Because I watched Charles B. Pierce’s The Legend of Boggy Creek when I was four years old, my parents still blame themselves for my crippling fear of Bigfoot throughout my childhood. This happened in Arkansas in 1972. Wanting to see the movie but having no one to leave me with, they assumed that, with the theater being dark and all, that I’d fall asleep like a good little boy, but I didn’t. My mother tried to keep my eyes covered with her hand during the most frightening parts, but apparently I didn’t cooperate. Do I remember any of this—my mom’s soft hand on my face, the theater, the movie? I don’t, and though I never saw The Legend of Boggy Creek again, the title alone has always given me the willies, thanks to how often my mother has brought it up over the years, castigating the parenting of her younger self. She always made it sound absolutely horrifying. My whole life I’ve wondered if it truly is, but I’ve never done anything to find out. I honestly knew nothing about it beyond its mythical role in my parents’ story of my subsequent terrors. Having nothing better to do with my time as I sheltered in place during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, I decided to look it up. Its original poster would certainly have scared the bejesus out of my younger self. Beyond the still water of a lake, an ochre sun is setting, submerging itself into a background of dark woods. The color palette consists of nothing but amber twilight and dusky murkiness. In the foreground: the backlit, shadowy outline of a humanoid figure striding toward the viewer through the lake’s shimmering gold. Canted apelike to one side, its right hand nearly skims the water. As a whole, the poster was both understatedly frightening and strangely beautiful. Off to a good start. Sipping a beer on my porch on a sunny June afternoon in Philadelphia, I wondered what watching this would be like. Both eager and strangely apprehensive, I paid a few bucks to stream it on my laptop. A black screen appeared, accompanied by the sounds of insects, frogs, and dripping water. Then, in yellow print: THIS IS A TRUE STORY Some of the people in this motion picture portray themselves -- in many cases on actual locations.
It’s an effectively spooky start, especially since this was the first I’d heard of this claim of authenticity. Both my eagerness and apprehension surged. For the next two minutes, from the perspective of a boat drifting downstream, I watched shots of a sunny but fetid-looking swamp—trees growing from algae-slimed water, amphibians and reptiles slithering about—and listened to the amplified sounds of wildlife through my earbuds. And then, ripping through the serenity, a bestial shriek. The camera tracks several birds flying from their perches, fleeing. Cut now to a towheaded boy of about six running across a green field. He comes to a decrepit service station where three old men are chatting, and he tells one of them, a Mr. Willie, that his mom wants him to come to their house because “there’s some kind of wild man down there in the woods about the creek.” Mr. Willie tells the boy to tell his momma that there ain’t nothing to be afraid of and that maybe tomorrow he’ll come down there. He sends the boy home, and he and the other old men have themselves a good laugh at the boy’s foolishness. The yellow print, I now saw, hadn’t been lying. These are definitely not actors, not even the most amateur sort. A voiceover reminiscent of the Disney True-Life Adventure films from the fifties that our teachers used to show us in elementary school interrupted my thoughts: “I was seven years old when I first heard him scream. It scared me then and it scares me now.” The voice goes on to tell me that he grew up in Fouke, Arkansas, population: 350. And so, for the first time, I learned that the legend of Boggy Creek, the producer of that shriek, had lived only ninety miles from our house in Arkadelphia, a fact that I hoped I hadn’t known when I was four. Until the end of the movie seventy minutes later, I watched a series of reenactments presented in the unadorned style of a docudrama, all of close encounters with what is unimaginatively known as the Fouke Monster, which is never shown up close, in focus, or for very long. What’s visible looks like nothing more than a man wearing discarded remnants of shag carpet. The Monster kills a dog, gets shot at several times, puts a hairy arm through a window, terrifies a poor man sitting on a toilet, and then attacks another man, sending him to the hospital in a state of shock. During this last scene, the lone physical encounter, its face appears for the first and only time, but for no more than a fuzzy split-second. When I back the video up and pause it, something nobody would have been able to do for many years after 1972, I see that it’s only a cheap gorilla mask, which makes me strangely sad. During a quasi-intermission, I’m shown more lingering shots of Boggy Creek flora and fauna while also being treated to, of all things, a song about the Fouke Monster, one that sounds like nothing if not Bobby Goldsboro’s mawkish 1968 radio hit, “Honey.” Sings Chuck Bryant, “And this is where the creature goes / Safe within the world he knows / Perhaps he dimly wonders / ‘Why there is no other such as I / To touch to love before I die / To listen to my lonely cry?’” In