Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Faith and the Duke Experiments in ESP

Many of us occasionally intuit things that our normal senses fail to register. My first guess that this was a real possibility came when I was in junior high school. I was at that awkward stage in life when I started noticing girls and feeling very self-conscious. It was also a time that I became aware of many things I had ignored before.

One behavioral change that was quite common among my peers was the game of sneaking looks at cute girls. This was a game that I was too shy to participate in for the most part, although privately I did notice a couple of girls that I secretly liked.

It was at this impressionable time that I developed the odd notion that some of these girls could tell when I was looking at them even when it seemed that they couldn’t see me. I decided that they must have better peripheral vision than I had, although this didn’t explain the cases that involved looking completely in the opposite direction. I found it a bit ironic when, a few years later, a girl named Lisa (whom I admired) was in charge of testing peripheral vision and blind spots for a driver education class. I unreasonably assumed she had been given the job because of her feminine expertise.

I’m still a bit undecided on this issue. But I’m half convinced that women do have a better sense of being watched than men do. I hear them commenting on such things occasionally. Men almost never do. Of course such ability, if it is real, would be classified as paranormal. And in recent decades, the paranormal has been pretty much banished from serious discourse.

This is too bad. Some varieties of what has been called extra-sensory perception (or ESP) have been fairly convincingly established – like the ability to sense the image on a card without seeing it (sometimes called clairvoyance) or of the ability to detect what someone else is thinking or concentrating on (sometimes called telepathy). Other claims are a bit more sensational and not well established – like the ability to predict the stock market. Overall, it’s a shame that we aren’t paying more academic attention to these sorts of things. They used to be a lot more popular.

Both the US and Soviet military spent resources on paranormal studies – as did the Nazis. And between the two World Wars, it actually became somewhat respectable for universities to support these kinds of studies too.

Perhaps the most famous were the Duke Experiments conducted by Joseph Banks (J.B.) Rhine, a botanist who took up paranormal studies at Duke University. He became interested in the possibility of measuring paranormal activity after being impressed by comments made by Arthur Conan Doyle. Rhine ended up spending several years and much of his career studying clairvoyance. He categorized his area of study as a branch of abnormal psychology.

Based on his findings, Rhine claimed that 1 person in 5 had some extra-sensory ability. Sometimes gifted persons were aware of their abilities. Very often, however, they were not. Sometimes students would come to his lab to be tested and discover their ability for the first time using a simple card test that Rhine had developed. It was a fairly straightforward test using a deck of 25 cards. These cards consisted of 5 cards each of 5 different shapes (star, plus sign, square, circle, and wavy lines). Subjects were then asked to intuit the face of the card without seeing it. A purely random score would be 5 correct out of the 25 cards (a score that could be easily made if someone chose the same shape all 25 times, for example). Rhine then calculated the significance of the scores based on the number correct above 5 and the number of tests conducted for each subject.

Over the period of several years, Rhine studied hundreds of subjects. A handful of these were particularly gifted and averaged scores well above 5. In some cases correct runs of over 10 in a row were recorded. On three occasions, scores of 25 correct (out of 25) were reported – representing odds astronomically improbable.

Rhine’s recounting of these studies makes for fascinating reading. And for me, with an abiding interest in the religious principle of faith, I find a couple of things similar between them – I mean that faith and ESP have some things in common. I also see a couple of things that are quite (and importantly) different between them.

The first and most obvious similarity between ESP and faith is the importance of optimism. This is what Rhine has to say on the matter: “The better the investigator can communicate a wholehearted enthusiasm, confidence, and encouragement to the subjects, the better are his chances of success.”

Very often Rhine would test a subject who would record high scores at first and then, as the tedium of the studies wore on, would eventually record scores no better than random hits (close to a score of an even 5). Very few subjects could maintain high scores over the period of months and years. It wasn’t always easy to keep a subject’s confidence up. I am reminded of Peter’s initial effort at walking on water towards Jesus. Astonishingly, he succeeded at first and then he sank.

I believe that this principle of optimism, or confidence, also held true for the evaluators – even true for Rhine himself. This is suggested by the fact that these Duke studies often yielded successful results that other institutions were unable to duplicate. Over time this changed and Rhine’s successes were achieved by many other institutions and individuals. But among those that were successful there seems to have been an element of optimism in the validity of the studies.

