Sunday, December 31, 2006

Mystery Predator Makes the NYTimes: ABC's Update

The New York Times has an article on a strange dog-like creature that was preying on sheep in Montana. The animal was shot and DNA testing has been done, but it still has not been classified yet as being feral or a dog-wolf hybrid.

Not exactly an ABC (Alien Big Cat), but here are some articles on that topic as well.

A large black cat sighted in Illinois

An article from UFO Digest exploring paranormal or ultraterrestrial aspects of ABCs.

Blurry video frame of a big cat from western England.

Spooky Paradigm in Academia Update: Interview with Physical Anthropologist and Bigfoot Researcher Dr. Jeff Meldrum

Linda Moulton Howe has an interview with Dr. Meldrum, previous discussed on this blog in this post. Dr. Meldrum clears up that his tenure is not in question. Here's one of the Meldrum stories from earlier in December.

I'm pretty sure that Howe's website drops articles into a subscriber only section after a bit, so visit soon. Though I could be wrong.

In other Bigfoot news, a supposed tooth has appeared from Kentucky, with photos, on Cryptomundo. From last month, a piece summarizing the sightings of Bigfoot coming out of eastern Texas, particularly it's Big Thicket (which I visited in 2004 during the Hurricane Ivan evacuation).

Random Bits from Winter Break, Part II: Year End Round-ups Redux

Some more end-of-the-year lists and essays

Greg Bishop has listed what he thinks are the 20 most important dates in UFO history.

Part 1

Part 2

These dates on a mix of cases, but also on developments in what composes the most high profile elements of ufo lore, especially those surrounding the government. As Greg Bishop notes, he is somewhat biased on this, being the author of Project Beta: The Story of Paul Bennewitz, National Security, and the Creation of a Modern UFO Myth. I just got a copy of this book for Xmas, so I hope to be reading it in the near future. Anyway, his important dates list is

Not directly related to UFOs or other Spooky issues, New Scientist offers their list of some of the strangest and most amazing inventions of the year. Well, the invisible drone might have something to do with UFOs.

And Archaeology Magazine lists the top ten discoveries in archaeology in 2006. It's been a very good year.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Art Deco Dinosaurs and Great White Hunters

Check out Loren Coleman's post on 1920s-era newspaper articles about expeditions to find dinosaurs in South America and Africa. Very cool illustrations. Though not so different from the artwork from a cryptozoological expedition to Gambia this year.

Let's not forget that Time Magazine put an alien on its cover nine years ago for the 50th anniversary of Roswell. Let alone what can be found on the History, Discovery, or Travel Channel on any given night.

Nothing too deep, just some cool imagery and a reminder of how pervasive the Spooky Paradigm can be.

EDIT: Cryptomundo has more, including larger pdfs of the images and text

Gerald Ford, the Presidents, and UFOs

I don't want to say much else about Gerald Ford and his legacy of pardoning the crimes of the Nixon Administration, or being the initial planting of what would become the Bush Administration.

But after his death, and on topic for the blog, let us not forget that when Gerald Ford was a Congressman from Michigan, he was the highest profile person publically interested in UFOs. As Frank Warren writes, Rep. Ford represented his constituents. And in 1966, his constituents were right in the middle of a major UFO flap. Dr. J. Allen Hynek, scientific advisor to Project Blue Book, coined the infamous phrase "swamp gas" to explain a multiple witness sighting in Michigan that year. As Warren writes, Ford was quite vociferous and aggressive in getting attention on this issue, playing off the notion that the Air Force was ridiculing the people of Michigan. Eventually, as Warren notes, Ford's efforts led to the University of Colorado report, better known as the Condon Report, and the closing of Project Blue Book and any official (though declassified documents have shown that at least some unofficial interest continued) federal interest in UFOs until investigations of the Roswell Incident in the 1990s.

Ford was one of several American presidents with experiences or interests in UFOs. I have just discovered that there is an entire website dedicated to the history of the White House and UFOs (I would note that not everything there has the same level of reliable documentation). More on Ford and UFOs can be read there. Jimmy Carter reported a UFO to NICAP in 1973 (the sighting was in 1969). The report can be read here. Ronald Reagan also had a UFO sighting, though he didn't report it other than as a story later. But he brought up the topic several times, and famously speculated at the UN that the USA and USSR would cooperate in the face of an alien threat. Bill Clinton didn't claim a UFO sighting, but he did have substantial interest in the topic. One of his aides (John Podesta) was fascinated with the topic, while Clinton tasked one of his lawyers (Webster Hubbell, as noted in his memoirs) to hunt out government information on UFOs and the JFK assassination, upon coming into power. And Clinton mentioned the topic more than a few times, though a great deal of rumor and lore about Clinton and UFOs grew exponentially with the net.

Not typically the stuff of history class.

UPDATE October 22, 2007: Dennis Kucinich, presidential candidate, in addition to having a ridiculously hot wife, has also had a UFO sighting.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Spooky Paradigm in Academia: The Nobel-Prize Winning Physicist and Parapsychology

Paranormal Review has a story on Dr. Brian Josephson, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1973. He has also for decades publically urged research in parapsychology. I can't say I am much for a lot of these ideas, but then I'm no physicist.

There is much more at Dr. Josephson's website

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Triangles - The One UFO Story that Really Gets Me

UPDATE: I'm leaving this up. But for some years now, I find I don't agree with what I once wrote. I've ultimately decided that the black triangles are a mix of misidentification and folklore, given credibility by the period of interest by American stealth designers in triangular craft. I think I came to this conclusion before the cratering of credibility regarding the book Night Siege, but that certainly didn't help matters.

By now, readers of this blog should be able to guess that I find the Spooky Paradigm interesting for a couple of reasons, but that I definitely put it in a cultural frame. In other words, I find it most interesting as a culture, a community, a movement, a worldview, something along those lines. I write about it here from that perspective.

But I can't say I don't have opinions and ideas about the ideas in the Paradigm. And the one mystery associated with UFOs, the one that I simply cannot explain to my own satisfaction, is that of the Triangles. These are also called the Black Triangles, though given that many sightings are at night, this may be a difficult call.

Anyway, UFOs have come in a lot of different shapes through the years, and still continue to do so. Trends in the appearance of reported UFOs can be interesting, but simple statements do mask the diversity, and the persistance of supposedly "out-dated" reports of disc or cigar-shaped UFOs. But one trend that has been remarked on from time to time is the growing popularity of triangle-shaped UFOs. I don't know if more Triangles are reported than in the past, but they do seem to be involved in more multiple or even mass witness cases.

There are numerous cases, but the four famous Triangle cases that define the others are the Hudson Valley sightings (1983 - 1985, see the book Night Siege in the sidebar for details, put back in print in 2002 after being difficult to obtain), the Belgian sightings (March 30, 1990), the Phoenix Lights (March 13, 1997), and the Illinois "Cop" Case (January 5, 2000 documented at a great page at the UFO Evidence website). In these cases, black triangles (sometimes smaller, but usually much larger and typically described with "football fields" as a unit of measure) are sighted moving low and slow. They have lights, often with a red light in the center of the ventral side of the triangle, and then brighter lights near the corners. But in a number of cases a rainbow of lights is described along one of the narrow edges of the triangle.

These sightings have attracted a great deal of attention for many reasons. Again, there are individual sightings of the Triangles. But the cases listed above were all multiple witness sightings (including mass witness sightings by hundreds of people) over populated areas. In the case of the Belgian sightings and the Illinois case, government officials were involved (Belgian fighter jets were scrambled, most of the Illinois witnesses were police officers from several departments) and photographs were taken (here is an example on Lieve Peten's site). Someone looking for a nuts-and-bolts UFO report couldn't do much better than the Triangles, except perhaps to get a piece of one or some clear and sustained daytime imagery of one, preferably from multiple sources to discount Photoshopping.

One problem immediately rears its head: the sightings are so good, they are too good. Yes the cases are famous spawning television documentaries and books and mainstream news reporting. But as I quoted in a previous entry in this blog " if a conspiracy theory turns out to be correct, it is quickly relabelled as investigative journalism"and this applies to the Triangles. Because they do have many of the characteristics of actual objects sighted by many people, including "credible" authorities, the reaction outside of the Spooky Paradigm is to admit the sightings may be of something real, but that it must be something exotic, but not too exotic.

