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Sunday, February 11, 2024

Star-cross'd Lovers


Valentine’s Day is a complicated affair, and how one feels about it very much depends on circumstance. For some, it might mean a last minute trip to the store, borne out of  absent-mindedness, in order to get a card for a spouse; while for others it might mean a night of planned dinner by candlelight. Still for others, it might be a hopeful opportunity for connection, or it might be an unwelcome reminder of loneliness. The more cynically-minded among us may even begrudge the holiday as existing simply to inspire everyone to buy more chocolate and flowers. Whatever your situation may be this Valentine’s Day, dear reader, it is hoped that this article will make it a little bit more weird- and to provide alternatives to the standard love stories you might hear about.

To start with, the origin of the holiday is weirder and bloodier than you might think. The ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Lupercalia between the 13-15 of February, which involved ritual slaughter of animals such as goats and dogs. Celebrating this fertility rite in the nude, the Romans would imbibe alcohol and skin the animals, and the men among them would beat the hides against the women. Couples were then paired up for the duration of the festival, and it doesn’t take much imagination to guess where that led them. Later, the church would attempt to eradicate these pagan celebrations, resulting in the name we currently apply to it. Two separate martyrs, both named Valentine, were executed on the 14th of February in different years of the third century. It is thought that their feast day combined with the ancient debauched Roman rites begat the “Hallmark Holiday” we currently have.

While bloody animal pelts may seem far less appealing by today’s standards than a box of sweets, the coupling itself- determined by random, essentially drawing names out of a jar- meant that at least the participants weren’t alone on that day. Often, if they hit it off, it would result in long-term relationships. Love is funny like that, and very much a product of fate. Cupid’s arrow can hit at the most unexpected, and inconvenient times- much in the same way anomalous phenomena manifests. It’s not surprising, then, that there would be some overlap in the realms of Forteana. 

Experiencers of the UFO phenomenon, for instance, find their lives irreparably altered by not only their encounters but by the social repercussions of sharing them. This could be particularly disruptive to one’s marriage, especially if your alleged contacts include a sexy space captain. Enter: the story of Truman Bethurum and Aura Rhanes.

Bethurum had taken a job as a mechanic at an asphalt plant, which required relocation and living separately from his wife of 8 years for the duration of his assignment. During this time, beginning in the summer of 1952, Bethurum found himself repeatedly boarding a landed flying saucer in the middle of his night shifts at work. Only communicating with Mrs. Bethurum by mail during this time, despite repeated attempts to have her visit him, he hesitated to tell her about his late night saucer sessions. After all, such a fantastic encounter should be explained face-to-face with one’s spouse, he supposed. To make such an explanation even more awkward, the captain of the craft with whom he spent all this time conversing with was a woman. “And what a woman!”, he says, in his book Aboard a Flying Saucer. He would go on later to describe her as “the tops in shapeliness and beauty”. This petite brunette emissary from the planet Clarion was described as usually being garbed in a red skirt, a tight black top, and a beret. 

In the course of his repeated late-night sessions with Captain Rhanes, although his attraction to her was made abundantly apparent, nothing untoward occurred between them. This didn’t lessen the impact when Truman finally wrote about his experiences to his wife. Initially, she had considered the tales to be either a sick joke or a product of insanity. She was concerned that if her friends found out, she’d be known as the wife of some kook who hangs out with aliens. As he continued to try to convince her, she called him and said “I’ve come to the conclusion that you’re just trying to make me jealous, through all this mention of hours talking with some beautiful space woman, so you can get me up there. Well, it won’t work.” Her opinion softened a bit later, when Truman got a bit of validation of his stories from “Professor” George Adamski. Ultimately, however, the interloping woman from space was cited among the reasons she filed for divorce. Later, he would remarry at Giant Rock, the mecca for contactees, although not to his fantasy woman from Clarion.

Another out-of-this-world romance from the same era is the story of Howard Menger, and his reunion with his wife of several reincarnation cycles… or so we’re told. Menger had encountered a beautiful, golden-haired woman when he was just 10 years old, who claimed to be from Venus and told him about his future. Enamored with this lovely Venusian, he vowed to marry her someday when he was grown up, since people from Venus don’t age the same way we do. 

He continued to have odd experiences throughout his service in World War II, and when he returned one day as a grown man to the site of his childhood encounter he once again met his Venusian dream girl. This resulted in his contacts with other space people, a ride on a flying saucer to other planets, and a name for himself within the contactee community. It was at a saucer lecture one day that he met Connie Weber, who he immediately recognized as looking just like the woman from Venus who he so adored. As it happened, Connie, or “Marla Baxter” as he would refer to her in his writings, was a reincarnation of his lover from previous lifetimes. He himself was a Saturnian, who had jumped into Howard’s dying body when he was an infant. Their love affair is recorded from the perspective of “Marla” in the book My Saturnian Lover, which includes such moments as Menger (referred to in the book as Alyn) teleporting, astrally projecting himself, and even physically transforming into his true Saturnian shape. She reports that in their first expression of love together, he started to grind his teeth, stretch and flex, and as he did so he became much larger, his facial features changed, and his voice deepened as well. She concludes by saying “It was this individual, this Saturnian, this strange being who revealed himself to me as he really was, with whom I fell in love.” 

This was all well and good for “Marla” and “Alyn”, in the grand cosmic scheme of things, but in the earthly realm the real-life Howard had a wife and kids to consider. He ended up leaving his wife to marry Connie, and the two remained married for the rest of their lives together.

Some cases of intergalactic intercourse fall more under the category of abduction cases than that of the contactee. A famous example would be the case of Antonio Villas-Boas, who in 1957 was taken aboard a craft in order to mate with a humanoid, female-appearing alien. He was then dropped off back on his farm, and made to feel like an animal that had been used for breeding. But then there’s other cases that straddle the line between abduction and contactee-ism, such as that of David Huggins. Huggins reports being abducted at the age of 8, and having a lifelong relationship with a host of alien beings. His main partner and spouse in this regard is a being he calls Crescent, although he’s also had quite a few sexual encounters with other entities. These encounters are illustrated in his strange, surreal paintings, and his story has been featured in a documentary called Love and Saucers.

Apparent extraterrestrials aren't the only anomalous entities to indulge in amorous behavior with regular, everyday people. In recent years, several love affairs of the ghostly variety have made headlines around the world. In 2018, an Irish “Jack Sparrow Impersonator” named Amanda Teague announced her intent to marry an honest-to-goodness Haitian pirate who had been dead for 300 years. This they did, but sadly the marriage ended before the year was over. A woman in England called Amethyst Realm also announced her intent to marry a ghost, who she claims to have met in Australia. The ghost, she claimed, hopped on the plane with her and traveled to the UK where he eventually proposed. She was careful to note, he has no knees, so he didn't go down on one of them to do this. According to Realm, this wasn't her first spectral rodeo relationship-wise; she had had affairs with over a dozen ghosts prior to this fiancé. The marriage was not to be, however, due to the ghostly would-be-groom's attraction to partying and drugs. C'est la vie, one supposes- or perhaps, c'est la mort?

Pop singer Kesha made the news as well, when she alluded to entering “the bone zone with a ghost” in conversation with Conan O'Brien on his late-night show. The incident  which inspired her song “Supernatural”, however, was less sexual in nature than she had initially let on, according to more recent statements. While staying in Fort Worth, Texas, with her boyfriend, she was awoken by a very sensual touch along her body by a female apparition. She claims also to have had other experiences throughout her life, and is currently starring in a Discovery + paranormal series called Conjuring Kesha.

