The Dark Watchers

Welcome to the last Legends and Lore post of 2022. This story comes from California.

The Golden State has its own share of legends and folklore. Today’s post is about one that dates back over three hundred years.

The Dark Watchers, also known as Los Vigilantes Oscuros, is a group of entities seen by travelers in the region of the Santa Lucia Mountains. According to legend, these apparitions watch travelers from the horizon.

They’re most often seen around twilight or dawn and are said to be motionless. They are tall, giant-like dark silhouettes often wearing dark capes and hats. No one has ever seen a watcher up close and when people approach them, they disappear.

Most say the watchers are peaceful, but one account warns people it’s best to turn away if you see one. According to the folklore those who dared to approach them vanished into oblivion.

The legend is often attributed to the Chumash people who inhabited the area around what is now San Luis Obispo. However, nothing related to the legend seems to exist in their mythology. The early Spanish settlers were said to have seen the dark watchers and gave them the name, Los Vigilantes Oscuros (literally, the dark watchers).

Author John Steinbeck mentions the watchers in his 1938 collection of short stories.

“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.”

John Steinbeck in The Long Valley.

Steinbeck’s son, Thomas, reported having seen the watchers. He later collaborated with artist Benjamin Brode on a book titled In Search of the Dark Watchers. The book talks about the history and legend. The two men interviewed locals who claimed to have seen them.

Poet Robinson Jeffers also referenced the watchers in his 1937 collection Such Counsels You Gave Me & Other Poems. Jeffers described the Dark Watchers as “forms that look human to human eyes, but certainly are not human.” He went on to say, “They come from the ridges to watch” and are known to emerge from “the quiet twilight” before they “melted into the shadows.

A Broken Spectre. Creative Commons photo by Brocken Inaglory, via Wikimedia Commons

Psychologists often attribute these sightings to illusions or hallucinations. Another theory is these watchers are actually an optical illusion known as a Broken Spectre. This phenomenon occurs on misty mountainsides, on cloud banks, or viewed from airplanes. The figure’s head is often surrounded by halo-like rings of colored light. It appears opposite the sun’s direction when water droplets in the clouds refract sunlight.

Scientific explanation or legend, the mystery of the Dark Watchers is an interesting tale of California folklore.

29 thoughts on “The Dark Watchers

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  1. The Watchers sound like the Hat Man to me: tall, silhouetted figure with a hat. I wonder if they’re somehow connected, either a physical science phenomenon or a paranormal phenomenon. Or, what the heck, aliens?


  2. I’ve heard of this, Joan 🙂 I’ve never seen them when I was in that area where my daughter used to live during college, but I’ll keep an eye out and then be sure to turn away.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Most interesting, Joan. This made me think of an Ancient Aliens show I recently watched about the mystery surrounding Mount Shasta. The beings that are said to live inside Mount Shasta are also said to be very tall. Who the heck knows? There is a lot of phenomena out there that will never be explained. Thanks for sharing. I have loved these posts! Merry Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’ve been watching old shows of Monster Quest. While I believe some people’s imaginations run wild, I also think there are things that can’t be explained. Others we just don’t know about yet.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally agree, Liz. Recently, my husband and I have been watching the old Monster Quest shows. While I believe some sightings can’t be explained, it’s amazing what people’s imaginations can do.

      Liked by 2 people

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