When I was a kid, trips to the library were like journeys through the wardrobe into Narnia. The library in my little city was located in a converted two-story house downtown, and in the eyes of a kid it was cavernous: great big dusty windows and high ceilings, and above and over all, the sprawl of the books, crammed into shelves and on top of them because there wasn't enough room to contain them all. I never left the library with less than the maximum number of books I could withdraw, and more often than not, I turned to the paranormal genre: ghost stories, vampires, Bigfoot, and miscellaneous folklore.
Kathryn Tucker-Windham's 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey series was very popular when I was a kid (and now), and it had the added benefits of being written by a local, about local hauntings. I read about the hole that wouldn't stay filled, and the Red Lady of Huntingdon College, and I was both terrified at the possibility that these things existed so close to where I lived, and sad that there were no stories from my hometown in her books. And then one day when I was a junior in high school, I met a man absolutely convinced that Bigfoot was real, that it existed in Alabama, and that it had raided his hunting camp and made off with all of his food.
The South has a reputation—not undeserved—of being a deeply religious area, but it also revels in folklore, supernatural or otherwise. There's a reason why Anne Rice and Charlaine Harris set their separate vampire series in the South: supernatural tales, like kudzu, thrive here.
Alabama lies in the middle of the Deep South, for all the good and bad that entails. The southern part of the state empties into the Gulf of Mexico, and sports white sand beaches and live oaks covered with Spanish moss; here and there, you can spot the straight, tall lines of gnarled plantation orchards. The state is full of pine forests, huge swaths of green which carry their color through our mild winters. The red clay of the Black Belt area mellows into the mineral-rich deposits of the north; there are even a couple of less than imposing mountains nearing Tennessee.
The state capital is Montgomery. The UFO capital of Alabama, however, is a small town called Fyffe, which reported over fifty UFO sightings over a two-day period in 1989.
Maybe you believe in UFOs, or ghosts, or Bigfoot, or any number of paranormal beings, or maybe you don't believe in anything that you can't see, feel, or touch. It doesn't really matter whether we revere or revile the paranormal: it blankets our landscape, and the fact that pretty much everybody has an opinion about the existence of paranormal beings gives us a common thread. And the paranormal provides a little bit of magic—Bigfoot, for example, is innocent until proven guilty, real for a huge chunk of people until absolutely proven otherwise.
While sightings of the creature soar in the Pacific Northwest, the entire country knows what Bigfoot is, and every state has a tale to tell about the beast. Some people believe that Bigfoot is the missing link between humans and primates; there are theories that suggest that Bigfoot is some strange species of bear, or that it is the descendant of men gone wild. And, of course, there are quite a few people who don't believe that the creature exists at all. Bigfoot is the paranormal monster closest in carriage to humans, physical and weighty. It's undeniably animalistic, and if you could only find one you could touch it, smell it, unlike the incorporeal shadows of ghosts.
As long as the Bigfoot mystery remains unsolved, there will be researchers studying both sides of the argument. Alabama has three websites devoted to the search for Bigfoot, and for associations interested in researching the creature: Alabama Bigfoot Research, the Alabama Bigfoot Society, and the wonderfully named Lawnflowers, Jerky, and Bigfoots. There are also numerous other Alabama sections on nationally affiliated Bigfoot sites; an internet search for Bigfoot in Alabama provides ample information about sightings.
I'm sitting firmly on the fence in regard to Bigfoot and his possible existence; sometime between Bunnicula and now, the capability for this sort of suspension of disbelief dried up.
I've never seen a Bigfoot, but I've never gone looking for one, either, and I'm willing to believe that Bigfoot could exist. I'm not exactly pinning an "I want to believe" poster to my wall, though, so I decided to speak with somebody firmly entrenched in his pro-Bigfoot beliefs: Mike McLain, from Alabama Bigfoot Research. I asked him, first of all, about his opinions on why some people find it difficult to believe in Bigfoot. "Because of the scientific stand that there is no Bigfoot-like creature in North America and the idea that if there is, it's only up in the Pacific Northwest. Many people think there is only one of them. It really rocks their boat when they have a face to face encounter with one. The other thing is many just don't see how such a large animal could stay out of sight and not be seen."