Relationships with discarnate entities, sexual or otherwise, have been recorded down through history in folklore and legends from all parts of the world. At times, suspicion of engaging in such affairs was very hazardous to the participant. Witchfinders and church officials would seek out evidence of trysts with otherworldly beings as evidence of witchcraft and Satanic practices. A priest named Ludovico Maria Sinistrari wrote prolifically in the 17th century about the inherent sin of sex- in a general sense, but also as it applied to entities such as incubi and succubi. He was considered an expert on exorcism, demonology, and sinful sexuality and as such advised the Roman Catholic Church on its inquisition methodology. Many were persecuted as witches based on books of his, such as De Daemonialitate et Incubis et Succubis (Demoniality: Or, Incubi and Succubi).

The specter of repressive moralism from the murderous inquisitors of the 1600s still haunts us to this day, although it can hardly be argued that we haven’t made strides as a society since then. Thinkers, writers, activists and scientists over the interceding centuries have helped shed light on a more holistic understanding of human sexuality, leading to a more inclusive and representative social structure. It’s a battle that never seems settled, which underlines the necessity of those willing to fight. One such brave soul was the author of several books about relationships with discarnate beings, as well as an activist for women’s rights and sex education broadly. 

Ida Craddock was born in 1857 and raised in an environment of strict Christian fundamentalism, although her parents had been very much interested in the occult prior to her father’s death during her infancy. The same repressive moralism that put so many to death as witches in the previous era informed the young Ida’s curiosity and interest in exactly the subjects she was told to shun. Very ambitious, intelligent, and indomitable in her will towards freedom, by the time she was 18 years old she had already shaken up social mores at the University of Pennsylvania, petitioning to allow women to attend. She had also, by this point, written a textbook on and taught classes about stenography, allowing women much greater opportunities to work, make money, and be independent. By the late 1880s, she began mingling with Theosophists and became very interested in the occult. 

Her interest in human rights, and human health, manifested largely in her insistence on sex education- and her writings on sex dovetailed with her occult writings, which caught the attention of notable occultists of the time such as Aleister Crowley. While researching and writing expansive occult texts on the role of sex in ritual, she was also writing pamphlets on sexuality which aimed to alleviate social ills by promoting bodily autonomy and basic human rights for married women. These naturally drew the ire of anti-vice activists such as Anthony Comstock, who sought to stop her by any means necessary in the promulgation of her ideas via pamphlet and lecture. 

Though apparently unmarried, Craddock spoke openly about sex which at the time was very taboo, as unmarried women weren’t supposed to have sex at all. She revealed in her writings that she was indeed married, not to any ordinary man, but to an angel named Soph. In a series of works called Heavenly Bridegrooms and Psychic Wedlock, she outlines her relationship with Soph and the initiatory processes he taught her. Meanwhile, she still had Comstock to contend with, and even members of her own family tried to have her committed to an asylum. Eventually, she took her own life, when she was faced with the possibility of prison or sanitarium due to the “obscenity” of her educational pamphlets and lectures. “I maintain my right to die as I have lived,” she wrote, in a public letter against Comstock and the anti-vice movement, “as a free woman, not cowed into silence by any other human being.” Public opinion turned against Comstock and his conservative views following her death. In a sense, her sacrifice led to a more enlightened world, eventually, where people could love and live more freely and independently. 

This Valentine’s Day, remember to thank Ida for her role in allowing you to express your affections openly, safely, and without shame. Whether your preferred companion is human, extraterrestrial, angelic, ghostly, or hell, even cryptozoological, have fun this holiday and keep it weird and romantic. Or, failing that, gorge yourself on discount chocolate the day after. It sure beats getting slapped with a bloody animal pelt!

*This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of Paranormality Magazine

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Dispatches From Jerry's Impossible Hallway

At the end of a long day, sometimes there's nothing better for comfort food than revisiting an old favorite sitcom or discovering a new one. In an age in which these shows can be conjured on demand and streamed one after the other, they can be as cozy as a warm throw blanket on a cold night. Familiar faces and situations greet you on the screen, making you laugh even though you've seen the episode before and know the punchline already. So ubiquitous is this form of media, and so universal in its influence since its first inception on radio programming nearly a century ago, that the weirdness of the format often flies under the radar. So it is with weirdness- sometimes the absolute weirdest stuff is woven into the very mundane. And so it is that we turn our gaze, through the lens of our strange spectacles, toward the television screen as a familiar theme song plays- snacks at the ready, we settle in for dispatches from Jerry's Impossible Hallway.

The format of the situation comedy, or sitcom, lends itself very easily to the blandest forms of banality. All that is required is a cast of characters who the audience expects to see carried over from one episode to the next, with consistent and predictable personalities. While many shows come and go quickly, failing to hit the mark with audiences, others become the stuff of legend. The most popular shows are celebrated decades after the airing of the final episode, influencing everything from language to cultural norms. In a previous post, I alluded to the subliminal effects of The Simpsons on myself and others of my general age group- in particular, that of Homer Simpson as a sort of archetypal everyman. Homer-isms have a way of seeping in, which may in part explain the dumbening of our society broadly- the childlike oafishness of the character stands as an exaggerated exemplar of all of us at our most foolish, emotive, lazy, and, well, American. Controversial at the time, Homer and contemporary TV dad Al Bundy of Married... With Children seemed to the more conservative viewers to be corrupting influences on the media landscape. The depiction of a "dysfunctional family" was jarring to those who preferred their TV dads and their respective families to be squeaky-clean projections of the ideal household, while at the same time more realistic and appealing to other viewers. The outward presentation of the idealized TV family is of course a façade, but is no less intoxicating for the viewer who falls under the spell of scripted familiar characters and live studio audiences. When the ugliness of real life intrudes, such as with the revelations about Bill Cosby's sex crimes, a real crisis ensues. Fans can no longer see Dr. Huxtable the same way ever again- a feeling of betrayal pervades, as though the fictional character and actor were known personally and found to be a wolf in sheep's clothing.

In the current era, media such as sitcoms is consumed in a different way, but the archetypal nature of the characters still finds its expression. Long before I had ever watched a single episode of Parks and Recreation, I was familiar with the character of Ron Swanson (pictured above) based almost entirely on memes and animated GIFs used on social media. Nick Offerman's character on the show, it seemed to me at the time, had a noticeable impact around the culture of food- particularly when it came to bacon. Suddenly it seemed to me that bacon was having a renaissance, and I couldn't help but feel like the fictional character from a wildly popular sitcom had a hand in it. Whether this is true, it's hard to say- but the memeification of these cartoonish representations of people and their foibles, quirks, and catch-phrases does have a noticeable effect on the public consciousness. These effects range from dietary choices, as in the Swanson example, to more profound and impactful social changes brought about by utilizing the bigoted characterization of Archie Bunker in All in the Family. In a subtle way, they become avatars of aspects of humanity, which invariably cycle back into a feedback loop creating the world in which we live.

