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Anatomy of a Beast: Obsession and Myth on the Trail of Bigfoot was written by Michael McLeod and published in 2009. The book investigates the Bigfoot legend, the notion that huge and elusive ape creatures that walk upright like humans lurk around in the dark and lonely forests of the American Pacific Northwest. Like many people I have a big weakness for reading about mysteries, cryptozoology and conspiracy theories and my two specific favourites to read about are probably the theory that NASA hoaxed the moon landings in the sixties (a brilliant conspiracy theory whatever the truth) and Bigfoot. Bigfoot is a fun and creepy mystery and it does have perhaps the most famous piece of 'monster' film of all time in the footage Roger Patterson took in 1967 of what he claimed was a female Bigfoot walking across a shallow stream and rocks towards the woods. Although most people probably take Patterson's footage with a grain of salt it has never been 100% debunked and some experts have pointed out the very strange gait of the creature and presence of what appear to be breasts and muscles. If it was a hoax then it was a very, very good and clever one. Although I'm rather dubious myself about most of this stuff I think books of this type are probably more fun if the author maintains a somewhat ambiguous and detached line rather than say it's all true or, on the other hand, dismiss it all as cobblers. The author here is definitely in the latter camp. 'If people can delude themselves into believing in the existence of an eight-foot tall apeman, what on earth might they be thinking about truly important matters?'
So while still an interesting read for anyone who likes books about Bigfoot, mysteries and strange creatures, I should stress that Anatomy of a Beast is more about the origins of the 'myth' of Bigfoot and why people like to search for it and believe it is true, rather than an exhaustive analysis or debate about whether it does exist. The author makes it fairly evident he thinks it's nonsense ('To me they looked like clown feet, squared off at the toes, with no arch,' is his considered view of some of the more famous bigfoot footprints he looks at) and is more interested in the whole Bigfoot industry and how people have tried to latch onto it to make money and become famous. What he does do well though is explain how these wilderness areas are ripe for an urban legend like Bigfoot. His descriptions of places like the Klamath National Forest and the Six Rivers National Forest are really good and very eerie. Because these areas are dark, damp and remote and fairly devoid of people save for some scattered loggers, hunters and eccentric characters living in caravans or something, the notion that the, er, Bigfoot community can potter around in these gloomy wilderness areas undiscovered is able to grow, especially with the numerous tales and stories that have been told about them. My favourite is a story he relates in the book about a man who once claimed he looked after a baby Bigfoot for a while in his cabin and found it had a liking for cornflakes!
In these huge dank forests the author suggests, it is easy for someone's imagination to run away with them and see shadows or glimpses of animals. Strange noises that echo through the trees, especially at night, are also prone to have people putting two and two together and coming up with five. The book points out the obvious fact too that some of the more strange characters who live out in these places on their own have long since worked out that a few Bigfoot tales will have a chance of getting them a bit of cash and attention. The roots of Bigfoot come from the late nineteenth century according the author, from the idea that some naturalists had about a 'missing link' roaming the earth somewhere undetected. This eventually spiraled into things like the Yeti and Bigfoot and countless fraudsters and showmen attempted to take advantage, fueling these myths. 'The Bigfoot phenomenon has never been about the truth,' asserts McLeod. 'It's about storytelling.' One of the themes of the book is that as the world becomes smaller and more and more catalogued and explained we like the idea of unexplained mysteries more and more. Human beings often like to think there is more to life than we can comprehend. It's why people do things like flock to see spiritual mediums and send submersibles into Loch Ness. The author is broadly respectful of many Bigfoot hunters and enthusiasts but the book is not without humour when he describes some of the more crackpot characters who have got involved in the Sasquatch industry.
I suppose the section most of interest here is the look at the famous Patterson Bluff Creek footage and story and the author gives the whole thing pretty short shrift overall. The book says the 'Bigfoot' was Patterson's colleague Bob Gimlin in a suit and notes that Patterson was a well known chancer who had previously written a book about The Abominable Snowman. It is a remarkable coincidence that he just happened to ride out into the forest to look for Bigfoot and managed to film one fairly swiftly, although not for very long with a somewhat shaky camera. I think the author is a little unfair on the Patterson/Gimlin film which, even if it was a hoax, is very eerie and absolutely brilliant as far as these things go. Anthropological artist and photogrammetrist Bill Munns recently estimated the height of the 'Bigfoot' in Patterson's film to be 7'4 (!) and no one has ever got close to replicating the footage with a man in a monkey suit, even though many have tried. You do slightly wish the author wasn't such a party pooper here and would have a bit more fun with this footage. It appears that more than one person has claimed to have been the man in the suit in the Patterson footage but the suit itself has never turned up and special effects people of the time were impressed with the footage. If Patterson did fake the film himself then he probably could have got a job on the Planet of the Apes film!
Anatomy of a Beast: Obsession and Myth on the Trail of Bigfoot is likely to irritate Bigfoot hunters and believers but those with just a general interest in cryptozoology and Bigfoot will find it an atmospheric and entertaining read. The only quibble is that the author is sometimes just a bit too eager to dismiss everything straight away when it might have served him to just keep the door just slightly ajar on occasion purely for the fun of the reader. At 238 pages this is a decent read and there are a number of photographs in the book too (although you do wish a few more of these were of alleged Bigfoot sightings rather than people). Overall, this is not bad at all and recommended.