Book Review: Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend

In the middle of August 2008 Matt Whitton, Rick Dyer, and “professional Bigfoot hunter” Tom Biscardi claimed to have found what so many had sought after: the body of a real Bigfoot. FOX News picked up the story, DNA tests were performed, and a grand unveiling was planned, but, as ever, it all was a hoax. There was still no definitive proof that Sasquatch, Bigfoot, the Skunk Ape, Skookum, or a long lost “missing link” by any other name ever existed.

Last summer’s brief frenzy over Bigfoot was hardly unique. As author Joshua Blu Buhs illustrates in his new book, Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend, there has been a long history of hoaxes and frauds associated with the mythical creature. Buhs book is not so much about debunking Bigfoot, however, as telling the story of enthusiastic Americans who thought they were on the trail of the beast during the 20th century.

As with many legendary creatures, advocates Bigfoot’s existence often claim that the creature has been known for hundreds or even thousands of years. How could so many cultures in so many parts of the world have stories about “wild men of the woods” if none actually existed? An entire volume could be devoted to this question alone (for starters, see the chapters on “yeren” in The People’s Peking Man), but Buhs shows that arguments made on the authority of “the ancients” ignore the cultural evolution of Bigfoot. Yes, many cultures have stories about something Bigfoot-like, but the true origins of the North American beast are better understood as a case of cultural transmission.

Buhs sets the scene with some clear hoaxes and humbugs from the late 19th century (like the Cardiff Giant and P.T. Barnum’s “What-Is-It), but the story really picks up with Eric Shipton’s photographs of the “Yeti” prints found on Mount Everest. These photos, as well as high-profile expeditions sent to find the Yeti, catapulted the so-called “Abominable Snowman” into stardom. Eventually this popularity waned, but the wide coverage given to the Yeti in the United States sparked interest in stories about “Sasquatch” in Canada and a similar creature, eventually nicknamed “Bigfoot”, in our own backyard.

The popularity of Bigfoot exploded during the 1960’s, especially with the aid of trashy men’s magazines that printed lurid adventure yarns. Although I am not entirely convinced by all of Buh’s cultural conclusions, he does make a compelling case that during this time Bigfoot was something that belonged to the kinds of working-class men who so often claimed to see the beast. Bigfoot was something wild, powerful, and masculine, a symbol that was made all the more relevant by the anxieties of white, working class men over consumerism, civil rites, and the perceived threat of feminization. Bigfoot often represented the elusive vestige of “true” masculinity that could only be found in the wild.

While there once was some scientific interest in Bigfoot, though, whatever “science” there was surrounding the hunt for the beast was increasingly pushed to the fringe. Through the 1970’s Bigfoot became increasingly associated with psychic powers, UFOs, and other paranormal hogwash, and Bigfoot hunters grew increasingly irritated with the professional scientific community. This was most forcefully shown during a conference on Bigfoot held at the University of British Columbia. The true-believers came hoping to prove the existence of Bigfoot and courted the media, but the academic conference was more about Bigfoot as a cultural and even psychological phenomenon. The scientists didn’t care a whit about whether Bigfoot existed or not: they wanted to know why so many people believed the stories, and why the Bigfoot hunters were so obsessed.

Eventually the “great” Bigfoot hunters of the mid-20th century gave up the hunt, yet Bigfoot remains a familiar part of our culture. This is partly because Bigfoot has been linked to the environmental movement (as a sort of peaceful “Father Earth”), but more importantly because Bigfoot has been subsumed within the consumer culture that the pioneering Bigfoot hunters worried so much about. Bigfoot is no longer a representation of uninhibited white male beliefs and desires, but a desexualized symbol used to purvey goods from beer to beef jerky. The old tensions between working class white males and professional scientists remain, but Bigfoot has mostly settled in as just another way to sell products or attract people to theme parks.

Buhs covers a lot of ground in 254 pages, but there are a few relevant topics I was hoping would be addressed in greater detail. The first is Bigfoot (or Skunk Ape) sightings in the American South. It seems that in recent years there has been a resurgence of Bigfoot sightings in this area, and it would have been interesting to contrast the efforts of southern working-class Bigfoot hunters with their earlier counterparts. Second, from what I understand over the years a number of Russian scientists have taken a great interest in Bigfoot and have often associated the creature with paranormal powers. This is barely touched in Buh’s book, and I would love to see a more comprehensive volume on “wild men” as a global cultural phenomenon. Lastly, I was somewhat surprised that more recent developments (like the one I used to open the review) were not included. The book stops at 2002, but an epilogue covering the intervening seven years could have proven useful (even if to just provide a cursory summary).

Like Sean B. Carroll’s Remarkable Creatures, Buh’s Bigfoot is not so much about the quarry as it is about the hunters. There is sparingly little evidence to suggest Bigfoot is a real animal, much of the alleged positive evidence has turned out to be fraudulent or misinterpreted, but it is real as a cultural phenomenon. There is money to be had by invoking the beast, and even though we appear to be going through a lull right now, the cultural evolution of Bigfoot will likely continue for some time to come.

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