There is an allure to the world in which the sitcom characters live, which we only glimpse through that missing fourth wall most of the time- but upon reflection, often it doesn't add up. Another product of the internet and social media age which impacts our collective understanding of the sitcom phenomena is the endless minutiae and conjecture from fans with too much time on their hands. Forums are littered with "fan theories" about shows, sometimes connecting one program to another; other times viewers dedicate time to pointing out continuity errors and problems with the set design. Such is the case with Jerry's hallway in the show Seinfeld- according to people who have clearly put a lot of effort into proving it, Jerry's hallway can't exist as it is shown based on how his kitchen is shaped. The door through which Kramer slides into the apartment, unannounced, thus becomes a portal to a non-Euclidean realm of warped dimensions. The city of New York in the Seinfeld-verse is populated by an odd assortment of memorable and wacky characters- Soup Nazis, close-talkers and hard-nosed library detectives. Some of them, like the aforementioned Kramer and Crazy Joe Davola* are based on real people- and of course, Jerry is playing a fictionalized version of himself.  George is an exaggerated version of series co-creator Larry David, who went on to play a fictionalized version of himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm. The feedback loop for the characters, amplified through our collective embrace of their enduring qualities, subtly erases lines between the fictions and the factual basis- not just of the people involved, but their beliefs, their settings, and their attitudes. Like that missing fourth wall which allows the camera and studio audience a glimpse into the sitcom universe, the liminal bleedover from the soundstage to our living rooms reconfigures our perception of reality, however subtly. More than 20 years after the final episode of Seinfeld aired, people still reference George's father's invented holiday Festivus when it comes around- and who is to say whether it will stay a joking observation, or whether it will one day be recognized as a legitimate holiday? At the time of this writing, Curb Your Enthusiasm is ending its run with David releasing a tongue-in-cheek farewell to the version of himself that appeared on the show, saying he's looking forward to "shedding" the malignant persona. "And so, 'Larry David' I bid you farewell. Your misanthropy will not be missed." He says he can now be reached at Doctors Without Borders where he will presumably be doing humanitarian work.

*RIP to Peter Crombie, who played Crazy Joe Davola. He passed away in January of 2024 at the age of 71. For those keeping up with the clown theme on this blog, his passing seems significant.

Jerry's 1990s New York and the mysterious architecture of his apartment building serve to illustrate the weird logic of sitcom universes, which follow rules specific to ratings, fan reactions, and continuity more than any type of "canon". For a "Show about nothing", it certainly had a lot going on. For any sitcom though, and for storytelling more generally, one must employ a willing suspension of disbelief. This becomes easier when the show is funny and well-liked, but even the best shows face this kind of scrutiny in today's world of online communities. When one starts thinking in terms of multiple universes, as physicists suggest might be the case, one wonders if these sitcom worlds could actually exist in an alternate reality. Conversely, if you're of the belief we all live within a holographic, artificial world, how would we know whether we were just characters on a screen with laugh tracks added on, playing out our lives for the amusement of some supercomputer? The Marvel series WandaVision plays with this concept, illustrating how unnerving such a reality might be from an outside perspective. Using her memories of sitcoms she saw as a child, she has a traumatic break from sanity- and uses her powers to construct the idealized sitcom world around her, effectively trapping an entire town within it. 

Thinking of any particular show as its own insular universe is one thing, but others take it further- insinuating that through a network of crossover appearances, many of the sitcoms and dramas on TV all occur in the same universe. What's more, they all stem from an extended daydream from an autistic child in the series St Elsewhere. This "Grand Unification Theory" of TV, known as the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis, was originally advanced by writer Dwayne McDuffie as a way to illustrate the absurdity in insisting on continuity and canon within both TV shows and comic books. The final episode of St Elsewhere, a medical drama based in Boston, reveals the whole series to have been a daydream from a patient with autism. Thus, the reductio ad absurdum argument goes, all connected shows must also have only been a daydream, extending off of the one in the series. The list includes Cheers, The X-Files, Homocide: Life on the Streets, The Bob Newhart Show, and even The Simpsons and The Critic. The hypothesis has taken on a life of its own, despite its original premise rejecting an insistence on continuity between franchises. He writes that cross-overs are fun, but obsessing over making sense of it all is silly.

Silly though it may be, it's fun to think about how these shows could overlap. Richard Belzer's iconic detective character, John Munch, has crossed over to more shows than any other. It's amusing to think of him as some cross-dimensional detective, almost MiB-like in his affect. Munch as a character shared similarities with the actor who played him; Belzer's signature comedic delivery and mildly paranoid worldview were worked into the scripts. Munch was everywhere for a time, it seemed- and the conspiracy laden lines he delivered in character were echoes of the real Belz who would release books on such subjects- a further amplification of resonant feedback looping.

Sometimes, it's not the characters that crossover and imply a shared universe but the props and products used. An example of this is Morley Cigarettes, notably the favored brand of the enigmatic, shadowy villain of The X-Files. Morleys have a history as a fictional brand, created to avoid advertising conflicts in the early 1900s for use as props on film. The Morley-verse thus encompasses The X-Files as well as The Dick van Dyke Show, The Walking Dead, The Twilight Zone, and movies such as Psycho. Detective John Munch would of course have at least visited this universe, as he appeared in character in one episode of The X-Files. One hopes that he fared ok in the zombie apocalypse which was to come...

These fictional worlds, however you want to look at them, offer a perspective of the era in which they are produced just as they inform and influence the culture which consumes them. Going back to the earliest days of really successful sitcom programming for television, there are some surprisingly spooky origins to it all. I Love Lucy stands as one of the greatest shows of all time, and Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz built a media empire off of it. It began, Ball has said in interviews, with her friend Carole Lombard coming to her in a dream and telling her to get into television rather than movies. Lombard had died in a plane crash in 1942- and regardless of what one believes about the supernatural, it's wild to think that such a huge piece of television history was at least partly inspired by something of a ghost. Ball also traces her family history back to women who were accused during the Salem Witch Trials. It is notable that iconic series such as Star Trek and Mission: Impossible directly owe their existence to Desilu Productions, but in terms of influence and setting of standards in TV programming much more of what we've consumed in the history of sitcoms rests with those early episodes of her show.

Likewise, The Honeymooners was a landmark show which similarly influenced generations of shows that followed. Jackie Gleason, who starred as Ralph Kramden, was very much interested in all manner of weird topics. He was especially interested in UFOs, and allegedly accompanied then-sitting President Richard Nixon to view retrieved alien bodies and craft specimens. He appeared on talk shows to discuss Flying Saucers, and had an immense library of books on the paranormal which are now archived at the University of Miami, in Florida. He even had a custom built house built in New York shaped like a flying saucer.

Of course, aliens are no stranger to the sitcom multiverse. My Favorite Martian, ALF, Third Rock From the Sun, and Mork and Mindy are all examples of sitcoms with lovable alien characters. Mork and Mindy was a spinoff of an alien themed episode of Happy Days, and even shows like The Golden Girls have episodes that at least reference UFO phenomena. The 1960s in particular had other weird subjects featured, in such shows as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, which in their own way introduced and normalized magic to audiences. The Addams Family brought to life the characters from comic strips by Charles Addams, which in turn inspired the repurposing of Universal monsters for the show The Munsters. These shows proved that even the spooky, kooky, and ooky among us can be loved by audiences, and perhaps they hinted at some of the weird origins of the medium. The enduring popularity of these shows in their recent adaptations prove that it's a message that still resonates, and continues to expand.

Regardless of the type of show, the era in which it first aired, or how you consume it, for many of us the sitcom is a form of escapism. Like the theme song to Cheers says, "You want to be where you can see / our troubles are all the same / you wanna go where everybody knows your name". Whether that's a basement bar under a restaurant in Boston or the idyllic town of Mayberry, whether it's in a paper sales office in Scranton or in an apartment in New York, we find comfort in these soundstage environs as much as we do on the couch from which we view them. Wouldn't you like to get away?




