Mind the gap: Entering strange new territory on my Bigfoot weekend

Are you a believer or a skeptic?

Awful categories, aren’t they? No one fits neatly into one or the other all the time. I apologize in advance for using these words as descriptors. I couldn’t think of a good way to express what we mean when applying these as processes, not a broad brush label.

Everyone is skeptical about something. Some of us apply it more evenly or have embraced it more thoroughly (as a process we use to judge claims). Even true believers harbor doubts about aspects of their subject. Sometimes, the doubts win and they drift away from their believing community.

I’m not talking about God, I’m talking about ghosts and Bigfoot.

I want to share some interesting episodes that took place in what I’m calling my Bigfoot weekend of October 21-23. I discovered many people existing in the gap between skepticism and the paranormal. They can tell us a whole lot about these topics we might otherwise miss.

After the premier showing on October 21 of The Bigfoot Hunter: Still Searching in Waverly, New York, I had a memorable conversation with the featured Elmira Bigfoot Hunter himself, Timothy Holmes. In the short time walking down the street to the pub and waiting for others to arrive, Tim told me about how HE will be the one to find Bigfoot. They are all over, he says, describing his encounter in the Philippines, as well in the New York forestlands. With his typical ever present optimism, he assures me that he will also be the one who nabs the extraterrestrials who sometimes visit him – he knows how the eight species of UFOs work. (I didn’t get to ask how he knows there are eight and why he specifically used the word “species”.) He has even travelled outside his body, so he says. But, he warned, “Don’t believe everything you see on the internet. Those photos and videos are all faked!”

The people who made The Bigfoot Hunter movie started as Ghost Hunters, Inc. group who formed before the Ghost Hunters (trademark) became crazy popular. As kids, living in a boring town, they did it for fun, not money and not to prove anything.

I have never been on a ghost hunt. As I told Tim, I’m just not “lucky” like him to have experienced anything I would call paranormal. Over the past 10 years I’ve immersed myself in the rational literature and community. I feel comfortable there.

This gang is totally different, sporting a completely irreverent vibe that would not sit well with the seriously academic and dry Skeptic old guard. You can find them now doing the fantastic website about weird things, “Who Forted?”, where they take a measured but hilarious approach to the paranormal. I loved the site at first visit and offered to write for it. I’m guessing I’m the most skeptical writer there yet I’ve always felt welcome.

Hanging out with them in the bar after the movie, I can attest this was not your typical TAM bar crowd. Some of them still entertain the idea of supernatural forces. They have experienced things they couldn’t explain and are not yet prepared to brush off the paranormal. Most of the time, they would not attribute the unknown to “paranormal” explanations. They spot the faking, know the tricks, and get disgusted by the poseurs. Sometimes, they even are the poseurs (to the extreme) just for laughs. Full of ideas and enthusiasm, they are some of the most open-minded but reasonable people I’ve met. I feel I could talk to them for hours about what they have seen and heard. And, I’d laugh my ass off in the meanwhile.

Because of their residence in that odd gap area between belief and skepticism, they can’t be labeled. Ask their executive producer/promoter! He has a hard time trying to sell what they can offer because it does not fit neatly into a category. Are they skeptical? Are they believers? Are they serious? Is this a parody?

By looking beyond the typical skeptical outlets, I found a growing new category – those who used to believe and might still believe – spanning the gap between paranormalists and non-paranormalists. That is a FUN place to visit.

It is too easy to close yourself off to new opportunities to examine a topic from the other side and talk to people with a different worldview. It’s unfair to be dismissive of people’s experiences or their interpretation. Besides, people hate when you do that and they shut down. One can question their claims in a way that keeps the doubt from coming out instead of blatantly injecting it into the conversation. If skeptics have learned anything in the past few years, it’s that we can get valuable results, infiltrating the really woo circles like psychics and new age communities, through being polite and feigning ignorance. You see so much more from the inside. Why not take advantage of an open door?

So I did.

