Imaginary monsters: Why Bigfoot hunters are better people than Republican senators

I’m fascinated by UFOs, ghost-hunting, cryptozoology and all manner of paranormal phenomenon.

Well, actually, that’s not quite right — I’m fascinated by the people who are fascinated by those things.

That’s why I enjoyed Scott Poole’s Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting, and why I’m intrigued by Gregory L. Reece’s Creatures of the Night. And it’s why I’m looking forward to seeing what comes of Syracuse University’s upcoming Religion Department conference on “The Monstrous, the Marginalized, and Transgressive Forms of ‘Humanity.’

So I tend to collect links to the occasional stories that pop up on such topics.

See, for example, the UFOs filmed over Denver, which Phil Plait disappointingly notes can be identified as, well, bugs. (If you don’t trust Plait because he’s a respected member of the scientific establishment conspiring in the Big Coverup, note that the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society came to the same conclusion.)

At Ars Technica, Nate Anderson rounds up a host of similar recent stories. There’s the North Korean “unicorn lair.” And the warnings of an ancient vampire on the loose in Zarozje, Serbia (who seems to be selling his old mirrors in the classifieds). And then there’s the Russian expedition that claims to have found Yeti fur in a Siberian cave. And the report of the chupacabra (and/or really big coyote) shot by a hunter in Missouri.

My favorite of this recent crop of stories has to be the one about the lab that says it has successfully sequenced the DNA of Sasquatch. It’s a Texas firm claiming this, so Charles Kuffner is on the story, linking us to SciGuy blogger Eric Berger, who notes that the lab “makes no mention whatsoever of the source of DNA for this study.”

Berger learns that the Bigfoot DNA for this study may have been collected from a merry band of Bigfoots (Bigfeet?) in Michigan who have a fondness for blueberry bagels. And that Sasquatch DNA also apparently includes DNA from angels. (I expect Deane Galbraith to weigh in soon on the theological implications of this discovery.)

This story is good for a laugh, but I don’t find the earnest delirium of these Texas Bigfoot hunters quite as ridiculous as most of the people who are just as obsessed with imaginary monsters.

As the name of that Syracuse conference suggests, the obsession with imaginary monsters is often a function of marginalizing and othering those we wish to view as monstrous. We distort those who disagree with us until they seem grotesque and evil — Satanazis, or Satanic baby-killers, or servants of Nicolae Carpathia.

But cryptozoologists are, I think, a different animal. They seem driven not by fear of the other, but by a desire for wonder. And wonder in itself is a Good Thing.

There is some overlap here between the religious demagogues demonizing their opponents as Satanic baby-killers and the cryptozoologists in search of Bigfoot. For whatever reason, both groups have found their lives in need of fantastic embellishment. Real life grounded in reality doesn’t seem to be enough. They’re looking for excitement, for cheap thrills — cheaper, at any rate, then the thrills reality offers, which tend to result from real work and real accomplishments. These are both fantasies that offer a shortcut to excitement and to happiness (or, rather, to a titillating substitute for happiness which might seem preferable to its apparent absence).

In both cases, this is kind of sad.

It’s sad to be chasing after imaginary sources of wonder when the universe is overflowing with so many actual sources of it. And it’s sad to become obsessed with battling imaginary evils when the world is overflowing with so many actual injustices.

And it’s sad that both groups seem to have wrapped themselves in cocoons of lies that they do their very best to pretend to believe. Those lies take more and more work to sustain, ultimately involving more labor and drudgery than whatever it was in the real world they were first fabricated to escape. That seems exhausting.

Still, though, as ridiculous as the Bigfoot-DNA-sequencers of Texas may be, I prefer them over the 38 Republican senators who voted last week to block the UN Convention on the Rights of Disabled People. Those votes were cast because of imaginary monsters — because of mythical links to the Satanic baby-killer abortionists and because of fears of an “Antichrist” based on Fortean eschatology. U.S. senators are powerful people and their actions can have powerful consequences. When those actions are motivated by fear of the monstrous and the marginalized, then real people wind up getting hurt.

Those 38 senators are bigger fools than the cryptozoologists feeding blueberry bagels to Bigfoot. And they’re far more dangerous.

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  • Michael Pullmann

    Also, these guys sitting in a lab pretending to sequence Bigfoot DNA aren’t hurting anyone.

  • myeck

    “Those 38 senators are bigger fools than the cryptozoologists feeding blueberry bagels to Bigfoot.”
    Yeah, but you can say that about pretty much any politicians.

    Oh, wait.  Did you say bluberry?  Forget I said anything.

