For hundreds of years, people have looked up at the hazy peaks of California’s Santa Lucia Mountains at sunset and seen tall, cloaked figures looking back. Then in a few moments, the mysterious silhouettes disappear.
These twilight appearances are known as the Dark Watchers – shadowy men, sometimes 10 feet tall, clad in sinister hats and capes. They appear mainly in the afternoon and, according to a recent article on SFGate.com, visitors to California have seen them perched ominously on mountain tops for more than 300 years.
“When the Spanish arrived in the 1700s, they began calling the apparitions the Dark Watchers (literally ‘the dark watchers’),” SFGate managing editor Katie Dowd wrote in the article. “And when the Anglo-American settlers began to claim rights in the region, they too felt the sensation of being watched from the hills.”
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A famous observer who sensed the presence of the Watchers was the American author John Steinbeck. In his 1938 short story “Flight,” a character sees a black figure leering at him from the top of a nearby hill, “but quickly looked away, because he was one of the dark watchers,” Steinbeck wrote. “Nobody knew who the vigilantes were, or where they lived, but it was better to ignore them and never show interest in them.” (This was a family obsession; Steinbeck’s son Thomas co-authored a book on the Watchers with painter Benjamin Brode, Dowd wrote.)
So who, or what, are the Dark Watchers?
One theory, according to Dowd, is that they are mere inventions of the pattern-seeking minds of observers. In other words, it is a classic case of pareidolia: psychological phenomenon in which the brain of an observer finds patterns or meaning in a vague or random image.
The phenomenon is the reason some people see Muppet faces on the moon, or the face of Jesus on burnt toast. In this case, the ordinary shadows in the Santa Lucia hills can be interpreted by the viewer’s brain as tall, shrouded figures (Watchers tend to appear in the late afternoon, when elongated shadows grace the hills, after all) .
This pattern-seeking effect could be amplified by the presence of fog or low-lying clouds, according to Dowd. The shadows cast against the clouds are responsible for another nefarious illusion, known as the Brocken spectrum.
“German locals near the Harz Mountains have for centuries reported seeing dark figures on Brocken Peak,” Dowd wrote. “Actually, the Brocken spectrum … occurs when shadows, like those of a hiker, are cast over particularly hazy mountain peaks. If the sun is behind the observer, the fog plays with the shadow, making it appear huge and threatening. “.
Spectral figures are generally surrounded by a rainbow-colored halo, produced by sunlight that is refracted off water droplets in fog or clouds. according to the BBC. While common in the Harz Mountains, where fog often creeps in at low altitudes, you can see the effect on any misty hillside with the sun at your back and the clouds below you. You may have seen it yourself from an airplane window; Navigating between the sun and the clouds, the plane can cast a rainbow-bordered shadow on the clouds below that appears supernaturally large.
It is possible, then, that hikers in the Santa Lucia Mountains are simply looking at their own shadows when the Watchers come to watch. (Sorry, Steinbeck.)
Originally posted on Live Science.