The Snow Creature vs. The Abominable Snowman: Early Depictions of Yeti/Sasquatch/Bigfoot in film
Whirling snow, fierce winds, valiant young men struggling to ascend a cruel mountaintop in the heart of the Himalaya while a yeti howls in the distance…these scenes have become a familiar part of our collective memory in the West (seared into many young minds by the “abominable snowman” which for decades has popped out of the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland in a mildly frightening moment for amusement park visitors). But where did this popular cultural idea come from?
The Abominable Snowman on Disneyland's Matterhorn ride
While First Nations and Native American tribes have always had stories of wild, ape-like men in the woods and mountains, and historic newspaper archives contain hundreds, if not thousands of articles about wild men, for many in the West, the concept of a wild, ape-like man living in the forests and mountains first became well-known in the 1950s.
This decade, known for post-war abundance, a baby boom, the development of suburbs and major advances in science, medicine, and technology is also known for bringing the first Bigfoot/Yeti/Sasquatch movies to the big screen. The first two Western movies to portray mysterious, man/ape creatures inhabiting the wild are The Snow Creature (1954) and The Abominable Snowman (1957). Both were set not in the forests of the Pacific Northwest as might be expected, but in the high mountaintops of the Himalaya.
Filmmakers may have become interested in this area because just one year before The Snow Creature debuted, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first known climbers to conquer Mount Everest, so the attention of the world had turned toward the frozen peaks of Asia’s highest mountain range. Also in the early 1950s, Western mountaineers had shared photographs of strange footprints found in the snow in Nepal, footprints which appeared to be from a yeti, a wild ape-like creature found in the Himalaya. Many people were fascinated by the idea of a yeti, and ready to watch a movie about one. In 1953, Hollywood filmmakers brought out The Snow Creature and in 1957, English filmmakers produced the similarly themed The Abominable Snowman.
What are these two movies like? Are they still worth watching today? What can they tell us about early Western attitudes toward Yeti/Bigfoot/Sasquatch beings?
First, some thoughts on The Snow Creature. This is a low-budget, campy, light-hearted movie that looks a bit silly today, but is still fun to watch. The plot involves a botanist who heads into the Himalaya to look for scientific samples but is pulled unwillingly into a search for the yeti after the yeti steals the wife of the lead Sherpa for the expedition.
Some of the pros of this movie: It is appropriate for families as it has only implied violence, no gore, nudity etc. The depiction of the yeti is well done for its time—it’s a tall silent figure fading into darkness, but the viewer still gets the impression of a wild, ape-like man. The film leads many to sympathize more with the yeti than with anyone else, and it seems to betray a wistfulness, a fascination with the wild man and his plight, as well as a warning to leave the yeti alone.
Cons of The Snow Creature include the poor treatment of the local people, the Sherpas, by the Western explorers, the many plot questions left unanswered, and the odd choice to abandon the characters from the first half of the movie and introduce entirely new characters in the second half.
Still from The Snow Creature
Next, some thoughts on The Abominable Snowman. This one has many similarities in plot to The Snow Creature, but an entirely different treatment. The storyline features a British scientist staying in a monastery high in the Himalaya, where he gets pulled into an American expedition to find the yeti. This movie feels a lot more tense, dramatic and suspenseful than The Snow Creature.
Some of the pros: beautiful mountain scenery, dramatic climbing shots, suspenseful scenes of tracking the yeti in the snow, an eerie scene of a yeti hand creeping into a tent, good costumes, backdrops and crowd scenes. There is also an interesting female scientist character who tries to talk her husband out of the expedition to find the yeti.
One of the best moments in this movie is the scene with the haunting calls of the dead yeti’s family members echoing across the mountains. The vocal calls are similar to some of the Sasquatch calls heard in modern recordings such as the Sierra Sounds. It would be interesting to find out where the 1950s filmmakers got the idea for these calls.
Another highlight is near the end of the film, when the lead character muses out loud about the yeti’s appearance, saying “Nothing ape-like…nothing human-like either…it has a sadness and wisdom…” and goes on to conclude, “This isn’t the face of a savage thing…there’s gentleness. Suppose they’re not just a pitiable remnant waiting to die out but waiting…waiting for us to die out.”
Cons of The Abominable Snowman include poor treatment of locals by Westerners, unlikeable characters that spend most of the movie fighting, a confusingly creepy older monk character, and pacing that sometimes drags. Also, the yeti is never shown until the very end of the film and even then he is only shown from the nose up, a choice that felt a bit unsatisfying.
Both of these films are creations of their time, but both are still worth watching today. The Snow Creature is more fun if you’d like to make popcorn, root for the poor yeti that got removed from its home and transported across the world, and if you’d like to sit around with your family and poke gentle fun at the special effects of yesteryear.
The Abominable Snowman is a better film technically, but it is a more tense and sometimes uncomfortable viewing experience. Still, it is worth watching, especially for the dramatic mountain vistas, eerie yeti hand-in-the-tent scene, and intelligent discussion at the end about the nature of a yeti.
A thoughtful viewer of both films is left pondering many questions. In The Snow Creature, did the yeti truly kill the Sherpa’s wife? Even if he did, did he deserve to be drugged, kidnapped from his home, transported across the world to Los Angeles and then hunted down?
In The Abominable Snowman, are the violent, argumentative expedition leaders any more civilized than the enigmatic yeti? Do the eerie calls of the yeti’s family, echoing over the mountaintops, symbolize the beauty of the wild man and a yearning to be like him?
How different are we today than the yeti-obsessed expedition participants portrayed in these films? How many of us yearn to find the yeti/bigfoot/sasquatch and wonder if somehow, in his wild state, he is better than us?
The questions are many, but the answers are few. Perhaps in this situation, the best thing to do is to watch the movies again and think about them some more. Over popcorn, of course,
Both films can be found (for free, in some instances) on multiple video sharing platforms.
By Christina Hebert