Finding Bigfoot in Modern-Day American Society: How Sasquatch Has Become a Marker for American Consumerism

By: Adahne Hemp.

Written as part of the First-Year Seminar “Here Be Monsters”


Stories of the “Wildman” have been interwoven in native North American culture for centuries. Over time, these legends have mutated from authentic folklore to fabricated first-hand accounts of hairy beast-like men known as Bigfoot, or Sasquatch. Seemingly legitimate reports and sightings of these creatures have been myth busted as hoax, practical jokes crafted to dupe and deceive. Despite the plethora of naysayers, fervent believers of The Foot still exist; some dwell in the darkest parts of the internet while others stand firmly on the front lines of the search, eager to find him. Consumed by the unsolved mystery, fanatic enthusiasts spend hours sifting through footprint casts, photographs, and fur samples to discern fact from fiction, a fruitless endeavor. While Bigfoot may not be familiar to verifiable truth, he is no stranger to science. Researchers debate the existence of Sasquatch behind closed doors, with some deciding to join the hunt, and others pitching up tents in the skeptic’s camp. However, across the hall with doors wide open, scholars gather for a different reason, fully prepared to discuss what Bigfoot symbolizes, what he implies about modern-day American culture. Although the argument over Bigfoot’s physical existence remains unresolved, one this is certain: Bigfoot is much more than hoax, he exists as a symbol for American culture, a timestamp for contemporary society.

Joshua Blu Buhs’s essay, “Tracking Bigfoot Through 1970s North American Children’s Culture: How Mass Media, Consumerism, and the Culture of Preadolescence Shaped Wildman Lore” is a prime example of the synthesis of these scholarly theories, along with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Monster Culture”, an assemblage of theses designed to offer the public “a method of reading cultures from the monsters they engender” (3). Examining Sasquatch as a monster unlocks the doors of cryptozoology, a study well-known to Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark, authors of the publication, Cryptozoology A to Z: The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature. In their book, Coleman and Clark explore how media has influenced modern cryptozoology, a concept demonstrated by Shane Madej and Ryan Bergara, two BuzzFeed employees who capture their hunt for Bigfoot in their YouTube video, “Bigfoot: The Convincing Evidence.”

Bigfoot is a product of the time period in which he was conceived, an era of international tension and scientific exploration. Cohen’s “Monster Culture” describes the monster as being born at a “metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment” (4), which leaves plenty of room for cultural analysis when examining any mythological creature or cryptid. Solidified knowledge of Bigfoot didn’t come into American consciousness until the late 1950’s when Gerald Crew’s crawler-tractor was found overturned next to a baffling trail of Sasquatch tracks, as reported in an article for True Magazine written by Ivan T. Sanderson in 1959. As America endured through the Cold War (1947-1991) and the Space Race (1957-1975), similar reports began to surface from locations all over the western region of the United States. During these years, American scientists were pressured to explore and discover new things, and the confirmed existence of Bigfoot would bring about massive advancements in science as well as give researchers a new candidate for humanity’s evolutionary origin. The discovery of such a large primate would have been extremely rare by the 1950s, making the possibility of Bigfoot’s existence that much more desirable for those who were eager to surpass the discoveries of competing countries like the USSR. Cohen also states that the monster “always inhabits the gap between the time of upheaval that created it and the moment into which it is received” (4), making the monster a window through which one can examine cultural development. Since the late 1950s, Bigfoot has morphed from a potential scientific discovery into an internet meme, a mass-produced concept designed to promote consumer culture.

Major television networks and online viewing sites integrate Bigfoot into mainstream media. Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark’s introduction in their book, Cryptozoology A to Z,describes cryptozoology as being “all around us”, even though “just a few years ago, only a handful of people knew the word” (20). The study of creatures whose existence is widely disputed is known as cryptozoology, a term that is now recognized and understood by millions due to the normalized use of the word in popular television series like Finding Bigfoot and How I Met Your Mother. One character from How I Met Your Mothernamed Marshall Eriksen is well known for being a Bigfoot believer (Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, How I Met Your Mother). In one episode titled, “Last Forever: Part Two”, Marshall describes Sasquatch as “a warm and affectionate creature” (7:44). In another episode of How I Met Your Mother, titled, “No Questions Asked Rule”, Marshall recalls asking his wife to bail him out after he had tackled Russell Brand because he mistook the famous comedian for Bigfoot, a slip up that landed him in jail – twice (Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, 18:25). Sasquatch was even awarded the honor of staring in his own television show titled, Harry and the Hendersons, a program from the 1990s about a family who brings Bigfoot home with them after stumbling upon him while camping (William Dear, Harry and the Hendersons). These interpretations of Bigfoot as a comedic figure push him into mainstream American culture, a place where he is willingly accepted and sometimes, exploited.

