Bigfoots and their other monstrous cohorts were presented to U.S. audience in a serious television documentary for the first time in 1974. The outing was so successful that it still is notable today. This documentary, its remixes, and a few other pieces of media gold from that decade paved the way for ideas of Bigfoot/Sasquatch we still have today.
The 1970s were golden years for paranormal proliferation. There are many reasons why this was a fertile time for content, one of which was the ever-increasing ability to deliver television programming directly to homes. Scientists were struggling to be involved in a medium they didn’t actually like. From the advent of television, scientists objected that TV shows distorted reality and sensationalized their subjects. Playing for drama and marketing personalities instead of the data, television was the antithesis of science. But people liked it better than dry lectures and lessons.
Check out this link showing some of the documentary promo art featuring Bigfoot, ghosts, UFOs and fringe ideas.
In 1973, Alan Landsburg scored big with his documentary on Ancient Astronauts. That was followed shortly after by Monsters! Mystery or Myth, a 1-hour show by David L. Wolper, written and directed by Robert Guenette. The show featured several scientists, including the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, S. Dillon Ripley, speaking about Bigfoot, Yeti (better known at the time as the “Abominable Snowman”) and the Loch Ness Monster. Narrated by Rod Serling, it aired on CBS on November 25, 1974. It was the first show to put the legendary creatures on the lips of stiff scientists – even though they were talking from a script – interspersed with stories told by small town witnesses, and some guy shuffling about in a terrible Bigfoot costume. The end credits noted it was produced in conjunction with the Smithsonian and endorsed by the National Education Association. There had to be more to this story!
According to Marcel LaFollette’s 2013 Science on American Television, the Wolper documentary was a nightmare for the Smithsonian. The Institution had hesitated to become involved with television production, never being able to agree on the format or content that could highlight their collection and research. Ripley realized TV was a crucial medium that must be embraced. This led to a contract with David L. Wolper who was already known to be independent and sometimes controversial. The deal was struck for three to five 1-hour episodes before the actual content was discussed. The Institution would have approval over the scripts and edits in order to preserve their scientific reputation.
Monsters! was the first special pushed by Wolper. The natural history museum director initially refused to cooperate and lend his staff for such a sensational (and inappropriate) topic. What did that have to do with the Institution? There was no evidence for these creatures and no one would want a scientific discussion about them. The Smithsonian did get many public inquiries about such creatures; people wished that science would take these claims seriously. In a letter Wolper sent to a Smithsonian official, he blamed scientists for not being able to convince people there were no such monsters so that justified the program.
With many of the segments as first-person eyewitness accounts, the agreement to allow for scientific oversight of the script was weakened. The final cut featured the scientists as naysayers and authoritarian commentators behind a desk. But they told the unvarnished truth. The end result was of little educational value. The New York Times called it “impossibly manipulative”. Viewers were given the “you decide” gambit – having to judge between reenactments of unconfirmed stories and scientific consensus. This ploy is still a standard today. And it is still effective.
Wolper mentions the difficulties he had making the show with a later introduction you can see here.
Apparently, Monsters! was just what American audiences were hungry for. Helped by advance publicity and featured in TV Guide, the show was a huge ratings hit, with the biggest audience response seen for such a show up to that time – a 44% share or 50 million viewers. According to the research by Lafollette, Wolper gloated at the superb numbers. The next episode, on human flight, was only half as popular. The supernatural themes in the episode on the “cursed” Hope Diamond, again, gained high returns. The Smithsonian canceled Wolper’s contract in 1975. This was not how they wished to be represented.
A year later, another monster documentary debuted in theaters titled Bigfoot: The Mysterious Monster. This was also a David Wolper/Robert Guenette production hosted by actor Peter Graves. Guenette had developed a keen interest in Bigfoot from the Smithsonian work and eventually wrote a companion book for this movie feature. Melodramatic in the first minutes, Graves notably says in the intro that “this may be the most startling film you’ll ever see”. But 50 million people had already seen some of the content. The film was a remix of Wolper and Guenette’s Monsters! and another documentary called Land of the Yeti. It was more widely released by Sunn Classic Pictures in March of 1976 with the title The Mysterious Monsters – the most popular title now referenced.
In this trailer, you can see the effective framing of the individual stories like that of John Cobb’s deadly boat crash on Loch Ness, Eric Shipton’s discovery of bipedal-form tracks in the Himalayas, and Bigfoot invading Rita Graham’s personal space.
It was not uncommon for made-for-TV programs to be reedited for theaters back then. Because it allowed for multiple viewings and had an iconic promotional poster and book, The Mysterious Monsters had a greater impact and is probably more frequently remembered that the Monsters! TV version. In fact, several people understandably conflate the two. There was less critical and scientific content in the movie version; Graves more heavy-handedly pushed the evidence as startling and impressive and used gimmicks like a psychic detective. The Mysterious Monsters is considered a goofy cult classic today but it was a huge influence on how Bigfoot was absorbed into popular culture.
Prior to these works, there was the cryptozoological Zapruder clip, the Patterson-Gimlin film from 1967, which was marketed around the country by Patterson himself and via talk show appearances. The PG film was not mentioned in Monsters! but was featured in The Mysterious Monsters.
Also mentioned in Monsters! was the idea that bipedal hairy ape-like creatures were not just sighted in the Pacific Northwest but all across the US. This was news to most who thought only the Northwest had to deal with cantankerous ape-men. The show noted that monster claims brought in tourists – an early acknowledgment of cryptid-tourism. They demonstrated how the footprints were made by fake-footed pranksters but emphasized that there were too many harrowing accounts that could not have been faked. These were shocking ideas for to the public, undoubtedly increasing credibility in the reality of Bigfoot. After all, it was on TV, it must be true!
The Mysterious Monsters let the infamous Sierra Sounds and anthropological fringe ideas of Grover Krantz be heard. Graves insinuated that the eyewitness testimony was good enough to stand up in a court of law, so it should be taken very seriously. The Mysterious Monsters featured a reenactment of a hairy hand bursting through the window reaching for poor Rita Graham. The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) about the Fouke, Arkansas Bigfoot-like creature, also featured a hairy arm reaching into a house. Those scenes are still pretty scary moments. Legend is another piece in the array of most influential Bigfoot propaganda.
Finally, learning from its predecessors and tapping into a wide interest in the unknown, the series In Search Of… came a few years later in 1977 to solidify the fascination with all three major monsters and much more. These documentaries or documentary-style dramas are cited by modern Bigfoot/Sasquatch researchers and enthusiasts as being the most influential media from their early days. All were a product of their times but their long hairy arms reach even into the present day.