  • Carstonio

    Fred’s explanation for the UN-bashing is probably the right one. The mainstream media’s WTF reactions have been somewhat amusing. Many of the reporters might not be familiar with Left Behind and its unholy union of eschatology and Bircherism. A good percentage of the senators voting no probably have LaHaye books on their shelves. Especially saddening was the cowardice by the others, shaking Bob Dole’s hand before casting ballots against the treaty.

  • histrogeek

    There is a big difference between believing in UFOs and building a missile system designed to shoot them down (that also could explode or shoot down planes and birds through misidentification). Or looking for Bigfoot and burning down the forests in the Northwest to flush the monster out. Or believing in magic and witch-hunting.
    The guys sequencing Bigfoot’s DNA aren’t hurting anyone, and aren’t basing their lives on defending themselves against the Sasquatch menace.  The issue of wonder (even with a massive dollop of credulity) versus fear (often bordering on paranoia) is the main distinction.

  • Jim Roberts

    It was a victory for absolutely no one, because of a worldview hinged upon things that don’t exist.

  • The thing that has always amazed me about the right-wing UN-bashing in the USA is just how out of touch they are with the toothlessness of the UN. It’s like they need an enemy, no matter how ridiculous it looks that they need to have one.

  • Charles Pierce discusses this distinction at length in his book Idiot America (which I recommend reading if you want to). He discusses America’s tradition of harmless kooks like Ignatius Donnelly, who wrote a huge “scholarly” work on Atlantis (which totes exists, guys), as compared to America’s parallel tradition of incredibly harmful kooks who incite violence against minorities and pass laws restricting womens’ control over their own bodies based on their kookiness.

    Another important distinction he made between the two groups is that the harmless ones don’t care if nobody believes them. Sure, they’ll have an animated discussion with you about UFOs if you’re game, but they don’t have a burning, driving need to make everyone either agree with them or agree to pretend they agree with them. If you don’t want to listen to their theories, they’ll find someone who does, or they’ll just keep to themselves, scouring Google Maps for glimpses of Bigfoot or aliens.

    Whereas the harmful kooks want our entire society and legal system to be shaped according to their kookiness, and while you don’t *have* to believe their kooky beliefs, you do have to live as if you do (so no gay stuff or abortions, got it?).

  • I’m an SF/fantasy writer, which means I picked up a bit of cryptozoology out of sheer necessity. It’s fascinating, the number of creatures the human mind comes up with.  And Megapods don’t range as far south as Texas.  Too hot. They’re cold-climate arboreal semi-sentients.

  • For whatever reason, both groups have found their lives in need of fantastic embellishment.

    Neither group has any concept of imagination, its value and necessity. Therefore they end up being forced to pretend their imaginations are grounded in fact. It’s an immense tragedy. The Bigfoot kooks at least don’t visit the tragedy on the rest of us.

    When those actions are motivated by fear of the monstrous and the marginalized, then real people wind up getting hurt.

    When actions are motivated by fear, people wind up getting hurt. Period. Sometimes fear may be a necessity, but it is also at the root of most evil in the world — the reason powerful, evil people are able to maintain and increase their power, the reason people don’t learn what they easily could, the reason people believe lies.

  • It’s like they need an enemy, no matter how ridiculous it looks that they need to have one.

    That is exactly what it is.

    Their source of power is fear. Fear of women, black people, immigrants, poor people, anyone who can be othered. Fear that the illusion of hyper-masculinity they count on for their power will be exposed as a trick. They have nothing else. 

  • Indeed. There’s a good reason humans have imaginations. If you see the results of an act of violence (whether against people, property, animals, whatever), it makes sense to imagine what kind of creature might have done it, so that you can be prepared for possible threats. And it makes sense to imagine the consequences of a decision to help us make those decisions.

    It does not make sense to confuse that imagination with reality. Both are important, but both are distinct.

  • gpike

    Is it weird that it sort of bothers me not knowing whether North Korea’s “unicorn lair” is not some kind of mistranslation and that it was supposed to be a qilin or something instead of a western-style unicorn? >_>  

  • LL

    Who ISN’T a better person than a Republican senator?

  • Slime mold?

  • ReverendRef

    And it’s sad to become obsessed with battling imaginary evils when the world is overflowing with so many actual injustices.

    It’s also so much more convenient.  How much easier it is to do battle with the evil empire that is attempting to eliminate Christmas by forcing their minions to say, “Happy Holidays.”  How much easier it is to do battle with the evils of the one-worldism UN and their desire to strip away the rights of every true American.  How much easier it is to do battle with the Satanic desire to convert everyone to homosexuality and depopulate the world.