Like experimental US military aircraft. This makes sense. The US was experimenting in the 1970s and on with black triangular aircraft as part of its stealth program. While none of the known US aircraft fly like the Triangles (in particular, slow or hovering low-altitude flight), perhaps the Triangles are something that hasn't been released to the public yet. Perhaps a stealth long-range transport ship. Perhaps using lighter-than-air, or even exotic antigravity technology. Perhaps the witnesses didn't understand exactly what they were seeing. This is the conclusion from a detailed study of the triangles by the National Institute for Discovery Science. (see also this page for various articles, maps, etc.). As with animal mutilations, they got interested in the Triangles as they seem to have more data to handle. Their conclusion was that the triangles may be experimental transport aircraft, and that they appear to cluster around airbases for transport and logistics (pdf here, jpg map here).

There are two problems with the experimental aircraft idea. The first is that ufologists can point to older cases of triangular sightings. Ok, but there does seem to be an upswing in sightings, and especially the impressive multi-witness sightings, starting around the time the Americans began building stealth craft and flying them out in Nevada at Groom Lake and other facilities (though these French sightings date to 1975-1976, when the F-117 was still a concept being worked out). Perhaps the earlier Triangles are not related to the post-1983 Triangles. There are only so many basic shapes thagt one could use to describe an unfamiliar object in the sky, and triangle is likely to come up. A rise in sightings of black triangular UFOs just at the time that the USAF starts flying secret black triangular planes is just a coincidence? Somewhat difficult to believe. So this I can live with.

What bothers me when I think about these reports is the time depth if this were a secret plane. It is a truism that secret planes typically stay secret for no more than a decade, and perhaps significantly less. This issue comes up with reports of the supposed Aurora, another mystery UFO of the stealth era. As discussed on the website of the Federation of American Scientists, Aurora is the label given to reports of a high-altitude, high-speed, sonic-boom generating triangular (hence why it is sometimes conflated with the low-altitude Black Triangles) aircraft. In both cases, sightings continued for a substantial period of time, but there is one major difference. Aurora sightings (and recording of sonic booms) are largely confined to the late 1980s and the early to mid 1990s. One could conceivably argue that Aurora was what so many think: a replacement for the SR-71 in the niche of the high-altitude high-speed reconaissance and potentially strike aircraft. Perhaps some prototypes were created and flown, but ultimately the project was cancelled, and the entire thing kept secret perhaps due to extravagant costs, spectacular failure, or scandalous corruption. Who knows, but this is a believable excuse for why the plane could have been in operation for half a decade and then disappeared behind National Security/Cover-Your-Ass.

But this explanation simply doesn't work for the Triangles. They have been sighted for more than two decades (here is a multi-witness sightings in Venezuela from last month) so far with no end in sight. And if they are advanced transport aircraft, there have been enough American wars and military actions that one would imagine they would have been used. And if they are so secret for decades, why fly them over populated areas, in some cases multiple times over the course of a year or more as in the Hudson Valley case?

Historian Richard Dolan wrote a good and more detailed essay similar to this one for the National Institute for Discovery Science, back in 2003. While I am sure I must have read this essay, I forgot about it until tonight. Yes, we agree on a number of points, and reach some similar conclusions. But where Dolan suggests a possible ET origin for some of the Triangles due to lack of disclosure as a military craft, I take his other suggestion as more likely. That the reports are indeed of structured non-ET craft, perhaps stealthy, perhaps for transport. But the continued secrecy points to a very different kind of relationship between whoever flies the craft, the federal government, and the American people. Or as Dolan puts it, a "shadow government." Such a craft would clearly have value in a war, say by rapidly deploying troops and equipment in difficult to reach places (such as Afghanistan in 2001, or Northern Iraq in 2003). But no such craft has emerged, nor have stories by soldiers of having ridden in or unloaded such craft.

If these obvious cases for using the Triangles didn't unveil them, then what are they being saved for? This is where, as Dolan notes, things start to get dark. Quiet craft able to deploy military or police forces, and being tested and flown around urban areas? Developed by someone in the US government but not used to fight its wars? This starts to lead to disturbing ideas to say the least.

And hence this post. The Triangles confound easy explanation as hoaxes or folklore. They seem to exist. They certainly sound like something a military would, and possibly could, create. And in fact they look at least something like recent creations for the US Air Force, though with major differences. Yet for decades they haven't been revealed as such, even when their use could have won wars or saved lives (imagine a black triangle descending on the Convention Center in New Orleans in September 2005, rescuing hundreds of the trapped and dehydrated people, continuously ferrying everyone out in the course of some hours). This might lead some to suggest a non-human explanation for what appear to be structured mechanical air craft, while it would lead others to think about a military or intelligence organization that has such aircraft, but is not beholden to the will of the people and their elected representatives.

Either option disturbs me.

EDIT: I'll add triangle sightings to this post when I come across them. Like this one in the UK on January 30, 2007.

EDIT: French Triangle Sightings from the 1970s. Most importantly, they were published in the 1970s, before the meme of the black triangle, and just before the first stealth prototypes were flying in Nevada.

EDIT: Black Triangle seen in British Colombia. News report on the sighting.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Animal Mutilations

Animal mutilations, or "mutes," are an interesting part of the Spooky Paradigm. Much of the Paradigm is witness-based, relying on witnesses (especially the vaunted "credible witness"). By contrast and definition, mutilated animals are physical evidence, and the actual process of mutilation or the mutilators themselves are generally not witnessed, though there are some exceptions.

Mute reports are persistant in the Spooky literature and reports, though flaps are reported. Intriguingly, the two main periods of public interest have come when the reports are not associated with UFOs. The modern mute phenomenon is typically traced back to the case of "Snippy" in 1967. As ironic as it would be, the first "mute" wasn't named "Snippy" but Lady. Furthermore, while cattle would become the focus of the animal mutilation phenomenon, Lady was a horse. And for a phenomenon that would come to be defined by supposed repeated patterns of damage to the mandible, the eye, the ear, and the anus and genitalia, Lady was missing flesh from much of the head and neck, exposing the bone.

The inspiration for thinking about this phenomenon was the recent appearance of "Snippy's" bones on Ebay. (more on the story here) "Snippy" of course now has a website and a blog, and is even on MySpace. As the reports and sites mention, Lady/"Snippy" died in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. The valley has been at the center of the mute mystery for a long time, and is one of the premier examples of what is called a "window" in various fields of the Spooky Paradigm. As I will be discussing in some other posts, windows are areas with intense and long-term reports of the various phenomena of the Spooky Paradigm. In many cases, these reports are not limited to one kind of phenomenon, but cover many. For this reason, windows are of particular interest to those that do not favor solidly materialist explanations for these reports, but rather follow a more Fortean "everything in the same bag" style. The San Luis Valley produced Christopher O'Brien, who wrote about what he called (in a series of books), The Mysterious Valley ( O'Brien's website). His first book is valuable to a student of the Spooky Paradigm and its researchers because O'Brien discusses his principles, methods, and evolution as a Fortean investigator, and I highly recommend it. Like others I'll discuss in a future post, O'Brien purposely erases the lines drawn between different fields in the Spooky Paradigm, seeing many of them and others not yet defined at work in the San Luis Valley.

The wave of mutes that occurred after the "Snippy" case continued through the 1970s, peaking at the end of the decade and the beginning of the 1980s as government got involved in trying to solve the mystery. The urgency of calls for investigation came not only from economic concerns over lost animals, but also from the popular theory that the mutes were the work of Satanists (a boogeyman growing in popularity at this same time with the political and cultural growth of the fundamentalist Religious Right as a movement). As this explanation waned, UFOs became increasingly associated with the phenomenon, to the point that they are inextricably linked by the present. The Spooky name most associated with mutes is Linda Moulton Howe, who also does not easily subdivide the Paradigm into discrete parts.