Saturday, January 20, 2024

The Spooky Side of Disclosure

 The word "spook", and by extension, "spooky", has a handful of meanings. For most people, the words would conjure mental images of the Halloween season and horror movies. It derives from a Dutch word meaning specter, apparition, or ghost, and has further cognates in Old German meaning ghost or hobgoblin. It has racial connotations as well, although its use as a derogatory term is rare these days. More commonly, in addition to the aforementioned paranormal association, the term can be applied to those working in espionage. Finally, in the world of quantum physics, the term again appears in common usage after Albert Einstein's description of entangled particles as "spooky action at a distance". These multiple definitions can all be borne in mind as we discuss the modern conception of Disclosure- a loaded term in itself, which can mean various things to different groups of people. Tangled and locked within the chains and padlocks of language and the cages of psychological association, the Truth, as it were, is obscured from our view. So it is, without further ado, we look to the King of Escape Artists himself as a historical example and avatar through which we might gain some perspective.

Harry Houdini is a legendary figure in the popular imagination. The name Houdini is nearly synonymous with magic and stage magicians, although he was many things in his life- and, for that matter, after his death. The name "Houdini" was one he adopted as a way of honoring the great French conjuror Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, when he made a claim for himself as the Handcuff King. His stage shows were characterized by elaborate death-defying feats, and were sensationalized by his audacious publicity stunts. He would challenge policemen around the world to try and hold him in a cell, and none of them could. He would dive into icy rivers bound in chains in front of a gasping crowd and emerge before their unbelieving eyes. He was said to be able to walk through walls, and famously made an elephant disappear on stage. He even managed to survive inside of a coffin that was submerged in a pool for over an hour and half. He demonstrated he could survive a punch to the gut from the strongest of men.

These aspects to Houdini are widely known, while others are more obscure. He was one of the earliest pilots, for instance, with only 24 men holding the distinction of being an aviator before him. He also made a series of films, and started his own motion picture company. One of them, The Master Mystery, is notable for containing one of the earliest depictions of a robot in a movie. In his films, he played characters such as Haldane, a Secret Service man. They were loaded with action and feats of derring-do, and some Houdini biographers have suggested there may have been a reflection of truth in them. William Kalush and Larry Sloman, authors of The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero suggest that he may have been involved in spying operations all over the world, using his cover as a performer to justify his travels and connections with important figures. At a time before intelligence agencies as we know them now existed, he may well have been a valuable spook.

In addition to all of that, he was also hailed (or hated, depending on your beliefs) as an arch debunker of mediums and paranormal phenomena. He traveled the country and challenged mediums in an effort to contact his dead mother, and found them all to be frauds. So dedicated was he to revealing the cheats and trickery of the séance room, he developed a small spy ring of his own- employing his niece Julia Sawyer and investigator Rose Mackenberg to infiltrate and expose congregations of Spiritualists. Mackenberg was particularly adept, and thumbed her nose by adopting pseudonyms such as Frances Raud or Alicia Bunk when attaining credentials within these organizations- one name slyly reading F. Raud, or FRAUD, and the other a slant version of "all is a bunk". 

  These activities culminated in Houdini appearing before a select committee of Congress, in attempt to pass an anti-fortune telling bill in Washington, D.C. The idea wasn't very popular because, as he revealed publicly, many of those seated within the Senate and House of Representatives regularly consulted mediums. Spiritualists even performed séances within the Coolidge White House, he claimed. In some ways, this raucous four-day hearing was the closest thing we've had to a Disclosure of the Spirit World- but the ghosts were not the spooks on trial. Houdini's argument had as its foundation that contact with the dead was impossible, necessarily implying fraud or delusion from those claiming to offer such services. The jeering mediums in attendance thought otherwise, as did many of the seated politicians- and the sitting President at the time was not happy with being dragged into it all. Houdini even offered up $10,000 to anyone who could prove their psychic abilities right there. Madame Marcia Champney attempted to claim the money, as she had been an adviser to Warren Harding's wife and made accurate predictions about the election and his death in office- and when this was declined, she predicted Houdini himself would be dead by November. This, of course, did come to pass- Houdini died on October 31st, 1926.

Mr Houdini Goes to Washington

The spooks that Houdini was after, however, may not have been of the spectral variety. In his investigations and with intelligence gained through his proxies, the methods employed by fraudulent mediums were concerning enough to constitute a national security issue. In some cases, employees of the "marks" such as maids and chauffeurs were paid off for information that would prove useful as proof of contact from beyond- and members of these psychic circles would share notes with each other. These same tidbits might well also work for blackmail or international intelligence gathering- something Houdini would have been keenly aware of if there's any merit to the speculation that he was a spy. Some, including the aforementioned Kalush and Sloman, would even suggest that Madame Marcia's prophecy was intentionally fulfilled through the arms of this "psychic mafia". The official story, as it were, is that the master magician's appendix was ruptured because of a botched attempt at his well-known punch to the gut feat. Was it intentionally botched? Were there shady figures at the hospital who sealed the deal? We will probably never know for sure, but the point here is that there are multiple dimensions to spookiness; when we oversimplify these narratives, we risk getting sucker-punched.

  Magic and espionage are so intertwined, one might make the argument that they are kindred arts. What may broadly be described as Occultism, to distinguish from the aforementioned stage magic, has overlaps with both in this multi-dimensional Venn diagram we are exploring using the limited bounds of language. Often cited as the first book on magic tricks, The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot is a sort of spiritual forefather to Houdini's testimony before Congress. Scot was seeking to demolish superstition by exposing the conjuring tricks of alleged witches, whose executions he found to be barbaric and un-Christian. Unfortunately for Scot, this didn't sit well with the King James VI of Scotland, who would go on to take the throne of England as James I. The King wrote a response in the form of his Daemonologie which asserted that witches were very real, in consort with the Devil and various demons. The witch persecutions continued under his reign, but not just for superstitious or religious reasons- Witchcraft, and the practice of magic, brought with it the subversive connotations of poisoners, upstarts, and potential political adversaries. In other words, Witchcraft had an espionage angle to it, which makes perfect sense when one considers that James I's predecessor, Elizabeth I, employed John Dee for both purposes. Dee's polymath credentials, which included his mastery of mathematics, astrology, cryptography, various sciences, and alchemy made him an ideal candidate for international travel and intelligence gathering. Signing his letters as "007", he is honored for his place within British spycraft in the James Bond franchise.  

Dee is also remembered for his contact with Enochian Angels through the medium of Edward Kelley. Just as mediums in the early 20th century channeled spirits, and as alleged Starseeds do today, channeling has its own niche within this framework. We see all of these elements converge within the UFO question. While much has been made, justifiably, of the influence of occult traditions such as Theosophy on the culture of UFOs, one might argue that Spiritualism had just as great or a greater effect- and everywhere along the way, spooky agents from intelligence agencies employed magicians of one type or another to misdirect, glamorize, and mystify the audience that is the general public. Houdini's Spook Disclosure may not have achieved the goal of passing any particular law, but what it did accomplish was much more profound and long-lasting. Public opinion began to turn from astrology, channeling, and superstition. The narrative had changed. By the 1980s the Reagan White House was embarrassed to admit to consulting an astrologer; society changed its mind on what it expected of its elected officials... and perhaps opened a portal for Flying Saucers to fill that void. 

