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Saturday, September 30, 2023

Nestled in the Holy Bosom of Bigfoot

Bigfoot is, well, big these days. The legendary cryptid seems to be enjoying a renaissance of a sort; the iconic profile in mid-step appears on bumper stickers, flags, and t-shirts, and even decorates suburban yards in the form of a wooden cut-out. The phenomena of de-facto Sasquatch appreciation has become an almost subliminal form of acceptance for this mystery hominid. While displaying Bigfoot imagery across the board does not necessarily mean that more people are true believers, it does seem to indicate a willingness to recognize a phenomena without fear of reprisal or of being considered a kook. Even when presented jokingly, the iconography of the hairy champion of the wilds reifies a type of existence, a less material one, one that is malleable and subject to our societal whims and prejudices.

It is interesting to see how Bigfoot tends to be represented in mass cultural artifacts such as bumper stickers, and perhaps not surprising that "he" has come to represent macho, outdoor sportsmanship. The big hairy monster has become a running joke in Jack Link's Jerky commercials on TV, in which he is the target of practical jokes. Cardboard cut-outs of this version can be seen in convenience stores, holding a bag of the smoked meat. The jerky-eating, manly beast then becomes an icon to hunters and many depictions in the aforementioned bumper stickers have him carrying a gun. Our beloved national cryptid, it seems, is increasingly embraced by gun-nuts of the right-wing. To the uninitiated, Bigfoot represents an animalistic liberation - the untamed negative-film version of the essence of "Man". He is somewhat human, but free- unrestricted, a wild man of the forest, huge and intimidating- everything men want to be but can't be, because society won't let him. This is all, of course, conjecture, based on a small sampling of cultural evidence. It is of course also meant to serve as an example of how a peripheral, half-joking acceptance of a creature leaves it still open to interpretation and to being co-opted by groups with their own political motives. 

This is the numinous Bigfoot, the one who lurks and hides behind trees and boulders in our collective unconscious. Our every representation of the beast serves as an emanation of the very real Idea Form of Bigfoot, and also informs that which presents in more gross material form. While the aforementioned "Macho Squatch" may seem to be the dominant model, it's just as easy to find Bigfoot adopted as an LGBTQIA+ totem in bumper stickers and other merchandise. One can also find Bigfoot with guitars, or fishing poles, or beer- the beastie becomes a blank slate, a movie screen suspended in the woods, waiting for the masses to project themselves upon it. Any particular niche interest, it seems, can be found associated with the squatch if one looks for it enough online.

Bigfoot seen celebrating Pride Month, outside the home of UMASS Amherst anthropology professor Todd Disotell in Brimfield, MA

Cryptozoologists and fans of cryptids have a more nuanced view, of course. These can still border on the problematic, or seem as silly as memes which depict Bigfoot alongside Elvis and the Loch Ness Monster, but nonetheless an earnest investigatory approach does away with basic assumptions that inform public ideas more broadly. One obvious presupposition, which nearly all fictional and iconographic representations fall prey to, is that "he" is almost ubiquitously assumed to be male. Bigfoot is as much a caricature, a totemic personality or spirit, typifying the wild male essence, as it is a supposed race of mysterious natural creatures. If one is to assume that there is a breeding population, one must accept that both male and female specimens exist. If one ascribes to more metaphysical explanations, this may not be necessary, but the point is that the surface-level reading broadly assumes a masculine, brutish giant- and rarely ever a ladysquatch.

This brings us to the most well-known image- and perhaps one of the best pieces of evidence- of Bigfoot that we have. The Patterson-Gimlin film, captured in October of 1967, is a brief but compelling video of a Sasquatch in the forest who briefly turns to look at the camera before swiftly turning, and walking off into the forest of Northern California. "Patty", as the squatch in question has been dubbed, has become the source of nearly all 'bigfoot-in-side-profile' silhouette iconography and graphic design for merchandise. The irony of course is that "Bigfoot" as a macho beastie, repeated almost subliminally to us all through repeated uses of the design, was in fact based on what appeared to be a female Sasquatch. The average person with a Bigfoot bumper sticker may not know, or much care about the anatomical particulars, but that's part of what makes Patty's breasts one of those gleaming and intriguing bits of evidence that seem to really illuminate the mystery before us. If, as so often the accusation has been laid, Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin got someone to wear an ape suit in order to fake the video, why on Earth would they choose an ape suit with breasts? The debate over this brief bit of video evidence has raged for over 50 years. Some claim the dynamics of a suit would have been impossible in 1967, while others maintain their skepticism in every conceivable way. While seekers of mysteries seek and skeptics scoff, the side profile of Patty, her breasts obscured or ignored, makes a heel-turn into eternity in the memetic form so familiar to us now. 

When the subject of Patty's breasts gets any wider recognition, it takes a turn toward juvenile joking and tabloid sleaze-mongering. At the 50th anniversary of Patty's strut into the collective unconscious, The Sun (UK) ran the headline BIGFOOT HAS BOOBS , and goes on to quote Gimlin in a way bound to generate laughter and ridicule from an incredulous readership. If Bigfoot has achieved a degree of acceptance, broadly, as a possible real entity, it seems the public is not ready for a mature discussion of Bigfoot boobies. This writer would be disingenuous to try to claim that it isn't funny, but at the same time it says something about our culture that discussions about basic anatomy and secondary sexual organs are so often taboo enough to be reduced to dirty jokes. Referring to Patty's boobs in a headline on a tabloid page has some degree of similarity to the classic Weekly World News story of a man abducted by Bigfoot for sexual reasons.

This harkens back to the famous abduction story of Albert Ostman, who claimed some thirty-three years after the fact to have been held hostage by a family of Sasquatch for a week in 1924. According to his tale, he was scooped up in the middle of the night inside his sleeping bag and carried for three hours to a plateau where the creatures lived. Here we see the nuclear family of Bigfoot- two adults and their two progeny, living an idyllic life eating some form of sweet grass in their hidden British Columbia home. Ostman, a prospector, woodsman, and lumberjack, was armed but felt no need to use weapons against the weird family of hairy beings. They didn't seem to mean him harm, but wouldn't let him leave either- he only escaped by fooling the large male squatch into eating snuff and becoming ill, and taking advantage of the distraction. Though widely ridiculed, Ostman's account is nevertheless a popular and commonly cited one- and one which portrays Sasquatch in a kind and nurturing light. One gets the sense of a maternal, or perhaps simply parental, protective motive in abducting him. Perhaps they thought he was lost, and meant to take care of him...

