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Saturday, September 30, 2023

Nestled in the Holy Bosom of Bigfoot

Bigfoot is, well, big these days. The legendary cryptid seems to be enjoying a renaissance of a sort; the iconic profile in mid-step appears on bumper stickers, flags, and t-shirts, and even decorates suburban yards in the form of a wooden cut-out. The phenomena of de-facto Sasquatch appreciation has become an almost subliminal form of acceptance for this mystery hominid. While displaying Bigfoot imagery across the board does not necessarily mean that more people are true believers, it does seem to indicate a willingness to recognize a phenomena without fear of reprisal or of being considered a kook. Even when presented jokingly, the iconography of the hairy champion of the wilds reifies a type of existence, a less material one, one that is malleable and subject to our societal whims and prejudices.

It is interesting to see how Bigfoot tends to be represented in mass cultural artifacts such as bumper stickers, and perhaps not surprising that "he" has come to represent macho, outdoor sportsmanship. The big hairy monster has become a running joke in Jack Link's Jerky commercials on TV, in which he is the target of practical jokes. Cardboard cut-outs of this version can be seen in convenience stores, holding a bag of the smoked meat. The jerky-eating, manly beast then becomes an icon to hunters and many depictions in the aforementioned bumper stickers have him carrying a gun. Our beloved national cryptid, it seems, is increasingly embraced by gun-nuts of the right-wing. To the uninitiated, Bigfoot represents an animalistic liberation - the untamed negative-film version of the essence of "Man". He is somewhat human, but free- unrestricted, a wild man of the forest, huge and intimidating- everything men want to be but can't be, because society won't let him. This is all, of course, conjecture, based on a small sampling of cultural evidence. It is of course also meant to serve as an example of how a peripheral, half-joking acceptance of a creature leaves it still open to interpretation and to being co-opted by groups with their own political motives. 

This is the numinous Bigfoot, the one who lurks and hides behind trees and boulders in our collective unconscious. Our every representation of the beast serves as an emanation of the very real Idea Form of Bigfoot, and also informs that which presents in more gross material form. While the aforementioned "Macho Squatch" may seem to be the dominant model, it's just as easy to find Bigfoot adopted as an LGBTQIA+ totem in bumper stickers and other merchandise. One can also find Bigfoot with guitars, or fishing poles, or beer- the beastie becomes a blank slate, a movie screen suspended in the woods, waiting for the masses to project themselves upon it. Any particular niche interest, it seems, can be found associated with the squatch if one looks for it enough online.

Bigfoot seen celebrating Pride Month, outside the home of UMASS Amherst anthropology professor Todd Disotell in Brimfield, MA

Cryptozoologists and fans of cryptids have a more nuanced view, of course. These can still border on the problematic, or seem as silly as memes which depict Bigfoot alongside Elvis and the Loch Ness Monster, but nonetheless an earnest investigatory approach does away with basic assumptions that inform public ideas more broadly. One obvious presupposition, which nearly all fictional and iconographic representations fall prey to, is that "he" is almost ubiquitously assumed to be male. Bigfoot is as much a caricature, a totemic personality or spirit, typifying the wild male essence, as it is a supposed race of mysterious natural creatures. If one is to assume that there is a breeding population, one must accept that both male and female specimens exist. If one ascribes to more metaphysical explanations, this may not be necessary, but the point is that the surface-level reading broadly assumes a masculine, brutish giant- and rarely ever a ladysquatch.

This brings us to the most well-known image- and perhaps one of the best pieces of evidence- of Bigfoot that we have. The Patterson-Gimlin film, captured in October of 1967, is a brief but compelling video of a Sasquatch in the forest who briefly turns to look at the camera before swiftly turning, and walking off into the forest of Northern California. "Patty", as the squatch in question has been dubbed, has become the source of nearly all 'bigfoot-in-side-profile' silhouette iconography and graphic design for merchandise. The irony of course is that "Bigfoot" as a macho beastie, repeated almost subliminally to us all through repeated uses of the design, was in fact based on what appeared to be a female Sasquatch. The average person with a Bigfoot bumper sticker may not know, or much care about the anatomical particulars, but that's part of what makes Patty's breasts one of those gleaming and intriguing bits of evidence that seem to really illuminate the mystery before us. If, as so often the accusation has been laid, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin got someone to wear an ape suit in order to fake the video, why on Earth would they choose an ape suit with breasts? The debate over this brief bit of video evidence has raged for over 50 years. Some claim the dynamics of a suit would have been impossible in 1967, while others maintain their skepticism in every conceivable way. While seekers of mysteries seek and skeptics scoff, the side profile of Patty, her breasts obscured or ignored, makes a heel-turn into eternity in the memetic form so familiar to us now. 

