Supernatural in Society conference: Bader on Bigfooters

There is a lot of new research happening in academia about paranormal culture and belief. I kid you not. Scholars in sociology, psychology, religious studies, and media studies are noticing that millions of people are deeply affected by paranormal beliefs and personal experiences. There is so much happening, especially regarding ghostly episodes, that it’s difficult to keep up with it all. Even new journals and conferences are springing up in the past few years.

When people ask me why I bother to spend my time on this stuff, I’m amazing at how ignorant they are that over half the population believes in some paranormal idea. Or at least, they are curious about it. This is not fringe. The paranormal is mainstream. It’s a resilient thread in our human history, it isn’t going away. It’s influential, it’s popular, and it’s big business as well.

Speaking of conferences, videos of the talks from the Supernatural in Contemporary Society Conference, which took place at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland in August 2018 are available for viewing. The visuals are awful but you can hear the speakers talk which is the most important thing. The conference purpose as given was “to explore the continuing role of the supernatural.” The conference intent was to “provide an interdisciplinary forum to discuss current and emerging research, and examine these in relation to the impact and value this has on culture, heritage and tourism.”

I may have something to say about several of these talks as I work through them but I advise you to check out the ones in the areas of your interest. There are many – ghosts & hauntings, Slenderman, witchcraft, Satanism, ufology, and anomalistics.

First up is Christopher Bader’s talk on Bigfoot seekers. I’m familiar with Bader’s work via the two editions of Paranormal America where his team participated with cryptozoologists in their endeavors. I contacted him to let him know of my work in studying cryptozoologists and their methods. I’m not sure how much he took from that but I certainly see the ideas coalescing to a great extent. Bader is Professor of Sociology at Chapman University and affiliated with the Institute for Religion, Economics and Society. He’s not a zoologist and struggles in his talk when speaking of Bigfoot as a biological entity. He excels, however, in describing the general grouping of Bigfooters into the naturalist and paranormalist camps.

He begins this talk by describing what Bigfoot is. I would have left the general description out because Bigfoot is a well-known concept in English-speaking areas. You learn what a Bigfoot is said to look like by the time you are about 5 years old. But since this conference was in the U.K., maybe he felt obliged to reiterate the physiographic details. People in the audience (of academics) were already chuckling at the idea of Bigfoot. This makes me uncomfortable as it creates that divisive bad faith between believers and nonbelievers. Yet, I don’t think it can be helped. We deliver our messages to the audience we know is listening. I do it too and don’t like when I find myself falling into that trap; it’s a natural tendency to develop a rapport.

Bader notes that Bigfooters, and field cryptozoologists in general, like titles for themselves. I’ve not seen this tendency. I’m not convinced it is so. Other than bestowing the “cryptozoologist” title upon themselves, many aren’t nearly as adamant about personal labels as the paranormal investigators who visit haunted locations. The latter seems to more heavily rely on establishing a pecking order via job titles. Love of equipment is prevalent in all ARIGs (amateur research and investigation groups). Use of argot (which is a word I think I might have learned from Bader) is important to distinguish individuals as part of an in-group. Bader also points out how these non-scientist researchers gain their ideas about science from the popular representation of science in the media – directly addressed in my book Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Investigators.

Aside from calling multiple Bigfoots “Bigfeet” – which to my ears, is a HUGE error, indicating an out-group member – the important theme presented in this talk is that these people are not weirdos. Those that consider Bigfoot a biological creature have conventional lives, they feel they are doing important work, and are out to prove that their experiences are real, even if that ultimately means killing a specimen to show the world. Bader explicitly explains that Bigfoot seekers must resolve a dissonance between their own personal Bigfoot experience and the public dismissiveness about the reality of it. To do that, they are willing to get a body to show us. This may be somewhat concerning as they are walking around the woods with guns and do not hesitate to use them.

The paranormalist Bigfooters have more unconventional lives and they don’t wish to be perceived as “normal” people (whatever that means). They are proud to be “weird” – psychic, gifted, connected, or “ascended”. Some of these spiritual people revel in believing they are of a higher status than us science-types because they can see and feel things that we can’t. They are special because Bigfoot interacts with them.