Similarly, Bigfoot is portrayed this way in the 1987 "crowd pleaser" of a family adventure comedy Harry and the Hendersons. The titular Harry (a play on the word "Hairy") is a Sasquatch who is taken to live with a family after being hit with their car and knocked out. Hilarity ensues, naturally- and one can assume a certain generation of Forteans were influenced by this movie in their youth. The father of the Henderson family, played by John Lithgow, is a hunter. His walls are festooned with taxidermy, trophies from his sport. Harry is visibly disturbed, and angered by the dead animals. Lithgow, as George Henderson, comes to a change of heart about his interaction with nature- a transformative effect, inspired by Harry in his almost matronly (despite his implied masculine gender) attitude of stewardship over the forest and the small creatures.

Harry, then, becomes an avatar of sorts for the wonder and the horrors of the wild- part Smokey the Bear, part King Kong, and all Mother Nature, he is the demarcation point for our human need to be part of the natural world while at the same time separate from it. Harry can't live in a suburban home any more than we could live without our societal structures in the forest.

Thinking of Bigfoot in terms of iconography, fictional representation, first-hand accounts, as a meme or in the form of public display as statues and cut-outs one can't help but realize that it has become quite literally idolized. Much in the same way that religious groups use material representations of saints, gods, protector spirits, and other spiritual entities we are reifying the Spirit of Sasquatch with increasing frequency. In some suburbs, Bigfoot is just as likely to be seen as a lawn ornament as Saint Francis is and, as illustrated above, the two share a commonality as spirits who commune with nature. It has been conjectured that the repeated symbol form of Bigfoot may cause an increase in sightings, as more museums pop up devoted to the cryptid and become places of seeming pilgrimage for believers. There is a corollary here for devotional journeys to places associated with Marian apparitions, or sacred sites where miracles have taken place. Casts of Bigfoot prints become almost like the Shroud of Turin; remnants of hair or scat samples become analogous to the reliquary of saints in the form of body parts. Encounters become a form of miracle. There is even a Holy Order of the Sasquatch that you can join, if you so wish- although, according to them, you might already be a member without knowing it!

A recent "miraculous" synchronicity between myself and my bestie SJ, in which we both visited Bigfoot museums on opposite coasts, may have inspired our own *ahem* cult activities in the form a a show... The Holy Donut Revival Hour, coming soon!

A study of Bigfoot through this religious, and specifically Catholic way, leads us to consider the cryptid as less of a zoological specimen and more of a rising spiritual force. If we look at Bigfoot sighings in a fashion similar to reports of Marian apparitions, as may be appropriate given the mother-like Bigfoot examples we have established, we open ourselves to new and weirder vistas from which to view the phenomenon. To conceive of this idea is far from immaculate, but as a rough case study, let us consider the Miraculous Lactation of Saint Bernard.

Perplexing medieval depictions of the miracle in question show Mary appearing before Bernard of Clairvaux at a distance, squeezing one breast and propelling an arc of breast milk into his open mouth. Much in the way that a discussion of Patty's boobs brings chuckles and ridicule, this image seems absurd to the point of hilarity. If Bigfoot breasts are difficult to discuss, then a breastmilk trick-shot from the Holy Mother seems impossible. The legend has its origins, however, with Bernard kneeling before a statue of the Holy Virgin, and saying monstra te esse matrem, or "show yourself to be the Holy Mother". The statue then comes to life, and holds Bernard's mouth to her breast, allowing him to drink from it. Various interpretations over the centuries since the 12th century miracle have ascribed holy and supernatural properties to the Virgin's breastmilk, endowing Bernard with gifts of healing, vision, wisdom, oratory gifts, or relief from suffered afflictions depending on the source. Significant are the resonances here between the Catholic miracle story and Bigfoot encounters- The apparition and its relation to statuary, the supernatural elements and Holy Mothering, and the personal transformation undergone by Bernard after the experience. It's also worth noting that "Saint Bernard" also refers to large, hairy mammals in the form of dogs bred for rescue and care of people stranded in the icy climbs of the Alps. 

Coming back around to modern tales of Bigfoot encounters, we find a story which mirrors the miraculous lactation. It was reported by a man identifying himself only as "Mac from Mississippi", on the Monsters Among Us podcast. (You can find Mac's call in Season 9, episode 6, about 38 minutes in.) He tells the story of a deer hunting trip gone wrong. He had fallen from a hunter's stand up in an oak tree, and hurt himself badly on the lower branches and losing consciousness. He awoke to find he was being lifted from the tangle of branches and lowered to the ground by massive hands, and despite losing his glasses recognized those hands as belonging to a female Sasquatch. He described her as having a feminine face, and lactating breasts, and described her as being nurturing in holding him in much the way Koko the Gorilla was with her pet kitten. The female squatch then fed the paralyzed man from her breast, the milk from which he described as awful in taste. He was later found and brought to a hospital, where it was determined he had broken his back. While there doesn't seem to be any direct association between the breastmilk itself and any healing or otherwise magical effects, Mac in his retelling seems to believe that the nurturing mother Bigfoot's actions saved him from predation of known wild animals such as coyotes and bobcats. In a very real sense, assuming the story is true and also not simply a shock-induced hallucination, he was "delivered from on high" and saved by the Mother Bigfoot. His survival is a testament to the gentle nature of this sacred woodland spirit, and mirrors in a literal sense the metaphysical themes of spiritual salvation.

