RETURN TO ODDS N' ENDS PAGE | E-MAIL ME

 

IS THE PATTERSON FILM TOO GOOD A HOAX?


One October afternoon in 1967, self-styled Bigfoot enthusiast Roger Patterson did what no "monster" hunter had managed to do before or since. Using a small 16mm camera, he allegedly shot nearly 100 feet of color footage of the legendary Sasquatch (more commonly known as Bigfoot) as it crossed a dried creek bed and retreated into the darkened woods near Bluff Creek, California. In so doing, Patterson started a firestorm of controversy that continues to this day and likely will rage on for decades to come.

Did Patterson really film the elusive creature, as Bigfoot proponents generally insist, or did he perpetrate the greatest fraud in the history of natural science, on par with the Cardiff Giant and the Piltdown Man? Certainly, the footage looks convincing. It is reasonably clear, shot in bright sunlight, and provides a copious amount of detail. It's definitely not a bear or any other known animal native to northern California. It's not a fluke of shadows and light, nor is it a camera trick. It is either an unknown primate of considerable size or a man in a very convincing suit. Patterson's film is clear enough that it leaves no other options.

The scientific community-at least those few men and women willing to humor the crypto zoology community be looking at the footage-as a group generally considers it an obvious fraud, though some will at least allow that it is a very good one. The few scientists who take the footage seriously, most notably University of Washington anthropologist Grover Krantz, sees it as too good to be a hoax. The animal's general physical dimensions are too massive and untypical of human ratios, the cranial crest, hair, and musculature too much like that of a real primate—even its gait is too different from that of either a man or an ape to be a hoax.

So which is it, beast or fraud? While we may never learn the answer with any certainty (even demonstrating the existence of a real Bigfoot would not prove Patterson's animal was real), it might be useful to look at the issue from the standpoint of a hoaxer and ascertain just what it might take to duplicate Patterson's efforts. I will examine each of the major objections commonly voiced by opponents of the Patterson film to see if they stand up rationally.

It's a Guy in a Monkey Suit
This is, for obvious reasons, the most prevalent objection. It has to be a man in an elaborate get-up because the alternative is clearly unacceptable. This seems to be the extent of the skeptic's rationale.

The problems with the man-in-a-suit theory are many. Most obvious, of course, is the sheer size of the animal. Frame-by-frame measurements have suggested the "creature" in the film had a height of nearly seven feet, a chest circumference of over 80 inches (compare to an average adult human male chest measurement of approximately 45-50 inches), and a weight in excess of 500 pounds (as gauged by the apparent depth of footprints left in the sandy creek bed, also shot by Patterson, along with plaster castings). Even allowing that lens distortion and interpolation might reduce these measurements by as much as ten percent, even an unusually large man in a "monkey suit" would be unlikely to approach these dimensions, with the exception of height.

Of course, a man could wear a padded undergarment designed to give the appearance of greater bulk, but then how does one account for the greater weight? Five hundred pounds of flesh and bone (as well as latex, rubber, and fur) is a lot of weight to be hauling around in the wilderness. Surely a large man in a suit weighing in at around 250—300 pounds should have been sufficient for Patterson's purposes; so why the extra unnecessary weight (and, indeed, where did it come from?)

Additionally, considering that Patterson's friend and fellow eyewitness, Bob Gimlin, was armed and at the ready in case the animal did something unexpected, it would seem hugely irresponsible at best and insanely dangerous at worse to don such a suit (unless, of course, Gimlin was in on the hoax, a point he explicitly denies to this day). Even their verbal agreement not to shoot the creature in case of an encounter-an agreement often pointed to by debunkers as suspicious-would be no guarantee that Gimlin wouldn't fire in a moment of panic. No matter how well Patterson knew Gimlin, he could never be absolutely certain how the man would react in such a remarkable situation, and the consequences of "guessing" wrong would be catastrophic. It was simply too great a risk for either Patterson or the guy in the suit to take for any amount of fame or fortune.

Further, and I think even more important, is the question of the extraneous details the image in the film exhibits. A cranial crest—a ridge of bone along the top of the skull common to large apes—is clearly evident, as are pendulous female breasts. While the addition of the crest might be a reasonably simple addition, breasts would not. They would be an unnecessary and complicated—and probably expensive—addition to an outfit that was going to be filmed for only a few seconds, especially when Bigfoot enthusiasts would have been equally content with a breast less Bigfoot.

Additionally, naturalists have noted that the arms of the creature in the film are longer than those found in a human. Human hands come to about mid-thigh level, whereas the hands of the creature in the Patterson film extend nearly to the knees. This could only be accomplished through the use of arm extenders of some kind; again, another difficulty that has to be carefully integrated into the already ponderous suit.

