Academic journal article Western Folklore

Tracking Bigfoot through 1970s North American Children's Culture: How Mass Media, Consumerism, and the Culture of Preadolescence Shaped Wildman Lore

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Tracking Bigfoot through 1970s North American Children's Culture: How Mass Media, Consumerism, and the Culture of Preadolescence Shaped Wildman Lore

Article excerpt

In the mid 1970s, Thomas Steenburg's high school social studies class was assigned to write and present a paper on any Canadian topic. Steenburg lived in the small town of Bancroft, Ontario. He had been interested in the legendary Sasquatch since he was five or six years old and was determined that his essay would be on the creature. His social studies teacher was unimpressed with the choice. Steenburg, however, was determined and eventually won his way. He could regale the class with monster stories if he wanted, but, his teacher warned, he would be graded the same way that all the other students were. Steenburg poured over books about the monster (Steenburg 2000:6). While statistics are difficult to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that Steenburg's case was not unique. The 1970s witnessed a noteworthy number of children-boys, mosdy-who, like Steenburg, battled with adults over the meaning of the monster Sasquatch.

Sasquatch is, of course, a well-known figure to folklorists, a modern update of the traditional wildman (Kirdey 1964:77-90). Along with Bigfoot, the Yeti, and the Abominable Snowman, Sasquatch penetrated the culture of North American children during the 1970s. The main path-or, at least an important one-for the transmission of stories about Bigfoot and other wildmen was the mass media.

Tracking Bigfoot through children's culture, then, offers a chance to observe the adaptation of folklore to the mass media and contemporary concerns. "Popular art," such as the juvenile Sasquatchiana produced during the 1970s, is "a kind of mass produced folklore," wrote Harold Schecter, "the form of storytelling that has taken the place of traditional folk narrative in the technological world" (1988:11). As this case shows, the adaptation was not straightforward. In moving from (presumably, although not always) oral transmission to mass media transmission, Bigfoot passed through different folkloric genres, from legend to marchen and back. Bigfoot stories were also put to different uses by different groups-there may have been a mass audience for the mass media, but that audience was not homogenous. Many adults used Bigfoot stories-if they acknowledged them at all-to educate their children in the proper ways to live in a consumer society. Much of this moral instruction was underwritten by Freudian theories of childhood development. Children, it seems, approached Bigfoot differendy. The creature was a way for them to finesse a different dilemma: how to create a social identity while still maintaining connections with their parents. Like so many other wildmen, Sasquatch was a guide to the uncharted.

Not too long ago, folklorists looked at mass media as anathematic to their discipline-folklore focused on the variable oral culture of small groups, not the supposed immutability of culture created for the mob. Baldly put-perhaps too pointedly-mass media was fakelore (Dorson 1950:335-343; Degh 1994:1-12; Bendix 1997:188-212). Over the last twenty years or so, however, folklorists have found that the tools of their trade can be used to make sense of mass culture-just as anthropologists have also found that the methods of their discipline, once confined to interpreting "primitive" societies, can shed light on the modern world, even the production of scientific knowledge (Latour 1987:13-17). "It is not enough to recognize that mass media play a role in folklore transmission," noted Linda Degh. "It is closer to the truth to admit that the media have become a part of folklore." Theoretically, she suggests, it is not necessary to separate them: they function in the same way (Degh 1994:25-26). Scholars such as Gary Alan Fine and Bill Ellis have tracked the ways that legends move through society, how they reflect contemporary concerns, and how they influence actions. To paraphrase Bill Ellis, we-modern, supposedly secular and rational people-live by legends (2001).

This essay also uses W.T. Lhamon's concept of a "lore cycle. …

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