The Weird Culture War Over Bigfoot as a COVID-19 Icon

Mark Hay
·8-min read
Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast/Photos Getty
Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast/Photos Getty

As the coronavirus pandemic really started to rip through America in mid-March, Todd Disotell wondered how he, a biological anthropologist locked down in his central Massachusetts home, could help others through what was shaping up to be a long and brutal crisis.

Then, the answer hit him: the six-foot tall bronze Bigfoot statue his father gave him for Christmas.

Disotell, a well-known Bigfoot skeptic who is nonetheless cordial with many people who believe in and groups that search for the legendary creature(s), moved the statue to the edge of the road by his house. He then placed a sign in its hand for drivers to read: North American Social Distancing Champion. Every day for about seven weeks, he swapped the sign out for a new, punny public health message, like sasq-wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.

Disotell was not alone in co-opting Bigfoot into (corny) PSAs. In late March, parks officials in Tulsa, Oklahoma, introduced the Social Distancing Sasquatch, a pandemic safety mascot. Signs went up in Idaho claiming Bigfoot had tested negative for the coronavirus, and explaining how social distancing helped him do so. On sites like Amazon, Redbubble, and Sasquatch Outpost, retailers are currently selling countless shirts and masks, pillows and mugs, featuring Bigfoot and promoting pandemic safety.

Bigfoot’s emergence as a pandemic icon can play a valuable—or at least fun—role in spreading vital information about the resurgent pandemic, public health experts said. But there’s a deep irony at the heart of this trend: Many who actually believe in Sasquatch don’t buy into the science of COVID-19.

Some have even continued to hold in-person conventions, raising super-spreader concerns.

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Bigfoot is ubiquitous, so beloved in American culture that someone, somewhere will try to tie the creature into almost anything in the news. Connecting the cryptid to the pandemic was especially easy, explained Bigfoot author and skeptic-enthusiast Joshua Blu Buhs, given the enduring popularity of a meme featuring Bigfoot’s silhouette and reading hide and seek champion, which ported right into social distancing messaging.

Many people seemingly made the connection independently, and their new memes took off like wildfire on social media. Local coverage of the theft of Disotell’s Bigfoot in late April, which attracted ample attention online, also likely played a role in popularizing sasquatch messaging. (The statue showed up soon after it went missing, dumped in a yard 30 miles away. Disotell is not sure who stole it, or why.)

Cliff Barackman, the host of Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot and curator of the North American Bigfoot Center, believes these stunts and memes took off because they bring much-needed levity to otherwise grim pandemic discussions. He’s fine with this trend, because he thinks lighthearted depictions will disincline people to shoot what he believes to be a real—and endangered—creature on sight if they stumble upon one.

But “many [self-proclaimed Bigfoot] researchers dislike the use of sasquatch as a cultural icon,” he adds. They find these memes tastelessly silly, or believe they misrepresent what they claim are the hard facts they have uncovered about the creatures.

That’s probably why these memes don’t show up often in Bigfoot-believing social media circles. “People who really know about bigfoot understand they do not social distance,” Loren Coleman of the International Cryptozoology Museum told The Daily Beast.

(“Uh, show me the data for that,” Disotell responds.)

Ryan Howell, the man behind (and inside) Tulsa’s Social Distancing Sasquatch, says that more than two million people viewed their initial bigfoot public health posts alone. The character has been so popular, and the campaign so successful, he adds, he’s been asked to participate in dozens of other efforts.

Yet the author Max Brooks argues that earnest belief in Bigfoot corresponds with the fall of shared factual beliefs in America. (Brooks, who has “been studying sasquatch all [his] life,” in large part because he says he’s terrified of the creatures, recently released Devolution, a book about people isolated in their homes by a natural disaster and besieged by Bigfeet.) For many of the roughly 10 to 25 percent of Americans who say they buy into Bigfoot, their belief is nominal at most. But diehard belief usually means rejecting mainstream science, which of course doesn’t support Bigfoot’s existence.

The stronger the belief, Buhs and others argue, the more it often dovetails with wider governmental and scientific malfeasance conspiracies—like COVID-19 trutherism.

“The issues with trying to prove Sasquatch exists are the same we’ve seen with the pandemic,” Brooks argues. “Too many people are not willing to look at evidence, or try to dismiss it, to ram their agendas through.”

