Tuesday, May 29, 2007

UFO Maps

I've added the fun UFO Maps gadget to the sidebar of the blog. It shows a little window of UFO sightings in the last month, and links to the main site, which also has a kmz file for more detailed perusal in Google Earth. The map is almost exclusively US-centric, but does communicate the large number of sightings reported to ufologists if not carried in the media.

I've already mentioned the Black Triangle Blog, which geographically plotted out a flap of black triangle UFO sightings earlier this year. And a South Dakota State University professor teaches a course on paranormal geography.

Witchcraft Fears Part 2: Shunning, Jail, and Death

I posted below about how modern witchcraft fears include the idea of physical paraphernalia and patterns of material culture left behind at supposed ritual sites as a form of folk archaeology.

These investigations can have deadly serious consequences. I have already mentioned the West Memphis Three, three men sent to prison for a brutal multiple murder and convicted in part due to supposed Satanic tendencies. Recent legal action has resurrected a WWII-era case of imprisonment for witchcraft in the UK. Helen Duncan, a medium, was imprisoned for nine months after intelligence authorities heard she had materialized the spirit of a sailor from a ship that had not been officially declared lost. Philadelphia this year has begun shutting down psychics, fortune tellers, and other related businesses. While arrest for crimes with supposed occult overtones does occur and can be serious business (see previous post), fear of magic can also run to the ridiculous extreme of trying to ban Harry Potter books. In fact, paganism (included in the occult by Christians concerned with the subject) is still on the rise in Britain (Scottish Christians are complaining they aren't getting treatment equal with Pagans) and Australia, to the point that it is more a question of etiquette.

But elsewhere in the world, witchcraft fears and accusations can carry much more weight. Malaysia closed a museum exhibit on supernatural beings because of concern from Muslim government officials. Nigeria's president is accusing rivals of witchcraft. Magicians and other practitioners have been banned in Indonesia from trying to magically seal a mud volcano issuing from a failed gas exploration.

But the time-honored final stage of witchcraft accusations, murders, continues to occur. Three women were burnt as witches in East Timor in January, while an elderly couple were accused of witchcraft and burnt to death in India at the beginning of this month. Zambian police had to use tear gas to save an elderly man from a mob that accused him of witchcraft, while a Ugandan mob attacked the house of an accused (and confessed) witch.

EDIT: A witch is leaving Halifax, British Columbia because of attacks on her and her friends, including a stabbing, beating, and rock throwing.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Fears of Occult Ritual Scenes, a Folk Forensic Archaeology

Next up in the class, we're looking at the historical development of Slavic vampire seers into the modern notion of religious or clinical vampire slayers in Bruce McClelland's Slayers and Their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead. The witch trials and massacres of Western Europe helped influence this transformation.

This got me thinking. I'm no expert on Renaissance or Reformation-era witch hunts (though I've read and used to own Jeffrey Russell's Witchcraft in the Middle Ages on the beginning of witchcraft accusations in Europe), but from what I know accusations typically involved eyewitness testimony or confessions. The sabbat and its rituals were described.

Today, however, scenes interpreted as having Satanic or otherwise "occult" paraphernalia are a common part of reports and descriptions of supposed ritual activity. During the height of the Satanic Panic focused on evangelical American Christians in the 1970s through early 1990s, "occult paraphernalia" could include specific ritual items such as candles, bells, chalices, gongs, swords, though the Occult and Violent Ritual Crime Research Center continues the tradition to today (actually, I can't tell how active the organization is, or if it just a website reflecting or copying earlier beliefs and activities on the part of "cult experts," such as this example from 1994). Satanists or teenage "occult dabblers" would partake in crimes from vandalism to child mutilation up to murder, with "ritualistic" symbols or overtones. Physical evidence of Satanism can even take the form of black clothing and heavy metal music, according to the prosecutor that jailed the West Memphis Three. Even a report skeptical of this prosecution and conviction argues that a lack of paraphernalia is evidence for a lack of ritual activity.

These ideas haven't gone away, though their prominence has been overshadowed by other issues and concerns in the religious right. One Christian "expert on ancient and modern world religions, contemporary cults, paganism and the occult" notes that "As a sergeant at the Baldwin Park Police Department in Southern California and a British Parliament member point out, frightening, murderous Satanic practices take place around the world every Halloween." These ideas are propagated through documentary films in addition to literature and the internet, as discussed in some depth in an essay by a constable who is pagan.

Due to the popularity of these beliefs, and in particular the influence of self-taught experts on local law enforcement, law enforcement agencies have felt the need to investigate and report on how to handle cases that may be influenced by such beliefs. Here is such a report from the FBI, and another from the State of California. These "experts" and their activities have also been denounced by individual police officers (see the essay above, or an article by a former investigator now skeptical of such claims).

