Featured in Ripley's Believe It or Not!
Let’s talk about Bigfoot. Just about every region in the world has its own version of an overly-elusive, fuzzy fiend—or friend—frolicking in the forest. Even more interesting than these myths are the cultures that were built surrounding them. Ripleys.com was able to speak to noted skeptic Brian Dunning and Sasquatch aficionado Patrick Epistemon to develop a clearer picture of those who want to leave a big footnote on if maybe the widespread lack of belief in Bigfoot ever Sas-squashes its self-esteem?
Bigfoot has many names. Some of the most noteworthy include Sasquatch in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest; Skunk Ape in the Florida Everglades; Abominable Snowman or Yeti in the snowy mountain-top peaks of the Himalayas; Yowie in the Australian Outback; and Harry and the Hendersons out in Hollywood. Some interpret folklore from diverse worldwide cultural sources dating back to the 15th century as describing various encounters with hirsute hominids and ape-men (and -women) that stand anywhere from seven-to-ten feet tall, weigh between five hundred to two thousand pounds, and emanate unbelievably offensive B.O.
“Well now you will be amazed when I tell you that I’m sure that they exist.”—Jane Goodall, world renowned primatologist.
Thousands worldwide, both amateur adventurers and reputable scientists alike, take up the mantle of cryptozoologists. Cryptozoology is the zoological study of cryptids, creatures that are believed by some to exist but have not been properly documented or otherwise embraced by the mainstream scientific community.
The cryptozoological community that believes in the possibility of Bigfoot’s existence is not just limited to the stereotypical conspiracy theorists reminiscent of the Lone Gunmen from The X-Files. In fact, reputable mainstream figures, including Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum of Idaho State University, a professor of anatomy and anthropology and expert on foot morphology, holds an unwavering belief in the existence of Bigfoot. He attributes this to studying available casts of footprints attributed to the cryptid. World-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall has also put in her vote of confidence for the wandering simian. Some scientific recognition has also come for Bigfoot in the form of ZooBank, the worldwide standard for animal classification. Even protection laws can be found in areas of Washington, where it is illegal to kill a Sasquatch, who they view as a member of an endangered species.
In an effort to learn firsthand about big(foot)-game hunting, Ripley’s tracked down dedicated Bigfoot researcher and founder of The Bigfoot Portal Blog Patrick Epistemon to see what drives the endeavors of him and other field researchers: “The age bracket for Squatchers is mostly older, forty-five-to-seventy,” Patrick tells us. “Empty-nesters with time and resources to pursue the mystery, but still ambulatory enough to get out there. What keeps me interested is the enduring curiousness of it all, and the people: Squatchers are great people and it’s a lot of our social lives, camping groups with a cause.”
The allure in pursuing a yet-to-be undiscovered creature right in our own geographical backyard is readily apparent. Brian Dunning, host of the award-winning podcast Skeptoid and a subject matter expert on all things skepticism, also weighs in on the appeal: “Everyone enjoys the hunt, the chase, the puzzle, the promise of treasure at the end of the rainbow. What’s important is the ability to keep it in perspective. Group camping trips centered around a Bigfoot hunt can be lots of fun and build wonderful memories and are worth doing on that merit alone. However, the fact is that such a hunt is not going to lead to an actual find, because these creatures simply do not exist. Therefore, it is so, so important for any healthy cryptid hunter to keep their mind open to this possibility. Not enough of them do, in my experience.”
The Myth… And The Men Behind It.
In the United States, the alleged creature now known as Bigfoot first reared its shaggy head as a nationwide phenomenon after the 1958 discovery of gigantic, sixteen-inch footprints found by construction workers in northern California’s Humboldt County a few years after the Yeti craze had taken off. The incident is was what led to the cryptid being called Bigfoot, andwas later be debunked as benign tomfoolery conducted by a known local prankster, Ray Wallace. Wallace had wooden feet created to spook a buddy, but by the time that was revealed nearly half a century later, the name “Bigfoot” had taken on a life of its own and was already plastered in the American pop culture zeitgeist.
Fascinating anecdotes of abductions and tall tales of cryptic encounters abound—even President Theodore Roosevelt was alleged to have written one. Stories of the Human-Bigfoot War of 1855 cropped up around the same time. This “war” began in a native village of the Choctaw Nation in the Great Plains region during antebellum times. As the story goes, bandit raids on food and livestock severely worsened to the abduction of the village’s children. A contingent of three dozen mixed US and native cavalrymen led by French-Choctaw general Joshua LeFlore pursued the furry bandits on horseback for fourteen hours before arriving at the pillagers’ home base. The cavalrymen smelled them before they saw them: the fetid smell of death emanated from a wooden clearing where, surrounding a mound of the dead, the hitherto unseen marauders stood… only they were not men, but Bigfoots (Bigfeet?). Though the simian terrors were unphased by bullets, the ensuing battle saw their eventual defeat—albeit at the cost of LeFlore, who was decapitated by one of his gargantuan adversaries.
