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Baffling Events

A great number of people have spent vast amounts of time and effort studying all manner of phenomena outside everyday experiences. Many, most, or even all "inexplicable" events may be explained by future generations of scientists. The most amazing phenomena are not the dramatic events often attributed to the "supernatural", events which could as easily as not be emotional illusions or the consequence of known or unknown physical laws. What are amazing are simple occurrences that defy probability. We have all experienced, and therefore witnessed, baffling events that leave one with a feeling that their explanation may lie outside the realm of natural science.

Who can resist a good mystery, the kind that leaves you both rattled and baffled? The three hardest words for human beings to utter are I don't know. We demand an accounting for every claim or experience, and when no accounting is available, someone will invent one for us.

Thus a New Hampshire man, a veteran outdoorsman considered reliable by those who know him, reports a daylight encounter with a nine-foot-tall apelike creature. A game warden explains it, with neither investigation nor specific cause, as a moose. Or when a number of West Texas motorists, over a period of hours, independently tell of close-range sightings of a zoo-foot-long, egg-shaped, brilliantly luminous structure, Air Force personnel conduct a brief inquiry and identify the phenomenon as ball lightning. What the witnesses had described bore no resemblance to this rare natural phenomenon, and the electrical storm that, according to the Air Force, had given rise to it did not exist according to weather records.

In both of these cases, the proposed solutions are so flimsy that one thinks it would have been easier just to call the witnesses bald-faced liars and be done with it. Either that, or diagnose them as dangerous lunatics whose vivid hallucinations call for their immediate sedation and hospitalization.

Of course if these were isolated episodes, the sorts of stories told and heard rarely, and then usually from excitable or gullible souls, we could probably tell ourselves, "Yes, I suppose it is possible, once in a great while, for someone to see a moose and mistake it for a nine-foot-tall bipedal anthropoid, or for a person to have a close-up view of a globe of ball lightning, ordinarily the size of a basketball or smaller, and judge it to be zoo feet in diameter." After all, where human behavior is concerned, just about anything that could happen has happened at some time or another.

It's just that the sorts of colossal perceptual breakdowns being proposed here run as counter to the experience of most human beings as do encounters with hairy giants in New England woods. Suppose the New Hampshire witness had seen something else, say a fugitive on the lam, and reported it to the sheriff. We may safely assume that the latter would not have said - at least without investigation and specific cause - that the witness had mistaken a moose for a man. Far more likely, the sheriff and his deputies would have raced to the site in anticipation of an immediate arrest.

Yet if we allow ourselves to believe (still in the absence of specific evidence to the effect) that at times, even under what are ordinarily viewed as good viewing conditions, a moose can look like an ape, we will only be stymied if we try to employ this identification in the many places in the United States where similar "apes" have been reported and where moose (or, in many cases, any wild mammals larger than deer) do not exist.

It will not help us, either, to level indiscriminate charges of dishonesty against all witnesses wherever we find them - whether in New Hampshire or Indiana or Pennsylvania or South Dakota or Texas or British Columbia or Newfoundland, or just about any state or province you can name - and off-the-cuff speculations about perceptual disorders of so radical a character as to suggest profound mental illness take us only so far. At some point we are going to have to listen to what the witnesses say.

Let us consider the case of the Old Hag. The victim wakes up unable to move. As he lies there helpless, he hears footsteps and sees a horrifying form. An invisible force presses on his chest, and he thinks he is going to die. At last he is able to shake off his paralysis, and the eerie attack ends.

Chances are you have never heard of an incident like this - unless it has happened to you. And if it has happened to you, you are not alone. There is reason to believe that one American in six has had this kind of experience; yet it is so little discussed in our culture that it has no name.

But in other cultures the same experience is the subject of a rich folk tradition. Newfoundlanders, for example, call it the "Old Hag," "The Hags," or "Hagging." When it was first used in connection with these experiences, the word "hag" referred to "witch," and a victim of hagging was thought to be hag- or witch-ridden. In fact, the most common expression for the experience in English is "riding." Interestingly enough, the original name is one with which we are all familiar: nightmare. Nightmare, which to us means simply "bad dream," once had a far more specific definition; it referred to an incubus or succubus that came in the night to put a crushing weight on a victim's chest.

