An interview with
Joshua Blu Buhs
author of Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend
Question: I expect this is the first question you’ll get in all interviews: Why Bigfoot? You’re a serious scholar, and your first book, The Fire Ant Wars, told the story of attempts to eradicate an invasive species—not a whit of the paranormal or unexplained there. So why turn from writing about known, documented creatures to the story of this elusive—if enduring—hominid?
Joshua Blu Buhs: That Bigfoot wasn't real was, at first, a feature, not a bug (pun slightly intended). With The Fire Ant Wars one thing I was trying to get at was the various and contradictory ways Americans have thought about “nature” in the second half of the twentieth century. Some saw the ants as the worst plague since Exodus, others as benign. The arguments, though, always had to touch on the ant—an actually existing creature that behaved in certain ways. The ant limited (but did not determine) the ideas that people could voice.
I thought that studying Bigfoot would be a nice extension of the fire ant book. Here, in Bigfoot, was a creature that seemed to embody nature—and yet wasn't real. People were free to imagine whatever they wanted about it: and so in discussions of Bigfoot I might see American fantasies about nature that were not necessarily grounded in the real world. What did we think about nature when the only limit was our imaginations?
As you'll see from the book, though, the story went in a completely different way. Bigfoot may or may not be real—depending upon what we define as real—but the creature still had agency and shaped the book that I wrote.
Question: You’re an independent scholar, unaffiliated with any university. Did the relative freedom offered by such independence contribute to your decision to study Bigfoot? Would you have been reluctant to tackle this subject within the confines of, say, a history or sociology of science department?
Buhs: There are costs and benefits of being an independent scholar. The cost is lack of resources. There aren't seminars just down the hall nor is there ready access to a large research library. (Although certainly information technologies have reduced these burdens, just in the years that I have been working.)
The benefit, as you suggest, is a relative degree of freedom. It's not that anyone in academia would prohibit this kind of work and, indeed, there are a lot of scholars who study popular culture and other seemingly trivial subjects. But, the price of such work is taken from one's prestige. In the history of science, the field I know best, historians are granted the credibility and prestige of the subject that they study: so historians of physics are the most prestigious, historians of chemistry less so, and on down the line. Historians of pseudoscience, then, are definitely off the beaten path. Enough other scholars would understand the work to make it worthwhile, but there would always be a few who sniffed and looked down at the topic to make writing on Bigfoot a somewhat risky proposition, especially for a young scholar, like myself.
Question: As the Internet has revealed, people who are deeply invested in activities or hobbies that are outside the mainstream—and here I’m thinking of anything from sci-fi fandom to Civil War re-enactments to statistical baseball research—can be very defensive about their work; disagreements that might seem minor to an outsider can erupt into full-blown wars. Were you worried about dipping your relatively inexperienced toes into such a field? Were you surprised at the intensity of the response to your inquiries, for good or bad?
Buhs: At the very beginning, I wasn't too worried—I was rather naive about the passions of those involved. But as I got deeper into the research, I certainly became so and remember warning my wife, "This book could get us some phone calls at three a.m." Being the wonderful person she is, she said she already had thought about that and decided I should go forward because I was enjoying the work so much.
To this point, though, I've mostly received encouragement or curious inquiries, so, at least so far, I've been surprised at acceptance more than the vitriol, but we'll see as the book spreads through the Bigfoot community how my arguments are accepted. It could still get interesting. During the whole Georgia Bigfoot saga of 2008, one of Loren Coleman's books was actually burned!
Question: Like you, I grew up in the 1970s, when Bigfoot really did seem to be everywhere, from the TV show “Bigfoot and Wildboy” to supermarket tabloids and murky documentaries. Bigfoot seemed to be part of a whole realm of paranormal phenomena, which I instinctively viewed as somewhat disreputable. So I was quite surprised to learn from your book just how seriously the idea of this monster was taken back in the 1950s, when Sir Edmund Hillary led an expedition to look for Yeti on Mt. Everest, taking with him, among other people, Marlin Perkins. Are there any topics of general discussion today that you think we might look back on in fifty years with similar surprise?
Buhs: I suspect that there are loads of things now that we take as real phenomenon worthy of contemplation that will, on later reflection, turn out to seem, well, ridiculous. Reading through old newspapers from the 1950s for stories on Bigfoot, for example, I was struck by how many articles were concerned with juvenile delinquency. From our perspective, this seems a quaint problem. Crime rates were much lower in the 1950s, and the signs of delinquency—interest in rock and roll music, say—are much more widespread now, even accepted, without worry. More recently, I think it's been pretty well concluded that the "crack baby" epidemic of the 1980s was, at the very least, way overblown.
Nonetheless, we can't dismiss these concerns. That's one of the main points of Bigfoot. Even these topics that seem ridiculous in retrospect need to be treated seriously because some people took them seriously. Juvenile delinquency was real to the people of the 1950s as a cultural object that they had to confront, just as Bigfoot is real to us today, as a presence on our TV screens, as something we all, eventually, learn about, even if only to learn that it's hokum: because encoded in the belief that Bigfoot is nonsense are all kinds of ideas about the world, about the proper role of science, about class divisions, about the nature of reality.