other words, no matter how much its appearance might frighten humans, the Fouke Monster is only looking for love. Whether this observation is meant to elicit sympathy or further terror, however, I couldn’t tell. At the end of the movie, the boy, Jim, walks again across the green field, but now as the adult behind the voiceover. “It was so long ago that it seems incredible that the creature is still out there somewhere right this minute,” he says with a suitably thoughtful look on his face. “But if you’re ever driving down in our country along about sundown, keep an eye on the dark woods as you cross the Sulphur River Bottoms, and you may catch a glimpse of a huge, hairy creature watching you from the shadows.” Still looking for love, presumably. I closed my laptop and thought about what I had finally just seen again. As an adult, I appreciated how its dirty mockumentary aesthetics could clearly be seen as an influence on a much better film that would come out only two years later, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but otherwise it had been terribly disappointing—terribly written, terribly shot, terribly edited, terribly acted, and, somehow, terribly boring. But what would I have thought of it at the age of four? Even if my mother had successfully covered my eyes, the inhuman growls and the human screams would have been harrowing. And if I’d happened to actually peek out? The Monster’s shrouded mysteriousness, which was probably due much more to budgetary exigencies than subtle artistic preferences, would have probably scared me worse than any straightforward shot of Leatherface swinging his smoking Poulan, I’m sure. After all, nothing’s more frightening than what’s never fully seen, especially when you’re a child. Though I never joined them in doing so, I now understood how my parents could blame this movie for the development of my fear, but there was more to my fear than this. I may not be able to remember anything from my first viewing of Boggy Creek, but I do have faint memories of Arkansas, even though we only lived there for eleven months. My father, who was finishing his PhD in Counseling Psychology at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, had taken an internship at a regional health center in the small town of Arkadelphia, Arkansas, so he and my mother, who was pregnant with my sister, rented a house two miles west of town on an unnamed dirt road off Country Road 50. On Google Earth nearly fifty years later, I see that this road is still unpaved, which means that the otherwise omnipotent Street View is unavailable, so I have to make do with hovering virtually over its roof. This is fine, however, because I can see that its most important features haven’t changed: its isolation and the woods. My room was in the back of the house, and its very large windows looked out upon these woods. Whether it was because they knew we wouldn’t be living there for long or because we had no neighbors nearby or because I was only a few years old and wouldn’t notice or because they couldn’t afford it or because it didn’t occur to two hippies stuck unhappily in the crewcut world of small-town Arkansas, my parents didn’t bother hanging any coverings on these very large windows. During the day, I remember staring out at the woods, wondering what lived in them. At night, I could feel its creatures staring in at me, though all I could see in the glass was inky blackness. I imagined them tiptoeing up to my window to peer in at me sleeping. No creature liked to do this more than Bigfoot. Five years before this, in Northern California, Robert Patterson and Bob Gimlin had shot the Bigfoot equivalent of Abraham Zapruder’s film of the Kennedy motorcade in 1963. This grainy, shaky footage shows a large, hairy, humanoid creature lumbering across a clearing toward a stand of woods not entirely unlike the Arkansas woods a few yards from my uncurtained windows. Its dark fur shines glossily in the sun. At one point, it looks over its right shoulder in the direction of the camera, and it’s this moment that I always picture when I think of it, as do most people, I suppose. The creature’s right arm is swung behind its body, and its left arm is swung ahead. Its hairy face, though indistinct, seems vaguely curious, neither threatened or threatening. It then turns its attention back in the direction it’s headed and disappears into the trees. In subsequent years and decades, the Patterson-Gimlin film has often been called a hoax, but that never mattered to me because, to me, it’s always been real. And it’s always been real because I’ve always wanted it to be real, no matter how much it’s scared me over the years. Had I seen it as early as 1972? It had already been shown on various talk shows by this point, including Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, so possibly, especially considering how my father had always been interested in anything characterized as paranormal (which helps explain his willingness to take me along to The Legend of Boggy Creek if that was the only way he’d be able to see it). Regardless, by the time we moved into the house that would be my home for the rest of my childhood, I had not only seen it but become obsessed by it. On the day before the Fourth of July in the bicentennial year of 1976, my parents moved my little