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Anomalous Entities Or Objects

Where the experience of hairy bipeds, UFOs, or other anomalous entities or objects is concerned, one need not believe in, or even have heard of, such to see one. The isolated folk of Newfoundland, for example, had never heard of "Sasquatch" or "Bigfoot" - names that did not come into currency until well into the present century from on the other side of the continent. Nevertheless, they reported seeing manlike entities they called "Indians." Few of the Newfoundlanders knew what a real Indian looked like, but nonetheless that was the name they attached to creatures whom other North Americans, who had never heard of Big- foot or Sasquatch either, were calling "wild men" or "gorillas."

In our time, even when such phenomena are staples of popular culture, it is still possible to find individuals who have never heard, for example, of UFOs; yet they report extraordinary experiences with what they may interpret as everything from "secret airplanes" to "demons." Their interpretations aside, they relate sights or occurrences that are in every way congruent with those experienced by more culturally sophisticated observers. Witnesses often say, "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself" - a statement that resonates with meaning. There are some things people believe in not because they are ignorant, credulous, or crazy but because either they or persons they trust see them. Seeing is believing, indeed.

People also see things for which their ancestors once had a vocabulary now lost. A young Wisconsin man walking along a country road in the middle of the night comes upon a group of peculiarly dressed, mumbling, bald little men who march past him in single file, paying no attention. He realizes quickly that something about this is eerie beyond reason, but he does not know what, though the memory of the encounter will remain with him the rest of his life. If it had been a hundred years ago and he had been passing down a lane in the west of Ireland, he would have been no less frightened, but at least he would have had a name for what he saw: the trooping fairies.

Likewise, when another young Midwesterner encounters a mysterious dog that disappears in front of his eyes, he recalls it for decades afterward as the strangest event of his life. Neither then nor later would he hear of "black dogs," the supernatural canines known in many folk traditions and the subject of numerous sighting reports. North America has been home to all manner of "anomalous occurrences" - ludicrous, fantastical, yet real enough to those who claim to have witnessed or experienced them that they have told their stories despite the inevitable ridicule and skepticism that ensues. The folkloric components in the stories as well as what the stories tell us about society in the context of time and place, reveals a country both oddly familiar and decidedly odd. Some occurrences defy rational explanation.

According to eyewitnesses...

  • Montgomery County Pennsylvania, had confirmed reports of both a phantom farmer plowing his field at night and a bronze-green monster covered in heart-shaped scales

  • Sky quakes - mysterious, ground-shaking booms-have been reported everywhere from Florida to Ohio, Oklahoma to California. Some have been explained - some have not

  • In September 1870, the sky above Green Vale, Illinois, saw a clash of two enormous red-clad armies, a vicious battle that left all soldiers dead, yet was fought in utter silence

  • In 1893, a 150-foot-long sea monster arose from Black Fish Bay in Washington state, spewing water that looked like blue fire and offering "sounds and sights more horrible than were ever seen or heard by mortal man"

Even when the phenomenon is known in a general way as the focus of numerous sightings, witnesses are unlikely to know about its more subtle aspects. For example, popular lore about the footprints of hairy bipeds is influenced by casts associated with the Bigfoot/Sasquatch of the Pacific Northwest. These casts are, or so appearances suggest, of a giant primate; like all primates, these have five toes. Practically no one except the several hundred anomaly buffs who pay attention to such matters knows that hairy bipeds seen outside the Pacific Northwest usually leave zoologically absurd tracks that evince only three toes, and these oddly fat and oversized.

In the same way investigators of the UFO-abduction phenomenon find striking consistency not only in its overt features (as one would expect by now, considering the vast publicity such reports have generated in recent years) but also in its subtle, obscure details, some still unpublished.

Our culture provides an immense number of models from which those claiming anomalous experience can draw, were their experiences wholly imaginary. Yet anomalous events and appearances draw on a distinctly finite number of images and motifs. People of apparent sanity and sincerity who report close encounters of the third kind describe humanoid beings, not multitentacled extraterrestrial octopuses or giant arachnids. They report kangaroos in Midwestern states but not platypuses. They report black panthers but not woolly mammoths. Even where the most extreme anomalous claims are concerned, one hears reports of fairies, and even of merfolk and werewolves, but not of unicorns or vampires.

There is, on the other hand, much to be said for skepticism. Skepticism need not be synonymous with anomalyphobia, and it does not require us to form debunking committees and launch emotional crusades against heretical beliefs and unacceptable experiences. But a rational, balanced skepticism, one that is neither apologetic about its demand for persuasive evidence nor afraid to admit the limits of current knowledge, is to be preferred to mindless credulity. And where extraordinary claims are concerned, there is a great deal to be skeptical about.