And then there is that strange gait. As Dr. Krantz correctly points out, the Patterson creature doesn't walk like a man (or any known primate, for that matter). It walks with a continually bent knee (as opposed to humans, who lock their knees while walking) and is consistent with a creature having the type of double-jointed foot evidenced by the plaster casts Patterson made on site. (Such double-jointed-ness in the foot is frequently seen on the most reliable Bigfoot casts known, which are easily distinguished from hoaxed footprints that are normally nothing more than oversized human footprints.) So why the unusual, inhuman walk-a walk Dr. Krantz finds difficult and uncomfortable to mimic for any great distance? Does this sound like the sort of detail even the most clever special effects artist would dream up?

While it's true such a gait would not be impossible for a man to mimic, what would he use as the basis or "model" for such a walk in the first place? If one were to mimic a gorilla, for instance, it would be reasonable to study a real gorilla in an effort to learn and duplicate it's movements as closely as possible. But what is the source of the Bigfoot "walk?" Obviously, since there are no "real" Bigfoots to study, it was invented out of thin air. Then, since the costumed man was going to get only one shot at this, he would have had to painstakingly practice the gait until he could make it appear natural. Difficult at best and an unnecessary complication for just a few seconds of hoaxed film footage. And this, of course, brings us to our second point.

SFX Artists Think Film is Fake
Debunkers of the Patterson film frequently point out that modern special effects artists usually consider the image in the film to be a suited man. Some have even maintained it was "well known" within the industry the "creature" was the work of special effects master John Chambers—a man who had considerable expertise in the field of "hairy monsters" through his work on television shows like Lost in Space and The Outer Limits.

While it is true that modern effects artists likely could reproduce the Patterson creature, it must be remembered that much has changed in the industry since 1967. Modern materials and techniques, as well as the money to put into such elaborate costumes, simply were not available 35 years ago, a point often overlooked by most debunkers today. According to Bigfoot enthusiasts Don Hunter and Rene Dahinden, the footage was shown to special effects artists at Universal Studios just weeks after it was shot. Their conclusion was: "We could try. But we would have to create a completely new system of artificial muscles and find an actor who could be trained to walk like that. It might be done, but we would have to say that it would be almost impossible."

It's not surprising then that today's special effects artists—many of whom were not even alive when Patterson shot his footage—are less impressed; they have the materials and resources available today their forebears never dreamed of. Perhaps that's why the "old school" seemed more uniformly impressed with the Patterson film; they know how difficult such a suit would have been to make in 1967, a point that today's artisans often overlook.

This point is further underscored by recent attempts to "fake" Bigfoot film for television documentaries. Such efforts routinely demonstrate that despite the significant advances in costuming available today, no one could get a guy in a fur suit to look like anything but a guy in a fur suit. One recent effort, actually shot at Bluff Creek by the BBC for Discovery Channel's television special X-creatures, had a man in a Bigfoot suit (inexplicably covered in long red yak fur rather than the short, coarse, black hair seen on the Patterson creature) retrace the path taken by the "thing" in the film in an effort to demonstrate how "easily" such a film could be faked. While the producers presented the spectacle as evidence of a hoax by Patterson, it more clearly demonstrates just the opposite. The remarkably unconvincing "creature" looked nothing like the Patterson creature. In fact, it was obvious to everyone—except, apparently, the producers—that it was a guy in an oversized suit. They also didn't explain why their "Bigfoot" was unable to leave footprints in the sand that showed him to weigh over 500 pounds, either.

As for the claim that special effects artist John Chambers produced the Patterson costume, some thorough research by writer Mark Chorvinsky failed to produce a single witness who could verify the claim first-hand. Evidence of Chambers' role was anecdotal, hearsay, and "general knowledge" within the industry, but no one—including Chambers himself (in a 1995 interview)—has ever admitted to producing the costume. This in itself seems remarkable; as such a confession would produce quite a sensation in the industry and immortalize its creator. Certainly, the long-since-retired Chambers had nothing to lose by admitting the hoax and, in fact, could have only enhanced his reputation as one of the greatest effects artists in history. The "Chambers Story," then, appears to be nothing more than a case of a smoking gun without a gun.

