More Options

Bigfoot as Big Myth: Seven Phases of Mythmaking

Feature

Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.5, September/October 2017

The hairy man-beast known as the “Sasquatch” or “Bigfoot” is now ever present in North American culture. Supposedly a throwback to our evolutionary past, it is an “ape-man” version of us just as the little-bodied, big-headed, humanoid extraterrestrial is a futuristic one. Together they represent powerful mythologies for our shrinking planet—Bigfoot as the very symbol of the endangered species and ET as the promise that we are not alone in the universe.

(1) Reporting ‘Wild Men of the Woods’

In early North American accounts, the antecedent of today’s Bigfoot was typically called a “wild man of the woods”—a European term from as early as the sixteenth century (Nickell 2011, 44). From 1818, when the earliest known newspaper account (in the Exeter, New Hampshire, Watchman) referred to an animal “resembling the Wild Man of the Woods,” accounts over the next century used that term or variants, such as wild man, wild child, wild boys, or the like (Bord and Bord 2006, 3–24).

Typically the terminology described actual humans—including genetic oddities covered with hair and long-haired hermits and deranged people—but also the orangutan or other apes (thought perhaps escaped from traveling menageries) and real or imagined mystery woodland creatures. One creature, reported in Kansas in 1869 and referred to as a “wild man or animal,” had “a stooping gait” and “very long arms with immense hands or claws”—“generally” walking “on its hind legs but sometimes on all fours” (Bord and Bord 2006, 10). It was likely a bear, since bears often stand on their hind legs and even walk when in their “alert” mode (Nickell 2013). As cryptozoologist Jeff Meldrum (2006, 204) concedes, “In behavior and appearance, no other animal is more subject to anthropomorphism than is the bear.”

In the late 1830s, a “wild child” was reported swimming in an Indiana lake. In the 1860s, a Nevada creature was spotted carrying a rabbit and a club. A few others were similarly armed, including a six-foot bearded “wild man.” Another “wild man” had “long matted hair and a beard,” and so on. Such cases were reported well into the twentieth century (Bord and Bord 2006, 218–229). A few were allegedly captured—notably “Jacko,” a hairy “half man, half beast” who stood only four feet seven inches tall. It was supposedly apprehended in 1884 by railway men and kept in an area jail (as reported in a Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, paper), but the story appears to have been a reporter’s hoax (Nickell 2011, 57).

In 1924, some prospectors in Washington State had their cabin pelted with rocks by “mountain devils” (rumored to have been pranksters), and in the same year a man named Albert Ostman claimed he was kidnapped and held by a family of wild creatures (although he did not tell his tale until 1957) (Daegling 2004, 67–70).

Much earlier, in 1871, The New York Times had seen a trend: “As most of our readers are probably aware, there is at present roaming over the United States, and for aught we know, making occasional excursions into British America [Canada] and Mexico, a singular creature known as the ‘Wild Man.’” The entity was characterized by seeming to be almost everywhere and having the “peculiar power of eluding capture” (qtd. in Arment 2006, 29).

(2) Retrofitting Native American Monsters

It is common to suggest that Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest told stories and made images of hairy man-beasts similar to the modern Bigfoot. According to major proponents of this notion (Hunter with Dahinden 1993, 15), “The earliest-known ‘recorded’ references to the Sasquatch are found on the carved totem poles and masks of the coast Indians of British Columbia, particularly on those of the Kwakiutls.” Proponents cite such mythical creatures as the Dsonoqua and the Buk’wus.

Native American carved wood mask of "wild woman of the woods".

Actually, the Kwakiutls’ Dsonoqua were giant, man-sized cannibals who lived in houses deep in the forests. They had black bodies with hairy hands, and their eyes were deeply set. They were usually represented as females who abducted children for their tender flesh, collecting them in a basket they carried. Thus, she was a type of bogeyman—or bogeywoman. She was depicted with lips pursed so as to give her fearsome cry, “Hu! Hu!” (Alley 2003, 151–152; The Spirit World 1992, 47; Taylor 1994, 90–91). Similar tales were told by the Salish Indians of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia (Hunter with Dahinden 1993, 15).

