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Not finding Bigfoot

The Renaissance is remembered as a time of renewed interest in scientific investigation, yet it also brought a huge increase in sightings of fantastic creatures such as mermaids and sea serpents. One explanation for this apparent paradox is that the revival of classical art and literature inspired explorers to look for the creatures of Greco-Roman mythology. Another reason was the expansion of trade. Cryptids, fantastic creatures that elude established terms of description, tend to arise on the boundary of two or more cultures.

The crews of explorer ships were remarkably cosmopolitan, drawing sailors from cities across the globe. With that came the blending of legends, which might be imperfectly understood and then exaggerated. From this came European depictions of mermaids blended with indigenous Nigerian beliefs to produce Mami Wata. Similarly, the Loch Ness Monster originated in legends that go back at least to the early Middle Ages, but the media represent it using an image taken from a relatively modern discovery ─ the plesiosaur. Another example, the Mokéle-mbêmbe, a cryptid of Central Africa, usually described as an Apatosaurus. Images of Bigfoot are also a blend of indigenous and Western lore. They are essentially a syncretic blend of giants and monsters from several Native American tribes, such as the Wendigo of the Northern Algonquins and the Wechuge of the Athabaskans. These are then taken out of their original cultural setting, stripped of their most distinctive features, equated with one another and placed in the context of popular science. They cease to be embodiments of the elements and become hominids, at times complete with evolutionary histories, not very different from cave dwellers pictured around a fire in slightly old-fashioned textbooks. They still express a mythology, but it is mostly a Western one of the emergence of modern man from a primitive world. As we have felt increasingly cut off from our past, the triumphalism of this vision has been softened, and people have come to imagine it as bucolic. But the images of Bigfoot also preserve Native American heritage, which emerges from time to time in reference to local reports of him.

The “Patterson-Gimlin film”, produced in 1967 and purportedly showing a Bigfoot striding into a forest, is in many ways a reflection of nostalgia for a simpler time. Even for an amateur production made half a century ago, it is of poor quality. The film is gritty and indistinct, and the hands that held the camera were very unsteady. The figure appears awkward and, when she gazes backward, even a bit self-conscious. That “primitive” appearance may be part of the reason why, of all the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of photographs that people have claimed were of Bigfoot, this one has been given a unique status as the standard to which all the rest are compared.

Image credit: “A Flying Head from Iroquois mythology, an inspiration for Bigfoot.” Originally from Bureau of Ethnology Annual Report, 1880. Reprinted in Imaginary Animals: The Monstrous, the Wondrous, and the Human (London: Reaktion Books, 2013), Boria Sax. Used with permission.

Since 2011, Finding Bigfoot has been one of the most popular shows on the Animal Planet channel. It features four representatives of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) in their search for the elusive hominid. The episodes follow a pattern as standardized as that of any sit-com. Each begins with a new report or photograph that the team members believe provides evidence of Bigfoot, followed by a trip to investigate it. The researchers try various methods to attract Bigfoot such as lights, music, and food. They meet with local people and sometimes go to a town hall meeting to hear about encounters with Bigfoot. Often, they think that they have come close, but they never find Bigfoot in the end. The show is full of nostalgia for a real or imagined idyll of rural America. Appealing as the cast may be, I have the impression that not only could the team not find Bigfoot if they wanted to, but they probably would not want to if they could. Any real Bigfoot might disappoint us, perhaps by refusing to ever lay his cell phone down.

The nostalgia involved in this endeavor is so various and persistent that it seems to overwhelm even Bigfoot. Its object constantly shifts, from pre-Columbian society, to small-town America, prehistoric humankind, to old mythology, and so on. There is even nostalgia for an idealized science of the past, which seemed able to banish all ambiguities. The heroes of Finding Bigfoot build campfires in the woods and knock on trees to communicate, a bit like Boy Scouts in the 1950s, who, in turn, were imitating popular depictions of “settlers and Indians”. In the end, perhaps Bigfoot is really a symbol of what I would call “deep nostalgia,” a longing not for any particular time or place but for the past itself.

Featured Image credit: Stone Giant from Seneca mythology, an inspiration for Bigfoot. Originally from Bureau of Ethnology Annual Report, 1880. Reprinted in Imaginary Animals: The Monstrous, the Wondrous, and the Human (London: Reaktion Books, 2013), Boria Sax. Used with permission.

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