Like many small Western North Carolina towns, Marion is known for its rolling hills, tightknit community and downtown lined with mom and pop businesses. Unlike other small towns, however, Marion is known for hosting the largest Bigfoot festival in the region.
The WNC Bigfoot Festival had its inaugural event in September 2018 and draws tens of thousands of guests. The festival gathers Bigfoot enthusiasts from around the country to display alleged evidence, ponder the limits of scientific understanding and share folklore about the half-man, half-ape creature that reportedly wanders the WNC forests (among other locations).
At the heart of the local festival are Joneric Bruner and his father, John Bruner, both of Marion, whose shared sense of wonder led to the creation of the festival and their very own Bigfoot investigation team.
While this year’s WNC Bigfoot Festival was postponed until May 2022 due to rising numbers of COVID-19 infections throughout WNC, fear not, Bigfoot lovers: Xpress reached out to the junior Bruner to discuss close encounters with the elusive life-form and Bigfoot’s worldwide appeal.
This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.
Tell me how this all started. When did you first get into Bigfoot?
Well, my dad has been into Bigfoot ever since he was a child back in the 1960s and 1970s. His grandma would always warn them about being way deep into the woods. This was before Marion got very built up. She never did come right out and say it was Bigfoot or anything, she just called it the Boogerman. It was a couple of years later that he finally put two and two together what she was talking about.
Have either you or your dad experienced a Bigfoot sighting?
It wasn’t a sighting, per se. It was more of an unexplained event out in the woods. What my dad told me was that the place behind his grandma’s house was huge and with nothing around. You could literally walk for miles behind her house. He was out there and he heard what sounded like knocks on trees, like people knocking around. But he never saw anyone, never saw anything. He hollered, tried to make contact with whatever that was, but he never could get any kind of acknowledgment.
What is the group Bigfoot 911?
Bigfoot 911 was started by my dad in 2015, and it is a Bigfoot field research team. It specifically deals with sightings and does research in McDowell County and in WNC.
We used to get at least three to four good leads per month, but because of COVID, it’s sort of slowed down in the last year. And my dad just came through cancer, so everything slowed way down there for a while. He’s better now.
We set up game cameras. And if we’re wanting to get a feel for the place, we’ll deploy those game cameras and see what’s going on and what kind of wildlife is in the area.
If we’re going into the woods, we have all sorts of [gear]. We have thermals [thermal imaging], we have night vision. We have all sorts of different techniques that we use to work in the woods.
What’s the best evidence of Bigfoot that y’all have found?
My dad had a rock thrown at him that came straight up from nowhere. We were heading up this trail and all in a line. Nobody was around, and all the sudden, this huge rock comes out of nowhere and hits Dad right in the chest. It was a big enough rock that an animal couldn’t have done that.
How did the Bigfoot Festival start in Marion?
We have a private group, Bigfoot 911, on Facebook and we had a meet and greet between the group [members]. Back then, our group was about 7,000 people, and we were expecting about maybe 100 people to show up. We ended up getting 500 people.
Then the city approached us in Marion and said, “Hey do you think that you could do a Bigfoot-themed festival?”
The first year we did it [in 2018], we were expecting maybe 4,000-5,000 people and we ended up having nearly 30,000 come to the event.
Were you surprised at how popular the festival was?
Oh yeah. A couple of weeks before, I had an idea that maybe this thing is gonna be bigger than we think it is, because we were getting all these messages from people that were from way far away. We had a couple of gentlemen who came from Italy just for the festival.
A couple of weeks before, we started being interviewed by all these crazy news outlets. We got interviewed by the BBC; we got interviewed by some TV station in Ireland. I answered a few questions for this news agency in Japan. I bet you we did 100 or more newspaper interviews throughout America, from San Francisco to New York City.
That’s amazing. Why do you think people love Bigfoot so much?
Bigfoot has always been a Pacific Northwest thing. But there’s always been sightings around here. The Appalachian Mountains, the Blue Ridge, has been a hotspot for that sort of activity, but nobody has ever capitalized on it.
This is the first big Bigfoot event on the East Coast. When people see an event and they don’t have to fly to Washington state to go to it, they say, “Let’s do it.”
How would you convince a nonbeliever that Bigfoot is among us?
In my humble opinion, if such things exist, I would say it’s probably an undiscovered type of prehistoric primate that, apparently through the ages, has learned to be extremely elusive. Or there may just not be many. That’s what I would think if I was a hardcore, stone-cold believer.
But to be totally honest with you, I don’t personally believe in Bigfoot. I’ll just be totally upfront with you. I like to do it because I get to spend time with my dad and my brothers. We get out in the woods and we have fun. That’s what I’m in it for.