Bader says that this split always existed. True enough, but there is also a grey area of those who used to be naturalists but have undergone at least some supernatural creep, meaning that the naturalistic explanations they first invoked failed to account for the extraordinary features of the claims they were presented with. Non-natural elements had to be introduced to preserve the overall concept of Bigfoot as a genuine entity. I think this drifting of belief over time to incorporate non-natural ideas into the mix is fascinating. It’s not as simple as naturalist vs paranormalists. It’s people, we’re messy and complicated.

Bader wonders out loud if the term “mind speak”, used by the Bigfoot paranormalists, appears in other paranormal contexts. Maybe not that specifically but the concept certainly is ubiquitous. For one example, experiences perceived as extraterrestrial or ultraterrestrial exchanges include this telepathic communication. Bigfoot as psychic came after this as it was initially perceived as a manlike ape or apelike man.

The split between naturalistic and paranormalist thinking about Bigfoot has grown to the point where there are different social circles for each, different forums and gatherings, and the two sides can’t often tolerate each other’s views. I actually see more than just two types of cryptozoology participants. There are many younger people getting involved, there is a significant overlap with other paranormal subjects (like spirits, UFOs, ultraterrestrials, and other “Keelian” ideas). I’m not sure if Bigfootery is set to become an even more specific niche with cryptozoology. Perhaps.

Certainly, you can’t cram in all the curious thoughts and behaviors of modern Bigfooters into a 30 min presentation. I cut Bader some slack; I think he did a good job of summarizing today’s Bigfoot scene so the audience could grasp more about what’s going on in this subculture. The beliefs and activities of cryptozoologists are just as interesting to some of us as the subjects they research. There are people studying the people who study the monster claims. It’s trendy! There is more to come on this topic.

For more on amateur paranormal researchers, their methods, ideas, and how they attempt to use science, please check out my book Scientifical Americans.

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2 thoughts on “Supernatural in Society conference: Bader on Bigfooters

  1. Bader’s experiences with the NAWAC group are interesting but what he shares only scratch the surface of their activities. The man he identifies as being frightening to be around and shooting at shadows might not be considered normal in many societies, regardless of his occupation.

    On their website is a report of a shooting ( by another member) which seems to have nearly nailed the group’s biologist, who stepped outside his tent in the middle of the night to relieve himself.

    Like many Bigfoot adherents, their idea of doing science seems to be extensive logging of anecdotal events, really just keeping a diary, while rejecting the accepted methods of wildlife science. Not much new on their website in the past couple years. I had hoped someone could study the group and perhaps Baden will continue to work with them.

  2. The issue of “supernatural creep” is further complicated by pre-existing supernatural beliefs and/or worldviews. I have been interacting with and observing Yowie researchers in Australia for 10 years and most (if not all) the amateur researchers planted firmly in the naturalist camp have strong pre-existing supernatural perspectives over which they attempt to apply a conventional biological framework in order to account for the Yowie.

    The type and amount of “supernatural creep” subsequently exhibited would most likely correspond with one’s pre-existing worldviews and beliefs – a “falling back in line” to what is already personally considered broadly likely/possible.

    Re: “titles” – titles within the Australian context are often bestowed and used only within the amateur research groups themselves. For example, many groups assign positions of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) or Regional Coordinator to prominent members but these terms are not used when conversing with “outsiders” and, as such, may not be more broadly known.

    In another example of “titles”, one prominent researcher would often introduce himself as being a “biologist”, “anthropologist”, or “environmental scientist” when speaking at crypto-events despite having no formal qualifications whatsoever. When given the opportunity to speak at the Royal Zoological Society of NSW conference on “Dangerous Ideas in Zoology” in 2013, however, he correctly introduced himself without title.

    In a final example, at a recent event, Yowie research pioneer, Rex Gilroy, showed off an “honorary PhD” achieved for his research into the Yowie and other mystery creatures which was supposedly bestowed by “C. C. University” in the USA (does it even exist?). The hosting group also later presented Gilroy with a “Life Achievement Award.”

    Perhaps the use of titles within such groups is, in itself, “crypto” (ie hidden)…

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