Relatively few people, in or out of the field of science, believe in Bigfoot. A purported Bigfoot sighting would likely be met with the same level of credulity as a discovery of Casper, Elvis, Tupac, or Santa Claus. With only 16 percent of Americans Bigfoot believers, you might just write them off as crazy. But contrary to popular assumption, folklore experts say, Bigfoot believers may not be as irrational as you’d think.
“It’s easy to assume … that people who believe in Bigfoot are being irrational in their belief,” says Lynne McNeill, Cal grad, folklore professor, and special guest on the reality TV show Finding Bigfoot. “But that’s really not true. People aren’t jumping to supernatural conclusions very often; people are being quite rational. It doesn’t mean they’re correct; it just means they’re thinking rationally.”
OK. So what are some reasons why people might rationalize a belief in Bigfoot?
Reason 1: They think they saw Sasquatch, and they want to prove to themselves and the world that they’re not “crazy.”
If a lifelong non-believer thinks she saw a furry man-beast with glowing red eyes rooting through her undies on a camping trip, then she’s going to have to grapple with that somehow. If she finds herself unable or unwilling to deny that it happened, then she’ll probably try to reconcile that unexplained experience with her otherwise logical life. This attempt at reconciliation, says Tok Thompson, UC Berkeley grad and professor of anthropology and communication at USC, is a pretty common tendency among humans.
“People want a belief system that is comprehensive and consistent, and if something in our belief system is inconsistent, we get cognitive dissonance—it bugs us,” Thompson says. “Because of this, we try to make sense of the seemingly fantastical by weaving it into our currently held perspective.”
A popular way of doing this is looking for scientific proof.
This, McNeill explains, is why many Bigfoot hunters are desperate to find tangible evidence to prove Sasquatch’s existence. It’s why reality shows like Finding Bigfoot have scientists tag along with amateurs on Sasquatch hunting excursions, and why the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) has been collecting information on evidence and sightings since 1995. People hope that they’ll find evidence that will both satisfy the scientific method and validate their beliefs.
Grover Krantz, the Cal grad and first well-respected anthropologist to come out in support of the search for Sasquatch, is a great example. Though he never encountered Bigfoot himself, his review of the evidence led him to believe that the creature was real. He risked his entire career as a professor to accommodate his belief in the creature, including being turned down for promotions and grants, and nearly getting fired.
Though his dedication to the search may seem absurd, the practice of using science to reconcile a paranormal belief is surprisingly common.
If you’ve owned a television over the last couple of decades you might have seen at least one episode of Ghost Hunters, a show in which people use doodads like digital EMF meters, ambient thermometers, and lures soaked with primate pheromones to collect “scientific” evidence of spirits. The show has been going strong since 2004, and with almost half of Americans admitting to a belief in ghosts, this isn’t surprising. Then there’s Graham Hancock, a controversial journalist, who leads the charge of people looking for proof that advanced ancient civilizations existed 12,000 years ago, an idea that 55 percent of Americans believe to be true despite scientific protestations against it.
According to these statistics, at least every other person walking among us believes in ghosts or ancient civilizations. And knowing how people react to survey questions, McNeill says, there are likely more believers in all of these (so-called) myths, including Bigfoot, than the data lets on.
“It’s really easy for us to imagine that belief is an either/or proposition—you either believe in something or you don’t. And that’s really not the case. Polls are always asking people whether or not they believe in aliens or ghosts. But the thing is, if their only options for an answer are yes or no, then they know what the right answer is—the right answer is no,” McNeill says. “But if you give people more room and ask them to talk about their beliefs, what you find is a grey area that most people are existing in, where they say, ‘Well, you know, I haven’t seen hard proof myself … but I have a really good friend or family member or someone I trust who has seen Bigfoot.’ Or they’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t believe in this stuff, but—I did see Bigfoot one time.’”
Because so few Americans publicly claim to believe in Bigfoot, these kind of answers allow people to express the variations in their beliefs while protecting themselves from potential ostracization.
Ironically, another reason people might believe in Bigfoot is that it would put them at odds with their community if they didn’t believe.
Reason 2: Their tribe believes in Sasquatch, so it would be weird if they didn’t.
Studies show that a person is more likely to believe in fringe or paranormal ideas if they’re a West Coast resident—with California largely being known as Bigfoot country. And according to the BFRO, over 430 sightings have been reported in the state since the 1940s.
“Bigfoot represents the Pacific Northwest in a huge way. It’s been taken up as emblematic of the area,” Thompson says. “You’ve got Sasquatch festivals. You’ve got Bigfoot statues. It’s almost like you should believe in Bigfoot at least a little bit if you live that area … like cultural pride or patriotism.”
The controversial 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film, which is still held up by believers as the only “legit” evidence of the creature despite most scientists’ declaring it a hoax, was actually shot in Northern California. Filmmakers Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin recorded what they swear was a real Bigfoot taking a stroll in Humboldt County alongside Bluff Creek, a tributary of the Klamath River. In the footage, Patty the Bigfoot (assumed to be female because she has enormous boobs) looks over her shoulder at the camera before striding away. Between the late 1950s and early 2000s, some 40 more reports of Bigfoot encounters were reported in the Humboldt County area, an apparent hotspot for the fuzzy giant.
Social networks and culture, more than any other influences, Thompson says, are what propel stories and give them staying power. For example, most people who believe in the Loch Ness Monster are from Scotland, and more than half of Icelanders believe in the Icelandic hidden elf people called Huldufólk (to the extent that building projects are often changed or waylaid so as not to disturb the rocks where they’re assumed to live).
“Humans tend to gather our beliefs socially. Not from reading the newspaper, not from reading scientific journals, not even from religious leaders. Most people, I would say, gather their belief systems from their social group,” Thompson says. “Probably the strongest component of most people’s belief is folk belief.”
A considerable amount of native tribes from the west coast of British Columbia to the Pacific Northwest—where Bigfoot tales originated—believe the creature exists. The word Sasquatch is actually assumed to be an Anglican-butchering of the Salish tribe’s word sasq’ets, meaning “hairy man” or “wild man.” In the late 1950s, when an influx of sightings occurred at Bluff Creek, a Humboldt Times reporter asked a local, elderly Hoopa Indian if he knew about Bigfoot. The man, seemingly incredulous, responded, “Good Lord, have the white men finally got around to that?”
According to Thompson, a widespread acceptance of the existence of Sasquatch is a rare example of Native Americans transferring a belief to Anglo-Americans.
“They’re two very radically different cultures. Even though we borrowed a lot of words and terminology from Native American culture, not much of the supernatural world of Native Americans has found its way into the Anglo-American world. And Bigfoot seems to be the exception,” Thompson says. “Bigfoot kind of reminds us of Native Americans, living out in the forest, trying to escape detection.”
And escaping modern society appeals to a lot of people.
Reason 3: Believing in Bigfoot keeps hope alive that people can be self-sustaining—and that humans haven’t totally destroyed the environment beyond repair.
Robert Pyle—a journalist who immersed himself in the lives of scientists, hunters, and others who were obsessed with the search for Bigfoot—said that to hunt for Sasquatch, you have to live like one. It requires spending countless days in the wilderness either alone or with a mere few, he explained, disconnected from modern technology and instead, connected to nature.
It’s both exciting and comforting for people to think that a somewhat intelligent, bipedal hominid could live undetected and free in the wilderness, says McNeill, and people like to entertain the idea of doing that themselves.
“These guys don’t want to find Bigfoot―they want to be Bigfoot!” Pyle wrote in his book Where Bigfoot Walks.
Others have imagined Bigfoot as a highly evolved and wise species, unchained by trivial human emotions—a Mr. Spock of the wilderness.
“Could an animal be enough like us to escape our endless snooping, yet enough unlike us to escape our endless competitiveness?” author David Rains Wallace writes of Bigfoot in his book The Klamoth Knot: Explorations of Myth and Evolution. “What if another hominid species had emotionally outgrown Homo Sapiens, had not evolved the cruelty, greed, vanity and other ‘childishness’ that seems to arise with our neotenic nature? What if that animal had come to understand the world well enough that it didn’t need to construct a civilization, a cultural sieve through which to strain perception? Such a creature could understand forests in a way we could not.”
McNeill guesses that most Bigfoot sightings happen in remote wilderness areas because people are heartened to know that there’s more out there to discover, that humans haven’t planted their flag in every bump in the soil. Also, if Bigfoot were to exist, that might be an indication that the Earth hasn’t been devastated beyond repair by Homo sapiens.
“[For some believers], it’s a better world if Bigfoot can be real,” McNeill explains. “It says something positive about our ecosystems and our environment. It says something positive about our retention of wilderness spaces. It says something positive about the fact that we maybe aren’t utterly destroying the planet we live on if a species can remain hidden and undiscovered.”
Reason 4: Lack of proof doesn’t disprove that Bigfoot exists, so it’s hard to declare—with certainty—that Bigfoot is fake.
Though Bigfoot believers obviously don’t represent a huge section of the American population, and scientific proof of the creature’s existence has eluded them, they don’t seem discouraged.
What keeps legends alive is actually the lack of proof, McNeill says, because mysteries appeal to the natural curiosity inherent in human beings. The act of entertaining legends allows people to expand their minds and challenge traditional perceptions. If there were absolutely no chance of Bigfoot being real, then the legend would disappear, McNeill says. And if science came out in full support of Bigfoot’s existence, then that would also make the legend disappear.
“It’s a beautifully messy, confused batch of information [surrounding Bigfoot], and because of that, the legend sticks,” McNeill says. “What keeps legends going is the possibility, the ambiguity. Legends are ways that we discuss and articulate what may or may not be possible in reality.”
If you liked what you read here, check out our story about academics who say evidence of Sasquatch might deserve to be studied.
Also check out our two-part profile on UC Berkeley grad and anthropologist Grover Krantz, known to many as the original “Bigfoot scientist.” (You can find the first part of the profile here and the second part here.)
Krissy Eliot is senior associate editor at CALIFORNIA. You can find more examples of her work and her contact info at www.krissyeliot.com.