Bigfoot promotes consumer culture by becoming a beacon for tourism at hotspot locations all over western America. One of these locations, Willow Creek, California, has been deemed the Bigfoot Capitol of the World, a place where hunters and skeptics alike gather to learn a little bit more about their favorite furry cryptid. BuzzFeed workers Shane Madej and Ryan Bergara experience and share all that Willow Creek has to offer in their video, “Bigfoot: The Convincing Evidence”, an episode of their web series, BuzzFeed Unsolved. At the start of the episode, Shane and Ryan “talk some foot” (1:13), or discuss and debate the existence of Sasquatch, a topic they take light-heartedly. While in Willow Creek, Shane and Ryan stay a night in the Bigfoot Motel (0:35) and eat at Bigfoot Burger, a restaurant where their hamburger buns are shaped like feet (3:15). The next morning, Shane and Ryan visit the Willow Creek – China Flat Museum, where they have an extensive Bigfoot exhibit filled with donations from Sasquatch hunters in the form of footprint casts and fur (5:34). The Willow Creek – China Flat Museum’s mission statement is “to maintain, preserve and publicly display the Bigfoot and Sasquatch collection” (Enger 1) which advertises the entirety of Willow Creek as a place where fantasies can be explored. Ryan even refers to Willow Creek, California as “arguably the number one destination for Squatchers and Bigfoot enthusiasts worldwide” (2:50). The Bigfoot exhibit at the museum promotes the mysteries that surround the cryptid, which in turn encourages more and more people to travel to Willow Creek to see the evidence for themselves. Local businesses like Bigfoot Books and The Bigfoot Steakhouse exploit these mysteries to lure in tourists. The Willow Creek – China Flat Museum even has an online gift shop where they sell accessories, prints, and books all relating to the topic of Sasquatch, marking Bigfoot as a symbol for American consumerism. In accordance with the theses of Cohen, the discussion of and the hunt for Bigfoot has exposed the consumer culture that runs rampant in American society. Following their visit to the museum, Shane and Ryan travel out into the wilderness of the Six Rivers Forest, one of “the most famous Bigfoot forests in the world” (6:46), hoping to find and record footage of the elusive Foot themselves. Although Shane and Ryan seem to hunt Bigfoot for fun, it is clear to them that certain individuals take the hunt very seriously. Ryan even quotes the Official Skamania County Ordinance who has deemed Bigfoot an “endangered species of Skamania County” where they have “created a Sasquatch refuge” (8:33). Shane and Ryan then proceed to wander through Six Rivers Forest where they imitate Bigfoot’s call (12:05) and explore a cave where they hope to find Sasquatch’s living quarters (16:10). This episode exposes the tourist trap that environs Bigfoot as well as delves into the mysteries that surround the possibility of his existence.

Bigfoot is a creature who works as a boundary figure for fantasy and reality. The question of Sasquatch’s existence draws mass attention to itself; people want him to exist. Bigfoot is a distraction from the normal routine of everyday life; he is not grounded in reality or in fantasy, he exists on the boundary between these two things. Therefore, Bigfoot is a both a rebuttal to, and a representation of modern-day American culture which is driven heavily by fact and science. While people want Sasquatch to exist, they also want proof of his existence. Bigfoot demands humanity to believe in him with only circumstantial evidence of his presence. In his theses, Cohen states that “the monster resists capture” and holds a “position at the limits of knowing”, a place where “the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes” (12). Sasquatch resists capture through his elusiveness, his ability to be both mythological and physical at the same time. Humanity’s inability to hold Bigfoot down in either fact or fiction places him just out of reach; he dwells “at the limits of knowing” (Cohen 12) where he will inevitably remain until more convincing evidence is discovered. Those brave enough to wander in search of The Foot “risk attack by some monstrous border control” (Cohen 12) because Sasquatch guards the gates of the unknown; he is cryptozoological caution tape.