The real truth of the Bigfoot Mystery may never be known, or agreed upon. Skeptics are at a loss to prove they don't exist, because even attempting to do so is a faulty logical premise. They can merely outline the many and varied reasons that the presence of a flesh-and-blood animal meeting that description is very unlikely. True believers and avid Bigfoot Hunters may continue pursuing this phantom of the biological record, while others may accept him, her, or it as a Nature Spirit, one of the Fae, or any number of other less-than-material explanations. The Mystery, however, may be the point- and closer to the Sacred Mysteries contemplated by monks and mystics down through the ages than we might be comfortable believing. Just as the Sacred Heart of Jesus is central to Catholic devotion as a symbol of God's love for us humans, perhaps the unifying natural order that envelops and includes us mere mortals is nestled somewhere in the Holy Bosom of Bigfoot. It is something we yearn for, but can never have in this world- something we chase which always eludes us. Perhaps we'll find ourselves in meccas like the International Cryptozoology Museum, kneeling before Bigfoot saying monstra te esse Monstrum - "show yourself to be the monster" - and find the Sasquatch holding a mirror to its breast revealing our horrified faces to our own eyes. Maybe the Mystery isn't meant to be known, but rather just experienced. In the holy name of Bigfoot, amen.




Saturday, September 23, 2023

The Marlborough Mystery and the Bones of the 23 Enigma

 In November of 1913, a ship called the Johnson made a gruesome discovery. While traveling past a cove off the coast of Chile, they spotted a derelict ship which appeared to be in good condition and the captain decided to investigate. Upon approaching the vessel, it quickly became apparent that the ship was in bad shape- a green moss was growing on the sails and masts, and the wood was rotting away. Most disturbing of all, the only people aboard were long dead- the captain, now little more than a skeleton, was found still clutching the helm's wheel! A few of the crew were also reduced to bones above deck, and though investigation proved difficult due to the unstable nature of the boat, the Johnson crew found more skeletons in the mess area. They also determined that the shipment of lumber was still intact, and they discovered the name of the vessel- Marlborough of Glasgow.

Upon landing in Lyttelton, New Zealand, the captain of the Johnson reported the discovery to learn that the Marlborough had left their port in 1890- 23 years earlier- with a crew of 23 men- never to be heard from again. The captain, named Hird, was bound for Glasgow and had last been seen in the Straits of Magellan. How had the men died? And when? Had they all died at once, leaving a literal skeleton crew to sail about for over two decades before coming to rest in the place they had been discovered? How had the ship not been dashed upon rocks or sunk during a storm in all those years?

These are the bones, as it were, of the Marlborough Mystery story. This version of events appears in FATE Magazine, written up by Vincent H. Gaddis in the March, 1951 issue. It would later be included in Frank Edwards' Strangest of All (1956), Brad Steiger's The Unknown (1966), and in Into the Strange by Warren Smith in 1968. (Many thanks to Dr. Jerrold Coe, whose wonderful blog is well worth perusal, for pointing me to these sources.) As with any mystery, and with many of the timeworn tales of Forteana or seafaring superstitions and legends, there are minor variations on the details. The major implications remain consistent, and the questions brought about by them are terrifying and mind-bending. If we are to entertain the mystery, taking the basic story for granted, we can imagine all sorts of fanciful explanations. Perhaps there was a time slip of some kind, or perhaps the dead sailors were cursed to be corporeal revenants, manning a vessel even as the flesh fell from their frames. No doubt some would speculate that aliens were involved, or point to some strange conspiracy related to Atlantis. Just as the fog rolls in over the sea, the questions overwhelm the mind. The imagined monsters hiding in the fog become grandiose, and without the visibility of the stars to guide a course we are stuck in place- not unlike the Marlborough.

The repetition of the number 23 is significant, particularly since it applies here to a lost boat. 23 seems to appear often in strange tales, and is hailed by Discordians as being particularly important. Robert Anton Wilson popularized the 23 Enigma in the 1970s, and credits its discovery to William S Burroughs in a 1977 issue of Fortean Times. Burroughs, he claimed, knew a man called Captain Clark who boasted about having 23 years of experience at sea without an accident. Upon setting sail, his ship crashed and killed everyone on board- a cruel twist of fate. While thinking about this later, he heard about the crash of an airliner- Flight 23- off the coast of Florida. The pilot was named Captain Clark.

The 23 Enigma, then, might be seen as an ominous one, though that is not always the case. 23 seems to be a number of mystery, of fate, and the interconnecting nature of things. Wilson would go on to include the Enigma in his works, notably as part of his journey into the Chapel Perilous in Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati. The 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet is Psi, which has applications in fields as nebulous as quantum mechanics, psychology, and of course in parapsychology, where "Psi" effects relate to all manner of ESP, psychokinesis, and other wild talents. 

Noticing the frequency of the number in relation to Odd Things is a wonderful example of synchronicity at play in the world, so long as you employ the "Maybe Logic" of RAW and interrogate your own Belief System (BS). Otherwise, madness is a danger, like Jim Carrey in the 2007 movie The Number 23 experiences. The mysteries of 23 are perhaps best left as an indicator, something to be noted peripherally- as synchronicity largely should be. These events and symbols often act as signs, directing you on a path, but are not themselves the path forward. One can easily lose sight of the forest for the synchronici-trees.

The author's own house marker

Having established the anomalous significance of the 23 years the Marlborough apparently drifted with only skeletons to pilot it, we can now pierce through the fog of the unknown and perhaps satisfy some of these concerns. Looking at newspaper articles from 1913, further discrepancies in the narrative appear. Two examples follow, from the New Smyrna Daily News (December 5, 1913) and The Star Tribune (December 14, 1913) respectively:

These two articles present very different versions of events, despite being published within ten days of each other and both allegedly derived from news "cabled in from New Zealand". These discrepancies also conflict with the later FATE Magazine article, most disappointing among them the number of crew members. Both earlier sources say the ship had left port with 33 crew members, not 23- and that 20-30 skeletons were found onboard. One of the two also notes that 3 passengers had been aboard the ship when it left port. The biggest difference between the two news sources cited above is that while The New Smyrna Daily News version presents it as one among thousands of mysteries of seafaring, The Star Tribune heavily implies that the crew were massacred and the cargo was looted by "the wild tribes of Patagonia".  This is inconsistent with other accounts in their description of Puntas Arenas, where the ship is alleged to have been found. It was conjectured that the ship would have drifted into the cove after the death of the crew precisely because it was a heavily trafficked area, and could not have gone undetected for the 23 years it was missing had it crashed there. Also, the area is described as one which was populated and visited by merchants- hardly fitting the racist depiction of "wild tribes" looting ships for cargo. The cargo in question is another great discrepancy between these early accounts and the later Fortean retellings- it wasn't lumber that the Marlborough carried, but rather mutton and wool!

