Bigfoot gets too little respect. He is a television perennial, but lately he has been relegated to relatively low-viewership programs such as Finding Bigfoot while vampires score high ratings in The Vampire Diaries and True Blood. A recent analysis of horror stories suggests that Bigfoot will need to become more threatening if he is to close the popularity gap with vampires. Shape-shifting would help, too. Mathias Clasen uses a biocultural approach to understand the prevalence and appeal of stories related to vampires, zombies, werewolves, ghosts and other creatures common in horror stories (Clasen's article, in Review of General Psychology is behind a paywall, here).
According to Clasen, horror stories succeed – that is, scare us – when they trigger our cognitive danger-management systems. These systems evolved to help early humans innately sense and automatically respond to threats. Many things can trigger our danger-management systems. Tigers, for example. In addition to being dangerous, monsters enjoy the characteristic of being counterintuitive, a quality that has been much discussed in recent literature on religion and cognition. As Clasen (p. 224) notes:
The primary function of a fictional monster is to be salient. It can fulfill that function by being dangerous because humans are hard-wired to pay attention to dangerous agents, but the monster becomes even more interesting by being unnatural. Cognitive research on religion has produced evidence that counterintuitive agents, particularly minimally counterintuitive agents such as ghosts and bleeding statues, are more salient, easier to remember, and more likely to be faithfully transmitted than ordinary or completely bizarre agents...
Perhaps Bigfoot is not adequately counterintuitive. Certainly, a giant, hairy, bi-pedal creature is at least mildly counterintuitive. But compare Bigfoot to the werewolf. The werewolf is capable of shape-shifting, a trait that distinguishes the werewolf from other threats that prowl the forests, fields, and riverbanks near human settlements. Clasen attributes the culturally widespread manifestation of were-creatures (e.g., were-tigers, were-leopards, were-boars, were-crocodiles) to the ability of were-creatures to be highly dangerous and also optimally unnatural, that is, not too bizarre but also not too mundane. Bigfoot risks becoming mundane, a creature that can be convincingly portrayed by a guy in a gorilla suit.
Bigfoot is also advised to become more dangerous. All the better if the danger signals threats of both predation and disease. Consider the zombie. As Clasen (p. 224) explains: “The zombie packs a double whammy in its dual assault as a physically dangerous agent that is riddled with pathogens. It wants to eat you, and it is extremely infectious.” Clasen is adamant that the steady ascent in popularity enjoyed by zombies since the mid-1960s cannot be explained entirely in terms of social forces such as anxiety related to consumer culture (a popular explanation, among film scholars at least, of the appeal of George Romero’s influential zombie films such as Dawn of the Dead). The zombie “could never have achieved this level of cultural success if it had not connected squarely with adaptive dispositions to fear lethal attack and infectious agents,” Clasen (p. 225) writes.
Clasen accepts the idea advanced by others that horror stories can be likened to “chase play,” play in which humans (and perhaps many other animals) rehearse encounters with threatening creatures. Chase play is a risk-free, low-cost way of rehearsing adaptive behavior in threatening situations. Perhaps chase play of sorts is depicted in the long-running “Messin’ with Sasquatch” TV ads for Jacks Links Beef Jerky. In these ads, humans (usually males) are surprised by Sasquatch, who emerges from hiding to obtain beef jerky. The humans outwit and successfully “prank” the beast. However, these ads always end badly for one or more humans, with Sasquatch exacting a violent revenge. The lesson of these comedic vignettes seems to be that bravura and wit will not necessarily protect one from brawny, menacing creatures.
Bigfoot enjoys perhaps one notable advantage over several more popular monsters: plausibility. Survey research shows that 16.1 percent of American adults believe that Bigfoot “probably” or “absolutely” exists (Bader, Mencken, and Baker, 2012). Crypto-zoological monsters like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster enjoy subcultures of human fans who are ready to believe that the monster exists. More counterintuitive monsters such as zombies and werewolves seem less likely to be adopted as real by subcultures (although I would not be surprised to learn that somewhere on the Internet one can find groups who espouse belief in real-world zombies and werewolves). In this respect, the relatively low counterintuitive or unnatural status of Bigfoot may help keep alive the belief that Bigfoot exists.
Clasen’s analysis suggests that Bigfoot is an unlikely star of horror entertainment. Episodes of Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot have lately averaged approximately 1.4 million viewers, a respectable audience size, at least for Animal Planet programming. However, Hollywood has discovered that the most effective monsters are more weird and menacing than Bigfoot. Until Bigfoot can more capably exploit our evolved cognitive danger-management systems, Bigfoot will remain an intriguing but not especially scary monster.
Bader, Christopher D., F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph O. Baker. Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture. New York: New York UP, 2010.