Though records seemingly indicate that Joshua LeFlore was a real person who died in 1855, the rest is unsurprisingly unverified—but it makes for a great story.
“… at the cost of LeFlore, who was decapitated by one of his gargantuan adversaries.”
Not all Bigfoot stories share the same violent pomp and circumstance as the aforementioned. Some are simple sightings that skeptics argue are simply misidentifications of other previously identified fauna. For example, a picture caught on a hunter’s automated camera might be seen as Bigfoot to a believer, but just a bear with mange to everybody else.
True believer Patrick identifies misidentification as one of the biggest problems among those who report Bigfoot sightings—alongside confirmation bias, wishful thinking, and pareidolia—the tendency for people to perceive patterns out of which there are none (such as mistaking a shadow in a dark forest for a Maricoxi—the South American Bigfoot): “These folks do not intend to hoax, but get it wrong and then are jumped on by the community as hoaxers.”
Hunters And… Hoaxers?
While the people Patrick described may have no ill will, hoaxers do exist. Humboldt County makes a return to Bigfoot lore yet again, less than a decade removed from Ray Wallace’s eponymous stunt and a year prior to 1968’s Planet of the Apes, when the world’s most famous Bigfoot footage ever filmed was captured. We now know that what was previously and widely lauded as the best evidence of Bigfoot’s existence, the Patterson-Gimlin footage, is believed by Brian Dunning, among others, to be a hoax—allegedly, in a real-life Breaking Bad scenario, the film proved to be little more than a successful “get rich quick” scheme from a dying conman who sought to leave to his soon-to-be-widowed wife an unexpected windfall, hoping to provide some material comfort in his passing.
But on the contrary, Squatchers such as Patrick are skeptical in their own right about this declaration: “That’s a huge assumption. Good arguments for the film are that the state of the art costuming in ’67 was the Planet of the Apes. The tech to make such a costume was not invented yet.”
Not all who report encounters possess altruistic intentions. One serial hoaxer received mainstream attention when, in 2008, and again in 2014, he claimed possession of a poached Bigfoot corpse. Both cases were determined to be nothing more than admittedly captivating and lifelike costumes—mere forgeries. One unrelated stunt even culminated in the unfortunate death of the would-be perpetrator.
So, we’ve got to ask, what’s with all the fakes?
True believers such as Patrick find hoaxes to be just as distasteful as the public-at-large: “It’s annoying because it distracts from legitimate work and adds to the stigma of the topic. It also is a huge hindrance to progress, as it prevents good people from sharing their results. They don’t want to be accused of being hoaxers.”
The world of Bigfoot is full of conmen, pranksters, and artists, alongside its genuine supporters. For the former, the financial incentive of advertising evidence or even the remains of a Bigfoot is readily apparent. As is the recognizable joy found in a mischievous prank, like in the heretofore discussed case of Ray Wallace. Seeking out notoriety in the form of fifteen minutes of fame is also understandable. When asked who else may be susceptible to committing these Bigfoot forgeries, Brian Dunning had an interesting answer: the true believers.
“There is at least one very interesting manifestation of this,” Brian tells us. “When we know something to be true in our hearts, most of us are not above a little bit of unconscious exaggeration to persuade others. We see this with people who believe in hauntings: sometimes, when they know their house to be haunted (in their mind, anyway), they will sometimes stage little weird events in order to bring others over to their way of thinking. It is a bit of dishonest behavior that is easily rationalized and justified, because to the hoaxer, they believe they are doing the right thing by persuading people of the truth (as they see it). So I would not be at all surprised for a Bigfoot true believer to make up stories or to greatly exaggerate them. In their mind, they’re doing the right thing—a fib is a good thing if done for the right reason.”
When asked if the lack of definitive proof or having other evidence dismissed as “pseudoscience” in any way dampens the fervor felt by he and his fellow Squatchers, Patrick had this to say: “The question of proving their existence is more of an outsider’s question. An eyewitness doesn’t need to ‘prove’ their existence. Seeing is believing.”
Despite the best efforts of cryptozoologists, no concrete evidence has yet to turn up to confirm the existence of these wise men of the mountain. That is not to say the absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Afterall, look no further than at the discovery of the coelacanth by a fishing boat, captured 66 million years after its purported extinction. Species both new and…sometimes even old are being uncovered all the time.
Believe It or Not! because at the end of the day, you can’t prove a negative. Whether you believe in Bigfoot or not is immaterial, because the cultures, friendships, and memories that grow surrounding it all are very real—and you can believe that.
By Kris Levin, contributor for Ripleys.com
Kris Levin is a professional wrestling referee and everybody’s favorite nephew. He can be seen internationally on IMPACT Wrestling as their most junior official, #KidRef, and on social media at @RefKrisLevin.