This conspiratorial bent doesn’t always translate into pandemic skepticism. This spring, retired baseball star and Bigfoot enthusiast Jose Conseco made headlines with his worries about spreading the virus to the cryptids, with whom he insisted he’d had contact. Sasquatch researcher Tom Sewid also claims that he and others have tried to scare the creatures away from human settlements, and encouraged Bigfoot hunters to mask up—to protect them from cross-species transmission risks.

But Bigfoot believer community insiders and observers acknowledge a strong strain of pandemic skepticism in the scene. Recent survey data from the research firm Civic Science suggests Bigfoot believers are far more likely to take epidemiological risks during the pandemic—and to watch Fox News—than others. Barackman buys those results, saying they likely reflect believers’ and hunters’ disproportionately rural and conservative backgrounds.

Most of the biggest Bigfoot conventions and festivals were canceled this year, or went all digital. One, in McDowell County, North Carolina, leaned into social distancing champion rhetoric while switching to a new format. But numerous groups still held, or plan to hold, regional conventions in-person. Some are or were entirely outdoors, and some indoors mandated masking. But numerous recent or upcoming entirely or partially indoor events, like the upcoming Boggy Bottom Bigfoot Conference in Coalgate, Oklahoma, which doubles as a fundraiser for a local high school robotics team, have not publicly listed any COVID-19 precautions. (The Daily Beast reached out to the Biggy Bottom Bigfoot Conference organizers, as well as the organizers of other events with no clear COVID-19 information, for comment, but did not receive any replies.)

Coleman notes that members of the Bigfoot community have been passing around pictures of unmasked people at events this year and dinging them for recklessness. The Minnesota Bigfoot Conference—which involved about 50 participants at the Timberlake Lodge in Grand Rapids—ostensibly mandated mask wearing at the venue, but posted several such photos to their official Facebook page on August 15.

Abe Del Rio, also known as Elusive1, the founder and director of the Minnesota Bigfoot Research Team, which organized that event, told The Daily Beast that they only took off their masks “briefly, to pose for pictures real quick,” but kept them on for the rest of the event. He added that he personally made sure ample hand sanitizer was available.

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Del Rio was curious to know who had told The Daily Beast about those photos, noting that “it’s really nobody’s business, except people who want to stick their nose in somebody’s business.”

“I do think there is something to this pandemic,” he added. “I can name 10 to 15 people I know who have had COVID-19… But they just feel a little bit crummy during it... They say it was really no worse for them then the common flu.” (While some people do only contract mild cases, comparisons between COVID-19 and the common flu are inaccurate and misleading at best, and echo infamous pandemic downplaying claims made in recent weeks by America’s COVID-19 Skeptic-in-Chief.)

The Texas Bigfoot Conference, hosted earlier this month in Jefferson, Texas, also openly stated that it would opt for a low-occupancy event and mandate social distancing and mask usage. However, photos from that event appear to show sporadic mask usage by individuals who often were not social distancing, despite ample space. Nor were they, as at the Minnesota conference, apparently posing for photos, as these were candid shots. The Daily Beast reached out to the team behind this event for comment as well, but had not received a response as of publication.

Coleman also concedes—and Sewid and others confirm—that some events this year have been organized by pandemic doubters. “But a lot of people don’t show up for those,” Coleman argued.

Whether or not they are the norm in the community, Lawrence Gostin, a public-health law expert at Georgetown, warned that “indoor gatherings without masks are a perfect storm for superspreader events.”

Sewid goes further, arguing that “all these poorly frontal-lobe-developed hairless humans going to sasquatch-bigfoot conferences now are a bunch of frickin’ idiots.” He sneeringly thanks them for “disrespecting their fellow humans and spreading the plague a little more, a little faster.”

Diehard bigfoot believers are not common, and unmasked cryptid conventions are not the most dire health threat facing America now. That honor likely goes to the president of the United States. But if Bigfoot culture plays even a minor role in a new pandemic surge, parodic Bigfoot culture is ready to push back with more constructive health messaging.

“My final bigfoot sign was, If you don’t behave, I’ll be back for the second wave,” says Disotell. “Looks like I’ll start making signs again.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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