Thursday, July 31, 2014

Mountains Of Monsters!

I have to confess a softness in my head for professional wrestling. I know it's a lame and exceedingly low-brow entertainment, filled with knot-headed tropes which play themselves out in predictable and violent ballets. That said, I find the characters fascinating, not because of themselves so much as what they indicate about the audience which is attracted by them or repulsed from them or sometimes both. It's like a blue-collar bug-zapper which I find a surprisingly accurate barometer of the public mood. And like most TV it's utterly unimportant, and a disarming way to distract from the true problems of the world.

I say that, to say this -- Mountain Monsters, a dopey TV show about a gang of mostly rotund hillbillies traipsing through the hollows of West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio trying to wrangle Bigfoot and other assorted folkloric beasties is an absolute howl and an exceedingly pure entertainment.  And as far as I can figure it functions almost exactly like professional wrestling.

The premise suggests the hills of Appalachia are riddled with all manner of mysterious monsters. Some are walking shaggy menaces like Bigfoot under various names like Yahoo, Grassman, and the Grafton Monster. Others are veritable dragons, giant lizards that prowl both the streams and hillsides. There are werewolves, devil dogs, and bloodless howlers, all vagely canine and mysterious. There are supernatural threats like the infamous Mothman, the lesser known Shadow Creature and such like. There seems to be a critter for every county in and around West Virginia, the home base and primary setting for this Destination America show.

The leader John "Trapper" Tice, a co-founder of A.I.M.S. (Appalachian Investigators of Mysterious Sightings), is a dour but supposedly experienced hunter who leads his men into danger weekly in search of monsters who are upsetting the local populace around and near his home state of  West Virginia. All the team defer to Trapper, who operates like a military commander in the field as they track their weekly menace. Usually Trapper leads a "squad" of three other men as they meet "witnesses" and discover "evidence" concerning the critter-of-the-week.

Jack Buck Lowe is referred often as "The Rookie". Younger than all his colleagues he is the low-man on the totem pole and gets most of the grunt work, with Trapper as his Yoda. Despite his portly frame he is often ordered into narrow gullies to find some obscure clue or get some random measurement. Buck gets a lot of screen time and I imagine is supposed to be at once comedy relief and  our avenue into this team of seemingly reticent hill men.

Jeff Headlee is a quiet member and co-founder of A.I.M.S., evoking thoughts of St.Nicholas, this roly-poly even-tempered fellow eschews a weapon, the only member of the team who doesn't carry a shotgun or rifle on the hunts. Instead Jeff is the researcher, the guy who knows the lore and who scans the woods constantly with his thermal image camera corporeal evidence seeking monsters.

Joseph Huckleberry is the quietest member, a tall man (6'4" according to one episode) who functions as "security" for the team. But he often does other things as well and seems pretty much an all-purpose member of Trapper's investigative team. His main job seems to be to look exceedingly "hillbilly".

Functioning apart from Trapper's sub-team most of the time is the third A.I.M.S. co-founder Willy McQuillian, a McGuiver-like woodsman who contrives and seemingly builds unique and often pretty dang dangerous traps for the creatures they seek to locate and contain. Willy is pretty spry and is often shown falling or being dragged by mysterious and invariably unseen beasties. He rarely passes a hole in the ground he doesn't stab his shaggy head into.

Willie is joined in his trap construction by "Wild" Bill Neff, a former Marine and skilled lineman who is able to clamber into trees and on top of bridges with equal speed and aplomb. Arguably the breakout character on this show, "Wild Bill" has a hot head and is sometimes rebuked for his impulsive manner which can put the team into "danger". But like Willie, Bill is one of the few team members who is nimble enough to pull off some of the mild stunts the show sometimes require.

What makes this show like professional wrestling is pretty easy to see. We have a contrived event which pretends to be a real activity populated by memorable and distinctive characters who perform predictably in a program designed to fulfill the audience's desires.