Question: The Patterson film of Bigfoot, where the beast strides across the screen, looks over her shoulder, then disappears into the forest, is almost as iconic as the Zapruder film of Kennedy’s assassination. Despite knowing that it’s almost certainly a fabrication, I will admit that it’s nonetheless thrilling to watch. Do you feel the same way? Does this say anything about the continuing relevance of Bigfoot, or just about the effect of saturation on our perception of images?
Buhs: I agree that the film is thrilling, and I think this speaks to the genius of the hoax. Roger Patterson, the small-time con man and rodeo rider who made the film, tried a number of get-rich schemes both before and after the film. None had the staying power of the movie—this was the one that he got just right.
Part of that rightness comes from the enduring power of Bigfoot. There's just something about wildmen that appeals to us humans. I don't know why, exactly: different cultures have different reasons for invoking them, but there's no question that wildmen appear in the stories told by people across all time and space. The fascination with monkeys and apes—so much like us, yet so different—comes from the same place, I think. Without speculating why, it's enough to notice that humans are fascinated by such creatures.
The rest of the rightness comes from Patterson's mastery of film conventions. These conventions, unlike the interest in wildmen, are specific to a particular place and time. It's quite likely that, in the future, people will not be able to see what we see in the movie without being very well versed in the history of cinematography—because the conventions of filming will have changed so much, just as, say, it's hard for a contemporary person to understand Medieval paintings without an intimate knowledge of symbols from the time. But we have grown up with these conventions, with this grammar, and so understand the picture in a visceral, immediate way.
The muddy, hazy picture, the jerky filming—these are traits that we have learned to accept as signs of authenticity. They are also associated with the cheap entertainments of the 1970s—the mockumentaries and exploitation films. These are exactly the opposite of authentic but the association, I think, still works to make Patterson's film thrilling—because those movies are themselves associated with cheap thrills. We have learned to associate these kinds of images with drive-in movies, with late night TV, with taboos—especially sexual ones—all of which work together to give the film a charge.
Patterson also followed one of the cardinal rules of making these films work: being quick. Sure, we see the monster, but only for a few seconds, and then it’s gone. A longer movie would have made the hoax more obvious. A short one tantalizes and accentuates the thrill. It really was a brilliant con.
Question: Reading your accounts of the various back-and-forth debates between credentialed, skeptical scientists and Bigfoot researchers over the years, I was reminded of the ongoing debates over climate change. By nature, scientists are skeptical and hedging; science is rarely in the business of making definitive declarations. But in a debate against nonscientists, that refusal to be definitive can be a weakness, leaving the door perpetually open for plausible-sounding refutations built on shaky evidence and a willingness to forthrightly state conclusions. Would you agree? And if so, do you think that’s one of the contributing factors to Bigfoot’s refusal to die?
Buhs: Mmmmm … . I think that the dynamics of the situation are very different. In the case of climate change, there is a very strongly accepted scientific consensus: on average, the Earth's temperature is increasing due to human activities, and this will result in dramatic changes in the environment. I don't get the sense that climate scientists are hedging or worried about making definitive declarations. Rather, the controversy is maintained by the confluence of two factors. One, there are a number of well-funded groups who pay experts to argue against the generally-held consensus. Two, the conventions of journalism, as currently practiced, give equal weight to both sides: journalists are afraid to judge the merits of scientific ideas or make distinctions among the experts. And so, in this case, scientists find themselves confronted by powerful groups with ready access to the media.
In the case of Bigfoot, on the contrary, scientists confront underfunded individuals. Bigfooters do have access to the media, but, in my opinion, are not treated with the respect that climate change denialists are accorded. Bigfooters generally make the paper as subjects of human interest stories or under the heading "News of the Weird." Even in straightforward news reports, it's clear the writer often has his or her tongue firmly in cheek. To be sure, there have been times that newspapers took the possibility of Bigfoot's existence seriously—the New York Times did a couple of such articles in the 1970s, and the Wall Street Journal did one—but those are the exceptions, not the rule. Meanwhile there have been, as well as plenty defenders of the scientific establishment, who have been willing to flatly state that the evidence for Bigfoot is meager. So the media does allow for the perpetuation of Bigfoot tales, but not serious ones, not ones that are thought to be true. The perpetuation of belief in Bigfoot—or acceptance of the evidence indicating that Bigfoot exists—owes much more to the existence of groups unsatisfied by the scientific consensus who find their own ways of disseminating information—through newsletters at one time, or blogs now, and publishing houses that cater to this fringe.
Question: That said, do you think there’s any force to the charge, laid by many figures in your book, that science has become too insular—as Bigfoot researcher Ivan T. Sanderson put it, all “bottle-washing and button-pushing”? Did you come across any examples of evidence that scientists seemed too quick to dismiss?