One of the benefits of using Rhine’s ESP cards is that it is not an all-or-nothing test of clairvoyance. Subjects can score a card incorrectly and still get an indication of extra-sensory ability from the overall score. And as each subject is not told of the correctness of her “guesses” until the end of each run, there is little pressure in having to establish or maintain a sensational effort.

That said, there were only a few cases recorded where subjects were able to record more than just 5 or 6 correct in a row. It is easy to see why if you look at the odds. If a subject has a 1 in 5 chance of scoring each card correct (since there are 5 shapes to choose from), then the odds of getting 5 right in a row is a simple calculation of 1 in 5 multiplied 5 times. Or in other words the odds are 1 in 3,625 of getting a run of 5 in a row correct due just to chance. Or put another way, a subject without ESP ability would be expected to get 5 correct in a row only once every 3,625 tries.

Getting a run correct beyond this becomes exponentially less likely for every try. Even so, it wasn’t rare for a gifted subject to get a spectacular run on occasion – even a nearly impossible run. Yet, no matter how gifted the subject was, these unusual events could never be predicted or controlled.

For someone with a religious frame of mind, it’s easy to see the similarities between this truth and the principle of faith in the efficacy of prayer. Many people, like me, have great faith in prayer even though we don’t always see the hand of God in our lives. Sometimes our Heavenly Father seems to want us to handle things the best we can on our own. At other times, answers come in remarkable ways.

Just recently I found myself confronted with a small crisis in one of my research projects at work. I wanted to see if a molecule extracted from a particular bacterium could protect a plant from pests. Unfortunately, the day was windy and I was having trouble getting the solution where I needed it to be on the plants. So I decided I needed a bit of help from Mother Nature’s boss, and I said a prayer. Needless to say, the wind stopped and I was able to conduct my experiment.

These kinds of answers to prayers are not uncommon for me. As I look back on them, I realize that they are fairly insignificant from a certain historic or global perspective, but they are definitely important to me. And yet, it often happens that my prayers for much bigger issues seem to go unresolved.

Through the years, Kathy and I have often prayed for our handicapped daughter Alicia. Over time, though, our prayers have changed. We used to ask for her epilepsy and mental handicap to be fixed. Yet we never saw any significant change because of these prayers. We now pray for Alicia’s general well-being and for our own personal strength to help her. These prayers have a much higher success rate.  It is clear to us, that we can’t control how our prayers are answered any more than we can guarantee a successful “guess” in an ESP experiment. It seems clear that there are some things that we are not made (or meant) to understand with precision.

Another image stuck me as quite interesting in Rhine’s story. It involved research by Hans Bender at the University of Bonn in 1933. Dr. Bender had discovered a young woman (a graduate student) with extra-sensory gifts and he subjected her to several tests. Bender used different methods than Rhine. His cards consisted of letters instead of shapes. This woman also showed an ability to draw shapes of objects she could not see – shapes that an observer had identified. Her drawings were not always exactly like the image, but the overall similarities were unmistakable.

This study is quite similar to a series of studies that the American author Upton Sinclair did with his wife back in the 1920’s. Sinclair’s wife was known to have telepathic abilities and would frequently demonstrate them to her husband who ended up writing a book about their experiments together. This book Mental Radio is full of the drawings of these experiments which consisted primarily of Sinclair drawing a random object (often something that he would find in a magazine or around the house) that he would then concentrate on. His wife, in another room, would then try to draw the same object by concentrating on what she thought Sinclair had in mind.

According to their own calculation, about a fourth of the attempts were quite good and impressively accurate. Several of them are illustrated in the book – including a six pointed star, a kitchen fork, a bird’s nest, etc. About half of the attempts were not extremely clear but similarities were noticeable – for example a shrub would have lines and circles similar to branches and leaves. And about a fourth of the attempts showed no similarity at all.

Sinclair did not know how to statistically evaluate the probabilities of these similarities. In fact, I’m not sure that statisticians today would be up to the task. How do you calculate the odds of drawing a random object out of countless possibilities? Clearly the odds of drawing a fourth of the objects correctly are extremely low and not due to chance.

But what about the many drawings that are only somewhat alike? Dr. Bender described some of these efforts as similar to object that you or I might see through dim light. There is a shadowy kind of similarity but crisp details and outlines are missing.