To return to the present day, public opinion has turned towards an openness to the UFO, er... UAP mystery. It has also reached an all-time low in its expectations for its public officials, and crazy beliefs are the order of the day. Conspiracy theory runs rampant, and gets dumber all the time. One suspects that its only natural, given just the sparse examples outlined here. One might start a corkboard and draw bits of yarn once further examples are brought in. Venturing down the rabbit hole, all manner of dumb or insightful conclusions might be wrought considering Aleister Crowley's channeled text Liber al Vel Legis and the entity known as Lam, and Crowley's intersection with British intelligence. Further they might look into Jack Parsons, the connection to L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. Going down a different tunnel they might think of Houdini a little differently when they look into Project MK ULTRA, and the declassified C.I.A. Manual of Trickery and Deception, which includes a primer by close-up magic expert John Mulholland on uses of sleight of hand in espionage. Mulholland was also assigned to investigate the Kentucky Goblin case of 1955, though little is known about that. It makes you think, doesn't it?

One might venture down such rabbit holes, but one should also be careful about that crazy turn on the way to Albuquerque- and be mindful not to let that tunnel collapse and smother them. The point here is not to encourage leaps in logic, propinquity-based allegations or simplified conspiracy narratives. Though it has a dirty name now, conspiracy theory at its best is simply an exercise in connecting disparate bits of information as a way of matrixing the known reality, mapping out landscapes of the possible without pinning our beliefs so strongly that we detach from the remotely probable and enter the Wonderland of delusion. As Houdini's impassioned testimony swayed public opinion incrementally towards materialism, logic, and structure, so might others sway it in dangerous directions. An argument could be made that they already have. It behooves us as citizens of the world to employ critical thinking, even as we entertain that which has classically been portrayed as wacky beliefs. Voltaire warned that those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. In a world where QAnon has come to typify the current crop of conspiracy nuts, and patently insane theories like Tartaria and Flat Earth allowed to gain traction, it's really no surprise that at the time of this writing a man facing 91 felony charges in part for inciting an insurrection attempt is allowed, and encouraged, to run for office again. It's so normalized that prominent UFO figures like Whitley Strieber idly opine on social media about whether we'll get Disclosure from a man who openly says he'll be a dictator, and other "leading voices" in the Disclosure movement flock to right wing media outlets to talk UAP with racists.

Disclosure "activists" on social media often scoff whenever politics are brought into the conversation. Disclosure isn't political, they say- one assumes that their vision of what will happen when the government just admits that aliens are real, and we have their technology, the world will become a heavenly Utopia overnight. Perhaps they are simply very comfortable, unbothered and not threatened by an increasingly violent and intolerant ideology that masquerades as Christian American values. For anyone to have Disclosure as their biggest concern in the face of theocratic oppression and threats to the existence of marginalized groups seems a selfish and isolated position indeed. How does one entertain an optimism about Non Human Intelligence when the basic safety of actual Humans is at stake? 

On that same note, what makes the United States so special as to be the arbiter of truth on the subject? There's a weird strain of isolationism there as well, padded with a kind of patriotic hero-worship of government figures like Elizondo. Very right-wing politicians involved in the hearings are already conflating the UAP with angels and demons, a trend which has waxed and waned for as long as the Phenomena has been observed. When bible-thumpers align with military fetishists, and the UFO question gets rolled up within a model of the world that only focuses on the U.S. we risk a turn of the tide like that of James I's England with its witch hunts. The skeptical reader may think of this as an exaggeration, or a wild claim to make. It may be speculation, but it's based on historical precedent and doesn't necessitate the machinations of a conspiratorial cabal. It only needs human nature to do what it does when it falls under the spell of the zeitgeist. Mind control for the masses is much simpler to achieve and scarier, albeit slower, than its portrayal in media.  

These aspects, all of them, are connected in ways not visible at first glance. The spooky action entangles covert intelligence operatives to public opinion, the UFOs to stage magicians from long ago, and actual wizards to politicians on the campaign trail. Espionage, Occultism, and what may broadly be referred to as the Phenomena all have one thing in common- they are by definition secret. The spookiest thing about Disclosure is how ephemeral and undefined it is. It relies on phantoms, smoke and mirrors, liars and classified documents. It is itself a spook, some intangible specter which one tries to grab hold of but which always evades capture. So much of what disclosurists seem to pursue is illusory, and perhaps that's by design. Perhaps not. The thing about the greatest magic tricks, even those in mentalism, is that the mechanism behind it is so simple that if it were explained the average person wouldn't believe it could work. But it can, and it does. The presence of so many spooks, especially when it's the same ones over and over again, should be a warning that things are not necessarily what they seem to be...

To conclude on a more upbeat and wacky note- while the question of life after death, or of what UFOs are may ever remain unanswered to us mere mortals, what did Harry Houdini have to say about flying saucers? His death was a good 20 years before the modern UFO era began with Kenneth Arnold's classic sighting, but in the 1950s it is claimed that Houdini reached out From Beyond to answer that very question. A psychic named Henry Roberts claimed in 1952 that Houdini appeared before him to give him a message from the Space Brothers- one that should sound familiar to those who have read contactee reports before. The Saucers were a sign to abandon war, the atom bomb, and "general dissension that exists on the Earth plane". This message was relayed to Joseph Dunninger, a magician and friend of Houdini's, so that he could tell the world- which Roberts claimed was of the utmost importance to the ghostly Harry. Dunninger coincidentally held $10,000 for anyone who could relay the code from the deceased legend, which would prove the contact was real. Failing to relay the code, Roberts didn't get the money; but resulting from this report Dunninger recalled a night in 1950. At the home of the improbably named Miss Banana, a call came from his deceased friend that he should take the book Paper Magic off of the shelf and turn to page 113. On the page were circles, or disks of paper, reminiscent of flying saucers.

Spooky calls to Dunninger at Miss Banana's home and spectral Houdini failing to deliver the code aside, settling things down on the Earth plane sounds like pretty solid advice. We may never know the secrets, and many of them just aren't meant for public consumption. Solving the mysteries doesn't do us any good if we destroy ourselves in the attempt. Whatever your beliefs, political persuasions, or knowledge level, thinking critically, with empathy- and perhaps even humility- seems the only way forward that this writer can offer. With those things and a sense of humor, we can move mountains- and maybe get a little of that Disclosure, whatever that stuff is, along the way. 


Monday, December 25, 2023

The Most Famous Reindeer's Hidden Meanings


Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a much-loved character this time of year. In 2023, stories about the origin of the iconic denizen of Santa's Village have made the rounds on social media, a testament to the endurance of his appeal. Back in 2020 I revealed the esoteric meanings behind Rudolph and his friends in what was, at the time, a little bit of silliness for the season catered to those with weird occult interests. As I sit on Xmas morning, the sun not up yet, typing these words, I wonder at the logic of making a Xmas post ON Xmas... But time isn't real; and 2020, 2023, or 1939 or 1964 may as well all be Now. I had meant to write more about Rudolph this Xmas season, but stress, pain, and social obligations prohibited it. A final and deciding stumbling block came in the form of self-doubt, and questioning whether anyone would want to read this. I apologize for the "inside baseball" here- or perhaps inside reindeer games- it is uncharacteristic for my blog, but not entirely unrelated to the core themes of Rudolph. Perhaps in the writing, as is often the case, I will work through it- and hopefully you the reader benefit as well.

The esoteric meanings behind the story were borne out of a half-joking tweet, but as has been established on this blog before jokes contain their own manner of profundity. One might consider it a central thesis of my work writ large. Having fun with these ideas, approaching them with wonder, curiosity, and above all playfulness and humor often brings unexpected and mind-boggling results. Further, as I explained on the most recent Holy Donut Revival Hour, even the silliest and most peripheral bits of popular culture contain elements of, and thus are part of, our modern continuation of the age-old storytelling that comprises myth, magic, folklore, and consciousness. Even if it began entirely as a joke, in the numinous sphere of ephemeral meaning divorced from the exoteric, materialist source material of the subject, even a character developed as an advertising gimmick can- and is- a powerful memetic and magical force.