Buhs: I think that this is a difficult question to answer—at least for me. There's an ideal of the scientist who wants to study everything and only accepts ideas provisionally and bases his or her beliefs on empirically grounded study. But that's an ideal, not real life, and it becomes tiresome to argue first principles over and over again with everyone. Do scientists really have an obligation to take seriously, say, the Flat Earthers? Or those who argue the moon landing was faked? I don't think so.
Still, the existence of Bigfoot or the Yeti is not impossible nor as outrageous to the scientific sensibility as the belief that, for example, the Earth is hollow and there's an entrance at the North Pole—one bit of stigmatized knowledge that continues to float around. And so it's not unreasonable that people should accept that Bigfoot or the Yeti exists based on the evidence that they examine: tracks and eyewitness reports, especially.
Yet some scientists did dismiss the possibility of Bigfoot's existence out of hand, lumping Bigfooters with Flat Earthers. This doesn't mean that science was too insular—I don't think there's much to that charge by Sanderson—but that scientists are humans, and given to some of the same faults as any other humans: overconfidence, closed-mindedness, irritability, arguing in bad faith. Interestingly, though, I think that these faults were most clearly on display not among scientists—truth be told, most scientists ignored the whole subject—but among members of the so-called skeptical movement, who were often not scientists but fans of science: philosophers, magicians, science fiction writers, science writers. The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) founded Skeptical Inquirer back in the late 1970s and that magazine sometimes resorted to ridicule as a form of argument, lampooning the Bigfooters rather than engaging them. CSICOP also put forth arguments that were sometimes more specious than those of the Bigfooters, as well, for example arguing that the Bigfoot myth may have started in Kentucky, which showed no familiarity with the history of the phenomenon at all.
Underneath all of this there is also a class dimension. Scientists are usually members of the middle class, if not always drawn from there. Many of the Bigfooters, and certainly a lot of the grassroots enthusiasts, were working class. They were trying to gain a degree of dignity by finding out something about the universe that elites did not know. The middle class was trying to retain its privileged position—CSICOP can be seen as defenders of this privilege. The ridicule skeptics used, I think, reveals this class dimension very well. Think of the stereotyped Bigfoot believer: a yahoo, trailer park resident, a guy who likes to spend too much time in the woods with his gun, someone who sees the world through beer-bottle glasses. These are all stereotypes of the working class, and by invoking them, skeptics could debunk belief in Bigfoot without argument but with an appeal to prejudice.
Question: You state in your preface that you don’t believe Bigfoot exists, that “indeed, writing this book actually gave substance to what was before only a vague kind of skepticism.” At this point would anything other than the documented live capture of a Bigfoot convince you otherwise?
Buhs: I agree with Bigfooters John Green and Grover Krantz that the only way to prove Bigfoot's existence is a body. It doesn't have to be a live body and maybe not even a complete body, but enough of one to establish that it comes from a yet-undiscovered animal. Technology has made it easier and easier to fake pictures or video—I cannot imagine either of them offering definitive evidence. And all the ancillary evidence—fur, feces, fingerprints—is also too easily faked.
One of the themes of Bigfootery is how often people underestimate the creativity of others in making a hoax, and how often they dismiss the possibility of a hoax because it doesn't come with fame or fortune. But people can perpetrate elegant—beautiful—hoaxes seemingly for nothing more than the thrill of doing so. Almost as though hoaxing is a kind of performance art, and the beauty of the hoax is reason enough for its existence. Indeed, I think it worthwhile to compare the faking of Bigfoot tracks with two other kinds of foot-related performance art. One, the urban and suburban phenomenon of hanging sneakers from telephone wires and two the rural phenomenon of placing boots on fence posts. None of the cases requires that the author of the work receive any credit. It's enough, apparently, to make the audience look and wonder.
That constant possibility of hoaxing—what I call in the book "the unconquerable problem"—means that only a body will be convincing proof.
Question: Bigfoot vs. Predator. Who wins?
Buhs: I like this question! Because, in a nutshell, it shows how even the frivolous can have … a secondary meaning, if we look at it in the right way.
There are a number of similarities between Bigfoot and Predator. Both are stronger than the average human, faster, at home in the wilderness. If we believe some Bigfooters, then both also have the ability to become invisible and both may be from outer space. Still, my gut answer would be to say that Predator wins. Bigfoot uses its powers to remain hidden, while Predator uses its to … hunt humans.
But that analysis is too pat. If we look a little more, we'll see that, actually, this question is a sophisticated Zen koan.
The Sasquatch in the movie Harry and the Hendersons (as well as one episode of the subsequent TV series) was Kevin Peter Hall. Immediately after finishing the movie, Hall took on the role of Predator in the movie of the same name. He reprised the role for Predator 2. (Tragically, Kevin Peter Hall died of AIDS shortly after the second Predator film and while the TV version of “Harry and the Hendersons" was in production.)
So the question becomes, Kevin Peter Hall vs. Kevin Peter Hall. Who wins? And if a tree falls in the forest but no one is there, does it make a sound? What is the sound of one hand clapping?