    All of these imaginary evils are so much easier to fight than to fight the very real evils of hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, child abuse, sex trafficking, racism, affordable health care . . . and on and on and on.  And not only that, but after fighting all of those oh-so-important battles of the imagination, you don’t need to worry about going home dirty or smelly or contaminated by the presence of the Other.

  • LouisDoench

    You beat me to it Triplanetary.  There is a history of amateur science that the cryptid hunters emulate. Its just that the days when a dedicated layperson can get a species named due to diligence and luck are mostly passed.  So hobbyist zoologists have drifted into Idiot America because the easy discoveries are all taken.  

  • Worthless Beast

    Reactions to the unicorn lair story annoy me.  I see pictures of sparkly-poo Western style unicorns, and people laughing because when they think “unicorn” they’re thinking the My Little Pony Western-style beast.  Kirins, from what I know of them, are very different beasts – sometimes more dragonish – and typically seen as a portentous creature that accompanies the rise of emperiors and is associated with power.  At least go to a Chinese resturant and order a Kirin beer or look at adverts on the wall for it – that critter isn’t a western unicorn. About the only thing they have in common is “magical beast with a single horn on its head.”

    Then again, I think people are a little too harsh to the cryptozoologists and paranomralists.  Myths and legends don’t develop in a vaccum. Scientists have found fossils of a giant ape that our early ancestors may have interacted with – sure, finding one today would be like finding a live mastadon, but it’s a possiblity of where the stories may have come from.  I used to work at a zoo that housed “unicorns” (oryx).  People tend to enjoy a good ghost story because they’re fun (if well-told), and, of course, people grieve their dead – some feel a need for “proof” that their dead son or mother is “okay” in some way… a deep emotional need.  There are legit scientists (Stephen Hawking *cough* ) who have postulated potential for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe given how vast it is alone (not that them being interested in us is anything but our thinking so highly of ourselves as to think we would be interesting)…

    I’m in favor of wonder, in other words. 

    That said, when people get ridiculous about it, it can be funny – my guy and I were watching something on TV not long about about UFO sightings in Bucks County (where we live) and he noted (having lived here longer than I have) that reports of mysterious UFO sightings on the news around here had an upshot about when the local airport changed the lights on their planes.  I talked about how my family regularly saw “UFOs” in the Arizona desert because we happened to live near one official military base and one unofficial/off the books military testing range…

    And I agree that chasing after what people think is silly is better done when it’s out of a sense of wonder than a sense of threat, fear, hate.     

  • Their source of power is fear. Fear of women, black people, immigrants, poor people, anyone who can be othered. Fear that the illusion of hyper-masculinity they count on for their power will be exposed as a trick. They have nothing else. 

    Is it bad of me that I have some schadenfreude about pulling aside the curtain of bravado that they hide behind and exposing their fears for all to see?  

    Fear is not itself wrong, but there are bad ways to cope with it which often cause harm.  I want to see those bad ways torn to shreds and mocked to hell.  

    I suppose I feel mad regarding those illusions of hyper-masculinity because I want to boldly rip aside that illusion and watch them squirm in the spotlight.  

  • All of these imaginary evils are so much easier to fight than to fight the very real evils of hunger, homelessness, domestic violence, child abuse, sex trafficking, racism, affordable health care . . .

    Um, the last of these is not like the other… 

  • ReverendRef

      the lack of affordable health care

    Fixed that . . . fingers weren’t keeping up with the brain.

  • And Megapods don’t range as far south as Texas.  Too hot. They’re cold-climate arboreal semi-sentients.

    FWIW, the genetic sequencing was being done in Texas, but the samples were collected elsewhere, including I think Michigan.

  • JC Clarke

    that;s some sloppy fact finding….samples were run by 13 independent labs  in a double blind testing series. 
    No DNA was provided from the ”bagel site”.  I guess calling Dr.Ketchum would have been out of the question?

  • JoshuaS

     S0me fungal molds are used to produce life-saving drugs. Don’t insult them by implying that they’re worse than some politicians.

  • P J Evans

     The slime molds are smarter than some politicians, anyway. More colorful, too.

  • stardreamer42

     They have seen the leopard, and they want us to see it too.

    In some lower-primate societies, there may be squabbles among the Alpha Leader and the next few in line who are jockeying for the position. But when a leopard shows up, all internecine disagreement stops and everyone falls in behind the Alpha Leader and focuses on the leopard! Humans don’t have real leopards to provoke this response, but it’s easy to invent one, and then try to convince everyone in your tribe that it’s really there.