The first thing to know about this show for those who might never have seen it, is they always, and I mean always find their quarry. Usually they locate the creature in the first fifteen minutes of the show after checking in with one or more rustic witnesses usually named "Wolfie", "Sparky", or some such colorful nom de guerre. Witnesses have photos and videos of the supposed creatures, though never anything particularly compelling. Trapper, Jeff, Buck, and Huckleberry lumber into the woods adjacent to some sighting (usually less than a month old) and find some track, nest, or sign of the critter or maybe even the critter itself. Meanwhile Willie and Bill begin to design and build some laborious trap next to this same land (seemingly) which they will later try to drive the beast into. After more witnesses and some entertaining trap-building, the six members assemble for the final night's hunt which is filled with yelling and scrambling and misbegotten maneuvers as the creature they are tracking either eludes them eventually, or attacks them or both. The trap almost always fails and they just miss capturing the creature we never actually see (despite cameras galore on the hunt) but the team assures us is quite real.

After two full seasons (a total of twenty episodes), the second having just finished, these stories are sometimes leavened with personal touches like Buck being hypnotized by the Mothman, Willie suffering losses on his own farm from the Devil Dogs, Bill being made unreliable by his rage at the beast which specializes in killing his beloved bears, or Trapper needing a dentist or getting Sheepsquatch piss in his eyes. These little personal flavors change up the status quo a smidge, but the creators of this show are very careful never to mar the overall structure. Like wrestling, predictability with some small variations is allowed but the experience must reinforce certain preconceptions to remain viable.

I find the show exceedingly entertaining. These guys have discovered that years of watching people stumble across the United States and beyond in a vain effort to find Bigfoot is much less entertaining than a gang of yahoos rampaging through the forests trying to capture or blow the holy hell out of him. You still don't see Bigfoot, but it's a lot more fun not seeing him with this zany mob of hillbillies.

Rip Off


  1. Great article Rip!!! I caught the “Devil Dog” episode, and felt like I might need electro-shock therapy to recover from it…It does make more sense when you compare it to a pro-wrestling as a belief-suspension type entertainment, I guess. Lately, though I find myself frustrated with the brain dead quality of pretty much everything on basic cable (I’m trying to sell my wife on the notion of dropping pay TV altogether.) Just what is it with America’s fixation on ignorant SOUTHERN people selling pawn items, wrestling alligators and putting their obese young daughters in beauty pageants? We are living in strange times…best, RickM

    1. Speaking as one, I can say that the "hillbilly" is among the last remaining old-fashioned stereotypes that it's still okay in the popular media to mock with no apology. (Perhaps the New Jersey folk too it occurs to me.) Once upon a time it was seen as crass, but as you say it's become a staple of modern entertainment.

      The beauty of Southerners is that at the same time they are being mocked, there's the sly suggestion that in their seeming naive nature that actually they are getting one over on the mocker.

      Believe me, if my Dad ever had to go hunting with these mopes and they acted the way they do on TV, he might've just shot 'em and left 'em behind.

      Rip Off

    2. “The beauty of Southerners is that at the same time they are being mocked, there’s the sly suggestion that in their seeming native nature that actually they are getting one over on the mocker.” Thanks Rip – that was illuminating for me…I will, RickM

  2. There was a new movie about Bigfoot that came out a few months ago and I read a review which said it was really scary - unfortunately I can't remember the name of it ! When I was a kid it was Bigfoot of the three "real" monsters ( Bigfoot, Yeti, Loch Ness Monster) that scared me the most and the alternative name "Sasquatch" was even more terrifying. I think it was because you had to go out of your way to encounter the other two but Bigfoot was loose in the woods - and forests are scary anyway.

    1. I've long wanted to have a copy of The Legend of Boggy Creek. It's a gem and one of the creepiest movies I ever saw as a kid. Bigfoot is a really fun notion, but the modern idea that it's somehow ubiquitous across the U.S. is downright dopey. Maybe, just maybe it might exist in some extremely remote area of the Northwest or perhaps Alaska, but even that seems speculative now. Witnesses don't have to be liars to be wrong and lot's of folks just let their imaginations run away with them.

      I saw the most recent episode of Finding Bigfoot yesterday and the two witnesses were clearly full of crap, but the team didn't call them out on it. That's the kind of thing which makes this form of entertainment just that and not a whit more.

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