In a remarkable book, The Terror That Comes in the Night (published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 1982), Penn State folklorist and behavioral scientist David J. Hufford used the Old Hag to address an important question: Do persons reporting firsthand encounters with anomalous and paranormal phenomena know what they are talking about?

Standard wisdom holds that such experiences are the product of perceptual errors, faulty memories, lies, psychotic episodes, and hallucinations shaped by ideas in the claimants' cultural environment. Hufford used the Old Hag experience to test this hypothesis, which - except in cases where consciously false testimony is alleged - might be phrased as the "believing-is-seeing" theory. According to this notion, individuals believe they have seen something extraordinary because society has provided them with the images that shape their imaginings.

After an in-depth examination of Old Hag accounts both in cultures in which such beliefs are widely known and in others (ours, for example) in which they are all but unknown, Hufford learned that descriptions of the core experience, by those who say they have had it, are strikingly consistent wherever they occur. Such events are not culturally determined. "Recognizable Old Hag attacks of great complexity can and do occur in the absence of explicit models," Hufford wrote.

He then considered psychologists' efforts to account for the phenomenon and found them hopelessly muddled. Of one famous psychoanalytic study Hufford said that "one can hardly distinguish the experiences themselves from their interpretations. The lack of scientific precision attributed to popular thought is found here in academic disguise."

The consistent unwillingness of psychologists and other professionals to listen to those persons who have had these experiences has led them to engage in freewheeling speculation devoid of empirical justification. "The subject of supernatural belief somehow leads to a lot of forgetting about what constitutes serious scholarship," Hufford observed. "It was just such a rejection of untutored observation that delayed for so long the 'scientific' discovery of giant squid, gorillas, meteors and any number of other wild and wonderful (but apparently unlikely) facts of this world. In those cases, poet hoc scientific rationalization was used to explain how people came to believe in such things. Seasoned fishermen were said to mistake floating trees with large root systems for huge animals attacking their boats; farmers were said to have overlooked iron-bearing rocks in the midst of their fields until they were pointed out by lightning; and in this case [the Old Hag experience] 'children and savages' were said to have difficulty knowing when they were awake and when they were asleep" - even though the victims, people of all ages, cultures, and educational levels, insist they were not "dreaming," that they were fully conscious when they heard and saw weird things.

Hufford argued that we must take seriously "an experience with stable contents which is widespread, dramatic, realistic and bizarre" and which has been repeatedly reported "by large numbers of our fellow humans." Nor did Hufford hesitate to consider the implications of his Old Hag research for other claims of strange experiences. "I think the present study has amply demonstrated that at least some apparently fantastic beliefs are in fact empirically grounded," he wrote, noting that nonetheless most scholars have acted more interested in explaining troublesome claims "out of existence" than in investigating them. The further they remove themselves from the data (the accounts of those who have had the experiences), the more exotic, facile, and irrelevant their theories become. In Hufford's blunt assessment this practice amounts to "careless thinking retroactively applied with little regard for evidence."

An empirically based, "experience-centered" approach such as the one Hufford used would show, he argued, that events such as the Old Hag are believed in because they really happen; they are not simply imagined by people who are so stupid, crazy, or credulous that they cannot tell the difference between a popular superstition and a personal experience. Inquirers would learn not to confuse "folk explanation" - for example the notion that witches cause Old Hag attacks - with "folk observation" - which, as Hufford demonstrated, can be quite accurate, consistent, and scientifically valuable.

Hufford's argument brings revolutionary implications in its assertion that rational persons are accurately reporting experiences that at least Aeem to be extraordinary, and that those who have attempted to explain away such accounts have not made their case or even understood what they are trying to explain. As a consequence scholars have failed to come to grips with a significant part of human experience.

Can the Old Hag experience be explained in nonparanormal terms? Drawing on findings from sleep research conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, Hufford concluded that the "state in which this experience occurs is probably best described as sleep paralysis with a particular kind of hypnagogic hallucination." In other words, science can explain how someone could wake from sleep, be unable to move, and have a frightening experience. But it cannot explain the fact that the contents of the experience are consistent no matter to whom or in what cultural environment they occur. This mystery cannot be solved, according to Hufford, "on the basis of current knowledge."

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

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