sister and me to a brand-new ranch house on the outside edge of a Dallas suburb. I was seven years old, ready to start second grade at Northlake Elementary. We had lived in a Dallas apartment for two years after leaving Arkansas, and I remember having no fears of Bigfoot there, and that was probably because my room had been on the second floor of the unit. My literal-mindedness, selective though it was, told me that nothing but birds could peer through my windows, which also happened to have come with blinds for me to keep closed. In our stairless new house, my bedroom window, when its goldenrod curtains were open, looked out upon a nearly identical house across the street, but beyond that house was a field not unlike the one that young Jim runs across in search of help. And beyond that field were woods just as thick and dark as the woods of Arkadelphia. Only a few months earlier, I had watched Colonel Steve Austin (played by Lee Majors, an actor with even less range than Boggy Creek’s Mr. Willie) cross paths with Bigfoot on what was easily my favorite show at the time, The Six Million Dollar Man. During their climactic battle, Bigfoot swats Steve to the ground with a full-sized tree trunk and tosses him through the air pro-wrestling style. Ultimately, Steve wins by tearing Bigfoot’s right arm off. As he does so, though, sparks fly from the wound. In this universe, Bigfoot is a robot controlled by aliens. If you think Steve Austin’s triumph over my bête noire eased my fears a bit, you’d be wrong, however, and that’s because everyone knew Bigfoot wasn’t a robot controlled by aliens. How stupid! Bigfoot was flesh and blood, muscle and hair. And nobody, not even Colonel Steve Austin, with his bionic legs and right arm, could defeat him. Meanwhile, I realized that my new curtains wouldn’t keep him from looking in at me while I slept, as I knew it would want to do. After striding between the houses across the street, it would head directly for my bedroom. From the first night onward, I safety-pinned my curtains together every night to guarantee that they wouldn’t accidentally gap open even a hair’s breadth. But what if he broke through the glass and stepped inside? Well, if he did that, he would first find himself tangled in the curtains that he’d just ripped from their runners. Then there was a second layer of security, too: I set a basketball on the floor halfway between the window and my bed. In his hurry to snatch me, he wouldn’t notice it, seeing as how he’d still most likely be struggling with the curtains, and one of his two big feet would undoubtedly step on it, causing him to lose his balance and fall. This would give me just enough time to escape, especially if I made sure to keep my door propped firmly open, as I always did for just this very reason. But even with this nightly preparation, I always had trouble getting to sleep. Staring through the dark at my trussed-up curtains, I waited for the inevitable sound of breaking glass and the sight of my curtains bulging toward me. There was nothing sensible about my fear, and I understood this well enough that I worked hard to keep my nightly preparations a secret from my parents, but even mortification (which did eventually take place) was a price I was willing to pay if it meant the difference between evading Bigfoot’s clutches or not. I don’t remember how long I kept up with my curtain-pinning and strategic basketball-positioning, but eventually, however, as with most childhood obsessions and fears, mine faded and were replaced, first by sports and music, then by girls and jobs and cars and money. And no matter how much I hate to admit it, the enduring lack of evidence of Bigfoot’s existence, especially in this era of ubiquitous technology, causes my former obsessiveness and fearfulness to seem that much more irretrievable, that much longer ago. My youth, too. With all there is to be frightened of in the 21st century, just imagine Bigfoot being your biggest fear in the world. Oh, the sweet innocence of that! My teenaged children never, not even at their youngest, trafficked in such mythical ridiculousness. Growing up in this era had hardened them in ways that I hadn’t been. What a gullible fool Daddy must have been! But even now, if I close my eyes, breathe, concentrate, I can still summon a feeling from long ago—part lump-in-my-stomach dread, part goosebump thrill—that nothing but thoughts of Bigfoot have ever given me. And I would have to agree with the words that Jim leaves us with at the end of The Legend of Boggy Creek: “I’d almost like to hear that terrible cry again just to be reminded that there . . . are still mysteries that remain unsolved. And strange, unexplained noises in the night.” If only there were nothing to keep us anxious and awake in our beds now but thoughts of mysterious creatures wandering up from the woods to peer curiously through our windows.
-- Kevin Grauke is the author of Shadows of Men (Queen's Ferry Press), winner of the Steven Turner Award from the Texas Institute of Letters. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared (or are forthcoming) in journals such as The Threepenny Review, Bayou, The Southern Review, Quarterly West, and Columbia Journal. He’s a Contributing Editor at Story, and he teaches at La Salle University in Philadelphia. Twitter: @kevingrauke