The Santa Lucia mountain range sprawls for 105 miles down the coast of central California, a great, towering expanse of tree and rock that proved impassable for early Spanish explorers. Ocean spray mists the west side of the range, making it fertile ground for conifers and redwoods. The mountains’ height blocks the moisture from travelling further, making its eastern side dry and brown. The Santa Lucia’s beauty and grandeur draw hikers and sightseers, though the terrain permits few roads. It is one of the wildest places left in the U.S.
Naturally, that also makes it home to dark and mysterious figures who like to watch people from cliffs.
The Dark Watcher encounter template
The typical Dark Watcher story goes something like this: A hiker or runner finds themselves alone in the mountains, either by choice or because they have become separated from their group. They feel suddenly uneasy. A tall figure looms on the horizon–a humanoid shape composed of complete darkness. The shape either gazes off toward the ocean or, more uncomfortably, stares at the witness. Sometimes it has a broad-brimmed hat and a staff, sometimes a hunch. Sometimes its friends will darken the spaces between the trees.
If the witness tries to double-check that the figure is actually there, or attempts to draw closer, it will vanish. But that doesn’t mean its presence can’t be corroborated. There are accounts of multiple people in a group seeing the figure at once, or the figure showing up in the same place at the same time the following year. The Dark Watchers never speak or attack. They just watch. But it is enough to leave an impression.
The internet has it that the Dark Watchers were part of the lore of the original tenants of coastal California–the Chumash (though this has been disputed). The Spanish conquistadors allegedly also ran into them, naming them Los Vigilantes Oscuros. But the Dark Watchers aren’t just half-forgotten monsters of legend: There have been sightings as recently as 2018. A witness from Ojai recounts:
“I was hiking up a remote trail up the 33 in Ojai, I was about an hour up the mountain, no people, no cars in sight. as I was hiking, I had this eerie feeling I was being watched. I looked up at the top of the mountain. It was a black figure. I waved, jokingly, not really thinking the object was a person. It waved back. Thinking I was maybe tripping, or that it was a tree waving in the wind, I took a puff of my cigarette, only to see the figure blow out a plume of smoke as well. I started seeing it flowing, and I say flowing, almost floating vertically. I ran like hell back to my car, spraining my knee in the process. “
No account of the Dark Watchers would be complete without mentioning that they’ve appeared in the work of none other than John Steinbeck. From his short story “Flight”:
“Pepe looked up to the top of the next dry withered ridge. He saw a dark form against the sky, a man’s figure standing on top of a rock, and he glanced away quickly not to appear curious. When a moment later he looked up again, the figure was gone. Pepé looked suspiciously back every minute or so, and his eyes sought the tops of the ridges ahead. 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 son (more on him in a moment) would later claim that the Dark Watchers were a fairly common part of his family’s life, even going so far as to say that his grandmother traded things with them. Certainly they seem to have been popular around the 1930’s (when “Flight” was written), because around that same time they were mentioned in a poem called “Such Counsels You Gave Me” by Robinson Jeffers, another Big Sur resident:
“But when he approached
The fall of the hill toward Howren’s he saw apparently
A person on the verge, outlined against the darkening
Commissure of the farther hills, intently gazing
Into the valley. The young man’s tired and dulled mind,
Bred in these hills, taught in the city, reverted easily
Toward his dead childhood; 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 and watch. But when he approached it
He recognized the shabby clothes and pale hair
And even the averted forehead and the concave line
From the eye to the jaw, so that he was not surprised
When the figure turning toward him in the quiet twilight
Showed his own face. Then it melted and merged
Into the shadows beyond it…“
These accounts seemed to give the Dark Watchers a boost in popularity, leading people to not only not avoid being out in the mountains alone (as would probably be advisable), but to actively seek the Watchers out.
Modern hunt for the figures in black
I mentioned Steinbeck’s son–Thomas. The Dark Watchers fascinated him so that he and painter Benjamin Brode wrote a book on the subject: In Search of the Dark Watchers. Brode would go into the woods to try to capture the Watchers visually, and Steinbeck would write of his adventures. Both men seem to think of the Watchers not as 7 to 15 feet tall (as in other accounts), but as small, fairy-like creatures. There is a video of Steinbeck and Brode talking about the process of making the book; Brode discusses how he had to switch from bringing his paint-set to carrying only a sketchpad for fear that the abundance of equipment was scaring the Dark Watchers off. Steinbeck mentions that you can’t look at them directly or they will disappear–you can only view them out of the corner of your eye.
Apparently their pains paid off. Brode reported that not only did he see the Dark Watchers, but that there were so many coming out of the shadows that he was nearly tripping on them. Steinbeck called Brode’s paintings “possibly the only evidence out there of the existence of the Dark Watchers.” (You can preview some of the paintings on their website; they are very beautiful but I don’t see any definitive Dark Watchers in them. Perhaps I am not looking hard enough.)
Others have found the Watchers more difficult to find. This might be due to the fact that they apparently have an aversion to modern trappings, especially (and oddly specifically) weatherproofed gear. The fog that often covers the west side of the mountains might be tempting monster-seekers into clothing choices that hamper their search. ‘Ware the water-resistant windbreaker. Plastic ponchos are right out.
Cousins of the man in Ben MacDui?
So what’s the deal with the Dark Watchers, really? Skeptics propose a number of potential explanations.
- The people who truly see these figures (and aren’t just making up stories for others’ entertainment) could be tired, duped by the tricks of the light in the varied landscape (i.e. the “Dark Watchers” are just a bunch of rocks).
- The mountains could be emitting infrasound. If something is creating a signal out of the range of human hearing, a would-be Dark Watcher witness might unconsciously pick it up and get freaked out by it, causing them to imagine that there’s something watching them (this is an explanation offered for ghost sightings in general, by the way).
- The Dark Watchers could be Brocken spectres–the same explanation offered for the Am Fear Liath Mor of Ben MacDui. If that were the case, the witnesses could be seeing their own shadows playing on the fog and mistaking them for otherworldly figures. (No word on the sightings that take place during clear days.)
But I’d like to hope that in one of the last wild(ish) places in the U.S., there might be something left that we haven’t thoroughly explained away. What might the Dark Watchers be? Nature spirits? Ghosts? Something worse? It’s enough to make you want to go out there and find out.
Just leave your raincoat in the car.
Have you ever been confronted by a shadowy figure that turns out to have your own face? Share your story in the comments below.