Monday, August 30, 2010


1968 was a record year for men in ape suits. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, an aggressive primate hurled a bone into the sky which famously morphed into a space satellite. In the same year's Planet of the Apes, a space ship containing a cargo of pure Charlton Heston crash-landed on an eerily familiar planet dominated by intelligent apes. The prosthetic make-up effects in the latter were the work of television veteran John Chambers, and earned him a special Oscar for Outstanding Achievement in Make-Up. (Chambers was the man who famously gave Leonard Nimoy his iconic Vulcan ears in Star Trek, which then cost the show's notoriously strained budget 25 bucks each. We will encounter Chambers again in the course of this strange tale.) It was a year earlier, however, that saw the release of perhaps the most iconic and enduring man in a monkey suit movie of all - but we cannot emphasize the "perhaps" enough.

Roger Patterson was a resident of Yakima, Washington, a former rodeo rider and, by some debatable later accounts, a conman who exhibited a considerable reluctance when it came to paying his dues. Sometime between '55 and '59, Patterson encountered the Yakima man who would play the role of his side-kick in the strange adventure of '67. Robert Emory Gimlin was a mild-mannered rancher of Chiricahua Apache Indian decent. The two men were drawn together by a very strange mutual passion. Many indigenous peoples around the globe possess a lively folk tradition regarding the existence of creatures that fall into some intermediate category between man and beast. These wildmen of ancient legendry are usually giant in stature, and highly elusive, mysterious creatures. They live somewhere out in the wilderness, but nobody knows quite where. Like the faeries, the wildmen are encountered only occasionally, by solitary travellers who have often lost their way. These chance meetings are brief, gnomic affairs that usually engender feelings of fear and awe - a sense of encountering an alternate order of being, of threading into a hermetically sealed world that human eyes were not meant to see. The wildmen rarely harm their inadvertent witnesses, but appear largely indifferent to the human world - they soon saunter back into the deep wilderness, and whatever strange spaces they inhabit at the edge of reality. In the Australian outback, they are called the Yowie; in South America, Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the first Westerners to record local tales of the Mono Grande, or Large Monkey; and of course, the snowy wastes of Nepal and Tibet are scattered with eldritch footprints, said to mark the passing of the Yeti.

In the increasingly technologized frontier of North America in the twentieth century, this type of mythical beast came to be called Bigfoot. While traditional societies have always taken the existence of otherworldly beings and realms for granted, modern Western culture has never known quite what to do with the denizens of its particular twilight zone. Hence the birth of the supremely paradoxical "science" of crytozoology, an earnest and often impassioned attempt to capture and classify the creatures of folklore's ever teeming bestiary. Crytozoology is a paradoxical endeavour indeed - for any potential victory for the field is also intrinsically a defeat. Once a fabled species had been definitively documented, it has lost the qualities that made it so alluring in the first place - its liminal status as an entity poised between reality and rumour, and the exciting jeopardy of committing one's self wholly to the pursuit of something that may, after all, be nothing more than a mirage of whispers and shadows. (Ufology similarly derives much of its appeal, it's raison d'etre, from information of an inherently ambiguous character. All impassioned dreams require, to a greater or lesser degree, the jeopardy of unreality and impossibility.)

Crytozoology emerged in large part from the surreal landscape of pulp magazine publication in post-war America - a scene dominated by titles like Raymond Palmer's FATE and Frank Munsey's Argosy, and populated by a menagerie of serious-minded monster-hunters and dimestore journalists, men in every regard as marginal and bizarre as the phantoms they pursued. (This is the unique, long vanished netherworld of print journalism that the great John A. Keel made his own.) The pulp magazines can actually be seen as torch bearers for a certain tendency that was very widespread in American newspaper journalism around the turn of the century - a streak of PT Barnum-like showmanship that was not at all adverse to occasionally outrageous crytozoological hoaxes. For example, on August 25, 1835, the New York Sun ran a story with the headline "Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel L.L.D, F. R. S." The piece attributed to a real astronomer the discovery on the moon of trees, beaches, rivers, and a variety of lifeforms including unicorns, two-legged beavers, and a species of furry, winged, bat-like humanoid.

In 1961, Ivan T. Sanderson, the originator of the word "crytozoology", wrote a book called Snowmen: Legends Come to Life, which somehow fell into the hands of rodeo rider and lean roughneck Roger Patterson. The book had a strangely powerful effect on Patterson's imagination: he corresponded with Sanderson for six years, and self-published his own contribution to the genre, Do Abominable Snowmen of North America Really Exist?, in 1966. Patterson's chaotic life discovered a sense of purpose, an ordering principle, in the myth of the unclassified, unfettered beast-man roaming the wilds of an increasingly civilised and tame nation. He had similarly inflamed Bob Gimlin's imagination with tales of terrifying sightings and mysterious tracks, and 1967 the pair were working on an ambitious pseudo-documentary called "Bigfoot: Americas Abominable Snowman." The movie's proposed storyline involved Patterson, a wise Indian tracker (Gimlin wearing a wig), and a trope of cowboys setting off on the trail of Bigfoot. ( The project was later realized, under the alternative title of Sasquatch, the Legend of Bigfoot, by Ron Olson of ANE studios.) The adventure had a touch of vaudeville from the onset.

Following reports of intermittent sightings and tracks, the pair made their way to Six Rivers National Forest in North California, armed with a couple of rifles and a 16 mm camera which had been officially classified as stolen until Patterson later returned it in perfect working order. They were wandering through an area portentously named Bluff Creek in the early afternoon of October the 20th, when sheer, fortuitous lightning struck. As Roger would later tell Ivan T. Sanderson and the readers of Argosy magazine: "Gosh darn it, Ivan, right there was a Bigfoot, and, fer pity's sake, she was a female! I don't think you'll see it in the film, but she walked like a big man in no hurry, and the soles of her feet were definitely light in color."

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