Darcie spends her free time going down research rabbit holes and occasionally writing down what she finds.
In the Santa Lucia Mountains in California, local legend speaks of mysterious dark figures who stand along the peaks, often in places ordinary people would not be able to climb to, and seemingly staring at nothing. They have been given the name of the Dark Watchers.
Spotting the Watchers
The Dark Watchers have been seen all along the Santa Lucia Range in California, mostly around twilight or dawn. They are typically described as seven to ten feet tall, though some who claim to have seen them have described them as “little people,” contradicting the majority of sightings.
The Dark Watchers are human-shaped, or at least humanoid-shaped. They stand completely motionless as they look out to the sea, appearing to wear long black cloaks and broad-brimmed black hats, and occasionally spotted holding a staff or a walking stick. They have never been observed to have facial features, but that’s perhaps because no one has been able to get a close enough look. Anyone who attempts to get that close has found that the figures simply vanish, leaving no footprints or any other evidence that they were ever there to begin with.
According to legend, there are also some more requirements for the Dark Watchers to make themselves known to hikers in the mountains. Those who are carrying guns or wearing weatherproof clothing scare them off for some reason. They prefer to only reveal themselves to hikers who are wearing “more old fashioned garb,” according to paranormal investigator Jason Offutt.
There is one oft-repeated story of a local man who went hiking in the mountains sometime in the 1960s. He saw the Dark Watchers and somehow had enough time to study and process exactly what it was he was seeing. He called out to some fellow hikers in order to alert them of the presence of these mysterious figures, but when he turned back to where the figures had been standing, they had vanished. Naturally, the story is vague and there is nothing to indicate that this encounter took place, but it does seem to mirror the experience of others who have claimed to see the Dark Watchers.
Where Did They Come From?
If a person was to look for information on the Dark Watchers online or in books that collect California ghost stories, they would likely find more or less the same brief description in the vast majority of sources. Brian Dunning of Skeptoid noticed this as well, and he believes that the authors of these descriptions have simply been copying the same story for years. Dunning points to three sources that the story might have originated from - a John Steinbeck short story titled "Flight," a Robinson Jeffers poem titled “Such Counsels You Gave to Me,” and a “non-specific assertion” that the stories of the Dark Watchers originated with stories from the Chumash Native American tribe.
Logically, the stories of the Dark Watchers likely predate Steinbeck and Jeffers’ contributions to the legend. As for the claims of Chumash origin, there doesn’t seem to be any validity to it. The most authoritative resource on Chumash beliefs, a book by Thomas Blackburn titled December’s Child: A Book of Chumash Oral Narratives, doesn’t mention the Dark Watchers or anything that bears a close enough resemblance. The more likely explanation of why the Dark Watchers have been linked to the Chumash tribe is that claiming Native American origins has a tendency to make legends sound more “legitimate.”
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Thomas Steinbeck, son of John Steinbeck, collaborated with artist Benjamin Brode on a book titled In Search of the Dark Watchers, chronicling the legend’s history and recording interviews with locals who claim to have encountered them. In this book, Steinbeck and Brode claim that the term was originally coined by the Romans, and that Dark Watchers were originally believed to be physical creatures that took the form of guardian animals or other supernatural beings, with a comparison to creatures like fairies or ghosts.
Some variations of the legend also claim that the stories originated with early Spanish settlers, who called the figures Los Vigilantes Oscuros.
Unfortunately, there’s no way to pinpoint the actual origins of the stories of the Dark Watchers other than that locals knew about them prior to 1937, before Jeffers’ poem was published.
Many explanations for the Dark Watchers have been proposed. One common theory is that they are illusions or hallucinations caused by feelings of exhaustion or isolation during hiking. Another theory blames infrasound, low frequency sounds that have been suggested to cause feelings of fear in people who hear them. The Brocken spectre, an optical illusion that can cast a magnified shadow on clouds or fog, has also been proposed as a possible natural explanation for the mysterious sightings.
A less natural explanation for the Dark Watchers links them to reports of shadow people due to their similar physical appearances, particularly the notorious “Hat Man” often seen by sufferers of sleep paralysis. However, it’s also been noted that the stories of the Dark Watchers likely predates reports of the Hat Man, and given how localized the Dark Watchers stories are, they are likely not actually related.
Many witnesses and locals believe the Dark Watchers are spirits, though the type of spirit they are is debated. Some say they bring bad luck. Others claim they are spirits of the more benevolent kind, likely owing to the fact that there have been no reported encounters that involved violence. Still, others claim the Dark Watchers are physical manifestations of the Grim Reaper.
So what are we to make of the stories of the Dark Watchers? All things considered, there isn’t much to go on other than stories of witnesses. But the local believers in the Dark Watchers and other outside witnesses are firmly convinced of their existence.
© 2018 Darcie Nadel