  • JVB

    I’m confused that you seem to be conflating scientists who state the very real statistical probability of life elsewhere in the universe and “crypotozoologists and paranormalists.” One of these things is not like the other, methinks. 

  • *snerk*

    Fair point. :P

  • Worthless Beast

    I never said they were the same thing. 

  • JVB

    I guess I just was confused when you mentioned them in the same paragraph as people who believe in Bigfoots, unicorns, and ghosts and stated that they all seemed to come from the same impulse.  For me, alien life is certainly a wonderous concept, but my belief in its existence is grounded in science and logic. I did astrobiology in school, so I guess I’m extra sensitive to implications that “there is probably life in the universe” = “I believe UFOs visit us all the time, and also all these other things for which there is a distinct lack of evidence for (like Bigfoot)”. 

  • Worthless Beast

    And just to elaborate, because it is easy for people to misread each other on the Internet…

    I was trying to make the point that the “spooky” stuff we all laugh at people for believing in past and present probably didn’t come out of absolute nowhere – I don’t mean that I’m a Fox Mulder, I just think that people since ancient times have passed stories and rumors around about things they thought they saw and that occasionally, some of these ideas might not be as “stupid” as most of us think they are.  Pointing out to someone that the UFO they saw was probably just one of the local airplanes fitted with new lights or that sleep paralysis is a common explaination for alien abduction stories is one thing.  To utterly debase someone over their belief in a vauge possiblity of extratrestrial life given the statistics and scientific possibilities is another.

    I remember when Hawking came out with his little “let’s play a game of Sci-Fi!” opinions on alien beings and whether or not humans should ever try to make contact… people in the comments boxes on the news stories about that were going “What, is he senile now?!”  and “He must have lost his mind!” when they previously had nothing but absolute respect for the man. I thought it was unfair that just because a guy’s a respected scientist he’s somehow not allowed to use his imagination.  

  • Mary Kaye

    You can name a species if you put some work into it–my lab partner named two.  But you have to pick something inconspicuous and not well studied.  Insects are good, as are other small invertebrates.  If you want to name a mammal or bird you do have a tough road ahead of you.

    A student at a workshop of mine once showed me a National Geographic photo.  It was a very nice photo of a beaked whale, her animal of interest,  clear enough that she was certain it wasn’t one of the known species.  But the animal jumped into sight and vanished again, and you cannot name a species based on a photo.  So there is at least one mammal waiting for a name, but good luck finding it.  Apparently they can hear ships miles away, and actively avoid them.  (Smart whales, if you ask me.)

    There are probably unnamed birds in Borneo, maybe mammals too.  Or if you get really lucky (not!) maybe an unnamed species of malaria….

  • JVB

    Oh okay, I see where you were going now, and I am in agreement. Certainly the “spooky” stuff originated as a way to explain things we didn’t understand, or, as you stated, persisted after the inspiring creature went extinct (as in the ape). 
    And I see in fact that you were in fact making the exact point which I was trying to make, which is that believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial life is not really that “out there” as far as believing in things goes. I especially agree that positing a likely probability and then postulating the consequences thereof as Hawking did is certainly not deserving of villification. 

  • “While chronic leukemia was reportedly worried about how its association with the Republican Party would affect its public image…”,17215/

  • christopher_y

    What did slime mold ever do to you?

  • that sleep paralysis is a common explaination for alien abduction stories is one thing

    One of the theories that I like about alien abduction is that the abduction may also be memories of surgery, or even of being born. Certainly the appearance of the “grays” lends itself to that theory.  They have no hair and only the suggestion of a mouth.  People in the operating room, of course, cover their hair and mouths during surgery, so filtered through, say, a very vivid dream, that could easily translate into a species with just a pair of eyes in the middle of their faces.

  • The theory I’ve heard is that humans are imprinted with a generic image of a human face (which thus resembles a gray) so that they’ll immediately recognize their mother after being born.

    I like the doctors/nurses in masks theory better ’cause it’s more amusing. Doesn’t make it more or less likely to be true, of course. I just hope it’s the one that’s true.

  • Carstonio

    I’ve encountered the genetic imprint theory as well. I would be curious to know how many people who claim to have been abducted have actually had surgeries.

    I thought it was required that any skeptical mentions of alien abductions had to include Eric Cartman.

  • Nicanthiel

    Ok, OT question. Does Disqus always kick comments with links in them to the queue? Or is there some way to bypass that without registering?

  • LL

    Agreed. Slime molds are useful. 

  • Worthless Beast

    I also have seen the theory (I think it was on Cracked, though) that the first major alien abduction story in America came about after the couple had seen a Twilight Zone or Outer Limits episode featuring aliens that looked suspciously like the “grays” they spoke of – and the stories snowballed from there.  

