Two years of "hunting" Bigfoot in cyberspace tells you little
about the never-confirmed giant bipedal creature but a lot about those
who hunt for it. Some are sincere searchers; for others, the idea is a
complex and flexible belief system that serves multiple needs and roles.
I was exploring the Web in the fall of 1995 when I came across the opportunity
to sign up for a new listserver. I was already a subscriber to a couple
of academic lists, but this was something different. I was surfing the
latest sites when I found a "Bigfoot" listserver and discussion
group (actually, there are dozens of other sites on this topic that are
also currently accessible). That's right, Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch.
I thought twice about signing up, but I plunged ahead, justifying it to
myself by thinking of the opportunity to simultaneously observe a small
subculture within the raging paranormal community and to hone my own skills
of critical thinking and skepticism.
My interest in this particular subject goes back to my youth. I had always
heard tales of Bigfoot and similar creatures as a child in southern Ohio
(I think the term for our local equivalent was the "woollybarger"),
and I remember the anxiety I felt on camping trips, wondering if Bigfoot
might show up around the campfire. I had seen the documentaries and read
the stories as a kid. Years later, as a more skeptical adult working in
the natural resources field in upper Appalachia, I heard plenty of stories
from park visitors about Bigfoot and its buddies: hoop snakes (they bite
their tails to form a wheel, then chase you around), milk snakes (those
are the nocturnal ones that surreptitiously drink the milk from cows'
teats - udderly ridiculous), phantom panthers, and mothman (that's a whole
other story). The stories went further than the classic "urban legends" invariably related by a friend-of-a-friend; these folks often claimed
to have seen these critters firsthand - and they were adamant about their
stories. Now here I was as a young academic, confronted with the phenomenon
again, right on my office computer. At least, I thought, it would make
for interesting reading. It did.
Eavesdropping on the Bigfoot Bunch
For the first year or so I mainly laid low. I did manage to pick up on
some information that became one of the seeds for an earlier SKEPTICAL
INQUIRER article (D. M. Zuefle, "Swift, Boone, and Bigfoot: New
Evidence for a Literary Connection," January/February 1997),
but mainly I just read and deleted a lot of posts - sometimes I just deleted.
The frequency of the posts was an interesting aspect of the list. Unlike
the several academic listservers I subscribed to, where posts were sometimes
few and far between, these folks really participated. Both the frequency
and content of these posts clearly fluctuated with the airing of topically
related television programming (e.g., The X-Files, A & E documentaries).
Although I never saw a list of the subscribers, there must have been many.
Even more interesting was the kind of folks who were participating. I
would have guessed that the majority of the subscribers might be overly
imaginative teenagers (and perhaps many were), but at least a few participants
were more sophisticated. Undoubtedly, given the environment of the Internet,
some of the list members were kooks or pure hoaxers, but it was usually
possible to identify many of these persons in short order. Among the rest
of the members with verifiable identities, who seemed to compose the majority,
one could find nurses, businessmen, attorneys, and professors. Some of
the academics were just curious; others were social scientists and folklorists,
probably doing some research of their own. But some were research scientists,
anthropologists, and biologists. The credulity evinced by some members
of this group intrigued me the most. Most list members admitted that they
had never actually seen Sasquatch, but several told of "strange sounds
and odors" they had experienced out-of-doors that had convinced them
of its existence.
Before I subscribed to the list, I had assumed that most of the participants
believed that Bigfoot represented the vestigial population of an as-yet-undiscovered
species of the Pacific Northwest. True, this was one of the theories circulating,
but as far-fetched as it seems, it was by far the most believable. It
turns out that there are two main "camps" in this debate: those
adhering to the aforementioned "biological entity" position,
and those who believe in a "paranormal Bigfoot." Many of those
who support the "biological" view apparently believe the creature
is one of cosmopolitan distribution - with reports from practically every
state (my native southern Ohio is high on the list). This school of Bigfoot-naturalists
also follows the reports of many other similar creatures from around the
globe, such as the Almas of Asia, the Yowie of Australia, and, of course,
the famous Yeti.
Paranormal Bigfoot enthusiasts are also a bit divided. There are those
who believe that Bigfoot is a super-shaman who has been known all along
to Native Americans. This "medicine man" is capable of "shape-shifting"
into various forms, one of which we call Bigfoot. There are also the folks
who believe Bigfoot to be an "extradimensional" (or is that
interdimensional?) creature. This perspective explains why Bigfoot apparently
dematerializes in some sightings, or why its tracks suddenly stop in the
middle of a field. Still another angle on the phenomenon from this side
of the debate is the "Bigfoot as extraterrestrial" position
(some Bigfoot sightings are supposedly accompanied by UFOs). But even
this sub-position still suffers from internal dissonance: some believe
that Bigfoot is an extraterrestrial, while others think that it may merely
be manipulated by the extraterrestrials, or that it may even be an android
or a robot that serves as a companion.
Of course, once extraterrestrials have been invoked, conspiracy theories
cannot be far behind. So it is in the humble cryptozoological field of
Bigfoot study. List members suggested several times that Bigfoot information
is being suppressed by the federal government. Some conversation centered
around the usefulness of the Freedom of Information Act for obtaining
data. Other discussion, including sighting reports, mentioned the infamous
and ubiquitous "black helicopters" and government "black
operations" of contemporary paranormal lore. The most fascinating
suggestion was that one list member had obtained information from a government
informant about impending volcanic activity in the West that could flush
Bigfoot from hiding, thereby staging an opportunity for Bigfoot investigators
en masse to observe the entity in an open situation that could never be
concealed by the government. Still another enthusiast apparently wrote
to officials in Washington, D.C., asking for protection for himself and
a Sasquatch family he was concealing (he was afraid they might be harmed
by representatives of timber companies anxious to conceal yet another
endangered species needing habitat protection).