Consider this finding with the words of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly…” This remarkable image is the Apostle’s description of how we perceive Heavenly things in a fallen and imperfect world. It comes at the end of his magisterial treatment of charity and the gifts of the spirit. It comes just before his statement that, “now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three…”

Faith isn’t a perfect knowledge of things. Sometimes we only get a glimpse, or a hint, or a suspicion. The outlines aren’t clear and yet we proceed. We were made to live much of our lives this way. We are not mere calculating machines that have to mechanically estimate probabilities or be completely convinced by logical certainty. We are beings that make many of our decisions on imperfect information. We make our best guess. We are forced to “see through a glass darkly”.

What makes this image particularly arresting is that in all probability, Paul is referring here to an early Jewish equivalent of a crystal ball or magic mirror. I know this may sound sacrilegious to some Christians but let me explain.

An important element among those that have extra-sensory gifts is the ability to dilute the sensory overload that normally exists all around us. The sights, sounds, odors, etc. that fill our world keep us focused on our immediate surroundings. Individuals that claim to be able to access things beyond these senses very often have to put themselves in a trance-like state to be more effective.

Various ways have been devised by mystics through the years to do this. Sometimes random ink blots on paper have been used. Sometimes gazing into an opaque glass or a crystal ball has been effective. At other times, forms of mirrors have been used.

These sorts of things, oddly enough, do show up in the Bible. Saul is known to have visited a type of soothsayer and the Book of Revelation contains references to magical stones and seals, etc. For our purposes, two Biblical references are particularly noteworthy. In the 44th chapter of Genesis, Joseph has a favorite (and presumably expensive) cup secretly placed in his brother Benjamin’s bag. He does this in order to accuse him later of theft which will enable him to stay longer with Joseph who at this point has not revealed his own true identity. The account indicates that this cup is used by Joseph for drinking and for divining. And in fact it is an example of a well-known type of vision aid with ties to magic mirrors. In this case a silver cup is filled with water which acts as a kind of mirror.

Another reference is our account of Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. His statement of “seeing through a glass darkly,” is very likely a reference to gazing at various forms of glass as a visionary aid. This is what Professor Tenhaeff from the State University of Utrecht wrote about some of these kinds of attempts by clairvoyants to reduce sensory inputs: “Some subjects attempt to achieve a lowered level of consciousness by means of a crystal ball or a piece of glass… The use of the magic mirror to achieve a state of diminishing inhibitions and to stimulate the manifestation of paragnostic powers is mentioned repeatedly, not only in the ethnological literature but also by classical authors and those of the Middle Ages.”

Not only is Paul’s image of darkened glass appropriate as a metaphor for life and faith, it is likely a description of how he knew others to be looking for answers. I find this to be an impressive truth. To this day, over eight decades since the Duke Experiments have been conducted, the results of Dr. Rhine’s experiments are essentially ignored by the academy. And yet the best criticisms never take his rigorous testing methods seriously. For those of us (perhaps the 1 in 5) that have experienced paranormal things, this is unfortunate. It is also unfortunate that the very fundamental principle of religious faith is also questioned by the same academy.

I don’t mean that every associate professor lacks faith or never succumbs to mystical hunches now and then. But the fact remains, that we cannot manipulate or control either faith or extra-sensory perception. And because of this, very few scholars are willing to bet their careers on such things.

Among religious believers, too, there is a hesitancy to acknowledge the existence of ESP. Part of this hesitancy may be due to ignorance of its similarities to faith. Other reasons are, I think, a little more fundamental. In particular, the historic relationship between organized religion (specifically Christianity) and the paranormal has often been strained.

This Christian history extends back to the very beginning when many of the Roman mystery religions practiced mystical rituals that were unacceptable to the early followers of Jesus. Later in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, it was the purveyors of the magic world view that often found them at odds with the established church.

Our ancestors living at this time made a real distinction between dark magic and white magic. The former was of the Devil. The latter included things like angels, deceased saints and miracles. But the distinction between dark and white magic was not always clear. There was a broad area of overlap that included such things as talismans, fortune-telling, dowsing, etc., Many Christians – especially rural congregations – lived in this area of overlap. These Christians were very often comfortable with ideas such as hunches and dreams – experiences that they were familiar with and that wouldn’t have been too different from certain kinds of clairvoyance and telepathy.

Today most Christians live in a scientifically informed culture that leaves us suspicious of both black and white magic. Not only do we wink at the thought of devils and angels but we dismiss the more commonly experienced manifestations of ESP. It isn’t scientifically or religiously acknowledged.