When the subject of Patty's breasts gets any wider recognition, it takes a turn toward juvenile joking and tabloid sleaze-mongering. At the 50th anniversary of Patty's strut into the collective unconscious, The Sun (UK) ran the headline BIGFOOT HAS BOOBS , and goes on to quote Gimlin in a way bound to generate laughter and ridicule from an incredulous readership. If Bigfoot has achieved a degree of acceptance, broadly, as a possible real entity, it seems the public is not ready for a mature discussion of Bigfoot boobies. This writer would be disingenuous to try to claim that it isn't funny, but at the same time it says something about our culture that discussions about basic anatomy and secondary sexual organs are so often taboo enough to be reduced to dirty jokes. Referring to Patty's boobs in a headline on a tabloid page has some degree of similarity to the classic Weekly World News story of a man abducted by Bigfoot for sexual reasons.

This harkens back to the famous abduction story of Albert Ostman, who claimed some thirty-three years after the fact to have been held hostage by a family of Sasquatch for a week in 1924. According to his tale, he was scooped up in the middle of the night inside his sleeping bag and carried for three hours to a plateau where the creatures lived. Here we see the nuclear family of Bigfoot- two adults and their two progeny, living an idyllic life eating some form of sweet grass in their hidden British Columbia home. Ostman, a prospector, woodsman, and lumberjack, was armed but felt no need to use weapons against the weird family of hairy beings. They didn't seem to mean him harm, but wouldn't let him leave either- he only escaped by fooling the large male squatch into eating snuff and becoming ill, and taking advantage of the distraction. Though widely ridiculed, Ostman's account is nevertheless a popular and commonly cited one- and one which portrays Sasquatch in a kind and nurturing light. One gets the sense of a maternal, or perhaps simply parental, protective motive in abducting him. Perhaps they thought he was lost, and meant to take care of him...

Similarly, Bigfoot is portrayed this way in the 1987 "crowd pleaser" of a family adventure comedy Harry and the Hendersons. The titular Harry (a play on the word "Hairy") is a Sasquatch who is taken to live with a family after being hit with their car and knocked out. Hilarity ensues, naturally- and one can assume a certain generation of Forteans were influenced by this movie in their youth. The father of the Henderson family, played by John Lithgow, is a hunter. His walls are festooned with taxidermy, trophies from his sport. Harry is visibly disturbed, and angered by the dead animals. Lithgow, as George Henderson, comes to a change of heart about his interaction with nature- a transformative effect, inspired by Harry in his almost matronly (despite his implied masculine gender) attitude of stewardship over the forest and the small creatures.

Harry, then, becomes an avatar of sorts for the wonder and the horrors of the wild- part Smokey the Bear, part King Kong, and all Mother Nature, he is the demarcation point for our human need to be part of the natural world while at the same time separate from it. Harry can't live in a suburban home any more than we could live without our societal structures in the forest.

Thinking of Bigfoot in terms of iconography, fictional representation, first-hand accounts, as a meme or in the form of public display as statues and cut-outs one can't help but realize that it has become quite literally idolized. Much in the same way that religious groups use material representations of saints, gods, protector spirits, and other spiritual entities we are reifying the Spirit of Sasquatch with increasing frequency. In some suburbs, Bigfoot is just as likely to be seen as a lawn ornament as Saint Francis is and, as illustrated above, the two share a commonality as spirits who commune with nature. It has been conjectured that the repeated symbol form of Bigfoot may cause an increase in sightings, as more museums pop up devoted to the cryptid and become places of seeming pilgrimage for believers. There is a corollary here for devotional journeys to places associated with Marian apparitions, or sacred sites where miracles have taken place. Casts of Bigfoot prints become almost like the Shroud of Turin; remnants of hair or scat samples become analogous to the reliquary of saints in the form of body parts. Encounters become a form of miracle. There is even a Holy Order of the Sasquatch that you can join, if you so wish- although, according to them, you might already be a member without knowing it!

A recent "miraculous" synchronicity between myself and my bestie SJ, in which we both visited Bigfoot museums on opposite coasts, may have inspired our own *ahem* cult activities in the form a a show... The Holy Donut Revival Hour, coming soon!

