For decades, California hikers have been frightened by 'Dark Watchers.' What exactly are they?

 

The 'Broken specter,' an optical illusion that happens when a figure's shadow looms large and glowing against a cloudy background. (Photo courtesy of Getty)

For more than 300 years, huge, shadowy figures in hats and cloaks have haunted the California coast. What exactly are they?

People have seen tall, shrouded figures looking down at them from the hazy peaks of California's Santa Lucia Mountains at sunset for hundreds of years. The eerie silhouettes then vanish in a matter of seconds.

The Dark Watchers are shady, often 10-foot-tall (3-meter) men dressed in menacing hats and capes who appear at dusk. They typically emerge in the afternoon, and tourists to California have seen them perched ominously on mountaintops for more than 300 years.

The apparitions were given the name los Vigilantes Oscuros (literally "the dark watchers") by the Spanish when they arrived in the 1700s. As Anglo American settlers started to stake claims in the area, they too felt like they were being watched from the hills.

The American author John Steinbeck was one of the prominent observers who felt the influence of the Watchers. A character in Steinbeck's 1938 short story "Flight" sees a black figure leering down at him from a nearby ridgetop, but he quickly looks away, thinking it was one of the dark watchers. Since no one knew who the watchers were or where they lived, it was best to ignore them and never show interest in them. (Steinbeck's uncle, Thomas, later went on to co-author a book about the Watchers with painter Benjamin Brode, according to Dowd.)

So, who are the Dark Watchers — or what are they?

According to Dowd, they may be nothing more than figments of the observers' pattern-seeking minds. In other words, it's a classic case of pareidolia, a psychological phenomenon in which a person's brain looks for patterns or meaning in a seemingly random picture.

It's because of this phenomenon that some people see Muppet faces on the moon or Jesus' face on burnt toast. Ordinary shadows on the Santa Lucia hilltops could be misinterpreted by the viewer's brain as tall, shrouded figures in this case (the Watchers tend to appear in the late afternoon, when long shadows grace the hills, after all).

Another view of the Brocken specter, this time from a high vantage point in the mountains. (Photo credit: Alamy/ Andreas Strauss)


According to Dowd, the existence of fog or low-flying clouds may amplify this pattern-seeking impact. Another well-known illusion is the Brocken specter, which is caused by shadows cast against clouds.

Locals in the Harz Mountains have reported seeing shadowy figures on Brocken peak for decades, according to Dowd. In fact, the Brocken spectre appears when shadows, such as those cast by a hiker, fall on misty mountain peaks. The mist plays with the shadow while the sun is behind the observer, making it appear massive and threatening.

According to the BBC, the spectral figures are normally surrounded by a rainbow-colored halo caused by sunlight refracting off of water droplets in fog or clouds. Although it's most common in the Harz Mountains, where fogs often creep in at low elevations, the effect can be seen on any misty mountainside with the sun behind you and clouds below you. Maybe you've seen it from the windshield of an airplane as it flies between the sun and the clouds, casting a rainbow-rimmed shadow on the clouds below that appears to be enormous.

When the Watchers come a-watching in the Santa Lucia Mountains, it's likely that hikers are simply looking down their own shadows. (I apologize, Steinbeck.)


Read The Original Article Here By Live Science.

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