It struck me that the search for and importance of paraphernalia, graffiti, and ritual sites is a folk religious form of forensics or archaeology. Perhaps this emphasis today, and not in older witchcraft accusations, stems from the development of archaeology and other investigatory field sciences in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And this activity continues. I'm not saying such signs or rituals aren't included in some crimes. But as noted in the reports above, religious beliefs often rode ahead of investigation in finding Satanism everywhere.

A murder suspect in Yorkshire had an "unhealthy" interest in tarot, numerology, and the occult. Rumors of a "Gothic" symbol involved in a well-publicized murder two years ago allow Christian websites to resurrect the exact same old lists of ritual activities and paraphernalia. Not in the traditional vein, there has been increasing focus on Santeria and other religions from Latin America and the Caribbean. A "voodoo pot" was uncovered during a murder investigation in Texas. Similarily, a cauldron with fake and real human bones was uncovered in Maryland. Red ribbons found in association with drug smuggling and production activities in Georgia are considered a sign of voodoo.

Possibly the best example of this comes from the beginning of the year in the UK. A goat was found dead in a cross-shaped ditch. This was reported as being potentially "devil worship." The sloppy handling of calling this pagan resulted in angry letters to the editor and a clarification. Within a week, however, it became clear the goat had died of natural causes, and the "cross-shaped" ditch was part of informal bike stunt tracks in the countryside. This was clearly an example of interpreting a "crime" scene through the lens of religious or religiously influenced beliefs.

There is no reason to believe this will go away anytime soon. Italy has formed a special police unit against Satanism that works with the Vatican, and a recent case there alleging Satanic child abuse could have been ripped right from the height of the Satanic Panic in the US twenty some years ago. Six years ago in Germany, in an article on a conservative site for the Concerned Women for America "'The occult scene is thriving in this region. They have had black masses in the ruins of buildings and in the open. They have rituals and swear oaths.' There has also been evidence of ritualistic animal sacrifice."

We should note, as I posted in my other blog, that urban archaeologists are interested in evidence for historical magical rituals, or at least the evidence for them walled and boarded up in houses and other structures. Of course, these generally don't show any evidence of metal albums or a spiral notebook Book of Shadows.

This of course pales in comparison with the execution of accused witches that occurs around the world with alarming frequency. But that may need another post.

EDIT: How did this become pagan?

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Monster Hunters etc. Class Going Well, Syllabus

I've been busy, and also distracted in the run up to finishing grad school. Hence my lack of posting. Then there has been the water running into my apartment, the internet outages, and stuff I can't even talk about.

Anyway, CSAN 291 Monster Hunters, Ufologists, and Vampire Slayers has begun and is going very well. I have about a dozen students, and we' ve gone through some of the basics of anthropology, and in particular concepts of society, subcultures, and how ideas (memes, doxa, what have you) compete and conflict in societies. This last bit is pretty important for a course on alternative methods of knowledge production. Today we also took a look at the paleontology and prehistory of some of the candidates suggested for mystery wild men (and in particular Bigfoot), including various species in the genus Homo, robust Australopithecines, and Gigantopithecus, as well as recent ideas about how humans populated the Americas (since this comes up in discussions of how Bigfoot might have walked across Beringia to the Americas).

The students are very engaged and I have more interaction and a better rapport than I have had in any other class I've taught in archaeology or anthropology.

Here's some of the basics of the syllabus.

Course Overview:
Cultural examination of the beliefs, practices, identity, and history of “alternative scientific” fields of study concerning the paranormal, UFOs, and hidden animals. These subcultures are interesting anthropologically in their own right, but also provide a mirror for understanding mainstream knowledge production, and especially the relationship between science, the media, and the public. Are they science, or could they be in the future? Why or why not? Who decides?

Required Texts:
Brown, Alan
2006 Ghost Hunters of the South. University Press of Mississippi, Jackson.

Daegling, David J.
2004 Bigfoot Exposed: An Anthropologist Examines America’s Enduring Legend. Altamira Press, Walnut Creek

Denzler, Brenda
2001 The Lure of the Edge: Scientific Passions, Religious Beliefs, and the Pursuit of UFOs. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Mclelland, Bruce
2006 Slayers and their Vampires: A Cultural History of Killing the Dead. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

Monaghan, John and Peter Just
2000 Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, USA.

Class Schedule:





What is Anthropology?

Monaghan and Just 1 – 5


The Four Fields and the Physical Anthropology of Bigfoot

Monaghan and Just 6 – Afterword

Daegling 1 – 3


Cryptozoology Research and Researchers

Daegling 4 – 8


What is Sasquatch?


Daegling 9 – 11

McClelland 1 – 2


Memorial Day


Traditional Vampires and Vampire Seers

McClelland 3 – 7


The Rise of Vampire Slayers

McClelland 8 – 10



UFOs: Introduction

Denzler 1, 2 (not for midterm)


Ufologists and Science

Denzler 3, Appendix

Brown Introduction


Aliens and Angels


Denzler 4

Start Reading Brown


Space Religion

Denzler 5, Afterword


Parapsychology and Spiritualism

Continue Reading Brown


Modern Ghost Hunters

Finish Reading Brown