October 10, 2005

Small Town A Bastion Of Bigfoot Belief

By Dave Wischnowsky

Chicago Tribune

SENECA, Ill. — A few months ago, the big news in this village of 2,053 residents was that its lone men’s barbershop had closed after 42 years.

As the summer wore on, however, many locals found themselves bantering about a more exotic topic: Bigfoot.

For better or worse, Seneca has become a veritable Sasquatch Central following a flurry of investigations conducted by a member of the California-based Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, which bills itself as “the only scientific research organization exploring the Bigfoot/Sasquatch mystery.”

“My mind’s open to anything. After all, they just found another planet. So, who knows? Anything’s possible,” lifelong Seneca resident Jim Maier, 61, joked.

The rumors also create questions. From how and why Bigfoot stories can begin in a place such as Seneca–about 70 miles southwest of Chicago–to the reasons behind our powerful fascination with tales of things that go bump in the night.

“Bigfoot is one of those things that people like believing in,” said Dr. Christopher Bader, an assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University in Texas. “Because, how boring would the world be if we thought we had discovered everything?”

Since Stan Courtney of the BFRO first visited Seneca, he has deemed reports of four separate Bigfoot encounters near town credible enough to post on the group’s Web site. Two of the alleged encounters happened in early June, and the others date back to 1979 and 1983.

Courtney first posted two Bigfoot reports on the group’s Web site July 9, prompting the Daily Times, a newspaper in nearby Ottawa, to publish a story about the rumors. After that story ran, Courtney said he received information about other Bigfoot encounters. He posted two more reports in late August.

All four of the supposed sightings were within a mile of each other in a densely wooded area just south of the Illinois River along Seneca’s narrow and twisting DuPont Road. Three occurred in Grundy County, while the fourth was in LaSalle County. One account involved two Bigfoot creatures.

“We heard some commotion over in the woods, and we were looking down into the trees. … At first, I didn’t know what to think,” a man identified only as “Tom” is quoted as saying on www.bfro.net, the official Web site of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization. “If anything, it could be a man in a suit.

“Then I saw the second one in the clearing as plain as day. I guess I don’t know how to explain it, but I just knew it wasn’t a man at that time.”

“Tom” believes the creatures he saw in June near Seneca– allegedly covered in hair, standing more than 8 feet tall and reeking of a pungent odor–to be Bigfoots.

To many longtime Seneca residents, such stories are actually nothing new. Tales of a towering, hairy creature stalking the woods along DuPont Road date back four decades, they say.

“Growing up, it was always the `DuPont Monster,'” said Kim Tedford, a resident of Seneca for more than 30 years. “The [Daily Times] newspaper story was the first I’d ever heard about it being Bigfoot.”

Whatever the names, countless towns throughout the nation boast tales of the supernatural. And like a good scary movie, those stories can provide a dose of excitement, Bader said.

“Every state has its roads where there’s a phantom hitchhiker, and every town has its haunted houses,” he said. “Regardless of whether there are such things as Bigfoot, people like that thrill of uncertainty, that sense of danger. It’s exciting to try and discover the unknown. And it’s a lot more fun to have that little bit of doubt when you’re sitting out in the woods.”

Bader says he once sat alone inside an isolated cabin in Washington state at 3 a.m. with a recording of a Bigfoot “scream” playing outside. The effort failed to attract any creatures, he said.

But it didn’t fail to excite.

“The only time I’ve believed in Bigfoot was from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. that night, when I thought playing that tape was the stupidest thing I’d ever done,” Bader said. “I was scared out of my wits. … But I felt that thrill.”

A belief in Bigfoot also can provide a sense of significance and belonging, said Dr. James Alcock, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto and member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

“One type of a believer is a person really fascinated by something strange, but who typically doesn’t have much background in science, or found science hard or boring growing up,” Alcock said. “But if they jump on the bandwagon with flying saucers or Bigfoot, they think that they’re doing some sort of science. And that in some way they’re a `real’ scientist at the forefront of trying to make a discovery.”

“It’s a shortcut,” he said. “To become a paleontologist, it takes years. But to become an `expert’ on Bigfoot, you just have to read a few books and join a few groups, and you know as much as anyone else.

“Another thing is that you’re treated with respect if you join these groups. Nobody laughs at you. And if you also bring up ghosts or other [supernatural] things, people will not say you’re an idiot.”

The BFRO says the Internet has made it easier for people to report sightings directly to investigators, without fear of public ridicule. Alcock contends the Web also has helped such beliefs grow.

“In small towns, there is more opportunity for a belief to spread,” he said. “And the Internet has a small-town flavor. It’s a place where you can seek out those who share your belief.”

On its Web site, the BFRO documents Bigfoot sightings in every state except Hawaii, and the encounters occur almost exclusively in rural locations.

Boise State University professor of psychology Dr. Eric Landrum offers an explanation.

“Perhaps people in small towns have more time to think creatively or imaginatively, or they seek more distractions from their everyday lives, as compared to city-dwellers,” he said. “[Bigfoot stories] are fuel for the imagination.”

In Seneca this summer, many locals were having fun with the rumors. Groups of local teenagers toted tents into the woods hoping to spot a Bigfoot, while adults cracked jokes about how such creatures were coping with the heat.

But for some, Bader said, Bigfoot will always offer a big allure.

“For whatever reason, there’s an inherent appeal to the myth of the Wild Man or Bigfoot,” he said. “Somehow, that’s ingrained in us. … Bigfoot is `everywhere.’ So I’m not at all surprised he’s in Seneca.”