What are the Dark Watchers? | Liminal Trading Co.

What are the Dark Watchers?

Central Coast, CA

Deep in the wooded crests of the Santa Lucia mountains, a cloaked figure stands on the hillside, staring up at the sky, neither illuminated nor dark, in perfect twilight. It is chilly, probably fifty degrees, with sheets of fog rolling down the sheer cliff sides into the Pacific Ocean below. By the time the sun begins to rise over the distant waves, the figure is gone, disappearing in the blink of an eye. It is a typical somber, yet strikingly beautiful dawn of a new day in Big Sur, California.

But what was this figure? Where did it go?

Legends of humanoid-like figures have lingered in California folklore for centuries. Said to be inhumanly tall, and completely devoid of any human features, these hatman-esque entities have been given the ominous title of the “Dark Watchers.”

Reports have stated that the Dark Watchers are typically spotted donning black cloaks and wide-brimmed hats, occasionally carrying walking sticks or other staff-like objects.

The Chumash people, who have inhabited the Central Coast region of California for thousands of years, are often credited with the sparking of the folklore of the Dark Watchers, but there is no concrete evidence to prove this. One thing is for certain though, the Chumash people are not the only ones who have witnessed these mysterious beings.

When Spanish explorers first settled in the area, they too claimed to witness slender, shadowy figures in the hills. They became so synonymous with the area that Spanish settlers gave the figures their own name. Los Vigilantes Oscuros, or the Dark Watchers in English.

The most well-known reference to the Dark Watchers probably comes from John Steinbeck in his short story “Flight”, which takes place in Big Sur, California.

"Pepé looked suspiciously back every minute or so, and his eyes sought the tops of the ridges ahead. Once, on a white barren spur, he saw a black figure for a moment; but he looked quickly away, for it was one of the dark watchers. No one knew who the watchers were, nor where they lived, but it was better to ignore them and never to show interest in them. They did not bother one who stayed on the trail and minded his own business."

There is a reason that Steinbeck’s mention of the Dark Watchers took place in Big Sur; it is the epicenter of Dark Watcher sightings. John Steinbeck’s own son, Thomas Steinbeck, reported having witnessed the Dark Watchers in his childhood and later life, later collaborating with artist Benjamin Brode to create In Search of the Dark Watchers, a book that investigates the mystery through interviews with local Big Sur residents who have claimed to cross paths the unexplainable apparitions.

Many times, the Dark Watchers are spotted by solo hikers, deep in the forested mountains of the Central California coast. Understandably, the spotting of an abnormally tall, cloaked figure in your path sounds absolutely terrifying, especially when paired with Big Sur’s infamously foggy weather. There is something extremely unsettling about these figures, particularly the fact that it seems their existence is purely to stand and stare into the void, not even acknowledging the existence of passerbys. Then in a blink of an eye, they are gone.

This type of encounter would reasonably leave you feeling shocked and confused. What was that you just saw? Where did it go? Was there even anything there in the first place? Although the Dark Watchers seem to be peaceful creatures who purely exist to witness the beauty of their natural habitat, their unexplainable presence and mysterious nature are sure to leave anyone who witnesses them questioning their recollection, their sanity, and what other unknown phenomena lay just outside of human conceptualization.

Like all good mysteries, scientists have attempted to brush off the Dark Watchers as nothing more than symptoms of the human mind. Hallucinations caused by exhaustion and isolation have been cited as a possible cause triggering the spotting of dark-cloaked figures, which is a likely explanation as most sightings are reported by solo hikers.

Another possible explanation is infrasound - extremely low-pitched sound waves which are below the limit of human audibility. These sound waves are well known to cause anxiety in humans and are closely associated with paranormal sightings around the globe. Infrasound is often generated by wind, which is typical in Big Sur.

The final and most likely cause claimed by many are that the Dark Watchers are caused by a visual illusion known as the Brocken Spectre, a mirage which takes place at high altitudes in which one’s shadow is stretched and projected onto clouds or mountain sides far from them causing the depiction of a dark and lengthy figure standing at a distance. The shadow caused by a Brocken Spectre is often paired with a series of rainbow-colored rings, making it one of the most beautiful and fascinating, rare, natural phenomenon one can experience.

the almost supernatural brocken spectre effect

These scientific explanations are fascinating within themselves - honestly deserving their very own articles - but they kind of take away what makes the Dark Watchers so intriguing. I draw a comparison between the Dark Watchers and Bigfoot, a forest cryptid whose existence has been the debate of scholars and Humboldt trimmers alike. Trying so hard to explain the existence or non-existence of Bigfoot through countless books, movies, documentaries, and coffee mugs has led to the commercialization of Bigfoot, with us now being so desensitized to the mystery that we no longer take the discussion seriously.

I hope that the Dark Watchers never garner this level of scrutiny over their existence, as just like Bigfoot, their fascinatingly ominous nature naturally leaves us wanting to find answers. Instead of debating whether sound waves cause apparitions to spawn out of the corner of our eye, or if the figures have truly been living in the Santa Lucia Mountains before the inception of humanity, I say we continue to ponder over our the curiosity of the Dark Watchers, and let them continue to survey and drink in the scenic beauty of the region that they call home.