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Sunday, May 21, 2023

UFO Rope Tricks and Threads From Nowhere


We all love a good yarn, and anyone who has looked into mysterious phenomena with any degree of honest inquiry is well familiar with those tales that fall apart once you begin pulling at the threads. There are a great many ways one can react to this; one may choose to discard the story altogether for fear it might contaminate the legitimacy of the other good stories, or one may hold on to it and put it in the “Maybe” pile. Still others might examine the yarn for its implications, and study those who believe it and why they do. This writer prefers to consider these loose threads, these in-between zones on the rich and mottled tapestry that is the subjective scope of Forteana, as the key to understanding how all of this weirdness - the outrageous claims, the patently unsatisfactory explanations, the investigators involved and even you, the reader - are connected.


To illustrate this point, the reader is invited to step right up and consider the Indian Rope Trick. It goes something like this: the street performer throws a rope into the air, which becomes rigid as though hanging from an unseen platform. The rope is then able to be climbed, and various avenues of performance have been described following this initial feat of the impossible.* It's classic stage magic performance, more often written of or spoken of than actually seen, it has been explained away in the past as a form of mass hallucination. The fakir, adept in clouding the minds of men, simply convinces the audience that he is performing the familiar trick, and the audience fills in the blanks as they watch the show with slackened jaws. This sounds absurd, and an early reference to such a claim came from a cousin of Theodore Roosevelt.  In a Baltimore Sun article from 1927, Andre Roosevelt claimed to have filmed the trick being performed. He and the audience alike saw the performance as advertised, but yet the camera showed no such thing! “Hypnotism!” concludes the reporter, “That is the rope trick of India.” 

The explanations of mass hallucination and hypnotism have long been a part of the UFO narrative of skeptical explanations. Often, those who make these claims are stage magicians themselves. In 1952 John Mulholland, a popular stage magician who also worked with the CIA, described flying saucers as a “state of mind”. He goes on to say that his decades of stage performance experience taught him that all manner of intelligent people “can, by suggestion, quite readily be made to see things which aren’t.” In the same decade, FATE Magazine ran an article about the rope trick; another well-known magician, Joseph Dunninger, said he knew of 37 ways that the trick could be accomplished- most of which, he said, were impossible. Included among the unlikely methods of pulling of the feat was hypnotizing the audience into believing they had seen it. The control conditions would need to be very specific for such a thing to work, and it was much less risky to use one of the others. It seems an old explanation for the magic trick, when applied to odd things in the sky, is adequate- and yet unlikely for the trick itself. But the show must go on, and so it does. One wonders if the phenomena behind the saucer sightings might not be putting on a show of its own…

Mass hallucination seems like a convenient, albeit unlikely explanation in cases where no physical evidence is left behind. Without anything tangible, with only the testimony of witnesses, we are left to grapple with the very fallible aspects of human perception and memory. Even still, without a carefully directed hand to distract them from what the other is doing, the idea that a group of people would collectively hallucinate the same thing seems as unlikely as anomalous craft from other worlds landing near a school. It may actually make more sense that, as Mac Tonnes suggested, these beings intentionally reveal themselves as a performance of some kind. If all we have at the end is a good yarn with an unsatisfactory prosaic explanation, then we have to accept that and find new ways to contextualize it. But what of those cases in which the physical evidence is all you have, and the story of the origin along with its explanation is the part that’s missing? Enter: the Mystery Threads from Nowhere.

In August of 1970, according to Berthold Shwartz and later reported by John Keel, a silver thread inexplicably appeared over Caldwell, New Jersey. The thread, it appeared to Dr. Shwartz, “came from no place and went no place. It just hung there.” This phenomena was referred to as “Sky-Lines” in a 1971 issue of Pursuit Magazine, wherein the writers who investigated the case found at least half a dozen of such strands of what appeared to be fishing line dangled from an imperceivable source. In one instance, over the course of the several months these mysterious nylon strands grazed the ground in Caldwell, four local boys spent an hour hauling in the line before it finally snapped. Analysis of the strands by DuPont revealed that it was a nylon material of some sort, commonly used for fishing line, but the source remained a mystery. Perhaps even stranger, when Dr. Shwartz sent a sample of the material to another investigator, the envelope arrived intact with nothing inside of it. The strand had disappeared, presto change-o, as mysteriously as it had arrived. The mystery threads here seem to defy categorization; other than the fact that they seemed to come from the sky, there is no direct link to UFOs. In opposition to tales of sightings which leave no physical evidence, as concluded in the Pursuit article, “we have the thing, but the how and why of it remain totally mystifying.”

Mystifying though it may be, this was not the first case of Mystery Threads from Nowhere. In 1955 a small town called Blakedale, in South Carolina, was tangled up in its own anomalous twine. The string was described as being like the kind used to fly a kite, but not strong enough to hold a kite. A tangled ball of it was discovered on the roof of a Mrs. Smith, and the children took turns pulling on the drifting string until they tired of it and broke it off. The thread seemed to continue across town, leading to speculation that it had something to do with the military or perhaps came from a weather balloon, although neither explanation was borne out with any evidence. The only origin everyone could agree on was that it came out of the sky…

Another account was from a man named Hut Wallace, who discovered a glimmering strand above his house. Reported in a 1973 issue of FATE Magazine, the Georgia man called his friend who worked for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution to come and see it. Neither man could see any source for the dangling string, it just seemed to come down from a clear blue sky. Wallace’s nephew eventually got on the roof and hauled in yards of what appeared to be green fishing line, but never saw anything at the other end of it. A nearby company manufactured similar products, but how it could have gotten into the air, and what could possibly have dangled it, again beggars the imagination. 