This recent report by Howe demonstrates the intriguing element of mutilations: the physical evidence. Mute scenes can be photographed, bodies collected, samples taken, and tests run. A common complaint in the Paradigm is that these phenomena cannot be studied in the lab on a repeat, replicable, basis. But mutes can be studied in this fashion. It was for this reason that the National Institute for Discovery Science got interested in the topic. Numerous reports and articles on the topic can be found in the Institute's section on "Animal Pathology Research."

The history of the first mute wave is complex, and I cannot do justice to it here. But after some highly publicized findings, greatly disputed by "mute" researchers, that what were called mutilations were just predation and taphonomy and not the work of devil worshippers, much of the oomph disappeared. The exception being the the inclusion of mutes into the UFO scene. The mute phenomenon didn't go away, but it did center in a second great wave of interest in the 1990s. This time a culprit was suggested, and became the focus of the complex: the chupacabras. There is some evidence that the idea of the chupacabras predates this period, but out of Brazil and Puerto Rico the chupacabras spread as the first major Spooky legend of the internet age, as well as something of a minor icon some associated with the growing cultural latino cultural influence in the United States. Much debate swirled around the appearance and nature of the goatsucking chupa, but at its core the legend was still about dead animals with strange physical marks. But any similarity between the chupa wave and the earlier mutes was largely lost between pop culture play with the icon and focus on sightings of the creature.

The repeated identification of alleged chupas as dogs with mange didn't help matters. But I think this phenomenon helps us understand mutes and UFOs a bit better. UFOs became associated with mutes not at the height of popular interest/concern, but rather after fears of Satanists had largely been dismissed. When their nature became less certain/worrisome rather than clearer, mutes were more easily associated with UFOs and firmly entered the Spooky Paradigm, one of mystery that skates alongside the mainstream. BioFort discusses this issue, in a parallel fashion but referring to the chupacabras, in an article on the cryptosemantics of cryptozoology. The Spooky identity in many ways rests on mystery and inexplicability. Anomalies. Fort's "The Damned." As BBC's Mike Rudin puts it, if a conspiracy theory turns out to be correct, it is quickly relabelled as investigative journalism.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Radio - The Grapevine of the Spooky Paradigm

Note: I've edited to add Long John Nebel, whose name escaped me last night.

Entertainment or cultural critics and observers, who have not spent much time studying the Spooky Paradigm, often have a set of usual suspects as to what types of media push interest in the paranormal, UFOs, cryptzoology, conspiracy theory, and other elements of the Paradigm. In the 1990s but even today, the X-Files came in for a woodshedding (and it's creator Chris Carter just made Paul Kimball's list of most influential people in the UFO world), even claiming a cover story in Skeptical Inquirer. Likewise, the "woo-woo" TV of the History Channel, Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, and other basic cable television "documentaries" are accused of constantly and predictably presenting stock footage of the Loch Ness Monster or UFOs. The movies, especially Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Independence Day are typically blamed for inspiring UFO and alien sightings.

The internet is also often blamed, especially when it comes to conspiracy theory. As Jodi Dean noted in her book Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace, decentralized media like the net encourage conspiracy thinking/skepticism by undermining hegemonic authority. Several prominent ufologists, including folk sociologist Jim Moseley, believe that the internet has led to a decline in face-to-face UFO meetings and conventions and in turn organizations.

The internet isn't off the hook, per se, but regardless of whether it is broadcast through the atmosphere or across the internet, radio is the most important information backbone for the Spooky Paradigm. History would tell me that the great pioneer in this, moving flying saucers and strange tales out of pulps and the printed word and into radio would be Long John Nebel, who started this genre in the 1950s and continued it through the 1970s. The king daddy of modern para-radio is of course Coast to Coast AM. Originally hosted by Art Bell to great success and popularity, George Norry has been able to open up the audience further to include more spiritually and religious minded topics. Binnall of America is a recent and very popular and well conducted para-radio show and website. It is clearly influenced by Coast to Coast, and at times resembles a fan-club. But Binnall is able to land well known and good guests, especially in ufology.  The Paracast is similar in format, as is radiOrbit (see comments) and in both cases shows can be downloaded and archived for listening.

UPDATE 6-2012: In the nearly six years since I wrote this post, both Binnall of America and The Paracast have continued on, but I would not endorse them today as I once did. The Paracast suffered through a major personnel change that made the show far less interesting, and then moved to a radio network with terrible ads aimed at survivalists and political extremists. This was accompanied by what many have suggested is a different approach to guests with outlandish claims, not taking them to task anywhere near as much as they once were, though others have suggested the difference is not that profound. In my opinion, it does seem that more of the guests, especially ones with previous ties to one or more hosts, do seem to have more outlandish claims. These claims are questioned by the hosts, but in a far gentler manner than they might once have been. Even so, the change in style of guests combined with the awful commercials added by the show's network, is sufficiently bad to make the show unpalatable to this former listener.

Binnall of America has in a sense continued what it has been doing (from season 1, some of its guests were ridiculous, others intriguing), and there was still the occasional episode I enjoyed in recent seasons. But in the last week, I was so appalled by the mythologization and promotion by the show of a Columbine school shooting conspiracy theorist (whose primary publicity seems to come from Binnall of America) who blames the parents of the victims as well as virtually everyone in town as part of a vast Government-Satanic conspiracy, that I cannot continue to suggest it to listeners.  

Coast to Coast can only be downloaded or available via archive through paid subscriptions, while Whitley Strieber's radio show Dreamland (covering similar topics, though more on the side of mysticism and hidden history) is available on the net in a combination of free streaming and full access by paying subscriptions. Greg Bishop's Radio Misterioso is another in this vein. More controversial is Jeff Rense's radio show, largely due to the presence of Holocaust deniers and other unpopular figures and ideas on the website.

All of them share a similar format, in which a regular host interviews a series of paranormal experiencers or experts, typically one per episode. In a number of cases, as with television talk shows, a book or new documentary may be advertised. Round tables or panels occasionally occur, but are far less common than a 2-hour interview and Q&A session with call in listeners. These shows are cable nets of the Spooky Paradigm. Coast to Coast is the paranormal CNN. It and other shows can quickly spawn and maintain stories. Not so much individual sightings of spooky phenomena, but more involved stories that in a number of cases end in hoax (such as the general consensus on the Serpo Project). Once a story appears on these shows, the blogs may soon light up, and then the real viral infection begins. This blog (Spooky Paradigm) is itself in this part of the cycle. Books will become important not because of continued discussion of them as much as their appearance on Coast to Coast or Dreamland.

This is one significant difference from academia or typically journalism. Academics will write books and articles, but with very few exceptions, do not appear on call-in radio shows. Some will look for support outside of the universities and granting agency, but there is nothing comparable to the radio system. Journalism stories may get repeated and modified ad nauseum in print television or net, but other than a small number, personal fame does not became a major part of the phenomenon. Furthermore, these interviews are in many cases quite short. A junket of special-interest radio shows, with 1-3 hour interviews, would not be as expected for journalists, though it does pass some resemblance to the conferences and colloquia presented by mainstream scholars.

I can go into speculation about why this might be (friendly host, lower costs than video), but regardless: if you want to know what's hot in the Spooky Paradigm, turn on the radio.

Update 3/15/07 - Greg Bishop gives an excellent illustration of what I'm talking about

Edit: Tons more paranormal radio

Scads of channels at Planet Paranormal

Awesome Update: The Masked Downloader has made a mega-list of Paranormal and Conspiracy podcasts and mp3 downloads

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Random Bits from Winter Break, Part I: Year End Round-ups

I just today/yesterday (no sleep makes Jeb blog) handed in the grades for my Introduction to Anthropology course, and then set about taking care of things before I do a bit of winter break traveling.

I won't exactly be on break, as I'll be finishing off the dissertation, writing articles, and preparing the course design for Introduction to Archaeology. But in the 30 minutes I have now before I must shower and catch a cab to the airport, here are some stories I've been trying to put into contextual posts, but haven't had time.

I am writing a couple of more semi-in-depth pieces, hopefully I can post them soon.