And, finally, what of the logistical problems such a shoot would entail? If one were to commission a special effects artist to produce a convincing suit and find someone large enough to wear it, why shoot the production in Bluff Creek, a full 500 air miles from Hollywood? Setting the production so far from "headquarters" would make the entire affair a logistical nightmare. First, as the suit would have been expensive to construct and maintain, it's hard to imagine its creator would have subjected it to the kind of wear and tear such a rugged locale would demand. Additionally, transporting the "ape guy" along with his hot, bulky costume—as well as several assistants (remember, our hoaxer needed someone to drive him out to the site and then pick him up again immediately afterwards)—could not be easy or inexpensive. Does it make sense to spend the time and money to drag this entire ensemble all the way to the Oregon border when they could have done the shoot much closer to home-say in the nearby Sierra Nevadas-a vast area also known for Bigfoot sightings, or, for that matter, even the forests of nearby Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, a mere two hour drive from Hollywood? It would have made the fraud far easier and less expensive to pull off, particularly when the results would have been just as good.

Patterson Had an Agenda
The fact that Patterson actually made money from his film is, in the minds of some, automatically enough to dismiss the film out of hand as an obvious fake. The idea that a Bigfoot "hunter" actually found what he was searching for is looked upon with suspicion, for clearly no one could be that lucky. This deadly combination—luck and fortune—is enough, apparently, to seal its fate.

No one denies that Patterson was lucky. He set out to find a Bigfoot and actually found one. But it wasn't pure luck. He had been searching for the creature for years and pursued his quarry with considerable skill. He chose to search an area known for Bigfoot activity—a "hot spot," in modern bigfoot hunter parlance—and he further chose the perfect means of doing so: searching on horseback.

Packhorses gave Patterson a tremendous advantage in searching for a creature like Bigfoot. Vehicles make noise and would be detected by a reasonably alert Bigfoot at some distance, while horses are quiet and would be able to cover much larger areas than a man on foot. Horses might also have one other subtle advantage: Whereas a man, being bipedal, might be interpreted by a Sasquatch as an "unnatural" creature, a horse would look-and smell-more like a "natural" animal of the forest. In fact, this natural "camouflage" may be what allowed Patterson and Gimlin to get as close as they did. By the time the Bigfoot noticed the horses had human riders, it had already compromised its position.

Plus, Patterson and Gimlin were following a nearly dry creek bed—one of the few sources of water in the area—which, as a result of a particularly heavy spring funoff, now had broad, exposed banks. This would have forced any creature to cross nearly 100 feet of open space before reaching the cover of the forest. All these factors, combined with a bit of luck, are what gave Patterson his opportunity. He was simply rewarded for doing everything right-a lesson many modern Bigfoot hunters should take note of.

But what about the money? Didn't Patterson make a fortune off his film?

While it is true the man did make money from the rights to his footage, it was scarcely a fortune, and he lost most of that in later, unsuccessful Bigfoot expeditions. But even so, is that enough to question his ethics? The film after all, was his personal property, and the expedition was undertaken at his own expense, so was he not within his rights to take advantage of the situation? He took the risks and did the work, precisely the same as does a scientist who wins a Nobel Prize. Are we to assume a researcher in the field of chemistry, for example, who receives prize money for his effort, is to be considered unethical for keeping his winnings?

Additionally, consider the personal risks Patterson ran had he hoaxed the event. He took a risk his companion wouldn't shoot the impostor (couldn't he have at least made certain Gimlin's rifle was empty before they started out?) as well as the risk the hoax wouldn't be exposed, thus subjecting himself to ridicule and possible legal action. When one considers the number of people likely involved in the fraud (at least two others besides Patterson himself, unless one assumes the guy in the monkey suit is also the designer and fabricator of the suit, which seems unlikely) what are the chances the deception would never be exposed? It's just too good a joke to keep to oneself. And, finally, Patterson himself died in 1972 after a long illness without recanting his story. Hadn't he heard that confession was good for the soul, or did he simply have nothing to confess?

Fraud or Science?
Could the Patterson film be a fraud?

Of course it could. Unfortunately, that's enough to satisfy most skeptics. People tend to believe what they want, as this remarkable piece of footage vividly demonstrates. To the Bigfoot proponent, it is clear and concise "proof" that a massive, unknown primate lurks in the forests of North America awaiting imminent discovery. To the skeptic, it is a clever fraud that beautifully illustrates the gullibility of the ignorant and the naïve. Which position one embraces says less about Roger Patterson's remarkable footage than it does the power of belief—or disbelief.

Article appeared in the March, 2002 issue of FATE magazine, © 2001 by J. Allan Danelek. All rights reserved.


READ A FOLLOW-UP ARTICLE ON THIS THAT RESPONDS TO A 2004 SKEPTICAL INQUIRER
ARTICLE THAT PORTENDS TO DEBUNK THE PATTERSON FILM.

TOP | ODDS N' ENDS PAGE | HOME