The final example I will include here is the first one I came across, and had filed it in my memory as simply a good yarn as it was an anecdotal accounting of events and sounded utterly bonkers to me at the time. After all, who had ever heard of Mystery Threads dangling from the sky? The story was shared on Facebook by a man named Tim, and it occurred at Stonehenge in 1976. He was there for a music festival, when a kid handed him a string coming out of the blue sky. He figured there was a kite, but he couldn’t see anything at the end, so he started to reel it in. He could feel the pull as though there were a kite, but after 45 minutes of pulling in line he decided to pass the string off to some “likely looking candidate”. He admonished the man to not let go- “after all,” he said, with a wry wit that one often finds among the British, “we don't know what's on the other end... it might come crashing down, it might be depending on us, we might be depending on it... what if actually 'it' is flying us?” He concludes by wondering whatever happened with the string, and whether somewhere, someone is still holding the end of it. “I certainly hope so”, he said. 

There is something uncanny, mind-bending, and existentially disquieting about something so mundane as a nylon line defying all that we know of physics and by extension, reality itself. For such a common, unremarkable thing as a string to buck the norms of our expectations and leave itself behind for examination, only ever leaving in its wake more questions, one gets the sense that the yarns we take in, and the threads that we pull on, inform aspects of our shared experience of the world and all its weirdness far more than we care to let on. What if some being was “flying us”, holding on to the other end? What if, as suggested jokingly in an article about the New Jersey thread, something was fishing for us? What if the Mystery Threads are just intergalactic performance art, a way for the phenomena to show us an Indian rope trick of its own? After all, the rope trick is just that- a trick. Isn’t it?

I encourage anyone reading this to chase down these yarns, to pull on these threads, and remember to have fun with it. It’s all a show, and there’s no sense in coming apart at the seams…


Addendum: a bonus "yarn" that's almost definitely not true, from The Saturday Blade, January 5th, 1895, in Chicago, Illinois.


An oversight on my part- initially I failed to actually describe the Indian Rope Trick. This has been corrected. The writer would like to express gratitude to his friend Theresa Meis, the Unicorn who breaths Fire, for pointing this out!

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Emanations From the Clown Realm- Legend Tripping, Hilarious Magic, and Synchronicity


Clowns and clowning around have long been a theme on this blog. Some of my earliest posts on here concerned my fascination with them, in particular the Phantom Clown wave of 1981 written about by Loren Coleman in his Mysterious America. I found early on that by engaging with this material, the unintended consequence of clown synchronicities was very much a thing I would have to contend with. As the years have gone by since those early days of whibbling along the wobbly path of wyrdshit, I've come to accept and learn from these effects- and have become much more comfortable with experiencing them. I've only gotten sillier over time as well, which has only worked to my benefit.

My long history of association with clown material made me a natural choice as a guest, along with my good friend and fellow kook Stephanie Quick, on the Our Strange Skies Podcast for a chat about Sam, the Sandown Clown and other clowny Forteana. I did warn the listening audience that just by hearing us talk about these subjects, they would experience clown synchronicities of their own. Some themes presented themselves during the discussion in the episode, among them birthdays (Stephanie and the host, Rob Kristoffersen, both had birthdays around the same time as the initial Sandown Clown encounter and the Phantom Clown wave), the trickster nature of clowns and the childlike viewpoint that allows for bizarre encounters, and, inexplicably, lots of jokes about nudity. Naturally, I had to draw a picture for Rob once I began to combine these elements in my head:

In addition to the Sam story and the Phantom Clowns, Stephanie talked about an area we dubbed "The Denny's Vortex"- where Ted "the PK Man" Owens had once performed his weather magic to bust a drought and conjured a UFO, and where later an anomalous clown appeared. Steph and I had discussed Owens before, on The Eternal Void But with Jazz podcast, which unfortunately no longer is available to hear. Around that time, I acquired an "SI disc"- a sort of talismanic object Owens claimed would help others learn how to perform their own weather manipulation through contact with Space Intelligences- from Tim Schwartz. I've had some successes in controlling the weather, although how much of that is down to just plain old coincidence is a matter of conjecture. With all of this stuff- coincidence, synchronicity, mysteries, magic, and weird tales- I've adopted a light touch, and chosen to proceed as though it's all real with my tongue firmly in my cheek. All of it is real, and also none of it. The question is, is it fun?