In the 19th century shipping meat was risky business, and expensive. Refrigeration was accomplished by way of ice, which had to be naturally sourced. The Marlborough and its sister ship, the Dunedin, were among the earliest ships to utilize new methods of artificial refrigeration for such long-distance meat trade. The freezing plants in these early refrigerated "reefer" ships were well insulated and used methods of air cooling through rapid evaporation, with ammonia or ether creating the necessary chemical reaction. Given that the Dunedin also disappeared without a trace that same year, one wonders if perhaps a leak of vapors from these early cooling systems was the culprit for the death of the respective crews. Whatever the case, it doesn't explain how the skeletons of the Marlborough ended up where they did. 

 It might be helpful at this juncture to pause and consider again the number 23, our ship having entered a realm between light and shadow, between science and superstition. We could do worse than using The Twilight Zone as a way of contextualizing this story! Rod Serling's groundbreaking TV series had many episodes centered around ill-fated boats and planes. The most pertinent of these is Season 2, Episode 3- The Arrival. The above image is a still from 5 minutes and 23 seconds into the show, with a prominent "23" in the background. (This is Hangars 2 and 3, much like the season and episode number.) The story is about a plane that lands in an airport without a crew or any passengers onboard- and the hard-nosed investigator who has never failed to solve a case is determined to figure out how, and why. (Here the author implores you to find and watch this episode, if you're not familiar with it. It's just great and it's about to be spoiled.) In the process of investigating with staff members at the airport, he realizes that one of them reported the plane had blue seats for passengers, while another saw them as red. The case is thus solved: the DC-3 airliner before them doesn't exist at all. It is merely an illusion that only exists because they all agree that it does, but focusing on any details in particular reveals its illusory nature.

Such may well be the case with the 23, or 20, or 30 skeletons of the Marlborough and their final destination on the rocky shores of Puntas Arenas. The earliest known news source on this was The Straits Times out of Singapore- one wonders why it wouldn't have made the news first in New Zealand, since that's where the Johnson allegedly reported it and the last place Captain Hird (or Herd, depending on the source) was seen alive. The story of the skeletons of the Marlborough are largely thought to be a fiction, alongside other tales of it being found adrift elsewhere, or reports that the crew had survived. There are variations on the skeleton story going back to 1891, within a year of the ship's disappearance- and perhaps, the 23rd year of its voyage into the fateful waters of the Wyrd gave it the extra mystique needed to garner extra attention. With the rolling tides of passing decades, worn bare by distance in time and space the reported facts that remained beguiled and attracted readers of FATE, only to inspire more retellings yet. The Marlborough and its sister ship were lost to the sea, like so many other boats and planes, without a definite reason- and the Johnson may never have existed in the first place.

One wonders if Burroughs ever knew a man called Clark who captained a vessel into history, inspiring Robert Anton Wilson to write about the 23 Enigma. In a brief search for the "Flight 23" he claims to have heard about "sometime around 1960", one finds a crash in the Gulf of Mexico occurred on November 16th, 1959- piloted by a Captain Todd. His flight engineer was one George Clark. Was there actually a Flight 23 piloted by a Captain Clark? One wonders how much it really matters. This gets to the central nature of the 23 Enigma alluded to above; it is pure hubris to expect anything other than fluidity when we're concerning ourselves with truth and storytelling. The rising and falling of the waves may make one seasick, but the sense of adventure on the high seas and the mysteries obscured by the fog and the murky deep thrill and inspire us. As we sail, we may see Captain Clark on a boat or a plane going by; we may pass a ship crewed only by skeletons. We may see UFOs or sea serpents, for that matter. With the ocean spray in our faces, we venture into the unknown- determined to return to port with stories to tell.

23 Skidoo!

Sunday, September 10, 2023

The Fox and the Faculty X Files

There can be no doubt that Fox Broadcasting Company has had a massive impact on culture, especially in the United States. While broadly this has been of a political nature, in their divisive news programming, the sitcoms and dramas produced in the early 1990s had a different but no less groundbreaking impact. The Simpsons, now the longest running program of its kind, is so ubiquitous that it has a sort of subliminal presence- Homer, occupying an archetype of the dopey American everyman, looms so large in the public psyche that one can't help but think the show has had unmeasured effects on the world. I am sure that I am not alone in finding that references to the show sometimes slip out almost unconsciously in conversation; and, further, the wide appeal of the show and its long run has been noted for its seeming ability to predict future events. While the simple explanation is that after decades of programs, the sheer volume of plots and gags would by statistical chance mirror future events, its no less cromulent to suppose that perhaps the writers managed to tap into a psychic pipeline in crafting the episodes. This very dichotomy is at the heart of the focus of today's meditation- Fox's own Fox Mulder, and his partner Dana Scully, the lead pair of FBI agents in The X-Files.

At the time of this writing, The X-Files is celebrating 30 years since its debut. While I'm certain that many who are interested in weird subjects like UFOs, ghostly phenomena, monsters, and conspiracies were profoundly effected or inspired by the show, it also brought a lot of these ideas to audiences who may not otherwise have interacted with them. In line with the aforementioned effects of both The Simpsons and Fox's news programming, whether these effects were good overall is really a matter of perspective. Still, there have been studies which have made a case for such things as The Scully Effect - the idea that by virtue of her presence in popular fiction, Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully inspired young women to pursue careers in the fields of science. Ever the level-headed skeptic, Scully always balanced Mulder's reckless abandon in pursuit of the most bizarre case files the FBI could offer. One can't help but to feel sympathy for Scully, who long suffers at the whims of a partner who valued discovery of hidden truths over all else. The dynamic is perhaps best captured in a scene from the episode "Quagmire" (Season 3, Episode 22) in which the pair (along with Scully's short lived pup, Queequeg), go in search of a lake monster called Big Blue. Stranded in the dark, out in the lake at night, Scully compares Mulder's monomanaical obsession with truth-seeking to that of Ahab's in Moby Dick. Everything, she says, "takes on a warped significance" to suit Mulder and justify his actions. Mulder quips immediately by asking her is she's coming onto him.