First off, the year-end round-ups have begun. Loren Coleman discusses the top 10 cryptozoology books of 2006, as well as the top 10 cryptid photos (and yes, some are very much in the blurry category) and the top 10 Bigfoot stories of the year. EDIT: And now, he unveils his list of the top ten cryptozoological stories of the year. Also in the realm of discovering animals, StrangeArk breaks down the results of the great undersea survey of 2006. Lesley at Binnall of America (more on them in an upcoming post) has the year in UFOs, or rather, the year in UFO stories and books (not so much sightings). Somewhat in the spirit of year-end roundups, Paul Kimball suggests his list of the 50 most influential people in the world of UFOs. It is a mix of researchers, goverment officials, and a smattering of media creators and entertainers.

I am sure more will appear soon, and I will post them when they do.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Spooky Paradigm in Academia Part III: Peer-Reviewed Parapsychology Journals

Another great post from Public Parapsychology. This time, it is peer-reviewed journals on consciousness and parapsychology.

By contrast, the skeptics organization that publishes Skeptical Inquirer has changed its name to CSI (from CSICOP) which is less harsh, though it also sounds an awful lot like a certain set of TV shows ...

Friday, December 08, 2006

A Non-Spooky Post: Apocalypto is Terrible

Allow an off-topic indulgence for a moment, I think this is actually something I do need to mention. I saw a pre-release showing of Apocalypto on Monday. As you may be able to tell from some of the links, my primary profession is a Mesoamerican archaeologist. I strongly give this movie a complete anti-recommendation, and would urge people not to support it. First off, it is not an entertaining film. Secondly, as many of the reviews have mentioned, it is very violent. This did not bother me in a filmgoer sense, but several members of the group I saw it with had to leave the theater because they could not stomach futher gore and injury.

But the main reason I write this is that the basic message of the movie is offensive. For reasons that become apparent if you watch the movie, Gibson's message is unmistakeable: Mesoamerican civilization deserved to be destroyed and conquered by Christianity. If this was just some academic exercise, it still would be wrong and inaccurate (while some parts of the film visually look good and recreate nifty bits of costume and architecture, much of the movie is highly inaccurate). But this movie will harm the efforts of the millions of Mayas in Mexico in Central America to survive and thrive in societies that already have power structures arrayed against them, and that in many cases are still victims of a centuries long Conquest that is not over.

If you want to read further about this, here are two reviews and comments by other Mesoamerican archaeologists

I will not be turning this blog off the topic of the Spooky Paradigm, but this is a big deal in my field, and with the people I know who work directly with Mayas in Guatemala and elsewhere (the movie hasn't been released there yet, but even the trailers have already started controversy).

EDIT: Another bad review of the film from an archaeologist, and mixed reviews from Mayas.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Mothman Prophecies: Paranormal Hybrid Vigor

I've posted dual book/movie review and discussion this on my Tulane page for some time (since 2003, I believe), but I figured it was time to move it, since I'll be leaving there in the coming year. I believe I'll be revisiting some of the issues raised in this review in the very near future.

The Mothman Prophecies: Paranormal Hybrid Vigor

You know what flying saucers are, right? Spaceships from outer space! They can be big, or small. They can look like clouds, or silent helicopters, or ice cream cones, or cigars. More commonly, they look like discs, or spheres, or VW NeuBeetles, something rounded to contrast them with all those long and pointy missiles and rockets the white(jumpsuited) guys in the Air Force and NASA send up. If fifty-one years of flying saucer movies are anything to go by, UFOnauts don't seem to be made of the "right stuff", either. Usually Zeta Reticuli sends us Attila the Hun, who trashes the place but is always sent packing by super-science, germs, or more recently, yuppie hackers. Other times, they send us Jesus (WWETD?), ready to give us the answer to atomic disarmament, the ozone layer, or whatever else the cover of Time magazine is trying to scare people with this week. Since the 1960s, we've been treated to a double-header of Dracula and Jack the Ripper, as the little gray men walk amongst us undetected, get their jollies making off with the blood and genitals of genetically hormone enhanced cattle, and mesmerize abductees for cold clinical sex. They've even brought their pet chupacabras along for the ride. Anyway, flying saucers are weird aluminum spaceships full of illegal aliens waiting to disintegrate, illuminate, or exsanguinate us.

The various Hollywood scenarios above are all variants of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) for UFOs, or the "nuts and bolts" paradigm. Simply put, UFO occupants are biological or mechanical, and the flying saucers are part of their advanced material culture. The Crashed Saucer legend, most famously the Roswell Incident, is the epitome of this philosophy. Believer or skeptic, most people around the world think of the ETH as synonymous with UFOs.
But there are other explanations. Skeptics cite the "Kook Hypothesis". More charitably, sociologists and anthropologists propose the psychosocial hypothesis, that these beliefs are a part of human culture, like religion or folklore (anthropology is the least religious of all academic fields in the United States). Evangelical Christians quote Genesis to show that UFO enthusiasts are actually worshipping demons. Militia members think the UFOs are all a ruse, which the New World Order will use to throw John Birchers into makeshift concentration camps in Nevada. New Age-y contactees remember their former lives as aliens on the planet Zeist.

And then there is John Keel. A freelance reporter and writer based in New York, Keel conducted some field research on UFOs in the 1960s before combining all of the above into a unique occult stew. He is most famous for The Mothman Prophecies, a jumpy collection of Keel's ruminations hung upon a framework of strange happenings in rural West Virginia throughout 1967. The Mothman of the title is the most unique element of the story, though not the most important. Alternatively described as a large man with wings, or a huge headless furry creature with giant glowing red eyes, "Mothman" lived to terrorize young couples in secluded lover's lanes.

But Keel was more interested in UFOs and those who were contacted by them than in nocturnal winged peeping toms. To hear Keel tell it, West Virginia, and indeed the world, was crawling with sightings of strange lights, extraterrestrial visitors with misspelled Biblical or Classical names, and Men in Black. Particularly Men in Black. Though he didn't invent the concept, Keel's books and writings solidified the Men in Black as strange beings in their own right. Flying saucer enthusiasts had reported intimidating visits from men in dark suits since the 1950's. These strange visitors were interpreted as government agents sent to intimidate the daring ufologists; more skeptical observers suggested that these tales made the teller "important" enough to be silenced by Them. But Keel's MIB's are far stranger. They can have unusual facial features (often classified as "Oriental", a term which seems to have no meaning the way Keel uses it), wear all sorts of clothes (not just the Reservoir Dog funeral suits), often with strange thick-soled shoes. They may talk too fast or too slow, often in the same conversation. Simple objects will puzzle them, yet they seem to have mastered the use of dark-colored sedans and flash cameras.

Instead of suspecting government spooks, Keel lumps MIBs with space travelers, mothmen, fairies, hairy monsters, ghosts, devils, angels, gods, spirits, doppelgangers, and other strange folk. From his perspective, they act in similar ways, through time and space. There is only a cosmetic difference between a beam of light striking Saul on the road to Damascus, hastening the spread of Christianity, and a flying saucer taking George Adamski or Rael on an interplanetary trip so that they can spread the word of the Space Brothers. Skeptics and rationalists would agree with Keel, and label all of these things part of the human tendency to create a rich supernatural world and populate it with wonderous and terrible beings. But Keel accepts some kind of reality for these beings, though he has no idea what they are. Because the same kinds of reports are recorded throughout human history, Keel proposes that these things have been here as least as long as we have, that they are a permanent part of life on earth. He calls them ultra-terrestrials, but I believe my favorite term for them comes from the title of a chapter in The Mothman Prophecies, "Games Non-People Play". As an all-encompassing unified field theory, the concept is overwhelming yet simple at the same time. If accepted, the explanatory power is intoxicating. Aztec blood sacrifice, UFO sightings, Bigfoot, Fatima, phone malfunctions, men with thick rubber-soled shoes, deja-vu, and Adam Weishaupt: IT'S ALL CONNECTED!

