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Who Believes in Bigfoot?

• December 04, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: ANGIE CHAUVIN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

While the origins of the mythical beast are based around a hoax, today’s believers are a varied, discriminating bunch.

In 1958, outside a logging camp near Bluff Creek, California, an employee of a Humboldt County construction company spotted a set of oversized footprints much too large to be human and too humanlike to be ape. The Humboldt Times picked up the story, and the reporter, Andrew Genzoli, noted that the spotter and his construction crew, who had taken plaster casts of the prints (which were said to be 16 inches long), had given the mystery creature responsible for them a nickname: “Big Foot.”

Within a few days, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office announced that they believed the prints to be part of a hoax, and that they had their suspect ready to confess. When the Times tracked the suspect—Ray Wallace, a member of the crew—down, he vehemently denied any involvement or foul play. Coworkers of Wallace’s came forward with eyewitness accounts. Wallace’s brother “Shorty” claimed that the prints couldn’t have been a hoax, because nobody who worked in a logging camp all day could possibly have the energy to go around planting fake Bigfoot tracks afterward.

Forty-four years later, Ray Wallace died. Shortly afterward, his children confessed on his behalf. Wallace had, apparently, used a large pair of carved wooden feet to stomp tracks into the logging camp in 1958, and again in a few instances nearby in the years following. The person responsible for ushering the name “Bigfoot” into the popular lexicon was playing a joke on us all. The modern myth of Bigfoot, the tall, furry hominid with giant feet and an unparalleled knack for camouflage, was inextricably linked to the practice of hoaxing from the very start.

Cryptid enthusiasts and researchers are often, it seems, considered maniacal and uniformly accepting in their approach, but most Bigfoot believers, if they are to be remotely trusted, have limitations to their beliefs, too.

That this is true does not, of course, deter everyone. Roughly 29 percent of Americans believe in Bigfoot. And for each new Bigfoot sighting that makes the news, there are camps of believers and skeptics, and many switch sides from event to event without ever disavowing their general stance. There are proclaimed non-believers who saw something strange in the woods once, just as there are committed believers who insist some of the most well known examples of “evidence” are completely fake.

So it is with the famous Patterson film, the 1967 short film in which a female Bigfoot is supposedly captured walking alongside Bluff Creek. (Patterson chose the area for his film due to the predominance of “Bigfoot tracks” found there in previous years; the same tracks that would, decades later, be revealed to have been faked by Wallace.) The film has never been ruled a definitive hoax, per se, as the two people who took it (Patterson and his friend Robert Gimlin) never confessed, but a number of circumstances surrounding its production have led it to be widely (though not universally) discredited. These include discrepancies between Patterson’s and Gimlin’s accounts of the sighting, the fact that Patterson had set out that day with the express intent of filming a Bigfoot “pseudo-documentary,” and Patterson’s (enthusiastically sought) financial gain from the film after its release. In 2002, a costume company called Morris Costumes claimed the creature seen in the video was a human being wearing a gorilla costume of their making. Another source, a man named Bob Heironimus, claims to have been the person inside that costume, though there are also (lest anything be tied up too simply) weird discrepancies between the suits described by him and Morris. All in all, the evidence in favor of the film’s depicting a genuine Bigfoot is not particularly great.

There are even a number of prominent cryptozoologists—including the “father of cryptozoology” himself, Bernard Heuvelmans—who dismiss the Patterson film as a hoax. Cryptid enthusiasts and researchers are often, it seems, considered maniacal and uniformly accepting in their approach, but most Bigfoot believers, if they are to be remotely trusted, have limitations to their beliefs, too. The most notable exception at the moment is a popular reality television series on Animal Planet called Finding Bigfoot. 

FINDING BIGFOOT IS, AT worst, a fairly misleading title for a TV show that has yet to do so. At best, it’s aspirational. This is a show in its fifth season, and 1.3 million people watched last season’s premier. Like Ghost Hunters before it, it’s a show more about the hunt than the capture, but at least with Ghost Hunters there was occasionally a weird voice or shadow to keep intrigue alive. There were scary stories. On Finding Bigfoot there is nothing.

A recent episode of the show, titled “Best Evidence Yet,” found the hunters (led by a Bigfoot researcher actually named Matt Moneymaker) returning to an area of North Florida they’d visited earlier in the series, during which they pronounced handprints found on a couple’s glass back door to be those of a Bigfoot. (Because they were really big.) The impetus for the return visit is a two-second clip of thermal-imaging film taken by local residents, in which a dark gray figure (who is, indeed, Bigfoot-y looking) steps from behind one tree to another in a long stride. The show’s resident skeptic, Ranae, says the clip is the only one besides the Patterson video she’s seen for which she has no alternate explanation.

The scientific method used by members of the Finding Bigfoot cast typically involves some combination of the following processes: sending group member Bobo (whose build is closest to Bigfoot proportions, and who wears trucker hats that say things like “Keep It Squatchy!”) to stand where the Bigfoot was reportedly seen in order to see how his height compares to that of the thing the witness thinks he saw some number of months ago; whooping into valleys and seeing if anything responds; and asking each other “What was that?” over walkie-talkies while being filmed in night vision. If it sounds like I am describing the show with slight disdain, I’m not. I’m describing it with a lot of disdain. It’s ridiculous. I kind of love it.

To promote the new season, Animal Planet is currently offering a 24/7 Live Bigfoot Cam on its website, and it’s about as exciting as the show. According to the site, the camera is situated in “an undisclosed location” somewhere in North America. The area is densely wooded, somewhere where there’s a half-inch or so of snow already settled on the ground. Not a lot happens. When I tune in, the site tells me I’m one of 32 people currently watching. This seems both very high and not that high at all. You could fit us all in a room for what I’m guessing would be a very dull and awkward party.

There is one feature of Finding Bigfoot I do find compelling, and it is the town hall meetings the show’s hosts hold when they visit a town with reported sightings. Here are people who are sure they’ve seen something, and that thing might be an eight-foot tall Neanderthal-type man walking around their backyards. Despite the hoaxing, despite the utter lack of substantiated evidence, despite the scorn, these are people who think he’s out there anyway. You can always tell which ones just wanted to be on TV. It’s fewer of them than you’d think. The rest are very much sincere. The circumstances of the legend’s origins don’t matter so much; it’s still here, converting people. Bigfoot lives.

Katie Heaney
Katie Heaney is a writer and an editor at BuzzFeed and author of Never Have I Ever. Follow her on Twitter @KTHeaney.

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