Bigfoot is a threat, a relentless reminder “that “fact” is subject to constant reconstruction and change” (Cohen 14,15); Bigfoot demands that humanity rethink science and truth, a challenge that is willingly accepted. Cohen’s sixth thesis states that “the monster also attracts” (16), enrapturing its audience in a way that can only be described as desire. Sasquatch can terrify and evoke fantasies simultaneously, making him almost forbidden, an enigma. In their video, “Bigfoot: The Convincing Evidence”, Shane Madej and Ryan Bergara ask the Willow Creek Museum Docent, Peggy Williams, what encounters she’s personally had with the hairy cryptid (6:28). Peggy tells the moonlighting Squatchers that she hasn’t had any personal interactions with Bigfoot, and that she doesn’t want to (6:30). Ryan then asks if she is afraid of Bigfoot, to which she replies, “I think you just want to believe it’s out there, but you don’t really want to see it” (6:40).  The craving for Bigfoot existence clashes with the fear of what his existence would mean: a large, potentially dangerous primate lurking in the woods. Cohen argues that “we distrust and loathe the monster at the same time we envy its freedom” (17), a concept that is familiar to Bigfoot hunters everywhere. Sasquatch is free to exist at the border of fact and fiction, desire and fear. However, hunters still distrust The Foot, making sure to wear protective gear when they go in search of him. Ryan Bergara demonstrates this as he dons a helmet for safety, because “Squatches are known to smash things over the head to kill them” (BuzzFeedBlue, 9:17). As a boundary figure, Bigfoot exists in multiple realms even though he demands the public to choose whether they believe he is real or not. This makes him a paradoxical figure, pushing him even farther into the societal margins where he dwells. As a topic of adult conversation, Bigfoot’s existence and the consequences of that existence are widely debated, but when it comes to children’s culture, Sasquatch symbolizes something very different.

In his essay, “Tracking Bigfoot Through 1970s North American Children’s Culture: How Mass Media, consumerism, and the Culture of Preadolescence Shaped Wildman Lore”, Joshua Blu Buhs discusses the concept of lore cycles and nineteenth century American society, as well as how Bigfoot has been turned into a fairytale legend for children. Joshua Blu Buhs believes that “tracking Bigfoot through children’s culture offers a chance to observe the adaptation of folklore to the mass media and contemporary concerns” (196), a chance that is worth taking. While Sasquatch may seem like a creature who would be foreign to children, multiple Bigfoot believers claim to have taken interest in the cryptid early on in their lives (196), making The Foot not only a symbol for adult contemporary society, but also for juvenile contemporary society. Joshua Blu Buhs’s essay also investigates a concept theorized by a man named W.T. Lhamon known as “Lore Cycles”, which is the idea that monsters are necessary to ensure that culture is always progressing, making media and integral part of folklore (197).  In Buhs’s article, he quotes Lhamon, who says that lore cycles “keep culture traveling and mutating” (197), making Bigfoot a creature composed of his modern-day reputation as well as what he may have symbolized in the past. The native peoples of North America have orally passed down stories of the Wildman for generations, which then translated into campfire stories loggers would share after Bigfoot made his debut into American media in 1958. However, after multiple press sensations released articles on Sasquatch, the cryptid became less of a local legend and more of an elusive national celebrity. With Bigfoot’s new identity as an American icon, his lore cycle has shifted, changing who he is as a fable and as a true cryptid. Sasquatch would not be as popular as he is today without the media’s acceptance of him.

Joshua Blu Buhs also delves into the comparison of Bigfoot and nineteenth century middle class conmen, specifically those who may have seemed like reputable, “self-made men” (199). During this time period, Buhs argues that self-made men “lacked the traditional measures of refinement” making the “line between a respectable man and a conman difficult to distinguish” (199). Bigfoot is a dual creature, a boundary figure who begs the question of truth – does he, or does he not exist? Is the video evidence credible, or was it simply depicting a man in a suit, hoodwinking an entire nation? As a depiction of the working-class man, Sasquatch works to expose fears of the nineteenth century, but as stories and portrayals of Bigfoot found their way into “tabloids, men’s adventure magazines, cheap paperback novels, and independently produced films that toured America’s hinterlands”, The Foot became a victim of consumerism, a symbol of the shift into the new world of a “consumer-based economy” (Buhs 200). Joshua Blu Buhs also states that “Bigfoot helped to ease the working-class men into the world of consumerism and mass culture” (200). Although America has placed the issue of conmen on the backburner as of the twenty-first century, these concerns are still a part of Bigfoot’s identity, his lore cycle.