    I like watching Ancient Aliens on the secondary History Channel for a lark – also for that one guy’s fun hair.  I seem to remember one of the episodes positing that aliens are actually humans from the future who’ve learned time travel and the gray things are what we will evolve into.  As interseting a crack theory as any, I guess.  One of the things that grates on me in regards to some of the alien abduction stories is the No Biochemical Barriers in regards to “harvesting DNA for hybrid babies” and people seeing hybrid babies aboard the ships.  “Future humans” in that regard makes a little more sense than actual aliens, you know, since a lot of closely related earth creatures don’t make babies together.  The last time I saw a litter of “huppies”  (dog/humans) was in someone’s artwork. 
    The most annoying thing I find on the ancient aliens theories, though, is the idea that the people of the past were too stupid to make the monuments that they made just because we can’t figure out all the ins and outs of how they were made.  “No, no, humans couldn’t have made this! Our ancestors lived in the stuid ages! Therefore, aliens!” I think the people of the past were more intelligent than we give them credit for today, in general, so crediting aliens with the stuff theydid that we still think is cool is just a low blow.

  • Patrick Ingram

    Even for things I don’t believe in, I was often annoyed by the huge condescension in statements like, “It sure is a sad tragedy that these people believe things I don’t believe in”. Then I realized that Bigfoot searchers see sceptics the same way most scientists see global warming deniers and can be just as condescending. That mutual almost-contempt made me feel slightly better.

    It’s still bad to see articles asking why people believe in the paranormal or cryptozoology. By the way, the answer is never something simple like “These people interpret data differently than me” or even “These people have lower standards of proof than me”. No, it OF COURSE must be a juvenile or subconscious desire to inject more wonder into the world that doesn’t provide enough. *sigh*

    The problem may be that no one sees themselves as superstitious people following illogical beliefs. No, everyone sees their own beliefs as founded on logic and rationality, while everyone else is stupid. As a guy once said: everyone has an idea that they find obvious, while people who don’t find it obvious are just being silly for no reason. Makes it very hard for these groups of people to communicate with each other.

  • SketchesbyBoze

    I think Todd VanDerWerff said it pretty well in his review of my favorite episode of television ever:

    “The world is weird enough without us pinning further weirdness onto it.
    Our fellow travelers are more interesting than any ghosts or monsters or
    Bigfoot footage. Our real mission should be to pursue those fragile
    connections we are able to find, but too often, we chase phantasms
    instead. What appears to be everyday is weird, and the weirdness is
    ultimately what’s mundane. Look at a picture just right, and you can see
    anything you want.”,44032/

  • banancat

     Well a slime mold isn’t a better person than a Republican since it’s not a person at all.  However, I have been fascinated by slime molds since 7th grade when I first learned about them, and when else will I ever get the chance to talk about them?  The amazing thing is how some species reproduce.  They’ll reproduce the cell nucleus many many times just as any cell would, but then they all just hang out in basically one giant cell instead of going farther to split into individual cells.  It really makes an interesting philosophical question of what counts as one unit of organism for the slime mold.  Does each nucleus get counted as an individual “life” like with unicellular but communal organisms, or is the whole lump just one “life”?  And if the latter is the case, that means you can basically make one organism into two just by physically separating a scoop of it.  Life is fascinating when you get into the details that aren’t obvious on the surface.  Incidentally, I also like diatoms but mostly because they look cool.

  • Aliciabrighton

     I think it’s part of their anti-spam initiative (a lot of spambots try to come to sites like this and post links to their wares.)

  • I have but one “like” for your comment, which I regret since it was very likable. :)

  • arcseconds

     The ‘multiple nuclei’ thing is not unique to slime moulds.   There’s quite a lot of examples.

    In particular, fungi(*)  also often have multinucleate cells, and so do the the rather weird foraminifera (which are usually considered single-cell organisms, although they are multinculeate, and some examples grow up to 20cm across).

    (*) slime moulds aren’t fungi, despite the name.  The classic plasmodia examples are usually members of Amœbazoa. I’m sure you’re aware of this, banancat, but for those following along at home…

  • AnonymousSam

    For that matter, I’ve sometimes debated just how much intelligence could be considered to exist within the individual cell. Doesn’t stop me from wanting to make a poor joke about personhood and slime molds though.

  • Downward_spiral2012

    The United States already has the Americans with Disabilities Act. Why would any American willingly subjugate our domestic policies to the anti-American UN? Oh wait…the NeoMarxist global citizens of Democrat party would.