areas in N. America. While Bigfoot type species did once exist literally a million years ago, one has to make certain assumptions. No physical evidence and no clear photographic evidence does not help. Mountain gorillas were once thought to not exist, subsequent exploration brought evidence, Bigfoot not so much. Hence the skepticism of most anthropologists.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      We go into great detail about all of this in our book, but let me give the short answer: yes, the PG film in inconclusive, but the best argument is that it has a fully human gait, yet if Bigfoot is indeed a hairy anthropoid related to Gigantopithecus, it should have the gait and footprints of a gorilla or orangutan, NOT a man in a gorilla suit. (Remember: fully human gaits and committed bipedalism is unique to the hominid lineage, and happened early in our evolution, and at no time did we have relatives that would have looked like Bigfoot). Nearly all the trained zoologists who have seen the PG film agree–or that it’s inconclusive at best. Besides, there are known patterns of hoaxing associated with the PG film.
      The remaining points are ones we emphasize over and over again in our book: you’d need a population, not a single individual, yet the Pacific NW is highly populated (both Loxton and I have spent many years in those woods) and not as “isolated” as you would think–and heavily logged, to boot. Even the rarest animals (including bears, with cryptozoologists deny) leave bones sooner or later–both Loxton and I have found them–so the complete absence of ANY physical remains is strong evidence AGAINST Bigfoot being real. The only thing that props up the myth is the need for humans to have something mystical to search for and believe in, and LOTS of people whose “eyewitness” accounts tell us nothing as scientists.

  12. d brown says:

    In the 60’s or so, I remember seeing on TV a old joker in the woods, who showed wood Bigfoot pads that he used to make Bigfoot tracks about the time people first started reporting Bigfoots. He showed a few that he had made over the years as the old ones wore out. His tracks looked like Bigfoot tracts. That was years ago, but nobody knows about him now. He must not be as good a story as the untruth. Back in the 60s, I think, I saw a pic in that was said to be from a 20’s logging camp in the deep woods back when they were out of contact with other people for the lumbering summer. It showed a what looked like a 8 or 9 foot tall, thin ape. It was thinner that any ape I’ve seen. All I can say is that they had a lot of time to make a joke, right? That one pic was the only one.

  13. Donald Prothero says:

    Yes, Daniel’s chapter on Bigfoot goes through the many hoaxers who have been revealed over the years. Most of the “good” footprints are known hoaxes.

  14. James H. says:

    This book looks really good! Amazon says July 23rd 2013–true? True-ish? No amount of common sense, really, will convince the bigfooters, though.