Top Hats and Bad Luck Beings: Fear and Folk Devilry in America

In the areas of cryptozoological interest to readers of this website, most accept that creatures like Bigfoot–supposing such an animal exists–is a biological, half human, half ape monstrosity said to exist in the remote wilds of the United States. In truth, reports of such creatures occur all over the world, with regional varieties existing in the folklore among cultures and traditions on nearly every continent, with the exception of Antarctica.

But one who examines closely the similarities between various cultural interpretations of the wild man myth will begin to notice a number of interesting trends, especially those stemming from more ancient interpretations of the alleged beasts. To be specific, one aspect that is often associated with reports of strange and enigmatic Fortean entities is the fact that their presence traditionally is concurrent with bad luck and misfortune, with such entities themselves acting as harbingers of unpleasant things to come.

I came across another instance of this sort of interpretation just last night, while I met with a journalist who, years ago, described having joined the Bigfoot Field Researcher’s Organization (BFRO) in the field on one of their investigations. During this outing, he described having a number of experiences where he was accosted by some unseen entity: large stones were being hurled at him from the forest nearby, which occurred in the middle of the night, along with an uncanny fear that overtook him. (My associate noted that, despite being an experienced outdoorsman who has escaped bear that stalked him while fly fishing and other perils of the wilderness, this was the most intense fear to which he had ever nearly succumbed). The experience ended up being transformational; while he doesn’t commit himself entirely to belief following the experiences (he never actually saw the alleged beast), he nonetheless feels that study of the creature–and perhaps more importantly, those who study it–now present an area of inescapable intrigue.

Following the events that lured him into the serious study of cryptozoology, my associate was able to pursue a number of stories shared by Cherokee natives on a reservation in Western North Carolina, who largely believed that while the creature was not a supernatural being (preferring instead the idea that these beasts are a sort of “lost tribe”), their presence does also seem to be associated with bad luck and misfortune. This reminds me of similar stories associated with certain Midwestern Native American tribes, who discuss a being called “Walking Sam” whose appearance seems to spark a higher incidence of teenage suicide.

A while back, I received the following email from Federal worker who first learned about “Walking Sam” from concerned locals at a tribal council meeting in South Dakota:

I work for the Federal Government and was at a tribal council meeting in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, a couple of years ago at which an elderly woman complained about Walking Sam, bad “spirit” that was causing teenagers to commit suicide. She wanted the Federal Government to do something about him! The physical description of what she described sounded like a Bigfoot-type of entity. I discussed it by email with Loren Coleman, who posted it on his blog. I’ve also described what I heard that day here. In any case, it is fascinating to speculate about what Walking Sam might be.  I’m just curious what you might know.

Indeed, I found this to be very interesting, and while the “Walking Sam” character is considered widely by many to be a cultural interpretation of a Bigfoot-type creature, there are a number of curious aspects to this character that should also be taken into consideration. For one, in addition to being very tall, Walking Sam is often said to appear wearing a “stovepipe hat” (honestly, this sort of description might fit Abraham Lincoln as easily as any Sasquatch). The fiend often makes his presence known by peering in people’s windows at them by cover of night, though the apparent reason for an increase in teenage suicide following his appearances is not clear. But one thing that is very apparent: the cultural motif that represents these entities as “bad luck beings” remains clear. Also, what is the significance of the top hat? Fellow Mysterious Universe author Jason Offut even devoted a portion of his book Darkness Walks: The Shadow People Among Us to reports of such shadowy entities seen sporting similar headgear. Is this a similar cultural archetype that has become associated with popular conventions of nefarious villainry (i.e. Snidely Whiplash)?

Such parallels fall under the loose categorization of a concept I call “Fortean Folk Devils,” which I’ve described many times in the past in various mediums. For more on this, try looking at these articles detailing Beowulf’s Folk Devil, a thirteenth century wildman, a nineteenth century Folk Devil encounter, the infamous Grease Devils of Maylay culture, and even some of the more obvious links between creatures like Mothman and misfortune. Indeed, it seems that an entire host of cryptozoological and supernatural being appear to often represent doom and misfortune… it could even be argued that many reports of such creatures in the nearby vicinities of various disasters might provide a convenient sort of scapegoat for those affected. But this begs an entirely new question: do the beasts themselves cause disasters by virtue of their appearances alone, or are cultural perceptions of their presence built up steadily along with people’s internal need to find a “culprit” to point fingers at when they are struck with misfortune?

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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