With that, our examination of the famous reindeer and his titular proboscis begins. The following relates exclusively to the 1964 Rankin/Bass television movie version of the story.

I described Rudolph's nose as allegorically being the Rose of the Rose Cross- an arcane symbol, the origins of which are so ensnared in modern myth-making by various lodges and orders that sorting it all out here would be too disruptive. What was meant by that, and what I hoped to clear up, is that the color of his nose is but one of the esoteric hints- it's not only red, but shiny, and glowing. The red nose is not reflecting light, it is self-illuminated. Other symbols could stand in just as easily as the Rose; the Sacred Heart of Christ, for instance. That might be an apt one, being that this is a Xmas special we're referring to that seems to exist in a universe entirely bereft of Jesus talk. When we meet Rudolph it is shortly after his birth in a cave, which is also pregnant with mystical significance. Before his shockingly bright nose is revealed, it is established that Rudolph is exceptionally bright himself. He responds to his name and can speak right away- even knowing the name of Santa without being told. He's praised for his intellect but shunned for his, as Sam the Snowman puts it, "non-conformity".

A nose is not a Sacred Heart or a Rose, but it's more meaningful than it might seem on its face. Never underestimate the metaphysical properties behind the Mystical Pun. Rudolph is praised for what he "knows" but is shunned for his "nose". His radical, intuitive understanding of the world is deemed heretical, and eventually he resigns himself to exile. Santa appears and after shunning the light of Rudolph's "blinkin' beacon" sings a little song about being the "King of Jingling" before making an exit. Thus the highest authority in the land, the King, has dismissed our young hero... perhaps because he fears the light of truth. Santa's domain is fairly small, and is surrounded by harsh winter lands where Abominable Snow Monsters lurk. He takes on a demiurgic quality which is appropriate when you consider that gnosis is what the esoteric meaning of the nose is.

Sam the Snowman, who we glossed over above, is a sort of genius loci or tutelary spirit of the Christmas Tree Forest. He's an elemental or nature spirit, albeit a young one, who acts as storyteller and singer. He briefly involves himself in the narrative toward the end, but mostly seems to live apart from Santa and the elves.

Of the elves, the one most important to the story is Hermey. He is unhappy making toys and wishes to become a dentist instead. His name of course calls to mind the Greek god Hermes, among the most significant figures in myth and magic, from whom we get the word "Hermetic". He is unlike the other elves because he feels the pull of his higher self, and knows that he can and must do the Great Work of integrating the practical and spiritual parts of himself. The choice of dentistry alludes to Hermes as well since modern medicine uses the caduceus as a symbol, the rod with snakes Hermes was said to carry. This itself is odd since the symbol should be the Rod of Asclepius, which only has one snake- but considering the demands put on Hermey for production of toys, with his attention towards helping people, it might be worth considering- especially later on.

The Caduceus / Rod of Asclepius is represented in the modern day by the barber's pole, with a spiral of red on a white background. In earlier times the barber also acted as a doctor, and if you had tooth troubles you'd go to him. 

Hermey abandons his post realizing that he will never fit in as a toy maker. His refrain of "you can't fire me, I quit!" calls to mind Milton's verse attributed to Satan- "Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heav'n." Hermey strikes out in an attempt to be independent, taking charge of his own life, even though the path of least resistance would be to live a comfortable, albeit disingenuous life under the rule of King Santa in the toy shop. He and Rudolph team up as a pair of Misfits- outsiders- and venture into the pleroma beyond the material mundane sphere of Christmas Town. 

Before long they meet Yukon Cornelius, a prospector looking to make his fortune with Silver and Gold. His name calls to mind the influential polymath and occultist Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. Agrippa was a soldier, a lawyer, and an academic whose occult writings influenced major figures in magic from the 16th century on; ultimately he warned against meddling with dark forces, and in Yukon Cornelius we see an adventurer who is protective of his new chums and very familiar with the Abominable Snow Monster, or "Bumble". With his guidance and knowledge, Hermey and Rudolph are saved from the grips of the beast. Now a trio, they are cast adrift in the arctic on a homemade iceberg and brought to the Island of Misfit Toys.

The island itself is more of an underworld than anything. Here we meet the Damned. The toys here are cursed to never find a home in the land of the living, and since our heroes are mortal they are refused harborage on the Island by King Moonracer. Moonracer appears as a winged lion, recalling the lammassu of ancient Assyria. These protective deities were depicted in reliefs and statues in ancient times, often at gateways and entrances to cities. The protector King of the Misfit Toys in this sense stands at the boundaries of mortality and damnation, but seemingly offers a third path- one of immortality. He is certain Rudolph is destined to return home, the prodigal son, and "go down in history" as a timeless figure. He only asks that Santa find homes for the residents of the Island. 

Internet meme culture in recent years has focused quite a bit on a more cynical reading of the concept of non-conformity central to the story. While the point may be accurate, it is more useful perhaps to think in terms of exaggerated allegory. The essence of the tale, as convoluted and borne out of commercialism and ham-fisted sentiment as it may be, is a journey of self discovery and self empowerment. Rudolph confronts his fears and is momentarily bested by the devilish Bumble. The "abominable" scary step out of the comfortable but meaningless rigamarole of living a lie is vanquished, and literally defanged by Hermey. Thus the fears and anxieties keeping our misfits from becoming their best selves are transmuted. The beast is tamed; and for good measure, Cornelius appears to martyr himself for the cause. Of course, he rises again, because Bumbles bounce.

The trio end up saving Christmas. Rudolph's illumination guides the King (Santa), Hermey is granted a dentistry practice, and the Misfit Toys get picked up and dropped off with children who will accept them. The seeds are planted, each Misfit Toy proselitizyng the usefulness of non-conformity- and hopefully, teaching that self-actualization is a goal worth pursuing for the betterment of all. Yukon Cornelius, meanwhile, does strike it rich on a Peppermint Mine. This brings us back to the Caduceus, as candy canes also visually rhyme with the barber pole. The humble Bumble is giving a job trimming Christmas trees. All is well at the North Pole.

There are many other directions one could take, and much more minutiae that could be dissected in just this silly little animated Xmas special. This form of analysis could also be applied to virtually any piece of media. Is it what the creators of the special, or the characters or the song intended? Most certainly not. Am I simply spinning esoteric nonsense out of a kid's TV special from the 60s? Yes. But that doesn't make it less valid, nor does it really constitute "nonsense". It simply IS. The threads and themes that weave their way through our collective psyche, from the most ancient and sacred to the most modern and profane can never be adequately or sensibly mapped out. Rather they can only be gleaned peripherally, notated partially, and hinted at jokingly. Occult secrets rarely need to be actively hidden. They seem so absurd and silly from a materialist perspective they are shunned like a shining red nose. So this Xmas, and through 2024, I wish you all the best in finding these truths for yourself. Be empowered and find the other misfits. Spread your weird far and wide, and if you're barred from reindeer games go start your own.

Merry Weirdmas, my friends.  

Sunday, November 19, 2023

The Paradox of Credibility When Confronting the Incredible

 The tinfoil hat, the country bumpkin, the cork board strewn with a tangled web of string- these are examples of images used in the old stereotyping of UFO enthusiasts. Mass media and pop culture have promoted these tropes for ages, with the cumulative effect of minimizing the subject in the broader public consciousness. Likewise, the existence of ghosts, magic powers, and cryptozoological specimens has traditionally been pushed to the margins which, perhaps, may be the best place for them. For those who have had an experience with any of these mysteries, or those who seek to investigate them, a minefield lays ahead in the no-man's land of alleged expertise on these matters. Traversing the field becomes a perilous journey, full of pitfalls and explosive revelations. Without a guide, a map, or markers to go by, one must trust one's intuition. 

