“O ape, you abominable monster, how similar you are to us men!” – Cicero
You figure we would have caught a Bigfoot by now. Cryptozoological types, when you can sober them up, like to point out that new species are discovered every day, and we still occasionally stumble upon creepy critters like the coelacanth that were once thought to be extinct, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility that lurking in the backwoods of America there is some sort of atavistic monstrosity at large, cleverly avoiding cameras and human contact, and despite it all, generating millions of dollars in revenue for strange phenomena television shows. The truth is there weren’t a whole lot of people looking for the coelacanth. It was a pretty ugly fish, after all. You wouldn’t introduce it to your sister. Now, a whole lot of people (including many professional wildlife trackers) have been looking for the garden variety Sasquatch for a very long time without success. And savvy sentients that we are, Homo sapiens have infrared sensors, satellite photography that can read a newspaper headline from orbit, and all sorts of wonderful technological gizmos for the avid woodsman (which I don’t know the name of, since as a general rule, I stay out of the forest) that are designed specifically to find a proverbial needle in a haystack. Yet, no Bigfoot. Not even a decent, unblurred picture of Bigfoot. Comedian Mitch Hedberg offered an oddly prescient reason for this when he observed, “I think Bigfoot is blurry, that’s the problem. It’s not the photographer’s fault. Bigfoot is blurry, and that’s extra scary to me. There’s a large, out-of-focus monster roaming the countryside”. It sometimes seems that the only way we’re going to catch ourselves a physical Bigfoot, is if he fouls up and uses a cellphone or signs into his Facebook account. Then the NSA has got him. Since, he seems to specialize in ninja-like stealth, this is unlikely. This leads me to the odd hypothesis (and I’m certainly not the first) that Bigfoot is a hominid ghost. I don’t mean that metaphorically. Frankly, metaphors are for people who floss.
It’s always bothered me that people tend to see ghosts in identifiable period attire, generally from an era not too far removed from historical memory. If you go with the conservative estimate that 108 billion humans have ever been born (6.5% of which are alive today), that still leaves a whopping pile of dead people, some proportion of which got all ghostly, or so we can assume given the ubiquity of ghost sightings historically and cross-culturally. Now it doesn’t really matter what theory of ghosts you subscribe to. Personally, I like the idea that strong emotion etches itself into the environment and then plays back under the right circumstances, the same way a needle on the grooves of a record plays music (simile, not metaphor – you thought you had me there). It’s not the color of your theory, rather the content of its character, that character ultimately being, in short, a ghost. Humanity was proceeded by lots of more or less intelligent bipeds—australopithecines in all their flavors, and the whole Homo genus before sapiens, such as Neanderthals, and Cro-Magnon. Why should we be so arrogant as to assume that we’re the only upright biped that ever had a hankering for hauntiness? Which leads us to Bigfoot (or Sasquatch, Yeti, Yowie, Yeren, Almas, Barmanou, Skunk Ape, Mande Barung, Ban-manush and Orang Pendek) .
A sober researcher might at this point start combing through historical reports of Bigfoot in support of such suppositions. I am not thusly burdened and subscribe to a paraphrase of Hemmingway’s philosophy of “research drunk, write the dissertation sober”. Certainly, if you want to find historical evidence of something you can call Bigfoot, well there is no shortage, from the 4000 year-old Sumerian story of Gilgamesh’s grizzly buddy Enkidu, to Herodutus and his hairy Libyan monsters in 500 B.C., to reports of Leif Erikson’s description of the people of the New World in 986 A.D. The Leif Erikson encounter is somewhat hilarious, as the Viking encounter with North American natives describes them as “hairy”. Serious historians say this is obviously an encounter with indigenous Indians, but alert scholars have pointed out that relatively speaking, the idea that a typically hairy Viking would call a relatively hairless Native American hairy, is laughable. But I digress, since it is a little too easy to uncover a vast literature of people calling other people hairy wild men, and jump to the conclusion that Neanderthals are stalking the earth looking for a good cave to paint. We’re not interested in ape-men. We’re interested in “hairy ghosts”. And the world does not disappoint. There is the Weeton Hairy Ghost of the U.K., who “is said to be associated with the oldest of the ghosts of the Fylde, viz., the hairy ghost, which has been supposed to be the Celtic equivalent of the ancient satyr” (Fishwik, 1874, p205). Others have identified the Weeton ghost as related to Roman settlements in the area, since that seems properly antiquated, but certainly doesn’t directly account for his noted hairiness.
Numerous relics, chiefly of the Roman soldiery, have been dug or ploughed up at different times out of the soil, bordering on the road, or found amongst the pebbles of which it was composed, and amongst them may be mentioned spears, both British and Roman, horse shoes in abundance, several stone hammers, a battle axe, a broken sword, and ancient Roman coins, all of which were picked up along its line between Wyre mouth and Weeton. Several half-baked urns marked with dots, and pieces of rudely fashioned pottery were discovered in an extensive barrow or cairn near Weeton-lane Heads, which was accidentally opened, and is now pointed out as the abode of the local hairy ghost or boggart (Porter, 1876, p8).
