This month’s cryptid is kind of a jack of all trades. Is it a cryptid? A ghost? Just an urban legend? Who knows! So let’s call it a cryptid for now. For hundreds of years, shadowy people have been seen in the Santa Lucia Mountains near Big Sur, CA. These figures are often seen as taller than humans, wearing cloaks and hats. Who, or what, are the Dark Watchers of Santa Lucia – are they spirits, or something more sinister? Let’s explore.
The Dark Watchers are described as being tall, shadowy figures that keep their distance from humans. They are said to be far taller than the average human, sometimes up to ten feet tall. They are essentially silhouettes of opaque shadow, with no facial or bodily features. From their silhouettes, many have reported them wearing wide-brimmed hats or cloaks. Despite the lack of facial features, those who have been in the presence of a Dark Watcher report knowing that the entity was watching or observing them. When approached, they simply vanish. They most often appear in the time between late afternoon and dusk. Some iterations of the legend say that the Dark Watchers accept small gifts such as fruits or nuts, though the purpose of such gifts is not elaborated on.
According to the internet at large, the Dark Watchers were seen by the Chumash people prior to the area’s colonization. Not for the first time, the internet as a whole is wrong. Researchers have yet to find any concrete accounts of such entities in Chumash lore. The first known accounts are from Spanish Settlers (and I use the term settlers here lightly) in the 1700s. These settlers dubbed the watchers Los Vigilantes Oscuros – which is where we get “the Dark Watchers” from today.
Though people who frequent the area claim to have seen the entities at least somewhat routinely, there are surprisingly few written accounts. We will focus on the most notorious four in this section, but I encourage you to seek out first-person retellings of encounters if this phenomena strikes your interest. Now, let’s talk about a poet named Robinson Jeffers. Jeffers wrote a poem called Such Counsels You Gave Me,”which was published in a poetry collection in 1937. In it, Jeffers wrote of an encounter with a Watcher, describing it as having light hair and a scar on its face. It then faded into the shadows beyond the ridge from which it had emerged. I was unable to find whether the poem was based on a personal encounter by Jeffers himself or simply a retelling of the lore.
The next written account came in John Steinbeck’s story “Flight,” which appeared in a story collection called The Long Valley, published in 1938. This account is not nearly as detailed or extensive as the Jeffers poem, but it does casually mention “the dark watchers,” which insinuates (to me, at least) that knowledge of the entities was widespread enough to mention them by name with no further mention.
John Steinbeck’s own son Thomas allegedly saw the entities more than once during his childhood. Thomas, in an effort to understand the phenomena and its roots, collaborated with Benjamin Brode on a book exploring the subject – In Search of the Dark Watchers. You can visit the website for the book here, and visit the shop to purchase your own copy.
And there are dozens of lesser-known encounters with the Dark Watchers, which I won’t get into here. Mysterious Universe author Brent Swancer compiled a handful of more recent encounters and after reading through all of these accounts, the encounters seem to have a few things in common. First, the person is usually walking alone or with another person. Second, they feel drawn to look at an area just off the trail, where the entity is standing. Third, the entities are in shadow, which obscures their distinguishing factors (or they just don’t have faces). Physically, the watchers seem to always appear similar between encounters – which begs the question, is there a group of them, or just a few?
Let’s move onto theories.
There are a wide array of explanations for the Dark Watchers that range from scientific to fantastical. The first theory we will discuss is that the Watchers are simply Hallucinations due to exhaustion and isolation. On one hand, this absolutely makes sense – mountain hiking is a taxing task, and many people set out for their hikes unprepared and end up exhausted, dehydrated, and delirious. It is not unusual to have auditory and visual hallucinations while in such a vulnerable and compromised state.
The second theory we will discuss centers around infrasound. Infrasound is low-frequency sound that is below what humans can register as audible. However, the body still physically registers infrasound physically – the organs of the inner ear still register the sensation of sound. People who experience infrasound often report feeling dread, vertigo, dizziness, or the feeling of being watched. This explains some of the encounters, but not the direct sightings of the Dark Watchers.
The third theory we have to discuss is the Brocken Spectre. A Brocken Specter is a phenomenon that occurs when the sun is behind a person and their shadow is projected onto fog or clouds in front of them. The effect is an enormous shadowy figure “standing” before the person. This, to me, is a far more likely explanation – though it is possible that people are seeing Brocken Specters while experiencing infrasound.
The last theory we will explore today is the only supernatural one – is it so far-fetched that these beings are actually spirits? The United States of America is a country founded on bloodshed and stands on land taken by force. Is it so outlandish to consider that perhaps some of the spirits of those who were wronged during that process stuck around and are carefully watching the trespassers and colonizers to this day? I certainly think it’s possible. Or maybe it’s a combination of all of these factors, coming together to conjure those eerie sights.