A new genre is devouring basic cable—the fake monster documentary. Each season brings new shows, “discovering” everything from mermaids to dragons, from giant sharks to Bigfoot. A few people pretend be scandalized that “educational” networks like Discovery Channel are tricking people with scripted documentaries. Most probably think of them as innocent ways for nerds to kill a Sunday afternoon. But these documentaries are more important than that. By bending reality to suit their viewers’ whims, they represent the logical end of our consumerist culture.
Even though I knew the monster leering behind the bars, outlined by the moonlight, was a guy in a costume, it was weirdly satisfying. To understand why these documentaries matter, it’s important to know the market niche that created them. These are the people who binge-watch hunts for any monster imaginable—everything from Nessie in the highlands to the Yeti in Tibet. They may even go for the occasional Lizard Man in Alabama. In other words, you need to understand me.
Yes. I’m a monster junkie. Since I was a kid, I’ve been a sucker for any show with a wilderness, a camera crew, and a mythical creature. This includes one-off documentaries about sauropods in the Congo, regular shows like Monster Quest and Beast Hunter, and, of course, the cryptid pinnacle to which all others aspire: Finding Bigfoot.
Finding Bigfoot has reduced monster hunting to a scientific formula—or maybe a four-step program:
- Step 1: The team of four lovable eccentrics examines a blob of pixels in a teenager’s YouTube video that might be Bigfoot.
- Step 2: The team members go to the scene of the video long enough to convince one another that the video is genuine and that the whole area is “squatchy.”
- Step 3: The next day, the team holds a town hall meeting where all the Bigfoot witnesses swap tales to ominous music and CGI recreations. The team plots all the sightings on a map and draws a circle around them to imply a pattern. This is where the final search will be.
- Step 4: That night, the team plunges into the woods for the final search. The search mostly means knocking sticks against trees, making gorilla calls into the void, and assuming every snapped twig is a Bigfoot lurking in the shadows. The show ends with Bigfoot barely escaping. But that’s okay—they’re sure that Bigfoots are in the area. And next time they’ll find him!
This formula is streamlined for bending reality. It extracts maximum drama from minimum evidence. But beneath the surface is an undercurrent of despair. Going into each week, we all know that Bigfoot won’t be found. If one of those shows actually did prove Bigfoot exists, it would be the greatest thing in cable history. They’d trumpet it for months across every social media platform before giving Bigfoot a champagne-and-fireworks reveal. They wouldn’t just dump it on a random episode on a Tuesday night in February.
In my years of watching monster hunt shows, I’ve seen one compelling piece of evidence. For an episode of Monster Quest, an anthropology professor and film crew were at a cabin in a remote part of Canada, and something threw a rock at them. I repeat: this is the strongest evidence I’ve ever seen. And it’ll probably be the strongest evidence I’ll ever see.
The producers must realize that all this fatalism gets wearying. That’s why they invented the fake monster documentary. It’s a chance to finally give the people what Monster Quest and Finding Bigfoot never could: a monster.
Sometimes these documentaries give the people monsters by tricking them into thinking the shows are real. This makes some of the more sensitive regions of the internet outraged. I’ve never understood why.
First, convincing people that a fake documentary is real can be surprisingly hard. Some cast a leading man who’s too handsome. Others depend too heavily on bad CGI. And all of them struggle finding actors who seem like normal people to give interviews—instead they sound like college students presenting a monologue at a speech tournament.
Beyond the logistics, is tricking people with the documentaries as bad as some people think? It’s the closest Discovery Channel will ever come to the grand tradition of Edgar Alan Poe’s “Balloon Hoax” and Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast. Also, it’s not as if networks like Animal Planet and History Channel have that much credibility to lose. Anyone seen Ancient Aliens lately?
But I have a confession: for a minute and a half, I actually thought one of those fake documentaries could be real. And it was awesome. Sort of.
It was Mermaids: The Body Found. I’d missed all the hype and stumbled over it one evening when I should have been reading a book instead. I watched with little idea of what it was.
Here’s the thing about Mermaids. It feels weird to even type this, but in its own way it’s kind of brilliant. It’s the best fake monster documentary to date. Granted, that’s a low bar, but compared to some of these shows, it’s Citizen Kane.
The actors were believable (and normal looking), facts were woven smoothly with fiction, and the production quality was high. And against all odds, the show concocted a backstory for the evolution of mermaids and the government’s cover-up of their existence that was almost plausible.
The best thing, though, was how the scraps of evidence slowly accumulated. As I watched the scientists piece together the bits of carcass pulled from the gut of a great white shark, the disbelief I watch these shows with suspended. When the digital scan of a skull fragment revealed a humanoid face, I had the magical thought I’d been awaiting for years to have: could this be real?
It didn’t last long. The show soon used a clunky CGI effect, and the spell was broken. But I didn’t care. Having my reality warped for those few seconds was exhilarating. Even when I know the whole thing is fake, I still love fake monster documentaries. This shouldn’t make sense.
A couple weeks ago, I saw a fake documentary called Bigfoot Captured. I was hoping they’d call it Bigfoot Found, but their lawyers probably scared them about a lawsuit. The premise is simple: a fake team of eccentrics plunges into the woods like the Finding Bigfoot team. But unlike monster-less reality, these eccentrics actually find Bigfoot and put him in an iron cage. Even though I knew the monster leering behind the bars, outlined by the moonlight, was a guy in a costume, it was weirdly satisfying. I let myself think another magic thought: so this is what finding Bigfoot would feel like…
The feeling, though, was fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying. After all the work I’d put in through the years—the binging of cable shows, the reading of books, the wood-knocking during camping trips—I realized I would never get an actual payoff. So some director waved a wand and solved the problem for me.
It reminded me of playing youth league baseball when I was ten. I wasn’t very good—I was a middling batter, a poor fielder, and my team wasn’t quite average. But at the end of the season, our failure didn’t matter. We still got trophies, a pizza party, and a huge round of cheers from all the parents—all the trappings of a victory we hadn’t earned. When reality didn’t suit our parents’ narrative that we were winners, they changed reality.
This sort of thing happens all the time in our individualist, consumer-is-the-ultimate-good culture. Reality can be whatever the customer wants. When I was in middle school, I knew that covering myself in a cloud of Axe wouldn’t actually make that girl in youth group like me. And I knew that drinking Pepsi wouldn’t make my life any more like a pop music video. But keeping the illusion still gave a fleeting sort of fun. The products bent reality to suit my whims. And I was happy to let them.
Fake monster documentary fans know this temptation. And perhaps, in our cores, we realize that our quest to watch a camera crew find a monster is unachievable. We also realize that the satisfaction from the fake monster shows is hollow. But none of those facts matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly toward the Squatch.