And because it touches so much, and encompasses so much, yet is still unexplained, it can't be disproved. One can question the behavior of aliens as bizarre, non-scientific, and irrational (what's with all the abductions?), traits that might not be expected of beings flying in spaceships. One can also ask why flying ships have changed through time, going in and out of style. Or why alien messages are always simplistic or pointless, as after all, an advanced intellect should be able to provide more of a direct clue to global problems than "Make peace and open your minds." But as Keel describes the strange behavior reported by eyewitnesses and experienced by Keel himself, the fragmentary non-logical patterns rule out ET astronauts. Instead, the vague prophecies and unusual folk are all part of the "Games Non-People Play", for an end we cannot fathom. God works in mysterious ways, after all.

And so we return to the Mothman. As stated above, the early focus of The Mothman Prophecies is Mothman. But non-people come in all shapes and sizes in Point Pleasant, and soon Keel is dealing with Space Brothers, MIB's, Mothmen, and UFOs of every shape and size (on a clockwork basis no less). Keel places all of this into the larger 1966 UFO flap (which also spawned the infamous Project Blue Book explanation of "swamp gas"), and begins to suspect that big things are on the horizon. He is prompted by the titular prophecies of local Woody Derenberger, who gets his information from a long-haired silver-suited spaceman by the name of Indrid Cold. While other Cold contactees both in and outside West Virginia begin to come to Keel's attention, Woody is the best source of information. As Keel begins to get an inkling of what terrible event Cold's messages might be foretelling, They start to apply pressure. MIB's tail and photograph Keel, his associates, and acquaintances not even connected with UFOs or West Virginia. Keel's phone begins to act up, with constant strange sounds and interruptions. People report calls from Keel that he never makes, and when he calls his own home, an unknown man answers on his behalf.

Finally, the strange events come to a head, and a horrible disaster comes to pass, but one only tangential at best to the contactees' prophecies. Keel counts the dead, and step quietly back into the land of the living, not much wiser than he had been a year before. There is no resolution, no hero's journey fulfilled. Unlike many UFO and Forteana books, The Mothman Prophecies has a setting, a cast of characters, a goody spooky author, and something of a narrative. But there is no mind-blowing final discovery, no smoking gun, nothing to show but speculation that perhaps the world is far wilder than we suspect (or that the author is mad, or just a good storyteller, or all of the above). Other approaches generally provide some answers: religion illuminates; science explains. If UFOs are flown by Space Brothers, the author imparts their wisdom. If a cover-up is found, at least things are under control, and the bad guys named. Even abduction accounts provide some closure, with memories recovered, and maybe patterns exposed to reveal an agenda. But no loose ends are tied up in The Mothman Prophecies, things just end, with no indication they won't start up again elsewhere or when.

Mothman Does Hollywood

The book The Mothman Prophecies is nihilistic, and if one accepts its assertions, disconcerting. Not exactly blockbuster material. And yet, in early 2002, a big-budget film version of The Mothman Prophecies was released. The movie wildly veers from much of Keel's book, fictionalizes much of the story (yet claims to be based on true events), adds some upbeat sentiments, and stars �ber-Buddhist Richard Gere. And yet, oddly enough, the film is able to capture some of the basic feel and ideas of Keel's book, ideas that have not really been explored in pop media before.

Instead of recreating John Keel's yearlong field investigation in Point Pleasant, the movie focuses on John Klein (Richard Gere), a famous reporter for the Washington Post. The events are also dragged into the present day (curious, since the one major public event in the book, a real disaster, is kept as the centerpiece of the movie). Klein is no Fortean investigator, but a happily married political reporter and commentator. The film opens with Klein skipping out on the office Xmas party to help his wife Mary (Debra Messing) view a potential new house.

WORD TO THE WISE: fast forward through the first 15-20 minutes. You and I will be the better for your discretion. Let me sum up: The Kleins see the house, have closet sex, leave, Mary sees some crazy CGI red thing in the street that runs them off the road, she cracks her head, cat-scans find a tumor (in the shape of a Y, just like the CGI Mothman thing) Mary starts sketching ominous Blair Witch knock-offs, she dies, John is sad.

Ok, now, you can start watching the movie again. Anyway, for reasons that are not entirely clear to him or anyone else, John gets sucked into strange occurrences around Point Pleasant, West Virginia. This is where the action really begins. The filmmakers pick and choose some of the creepiest and most evocative moments in Keel's book, and use them as the basis for the rest of the film. Gordon Smallwood (Will Patton) is clearly based on Woody Derenberger, and relays messages from Indrid Cold (now a menacing and ethereal presence instead of a Space Brother). Gordon hooks up with John at gunpoint, as he is certain Klein has been stalking him for days before he ever arrives in West Virginia. Time and space inconsistencies abound, as do phone hijinks. None of these events make much sense, and instead are played for a high creep factor. Which works perfectly well with the feel of the Mothman book.

Once in town, Klein pairs up with the pretty local sheriff Connie Parker (Laura Linney), and the two begin to investigate weird claims and occurrences. Inevitably, John and Connie develop romantic feelings for each other. If only I could find romance while spending cold nights staking out old haunted chemical plants, or questioning country folk who have seen a flying version of Bigfoot, but I digress. But as Hollywood loves a romantic triangle, John's dead wife Mary becomes entangled in the Mothman phenomena. Let me just say that while Debra Messing doesn't play live characters terribly well, she is great in this film as a corpse. John's desperate desire to contact, or at least understand the death of, his wife takes the weirdness to a personal level. The film jettisons the UFO's and MiB's in favor of a strange multi-dimensional ghost story.
As in Keel's book, Indrid Cold's messages begin to prophesize disasters. John decides (perhaps because of his inability to save his own wife) to take this opportunity to help people. He tracks down an author and expert on this phenomenon, Dr. Alexander Leek (Alan Bates), to help him decipher the situation. Yes, that's L-E-E-K, try holding it up in front of a mirror.

Now, may I say, I can only hope to be as cool as Alexander Leek when I grow up. After lecturing Klein on the prehistory and history of ultra-terrestrials (the word is never used, but the meaning is plain), he goes on to explain that he too tried to follow Mothman's prophecies to save people. He then stridently informs us that it landed him in an insane asylum for five years, and asks Klein "Do you know what that does to a man"? Damn. Mr. Bates plays Ke-, um, Leek, as just a touch mad yet with an insane insight into to the nature of the universe. He sums up Indrid Cold's incrutable messages by asking Klein if he, clearly superior to a cockroach, has ever tried explaining himself to one? The Mothman Prophecies may have it's problems, but any film that has an extended discourse by a madman on ultra-terrestrials, citing cave paintings and set in a library, gets my dollar.

Armed with this "wisdom", Klein must decide whether to embrace the madness of the Mothman Prophecies, potentially averting some tragic catastrophe, or wash his hands of the whole convoluted affair. I won't give away the answer here, but the filmmakers wisely adopt some of Keel's nihilism for the film's climax, only to throw a little of it away for the sake of Hollywood sentimentality.

On the whole, I was surprised at the performances and skill in this film, barring the first twenty minutes. The aforementioned first twenty minutes, all set in Washington D.C., contain most of the worst acting in the film. Most of the annoying bits in the film are here as well, most particularly film-school cuts and jumps that seem to have been added just to look showy, and to have "scary" bits for the movie trailer (indeed, much of the trailer is derived from these scenes). Once the film moves to Point Pleasant, we enter into another, much more interesting movie. Instead of the slick blacks and reds of Washington (and many Hollywood thrillers and horror movies), everything in West Virginia is gray. As a long-time resident of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, I recognize the desolate gray November scenery. Personally, I have even more reason, as the film was shot in and around Pittsburgh, where I lived for three years. Those familiar with the city should be able to identify a number of locations around Oakland (the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Museum in particular), a few downtown, and one on the southern riverbank of the city. Regardless, the gray country landscapes, strange small town, and hypnotic ambient soundtrack combine to give a sort of "Twin Peaks East" feel to much of the proceedings.

Richard Gere is actually quite good here. Clearly he is a natural to play the successful reporter with everything going right in the world. But with the exception of a heroic act near the end, he also does a good job trying to regain some control over anything after the death of his wife. Gere's usual quiet, "Zen", slightly superior demeanor keeps him quiet and slightly taken aback as the rest of the cast tells him things. In essence, with the exception of his scenes with Laura Linney's Sheriff Connie, Gere's Klein acts as a near-silent proxy or avatar for the viewer, moving from clue to clue.

