A Pop Cultural History of Bigfoot
Of all the cryptids (un)known to humankind, the mysterious forest ape that lurks in the background of almost every society seems to have the firmest grasp on the popular imagination. Whether or not you accept that humans descended from ape-like creatures (hint: we did), we see the similarity between us and our alleged furry cousins residing in the mountains. Unlike Nessie, chupacabras, and all the others, Bigfoot and his ilk have spawned an entire subculture. It began in the 1920s, when Canadian teacher J.W. Burns started putting together pieces of stories from his Native friends and coined a term: “Sasquatch.” Eventually, this name became synonymous with “Bigfoot,” which of course was what the Americans called it after a construction worker came to the paper with a plaster cast of a huge footprint.
The yeti had a decidedly more elegant position in cultural history, as a mythological creature inextricably linked to a spiritual tradition. Appropriately, descriptions and sightings vary widely, with everything from Sherpa accounts of the “meh-teh” to Everest mountaineer accounts of naked hominids (likely someone experiencing hypoxia) or thick, black-furred creatures out in the snow. It’s come to the point that any unknown Tibetan creature is called “yeti,” but the image of a gigantic, white ape prevails in popular culture.
Bigfoot Goes to the Movies
Bigfoot’s cinematic history began in 1967 with the Patterson-Gimlin film, which allegedly depicted a dark, hairy upright figure striding rather confidently through the woods. Yeti has yet to be captured on film. However, in the past few years, an ape-man craze has taken over cinema, with both sympathetic and frightening portrayals of Bigfoot and Yeti.
Smallfoot: This animated musical feature flips the perspective to portray an outcast yeti’s discovery and inevitable friendship with a human, whom he calls a — you guessed it — Smallfoot. Although the plot is a bit clichéd (insert commentary about traditionalist beliefs, excommunication, and believing in yourself), it’s an enjoyable romp that features the voice talents of Channing Tatum and Zendaya.
Missing Link: This animated feature cleverly juggles several plot lines in which a wannabe explorer Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) tracks down the Sasquatch (Zach Galifinakis), who in turn begs him to take him to the land of the Yetis. Desperate to join the explorers’ society, Frost agrees, but they’re being tracked by bounty hunter Willard Stenk (Timothy Olyphant). A compelling narrative and witty dialogue make this one a winner.
Exists: This found-footage horror film certainly vilifies the Bigfoot, who terrorizes a group of campers as revenge for killing his mate. The editing is compelling, as it should be for a film of this style, and there are enough scares to make up for the generally unlikable human characters. In fact, one feels for the Bigfoot, who’s simply trying to avenge his mate.
The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot: This eclectic indie is a vehicle for the wonderful Sam Elliott, whose pathos drives his extensive non-dialogue scenes. The plot is pretty much what the title describes; the Bigfoot is a mere diseased animal he’s sent to kill. Bigfoot enthusiasts might be disappointed by this one, although Elliott’s performance and the overall strangeness of the film make it worth a watch.
The ape-man is nothing new to cinema, however: in addition to being the Big Bad in countless B-movies, he played a more relatable, positive role in Harry and the Hendersons(1987), starring John Lithgow. In addition, the Yeti made an adorable appearance as the “Abominable Snowman” in the stop-motion classic Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer (1964).
Yeti Products Go Boom
Marketed to keep your beers as cold as the Yeti’s natural habitat, Yeti coolers and drinkware have become synonymous with camping and fishing. As one might imagine, American conservatives laid claim to Yeti as they did to those outdoorsy activities while dem liberals sipped their fancy wines in the big city. In the South, many a pickup truck bore GOP and Yeti stickers side-by-side. It may have had something to do with that discount they offered to the NRA Foundation and its members and events. All that changed when Yeti dumped its partnership with the NRA. Cue a weird social media trend of gun-toting patriots blowing up their expensive Yeti gear. Thankfully, no real Yetis were harmed by these antics.
Take a Bite out of Bigfoot
Speaking of ‘Murica, nothing suggests a return to our primitive nature like chewing on processed meat sticks. Jack Links Beef Jerky has been using Sasquatch in their ads for years, which is appropriate, since they’re a likely snack while one searches for Sasquatch. The ads generally depict humans playing tricks on Sasquatch, which is not recommended.
The fascination with an upright, intelligent ape clearly stems from our basic loneliness as a species. We are the last of the hominids, despite our prominence on Planet Earth. Our closest, most recent relatives, the Neanderthals, are gone (we likely killed them through disease or hunting). We are the only extant species of our genus, and all related species are now extinct. It makes sense that we would wonder if we actually do have a secret extant relative. According to some cryptozoologists, it would likely be an extant species of the genus Paranthropus, and indeed, in 1971, Gordon Strasenburgh proposed that Bigfoot’s (at least, the Pacific Northwestern one’s) scientific name should be Paranthropus eldurrelli. Should a specimen turn up, we’ll keep that in mind. In the meanwhile, enjoy your Bigfoot and Yeti movies, snacks, and coolers! Try not to blow anything up.
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Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.