As to the Buk’wus, another creature of Kwakiutl folklore, he was man-sized or smaller but hairy and having many supernatural features. For example, he was ice cold and could move in an instant to a location far away (Alley 2003, 151–153). The Buk’wus—and a very similar Pu’gwis of the Tsimshian people—were actually spirits having the facial features of a human corpse, such as stretched skin and lips curled away from the teeth (Taylor 1994, 90). Clearly neither was a Bigfoot.

Still, there were other supposed candidates. The Tlingits of southeast Alaska believed in a man-sized hairy creature called “Kushtakaas” or “land-otter man.” Essentially such beings were men, but they had become mad—either by being lost or nearly drowning—and, growing hair over their bodies, went to live among others similarly afflicted. They sometimes walked on all fours in keeping with their otter-like transformation. Traditionally, they were feared for their ability to capture a person’s soul, and thus are more analogous to zombies than Bigfoot (Alley 2003, 137–138).

The list goes on. However, whenever believers have attempted to equate Bigfoot with Native American folkloric entities, they have engaged in retrofitting (after-the-fact matching) and, indeed, an obvious “exercise in confirmation bias” (Loxton and Prothero 2013, 33). Nevertheless, this process remains essential to Bigfoot mythmaking. (For more on the Native American images and traditions, see Halpin 1983.)

(3) Creating ‘Sasquatch’

Although the name Sasquatch is often said to be Native American, it was actually coined in the 1920s by a British Columbia teacher and Indian agent, J.W. Burns. Some say Burns “Anglicized” a Native American term, but really his Native Coast Salish informants had several different names for various folkloric entities, and he wanted to invent a single term for all the alleged creatures. He harmonized some of the names—including Sokqueatl or Soss-q’tal—into “Sasquatch” (Coleman and Clark 1999, 215).

Burns himself quoted stories from elderly Indians who had encountered wild men. For example, one informant from the Chehalis Reserve saw what he took “at first sight to be a huge bear crouched upon a boulder,” but when it stood up he saw it was a “man—a giant, no less than six and one-half feet in height, and covered with hair” (Burns 1929).

Another Native American, from the Skwah Reserve had seen several such wild people. He shot what he, too, first “took for a bear,” coming out of a hole in a great cedar, but then he saw it actually looked like a nude “white boy.” Thus provoked, a “wild woman” also came out. “Her face was almost negro black and her long straight hair fell to her waist. She was the height of a tall man, about six feet, but much broader,” he said. She spoke to him in a dialect he understood, ending with, “you’ll never kill another bear.” So was it a bear and cub—in part, or all, a fantasy tale—or was it as Burns opines, one of “the Sasquatch people” with a white boy, stolen or found?

As Burns’s new term began to catch on, it helped turn various folkloric concepts into an increasingly uniform one. It became the “Indian” name for anything that could be construed as a man-beast. The “wild man of the woods” was becoming a rather bearlike Sasquatch.

(4) Discovering Big Footprints

The earliest North American record of potential man-beast footprints is from 1811 (reported by trader/explorer David Thompson, who thought it likely “the track of a large old grizzled bear” as quoted in Hunter with Dahinden 1993, 17). Not only is a bear’s hindfoot “remarkably human-like,” but the hind- and forefoot may superimpose to look like the huge track of a bipedal creature (Napier 1973, 150–151). There were few reports of alleged Sasquatch footprints until 1930, when berrypickers near Mount St. Helens discovered huge humanlike tracks that encircled them. But more than half a century later, a retired logger named Rant Mullens confessed he had donned carved nine-by-seventeen-inch feet to make the tracks. Meanwhile, in 1951, in the Himalayas, a footprint of a Yeti, or “Abominable Snowman,” was photographed by explorer Eric Shipton and widely circulated in the United States (later explained as a probable animal track, altered and enlarged by the melting snow) (Nickell 2011, 59, 68). The stage was now set for another watershed moment.