On October 23, I ventured into a very uncomfortable place on my own, the PA Bigfoot Conference. I was the oddball out demographically as well as with my worldview. On top of that, the silly circus of the previous week in which my picture was plastered on the Cryptomundo web site and once again labeled as one of those “skeptics” made me a bit nervous about being called out as a secret skeptic spy.

I wasn’t there to rain on any parades. I very much wanted to see how these events worked and what was discussed. I kept my skeptical thoughts to myself and tried not to roll my eyes too much, though it WAS difficult not to giggle sometimes.

I observed. The crowd responded positively to information I thought was patently ridiculous. They ate it up. They appeared impressed by non-credentials and pure speculation, amazed by a dramatic story taken at face value without question. It was a far different feel than the many science-based conventions I’ve attended.

I gathered up courage to walk around and talk to people immersed in the Bigfoot culture. The people from the PA Bigfoot Society were friendly and helpful; we chatted for a while. If you ask polite questions, and especially if you appear informed, they WANT to talk to you. It was difficult to avoid telling them that I felt affiliation with the skeptical cryptozoologists but I didn’t mention it. Because we had such a nice talk, I sort of wished they found out after. Would they have thought, “Hey, skeptics aren’t ALL raging debunkers”?

After receiving a lesson about footprint casts, including one they have on display as an example of fake, I asked about their scientific credentials. Admittedly, there was only one who had tracking experience as a wildlife biologist. They teach each other.

Back in the auditorium, the audience was a diverse mix of ages, including families and couples. It was not the stereotypical Bigfoot crowd of beards and camouflage outerwear. Many people looked not like researchers but as enthusiasts interested in the subject and what the speakers had to offer.

Sadly, I think many in the audience could have been fooled by one presenter who spoke about primate behavior as applied to Bigfoot. A confident speaker, his talk was speculative nonsense heavy on jargon. I heard people next to me say, “Habituation? Foci?” He’d lost them. But maybe they accepted he had scientific credentials. When I got home I looked for these credentials; he has some as a private investigator, not a primate specialist.

Dr. Jeff Meldrum’s talk addressed some of this. Essentially, Meldrum is a modern Grover Krantz. He is a respected researcher in his primary field – anatomy and anthropology. I’m pretty certain he feels that attention-seeking, self-styled experts running through the woods are dragging the credibility of the subject down. It was an odd spot for him considering many of the talks from this conference hinted at connections to the paranormal. For a report on Meldrum’s fascinating talk, see my news post on it.

Finally, there was a presentation by Stan Gordon. Stan is a nice guy who collects reports in Pennsylvania about all things weird. From what I can tell, he connects with people. They feel comfortable telling him their story. And, whoa, does Stan have the stories! Outrageous stories. But, for over 50 years, Stan has given someone that has experienced something unknown a way to express their confusion and fear. He provides a valuable service.

Several of those whom we skeptics consider far outside our circle have something VERY valuable to say. What struck me hard this weekend is that what they say is not really about Bigfoot, it’s about themselves, our society, and popular culture. It’s not simple.

It proved highly worthwhile to visit these two new neighborhoods. I was not ostracized for being of a different mindset. I was not dismissed outright because I didn’t run in there all argumentative or self-righteous. I might think your idea is looney but I usually won’t say it to your face. I roll it around a bit first and often realize there is a core of something curious there.

It’s said that engaging outside your normal circle is good for sharpening your arguments and to know the “enemy”. That’s true, but it also makes the other side less of an “other”.

Whenever we “otherize” people, it justifies denigration of them. Hence, the “scoftic” label applied to me and the straw man construction one group makes of the other.

I recommend attending non-skeptical, pro-paranormal events every now and then. We can’t learn by remaining myopic or dismissive. And, odds are, you WILL have a personal realization, maybe make some new friends, and enhance your experience by stepping into the unknown. Mind the gap, though, it’s a strange world out there.

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Fluent in science, animals, paranormal culture. Expert in weird news. Doubtfulnews.com SpookyGeology.com