The true origins of the Dark Watchers, said to go all the way back to Chumash Indian stories.
by Brian Dunning
June 7, 2016
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They stand motionless in long black cloaks. Surveying the crags and peaks of California's Santa Lucia Moutains, the Dark Watchers look out to sea, often in broad brimmed hats, often with a staff or walking stick, but always still and silent and featureless. Travelers are said to spot the watchers on some rocky prominence, but by the second glance they have always vanished.
Tales of the Dark Watchers appear in many books, and are still reported on the Internet. Here are a few samples found in one online forum:
We see the Dark Watchers all the time. They are always out at dusk and dawn. All you see is just a tall dark silhouette. They almost look like horses standing on their hind legs with the assistance of a walking stick. Its pretty creepy, and nobody has ever seen them close up. They disappear the moment you try to get closer.
Up in an area where no human could climb I saw a black figure in plain daylight. I never seen anything like it up in the mountain. Was darker than dark could not explain it. Today I saw it again and in the same spot.
We passed the San Luis Obispo reservoir, and as we drove on the road I saw something at a distance down at the end of the mountain. It was a really big human figure, but it wasn't. It had a Black Cape kind of like the grim reaper and it was leaning over holding on to a staff. Even in mid light he was very black and reminded me of a raven.
We were coming home to the San Juan Bautista side when we saw a very large dark figure standing at the edge of the mountains. It appeared to have a large cape with straight shoulders that where very broad. It seemed to have a hunch on it's back. At first from a distance I thought it was a condor but when I got closer it stood almost over 10 ft tall. It did not notice us driving behind it but when we found a spot on the cliffy road to turn around and get a better look it was gone.
Named in 1602 by a Spanish cartographer, the Sierra de Santa Lucia is a coastal mountain range in central California, stretching from Monterey at the north all the way south to San Luis Obispo. The famous Hearst Castle is perched among its southern peaks. North of Ragged Point, the Santa Lucias are the coast, forming a wall of wave-dashed cliffs 100 kilometers long — known as Big Sur — to which the Pacific Coast Highway clings, in some places precariously. You've seen photos and video of the Bixby Bridge's graceful arch a hundred times. California Condors soar above the Santa Lucias. Sea otters and elephant seals fill the turbulent waters at their base, and great coastal redwoods choke their northern hollows. It's a land of great beauty and solitude, a part of the nation's most populous state that you can get to in only a few hours, yet find yourself centuries removed.
A brief description of the Dark Watchers can be found in virtually any popular book on California's famous ghost stories — a description so brief and so common that one suspects these authors might be doing little more than copying from one another — and they always give the same three sources. First is a mention in John Steinbeck's short story Flight. Second is Robinson Jeffers' poem Such Counsels You Gave to Me, and third is a rather non-specific assertion that stories of the Dark Watchers go all the way back to the Chumash native American tribe, which has lived along California's central coast and among the Channel Islands for some 13,000 years.
The most detailed and authoritative account of Chumash beliefs is probably the 1974 1200-page doctoral dissertation by Thomas Blackburn, subsequently published as December's Child: A Book of Chumash Oral Narratives. Blackburn's principal source was the massive archive, including 111 Chumash oral narratives, collected by American linguist and ethnologist John Peabody Harrington between 1912 and 1928. Harrington's body of unpublished research, most of it on California natives, takes up over 200 meters of shelf space at the Smithsonian's National Anthropological Archives. Blackburn's Ph.D was well earned, because he went through it all, and compiled virtually all we know of the Chumash beliefs.
So the question is: Did the Chumash indeed tell stories of the Dark Watchers? Well, I can't say for certain, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that my study of Blackburn's work was probably more detailed than whatever work was done by the ghost story authors who casually toss out the same sentence, copied and pasted from book to book and website to website, that "stories of the Dark Watchers go all the way back to the Chumash Indians". I didn't find anything like that. The closest thing was a creature called a nunašīš. Chumash believed the Earth, as we know it, is the Middle World, an island surrounded by ocean; and the sun and other celestial bodies occupy the Upper World; and below is a Lower World. Among the denizens of the Lower World are the nunašīš, monstrous and misshapen animals, who come up to the Middle World at night and spread illness, bad luck, and other negative things. They can be shaped like men, but they're neither dark nor cloaked nor known for standing sentinel-like on prominences and then vanishing. The Chumash also believed in shape-shifting animals and humans, basically the same "skinwalker" belief widely held by many Native American cultures. But so far as whether the Dark Watchers can be linked with any Chumash tradition, I'm going to call that an invention of 20th century ghost story authors.
