You've seen it a hundred times: the iconic picture of Bigfoot striding heavily through the clearing, arms swinging, head and shoulders turned slightly toward the camera. This famous image is frame 352 of a 16mm silent color film shot in 1967 in northern California by rancher Roger Patterson, accompanied by his friend, Bob Gimlin. The impact that this film has had on Bigfoot mythology is inestimable; and correspondingly, so has its impact upon paranormal, cryptozoological, and pop culture mythologies in general. I might well not be doing the Skeptoid podcast today if the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film had not turned legend and fancy into concrete, tangible, see-it-with-your-own-eyes reality.
Whether or not Bigfoot exists is one question — the answer to which has not exactly whitened the knuckles of science — but the authenticity of the Patterson-Gimlin film is something else. If Bigfoot were known to be a real animal, an investigation into the authenticity of the film would make sense. If Bigfoot were known to not exist, then it would be logically moot to study the film at all; it must be a fake. But for today's purpose, we're going to brush aside the larger question (which should never be done in real science) and focus only on this detail. We'll assume that the existence of Bigfoot is an open question (a big assumption), and just for fun, let's see what we can determine on whether this famous film clip is a deliberate hoax, or whether it shows a real animal, or whether there might be some other explanation. Maybe it's a misidentification, or an elaborate film flaw, or an unknown third party hoaxing Patterson and Gimlin. There are many possibilities.
Roger Patterson died of cancer only a few years after the film was shot, and never offered any clue other than that the film was genuine. Bob Gimlin remained silent for 25 years, and ever since he began speaking about it in the 1990s he has firmly stated that he was unaware of any hoax, but allowed for the possibility that he may have been hoaxed himself. Nobody else is known to have participated, and so the only two people whom we can say for certain were present when the film was shot are both stonewalls. So we must look elsewhere.
The original film no longer exists (only copies), and there is no record of anyone ever having possessed the original print. We don't know why, but we're left without the original film's leader, which would have included the date when it was developed. Thus, we have only Patterson's word for when it was developed, so we can't verify that the film was shot and developed on the days he claims it was. The original also would have included any other shots that were taken, such as possible alternate takes. If these were ever seen, we'd know for a fact that it was faked. So that's one more line of evidence that is unavailable to us.
No one has ever produced documentation like receipts showing when and where the film was developed. We know when and where Patterson rented the camera, but that's not really in dispute. He had it in his possession for plenty of time before and after the alleged date of the filming. So that's yet another dead end. Patterson covered his tracks very effectively (no Bigfoot pun intended).
He was quite a character, and had always been. He'd been a competitive rodeo cowboy, part-time rancher, and full-time slacker. Few who knew him had anything positive to say about him. His reputation was that he never paid his bills. He borrowed money, lied about it, and never paid it back. He was physically very strong — not an ounce of fat, and thick with muscles — and was fond of showing it off. He knew everything better than anyone, and nobody could tell him a thing. He never kept interest in one career very long. One day he'd build stagecoaches for miniature horses; the next day he'd repaint junk found at the dump and sell it. But his one saving grace was his wife Patricia. Patty had a brother in Yakima, WA, Al DeAtley, a successful asphalt contractor, who provided money whenever it was needed. It was this even keel that got Roger Patterson through.
The story goes that Patterson and Gimlin had developed a strong interest in Bigfoot, and in October 1967 they rented the movie camera and went off on horseback for a couple weeks to look for it. Next thing they knew, they'd become the luckiest Bigfoot hunters in history, when the creature obligingly stepped out of the woods and strode across the clearing for Patterson's camera, in the early afternoon of October 20th. Gimlin chased it on horseback, lost it, but found its footprints; then they rode about 5 kilometers back to camp for their plaster of paris. They rode back, poured plaster into the footprints, waited for it to dry, then went back to camp again. They loaded their horses into the trailer and drove 40 kilometers on rough fire roads back to Willow Creek, and posted the film off to Yakima to get it developed. It was about 4:00 in the afternoon.
The glaring impossibility of this timeline is what first raised suspicions among skeptics. In response, Patterson and Gimlin began providing all sorts of different versions of their story. Other suspicious cryptozoologists, such as Peter Byrne, found holes and contradictions in those stories. In the end, the version Patterson and Gimlin settled on was that they put the film onto a plane and flew it to Yakima, where Al DeAtley picked it up to have it developed. Byrne found that the only charter planes that could have flown that route that day were all grounded due to rain and bad weather. Since then, few serious researchers took Patterson and Gimlin's story seriously.
But the film had already grown larger than all of them. It was a sensation, and to this day, rakes in revenue in licensing fees. DeAtley backed Patterson and formed Bigfoot Enterprises on November 1, just 10 days after the shoot, and reported $200,000 in the first year. Make no mistake about it: for the late 1960s and a man who used dig through the dump, Bigfoot was big money. Throughout the 1970s, Patty Patterson, Al DeAtley, Bob Gimlin, and a wildlife film company fought numerous lawsuits with one another over the rights to the footage. The biggest winner was a Bigfoot fan named Rene Dahinden, who ended up with about half of the rights, and Patty with the other half.