In 1958, a Sasquatch seemingly made several visits to a road construction site at Northern California’s Bluff Creek. Its tracks were discovered by a bulldozer operator, Gerald “Jerry” Crew, a photo of whom—holding up a cast of a giant footprint—was spread by a wire service across the country. Consequently, the name “Bigfoot” (which first appeared in the Humboldt Times on October 5, 1958) began to become widespread.

The family of Bluff Creek road contractor Ray Wallace informed the press—after Wallace’s death in 2002—that he had faked the 1958 tracks. They even produced pairs of carved feet that matched the Bluff Creek tracks (Daegling 2004, 29, 73; Coleman and Clark 1999, 39). However, the man-beast myth was now already entrenched, and, meanwhile, the 1958 Bluff Creek hoax had resulted in the pseudo-Indian term Sasquatch largely being replaced by the descriptive term Bigfoot.

Jerry Crew with a "Bigfoot" track cast.

Having previously been scarce, after 1958 reports of Bigfoot tracks began to proliferate. Tracks were reported with two to six toes and ranging in length from eleven and three quarters to twenty-one inches. Over the years the feet began to become rather standardized, usually having five toes and commonly measuring in the sixteen-to-eighteen–inch range (see Bord and Bord 2006, 215–310). And, in what seems likely to have been one-upmanship on the part of Bigfoot hoaxers, some of the tracks began to become more sophisticated.

During the 1960s, Bigfoot tracks tended to be rather rectangular in shape: the big toe was only a bit larger than the others and all five were “arranged almost in a straight line across the front of the rectangular foot pattern,” according to skeptic Michael Dennett. Dennett (1996, 120, 122) noted that fake footprints subsequently improved in design so that the rectangular form was rarely seen anymore. Further sophisticated elements began to appear.

For example, more than a thousand tracks were left in 1969/1970 at Bossburg, Washington, by Bigfoot—or “Clubfoot” or “Cripplefoot” as the creature has been dubbed. They were ostensibly made by a creature with a congenitally deformed right foot. A Bigfoot-believing anthropology professor, the late Grover Krantz, asserted with hubris, “This requires an expert anatomist with a very inventive mind, more so than me, and I seriously doubt that any such person exists” (Krantz 1992, 83). However, anthropologist David J. Daegling observes that templates for Bigfoot tracks, both normal and deformed, were available in dozens of textbooks. “All a hoaxer had to do was have the wherewithal to scale them up, and he or she did not need to know one iota of anatomy to do so” (Daegling 2004, 87).

Again, in 1982, oversized footprints were discovered in Oregon with dermal ridges (those that on the hands produce fingerprints). Although the fact impressed many (Meldrum 2006, 249–259), it seems odd that previous creatures did not exhibit such features. The effect was that hoaxers were using more and more clever means to convince others that Bigfoot was real. A wildlife biologist and a professional tracker subsequently reported evidence of hoaxing, and Michael Dennett produced similar impressions (Dennett 1989).

(5) Witnessing ‘Bigsuit’

One series of Bigfoot tracks assumes special importance because of being found during “one of the most momentous events in the annals of Bigfoot hunting” (Bord and Bord 2006, 90). It began on October 20, 1967, when longtime Bigfoot enthusiast Roger Patterson—known as a “repeater” because of his frequent “discovery” of Bigfoot tracks—was riding horseback with friend Bob Gimlin at Bluff Creek (the area where Ray Wallace’s hoaxed tracks had been made). Patterson had a 16mm movie camera and had announced his intention of filming the elusive creature.

