A friend asked me recently why I’m always bagging on Bigfoot. I wasn’t really sure what he meant. “I feel your skeptical disdain for Bigfoot is beneath you,” he said.
Okay, so I’ve written a couple things pointing out how silly it is to believe a giant, hairy humanoid that’s been sighted in each of the continental United States and many foreign countries around the world can have a viably large breeding population and still remain undetected, leaving no physical traces and never wandering into town like a bear does when it’s sick or hungry. And Lord knows I’ve given the people who promote the legend while aimlessly wandering through the woods their share of flack.
“I understand the biological absurdities of it,” he told me. “Which is why I say let it be. Not worth a skeptic’s time.”
You wanna get absurd… Illustration by Brad Alston
I honestly do enjoy the Bigfoot mythos, especially when it gets really weird, but there is real damage done by Bigfoot belief, even if it’s not obvious. If people are willing to accept notably flawed eyewitness testimony and a few blobby footprints as persuasive evidence – even proof – then they’re more likely to believe lots of other crazy, unsupportable things (with potentially worse consequences), or be deliberately manipulated by hucksters who prey on such credulity. If we can successfully show why Bigfoot can’t really exist, and why the presented “evidence” is so severely lacking, then maybe it could inoculate them a bit against more malicious fallacies.
Can’t Save Them All
Sadly, it’s too late for the two 12-year-old girls from Waukesha, Wisconsin, who allegedly tried to kill a third by stabbing her 19 times in a wooded park. The pair claimed they perpetrated the heinous act as a sort of tribute to an internet legend called the Slender Man, so people would believe in him.
“[We] wanted to prove the skeptics wrong,” one of them said, according to the criminal complaint.
EMTs tend to the victim. Abe Van Dyke/AP, retrieved from The Washington Post
The alleged perpetrators are unbelievably set to be tried as adults, unless their attorneys can get the cases moved to juvenile court. Now, I’m not gonna claim a healthy dose of Bigfoot skepticism could have prevented this from happening. If the police account of the event is true, these girls had more screws loose than just a proneness to fantasy. And even I believed in some pretty crazy crap when I was a kid.
The most tragic part of this story, though, is that while the Bigfoot myth can sometimes be bolstered by its murky origins in mid-20th century sightings and – potentially – American Indian lore, the provenance of the Slender Man is known exactly. And it’s completely, and admittedly, made the fuck up.
From Meme to Murder
The Washington Post put together a great assessment of how the Slender Man came to be. The gaunt, suited figure often described as having no face and, sometimes, tentacles protruding from his back, was created on the forums of comedy website Something Awful in 2009. June 8, specifically. You can pinpoint the exact post in which the Slender Man first appeared anywhere, immortalized on servers for all the world to access.
One of the first two images of the Slender Man, admittedly doctored and fictionalized by Something Awful user Eric Knudsen.
The Slender Man was created in a thread meant to show off users’ Photoshop skills by forging paranormal pictures. This particular entry must have really caught people’s curiosity, as a tale was crafted around the images, one of a mysterious being that could convince its victims to kill each other. The legend grew in a “Blair Witch” sort of way, with many contributing to the story before it made its way off the Something Awful site and into the rest of the world. The girls in this case actually discovered the Slender Man on another website called Creepypasta and, apparently, had no idea he was so clearly invented out of whole cloth.
Artist’s depiction of the Slender Man
Or are these two kids truly so depraved – and cunning – that they just wanted to off a playmate for kicks and decided to use the Slender Man’s influence as an excuse? That’s far-fetched as any tall tale. They’ve already admitted they believed the creature read their minds and threatened to kill their families.
If there are any silver linings in this seemingly senseless occurrence, the most important one is that the victim survived, despite one knife blow coming within a millimeter of a major artery. Secondly, this bizarre instance has to be a major blow to all the reincarnation purveyors, ghost enthusiasts and others who use children’s reports of strange things as their hard evidence. Kids have good imaginations, good enough to believe that obviously fictional beings are speaking to and interacting with them. We know the Slender Man isn’t real because we see where he came from; how does that speak to other, less well-documented myths?
What’s the Harm?
Skeptics are often asked, “What’s the harm of believing in [some paranormal claim]?” It’s fun to think about Bigfoot; even people who don’t believe in him think so. But it’s a slippery intellectual slope. This is a stark, although possibly unavoidable example of just how wrong undue belief in weird things can go.
Tim Farley has spent years compiling heartbreaking tragedies that likely could have been prevented if otherwise rational adults hadn’t been persuaded by unscientific claims. His website What’s the Harm? documents the injuries and deaths of almost 700,000 people, along with nearly $3 billion in economic damages, that could have been avoided with a little critical thinking. Whether it’s someone who sold his house at a loss because he thought it was haunted, a person who suffers a stroke from a chiropractic adjustment, or a cancer patient who died taking unproven treatments while neglecting conventional medicines, What’s the Harm? is an often-updated testament to the worst things that can and do happen when we misplace our confidence.
Crazy can get the best of us. Even Apple co-founder Steve Jobs resorted to quack medical treatments for his pancreatic cancer. Whether or how much this affected his lifespan is hard to say.
Climb that Hill Again
The day after the conversation with my friend, I sent him the link to a story that kind of filled out what I was trying to get across. The article spoke of the futility of confronting paranormal claims, likening the pursuit to pushing a boulder up a hill before it rolls right back down again. The piece also points out, though, that’s it’s still an important task, a form of “social responsibility.”
I think he may have started to agree. “Well Sisyphus, keep pushing!” he told me.