Which raises a good point. Bigfoot sightings describe a large animal, usually between six and nine feet tall. Alabama's forests are teeming with wildlife, including everything from wild turkeys and boars to mountain lions and panthers, and those forests could certainly house a mammal like Bigfoot. But the number of Bigfoot sightings is pretty small when compared, for example, to the state's deer population, which litters the highways in leaps and bounds and roadkill in spring and fall. These animals, prime hunting targets, don't really seem to be afraid of entering human territory; when I was little, I would routinely awaken in the morning to find them eating out of our backyard garden, and in my current suburban neighborhood I spotted a doe and her fawn standing in the road one winter evening. On rare occasions I hear coyotes on cold nights. I've seen rabbits and possums, and more snakes than I care to remember, but Bigfoot has remained elusive. And with the amount of wildlife that we encounter on a regular basis, the absence of Bigfoot is a loud one. Either Bigfoot doesn't exist to creep out of the wilds, or it exists in small enough numbers to remain concealed. Perhaps, if it exists, Bigfoot wants to remain hidden, which might indicate some sort of intelligent species. If Bigfoot has been around for thousands of years, it would seem that its relative quiet is deliberate.
Skepticism doesn't make Bigfoot an easy pill to swallow. Where are the bones? Why is there no Bigfoot roadkill smeared over county highways? Of course there are theories: perhaps Bigfoot buries its dead, or they have extremely long life spans, or their remains are eaten by predators. They're smart enough—or lucky enough—to stay out of the path of oncoming vehicles. Plausible theories, definitely, but until physical evidence arises, they remain theories at best, and the Bigfoot conundrum really boils down to this: if they exist, and know that we exist, as surely they must, why don't they want to interact with us?
Before Columbus's "discovery," before the French and Spanish explorers who took root on Alabama's coasts, and before the Trail of Tears, Alabama was full of colonized life in the form of several tribes of Native Americans. The state name is actually a Native American word, and while its exact etymology has long been disputed, it is generally believed to have derived from a Choctaw word meaning "thicket clearers." There are Native American words which also seem to nod at the existence of Bigfoot. The Haddo have a term called ha'yacatsi, or lost giants; Cherokee refer to beings called kecleh-kudleh (hairy savage) and the Choctaw name shampe (monster giant). My favorite term, however, comes from the Chickasaw: lofa, meaning a smelly, hairy being that could speak.
So if Native American tribes have words for creatures like these, where are they, and why don't we hear about sightings more often? Assuming Bigfoot does exist, of course, one possibility is that people are seeing the creature—they're just not telling anybody else about it.
McLain believes this to be true. "We know that most sightings go unreported. The people involved in the encounter, many times, never tell anyone about what they experienced . . . . They don't want others laughing at them and making fun of them."
Southerners are intimately acquainted with ridicule. We have the reputation of being nice, charming, and personable; more prevalent, perhaps, is the reputation of being slow, stupid, and backwards. I cringe at the representation of Southerners on film, partly out of horror at how actors butcher Southern accents and partly because it's tiring to see the perpetuation of the dumb-as-bricks Southern stereotype.
For good or bad, we stereotype practically everything. Californian surfer dudes, angry New Yorkers—we even stereotype conspiracy theorists and UFO proponents as tin hat-wearing crazy people. It has to be terrifying for people to see something that they can't explain, but with the sort of stigma that our culture attaches to paranormal enthusiasts, it's understandable that people believing they've seen something out of the ordinary would want to keep that under wraps. McLain has heard sighting reports from people adamant that their stories not appear on his website. "If they do not wish a written report to be posted on the internet or anywhere, we respect their privacy. Many encounters have taken place that will never be made public and many witnesses just refuse to discuss the sighting entirely."
