DEWITTVILLE – The Chapman University Survey on American Fears, released last week, indicates that just over 20 percent of Americans believe that Bigfoot is real and waiting to be discovered.
For Andrew Larkin of Cattaraugus County, belief has nothing to do with it. The 14-year-old is 100 percent certain Bigfoot exists. He says he has seen the creature twice.
Andrew talked about his experiences – which he describes as “petrifying” – during the Chautauqua Lake Bigfoot Expo at the YWCA camp on Chautauqua Lake on Saturday. The first sighting, he said, was when he was about 8 years old. He had gotten up early to let his dog out, and the Jack Russell terrier immediately took off after something.
“I figured it was a deer,” Andrew said. “Then I looked around the corner and saw it. It was standing there, a ways off, 8 or 9 feet tall. My dog was right at its feet, growling, like, a sound you wouldn’t believe, just growling at it. It just looked at the dog and then it turned and walked into the woods.”
Like any boy would, Andrew followed up on the scary encounter by learning what he could about Bigfoot, and about how the mysterious, unconfirmed creatures are thought to behave. This spring, he decided to try to make contact again.
“I went out and I did the knocks and the whoops, like people have said,” Andrew said. “I heard some coming back and I went and then I saw it, about 50 yards away, down on the ground, digging for something near the creek. I could only see part of its face but it was huge, its chest had to be like” – he holds his arms out about 3½ or 4 feet – “that big.”
Andrew said he watched the hairy figure until it spotted him and ran off up the hill on the other side of the creek. The high, frigid water in the spring creek kept him from crossing to investigate what the digging was about.
There was other evidence, though, said Andrew’s mother, Heather Larkin. She has a photo in her phone that she took of a footprint they found in a patch of snow in early spring.
“You could see the toes,” Heather Larkin said. “I have 30 acres out there, and no one is walking around barefoot in the snow.”
Unlike Andrew, most of the Bigfoot fans who attended Saturday’s event have to take their beliefs on faith, basing them on limited physical evidence and an abundance of as-yet-verified claims of sightings.
It isn’t only the Bigfoot who is shy about sightings, according to expo director Peter Wiemer, who started the Bigfoot meetings as a tourism event and has become something of a local reporting center for Bigfoot claims. Many people who have seen, or think they have seen, a Bigfoot are equally shy about coming forward.
They don’t want to be painted as kooks or attention-seekers, he said.
“I’ve got 17 witnesses who have contacted me since I started,” Wiemer said. “The sightings are from about 1967 to 2010. They know I’m not going to ridicule them, and they want to tell someone.”
Wiemer said that, although the Bigfoot program started as an outgrowth of outdoor programs he does at travel shows to promote his lakefront cabins, his conversations with those who say they have seen Bigfoot have made him a believer.
“They’re as real as panther, bear and deer,” he says. “I haven’t seen a panther or a bear either, but I know they’re out there.”
Doug Waller of the Southeastern Ohio Society for Bigfoot Investigations, a group that meets every other month, says there is a simple explanation for why Bigfoot is so hard to find.
“They don’t want to be seen,” Waller said. “They’re shy, but they’re curious. We haven’t seen one, but we’ve been close enough that we could smell what we thought was a Bigfoot. It was a putrid, rotten-egg smell, and we could smell it walking up a path, but when we turned around and went back, the smell was gone.”
Waller works in a library and has read almost everything ever written about Bigfoot – some of it interesting, some of it obviously false – and he said he keeps an open mind. He also has written his own book, “Standing in the Shadows,” about Bigfoot in Ohio, particularly in and around Salt Fork State Park, a hilly forest around a reservoir. He brought a map peppered with colored markers showing Bigfoot close encounters of varying kinds: tracks and “twist-offs” of branches; vocalizations (howls, whoops and knocks); rock-throwing to drive off intruders; and the elusive visual contact.
Bigfoot sightings have been reported for decades, even centuries, but most people have not had a camera at the ready. The famous, or infamous, Patterson-Gimlin film of a Bigfoot hurrying away from a northwestern California creek in 1967 remains the gold standard for Sasquatch fans. Its authenticity remains an ongoing subject of debate.
Waller said more people having phones might help the cause but could also contribute to skepticism.
“A lot of people like to hoax,” he said.
What is needed, he conceded, is physical proof.
“I hate to say it, but I think it will take a body,” Waller said. “I would want no part of killing one, even for that, but some of these people (Bigfoot hunters) think they are going to cash in and become millionaires.”
He could be referring to the recent TV show “Killing Bigfoot,” broadcast this month on the Discovery Channel’s Destination America. It follows the success of the cable company’s popular “Finding Bigfoot” series on Animal Planet, which might be better named “Looking for Bigfoot,” since as they go into their fifth season, the show’s stars have yet to find an actual Bigfoot. And Spike TV has offered a $10 million reward for proof that Bigfoot exists – proof that also would need a specimen, living or dead.
The creature’s elusiveness – and the difficulty of proving a negative, that it does not exist – is part of its continuing appeal. Piecing together evidence of twisted twigs, tree-top beds and unearthly nighttime howls allows Bigfoot fans to design whatever version of the hirsute biped is right for them.
At the Chautauqua expo, most of those asked say they don’t consider Bigfoot to be aggressive or particularly dangerous, while a Texas man who has made online claims to have killed a Bigfoot said it was a vicious meat eater capable of biting off a head with one chomp.
The world of entertainment is equally conflicted.
The movie “Harry and the Hendersons” was a box office hit in 1987, with John Lithgow bringing a Sasquatch into his family’s home. On the TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man,” Andre the Giant played a Bigfoot created by aliens – a possibility also proposed by two of those at the expo; and an episode of “MacGyver” once featured the only kind of Bigfoot that most people believe in – a man dressed in a fur suit trying to scare people.
Bigfoot’s legend continues this weekend, with the horror movie “Exists” opening in some theaters (none in Buffalo) and through video on demand. Made by Eduardo Sanchez, one of the creators of “The Blair Witch Project,” the movie takes the “bad Bigfoot” approach, using “found footage” to document how a group of friends is terrorized in an isolated cabin by a creature that 75 percent of Americans do not believe exists.