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Bigfoot: Why do we believe in you?

July 2, 2009 |  1:49 pm

BigfootcoverThe cover of this book reminds me of the thousands of pairs of Ugg boots I see girls wearing around L.A. Perhaps Bigfoot -- since we can never seem to pin that guy down completely -- is supporting himself somewhere out in the woods by designing the original pair of Uggs?

In all seriousness though, Bigfoot really is an American tall-tale. Up there with the Loch Ness monster and other such mystic creatures we can never seem to find, he eludes us and yet we always choose to believe in him, just a little bit. Bigfoot embodies American ideals: Western ruggedness, the great outdoors, old-fashioned masculinity and perhaps a strange backwoods idea of what it is like to be larger than life.

In the case of author Joshua Blu Buhs, he tells us right away that Bigfoot is nothing but a myth - a figment of our wonderful imagining. And yet, Buhs wrote "Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend" to explain the complicated origins of the beast.

Jacket Copy: Straight from the start, you tell us that Bigfoot doesn’t exist. Even though you say there is no Bigfoot, why did you choose to pursue this mythical creature in your writing?

Buhs: Initially it was the fact that I didn’t think Bigfoot existed, which was interesting to me. It was also about American ideas of what the natural world is. Sort of like: Here’s a screen on which people can project their ideas about nature. Though it turned out not to be as much about nature as I originally thought it would be.

JC: Did you ever believe in Bigfoot as a kid?

Buhs: I think, looking back, it is possible. As I grew up, I became more interested in standard and mainstream science.

JC: Why are Americans obsessed with this legend? Where did the myth come from?

Buhs: The myth of Bigfoot really started in the 1950s. It certainly hadn't penetrated the modern American conscience until the '50s. The legend was popular with white, working-class men, where it sort of fit in, and eventually it worked its way into the mainstream.

JC: How did the Bigfoot myth appeal to working-class men?

Buhs: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, white, working-class men saw a stagnation in their opportunities and the amount of money they were making. Bigfoot then became a symbol of what they feared. And Bigfoot could also be what readers fantasized about -- escaping into the wilderness.

JC: Even if people know for a plain fact that this monster doesn’t exist, why do we still choose to believe?

The answer... after the jump.

Buhs: It’s complicated. Different people have different reasons [for believing]. One of the ideas goes back to the idea of nature -- they want a world in which where there’s enough nature so that there’s still room for something like a Bigfoot to exist. Some of it is also the romantic impulse of belief. 

JC: Fans of Bigfoot. Let's talk about them. You describe a complicated relationship. "They loved the creature, but wanted to kill it too. They idolized it and feared it." What’s the psychology there?

Buhs: Part of it is the recognition that if it is ever caught, it is no longer a mystery. Scientists would come in, and this culture that has been shunned by mainstream science would get shut out.But the only way to prove your point [the Bigfoot actually exists] is to kill it and bring it in. So, it ends up putting them in an awkward position.

JC: Scientist Grover Krantz started studying the beast in the early 1970s and continued doing so until 2002. This hurt his scholarly career, but he continued to study Bigfoot anyway. Can you talk about this a bit and scholars like him who pursued the myth?

Buhs: There's actually a few of them. John Napier, who’s a British primatologist, mostly reviewed evidence. And he could get away with it because he was very secure with his position, and he had this open-mindedness about it. Krantz was much more confrontational. There was something about it that appealed to him because it was controversial.

JC: You describe some Americans thinking of Bigfoot as a representative of old-fashioned masculinity. Where did this come from?

Buhs: I think there's this idea that civilization is opposed to masculinity. That once you have a civilization, people have to behave in certain ways. That society is a feminizing force.Then, you have this creature that lives completely -- and thrives -- outside of society. It speaks to this idea that men don't have to bow to society -- the old-time, old cowboy, John Wayne stereotype. 

JC: If the Bigfoot myth ever goes away, do you think there will be something else to replace it?

Buhs: I suspect there's no way you're going to get rid of this myth altogether. Even if you cut down all the forests and never find one, you’ll always have this creature that is beyond civilization. You'll always have the idea that there is the "other." A creature beyond the frontier that can exist there on the edge.

-- Lori Kozlowski

Image courtesy ofJoshua Blu Buhs and the University of Chicago Press

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