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On the Monster Beat 

Clare Coffey

Why the civic needs the weird

Why do we believe in monsters? With the giant squid and the crocodile, the answer is obvious. These things may lurk and slither in dark water, but they have also made their way into the daylight consensus: They have a place in textbooks and encyclopedias, in the world that respectable people generally agree exists.

With something like Bigfoot, the question is less straightforward. There’s sheer maximalist joy, Adamic thrill, a hope that the world might hold as many things as you can name. There’s the possibility that participation in a chain of discovery might still be open to you. There’s contrarian spite against the arrogance of the world’s Neil deGrasse Tysons.

But finding the reason may not always require going afield. In many cases, people believe in Bigfoot simply because they believe a person who claims to have seen him. A steady family man who spends much of his leisure time hunting in the Pennsylvania woods once related to me an encounter with the legendary hairy creature. He does not tell his story to strangers. He does not even give a definite name to what he saw. Still, listening to him, it’s impossible to think that he’s the type to confabulate, or to misunderstand what he saw.

A credible witness to incredible events can prove surprisingly hard to dismiss. Other types of evidence may be more or less probative, but do not often have the potential to disrupt other parts of one’s everyday epistemic foundation. Testimony is more volatile. Rejecting it often requires you to make significant adjustments in order to square your decision with what you believe. Allowances must be made for the vagaries of memory, alternative explanations offered (however thin). Your relation to the person in question may change. And because the contested grounds take place in the opaque world of another person’s perception, a judgment in either direction involves a leap of faith...

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Clare Coffey is a writer living in Moscow, Idaho.

Clare Coffey, "On the Monster Beat," The New Atlantis, Number 60, Fall 2019, pp. 61-70.