At the time of this writing it seems that public opinion has softened on these once shunned topics, but the old problems still persist. In the field of UFOlogy, for example, this broader acceptance seems to be a result of government hearings and a push toward that ever-elusive, amorphous old chestnut Disclosure. In the minds of many passive observers, "the Government said" that aliens are real. Those who have a vested interest in full Disclosure celebrate these events as minor victories on the road toward revelations of alien bodies and reverse-engineered technology from another world- and among these advocates, nothing short of that will be satisfactory, regardless of the facts. In the never-ending quest toward Disclosure, whatever that might mean to whomever might be interested in such a thing, there is the persistent idea that the subject is made more credible by the involvement of authority figures. Luis Elizondo himself, the de facto figurehead for the current crop of UAPology Disclosurists, said in no uncertain terms that he wished to dismantle the field of UFOlogy. Scorching the earth, relieved of the crackpots and amateurs of old- along with the experiences of everyday people- a new Utopia seemingly awaits in this worldview. Once the Government tells us what it knows, a new day will dawn: A New Age of peace and prosperity, and all we need to do is approve funding for military programs to look into it.

This is, of course, hogwash of the highest order. UFOs are and always will be obscured by the eclipse of their own mythical shadow in the public consciousness. The tinfoil hat of old always cautioned us to question authority figures, but the modern more accepted cranks grasp desperately for authorities to confirm or deny the truth for them. So hungry are they for confirmation, they seek to be legitimized by whatever authority is advantageous at the moment. The trouble is that UFOs answer to no authority. They are tricky things, airborne pookas turning expectations upside-down and inside-out, inspiring even skeptics like Phillip Klass to lay a "curse" on the pursuit of them. We would never know more about them, he said, than we did during his time. This subversion- the arch-debunker and materialist resorting, albeit jokingly, to something as spooky as a curse- is a classic example of the UFO deftly eluding our attempts to rationalize it. By extension, the other aforementioned mysteries of the world are quite adept at remaining mysterious. Perhaps that is their entire function.

When we seek out experts, when we seek to legitimize anomalous phenomena, and when we promote "serious" inquiry into these subjects we are simply flailing around in a minefield hoping someone will show us the way. Many are the traps and dangers associated with the idea of credibility. Investigators have long favored reports that come from "trained observers", ranging from military personnel to law enforcement individuals and those with a background in science. As a corollary to this, cases are often downplayed or discarded when the report comes from an average Joe. The underlying presumption is that military pilots, for instance, are incapable of making mistakes about what they see in the air. Military and law enforcement professionals, we are told, are also more trustworthy by virtue of their career paths and less likely to lie, or suffer mental illness. This of course is entirely bogus. All the same, when in search of that coveted credibility, reports from the military or police tend to be prioritized. It's too risky to rely on reports from everyday people, and why would you? Especially when someone with a PhD or government clearance is available to offer their own unimpeachable truths. The country bumpkin of old is left to wonder at his own experiences, and defer to the "experts". 

This mentality naturally results in a discourse beyond parody, as we see in the world of UAPology today. The testimony of David Grusch, which amounts to little more than a litany of very tired UFO myths that have been relentlessly debated or debunked over the course of decades, being considered a form of whistleblowing is simply ludicrous. It amounts to little more than gossip, ultimately, and does nothing to further the truth- quite the opposite, it reinforces poppycock that only muddies the waters. And yet, paradoxically, stunts like that bring a veneer of credibility to the outside observer. Similarly, this appeal to authority in a misguided attempt to locate reliable sources leads folks to books by really problematic old heads who happen to have "Dr" attached to their names. For those who don't know the history, a book by Dr. David Jacobs might sound more credible than one by John Keel simply because one of them has an academic background and the other, none. The trouble of course is that Jacobs has been repeatedly revealed to have been a fraud and a creep, his "research" methods are shown to have been highly flawed, and his ouevre rendered thus virtually worthless. It is human nature, perhaps, to be less critical when an author, investigator, or correspondent has a title such as Doctor, Lt. Commander, or Officer attached to his or her name. It is nevertheless wrong to assume their authority on any given matter is uncontaminated by ulterior motives, craziness, or judgment errors. 

It is difficult to talk about these distinctions in our polarized age. A false dichotomy is prominent in the world of UFOs, which pits believers against debunkers. In truth there is a broad spectrum of belief and opinion, all of which exists within the tiny fraction of the overall population that even cares to discuss the subject. Dismissing this or that piece of evidence, or questioning the stories of alleged authorities promoting UAPs does not necessarily indicate a belief that UFOs are bogus. For the part of this writer, a cursory glance at other posts on this very site will give you all the evidence you need about where I stand. The point is quite moot, though; suffice to say, UFOs are empirically real. What they are- and who is qualified to authoritatively determine that- is indefinitely a matter of speculation. Many are attracted to the so-called field of UFOlogy because it is such a loosely defined area of study. Similarly, the methods of Paranormal Investigators vary wildly, and there as many divergent approaches to cryptozoology as there are methods to develop wild talents of the psychical kind. This is neither a good or bad thing. It is simply a thing to realize, to be wary of, and to figure into one's personal calculus when presented with fantastical tales of the improbable. Astrophysicists may indeed have good insights on the UFO phenomenon, but reliance on their ideas seems to presuppose that UFOs come from outer space. Science has a role to play in unraveling some of these "Woo" mysteries, as they increasingly seem to become less "Woo"- but one should be ever cautious, as science itself is an evolving system of thought and is also a layer of the minefield.   

To illustrate the tricky nature of science, authority, and truth as it pertains to the mysterious, you are invited to consider the tale of Eusapia Palladino, a spirit medium Houdini referred to as the "greatest deceiver of them all." Her recorded feats were many, and were studied by scientists throughout Europe between the late 1800s and the early 20th century. Along with the standard parlor tricks for mediums of her time, such as producing raps and ethereal music, table tipping, and levitation, Palladino was also said to have been able to read through her ear and emit a frigid breeze from a scar on her forehead. In an issue of FATE Magazine from 1961, Cheiro reports having been present for a powerful display of her abilities. He claims that while staying at the Naples property of a wealthy American, one Major Davis in 1904, Palladino was brought in to showcase her abilities as a 'furniture mover'. The Major leaned against an oak chest smoking a cigar, expecting light amusement more than genuine paranormal performance. However, in Cheiro's account, Palladino's head whipped back, her eyes became white, and in a trance her arms projected white, ectoplasmic appendages in the direction of a heavy table with a marble top. The table steadily slid across the floor until it pinned the Major against the chest, and several men pushing against it failed to relieve him. Cheiro finally pulled away the medium herself, which broke the trance and the commotion of the table. Upon touching the marble top, it gently and swiftly returned to its original place in the room. All of this occurred in broad daylight, according to him- and the wealthy American did not wish to see any further demonstrations of her powers.

