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!

1 comment:

  1. I recall that John Keel had a chapter on the Indian rope trick in his early book Jadoo. He included what he claimed was a genuine account of a working (trick) method of doing it, with no mass hypnosis required.