This is in a way a limiting development. It puts us outside of our heritage.We are no longer shackled by credulity and are not nearly as gullible as our ancestors must have been. Or so we imagine. 

And in at least one sense, we are probably more grounded doctrinally too. ESP is not a principle that leads anyone necessarily to God. Rhine worked at a respected institution founded by Methodists and Quakers (Duke University) but he became interested in clairvoyance from Arthur Conan Doyle. And Doyle was known to have often been critical of organized religion and of religious faith.

During recent decades, if you were to have patronized bookstores with large New Age holdings (a common occurrence, I might add), you would have noticed that titles dealing with ESP were stacked right next to titles dealing with black magic. This is fairly revealing. The people buying books on ESP were more likely to be interested in witches than in a Heavenly Father.

If former Christians would have been comfortable discussing telepathy and dreams after church – or buying a related book at their local Christian bookstore – modern Christians prefer talking about technology while leaving anything smacking of mysticism to the cultural underground. And while it might be doctrinally safer to separate these two worlds, it is also true that we are probably missing out on a very human – and a very Christian – part of our natures.   

There is no need to be ashamed of this. We were made to exercise faith and to act on hunches – even, dare I say it, on dreams. Of course we make mistakes while we’re at it. But if J.B. Rhine was even partially right – and I’m convinced that he was – than acting on these “extra” senses might not always be a bad idea. We might be right more often than we might think. 


For a fascinating account of the Duke experiments see J.B. Rhine’s New Frontiers of the Mind, published by Farrar & Rinehart, in 1937. Upton Sinclair’s book Mental Radio was published by Albert and Charles Boni in 1930. The quotes of Paul come from 1 Corinthians 15: 12-13. Tenhaeff’s quote comes from page 38 of Telepathy and Clairvoyance, Views of Some Little Investigated Capabilities of Man, published in 1972 by Charles C. Thomas, Publisher. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Mormon Legend of Bigfoot

Many years ago, during a break in our regular class schedule at Orem High School, I attended the movie/documentary Sasquatch, The Legend of Bigfoot. The large enigmatic ape was popular at that time in Utah and the school auditorium was nearly full. We watched as an expedition outfitted by Chuck Evans trekked for several weeks into the northern wilderness of Canada’s British Colombia in the area of the Peckatoe River.

The film contained impressive footage of wildlife: black bears, a cougar attack, otters sliding down snowfields for fun, a food-stealing badger, and two grizzlies fighting each other. The expedition did not see a Bigfoot, however, but it claimed to have seen their footprints (that it filmed and took casts of), smelled their foul odor and heard their legendary scream.

Most impressive to me were the scenes of many live conifers that had been snapped in two with the top piece being turned upside down and repositioned on top of the broken trunk. I realize now that the trees we actually saw in the film were probably staged. But at the time I was duly impressed – as I am now as I consider such a possibility. It made enough of an impression that I still remember it over 30 years later.

As I look back on the film, I am surprised at how popular it was in our community. I have travelled around a good deal since then and have enrolled by children in many school districts across the country (in six states). And I find it unusual that the public high school in a conservative Mormon community would make such a film available on its own campus.

But, in fact, there is a lingering interest among Mormons regarding these creatures. I don’t mean that every member of the Mormon Church buys into the stories. But in scout camps, on hunting trips and at summer barbeques throughout the Intermountain West, Bigfoot stories abound. And I believe that there are a couple of reasons why.

Sightings of large hairy men have been reported by a couple of credible Mormon leaders. These occurred some time ago, but the stories are well-enough documented that credibility still surrounds them.

The best known account comes from a well-read book written by former Mormon president Spencer W. Kimball entitled, The Miracle of Forgiveness. He cites the biography of former apostle David W. Patten (written by Lycurgus A. Wilson) wherein Patten confronts a being that he calls Cain:

“As I was riding along the road on my mule I suddenly noticed a very strange personage walking beside me … His head was about even with my shoulders as I sat in my saddle. He wore no clothing, but was covered with hair. His skin was very dark. I asked him where he dwelt and he replied that he had no home, that he was a wanderer in the earth and travelled to and fro. He said he was a very miserable creature, that he had earnestly sought death during his sojourn upon the earth but that he could not die, and his mission was to destroy the souls of men. About the time he expressed himself thus, I rebuked him in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by virtue of the Holy Priesthood, and commanded him to go hence, and he immediately departed out of my sight…”

Another account, though much less known, is of the encounter that President E. Wesley Smith (then president of the Hawaiian Mission) had with a creature similar to that reported by Patten. Wesley Smith was the brother of Mormon president Joseph F. Smith and served in Hawaii in the early 20th Century. My account of the incident is not dated but comes from a woman who served as Wesley Smith’s secretary in the mission home.