These kinds of demonstrations began in her youth, and soon the illiterate, unassuming peasant girl mystified the greatest scientific minds in Europe. Pierre and Marie Curie, Sir Oliver Lodge, and Charles Richet were among the befuddled scientists who recorded supernatural events in laboratory sittings. In her home country of Italy, however, it was Cesare Lombroso who first analyzed her abilities and found her to be genuine. Lombroso was internationally renowned for his work in the study of criminals. He is called by some "the Father of Criminology" for his ground-breaking studies into understanding the societal and cultural conditions that produce lawlessness. He was held in high esteem at the time of his sitting and examination of Palladino, and when he publicly declared her to be genuine his colleagues and the public turned on him. How could someone so shrewd be taken in by common parlor tricks and hocus pocus? The more generous among them excused his conclusions by declaring that his mental faculties had diminished with age. Still, by Lombroso's account, he encountered the ghost of his mother during a sitting with Eusapia. The medium sat in full view at one end of the table when Lombroso recognized the warm embrace of his own mother, in spirit form. 

Lombroso's rise to prominence began with an epiphany during the autopsy of a convicted criminal, combined with his interest in the brand new theory of evolution. He noticed an anomaly in the skull of his subject, of a type he would later call a stigmata, which suggested to him biological markers found in lemurs and rodents. In his words, "like a large plane beneath an infinite horizon, the problem of the nature of the delinquent was illuminated which reproduced in our time the characteristics of primitive man right down to the carnivores." In short, he believed that some percentage of criminals were evolutionary throwbacks. The work that gained him international renown was largely predicated on the idea that biological markers could identify subjects as "born delinquents", and that such "criminaloids" were beyond rehabilitation. Crime, to Lombroso, could be understood in physiologic and genetic terms, and all of this naturally ties into problematic ideas on race and also eugenics. His archive of criminal studies is now a museum in Turin, and includes his own head which was preserved for study.

Lombroso's theories on the atavistic nature of the criminal mind were borne of a misunderstanding of, and misapplication of, the Theory of Evolution. On the Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin's initial book on the subject, was careful not to approach the idea of human evolution too directly for fear of controversy. It is interesting to consider the more spooky and spiritual elements of evolution as an idea. Darwin was a cautious and thoughtful scientific mind, cataloguing examples of what he saw as evidence for natural selection and adaptation within species. While at work on the book, in another part of the world, Alfred Russel Wallace was busy identifying new species of birds. Of all known bird species, Wallace was responsible for identifying 2% of them. He contracted malaria during his expedition, and in a fever dream conceived of the very same ideas Darwin had been working to elucidate. It was fate that brought him to Moluccan Islands where this occurred- his prior expedition had met with disaster when his ship full of specimens sunk on its way back to England, forcing him to start over in Indonesia. Fate again played a hand by bringing him his fever dream of survival of the fittest- and by choosing to write to Darwin, rather than a journal, he forced Darwin's hand in releasing the work to the scientific community. Wallace and Darwin both presented their ideas together, bringing the former a new dimension of celebrity and renown.

Darwin continued to refine his ideas about evolution, and while he was cautious about the origin of humans Wallace was not. Wallace came to believe that a spiritual evolution of sorts was responsible for the dominance of humanity on earth, and further that the world of science itself would never be complete until the spirit world was better understood. His interest in spiritualism, and also hypnosis / mesmerism, caused consternation among his peers. He was notoriously bad with money, and wasted a good deal of it on an insane wager with a Flat Earther. Darwin had to arrange for his friend Wallace to receive a pension to help keep him afloat. 

Wallace in a spirit photograph with his deceased mom.

All the while, Wallace insisted his colleagues in the scientific community include spiritualism in with the other natural sciences. He of course got nowhere with them; the established authority of the time had decided it was all bunk. T. H. Huxley responded by saying "I never cared for gossip in my life, and disembodied gossip, such as those worthy ghosts supply their friends with, is not more interesting to me than any other. As for investigating the matter, I have half-a-dozen investigations of infinitely greater interest to me which any spare time I may have will be devoted. I give it up for the same reason I abstain from chess- It's too amusing to be fair work, and too hard work to be amusing."

We may put this in contrast with a well-known quote from the very same Huxley: "The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in each generation is to reclaim a little more land, to add something to the extent and to the solidity of our possessions." The references here to land, and to solidity, exemplify well the materialist mindset of hard data that still dominates today. It stands to reason that when there's infinitely more mystery than there is certainty in our world, the priority should be on the most immediately verifiable; but to Wallace, if the ethereal realm were understood, it would fill in all of the gaps. Perhaps a Lombroson illuminating horizontal plane would rise up and displace water from Huxley's illimitable sea of inexplicability, causing the imponderables to become quite matter of fact. And perhaps its all a daydream, or a fever dream brought on by the malaria of cognitive biases. 

Lombroso's work included the idea that other regressed, atavistic types included the insane and the geniuses. Evolutionary deviants, if not of the criminaloid type, may present staggering intellects but would pay for the benefits in the form of degraded organs and possibly madness. Similarly, there is a fine line between brilliance and crazy talk. It's difficult, as we get away from Huxley's illimitable ocean and back to the minefield, to conclude definitive answers on any of these mysteries and further, to discard or idolize any of the players and theories completely. It is a complicated and tangled mess. Lombroso's phylogenetic ideas have mostly, and rightly, been relegated to the garbage bins of quack science but the underlying idea that criminalism has underlying causes has evolved to include the social sciences of today. His reasoning as to what those causes were is wrong, but he paved the way for systematic and holistic ways of looking at society, which has led to beneficial reforms. The irony is that during his time his terribly problematic ideas were celebrated, and he was panned for allowing for the reality of ghosts. While we may have reclaimed more ground in the past century plus, it should be kept in mind that we are still very much surrounded by the inexplicable- and that the authority of today stands a good chance of looking foolish in the future.

Palladino herself has gone down in history as a fraud. By Houdini's account, the unassuming Italian ghost conjuror who fooled the greatest scientists in Europe was revealed as a mountebank by the magicians in America. Houdini, the great debunker of mediums, declared that all the laboratory investigations of her powers were worthless, as she was allowed to dictate the settings. He could explain the parlor tricks, and he did give her credit as the greatest deceiver of them all for her inventiveness. He noted that Hereward Carrington, the man who brought Eusapia to New York, even admitted that she would invariably resort to magic tricks if not watched carefully. He claimed she did this as a way of avoiding the strain of the "real" phenomena. Houdini had his own biases; he was on a crusade of sorts to discredit fraudulent spirit mediums. Carrington was actively profiting off of Palladino's American tour. As for Eusapia herself, who can say what her motivations were or what, if any, of her powers were genuine? Assuming Cheiro's account was true, how would Houdini explain that? The skills attributed to her range from pedestrian prestidigitation to the startlingly impressive, and occasionally downright bizarre as in the chilly forehead breeze. They culminate in a portrait of a woman, reflecting the contradictions within the cultural and scientific milieu of the era. In many ways, things haven't changed.

The error of hubris is all-pervasive in any era. Instead of thinking in terms of being surrounded by the inexplicable, as Huxley did, we often proceed as though we know most things and that there's only a handful of mysteries out there to solve. We really don't have authorities to whom we can appeal on the subject of life after death- it's more a matter of faith. Likewise, UFOs represent a challenge to preconceived notions about how the rest of reality, which we tend to take for granted, works. Opening ones' self to the myriad possibilities, and the weirdest possible scenarios- and hell, even the impossible ones- may not get us more ground, but on the other hand, it just might. We must realize our institutions, and models for the nature of reality, are imperfect and incomplete. There are other dimensions, other ways of contextualizing the anomalous and bizarre. Any sleight-of-hand trickster can tell you that point of view is crucial to pulling off a trick- and as you navigate the minefield, you must always be aware of the illusions around you. Step softly, ask questions, and above all stay curious. Certainty often leads to trouble.