Dark Watchers: Sinister History of These Coastal Californian Entities

California, known as the Golden State, is rich with natural resources, precious gold, and its sunny climate. But what you might not know is that California also casts a rather large shadow, one that brings an dark, eerie, impending doom type of presence. 



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Before we get to the spooky stuff, I need to cover a bit of dark history to set the scene here. It will only take a few minutes and will make this whole thing make so much more sense, so just hang with me. I promise it will be worth it in the end. 

When they landed in the new world, they couldn’t believe all that they saw. Father Junipero Serra, a Franciscan Father of the catholic church, was charged with a proclamation from the king: Travel up along the coast of the new world in this land we call Alta California and plant missions to convert the savages of the land to our ways. 

Since Europeans first landed along the Californian coast a couple of hundred years prior, documented run-ins with local “savages” had been recounted. Tales of native people adorned in primitive rabbit skin cloths trickled back through colonized trade routes established off the golden state’s coast. 

But that was of no concern to the Spanish. See, California was a fresh land that gave the Spanish the upper hand and a stronger European influence. This strategic placement, along with the land’s bountiful resources, meant that despite the tedious process of settling, claiming this land was a must. But the land was not only ripe with resources but also fresh souls. 

The first permanent settlement was founded in 1769 in San Diego. This would be the first of 21 missions that would span across the coast all the way up into the San Fransisco Bay area. And at each of these 21 missions, local natives would be lured in with promises of food, trinkets, and ornate cloth. They would often then be baptized into the catholic church by choice or force, then integrated into the Spanish way of life. 

This meant they were often separated from their families, forced to dress and behave as their priests instructed, and were taught new ways to farm and work. Those new converts, Neophytes as they were known, were then forced to remain in the mission and work for the padre – or chief priest – to further the growth of the mission. Curiosity often faded fast for the natives driving them to attempt and escape the missions. But now that they were baptized, the priests viewed them as property of the church, often rounding up the escapees and escorting them back to the confinements of the settlement. And by an escort, I mean beating them into submission with whips…  In total, over 83,000 Native Americans were um… converted to Catholicism, and another 63,000 lost their lives to disease, malnourishment, abuse, or were slaughtered in their rebellion. Cultural genocide in its truest form. 

The 21 missions were placed strategically every 30 or so miles – about a day’s ride – all along the 600-mile-long coast. The “El Camino Real” or Royal Road became a highway for trade and travel between these outposts. But as settlers pressed further northward along those steep cliffs of the Santa Lucia Mountains, tales from many of the local tribes began to trickle in. Stories that gave validation to the strange things the settlers had thought they saw. But that validation did not ease their minds. Because when faced with a desolate, rugged darkness, the last thing anyone would want is to see the darkness looking back. 


“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.”

This excerpt from Jon Steinbeck’s short story, flight, is a fictional telling of a creature or entity that has haunted California since the days of the missions. Tales of dark shadowy figures decorating the Santa Lucia Mountains have been passed down through the generations. Jon’s own grandmother told him stories as a child of her run-ins with creatures known as the Dark Watchers. 

It is said that the os Vigilantes Oscuros, or Dark Watchers appear to travelers at twilight as the sun begins to set. Tall and shrouded, the entities are often 7-10 feet or more and are often described by witnesses as “dressed in dark cloaks with wide brim hats.” Some accounts even describe them leaning on walking sticks or canes. It’s also not uncommon to see multiple Dark Watchers signing the mountaintops starring down as you travel along. 

Many people report a sense of dread or impending doom right before seeing one of these beings, followed by an intense fear as if they are being stalked by a predator. But for those who have been brave enough to try and confront them, their efforts have always been in vain. Because these Dark Watchers, always turning to watch you, are said to vanish, melting into the mountain’s shadow should you step off the beaten trail and attempt to approach them. 

However, many people through the years, Jon Steinbeck’s grandmother included, have had success leaving out small gifts of fruit or flowers for these shrouded nomads and, in return, witnessed them appear to receive their gifts, leaving behind small gifts of their own. 

Over the years and as new settlers arrived, sightings of the Dark Watchers continued to crop up. The gold rush that kicked off in 1848 brought in new settlers from across the world, and with them, new sightings of dark-cloaked figures trickled in, And with these new sightings and that sense of impending doom they brought, the question on everyone’s mind seemed to be the same: What actually are these Dark Watchers?  


This is one of those cryptid cases with more possibilities than answers. In just about every religion on earth, there is a connection to something lurking in the shadows. Numerous Christian converts have proclaimed stories of dark shadowy creatures in pursuit of their soul while they were still lost in their sins. In Islam, there are the Jinn, a shadowy group of spirits that are said to occupy the shadow world outside of time and space. The Hindus even have a goddess, Chaya, who is the personification of the shadow itself. 