She is correct, as is often the case on the show. If Fox Mulder is a hero, he's a tragic one; and much like Captain Ahab he would rather stab at the mysteries of life from Hell's heart in his dying breath than simply live with it. Just look at the body count in any given episode, and how many of those deaths are collateral damage to his efforts. Look at his lack of a social life, which eventually becomes mirrored by the same in Scully's life. Mulder was an obsessive paranoiac, but the difference between him and the average tinfoil hat researcher is that the government paid him to be that way. This is not to say Mulder didn't have his admirable qualities; of course he did, and as much as Homer Simpson came to symbolize the everyman Mulder came to be an avatar for truth seekers and DIY researchers of all walks of life. The irony seems to be that in choosing him as a role model, real-life pursuers of the Truth-that-is-out-there miss the subtle cautionary tale inherent in the story. The history of Ufology in particular includes many examples of those who have discarded their lives - whether intentionally or otherwise - under the pretense of revealing the Truth to the public. Many today in the Disclosure movement would do well to heed the warnings offered by Mulder's example, but, as is often the case, he is instead idolized as an example to follow. The path that Mulder's flashlight illuminates is one that leads to madness; one should, instead, seek the yin and yang of both lead characters together, rather than one or the other.

Speaking personally, one particular episode that embiggened my consciousness in the same subliminal way Simpsons references occasionally manifest in my speech is "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" (Season 3, episode 4). The episode is written by Darin Morgan, who wrote all of my favorite episodes of the show. These include "Jose Chung's From Outer Space", which is perhaps the single best fictional presentation of high strangeness and the difficulty inherent in making a cohesive story appear from it; "Humbug", which centers on circus and carnival characters; and, when the series returned for a brief run, the two best episodes "Mulder and Scully Meet the Weremonster" and "The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat". In addition, he appeared on the show in "Small Potatoes", and played the Flukeworm Man in the episode "The Host". 

If all of that isn't enough, he also helped to write the aforementioned Ahab dialog in "Quagmire", although he didn't write the main episode. Morgan has a way of tapping directly into the quintessence of the great mysteries, by way of well-crafted stories in which Mulder and Scully are forced to contend with the purely absurd. Often funny and always charming, his contributions in the form of "Monster of the Week" episodes utilized that very humor and charisma to convey the nature of anomalies in a way that few dramatic interpretations can ever hope to achieve. 

Such is undoubtedly the case with "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose". Peter Boyle guest stars as the titular character, an insurance salesman who is worn down by life and feels he is cursed with psychic abilities. Mulder is able to sense this about him, and Bruckman reluctantly agrees to aid he and Scully in the investigation into murders of fortune tellers in his native Saint Paul, Minnesota. His main ability seems to be knowing precisely the manner and time of a person's death, well before it happens- so of course, he sells life insurance. He seemingly predicts Mulder's death with an off-hand comment about auto-erotic asphyxiation, and famously tells Scully that she doesn't die. The part of the episode that impacted me, and my worldview, went largely forgotten for years and was only discovered when I revisited the series long after originally seeing it. 

Bruckman explains how he developed his abilities, more or less by accident, after hearing about the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. He explains that in 1959 he had a ticket to see the three rock and roll legends play what would have been their next stop, had their plane the American Pie not crashed. He was particularly excited to see the Big Bopper, known for his song "Chantilly Lace"- and found out later that the only reason the Big Bopper got a seat on the plane to begin with was that he had flipped a coin with someone else for it. (In real life, this did happen, only it was Buddy Holly who had flipped the coin to win a seat on the plane. We can forgive Morgan for this inaccuracy though!) Bruckman became obsessed with the coin flip, and realized that all of life is composed of little moments that lead to something so small as a coin flip- which could mean the difference between life and death for even so great a personage as the Big Bopper. His obsession with causality, and imagining the myriad factors and variables which manifest in everything that can be said to happen, eventually led him to accurately determine when someone would die- and how. "I know it sounds crazy, but I swear it's true!" he says, "I was a bigger fan of the Big Bopper than I was of Buddy Holly."

I never necessarily considered myself to be psychic, but I have long believed that all human beings (and all life forms, for that matter) have some degree of sensory perception that is as yet not understood by modern science. Some are naturally more adept at accessing the information, while for others it takes dedicated practice- but each of us has some germ of omniscience within us. Colin Wilson calls this idea "Faculty X", in his excellent book The Occult: A History, which I always recommend to people who are only beginning to explore occult ideas. He supposes that ancient man, unfettered by the distractions and conveniences of modern life, would have had innate extrasensory perceptions that enabled him to survive in a chaotic and dangerous world. Some remnant of that still exists, and there are many schools of thought about how one harnesses this awareness. I felt pretty clever for years, thinking I had just stumbled on the idea that simply by considering causality I might have some inkling of future events. It was never easy for me to explain, which was fine because I rarely had anyone sympathetic to whom I could explain it- but the nature of Time, whibbly and wobbly as it is, is merely illusory. We experience it in a linear way because otherwise, our minds would break. By perceiving all that is happening now- by really paying attention and noting what's going on in your immediate environment, in meditative silence, one just might be able to perceive what has happened and what will occur. Further, by considering why everything you perceive at any given moment is occurring, you glimpse a bit of the machinery, which trains the mind to anticipate how that same machinery will operate moving forward.

As I type this now, in my living room with my small dog curled up next to me on the couch, I can see outside that the storm is winding down to a light drizzle. Birds are chirping in the distance. My wife has gone out shopping, which inspired me to start typing this. All of these present affairs are intimately interrelated. Had it not stormed today, my wife would have insisted on going to the flea market- or, perhaps, would have preferred to go shopping further away- but since she doesn't like driving in the rain, she stayed closer to home. Had we gone to the flea market, I wouldn't be writing this right now- and if I wrote it later, it would undoubtedly be a very different meditation indeed. These are small examples of immediate awareness of the NOW, which is a window into the WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN- and, quite possibly, also a window into WHAT WILL BE.