Chloe Hodge was the first Mormon missionary to serve from North Carolina. I met Chloe when she was in her 90’s and confined to a rest home. She was part of our faith community and every Sunday after our block of meetings I would visit her with a couple of teenage boys. I got to know Chloe quite well over a period of 3 years and enjoyed our visits together a great deal.

Early on, I learned that she had started to write a personal history but had stopped when she lost the manuscript. I encouraged her to start again, and eventually she agreed to do so with my help. She would hand-write a page every week and I would pick it up on Sunday and type it up before our next visit. In this way she wrote nearly 150 paragraph/chapters of her life’s story. One Sunday she handed me the story of Wesley Smith’s encounter with the hairy man and I was quite surprised and interested. This was all new to me. I would only learn later that the story, in abbreviated form, was already available on the internet.

The story of Wesley Smith’s encounter comes on pages 83-84 as part of Chloe’s mission account. It is tucked away as an interesting story, but is in no way highlighted. Chloe recounted the story just like she recounted the many other stories of her long and eventful life. Her mind was clear and active right up to the time of her death. Her account of the incident seems to me a bit more valuable than other versions (which are often third-hand). Chloe heard the story directly from Wesley Smith with whom she worked closely. And her account is not my interpretation of what she said. It is copied directly (and exactly) from her written account.

           “On one trip out to the temple President Smith told us of an earlier event in his life when he was serving in Hawaii.  He had served there as a young missionary and now he was back in his late 30’s as a Mission President. 
            This was at the time when plans were going forward to erect the temple.  He had become aware of a sense of unrest and contention among the members at a time when there should be great joy and harmony at the promises of a temple coming soon.
            President Smith was sitting in the far corner of his living room pondering these conditions and came to an understanding that the spirit of discontent and discord among the members was the work of Satan trying to prevent the building of the temple.
            Just as this realization came to him, he heard a noise and looked up to see a huge black man about eight feet tall entering the door.  His body was very hairy and he had large protuberant eyes – and he was coming toward President Smith with his arms outstretched as though to seize him.  President Smith threw up his hand instinctively, and as he did so, a light about the size and shape of a small dagger appeared in his right hand.  A voice said to him, “this represents your priesthood.  Use it.”  Immediately he mustered up the courage to command the personage to depart in the name of Jesus Christ; whereupon, the person stopped, backed out of the door, and was gone.  President Smith jumped up and ran to the door and looked out.  There was no one to be seen.
            President Smith wrote to his brother, Joseph Fielding Smith, who was then Church Historian.  He wrote back and said that he had undoubtedly had a visitation from Cain and enclosed a pamphlet which told of Apostle David Patton of the First Quorum of the Twelve who was riding his horse one night, along a country road, when suddenly just such a person as President Smith had described appeared walking alongside him, so tall that his head was about level with Elder Patton’s head as he sat astride his horse.  After going a little way in silence and being very afraid, Brother Patton asked, “who are you?” and the person answered, “I am Cain, of all men most miserable.”  Then he disappeared.  Brother Patton was later murdered by a mob, becoming the first martyr of the church.”

I was duly impressed with the story and I have given much thought to it since then. Chloe made no reference to Bigfoot, or to the possibility that this creature might be an unknown ape. Her story and the story of David Patten are completely independent of Bigfoot legends. How they became connected is still not clear to me. I believe they became part of Mormon Bigfoot lore as a natural extension of the Bigfoot accounts that became more frequent later in the 20th century.

David Daegling, in his account of the social significance of Bigfoot, identifies 1958 as a watershed year in the creature’s popularity. This was the year that a wire service picked up the story of large footprints around a road construction site in Northern California. Casts were taken of the prints and pictures of the casts were broadcast around the country.