It was in 2004 that author Greg Long dug into this mess to sort everything out. Over a period of six years, he actually went and met face to face with all of these characters who were still alive, and many other people — anyone he could find who knew Patterson or was involved in the film in any way. His entire adventure was published in his entertaining book The Making of Bigfoot: The Inside Story.
That wildlife film company just mentioned, American National Enterprises, turns out to have been pivotal. Patterson had been driving down to Hollywood a lot, trying to sell the idea of a pseudo-documentary about Bigfoot; based on Patterson's own self-published 1966 book Do Abominable Snowmen of America Really Exist? Studios wouldn't bite, but ANE did. It was with their money that Patterson rented his camera and took some pre-production stills of his buddies allegedly on a Bigfoot hunt, but actually in Patterson's own backyard. They included Bob Gimlin costumed up as a native American guide. ANE's movie was to be titled Bigfoot: America's Abominable Snowman.
Bob Heironimus was a sturdy, hulking 26-year-old laborer who lived a few doors down from Bob Gimlin. One day Gimlin told Heironimus that Patterson would pay him $1000 for a day's work on a film set wearing a costume. Heironimus readily agreed; that was a lot of money. He met with the men once or twice to try on a gorilla suit and make some adjustments. Then one day, he drove down to Willow Creek. He spent the night at their camp, and the next day they shot the footage.
ANE's money had also been used to buy the gorilla suit. It came from Philip and Amy Morris, established makers of gorilla suits for carnivals. They told Greg Long that they had recognized the suit when they saw Patterson's film on television, and that Patterson had asked their advice in modifying the suit to make the arms longer. They'd even shipped him extra synthetic fur, made from a material called Dynel. They also advised him to put a football helmet and shoulder pads on the suit wearer to make him look enormous. Not surprisingly, when Greg Long asked Bob Heironimus about the suit, he also mentioned that he wore a football helmet and shoulder pads inside of it.
Bob Heironimus then went home, where his mother and two brothers also saw the suit, and waited patiently for his $1000. In accordance with his character, Patterson never paid Heironimus a dime. When he saw the film hit it big, Heironimus feared prosecution for fraud for his role in its production, and so made no further efforts to collect, nor ever spoke up about it to anyone. A groundless fear perhaps, but very real for an honest and innocent young man.
The camera store had to file charges for theft against Patterson to get him to finally return the camera. ANE lost every penny of their investment; Patterson immediately abandoned their pseudo-documentary and, in essence, stole the film clip that was rightfully their intellectual property. It was only 30 years later that Greg Long was able to piece together the entire story by talking to all of those involved. Holes still remain; for example, Al DeAtley claims to have no recollection of where or when he supposedly developed the film, or how he received it from his brother in law. The October 20 timeline is clearly impossible as given, but no evidence could be found to provide actual dates for when the film was actually shot or developed. With much credit going to Greg Long, we now have a reasonably solid reconstruction of the film's complete history, with plenty of space in the gaps to fill with anything more plausible than the Patterson-Gimlin claim of the world's luckiest Bigfoot hunt.
In 1967, Roger Patterson was a young man, only 41 years old. He was strong and exuberant — an amateur boxer known for walking on his hands on the small town's main street — too lazy to take a regular job, too much in love with his wife Patricia, and too many stars in his eyes to stick within the confines of the even the flamboyant rodeo. He was inwardly happy but outwardly grumpy, frustrated with society's conventions that expected him to be less than he wanted to be. But even at that young age, he was dying of cancer. Roger may have had a year left or five, and his thoughts were consumed with providing for his beloved wife while still being the rascal that he needed to be. When Roger put that film cartridge into his camera, it wasn't with the careful eye of a cinematographer. Nor was it with the deliberate mischief of a hoaxer. It was with the vivacity of a happy-go-lucky shortcutter, a candle doomed to burn half as long, and desperate to burn twice as bright. His thoughts were on Patricia and with squeezing in one final success, a roll of the dice, a lottery ticket. If his Bigfoot movie failed, he would die as the obscure debtor as which he'd been cut out; but if he won, he'd be the flash in the pan that he needed to be to sustain his wife and justify his years of skylarking. Roger Patterson made the gamble he needed to make. The wheel of fortune spun, and as it does every once in a great while, it made Roger the winner. It turned Bigfoot into a real monster that walked across the clearing and into legend and permanence.
Just over four years later, Roger Patterson lay in bed and drew his final breaths. The film had been a great success, and brought in a constant stream of money unlike anything he'd ever known. Patricia securely owned enough of the film rights to sustain herself. When he finally closed his eyes, Roger went to that great Bigfoot pasture in the sky, without ever having compromising the eternal youth that was in his makeup to be. He never paid his bills. He never sold hours of his life. He never put in an honest day of someone else's work. He never sacrificed his lack of principles. He never gave up being untrustworthy and living his few years on his own terms. Yet, perhaps it was that insistence on being who he was that caused his film to outlive nearly everyone else of his day. Even as a hoax, the Patterson-Gimlin film is perhaps the most honest film ever made.