Klein's relationship with Connie is an interesting change from the book, but an unexpected one. Along with the specter of his dead wife, Connie gives Klein a stake in the phenomenon beyond curiosity. Linney isn't given much to do here, other than to comfort and occasionally skeptically ground Klein in his quest for the truth (shades of The X-Files here). In his book, Keel does have a female partner (a local newspaper reporter), but she is significantly older and less attractive than Laura Linney, and married to boot. Instead, Keel describes nearly all of the other women of Point Pleasant as young, lithe, and attractive, presumably doing much to further the cause of gonzo ufology.

The other two significant roles in the film are heavily inspired by Keel's book. Will Patton is excellent as Gordon Smallwood, an average man contacted by forces from beyond and forced into the role of a prophet. Alan Bates is a bit more over the top as Alexander Leek, a very different sort of man who tried and failed to deal with these forces. But both represent well some of the "High Strangeness" in Keel's book.

Lastly, there is the Mothman himself. Like Keel, the filmmakers use this apparition as a symbol and focusing point for their own explorations of the strange. Like the Flying Saucer, the Mothman stands for the strange, and potentially dangerous. Surprisingly, the Mothman is used for little else in the film. In Keel's book, there are several Mothman-related encounters and chase scenes (most interestingly, when it follows a bloodmobile) that are more exciting than those in the film.

In both versions, The Mothman Prophecies offers an alternative to more mainstream approaches to the paranormal in twentieth century American culture. The 2002 film version stylistically treads some of the same ground as The X-Files or Twin Peaks, but the focus on exploring the emotional and philosophical elements of an unusual take on paranormal phenomenon sets it apart from flying saucers and little gray men. Keel's book is much more out there, and while including UFOs and MIBs, spins these elements to much wilder ends. The film is a nice, stylistic, slice of weirdness with several unsatisfying elements (mostly involving Klein's relationship with his wife). Keel's book is a comprehensive smorgasbord of High Strangeness, one that is a bit of a mind-blower of insane inspiration, whether the reader believes Keel or not.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Spooky Paradigm in Academia Part II: University Based Parapsychology Centers

While I posted on this a bit earlier, this excellent post from the blog Public Parapsychology merits its own entry.

A listing of university-based parapsychology (though some are more skeptical than others) research centers.

Schools include University of London, University of Giessen, University of Arizona, Temple University (famous in ufgology as one of the few universities offering a regular course on UFOs, by David Jacobs), University of Virginia, and many more. Duke University no longer conducts such research, though the Rhine Research Center (not affiliated with Duke) claims the heritage of the most famous academic psi lab, and is listed as well on the page.

Parapsychology is the oldest of the academic fields of study in the Spooky Paradigm, and has been the most respected through time. While having roots in ghost hunting, it took on the task of laboratory testing (either of alleged psychics or in those not professing any psychic abilities) in a bid for acceptance in the scientific community. The success of this effort is debatable. As listed on the Public Parapsychology post, there are many academic centers for psi research, private or affiliated with universities. Psi research has also been undertaken by governments and corporations. The US government has conducted several programs in the field, most famously Project Stargate, cancelled and revealed to the public in 1995. The full extent of US intelligence and military research on the topic is murky. Private corporations have also funded research, most famously the Sony corporation. It should be noted that Sony is not behind a recent Japanese psychic gadget and obvious sales ploy, a USB flash drive based on the teachings of psychic Masako Mitaki.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Oldest Magic/Ritual Site May Be in Botswana

A sculpture and other artifacts supposedly 70,000 years old in Botswana could be the world's oldest religious center. If the dating on this site is accurate (the interpretation sounds good, though that could fall apart too depending on the data), it isn't just the oldest evidence for symbolic thought, but it appears to be a worship ritual site.

Worshipping a giant snake. David Icke must love that.

Neanderthals appear to have buried their dead, sometimes with numbers of animal bones or skulls. But it isn't until some time after modern humans appear that visual symbols really appear. With it, some believe, comes serious symbolic thought, and that starts to lead us into the leaps of logic behind belief. It may have begun at this place, and others like it.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Stonehenge recast as ancient healing center

This article discusses a recent hypothesis, and book, by archaeologist Timothy Darvill, that Stonehenge was a Neolithic healing spot and pilgrimage site. Burials found there have been found to be of people from other parts of the British Isles and Europe, including as far away as Switzerland. He goes further, and suggests that many buried there were beset with various ailments. I would wonder how the sample compares to the osteology of Europe at the time, in regards to prevlance of disease, before I signed on to this idea.

The professor also cites medieval and modern beliefs about the stones having healing properties. The modern uses of ancient sites is a major element in archaeology, and often runs at times into the ground covered by the Spooky Paradigm of new religions, magic, folklore, and the like. From the complete rubbishing of these ideas in the 19th and 20th centuries, the pendulum has definitely started to swing back in terms of making room for scientific, historical, and "alternative" uses as religious shrines and ancestral spots. In the US this has become a larger issue with human remains and grave goods than with mystical and ancestral spots.

Stonehenge itself, of course, is a major part of the landscape of the Spooky Paradigm. It of course is tied to ideas of earth energies and ley lines, as in Paul Devereux's Dragon Project, but more exotic ideas (including UFOs) are often not far behind.

UPDATE: This article

Mythical Sword Halts Start on Northeast India Dam

is a perfect example of what I'm talking about above, with the past and the present and local identity and agency mixing it up.

Necropants: Wear Your Dead Friend's Skin for Profit

I don't have much to say about the necropants, I simply had to mention them. A pair is on display at an Icelandic Musem of Witchcraft and Sorcery, where they are described as

The most popular object in the museum are the so-called necropants.

“Necropants are part of a complicated sorcery for gaining money,” Atlason explains. “The owner of necropants had to make a deal with a male friend while still alive about digging up his body after a natural cause of death, skinning it below the waste and wearing the skin as necropants.”

Atlason continues: “Then the necropants-owner would have to steal money from a poor widow and draw a magical symbol on a piece of parchment. After placing both in the necropants’ ‘pouch,’ the owner would magically come into possession of money.”

Original article, covering the museum in general

I suppose one could look to the tradition of the Hand of Glory for comparison. In pre-modern Europe, the severed hand of a condemned thief could be used as a magical item to make occupants of a house fall into a deep sleep, unlock doors, or otherwise make life easy for a burglar. Of course, the Nahuatl god Xipe Totec "The Flayed One" in Mesoamerica also comes to mind, though in that case a living victim was killed for/by flaying so that a priest could wear their skin for twenty days.

I suppose somewhat more on topic, this is yet another example of the increasing coverage of magical or otherwise "spooky" topics in museums and public attractions.

An Anomaly Field Investigator's Equipment Wish List

I find these lists of equipment can often radically differ depending on researcher and what they think is behind the phenomenon they follow.

This list, is mostly about cameras and such, but some of the more exotic equipment would reflect the ideas of the specific investigator.

Now, if you want to get really ambitious, check out this bad boy. A "Spy Ghost Hunting Parapsychology Surveillance Van." Sadly, I don't think my internet friends were serious about buying it for me.

I don't fancy myself an anomalous phenomena investigator, just an archaeologist, anthropologist, and part-time folklorist. But ever since about the age of 14 or so, when possible I've always made sure I have a flashlight a camera, notebook, and a few other bits stashed near my bed or in a quick grab bag. "Just in case." This changed a bit with the flood, as I don't have much excess stuff like that anymore. But I see myself creating a "just in case" bag in the future. And my next cell phone is definitely going to have a camera.

ABCs of Cryptozoology: Alien Big Cats, the Acceptable Cryptid

Hairy giants, sea serpents, big birds, and other cryptids get press coverage. Often in local papers. But this coverage is usually either a profile of a monster hunter, a Halloween piece, or a fluff piece. This isn't always the case, there are some that take reports at closer to face value. But in many cases, UFO sightings are given more matter-of-factual reporting than cryptids. Perhaps we should not be surprised by this, since Baylor's recent survey of American beliefs (see my post on that here) suggests 25% of Americans think UFOs are spaceships from another world (never mind 4D ideas for the moment) vs. 18% that give credence to cryptid reports.

