Get close enough to November 8 in a swing state and the campaign signs become so inescapable that it looks like Earth is enduring electoral acupuncture. Even the weird ones start to blend together. In North Carolina, there are the stoplight-red quartets of placards for Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest scattered across the state, which read …
“DAN FOREST RUN FOREST RUN”
… as you zoom past them down the road. There are the Mountain Dew–themed signs for State Representative H. Powell Dew Jr. And then there are the homemade signs made by passionate voters. In Littleton, North Carolina, an appropriately named town of about 700 people up near the Virginia border, someone put a sign up on a telephone pole that reads, “WHEN YOU STOLE MY ‘TRUMP’ SIGN YOU VIOLATED MY 1ST AMENDMENT RIGHTS. IF I CATCH YOU I WILL EXERCISE MY 2ND AMENDMENT RIGHTS.” The only interesting campaign sign in the entire state, however, is a few blocks away, outside an old white house on Mosby Avenue with black wooden silhouettes of Bigfoot in front. The sign has a giant green footprint on it, and reads, “VOTE BIG FOOT! The only BELIEVABLE choice for America.”
Below, in tiny font, is a disclaimer noting who paid for this ad: the Cryptozoology and Paranormal Museum, a series of excessively syllabled words that roughly translate to “we’re the local nuts.”
Stephen Barcelo swears he didn’t come to Littleton to start a cryptozoology museum. The photographer and videographer moved down to North Carolina about three years ago after losing his job at the New York Daily News’s Long Island bureau, where he followed around celebrities in the Hamptons and occasionally parked outside Billy Joel’s house to poach the Piano Man’s Wi-Fi. He also photographed both presidential candidates — Donald Trump during his failed attempts to build a huge complex on Jones Beach, and Hillary Clinton during a Senate trip to Central Islip. But no, he’s not going to endorse either of them — didn’t you see the signs outside?
Anyway, Barcelo interviewed for a job at a local news station, but the pay was bad and the hours worse. Then the clay marbles started to appear in the house. “We didn’t want to be the crazy Yankees with ghosts,” says Barcelo, who has short gray hair, a short gray beard, and was wearing a gray “Haunted Littleton” t-shirt. This is not true — Barcelo has never been afraid of being a conspicuous Northerner with a love for the unexplainable. Back in New York, Barcelo had always jumped at the opportunity to cover any story relating to the weird and little-believed, despite the fact that a friend at the New York Post once told him, “Don’t do Bigfoot! It’s a career killer.” He went upstate to Whitehall, which passed an ordinance in 2004 to prevent people from shooting their reported Bigfoot, and visited the Shanley Hotel in Ulster County, where he captured his best footage yet: a brief glimpse of the famed ghost cat.
So it wasn’t at all surprising that Stephen Barcelo started doing ghost tours once he moved to Littleton, taking tourists to various old houses in town on any night he could assemble enough of them. “No one is doing what we do down here,” he says in his fast, faintly Long Island accent.“”Where else are you going to buy a ghost meter?”
The museum followed not too long after. And then the big break came. Tifanie Merrill, who lives just down the street, saw Bigfoot running through the trees behind her house. Or, at least, she saw something. When the local news came a few months later after several more reports, Barcelo offered his on-air expertise. “Right away I said, ‘Could it have been a guy, a hunter in a ghillie suit, or a bear?’” he told WNCN. In the footage, he’s standing in front of the Bigfoot statue in the museum on the first floor of his house, which looks like a knickknack-filled great-grandmother’s house — that is, if your great-grandmother hung creepy ventriloquist dolls in the corner or collected shrunken heads from Ecuador. “You can’t have a paranormal museum,” his daughter, Holly, likes to say, “without shrunken heads.”
He and Holly, who runs the museum with him, later heard weird grunting noises and found a large footprint in Medoc Mountain State Park, which they cast in plaster and added to the museum’s growing collection of frozen footprints. People from all over the world are now finding a reason to stop by a tiny town miles away from the interstate.
These sightings weren’t the first reported Bigfoot appearances in North Carolina. Back in 2011, the Associated Press talked to a guy in Salisbury who thinks he caught Bigfoot on camera. But it was the first time that anything exciting had happened in Littleton in a long while. The town used to be home to Panacea Springs, a resort offering miracle mineral water, and relies a lot on seasonal tourism from nearby Lake Gaston now. It’s one of those innumerable small towns across the country that used to be something, and now is just a repository of nostalgia for what it used to be — or the people who used to live there and now are content to haunt it. Barcelo is convinced that more tourism could make Littleton great again — and if Bigfoot is going to be the draw, the town should embrace it. Some local businesses have — the Cryptozoological and Paranormal Museum sells “Yeti” beer made by someone in town, as well as Littleton Bigfoot Blend coffee roasted locally. “Even if it’s silly, go for it!” he says, adding that he is mostly in the entertainment business, which means marketing the heck out of what he has to offer.
Now he’s just waiting to find the evidence. He’s got the merchandise, he had a float in the parade this year, and everyone in town might think he’s a nut, but at least they know who he is. “We’re looking for our ghost cat,” he says. Concrete proof of something unbelievable — that’s what will finally put Littleton on the map.
He’s got some options. He could capture Bigfoot, a task complicated by the fact that no one else has managed to do it yet. But was anyone else in the world searching for said creature near both a state park and a genetics lab for a large meat-processing corporation? Or he could catch something on camera during one of his ghost tours. Or the museum’s first donation — a reportedly haunted Mrs. Beasley doll locked inside an illuminated wooden box with a lock on it — could be caught moving on film.
Until then, Barcelo, the reporter turned cryptozoological curator, is doing what any journalist in search of a story does — collecting string.
“It kind of plays on the same things,” Barcelo says. “If I’m talking to you and you’re a potential serial killer or you’re a politician and I hate your views, I can’t act that way. I need to put that aside and get you to tell your story.” One of the unofficial jobs of any self-described paranormal expert is hearing all the stories of people who had their own strange run-ins with things that scared the hell out of them for reasons they can’t quite explain. These kinds of tales don’t usually find a receptive audience, so the museum has become a sort of confessional for anyone afraid of being mocked for seeing something strange.
As Holly puts it, “I do ghost tours for a living and I study Bigfoot. I will not throw stones, I refuse.” This openness often leads to lousy leads. Most Bigfoot sighting stories do not pan out well, shockingly. There are the donated footprints that look like human feet. Barcelo knows that as sightings in the area become more well-known, weird sounds in the forest are more and more likely to turn out to be “two other idiots on the side of the mountain going, ‘There’s a Bigfoot!’” A corner of the museum is devoted to famous fakes like the jackalope and the “fur-bearing fish,” a hoax from a Chamber of Commerce official in Colorado looking to draw tourism that inspired the New York Times to publish the headline, “FUR-BEARING TROUT AMAZES ANGLERS; Some Club Members Actually Fall Off Their Chairs When State Official Tells of It. BUT NO ONE DOUBTS HIM.”
Barcelo has never seen Bigfoot, and there’s a healthy chance he never will. But he does have a lot of stories to keep you entertained and a cooler full of free water and soda to share — and maybe a shirt to sell — if you stick around to check out his exhibits. “We’re not just a roadside attraction — let’s go get a picture of the biggest frying pan. We’re going to tell stories.” And if you’re entertained, regardless of what you believe, “there’s no negative to it. If the negative is ‘you’re crazy,’ I’m fine with it.”