The preceding paragraph is an homage to Wilson. When I first read The Occult, I found myself getting irritated as his asides about his personal life. In explaining Faculty X, he would often say "As I sit at my typewriter in my home in Cornwall..." and for some reason I just found it tiresome. One day while reading it I became sleepy and went for a nap. I fast fell into a dream, in which I opened a door and suddenly all that I could recognize as my own dreaming was gone- I found myself in a small room, built of stone with large windows letting soft light in. It was large enough for a few benches, on which sat Colin Wilson. He smiled, and shrugged, and as though answering a question I hadn't asked said "It's about honesty, isn't it? Are you being honest, that's the main question. Everything else depends on that." I woke up mystified. I wasn't sure at the time that I even knew what Wilson looked like- my copies of his books didn't have author photos. I eventually remembered an obituary of his in an issue of Fortean Times, and dug it up- and there he was, older than the Wilson of my dream but recognizable. A few google searches later found photos that looked much more like the man in the dream. 

Ever since then, I have always endeavored to be honest with myself first and foremost, and honest in my approach to writing in particular. This sounds easy, as most of us like to think we're naturally honest people- but when you really examine it, you realize that there are little lies you tell yourself all of the time. Confronting these demons, as it were, and banishing them, also helps to promote Faculty X. This digression and admission of potentially psychic activity is oddly difficult for me to express. It sounds crazy. In the interest of being honest, however, it felt natural to include it- and for the record, I'm a bigger fan of Buddy Holly than I am of the Big Bopper.

It was wild then, for me, years after digesting a great episode of such an iconic series of The X-Files, to realize that so much of my way of looking at the world was inspired by the fictional character of Clyde Bruckman. (The real life Bruckman, as it happens, is a tragic character in the history of old Hollywood. The name stuck in my memory because I recognized it from the credits of old Laurel and Hardy or Three Stooges films... This is a running theme in The X-Files, which I will have to write about another day. The writers seemed to love referencing old comedies.) One wonders, had I not seen that episode when it first aired how different my life would be. If one does wonder that, than one has caught on to the idea of causality that I'm describing, that I learned through Darin Morgan's writing.

These themes weave themselves through the so-called "Monster of the Week" episodes in a way that is only apparent to the real nerds who pay attention to such things. The episode "Monday" (Season 6, episode 14) is a Groundhog Day-esque time loop tale, wherein events that come to pass largely due to lasting effects from the temporal jiggery-pokery that occur in "Dreamland" (2 part story, episodes 4 and 5 of the 6th season) cause Mulder to continually end up at a bank while it is being robbed, and repeatedly die in an explosion. Since Bruckman's insights might have saved Mulder's life in that episode, it seems by virtue of the fact that future events were disrupted a ripple effect had a lasting influence later in the series. Also, the dog called Queequeg was introduced in "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose"- and done away with in "Quagmire". The dog's name is what inspired the Ahab comparison in that episode.

In 30 years the legacy of Mulder and Scully, and other characters like the Lone Gunmen and the sinister Cigarette Smoking Man have loomed large in our public consciousness when it comes to anomalies, and in particular to UFOs. To this day, when news stations cover a UFO story, they can't help but insert the theme song, much to the chagrin of dedicated and serious researchers. I hope that future generations continue to discover the show, and perhaps with hindsight glean some of the subtler lessons the show had to teach. A major Truth that is out there for any of us to catch is that being serious all of the time does not necessarily bring one closer to their goal. Perhaps the quote to end with would be the line Leonard Nimoy gives, at the start of the X-Files / Simpsons crossover episode, "The Springfield Files": 

"...and by 'true', we mean 'false'. It's all lies. But the lies are told in an entertaining fashion, and in the end, isn't that the real truth?
The answer is no."


Monday, September 4, 2023

Wight Magic and the Sandown Ghost Clown

Often in media, ghost activity is presented as occurring in a place where violent deaths or at least trauma has occurred. Other times, cemeteries are thought to be good places for ghost hunting. If one subscribes to the idea that ghosts are the lingering spirit forms of human beings who have passed on, the prevailing belief seems to be that these are the places you should look.

The subject of today's wild speculation on my part isn't really a ghost- or so he said. He was rather vague about what or who he really is- to wit, I'm not so certain "he" is an appropriate pronoun. The entity introduced itself as "All Colours Sam", through the use of a book he would write in and point to, indicating the words for the children to whom he was communicating. I speak of course of Sam, the Sandown Clown.

When Rob Kristofferson of the Our Strange Skies podcast extended the invitation to Stephanie Quick and myself to appear on his show to discuss the case, I was of course happy to jump in. After all, clowns and UFOs are right up my alley. I love ghost stuff as well, although I worry sometimes that I don't spend enough time on that particular weird subject. The thing about the Sandown Clown story, though, is that it isn't exactly a UFO story. The connection to UFOs is mainly through its first - and for decades, only - published version of events in the British UFO Research Association Journal of January/February, 1978. Sam was rescued from obscurity in recent years, as Rob pointed out during the episode about it, due to its exposure through podcasts such as Cryptonaut. Being vaguely familiar with the case, I became resistant to the story. There wasn't much to go on, after all; the story came entirely from a pair of children who were never followed up with. The witnesses were anonymous, anyway. 

A brief version of events could be stated as: a pair of children encounter an otherworldly figure, wearing ragged clothing, with a round head and pointed hat and what appear to be wooden horns protruding from it. He(?) is first seen emerging from below a bridge on a small river at the edge of a golf course; he seems to live in a ramshackle metal hut with odd dimensions to it. His mouth never moves when he speaks. The children (the braver of the two, named Fay) are frightened at first but manage to question the entity. As already mentioned, he identified himself as "All Colours Sam", eventually saying Sam wasn't his real name but one that he liked, and that there were others like him in this world. The children eventually went about their day...
It's a damned strange tale but how much could one really say about it?