My statement about clown synchros in the episode was meant to be fun. I did have people's synchronicities related to clowns reported back to me, and I quite enjoyed them. A few of my own, that I'll mention here, are examples of the kinds of things one might expect. It's been a habit later at night to throw on an old episode of Seinfeld when I'm just about ready for bed, and the night I recorded with Rob and Steph the episode "The Little Jerry" was cued up. The plot advances from Jerry having bounced a check at the local bodega, and publicly shamed for it by the shop owner. The design on the checks Jerry used gets pointed out and joked about several times:

A more significant synchro took form in anticipating a wash-out on the day of a town-wide yard sale that my wife had been looking forward to. She has her own business reselling clothing and other things, and was really hoping to stock up in the town of Rutland, Massachusetts- where the town-wide yard sale was scheduled rain or shine. She asked me if I could perform some weather magic to keep the rain at bay. I sighed and said I would try.

The morning of the yard sale the forecast wasn't looking very good. The radar map showed dark clouds converging on Rutland, but I assured her that there would be no rain until 2:15 p.m. Intermittent sprinkles threatened to make a liar out of me as we started to poke around at some yard sales on the edge of town, and at one of the first we went to the man in charge lured me into a tent to try to sell me a clown.

Finding clown things at yard sales isn't uncommon, but it struck me as significant that he made it a point to direct me to them. As the day wore on, the weather was cold and raw but no rain fell. We eventually decided we'd follow the posted signs to one last yard sale before quitting for the day and going to get lunch, and when we arrived at the last one there was a clown painting prominently placed out front.

Oddly enough, the name "PAM" - which is my wife's name- is written in the bottom right corner.
We ate lunch and left the restaurant at 2:05. I said "almost time for rain." As we drove home, raindrops began to fall...

It occurred to me in the midst of all of this that my own brand of Hilarious Magic might just be the thing to close the portal to the Clown Realm once and for all. So I set about planning a Very Serious expedition to find this portal and perform Clown Magics there to do just that.

On the 42nd anniversary of the original Phantom Clown sightings in the greater Boston area, I set my sights on a specific part of Franklin Park. In reviewing the case for the podcast, and being more familiar with the Boston area than I once was, I came to realize that the park system in that region referred to as The Emerald Necklace seemed to have something to do with the clown sightings.
Clipping from The Boston Globe, 7 May 1981

The sightings began in Brookline, near Longwood Ave, which is a riverside area adjacent to the parks. Next they were seen in Franklin Park in Roxbury and in Jamaica Plain, both part of the Emerald Necklace system. The reports eventually taper off in Randolph and Canton, and interestingly enough those towns are just to the north of the northernmost tip of the Bridgewater Triangle. If the Triangle were imagined as an arrow head, it would be pointing right at them. The sightings then resumed in Providence, Rhode Island, which is situated to the west of the westernmost tip of the Triangle.

My journey to the Clown Portal began in Cambridge, where Pam got some thrifting in at the Garment District and I obtained some ritual clown things at the Boston Costume Company downstairs. We then got lunch at Mamaleh's Delicatessen, which appeared to have a giant pickle with a resemblance to Groucho Marx as a mascot. I took this as a fortuitous omen, and, fortified with brined fish and onions, began the perilous drive from Cambridge to 

The route seemed to be the same one the Phantom Clowns might have used; we passed through Brookline in the Longwood Ave neighborhood, and followed the river to our destination. A road we were counting on using was closed due to a festival happening in one of the parks, and a detour cost us some precious time. Another road closure forced us to re-route and I knew at that point that the malicious clown energy was trying to deter us. Still, we pressed on. 

We finally arrived at the parking area of White Stadium in Franklin Park, with just a half hour to get some Very Serious Funny Business accomplished before the parking lot closed. I took my new foam clown nose and rubber chicken and set out for the ruins, where I suspect the Clown Realm had emanated its denizens upon the unsuspecting populace 42 years prior.

Pictured: Very Serious Funny Business

The acquisition of a rubber chicken was a classic Clown Magic reversal of magical norms. Where some traditions would require the sacrifice of a live chicken, the obtaining of a rubber one seemed the best and funniest method of restoring Good Humor and fun magic to the world. The foam clown nose allowed for better comfort and was easier to breathe through than my old one, which was good because I needed my strength in such an undertaking. The Hawaiian shirt I wore was a symbolic gesture and nod to Loren Coleman, who is often seen wearing such shirts. Incidentally, while I was doing this nonsense, he was hosting an in-store signing in Bangor with the comic book writer John Rozum, who had featured a character based on Loren in a recent Scooby-Doo comic. It might be a bit of a stretch, but one of the earliest villains the Mystery, Inc crew faced was... the Ghost Clown.

With the portal to the Clown Realm located, it was a simple matter of solemn recitation of a few knock-knock jokes, a salutation of the sun while chanting "Why did the chicken cross the veil?", and a bit of undisclosable tomfoolery and jiggery-pokery. Also, my antics inspired laughter from the few passers-by that I encountered, which is only ever a good thing. I count that as a success within itself- and if new rumors start spreading about a clown in the park, all the better.

The irony, it seems, is that in order to defeat the clown, you must become the clown.

I am increasingly more ok with this with every passing year. I hope my efforts have rippling effects and inspire smiles, senses of adventure, and more wonder in the world. Channel your inner clown, and you'll see for yourself...