The spookiest discussions centered around whether or not it would be morally
acceptable to kill a Bigfoot in order to present incontrovertible proof
of its existence to the scientific community. Aside from the fascinating
ethical discourse (the usual utilitarian versus Kantian stuff one would
expect here), the frightening part was when group members began discussing
appropriate rifle calibers (most opted for at least a .300 or .338 magnum)
and the field trips of several individuals that were designed to "hunt" the creature down. Hunting a bipedal creature in the forest with guns
- I don't know about that. I myself hunt, but that gives me pause when
planning my next backpacking trip.
Speaking of ethics, a number of list members assailed any and all scientists
and skeptics who suggested that Bigfoot phenomena might have pedestrian
explanations. These people asserted that research positions and educational
credentials (such as an advanced degree) were meaningless symbols of a
privileged class whose members probably were "given" these "gifts."
Yet, some of these same people apparently touted fake credentials of their
own, and others openly defended the practice. I anticipate soon seeing
"Certified Bigfoot Investigator" becoming available as a new
professional certification (for a nominal fee, of course).
Toward the end of 1997, I grew bored with the nonsense on the list and
planned my exit. But before I left, I decided to get bolder and come out
of the shadows of the group. I began to post to the list frequently. At
first, I politely noted inconsistencies in stories or factual errors in
reports. Later, I began to suggest that perhaps there were alternate explanations
for the phenomena: misidentification of known animals, wild imaginations,
hoaxing, and the like. Finally, after long listening to questions between
group members such as "Why won't the scientific community take this
subject seriously?" I leveled a series of challenges to their "field."
Along with the expected ones about the phenomenon itself (Where's the
hard evidence? How could a reproducing population of large primates go
officially uncatalogued in relatively populated areas?) I pointed out
that science isn't much interested in exploring untestable existential
hypotheses. Scientists aren't obligated to "check out" (as some
list members suggested) any and all claims of laypersons, no matter how
preposterous; furthermore, disinterest in claims of a phenomenon is not
tantamount to a "conspiracy" or a coverup.
It was at this point that the religious nature of many Bigfoot enthusiasts
on the list emerged. I was now a heretic, and many of the list members
became dogmatic and defensive. Seldom did any of the members address these
challenging posts in any substantive way, but the chorus of the "defenders
of the faith" rang loudly, and the devout recited their Sasquatch
mantras back and forth to bolster their beliefs against this heterodoxical
assault. Some were angry; some disappointed; a few supportive, but the
group went on, seemingly tin razed and immune from outside challenges.
After these postings, I also began to receive electronic mail from individuals
I had never beard of and was subscribed to other list-servers against
my wishes. It was time to wrap up the expedition. By late December 1997
I was completely tired of the spectacle and unsubscribed from the list.
I was surprised to hear that soon thereafter its supervisor suspended
the listserver and took some time off (I've heard it's now back online).
What did I learn from my two years of hunting Bigfoot in cyberspace? Not
much about Sasquatch, but plenty about those who have extreme beliefs
in the paranormal. First, never underestimate how strange and complex
the beliefs of those in the paranormal community are. I thought the idea
of an undiscovered giant bipedal primate in North America was bizarre,
but it paled next to the theories of Sasquatches as shape-shifting shamans
and trained pets of extraterrestrials that some believers embraced.
Second, do not underestimate the extent to which theories can be permeated
by believers to avoid testing. I think that the notion of Bigfoot as an
extradimensional creature is an example of a convenient immunization of
a theory to make it more resistant to possible refutation (i.e., a Bigfoot
has not been found because "any attempt to catch it or shoot it will
fail because it will simply escape into another dimension"). This
sort of flexibility in thinking seems to be a common and necessary form
of defense against skepticism.
Third, one cannot ignore the social and perhaps even spiritual needs that
are fulfilled by belief in such phenomena. In particular, Bigfoot represents
a form of "unspoiled being" to many of the list members I observed.
Many members see this creature simultaneously as a symbol of wilderness
and a connection with primitive knowledge. Several times list members
spoke of Bigfoot as a "wisdom keeper" who could "teach
us (humans) much" if we could just listen; thus imbuing Sasquatch
with the qualities of a primeval savior.
Lastly, while many of the participants were so-called true-believers,
whose opinions were formed hard and fast, there were a number of apparently
intelligent and less-credulous persons on the list who were open to skepticism
while remaining intrigued by the subject at hand. I think that these people
deserve more respect than they sometimes receive from the skeptical community.
Are the Bigfoot promoters right? Does Sasquatch exist? No, I don't think
so, and I've seen no credible evidence to support that hypothesis. I am
open-minded, but pretty skeptical; I think that is a desirable and potentially
consistent position. The hunt is off for me. I didn't find anything, but
I didn't really expect to either. Still, it was a successful hunt. All
nimrods know that the best of the hunt is in the hunting; the consummation
is not in securing the object of your quest. Perhaps that's the secret
behind the motivations of these Bigfoot fans - it's the ultimate hunt,
they stalk the perfectly elusive quarry. No one ever has to wrap things
up, no one ever has to call the dogs home. But for me, the knowable world
is sufficiently and completely fascinating - and deserving of our study.
Just remember to wear bright orange when hiking through it in Sasquatch-hunter
Dr. David Matthew Zuefle, Ph.D., was an assistant professor at the
University of North Carolina at Greensboro; is currently Park and Recreation
Management Program,Department of Health, Exercise Science and Recreation
Management at The University of Mississippi, -- University, Mississippi
COPYRIGHT 1999 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group
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