Luckily, Weeton’s hairy man is not alone. In Indonesia, we hear of the hairy ghosts called Genderuwo (or Genderuwa), a ghost that chooses to manifest as a hairy, sex-crazed apeman, that strangely, considering their complete lack of personal grooming are believed to be quite seductive. The abominable snowman (who should no doubt resent the appellation, I mean it’s awfully judgmental to call someone you’ve never met “abominable”) in the Himalayas is sometimes referred to as a hairy ghost. There’s the Hairy Ghost of Cosner Lake in Oregon, a 7 foot tall white haired creature reported to move at speeds upward of 35 M.P.H. and has despite the best efforts of gun-toting locals, avoided capture. The Hairy Ghost of Prague is popular with Czech tourists. The Bulgarian bogeyman Talasam is a hairy ghost used to frighten unruly children. Basically, lurking in every corner of the globe is some insubstantial, yet hairy creature that eludes our capture and scares the bejeezus out of us. Putting on our anthropologist hats, we would probably say that throughout history, hair has been a pretty important ingroup-outgroup signal. If your hair is a different color, and cut in a certain way, you must not be from around here, boy. It makes a certain amount of sense, that one clear indicator of monstrosity would be hirsuteness (or alternatively, a complete absence of hair among a generally hairy people). Wiser men than me agree.
Hair is perhaps our most powerful symbol of individual and group identity – powerful first because it is physical and therefore extremely personal, and second because, although personal, it is also public rather than private. Furthermore, hair symbolism is usually voluntary, rather than imposed or given. Finally, hair is malleable, in various ways, and therefore singularly apt to symbolize both differentiations between, and changes in, individual and group identities. The immense social significance of hair is indicated by economics: the hair industry is worth $2.5 billion in the USA (Synnott, 1987, p381).
So hair is important, a hairy ghost an important symbol, and still, what do we truly know about our hairy friend Bigfoot? (1) We occasionally see him in people-forsaken places; (2) His interaction with the physical world appears to be minimal – the occasional inexplicable footprint, a dubious sample of scat, and ambiguous tufts of hair (3) He doesn’t seem to pay much attention to us; (4) He doesn’t photograph very well, and (5) There are very few (if any) reports of bigfoot actually touching or interacting with someone. This sounds like a fairly typical ghost sighting, excepting the fact that the creature we are seeing looks more like a hairy ape, than a Victorian gentleman, or Civil War soldier. Why do we only see Bigfoot in geographically remote places rather than a Cro-Magnon ghost walking down the Champes-Elysee? Simple. We cut down the forest to make room for Paris. We see Bigfoot in the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, Yeti in the Himalayas, Yowies in the Outback, and Almas in Siberia. Places relatively undisturbed for Millennia. Places where a memory etched into the environment might actually still have something resembling a natural environment to be etched into.
Perhaps Bigfoot is just shy, but that’s not an argument that holds much water. I’m shy around the ladies, but if one actually talks to me, it piques my curiosity, if for no other reason than it demonstrates an almost unfathomable lack of judgment, discernment, or taste that requires deeper investigation. At some point, and despite the possibility that we seem like hairless monsters, one would expect a particularly adventurous Bigfoot would wander into town to see what we were about. Most wild animals aren’t especially fond of us, in neither the emotional nor culinary sense, yet even lions, tigers, and bears, oh my, have at least on occasion looked into the kind of stuff us civilized types throw in the trash. It stands to reason that a slightly more intellectually advanced critter would have a few existential questions about our presence. Or want a pizza. Or a bikini wax.
So what are we left with? Either a distressingly uninterested biped, a collective hallucination that has been going on for quite some time, an incredibly elaborate and enduring set of hoaxes, or an elusive phantom. None of these options are particularly thrilling, but the ghost theory has the advantage of being relatively parsimonious, assuming one believes in ghosts. I’ll believe in anything twice. Although, in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really explain the huge gap in the ghost record for the rest of history. At some point we’ll have to deal with that, but I’ve run out of beer for the moment.
If we ever do find a tangible Bigfoot, contact the Studio Actors Guild immediately and approach with caution. He’s probably owed some serious royalties.
Fishwik, Henry. “History of the Parish of Kirkham”. Chetham Society. Remains, Historical And Literary, Connected With the Palatine Counties of Lancaster And Chester. Manchester: Charles Simms, 1874.
Porter, John. History of the Fylde of Lancashire. Fleetwood: W. Porter, 1876.
Synnott, Anthony. “Shame and Glory: A Sociology of Hair”. The British Journal of Sociology Vol. 38, No. 3 (Sep., 1987), pp. 381-413.