It appeared, seemingly on cue, and Patterson filmed it briefly as it strode away with a seemingly exaggerated stride, as if, wrote one critic, “a bad actor were trying to simulate a monster’s walk” (Cohen 1982, 17). (See Figure 1.) Patterson’s creature, dubbed “Patty,” had hairy, pendulous breasts—a feature so convincing, some thought, that it argued against the film being a hoax. However, Patterson had published in his book the year before a drawing of just such a female of the supposed species (Patterson 1966, 111).

The Smithsonian Institution’s John Napier analyzed the film frame by frame and concluded that the figure’s walk was consistent with that of a man striding in exaggerated fashion. “The upper half of the body bears some resemblance to an ape and the lower half is typically human,” wrote Napier (1973, 90–91). “It is almost impossible to conceive that such structural hybrids could exist in nature. One half of the animal must be artificial. In view of the walk, it can only be the upper half.” Napier summed up, “I could not see the zipper” (1973, 91, 95).

As it happened, early in this century, a Patterson acquaintance named Bob Heironimus confessed it was he who had worn the ape-man suit, and others corroborated Heironimus’s having had such a costume at the time. Also, magician-turned-costume-seller Philip Morris (whom I know and have talked with about the case on several occasions) reports that he sold a six-piece gorilla suit to Patterson, along with extra fake fur he had asked to be included. This was obviously used to transform a gorilla suit into “Bigfoot”—or rather “Bigsuit” (Long 2004; Nickell 2011, 58–72).

Figure 1. Analysis of a frame from the 1967 Patterson "Bigfoot" film shows evidence of fakery (drawing by the author). Later a Patterson acquaintance named Bob Heironimus confessed it was he who had worn the ape-man suit.

Nevertheless, the Patterson film became, for True Believers, long-sought-after supposed proof of Bigfoot’s existence. They were supported by Grover Krantz, who believed Patterson’s Bigfoot was a surviving Gigantopithecus, a “Giant Ape” of South Asia that went extinct some 150,000 years ago (Krantz 1992; 1999).

Other Bigfoot hoaxes followed, including one near Mission, British Columbia, on May 1, 1977. A few months earlier some Cashton, Wisconsin, youths admitted to a similar stunt, one dressing up as a Bigfoot-type creature with large wooden feet affixed to his shoes. Another such hoax took place in 1986 when a Pennsylvania man wore fake fur and a “wolfman” mask and alarmed nighttime drivers by appearing suddenly in their car headlights. I investigated and exposed a Bigsuit case in Western New York in 2006 (Nickell 2011, 72, 77).

A more elaborate hoax involved—as was advertised on carnival midways—a “Sasquatch Safely Frozen in Ice.” It proved to be a fake made by a top Disneyland model maker. I viewed the exhibit in 1973 on the midway of the Canadian National Exhibition (where in 1969 I had worked as a magic pitchman). The freezer unit was out of order, the lid up, and the ice had melted somewhat exposing part of the figure. It was dark and decidedly rubbery. This brilliant hoax was crudely imitated in 2008 by filling a Bigfoot costume with animal parts (later replaced with inorganic materials), and freezing it. It reputedly sold on eBay for a quarter of a million dollars (Nickell 2011, 87–90).

(6) Connecting with Extraterrestrials

After “flying saucers” were reported in 1947 and the UFO/alien craze subsequently developed into a myth paralleling that of Bigfoot, by the 1960s the two shared the “phenomenological landscape,” according to UFO historian Jerome Clark (1998, I: 469). Noting that the “hairy bipeds” seemed “like some weird marriage of apparition and animal,” Clark says, some began to wonder if Bigfoot and UFOs might be related. Maybe they were “a variety of UFO occupant, possibly a lower form of life used as a sort of test animal.”

During the 1970s, a number of UFOlogists—such as Coral Lorenzen, Dr. Leo Sprinkle, and Leonard Stringfield (the latter having promoted reports of crashed saucers and the secret retrieval of their humanoid occupants)—were “getting into the Bigfoot business too,” say Janet and Colin Bord. They add: “There is no doubt a body of work that has Bigfoot-like creatures directly connected to UFO sightings” compiled by such UFOlogists. And authors such as Brad Steiger “were also producing paperback books full of new stories of UFOs and apemen” (Bord and Bord 2006, xi).