Sighting reports on the website range from haunting to just plain weird, and descriptions of Bigfoot vary. Everyone agrees that it's big and hairy; some describe the creature as smelly—very, very smelly—and it apparently comes in a variety of colors, red and brown, black and white. Most of the encounters listed on the Alabama Bigfoot Organization's website are pretty innocuous: human encounters Bigfoot, and Bigfoot wanders off. They don't actually seem to do a whole lot of anything.
For example, an excerpt of a report from the Alabama Bigfoot Research website:
She quickly looked up and was petrified to see a huge, hair-covered creature standing on two feet so close she could have touched it.
The sight of the creature so close to her caused her to drop to the ground and put her head between her knees. She immediately covered her head with her hands and began praying to God to protect her from the "monster" she thought would surely kill her. She stated she kept praying very loudly for a long time—she has no idea how long—so that she could not hear the animal if it came toward her. After a while she stopped praying, looked up, and the animal was gone.
She immediately turned around and ran home. After staying there for a few minutes she began running to the creek bank on the marked trail. She told her mother and siblings what she had seen and none of them believed her. That night, she told her father, and he did not believe her either.
Reading these Bigfoot reports, it becomes clear that people who encounter Bigfoot generally tend to be terrified of remembering the event. When I asked McLain whether his site had received any obviously false reports of Bigfoot sightings, he indicated that it had. But he also said that it's pretty easy to tell when people are telling the truth about sightings. "The one thing that you can look for is a life-changing event. You know it was real when a hunter that has hunted for years just stops, never to go into the woods again. Others never stay after dark and they never go alone."
When McLain's organization receives a report of a Bigfoot sighting, a researcher will travel to the site and take pictures of the location, searching for tracks, snapped trees, or other telltale Bigfoot signs. But most importantly, the researchers give people a chance to connect with likeminded individuals, with no fear of ridicule. "We try to provide the witnesses with support and help them handle the sighting. Some folks are very shaken by the encounter and need to talk with someone that will listen and believe them and help them understand what these creatures are."
McLain indicated that the largest number of Bigfoot sightings in Alabama comes from Clarke County, located in the southwest part of the state and bordered by the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers. "Much of the area is very remote, has an abundance of game and in some places large stands of Oak. Plenty of fresh water, an abundance of food, and in many places, [is] not visited by man except during hunting season."
By the way, Clarke County contains Thomasville, the town where Kathryn Tucker-Windham grew up. Maybe paranormal phenomena congregate together. It's just a thought, but I'm not sure that reflects positively on the Sasquatch of the Pacific Northwest and that other vampire series set in the same area.
A large number of Bigfoot sightings come from hunters, for good reason—they spend lots of time in heavily wooded areas, which is where McLain says Bigfoot likes to congregate. "The sightings are more common during the fall as hunting season opens and more people are out in the woods. There is also a spike in the early spring for the same reasons. More people are out fishing, hiking and gardening and the Bigfoot seem to be more active also."
The reports are well-written and convincing, and numerous enough to give me pause. In the end, though, hard evidence would be required to convert the world's skeptics into Bigfoot believers. I certainly don't think that all of the people who have reported seeing Bigfoot are fabricating those stories. The Bigfoot legend is too old and too much of a universal concept to be unraveled that easily, and I think it's telling that so many Bigfoot reports come from hunters who are familiar with the normal workings of their woods and well-equipped to take care of themselves. It's almost as though Bigfoot is simultaneously real and fairytale, straddling both worlds because nobody can prove him or unravel his mystery. So we're stuck at a crossroads, with skeptics free to dismiss the creature and believers armed with cameras and flashlights, and maybe a hunting rifle or two.
Hunting season is a pretty big deal here. I went hunting once, when I was eight; I sat in a tree stand with my dad one Saturday morning, watching through binoculars and finding only a couple of obviously lost cows. I didn't have fun, and I didn't understand why people chose to spend so much time out in the wilderness hunting for a deer when beef and chicken were so readily available at Piggly Wiggly. I still don't understand the appeal of hunting, but the slow, arduous search for something that may or may not come into view: that's starting to make sense.
 Pamela Gifford. The History of the Fyffe, Alabama UFO Sightings and the Purpose of the UFO Days Festival. August 15, 2010.