After this exposure, accounts of Bigfoot sightings (and footprints) became much more common. Just a couple of years later, Ivan Sanderson’s popular book Abominable Snowman: Legend comes to Life was published which told stories of large ape-men from all around the world. By this time, Bigfoot was a well-known entity in America. My guess is that the conflation of the large hairy man of Mormon legend with Bigfoot happened around this time (although this is just speculation).

I don’t mean to imply that stories of Bigfoot started in 1958. This is hardly the case. In fact there seems to be a higher proportion of credible accounts before that time. And most of them are from the Pacific Northwest where the famous Patterson-Gimlin film was taken. Two stories that have been told several times include accounts by Teddy Roosevelt and Albert Ostman.

Teddy Roosevelt’s telling (second hand) of an encounter in the Bitterroot Mountains was narrated in his 1893 book Wilderness Hunter (vol.2). The incident involved two trappers (one ended up being killed) and probably took place in the late 19th Century.

The less credible account (at least to me) of Albert Ostman tells of a presumed encounter that happened in 1924. Ostman had been camping and noticed that some of this things were being taken at night from his pack in a tidier manner than a bear, or other known mammal, would have managed. Then one night while sleeping, a large hairy beast carried him away while he was still in his sleeping bag. He was taken to a place where he was held captive by the creature and its presumed family. Ostman claimed to have escaped when the animal got sick from eating his chewing tobacco.  

Other accounts have been uncovered including one of a miner that shot a large ape-man near Mount Saint Helens (also in 1924). Another story told of a juvenile great ape being shot in British Columbia in 1884. It isn’t clear to me, however, that any of these stories ever made it to Utah, or were known to Mormons generally.

However it happened, these stories are now part of a larger Mormon conception of Bigfoot that includes the Biblical murderer Cain. As a result, Mormons often tell stories that are similar to other versions, but also unique. If Bigfoot is Cain, then it is only expected that a single being exists. If Bigfoot is, instead, the Sasquatch of Native American tradition, then it is to be expected that an entire population (perhaps several populations) exist as a valid un-described species. This distinction is usually not made. And the possibility that Bigfoot, as a species; and Cain, as a wondering hairy man, remain two independent phenomena also remains an infrequent supposition in Mormon culture.

Recently I decided to make a trip to Bigfoot country in order to experience the area and the culture for myself. My nephew Jon came with me. “Bigfoot country”, of course, is a pretty ambiguous term. Sightings have been made of the legendary creature all over North America. Nonetheless, the Pacific Northwest (ranging from northern California to Southern British Columbia) has long been recognized as the oldest and most likely place to hear about Bigfoot. As a biologist, I also find this region more satisfying as it can be fairly well defined and represents a particular kind of ecosystem. Many other creatures also live exclusively in this area. The Pacific Northwest is a moist forest ecosystem – a rainforest in essence. It is a place with such a profusion of plant life that an unknown creature might feasibly remain undetected within its dense canopies. It is one of only a couple of places in North America like this.

Jon and I wanted to see Bluff Creek where the Patterson-Gimlin film was taken and to visit the town of Willow Creek on the Bigfoot Highway where the Bigfoot museum is located (as it turned out, it was closed for the season). Before we got there, we passed through the town of Weaverville (west of Redding) and stopped at the Forest Service office there. I needed a couple of maps but I also wanted to talk to a ranger about Bigfoot sightings.

This first stop in the area proved to be quite enlightening. I had expected to find a good deal of cynicism among the locals – especially when talking with outsiders like us. Accordingly, I had decided to be coy about my Bigfoot interest and present myself as a naturalist looking for good camping and hiking sites – all of which was true. In short, I wanted to have a meaningful conversation and not be snickered at.

But when I asked about wildlife, the gentleman in the office assumed that we wanted to see Bigfoot. I hesitated at this presumption and said we just wanted to know if there were any interesting animals around. Eventually we were directed to a woman with more knowledge of the area. She was helpful but merely professional until I stated bluntly that we would like to know of any sightings by locals.

I was surprised at the change in the woman’s attitude. She became more solicitously helpful and told us that, in fact, a sighting had been made recently near the Swift Creek campground above Trinity Lake. She was very willing to tell us about Bigfoot as soon as she could tell that we were respectfully interested.

Over the next couple of days, Jon and I would talk with a couple more rangers, with people along the side of the road, with the owner of Bigfoot Books (a used bookstore just south of Willow Creek), and with a backpacker that was out looking for Bigfoot. In each case, we were treated with the same casual regard that you might expect if you were asking for directions to a gas station.

And in fact we were told about several Bigfoot encounters made by people in town through the years. But we were never given names. I was told by the ranger at the Willow Creek office that people were hesitant to divulge their identities because of a historic disrespect from enquiring writers and publicists. The people of Willow Creek were not out on a campaign to confirm the reality of Bigfoot. But the creatures’ existence was taken for granted and people were very willing to talk with someone they could trust.
As our conversations proceeded, it was surprising to us how many stories there were. Recently a Forest service employee on his way to work had seen a Bigfoot looking into a river. Our backpacker friend had been recently spooked by a Bigfoot in the area near Bluff Creek. I was particularly interested in the story of a child that had seen one at fairly close range for several moments and had pointed it out to her father who couldn’t make it out. Later, there were footprints located in the spot identified by the child.

I was particularly interested in this child’s story because of its numinous implications. The more I have thought on the Mormon Bigfoot legend, the more I see the similarities between them and the mystical elements surrounding many of the Bigfoot stories. Daegling’s seemingly fair yet skeptical study of Bigfoot culture comes to the conclusion that whether or not Bigfoot turns out to be real, it certainly has become part of American mythology in a real way.

The two Mormon accounts of the large hairy wildman (the only two that I know of) fall neatly into Daegling’s categorization. This categorization is comprised of two parts - it includes a belief in a real creature but is often alluded to in religious contexts or in some other form of transcendent experience. In both Mormon accounts the man identified as Cain is thwarted by priesthood power. Yet he is always considered a real being.

What light this sheds, if any, on the legend of Bigfoot is not clear to me. For sure it places the Mormon stories in line with the traditions of many cultures that tell of wildmen. I don’t think, however, that these stories generate more interest in the broader Mormon community than do Bigfoot stories in American culture in general.

At the beginning of the 21st century, Mormons do not seem to be overly concerned about them. My experience is that these stories rarely come up in religious classes or formal worship services. And the growing Mormon Church is full of members that have never even heard of them. Nor does it appear that Utah, with its predominant Mormon population, has any more Bigfoot sightings than would be expected by its location.

You can find a listing of reported Bigfoot sightings by state at The Bigfoot Field Research Organization website. I have calculated the number of sightings by state population to determine which states have the most sightings per capita. Here are my rough calculations (rounded to the nearest 10, out of a standardized 100,000 persons) for the NW states (and a few other random states for comparison): Washington, 80; Oregon, 60; Wyoming, 50; Idaho, 40; Alaska, 30; Utah, 20; Colorado, 20; California, 10; Arizona, 10; Kansas, 10; Florida, 10; New York, 5; Nevada, 3; Connecticut, 2.

These numbers are certainly not exact. They only represent the number of sightings officially reported. I know of several sighting from Utah from a couple of decades ago that are not on the list – they just weren’t reported. That said, the rough numbers do show that there is a real concentration in the Pacific Northwest with numbers diminishing with distance from this area. The number for California might seem low. This is, after all, the state from which the famous Patterson-Gimlin film was taken. If you look on the map, though, you discover quickly that Bluff Creek (in Humboldt County where the footage was taken) in not far from Oregon. In fact the habitat of the area is much more like that of Oregon and Washington than it is of the rest of the state of California. California’s high population comes from the San Francisco and Los Angeles urban centers which are a long way from Bluff Creek.

Utah doesn’t stand out as any more remarkable than any other nearby state. In this sense a predisposed credulity doesn’t seem to be at issue here. That said, however, Mormon interest in the large hairy wildman continues at multiple levels. It is perceived as a curiosity, as a legend, and also as a scriptural apology. It brings the ancient stories of the Old Testament to our times and gives them a contemporary relevance. And in a community with sacred traditions extending back to Adam and Eve, Bigfoot seems to have found a guarded acceptance.     


The Bigfoot Field Research Organization website is www.bfro.net/. The reference in The Miracle of Forgiveness comes from Chapter 9 (Point of No Return, pages 127-128 in my 1969 edition from Bookcraft). The autobiography of Chloe Hodge was privately published in 2008 as A Whale of a Tale, My Life Story by Chloe Belle Hodge. Daegling’s The Social History of Bigfoot is Chapter 3 in his Bigfoot Exposed (published in 2004 by Altamira Press). See also Chapter 11, the Phenomenon.