Even militant disbelievers have become reluctant to level hoax charges indiscriminately against persons who say they have had close encounters with unrecognized entities or phenomena. Nonetheless hoaxes do occur. Most are fairly clumsy affairs, but some are devilishly clever and aggravatingly difficult to crack.

The most remarkable hoax in the history of ufology, for example, concerned a document that purported to be a top-secret briefing paper prepared for President-elect Eisenhower by a classified operation called Majestic-12, or MJ-12. MI-12 supposedly consisted of a dozen high-ranking government officials and military officers who oversaw the deepest UFO secrets, including physical evidence. The hoaxer loaded the document with obscure, hard-to-find information that investigators later were able to verify, with much difficulty, in the course of archival research in Washington. Such findings, of course, were thought to give the document credibility.

Eventually, after prolonged and furious debate, skeptics won the argument in undramatic fashion: they demonstrated that the dating formats and rank designations would not have been used in an authentic government briefing paper. Even today, however, a few diehards refuse to give up on the MJ-12 document, and the identity and motive of the hoaxer remain a mystery. All we know is that as hoaxes go, this is one for the books.

Historically photographs of extraordinary anomalies are more likely than not to be bogus. Serious Bigfoot/Sasquatch researchers reject as inauthentic nearly all photographs and films said to depict the creature. Probably 95 percent of all "UFO" photos are of dubious provenance, and some of the most spectacular footage of the Loch Ness monster is known or suspected to be fake. The debate about photographic evidence of these kinds of phenomena centers on a surprisingly small number of recorded images.

Sometimes, in fact, critics act as if the paucity of arguably authentic photographs amounts to evidence against the reality of these sorts of anomalies, but this is a singularly uncompelling objection when one considers that (1) most people do not walk around with cameras at the ready; (2) nearly all anomalous encounters occur abruptly and occasion emotions ranging from deep shock to sheer terror; and (3) the duration of most such events can be measured in seconds. These are not conditions conducive to the creation of a big body of photographs. And that is why there are so few reputable pictures of ball lightning, a strange natural phenomenon whose reality most physicists and meteorologists no longer dispute.

It is one of the perversities of anomalies research that the fuzzier the image, the more likely it represents something real, inasmuch as the circumstances that cause photographs to be rare are the same ones that are likely to cause them to be unclear. Pictures taken hastily by individuals with shaking hands do not produce sharp images, and hoaxers who seek attention or profit know that photographs like these won't get them anywhere. Fuzzy images are such a feeble variety of evidence that witnesses who trumpet them are only asking for yet more ridicule to be heaped upon their heads.

Some tales marketed as "true mysteries" began less as hoaxes than as jokes or science fiction - in other words, as tales that, though they may not have been intended to be taken seriously, took on lives of their own and over the decades reincarnated in print as records of events that, it was assumed, someone somewhere had validated. Two of the most famous are a couple of mysterious-disappearance cases, the victim usually identified as David Lang in one and as Oliver Lerch in the other. Like true folktales these sometimes changed in the telling. While their origins are murky (Lang) or unknown (Lerch), it is certain that neither man ever lived, much less left the Earth in such singular fashion.

Other "mysteries" arise from imaginative interpretations of events that, if unusual, are not so bizarre as they are made to seem. The Bermuda Triangle and cattle mutilations, two modern legends, disintegrated not long after competent investigators turned their attention to them, but not before the two notions had enthralled and frightened impressionable souls in the countless thousands.

These sorts of pseudomysteries flourish in part, of course, because people are drawn to exotic novelties and, moreover, enjoy being scared in comfort and safety. Few people possess the specialized knowledge that would expose the foolishness of the assertions made by the mystery-mongers. It took concentrated research into Naval, Coast Guard, and other nautical archives to uncover the prosaic events behind Triangle lore, and only veterinary pathologists could pronounce with certainty on the causes of the cattle deaths that fired rumors of sinister "mutilations." Historians and archaeologists easily demolished nearly all the evidence Erich Von Daniken and other writers offered in support of early space visitors, but to a historically illiterate audience - a large one, unfortunately - Von Daniken's theories seemed perfectly reasonable.

Beyond the hoaxes and the legends are genuine misperceptions and honest mistakes. No conscientious investigator embarks on his or her labors without considering these possibilities and pursuing them actively. (Neither, however, will he or she force them on the data if they manifestly fail to fit.) Some witnesses, though not so many as one might think, are mentally unwell.

Jerome Clark. Unexplained: Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences & Puzzling Physical Phenomena. Visible Ink Press. November 1, 1998.

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