There are many names given to this cross-cultural phenomenon: In Asian countries, it's Gin-Sung; Wendigo in Algonquian; Canadians call it Sasquatch; for years, Bigfoot has creeped into bedtime lore from around the world - even in Somerset County.
On May 14, Paint Township police were called to investigate a set of tracks that the caller, John Winesickle, claimed to have been made by the giant yet elusive creature. As with all these types of discoveries, the truth was anticlimactic - they were simply black bear tracks.
But Bigfoot investigators said it takes a good amount of hairy legwork to deem a case closed.
"A lot of things need to be looked at before you says something's unidentifiable,'' said Stan Gordon, a paranormal investigator who's been researching sightings throughout the state for nearly 54 years.
People like Gordon are typically brought in by police - Ghostbusters style - to employ expertise that the cops just don't have. They take the claimants seriously and police can return their focus to crimes. According to Eric Altman, president of the Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society, the Pennsylvania Game Commission's official stance is that Bigfoot does not exist. With little official recourse or support, it's all up to organizations like Altman's to bring Bigfoot out into the open.
He said the investigations all start with a face-to-face interview with witnesses, who are usually "shaken'' and firm in what they saw or heard.
They gather details about the sighting such as the date and time as well as environmental and weather conditions. Gordon said footprints can be skewed by heavy rain. Altman estimated about 90 percent of the cases they respond to end up being a common creature that was simply misidentified. Gordon said the most common mistake is Winesickle's - large bear tracks mistaken for something more mysterious.
"Over the years, we've talked to some very credible people but, of course, over the years, there's been many hoaxes,'' said Gordon. "That's the thing about all these cases. You gotta' get up there to determine what is legitimate and what is not.''
Although Altman said the generalized Bigfoot description could be tainted by the popularity its legend has received via pop culture, most describe it as being an impossibly tall, bipedal, man-like creature with head-to-toe hair that's usually a varying shade of brown. This centuries-old depiction factors heavily into the group's field investigations.
"We don't go out there looking to debunk. We want to prove that what they saw was a Bigfoot. The only way to do that is to eliminate all the (other) possibilities,'' said Altman.
"Some of the things we look for are, of course, footprints, broken branches high up - 6 or 7 feet in the air. That's a sign something large went through the area.''
Hair and excrement droppings, while extremely rare, are the bits of physical evidence they hope to find when scouring the forests.
"I'm told these things sound as loud as an elephant roar,'' Altman said. "It's very deep and guttural. People claim they feel it when they hear it.''
Altman said the society works with sound engineers, taking the recorded human-like calls and warbles and matching them against online databases of animal noises.
And according to Altman, popular scientific theory is that Bigfoot is just that - an animal - a surviving descendant of gigantoepithecus, a 10- to 12-foot, hairy, bipedal beast of the ape genus. They're believed to have been the largest apes to walk the Earth and originated from Asia.
Despite its size, neither Altman nor Gordon has ever had a face-to-face encounter with the beast they've been hunting for decades. However, thousands of others claim to have met its gaze.
"But they're extremely reluctant to publicly talk about it,'' said Gordon. "Because of the ridicule.''
"What I try to tell people is don't be so quick to judge that this thing is real or not real,'' Altman said. "There are thousands of people who claim to have seen this. If one of those people actually saw something that does exist, then it's real.''