Some believers wonder if Bigfoot and UFOs might be related.

For example, consider some reports from a single year. Near Sykesville, Maryland, on May 29, 1973, a man claimed to see a UFO drop some object into a reservoir and then saw a luminous-eyed Bigfoot (Bord and Bord 2006, 270). Again, in October 1973 near Galveston, Indiana, one “Jeff Martin” or “Jim Mays” (the same story is told with different names) was fishing at night when he twice saw a sandy-colored Bigfoot. When it ran off, “Almost instantaneously a glowing bronze light rose from the woods and shot away into the sky.”

Yet again, on October 25, 1973, near Uniontown, Pennsylvania, a man and twin boys were in a field observing a red-glowing sphere when they spotted a pair of Bigfoot creatures—first thought to have been bears—walking along a fencerow (Bord and Bord 2006, 132, 274; Huyghe 1996, 70–71). Other Bigfoot/UFO links were reported over subsequent years.

There are even more far-out connections. Among alleged alien “contactees,” some claim to connect with Bigfoot (Lapseritis 2014). For instance, one woman told a psychologist, “The Star People would have me read the newspaper and they would read through my eyes. They would see property that had Sasquatch on it that they would want me to buy” (qtd. in Clark 1998, I: 473). A writer for Fate magazine asserts that “the Sasquatch are actually extraterrestrials”—descendants of evolved “nature people” who migrated to Earth millions of years ago (Lapseritis 2014).

(7) Entering Mystical Dimensions

Among the silly pretensions of “clairvoyant” Lorraine Warren (widow of Ed Warren, the notorious “demonologist” and supernatural huckster [Nickell 2012, 283–286]) is her story about telepathically communicating with Bigfoot. It happened “one spring,” she says, “when we were lecturing in Tennessee and a reporter . . . told us about some hill people who kept insisting that something was threatening their children. . . . ” Warren was in the fearsome bogeyman region when, standing beside a tree, she had a psychic vision of a shaggy-haired intelligent creature who had the “ability to project images telepathically into Lorraine’s mind.” Bigfoot told her he had injured his foot, which would keep him from the “secret cave” where his mate and children waited. Fortunately, she was able to send the creature healing images (Warren and Warren with Chase 1989, 35–43).

Warren (who exhibits several traits in common with a fantasy-prone personality [Nickell 2012, 347–348]) is not alone in believing Bigfoot has such abilities. “Let me tell you something,” insists Bigfooter Ron Patillo. “These creatures are psychic. If you go in there with guns with the intent to shoot one to prove that they exist, you’ll never see one. They’ll pick up on you before you even get there. If you want to see them, you need someone like me to help you, who also has psychic ability” (qtd. in Burnette and Riggs 2014, 151–152).

Some “researchers” claim that Bigfoot are not merely psychic but perhaps entirely supernatural—a situation that has caused Bigfoot believers to split into supernatural and “flesh-and-blood” camps. Indeed, the supernaturalists express a variety of opinions, from believing the creatures are phantoms to considering them as “demon shapeshifters or interdimensional travelers” (Burnette and Riggs 2014, 167).

Although such ideas embarrass the flesh-and-blooders, some mystics think they can explain why Bigfoot is so “peculiarly elusive”: They simply opine that the supposed creature has the power of invisibility (Burnette and Riggs 2014, 164–167)! Only time will tell what other notions will surface.

* * *

As the foregoing shows, during its history, the hairy man-beast has evolved through at least seven mythical embodiments: Wild Man, Indian Spirit, “Sasquatch,” Bigfoot, Bigsuit, UFOlogical Entity, and Mystical Being—all perhaps summed up in one: Imaginary Creature (though based in part on the upright-standing bear).

References

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.