When John Steinbeck published his book of short stories The Long Valley in 1938, he was just beginning to eke out a career as an author, and lived near Monterey at the northern terminus of the Santa Lucias. Flight is the title of the story that most famously mentions the Dark Watchers. Steinbeck's story is that of a teenage boy, Pepé, who kills a man during a moment of thoughtless drunkenness. Knowing it means his end at the hands of the law, his mother advises him to flee, and has only scant moments to give a few words of advice:
When thou comest to the high mountains, if thou seest any of the dark watching men, go not near to them nor try to speak to them. And forget not thy prayers.
Sure enough, as Pepé made his escape ascending into the fog-cloaked mountains on horseback, he soon had his first encounter:
Pepé looked suspiciously back every minute or so, and his eyes sought the tops of the ridges ahead. Once, on a white barren spur, he saw a black figure for a moment; but he looked quickly away, for it was one of the dark watchers. No one knew who the watchers were, nor where they lived, but it was better to ignore them and never to show interest in them. They did not bother one who stayed on the trail and minded his own business.
Mind his own business he did, but as the posse drew nearer he had another close call:
Pepé looked up to the top of the next dry withered ridge. He saw a dark form against the sky, a man's figure standing on top of a rock, and he glanced away quickly not to appear curious. When a moment later he looked up again, the figure was gone.
The Dark Watchers play a minor role — receiving only these three brief mentions — in an otherwise dramatic tale, which ends as must the plight of every anti-hero, with Pepé's death. They are not aggressors in the story so much as they are part of the scenery; they are the scary owl's eyes that frighten Snow White as she runs lost through the dark woods. That Steinbeck included the Dark Watchers as specific, named characters instead of figments of Pepé's frightened imagination suggests that Steinbeck considered them noteworthy enough.
That the Dark Watchers must have had some notoriety, at least locally, is bolstered by the fact that the only other well-known mention of them in early print was written at almost exactly the same time. The poet Robinson Jeffers also lived and wrote in Big Sur, and in 1937 he published the poem Such Counsels You Gave to Me in a volume of the same title:
But when he approached
The fall of the hill toward Howren's he saw apparently
A person on the verge, outlined against the darkening
Commissure of the farther hills, intently gazing
Into the valley. The young man's tired and dulled mind,
Bred in these hills, taught in the city, reverted easily
Toward his dead childhood; he thought it might be one of the watchers,
Who are often seen in this length of coast-range, forms that look human
To human eyes, but certainly are not human.
They come from behind ridges and watch. But when he approached it
He recognized the shabby clothes and pale hair
And even the averted forehead and the concave line
From the eye to the jaw, so that he was not surprised
When the figure turning toward him in the quiet twilight
Showed his own face. Then it melted and merged
Into the shadows beyond it; the young man thought heavily
That in his state of mind and body hallucination
Was not surprising.
Though Jeffers' Dark Watcher turned out to be — in this case — merely a reflection of the boy's own self-image, the boy did know them to be actual entities. Jeffers and Steinbeck wrote in the same region at the same time and drew upon the same local traditions, so some Dark Watchers lore clearly predated both their stories. But what was it?
If it appeared in print, it seems to have been lost to history. I found no earlier mention of the stoic observers in any archive of published material prior to 1937. Most likely, whatever drives people to think they saw something in the fog today was chilling travelers a hundred years before. We need neither a supernatural entity nor an exact diagnosis of some perceptual phenomenon to know that our minds and eyes play tricks on us all the time, especially in spooky environments where we're on edge and every sense is on alert.
And, as authors so often do, when you can't find an original reference, make one up. It was perhaps inevitable that writers of glib ghost story books would claim the Dark Watchers go all the way back to Chumash folklore; what better way to lend credibility to an urban legend than to tie it to an ancient culture? At once, it becomes freighted with mystique, and with a provenance burnished with antiquity. So the next time you find yourself hiking in the Santa Lucia Mountains in the fading twilight, with the ocean winds pushing puffs of gray clouds among the crags, take care not to engage with any silent, inky-black figures you might see. Their credentials might be a little bit... shady.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Dark Watchers." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
7 Jun 2016. Web.
18 Jan 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4522>
References & Further Reading
Applegate, R. "Chumash Narrative Folklore as Sociolinguistic Data." Journal of California Anthropology. 1 Jan. 1975, Volume 2: 188-197.
Blackburn, T. December's Child: A Book of Chumash Oral Narratives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
Heid, A. Hiking and Backpacking Big Sur: A Complete Guide to the Trails of Big Sur, Ventana Wilderness, and Silver Peak Wilderness. Birmingham: Wilderness Press, 2013. 27.
Jeffers, R. Such Counsels You Gave to Me & Other Poems. New York: Random House, 1937.
Parzanese, J. "Dark Watchers." Weird California. Joe Parzanese, 8 May 2007. Web. 1 Jun. 2016. <http://www.weirdca.com/location.php?location=179>
Steinbeck, J. The Long Valley. New York: Viking Press, 1938.
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