The one major exception to this are ABC's. Alien Big Cats, sightings of big cats in areas they simply should not be naturally. Michael Gross suggests that they are a form of rumor panic in the journal Folklore (Vol. 103, No. 2 (1992), pp. 184-202). He cites that they are usually told in the back pages of the papers, as the kind of fluff piece I mention above (more intriguingly, he notes that in his research he doesn't find much historical precedent for them, unlike the legion of British Big Dog folklore and literature). Perhaps this observation was valid in 1992, but it isn't now. Some time a few years ago, I noticed a distinct change in the tone of many ABC reports, in Britain as well as in North America. This article by the BBC captures the practical and serious tone much better

Police warn of 'big cat' in hills

It is strictly serious, and while it talks about "hotspots" there is no indication in the article that this is considered folklore. A piece in the Western Mail, from Wales,

Beware: big cat is on the prowl

does mention the British Big Cat Society, which does bring in the element of the Fortean-esque organization/club (here is an example of a group organizing a Big Cat Walk/Hunt), but again, no hint of silly season or such. This article just gives a local eyewitness account.

The likely difference in the case of ABCs, of course, is that people don't doubt the existence of large cats. The problem is just how they get to be regularly reported in areas in which they don't exist naturally. This may also explain why I've sometimes seen more sympathetic media coverage of sightings of Florida's Swamp Ape. The simple use of the word "ape" in the name may make the creature more plausible to a general audience.

Loren Coleman has a wealth of posts about Alien Big Cats on his Cryptomundo blog, if you care to read more about the subject.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Murder Stories and Conspiracy Theories: Death for Entertainment and Profit

This weekend, I purchased the brilliant graphic novel From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Moore's magnum opus is about the Whitechapel Murders of 1888, supposedly committed by "Jack the Ripper." Long a favorite of science fiction writers, Alan Moore takes Saucy Jack and uses him as a jumping off point to write a tremendous historical novel, conspiracy thriller, and occult treatise. In addition to repeatedly besmirching Freemasonry (as the author readily admits to in the footnotes), Moore includes a number of strange and/or occult happenings, including some collected by Charles Fort.

But another reason I really recommend it, in addition to all that, is Moore's overarching commentary on murder and violence as entertainment. Moore makes considerable effort to contextualize and desensensationalize (at points) the lives of Jack's victims and the city they all lived in, whilst simultaneously spinning a tale of secret societies and ethereal time travel. Throughout the book, Moore makes it clear that he has some animus towards his own work as another way of making a living off of spinning stories murder, no matter how remote. This is made explicit in the appended and illustrated (and highly amusing) history of Ripperology. This history has had a tremendous impact on some of my own writing, including my Crashed Saucer Legend site.

Moore is of course right, that much money and sensation moves because of murder past and present. The "big" story in the American media during the last week was O.J. Simpson's "confession" book and Fox news special. This was retracted due to incredibly bad press. Yet more reputable media sources indulge in murder (though they may not share the profits with those who were found responsible for the deaths, as in the Fox/Simpson case).

Sources like the BBC. The BBC ran an investigative report (for the actual BBC report, go here) this week which claims to have identified three CIA men at the scene of Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968. The implication, a variant of previous notions dating back decades, is that Sirhan Sirhan was in a hypnotic trance, possibly a product of MKULTRA, to do or cover for the assassination for the CIA. If these identifications can be shown to be accurate, this is extremely interesting. Yet one wonders if the words "Kennedy" and "assassination" in conjunction simply demand people to spin murder tales.

Going back even further, the BBC also is airing a new crack at Jack the Ripper. Working with a set of forensic criminologists, the report came up with a composite of a Ripper suspect in regards to appearance, likely residence, and psychology. I sympathize with the effort (I am an archaeologist, after all) but some of the text in the article is a bit much in its optimism in science and reason. But then, this is what history and archaeology and related fields are: murder stories. Not every time, but sooner or later we tell people tales of murder and bloodshed, and we get paid to do so. My dissertation is on pottery bits, but I am studying them to better understand the charnel house of the sixteenth-century Spanish Conquest of the Americas. And as with Bobby above (no doubt timed to coincide with the release of a biopic of that name, concerning the day of Kennedy's assassination), conspiracy theory is overwhelmingly a murder story. If historians, as Moore puts it, could boil the past down to a game of Clue such as "Hitler. The German Economy. Tanks" the conspiracy theorist is entirely about such a game of "The CIA. The Grassy Knoll. The Magic Bullet." amongst any number of examples.

This, probably more than anything else, is one of the major dividing lines between conspiracy theory and the rest of the Spooky Paradigm. Cryptid or lost civilization or UFO stories are rarely murder stories. Ghost stories often are, in a fashion, but the object becomes not the murder but a survival of the murder in some sense. Conspiracy theory, on the other hand, is nearly always a murder story.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Spooky Paradigm in Academia

I have proposed a course regarding the Spooky Paradigm, to teach here at Tulane. I don't want to say anymore until the proposal is rejected or approved.

But I would not be the only person teaching a course along these lines. Stanford has a course on cryptozoology. So does Baylor. A professor at California University at Pennsylvania leads ghost hunts, though doesn't teach classes about them. An entire society interested in the topics Spooky Paradigm covers, the Society for Scientific Exploration, includes about 800 members from academia, and as mentioned in a recent profile, some of those members teach on the topic. On the other hand, Princeton has closed its paranormal studies lab after a number of years. The Fresno Adult School has Paranormal Studies 101: Investigating Ghosts and Hauntings.

Edit: As discussed later in the blog, My course CSAN 291 Monster Hunters, Ufologists, and Vampire Slayers has been approved for Summer 2007.

Von Daniken Mystery Park Closes

Mystery Park in Switzerland, dedicated to presenting ancient astronaut and other New Ageish ideas associated with Erich von Daniken, has closed. I'm amazed the thing ever opened to begin with.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Cryptozoology at the American Anthropological Association Meetings

I was somewhat surprised to see a paper on cryptozoology at the 105th annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association. These took place last week in San Jose. I went largely to do job interviews and collect intelligence on what is going on in my little corner of archaeology. But while I was there, I noticed the following paper in the program, in a session entitled Disorder, Dangerous Terrains, Topics, and Critiques

Pamela D McElwee (Arizona State University) "The Dangerous History of Cryptozoology: Curious Cases from Vietnam"

UPDATE: Loren Coleman reproduces the abstract of the paper on his blog

The paper addressed the way cryptzoologists have decided that Vietnam is a "lost world," a terra nullius within which we can imagine and dream. During the 1990s, as Vietnam opened up to the post-Cold War world, reports and then discoveries of large mammals and other species began to emerge from Vietnam. This attracted the attention of not just mainstream zoologists but cryptozoologists. They looked for somewhat more mundane game, such as the Kthing Vor cattle with twisted horns (there is debate on whether it actually exists or if the horns are created by humans as magical items) as well as for the more exotic Yehren-style wild men.

The paper was somewhat skeptical of the more extreme claims of cryptozoology, though more open-minded than one might expect. But the real takeaway message in regards to cryptozoology was that it is wrong to treat Vietnam as some kind of "lost world" or otherwise unknown place of mythical beasts, when it is actually an increasingly populated and urbanized region.

This in turn led to a spirited debate with a member of the audience, clearly a bigfoot researcher. This individual (who I didn't catch his name, but was at the meetings for the duration, not just for the individual session) took issue with some of the skepticism from the presenter and others at the session, and made it clear that he and his fellow researchers know much more about bigfoot genetics, society, and other issues than one would expect. I could tell, by the time the Minnesota Iceman was mentioned, that I was the only one in the symposium (besides perhaps presenter Dr. McElwee) who knew what this man was talking about.

I had to skip the SETI session, which had some real SETI luminaries. It was at the same time as the annual Ceramic Ecology session, and I figured that was better for my career.