As the United States moved into the 1970s and 1980s, authors like Marian Place began to incorporate Bigfoot into their children’s books, giving him a new, nontraditional audience.  For children, Sasquatch seemed to be “a way for them to finesse a different dilemma: how to create a social identity while still maintaining connections with their parents” (Buhs 196), a connection that was an unintentional result of their parents attempt to educate them “in the proper way to live in a consumer society” (Buhs 196). In his essay, Buhs often paraphrases fellow scholar Linda Dégh, a renowned Hungarian folklorist when he writes that “American producers of children’s culture transformed Bigfoot from an object of legends into the subject of morality tales” (201), further proof of the older generation’s attempt to use Sasquatch as an idol for their children. Most of these stories were new interpretations of older fairytales whose main characters were giants or ogres, creatures who were simply substituted with Bigfoot and then retold as original bedtime stories (Buhs 201). Through these reimagined stories, male children are supposedly “made into men” by learning character traits such as “working hard, fulfilling responsibility, repressing emotions, saving money, and applying ingenuity to make labor more efficient” (Buhs 202), traits that are seen as male stereotypes in modern-day America. Through Bigfoot, parents teach their young boys how to be more masculine, making Sasquatch a figure who promotes male gender roles. Other stories encourage young male readers to feel the need to “control wild nature” because “such stories play up the conflict between liberty and danger, showing how the dangerous liberty enjoyed by nature needs to be subdued to make possible the political liberty of white men” (Buhs 202). Post-World War II, fathers of these children were often constantly busy with commuting to and from work, which left raising the boys to their mothers, a task that begged the question of whether mothers were fit to turn their sons into men (Buhs 202). These stories were created to encourage young boys to become more masculine, but in the end, all Bigfoot did was give them a wilder imagination. Preteens who were exposed to Sasquatch stories at a young age later referred to him as a fairytale instead of as a role model, placing Bigfoot back into the mythological creature category (Buhs 210). Joshua Blu Buhs credits these children with being the ones who “transformed Bigfoot back into a legendary character” (210), allowing him to be the internet celebrity he is today. Present-day Bigfoot symbolizes different things to different people, but he remains a boundary figure and a representation for consumerism, desire, and fantasy.

Although Sasquatch is a one-of-a-kind cryptid, he doesn’t stand alone in the line-up for America’s most wanted. Alien UFO sightings have occurred all over the world, yet aliens themselves are still considered to be boundary figures, a species who exists on the border between reality and fantasy. People from all over the world travel to American tourist hot-spot locations like New Mexico, where it is said to have the most alien activity. While scientists and researchers debate the existence of aliens, these creatures still have a large cult following of everyday people who want something a little extraterrestrial out of life. Even the television and movie industry are familiar with aliens. With movies like Paul, The Watch, and the film franchise, Alien, Americans are more than able to get their dose of strange, making the little green guys not so different from Bigfoot.

Everyone from easily-entertained Americans to hard-core enthusiasts have some knowledge of Sasquatch, even if it’s just a general idea. Bigfoot’s trek through the United States timeline has created for him a lore cycle unlike any other mythological beast; however, other beasts still exist in society’s subconscious mind. Creatures like the vampire, the werewolf, and the zombie have taken center stage in modern-day American culture and they speak for the current time period; perhaps these monsters serve as more than entertainment. Through the study of these beings as cultural markers, connections can be made to teach everyday people about themselves and the society in which they live, forever opening the door to self-assessment and societal progression.

 

Works Cited

“Bigfoot: The Convincing Evidence.” YouTube,uploaded by BuzzFeedBlue, 14 April 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWNyH56oXvY&t=256s

Buhs, Joshua Blu. “Tracking Bigfoot Through 1970s Children’s Culture: How Mass Media, Consumerism, and the Culture of Preadolescence Shaped Wildman Lore.” Western Folklore,vol. 70, no. 2, Spring 2011, pp. 195-218.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture.University of Minnesota Press, 15 Nov. 1996, pp. 3-25.

Coleman, Loren, and Jerome Clark. “Cryptozoology Today.” Cryptozoology A to Z: The Encyclopedia of Lochness Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature. Simon & Schuster Inc., 1999, pp. 20-21.

Enger, Patrick. “Bigfoot Museum in Northern California.” Willow Creek – China Flat Museum,11 June 2011, bigfootcountry.net/bigfoot-museum-in-northern-california

Harry and the Hendersons.Directed by William Dear, Universal Picture, 1987.

“Last Forever: Part Two.” How I Met Your Mother,created by Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, performance by Jason Segel, season 9, episode 24, 20thCentury Fox Television, 2014.

“No Questions Asked Rule.” How I Met Your Mother,created by Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, performance by Jason Segel, season 9, episode 7, 20thCentury Fox Television, 2014.

Sanderson, Ivan T. “The Strange Story of America’s Abominable Snowman: The Jerry Crew Story.” True Magazine,Dec. 1959, www.bigfootencounters.com/articles/true1959.htm

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