I love the outdoors — walking, jogging, being dragged along by my dog while walking or jogging — though the UK is so small I’m not sure it actually qualifies as the “great” outdoors. Not like the US, with its vast, remote woods and mountains, beautiful but sometimes dangerous.
The most frightening outdoorsy thing that happened to me was crossing Striding Edge, the narrow escarpment at the top of Hellvellyn in the Lake District; though my great achievement was eternally dampened when I was overtaken by a sprightly old lady carrying a Tesco carrier bag.
In America the risks are very different as trails cover thousands of miles of dense woodland, sharp scree, boulders and water.
Lots of people have vanished, some for ever, often in clusters (though over many years). So many people have disappeared in fact, with so many co-occuring factors, that David Paulides has written a series of books on the disappearances. He is the narrator and interviewer of Missing 411: The Hunted, though he asks a lot more questions than he answers (or wants to). You can understand why; let’s face it, usually the boring, prosaic answer will probably be the correct one, but who wants to watch a documentary about an elderly man who had a heart attack in the woods? Plus, as becomes clear two-thirds of the way in, Paulides is a man with an agenda: BIGFOOT!
Still, documentaries like these are the gift that keeps on giving. They may only last 90-120 minutes but they have a half-life of several days, as I immediately dive into the nearest forum / sceptics website / Reddit rabbit hole. Online, experienced hikers try to explain how easily little errors can snowball into catastrophe, while others declare it’s all down to the missing people wandering into alternate dimensions.
Liz and I — the founders and indeed only members of the Good Bad Film Club — were watching for different reasons. Me so I could try to get my head around why anyone would hike for fun, alone, for weeks, with bears in the vicinity, and Liz because well, Predator! (She gets her wish with the last interviewee, a hunter called Jan Maccabee.) I also wanted to know what the titled referred to — Missing 411 sounds like a manufactured X-Factor boyband — but alas that is something else that remains unexplained.
For over an hour of the documentary, serial killers, spacemen and Bigfoot hang tantalisingly in the air (not literally), until Paulides finally nails his colours to the tree trunk and goes full-on aliens / sasquatch / paranormal.
The disappeared featuring in the film vary from elderly men to 60-something women to young hunters, though most are committed “outdoorsmen”. Paulides has a list of factors that appear in many disappearances, including:
- rock fields
- proximity of water
- separation from companions
- time of day
- “weather incidents”
- search dogs unable to find the scent
- a history of alien probe incidents
Okay I made that last one up, but lots of these just make tragic but explainable deaths more likely. Still, many searchers are understandably baffled when no trace is found during their painstaking search. Equipment and remains may be found months or years later, far from the last known position of the victim. Or they turn up exactly where they should be, in areas carefully searched at the time. A surprising number of victims have taken off their shoes.
I don’t think any of these would astound me; then again I’m used to things going missing and turning up, inexplicably, exactly where I looked for them. It’s also well known that hypothermic people will sometimes remove clothing. Weirdly-placed belongings could have been found or stolen by other hikers who then realise it’s from a missing person and leave it somewhere to be discovered. Maybe some of the searchers aren’t as thorough as they claim. Some disappearances could be murders or accidental killings.
Often it seems like perfectly natural situations are “evidence” (just wait for my documentary spelling out how most urban murders take place in areas surrounded by buildings, with lots of cars and a paper shop nearby) while oddities aren’t explained: how did young, fit hunter Aaron Hedges, who disappeared in 2014, lose so much of his equipment when his mule was spooked? Did it fall down a crevasse or something? Why, when we’ve just been told a Thermos cup was found near him, and we’re shown a photo of it with its flask, are we then told the cup was next to an energy drink? And that he then sat down for a cup of tea? Which was it? I need to know before I hit up Reddit with my “Thermos flasks are portals to another dimension” theory.
One of the problems is we don’t hear much about the trails, what they are like and any support (lodges etc) along them, how well maintained they are, how easy it is to wander off. It’s hard to judge without that information, and it’s hard anyway from over here to understand the sheer scale of these areas.
Still, despite the holes — whether in exposition or time and space itself — both of us enjoyed Missing 411: The Hunted very much. The most fascinating case is that of Hedges, the young and very experienced hunter who was out with friends. When he lost his equipment he had to travel along an easy-to-follow route to a cache he’d previously left, to collect replacements. His friends later saw on his GPS that he had gone the wrong way, and he was never seen again. His backpack was later found miles away, near a farm.
These are tales made for movies, and many of the place names fit too. Hedges disappeared in the Crazy Mountains range in Montana, though my favourite was Elk Mountain.
Liz loved my film title suggestions:
Well, most of them:
This is an eerie film, and gets decidedly freaky for a few brief minutes when we hear the terrifying audio from a 1970s camp in the woods, of two enormous creatures supposedly yelling at each other.
Chilling though it was, that diversion to Bigfoot makes this documentary seem less credible. The final story, about Jan Maccabee and what she saw while hiding up a tree to hunt, sent Liz into paroxysms of excitement as all her Predator dreams looked like coming true. The “reconstruction” indeed looks like, as Jan describes it, a “Saran wrap” creature, invisible but with form, moving from tree to tree. It’s all a bit daft, and undoes the interesting work earlier on this disappearances.
My dad was an avid walker, and we trudged the Lakes and Cumbrian hills accompanied by grumpy old Wainwright, always home after a few hours for a pot of tea and a big pub dinner. He was also a fan of Tom Lehrer, expert satirist and expert mathematician, and I couldn’t help his classic The Hunting Song popping into my mind as I watched these stories of expert hunters vanishing into thin air, and what might have happened to them:
I went and shot the maximum the game laws would allow,
Two game wardens, seven hunters, and a cow.
The Good Bad Film Club rating:
Compelling but with more unanswered questions than Hannibal Lecter’s census form, Missing 411: The Hunted is most definitely Good-Bad.
Missing 411: the Hunted is available from:
Watch the trailer now: