For more than 300 years, people have looked up into the rural mountains of California to see tall, dark figures staring back at them only to watch them disappear moments later.

The Dark Watchers, as they’re called, appear between late afternoon and twilight to visitors to the rural Santa Lucia Mountains. Witnesses from Native Americans to American writers have reported seeing the figures lingering on the mountaintops, seemingly silently watching those below.

The Santa Lucia Mountains stretch along the California coast from Monterey County up through central San Luis Obispo County. In the early days of the state, they presented a challenge to the Spanish explorers making their way to the ocean.

As these explorers made their way up the mountains in the 1700s, they reported seeing the dark figures, and named them “Los Vigilantes Oscuros” – literally “the dark watchers”. Later, as American settlers made their way over the mountains, they too reported the feeling of being watched from above.

“What have come to be known as the “Dark Watchers” are typically said to be very tall humanoid entities ranging in height from 7 feet tall all the way up to around 15 feet tall, dressed all in black and wearing flowing cloaks and wide brimmed hats, with many sightings also mentioning some sort of staves or sticks in the beings’ hands,” Brent Swancer, wrote on Mysterious Universe.com. 

“Facial features are not typically seen, and they are almost always silent, enigmatic figures usually seen at a distance up on ridges silhouetted against the darkening twilight sky, always at around dusk or dawn, quietly looking over and surveying their domain with unknowable purpose and often vanishing in the blink of an eye, especially if one is to try and draw closer.”

Legend says they are a group of migratory entities that stalk travelers along the mountain range, endowed with exceptional hearing, and impeccable eyesight. They prefer, paranormal researchers, like Michael Chen with Beyond Science, say, to reveal themselves only to travelers with carrying simple possessions, like hats and walking sticks, instead of high-tech equipment.

The figures have even made their way into literature. Author John Steinbeck mentions the wathcers in his short story “Flight.”

“Pepé looked suspiciously back every minute or so, and his eyes sought the tops of the ridges ahead,” Steinbeck wrote. “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.”

Steinbeck’s mother, Olive Hamilton, was a believer in the Dark Watchers. Thomas Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s son, said that his grandmother often told tales of her days as a young teacher, riding through the remote woods of the mountains on her way to teach. She told him that she saw the watchers several times and even traded with them, leaving gifts of fruit, nuts and flowers in a shaded alcove near Mule Deer Canyon, and receiving gifts from the watchers on her return trip.

And California poet Robison Jeffers mentions them in his poem, “Such Counsels You Gave to Me,” where he wrote, “…he thought it might be one of the watchers, who are often seen in this length of coast-range, forms that look human to human eyes, but certainly are not human. They come from behind ridges to watch.”

What they really are, said Brian Dunning, publisher of Skeptoid Magazine, is unknown.

“Most likely, many different things are likely behind what various eyewitnesses have interpreted as Dark Watcher sightings,” Dunning said in an email interview. “Probably some have been caused by shadows, tricks of the light, or trees. Probably some have been sightings of actual people or animals who were standing up there for a moment. Probably some have been people who thought they saw something out of the corner of their eye which disappeared when they turned to look. Probably some have been something I haven’t thought of. There’s no way to know.”

Popular theories suggest the Dark Watchers are merely the result of pareidolia – the psychological phenomenon where the human brain seeks out recognizable and familiar patterns and shapes in unclear or unfamiliar images. Others say they are nothing more than hallucinations brought on by the lack of oxygen in higher elevations, and exhaustion.

Still others suggest that the phenomenon is an optical illusion where the observer’s magnified shadow is seen on the clouds, which amplifies the shadow’s size before it evaporates. Known as the “Brocken Specter”, the phenomenon was identified in the Brocken peak of the Harz Mountains in Germany.

“When the Sun is low and the conditions are right, a shadow is cast by the walker onto the mist, making it appear as if a tall, shadowy figure is watching them from nearby,” said James Felton, a senior editor on the website IFLScience.com. “The water droplets that make up the mist can shift around, causing a disorientating effect, as though the shadow is moving, sometimes towards the observer. So, people are literally being scared by their own shadows.”

Others believe the phenomenon can be caused by infrasound. Infrasound is sound between 7 and 19 Hz, just below the range of normal human hearing, and can be generated by wind, among other things.

In 2003, a psychologist and paranormal debunker Richard Wiseman and several of his British colleagues conducted an infrasound experiment. In it they subjected some 700 people to a concert featuring four pieces of music – two of which contained 17 Hz tones at a volume just at the edge of human hearing. As a result, some 22% of the audience reported feeling anxious, uneasy, or fearful. Others reported a pressure on their chest or chills running up and down their spine. 

Wiseman told the British Association for the Advancement of Science, “These results suggest that low frequency sound can cause people to have unusual experiences even though they cannot consciously detect infrasound.”

A later British study in 2008 by psychologist Christopher French found that when he put volunteers in a “haunted” room rigged with infrasonic generators, “Most people reported at least some slightly odd sensation, such as a presence or feeling dizzy, and some reported terror, which we hadn’t expected.”

For now, however, no one knows for sure whether infrasound, optical illusions or a lack of oxygen are to blame. In fact, no one knows for sure what the Dark Watchers are, where they come from or where they go when they disappear. While it is likely the phenomenon is scientifically explained away as the brain playing tricks on people, if they are real, they have been wise enough to leave no tangible evidence of their existence – save, perhaps, for a few offerings of fruit to an author’s mother.

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