A study of Bigfoot through this religious, and specifically Catholic way, leads us to consider the cryptid as less of a zoological specimen and more of a rising spiritual force. If we look at Bigfoot sighings in a fashion similar to reports of Marian apparitions, as may be appropriate given the mother-like Bigfoot examples we have established, we open ourselves to new and weirder vistas from which to view the phenomenon. To conceive of this idea is far from immaculate, but as a rough case study, let us consider the Miraculous Lactation of Saint Bernard.

Perplexing medieval depictions of the miracle in question show Mary appearing before Bernard of Clairvaux at a distance, squeezing one breast and propelling an arc of breast milk into his open mouth. Much in the way that a discussion of Patty's boobs brings chuckles and ridicule, this image seems absurd to the point of hilarity. If Bigfoot breasts are difficult to discuss, then a breastmilk trick-shot from the Holy Mother seems impossible. The legend has its origins, however, with Bernard kneeling before a statue of the Holy Virgin, and saying monstra te esse matrem, or "show yourself to be the Holy Mother". The statue then comes to life, and holds Bernard's mouth to her breast, allowing him to drink from it. Various interpretations over the centuries since the 12th century miracle have ascribed holy and supernatural properties to the Virgin's breastmilk, endowing Bernard with gifts of healing, vision, wisdom, oratory gifts, or relief from suffered afflictions depending on the source. Significant are the resonances here between the Catholic miracle story and Bigfoot encounters- The apparition and its relation to statuary, the supernatural elements and Holy Mothering, and the personal transformation undergone by Bernard after the experience. It's also worth noting that "Saint Bernard" also refers to large, hairy mammals in the form of dogs bred for rescue and care of people stranded in the icy climbs of the Alps. 

Coming back around to modern tales of Bigfoot encounters, we find a story which mirrors the miraculous lactation. It was reported by a man identifying himself only as "Mac from Mississippi", on the Monsters Among Us podcast. (You can find Mac's call in Season 9, episode 6, about 38 minutes in.) He tells the story of a deer hunting trip gone wrong. He had fallen from a hunter's stand up in an oak tree, and hurt himself badly on the lower branches and losing consciousness. He awoke to find he was being lifted from the tangle of branches and lowered to the ground by massive hands, and despite losing his glasses recognized those hands as belonging to a female Sasquatch. He described her as having a feminine face, and lactating breasts, and described her as being nurturing in holding him in much the way Koko the Gorilla was with her pet kitten. The female squatch then fed the paralyzed man from her breast, the milk from which he described as awful in taste. He was later found and brought to a hospital, where it was determined he had broken his back. While there doesn't seem to be any direct association between the breastmilk itself and any healing or otherwise magical effects, Mac in his retelling seems to believe that the nurturing mother Bigfoot's actions saved him from predation of known wild animals such as coyotes and bobcats. In a very real sense, assuming the story is true and also not simply a shock-induced hallucination, he was "delivered from on high" and saved by the Mother Bigfoot. His survival is a testament to the gentle nature of this sacred woodland spirit, and mirrors in a literal sense the metaphysical themes of spiritual salvation.

The real truth of the Bigfoot Mystery may never be known, or agreed upon. Skeptics are at a loss to prove they don't exist, because even attempting to do so is a faulty logical premise. They can merely outline the many and varied reasons that the presence of a flesh-and-blood animal meeting that description is very unlikely. True believers and avid Bigfoot Hunters may continue pursuing this phantom of the biological record, while others may accept him, her, or it as a Nature Spirit, one of the Fae, or any number of other less-than-material explanations. The Mystery, however, may be the point- and closer to the Sacred Mysteries contemplated by monks and mystics down through the ages than we might be comfortable believing. Just as the Sacred Heart of Jesus is central to Catholic devotion as a symbol of God's love for us humans, perhaps the unifying natural order that envelops and includes us mere mortals is nestled somewhere in the Holy Bosom of Bigfoot. It is something we yearn for, but can never have in this world- something we chase which always eludes us. Perhaps we'll find ourselves in meccas like the International Cryptozoology Museum, kneeling before Bigfoot saying monstra te esse Monstrum - "show yourself to be the monster" - and find the Sasquatch holding a mirror to its breast revealing our horrified faces to our own eyes. Maybe the Mystery isn't meant to be known, but rather just experienced. In the holy name of Bigfoot, amen.




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