Bigfoot movies and pseudoscience TV

3 minute read

One of the people responsible for the Blair Witch Project is now making a movie about Sasquatch:

Titled Exists, the movie is described as following a group of twentysomethings who take a trip to a cabin deep in the wooded wilderness and are methodically hunted by a Bigfoot-like beast. Produced by Amber films and written by Sanchez and frequent collaborator Jamie Nash, he said that this is the first movie in a trilogy exploring and reinventing the Bigfoot myth.

A trilogy! Like in the second one, the people could find the video from the first one? Or maybe, it’s like “Bride of Bigfoot”?

Personally, I’d like to see something more along the lines of that Animal Planet show gone horribly wrong. You know, Finding Bigfoot:

From small towns in the South to remote areas of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, four eccentric but passionate members of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) embark on one single-minded mission: to find the elusive "creature" known as Bigfoot or the Sasquatch.

It would be awesomely bad television if Finding Bigfoot just turned out to be a setup for a fictional ending where the principals get smashed up by Sasquatch in a Blair Witch-like way.

Because as it is, Finding Bigfoot is just plain bad television. Last week, the show informed us that “skunk apes” (a southern U.S. term for Sasquatch) get their smell by absorbing methane as they hide in underground alligator dens.

I kid you not. It’s not even good camp. It’s rotten, absorbing-methane-from-the-alligator-dens camp.

Pseudoscience TV programs like Ghost Hunters and movies like Paranormal Activity are basically using the same cinematic vocabulary to tell fictional stories. All of them draw on Blair Witch as a forerunner of the genre. I remember before Blair Witch was being shown in theaters, parts of it were actually run on local-access cable channels. I think it was some kind of viral marketing scheme. Like, “Who are these scared kids running around in the woods?” Today’s shows are just capitalizing on the same approach.

There’s more to it than playing on the assumption that shaky and grainy video are “raw” and “unedited.” That’s not enough in today’s reality-infused TV spectrum. The pseudoscience programs draw from the timing and visual angles from horror movies, much of it grifted from classic Hitchcock. There’s humor – another Hitchcock element. Every one of these shows has a cocky “team leader” who might be a casting double for one of Steven Spielberg’s casting doubles of the classic Hitchcock characters. Especially the perfect archetype of the genre: Jimmy Stewart’s droll photojournalist from Rear Window. Several pseudoscience programs have a cast of young “apprentice” hunters, whose fumbling with the equipment helps explain the imperfect nature of the “evidence”, and whose portrayal of fear allows the program to portray suspense while maintaining the apparent authority of the “experienced” hunters.

What freedom they’ve unleashed! They’ve trashed the usual conceit that some “rogue scientists” are going against the mainstream consensus.

I think that tells us quite a lot about the media environment. Ten years ago, the pseudoscience TV scene was dominated by programs that used a traditional documentary approach. Talk to “experts”, go on at great length about “mysterious evidence” such as grainy photographs, bring in document analysts and authors of “investigative books”. Above all, no main character, only a disembodied narrator holding the story together.

That kind of storytelling is intrinsically dull. I write that with some sadness, because this boring “high documentary” model is what passes for mainstream science documentary filmmaking. The style was designed to sell Polident and Depends to an aging audience who tuned in to the History Channel for Hitler documentaries. Probably the style was at apex when NBC was doing Noah’s Ark documentaries on prime time broadcast TV in the mid-1990’s. Today, the “high documentary” can still get ratings in the pseudoscience TV world – History Channel’s Ancient Aliens is one prominent example, National Geographic’s recent Bigfoot film is another.

But beginning in the early 2000’s, a more reality-TV-influenced style of pseudoscience programming started to show up, first in late night syndication and later as regular prime-time cable network offerings. Now it’s dominant: Get a crew of nobodies together, call one of them the “leader” to uphold some Ghostbusters-derived evidentiary standard, and shoot video in a dark place. Don’t run cheap ads for Polident and commemorative coins, instead run expensive ads for movies and internet dating services.

I still think it would be genius if one of these shows actually followed through by becoming a scripted horror program. Mainly, I’d like to see Sasquatch smashing these punks like the evil gorillas from Congo.