As it happens, we got quite a bit of conversation out of it. I was even inspired to go on a quest to close the Clown Portal, with which, one might say, I met with limited success. In the weeks that followed the release of the podcast and my journeys into the hilarious eldritch outskirts of Boston, I kept thinking about Sandown Sam. Having already talked it out on a widely listened to podcast and mentioning it here on the blog, I was again resistant to the idea of discussing it further. I did anyway, privately; and eventually to Steve Berg on his podcast, Hi, Strangeness! I briefly explained the idea there, albeit with a bit of an embarrassing mistake.

One of the only things I knew about the Isle of Wight, prior to learning about Sam, was that it hosted a huge music festival in 1970. Britain's answer to Woodstock, the organizers had produced successful festivals in the two preceding years and hoped to surpass those in the Afton Downs area of the Isle. This is a very interesting time for rock music history- and in the interest of full disclosure, is an era near and dear to my sensibilities musically. The rough, psychedelic free-for-all that led to inventions of all kinds during that time always seemed to be a form of magic in itself. The last half of the 1960s was a very special time for weird and wonderful music to break through, but all things eventually must come to an end. The iconic peace and love promoted through the Woodstock Festival had already been tarnished by late summer of 1970, with the death and disaster of the Altamont Free Concert the previous winter. The Isle of Wight Festival, though not as dark, would live on in its own kind of infamy- symbolizing to some the end of the collective dream of free festivals and collective expression. Seen as profiteers, the future appeared to be looming large in the form of corporate rock and roll- and for those at the festival - by some estimates, 600,000 of them! - were witness to a kind of death throe of the hippy dream.

Another reason the era of 1966 or so into the early 70s appeals to me, and has a lasting appeal more broadly, is the infusion of pagan and occult ideas and themes in everything from lyrics to imagery of the time. There was a lot going on culturally that culminated in what one might call an Occult Revival through these songs and albums. For the curious, who want to learn more about this, I recommend the above pictured book - Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll by Peter Bebergal. Bebergal makes a good case for the presence of occult ideas of all kinds being a sustaining creative force, driving rock and roll from its beginnings on through the decades. For the era we're concerning ourselves with, examples of said occult and pagan influences include The Beatles' interest in Transcendental Meditation, the popularity of the works of J. R. R. Tolkein making wizards and elves cool again, the rise of several schools of Wicca and Witchcraft as we know it today, and Anton LaVey's brand of Satanism making a splash in California. This led me to wonder if perhaps the energy of a concert could leave a psychical imprint in the way that it is presumed a battlefield does? Further, supposing Sam was "like a ghost"- but not quite - perhaps the clownish rogue was something of a nature spirit, unintentionally conjured from what was, in effect, a mass ritual? Finally, the role of psychedelics must not be discounted here, as LSD and other drugs were prevalent at the Isle of Wight Festival, and in many ways it was a tumultuous few days. I wondered if, perhaps, someone's bad trip had materialized and gotten stranded, left to wander the Isle for a few years before meeting Fay and her friend one spring day. Thus began my idea of Sam as a Psychedelic Psychical Emanation, conjured during the festival and "colouring", as it were, some resident nature spirit unwittingly conjured by the event.

If the idea of a music festival as an occult working or pagan mass conjuring sounds paranoid and crazy to the reader, I suggest listening to tunes like this one from Black Widow- a band (pictured above) who built their stage show around Satanic themes, and medieval ideas about witchery culled from the pages of The Malleus Maleficarum. Black Widow was playing the main stage at the festival, and the linked song "Come to the Sabbat", with its chanting refrain, is largely what inspired this whole idea. You see, when I talked to Steve Berg I said that the lyrics were "Come, come, come to the Sabbat, Come to the Sabbat, Satan SAM"- which of course drew a direct line to the ghostly entity of all colours. This, however, was an example of a mondegreen - something misheard which changes the overall meaning of, in this case, a song. What the band is actually chanting is "Satan's THERE". Regardless, the song, and the band's generally vibe, illustrate the potential for a call back to the ancient days of mass ritual and observation. A recent archaeological discovery gives some idea of how large-scale events like this may have mirrored ancient gatherings, with "Sabbats" or certain seasonal observations being important to survival, and tribal unity. It's worth mentioning that the Sandown Sam encounter occurred near Beltane, one of the more important pagan sabbats. Beltane traditions through the ages include bonfires, animal sacrifice, dancing around the Maypole, and visiting holy wells. 

While I had embarrassingly been mistaken, something I try not to be too often, about the lyrics to "Come to the Sabbat", my other example of the use of the name Sam in 60s psych rock still stood- the song "Lucifer Sam" by Pink Floyd, which appeared on their debut album Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Floyd was not playing at the Isle of Wight that year, but members of the band were there, occasionally working behind the scenes to manage sound. The album name alone, for the debut effort centered on the songs and dreams of lead singer / guitarist Syd Barrett is a reference to Pan, the Greek nature deity. More specifically, it's a reference to a chapter of The Wind in the Willows, a 1908 children's book by Kenneth Grahame. Barrett's overall approach to his psychedelic songcraft, as Bebergal notes in his above-mentioned book, is equal parts childlike wonder and nostalgia for the safety of youth, coupled with futurism and mind-expanding visions of distant worlds. The dichotomy here, with its internal push and pull, resulted in great art- but also perhaps played a part in Syd's undoing. He left the band, as the story went for ages, having lost his mind and having been terrified of fame. Of course, the story is more complicated than that, as are all things- and, getting back to "Lucifer Sam" as an example - it turns out Syd wrote the song about a cat named Lucifer. While this is a bit silly and perhaps undermines my point, it's also a synchronicity because as I attempt to type this a cat named Lucy - short for "Lucypurr" - is repeatedly attempting to add her own thoughts by walking across the keyboard.