Friday, November 10, 2006

British UFO Wave

UFO sightings are on the rise in the UK. In particular, sightings of either lights in the sky or in some cases triangular "craft" of the sort described in Black Triangle sightings. Opinion in interested parties has often focused on the "secret military aircraft" explanation for Black Triangles, but in the more spectacular cases, exotic or even interactive behavior very uncharacteristic of military maneuvers is reported. The most detailed military craft or "Aurora" sighting occurred in the North Sea, but with no mistaking it for anything else (especially refuelling in mid flight.

Brainscanning Speaking in Tongues

This study suggests that glossololalia, or speaking in tongues, is the opposite of meditation. Rather than concentration and increased frontal lobe activity, those who speak in tongues give up control and reasoning and reconfigure their notions of self/consciousness. Speaking in tongues is a famous part of Pentacostal Evangelical Christianity.

The connection to the parietal lobe makes Dr. Persinger happy, as this has been his avenue of research for years. He is probably most famous, and brings himself into the Spooky Paradigm, for claiming to partially create alien abduction like encounters in the lab by beaming energy into the parietal lobe.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Danger of Pursuing Heretical Science

Or Pseudoscience. Or madness. Or whatever else it might be called. But just as in the case of the late Dr. John Mack of Harvard, seriously studying cryptids or aliens or other things that aren't supposed to exist can put your tenure in danger. in the case of Dr. Mack, enough scholars stepped forward to defend his research into alien abduction as covered by the protections of tenure. In this case, Dr. Jeffrey Maldrum, professor of anatomy at Idaho State University, is being targeted by his peers for studying Bigfoot.

I found this criticism particularly interesting

Martin Hackworth, a senior lecturer in the physics department, called Meldrum's research a "joke."

"Do I cringe when I see the Discovery Channel and I see Idaho State University, Jeff Meldrum? Yes, I do," Hackworth said. "He believes he's taken up the cause of people who have been shut out by the scientific community. He's lionized there. He's worshipped. He walks on water. It's embarrassing."

Sounds like the actual science isn't the only thing being attacked here.

Childhood Dreams Dashed

Paleontological research shows that pleisosaurs could not raise their necks above the water, insteading using them below their bodies to collect food. This makes sense, if you look at a reconstruction of one of these creatures, or think about what there might be to eat above the waterline (pterodactyls?). The reason this story is getting any press, of course, is that ever since the infamous and supposedly hoaxed Surgeon's Photo, the Loch Ness Monster and all other lake monsters have been associated by monster hunters and the general public with the extinct pleisosaur. In fact, this is why most non-biologists have ever heard of the coelocanth, because it is often raised as the example of a living fossil discovered after supposed extinction.

The article correctly mentions that most cryptozoologists and other monster hunters don't believe that lake monsters are pleisosaurs (there are a variety of suspects, including very large sturgeon, eels, or a form of unidentified whale). But none of these possibilities capture magic or the imagination like the notion of a living dinosaur or dragon.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

UFO Days

After Roswell, New Mexico found it could make money off being the most famous UFO spot in the world, UFO festivals and field days have started to pop up (Bigfoot and other similar topics have been known to inspire festivals). I've talked about that before on one of my other websites, and I'm sure I'll hit the topic here again.

But it should be pointed out that despite the typical reaction that such festivals and promise of dollars are an incentive to invent stories, it doesn't work that way. As Loren Coleman points out here, places like Point Pleasant, West Virginia often are reluctant to embrace their weird heritage, as it embarasses many people. It is only when national and international media get involved, and entrepeneurs and politicians see the potential for fame and fortune. Roswell went through that phase in the early 1990s, and as far as I know, it is one of the few recent sites (especially not those associated with now established religions) of a strange anomalous event to turn a profit. A few spots in Europe, after the book and film The Davinci Code have likely cashed in on what is obstensibly a fictionalized version of Holy Blood, Holy Grail and as such a conspiracy theory.

But that doesn't quite explain why this Wisconsin town moved its UFO days, from incidents in later Winter, to Halloween weekend.

EDIT: Not directly related to a UFO incident, but the Alien Encounter Halloween Event

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Halloween Monster Roundup

While ghosts are the main attraction at Halloween, werewolves and Bigfoot and such get their due. In the survey I posted results for below, it is clear that cryptids are losing the popularity battle. This despite a blitz of Bigfoot stories in the last year.

Somewhat surprisingly, the same data suggest that the typical audience for UFO stories in America do not believe in cryptids. UFOs are primarily of interest to white males, and those with a college degree are more likely to believe than those with a high school education or less (postgraduate students or degree holders decline in belief numbers). Cryptids, on the other hand, seem to attract non white or black women, Catholics, with less education the more belief.

Monsterland in Massachusetts to be developed out of existence

Old tales of the Beast of Bladenboro, North Carolina

Satyrs in Louisiana?

The Dover Demon of the Boston Area

More from Loren Coleman, an original investigator of the Dover Demon

Werewolves of Wisconsin

Survey on American Paranormal Beliefs

The numbers here are significantly lower than I would expect for interest, but about on target for the number of people who significantly believe in such things. The number for UFOs used to be at 40-50%, but studies with those numbers did not differentiate causes (such as UFOs being extraterrestrial. And in fact, some UFO believers would not have answered yes to that question, looking to other potential origins.

News Article

Here are some of the results from The Baylor Religion Survey's look at America's beliefs in the paranormal. The study included 1,721 nationwide respondents.

75 percent believe alternative treatment is as effective as traditional medicine.

52 percent believe dreams can sometimes foretell the future or reveal hidden truths.

37 percent believe places can be haunted.

28 percent believe it's possible to influence the world through the mind alone (telekinesis).

25 percent believe some UFOs are probably spaceships from other worlds.

20 percent believe it's possible to communicate with the dead.

18 percent believe creatures such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster will one day be discovered by science.

13 percent believe in astrologers, palm readers, tarot cards, fortune tellers, and psychics.

Source: Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion

EDIT: on Southern Christianity and Paranormal Beliefs

The New Kind of Ghost Stories

Far more common than the sort of stories I just posted on are those focusing on the explosive growth of ghost hunting paranormal societies. For a variety of reasons the number and profile of such groups has surged in the last few years. The Sci-Fi Channel show Ghost Hunters is typically cited, and I'm sure it is influential. But many groups existed before the show, and are now just more prominent.

In ufology, many old-school researchers and enthusiasts argue that the internet killed the UFO group and flying saucer club. One didn't need to meet physically anymore to go UFO hunting. The ghost groups show this to be very wrong. They actively go a-hunting, photographing orbs, recording cold spots and EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena). The active element of creeping around in a cemetery or abandoned building has it's own appeal, whereas UFOs are nearly always cited by people who don't expect them. Also, UFOs are political, perhaps too political for many in the very polarized past five years. Interest in UFOs almost inevitably leads into some element of conspiracy theory, and one of the most recent innovations in ufology is the explicitly activist expolitics. Most ghost stories, on the other hand, often feel safe enough for the pages of Reader's Digest.

Skeptical Inquirer Studies the Ghost Hunters: Biased, but well worth reading

Psychic detective investigates one of the worst fires in American History, the Iroquois Theater in Chicago

Chicago Cop Starts Ghost Hunting Firm

Chicago is apparently all the rage with ghost hunters

Ghost Hunter and Haunted Decatur

Adjunct Teaches Course on Ghost Hunting in Indiana

Maryland Paranormalists Go Podcasting

Washington State Ghost Hunters

Arcadia, Missouri EVP and other Ghostly Research

University Ghost Hunt in Alabama

How to Ghostbust

Connecticut Ghost Hunting Experiences

Skeptical Inquirer Article on the Nature of Ghost Hunting and its Techniques.

Where to buy your Ghost Hunting Equipment

Ghosthunter in Action (with Pic)

Ghost Chicks

Ohio Ghost Hunters, and General Discussion of the hobby

Gary Busey: Ghostbuster

Museum of the Mysteries

Reporter Goes Ghost Hunting

Extensive Article on the Subject in Oregon

The effect of hauntings on Real Estate prices

A Philadelphia mix of the haunted spots and Ghost Hunter article

Little Rock Team Searches for Ghosts on WWII Submarine