Then, of course, that can lead us to the Hat Man, probably the single most common variation of a shadow figure seen across continents and ethnicities. This figure is said to be a shadow in the shape of a man, wearing, you guessed it, a wind-rimmed hat, quite similar to our Dark Watchers. Encounters with this Hat Man almost always leave witnesses with a sense of impending doom. Sound familiar? 

Now sure, sleep paralysis or one too many Benadryl is probably a safe answer to seeing shadows in your room. Heck, you could even chalk it up to floaters – those dark squiggly strands of vitreous fluid in our eyes that block parts of our vision. But witnesses of the Dark Watchers are far from asleep traveling along the Pacific coast. So what are these shadowy creatures really? 


There are a handful of possibilities that might explain the Dark Watcher phenomena across a scale from the scientific to the absurd. You can draw lines and look for connections to all kinds of things if you dig too deep into them. So for the sake of our sanity, let’s dig too deep into it, shall we? 

First, I would like to draw a connection to another cryptid we covered back in episode 17, the Tahku-He or Walking Sam. South Dakota’s Sioux tribe has reported numerous sightings of a Sasquatch-like creature who lurks in the shadows. But this tall and more slender version of Bigfoot has a discernible difference: Witnesses claim he sports a top hat. Often, Sasquatch researchers use a method of gift giving – leaving out small trinkets and food only to find new woodland items left in their place the following day. And this sounds a lot like stories of leaving gifts to tall, dark figures wearing hats along the Santa Lucia Mountains, doesn’t it? Okay, maybe it’s a stretch, but it is still a possibility – however far-fetched – worth exploring. 

Others claim that the Dark Watchers are nothing more than a chronic case of pareidolia, that ability we humans have to see shapes and faces in everything. Long shadows cast by trees or even the mountains themselves could induce a good ole case of pareidolia. Ever gone cloud watching? Then you two have played around with this trick of the mind. 

And while we are on the topic of clouds, one possibility stands out as the culprit amongst the rest. In the Harz mountain range in Germany, an interesting phenomenon was been observed. Brocken Peak has had centuries worth of sightings of shadowy figures looming over the mountain. IN 1780, Johann Silberschlag, a German pastor and natural scientist who frequented the Harz mountains, witnessed this strangeness for himself. Upon further research, Johann realized that as the sun set in the west, and if the atmospheric conditions were just right, the sun would actually cast its shadow on the clouds in the distance. If it was particularly hazy that day, the tall shadow figure would seem closer than it actually was, as if it was looming on the neighboring mountain peek. Couple this with the mist shifting with the currents of the wind, and it was as if his shadow was an entity all its own. 

Well, it just so happens that the Pacific coast would seem like the perfect place for this optical illusion known as the Brocken Spectre to take place. The sun setting on the pacific ocean shining back towards the Santa Lucia mountains, would create the perfect angle to cast a haunting silhouette into the rugged terrain. This alone most likely accounts for the majority of Dark Watcher sightings. But what about that sense of impending doom witnesses claim to get? 

Well, that might be scientifically explainable as well. In 2003, psychologist and paranormal debunker Richard Wiseman asked 700 volunteers to listen to a concert featuring 4 distinct pieces of music. But what the audience didn’t know is that 2 of the 4 pieces contained an infrasound tone – that is, a tone lower than the human ear can detect. Upon questioning the audience about the concert, over 22% of the audience reported a sense of foreboding and doom while a number of others reported a tightness in their chest or having chills run down their arms. 

Another study was performed in 2008 by psychologist Christopher French where he placed volunteers in a “Haunted” Room rigged with infrasound generators. Almost every single person later reported feelings of dizziness, terror, or an odd sensation in their chest.

Now, in the wild, a common cause of infrasound is nothing more than the wind. When air circulates around an object – like a propeller on a windmill or, say, a rocky outcropping or cliff face, infrasonic waves as low as 17hz can be produced, couple that heightened anxiety brought on by infrasound with a bit of pareidolia or even a Brocken Spectre, and there you have your Dark Watchers. 

But then there are those who venture a bit more to the spiritual side of things. See some theorize that traumatic events can leave behind residual energy. Think of it like a fingerprint left at the scene of a crime. This energy can manifest as a dark feeling, a residual haunt, or even in physical ailments. Now, of course, this is all just speculation. We have yet to prove scientifically this can happen, but historically, we have seen something similar time and time again across the world. And well, If we look back at the Pacific Coast’s history as we did at the beginning of this episode, the Santa Lucia mountains probably have plenty of residual energy to spare. And what better shape for a residual haunt to take than that of the uniform of the very people who forced the natives to adopt their ways of life: A dark grey robe, a walking staff, and a faded, wide-rimmed hat. 

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Thanks for touring Cryptids Across the Atlas. Until next time, keep your eyes open. You never know what you might see just on the edge of the road. 

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