My Murder Muffin Lucy

While Pink Floyd did not play at the 1970 Festival, acts that did appear onstage dabbled in the same vaguely occult waters. Donovan was there, with songs such as "Season of the Witch" and his ballad about Atlantis. The Lizard King, Jim Morrison, also appeared with The Doors. Several of the acts were also witnesses to UFO events- Jimi Hendrix, who passed away not long after his performance at the festival, had allegedly been rescued by UFOnauts after his band's vehicle was stranded in the snows of a New York winter. According to his bandmate from the time, (and the story as told to me by the Reverend StarDoG, via Lemmy Kilmister telling him...) Hendrix seemed to be in telepathic contact with the UFO occupant who managed to warm up the car and release it from the icy hold the snowdrifts had on it. The Moody Blues were also in attendance, and also had an encounter with a flying saucer in the 60s:

Meanwhile, outside of the main stage there existed "Canvas City", tents set up for entertainment that was indeed free, unlike the fenced in area of Afton Down. On the Canvas City stage underground bands like Hawkwind and the Pink Fairies were experimenting with noise, lights, and dance in a full on sensory assault and undoubtedly, blowing minds. The space rock invented by Hawkwind seemed to fuse the paganesque ritual of the festival with outer space themes, in perhaps a more tongue-in-cheek but also more deliberate way than did Syd Barrett. Though the band would be less commercially successful than some of the others at the festival, their influence and underground following has persisted for decades.

In a failing attempt to cover these ideas briefly, the writer would at this time like to sum up the confluence of elements comprising the festival - there is joy and music and dancing, but also discord and division; mind-altering drugs and other sensory effects; the presence of experiencers, and also the pageantry and ritual presentation - even if only for show - of pagan and occult ideas. Now, finally, we come back around to ghosts and burial sites.

Throughout the U.K. there are ancient earthworks and mounds, and the Afton Downs area of the Isle of Wight (which is today mostly a golf course, I think...) had several barrows, or burial places, around it. Essentially, the festival was sort of taking place in an ancient graveyard. The barrows had been disturbed in the preceding decades, with artifacts moved to the Carisbrooke Castle Museum, in the middle of the island. Not being an archaeologist myself, or even very well versed in English history, my speculation becomes wilder beyond this point- but I'm led to understand that the Isle of Wight managed to fight off conversion to Christianity much longer than the rest of the British Isles- making it to about 800 A.D. The spirits then, of the island and the supernatural forces extant there may have enjoyed more recognition for longer, and a more recent (relatively speaking) history of coexistence with nature in its many forms. There are efforts currently from local folklorists to re-enchant the island, and reacquaint people with the spooky forces around- including a fog that transports people through time!

So if Sandown Sam was a Psychical Psychedelic Emanation, conjured through magic and produced as thought form from a bad trip only to coalesce with local spirits, be they of the dead or of nature- what would such a poor spirit do? I would think such a situation would be very disorienting for this Frankenstein's monster of a ghostly clown. The directive during his conjuring though- "Come to the Sabbath" - and heck, maybe he misheard it like I did and named himself Sam! - may have driven him to wander the Isle, in search of a Holy Well to visit on Beltane.

Just such a well allegedly existed just north of Sandown, in a now lost town called Wolverton. The area is currently called Centurion's Copse, "copse" meaning wooded area. "Centurion" seems to indicate a Roman influence, but, as it happens synchronistically enough, its a mondegreen! "Centurion" was, according to some, a distorted version of SAINT Urian's. The legend goes that a holy well existed at a church called Saint Urian's, around which the village of Wolverton bustled prior to the 14th century when it was demolished by invading French forces. The story goes that a mysterious merchant used to frequent the town, and although no one knew where he lived it was thought he had a habitation somewhere in the nearby cliffs. No one in the village ever had success following him as he left. When questioned, he imparted a prophecy - the holy well at Saint Urian's must be protected at all costs. One day, a sinister and unknown man would enter the village and poison the well, and that would be the end of Wolverton. The villagers were thus warned to stop such a thing from happening at any cost.

Eventually, the prophecy seemed to come to pass- a shadowy figure in gray robes entered the town with some unknown plant, and visited the well. The villagers threw sharp stones at him and killed him, a drop of his blood falling into the well as he fell for the last time. Unfortunately, the interloper turned out to be a holy man on a pilgrimage to bless the well, and the evil of his murder sealed the fate of the town. A villager called Tom followed the merchant out of town following the tragedy, and this time the peculiar man allowed it, even inviting Tom into the cave wherein he dwelt. The cave was well decorated, and phantom music played inside despite the absence of musicians. The cave opened up to a bafflingly large hall, where portraits of the villagers lined the walls, each with a red cross painted on their foreheads. Inexplicably a vast feast appeared on the table, and Tom was invited to eat. Those familiar with fairy lore will recognize these motifs, and Tom became suspicious after no words of grace were spoken and declined the food. When he returned to the village, he found it had been demolished by the invaders and everyone had been killed.

It's said that Tom lived out the rest of his days as a hermit, in the same cave where the impish old merchant had lived- only now, there was no phantom music or extravagant decorations. He lived out his days in quiet contemplation and reverence, or so the story goes- and the only remaining part of town, the "centurion" of Saint Urian's church, was moved to a nearby village. The well itself had been demolished, and to this day the copse is taken back by nature- although, it is said, "nightingales never sing" there.

On an enchanted island with a long and storied history, filled with folklore and fogs threatening to whisk one away to "somewhen"- which, in the modern age, has become something of a holiday destination, replete with golf courses and shops, one might expect the permutations of otherworldly entities to only grow stranger. Ancient sites, distorted names and narratives winding their way down through the ages like the echoes of a deafening Hawkwind set inside of a tent culminate in a new mythology, perhaps- and if past traumas can imprint the landscape, why not rock festivals? Perhaps Sam was a ghost, only ghosts are much less straightforward than television leads us to believe. The similarity between his metal hut and the devilish merchant's cave, with the TARDIS-like "bigger on the inside" warping of dimensions, is worth noting. Sandown and Afton Downs are on opposite ends of the island, but one wonders how much that even matters. Since none of these weird things has ever been definitively explained, the wildest of wild speculations may well bear the closest resemblance to the truth, whatever that is.

The truth is a mottled affair, a patchwork of stories and names we apply to Things. Sometimes these names are misheard, or change over time. Sometimes epiphanies happen under the influence of psychedelics that will never be considered by the straight-laced folks who consider it to be just madness- and sometimes, madness itself is exceptionally insightful. The truth comes in All Colours, and for the discerning weirdo who enjoys tinkering with these modern myths, the best that can be done is to choose the colour that suits them.

Further reading: