Texarkana Fish Rain Mystery Solved

I am excited to share the results of an investigation done by Paul Cropper and myself on the strange fish rain in Texarkana on 29 December 2021. The results have been published in the July 2022 issue of Fortean Times (FT420).

We are fairly confident we determined the factors that led to fish falling across this area of Texas: A flock of cormorants (and possibly other birds) disgorged their recently consumed meals of small shad while in the air or perhaps during takeoff.

Conclusion: They were temporarily eaten, and… released.

Paul secured a video, probably the first ever, that shows fish falling as it happened. It’s a huge Fortean milestone, I think. And I hope it tamps down the probably bogus idea that fish (or other animals) are swept up in waterspouts and deposited over towns. There is actually no evidence for that happening.

Press Release

Texarkana fish rain had unexpected and unpleasant source

The fish that fell in a December thunderstorm likely came from the nervous stomachs of birds that ejected their recent meal, investigators conclude.

An intense thunderstorm on December 29, 2021 brought dozens, if not hundreds, of small fish falling with the rain and hail over a four-mile swath of Texarkana. Paul Cropper, an Australian researcher of anomalous phenomenon, collected evidence that led him and colleague Sharon A. Hill (U.S.) to the unsavory origin of the fish rain – regurgitated bird stomach contents. Their conclusions are published in the July 2022 issue of Fortean Times magazine.

Cropper collected firsthand accounts from business employees, airport staff, and residents across town who found the fish strewn across the landscape. The two investigators also obtained assistance from scientists at the University of Texas Biodiversity Center in Austin. The fish, identified as Gizzard shad, had characteristics indicative of partial digestion. The researchers strongly suspect the fish had been eaten by cormorants (a common, large shore bird). Then shortly after, the birds, at least some of which were airborne, were caught up in the storm front and disgorged their meals.

Texarkana Regional Airport officials and a resident had noted the presence of cormorants around the time of the storm. Cormorants are common in large numbers and are known to exhibit the disturbing habit of expelling their stomach contents. The reason for this behavior is unknown.

Rains of fish have been reported for centuries, but direct evidence showing fish definitively falling from the sky was lacking, until now. Cropper collected photos and videos from locals who found the fish on streets, sidewalks, grass, parking lots and the airport runway. More importantly, fish remains were found in truck beds and on roofs – indicating that they fell from some height. He obtained high resolution security footage from Discount Wheel & Tire on Summerhill Road that appears to show six fish impacting the ground during the storm. Employees collected many dead fish from their parking lot after the rain. This footage appears to be the first video documentation of fish falling from the sky during a rain event. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnE_a_WfgAU “Texas Rain Of Fish December 2021”)

While many media outlets reported that the fish were sucked up by a waterspout and dropped some distance away, this hypothesis has never been documented and does not fit the evidence in Texarkana. Additionally, Cropper and Hill confirmed no waterspout occurred during this storm and no other human-related distribution of fish via aircraft or by hand was plausible. The bird theory remains the best fit for the evidence. Samples of the fish were retained by the University staff for further testing.


How the investigation transpired

On December 30 of 2021, Paul Cropper messaged me about a rain of fish that had just been reported in Texarkana (Texas and Arkansas) from the previous afternoon. The local TV news reported on the event which appeared to show a considerable number of fish. Shortly after, it was clear that fish fell across a considerable area. Then, photos appeared showing the fish in the beds of pickup trucks and on rooftops. This was the crucial observation! Many reports of fish falls are not really “falls” but the result of flooding streams or a human-related event. The immediate release of multiple reports and photos of fish that really did appear to fall indicated this was an investigation worth pursuing.

Paul quickly contacted the media reporters, the local businesses, and also solicited reports on Facebook. And he got great responses. Eventually, he collected many photos and some videos. He talked directly to people who witnessed the event, and then contacted scientists at the University of Texas in Austin.

For the next few weeks, we looked at the evidence and had email discussions with many involved. We had some working hypotheses to consider as the additional information came in. Initially, the most reasonable hypotheses were as follows:

1. Storm related flooding and wind – the fish appeared in unusual places because of creek flooding or they moved over land due to the heavy rain. Or, that they were blown out of a shallow pond.

2. Dropped from a plane – the fish were dumped, possibly from a plane that was seeding a lake.

3. Waterspout – the default idea that fish are sucked up from a water source and dumped miles away.

4. Birds – the fish had been dropped by birds that were carrying them in their beaks, talons, or stomachs.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t get to Texarkana, but thanks to Google Earth we were able to map the nearest water sources. While there were small streams and a few ponds nearby, these sources couldn’t account for the distribution of fish across the town and in residential and business areas. The fish were not coming out of the storm sewers, they were falling. We had ample evidence for that. The fish were not of the type that “walk” across land during rains.

Fish are sometimes dumped into stocked lakes via plane. But this is not that common. This explanation would have likely been reported by the agency doing the stocking. The most obvious reason this was discarded was because planes weren’t flying under these weather conditions and the closest lake, Wright Patman, was 8 miles away.

We determined from weather data that the storm front did pass over Wright Patman lake, which had this species of fish, but the tracking was more north-northeast and not a direct line. Although there was hail, no tornadoes were reported. Further information from National Weather Service personnel confirmed that no unusual conditions were seen at the lake for this storm event. The waterspout idea could be confidently ruled out.

We did have evidence of birds flocking in the area. A local resident filmed a disoriented large bird (likely a cormorant) in her neighborhood at the end of the storm.

The regional airport personnel noted that flocks of cormorants are common and some had been seen prior to the storm. We were also well aware of the habit of these fish-eating birds to release their stomach contents either to quickly fly away or to feed their young. This was a known and common behavior that had been observed by bird researchers. But they had never seen it happen during active flight (we asked them). Therefore, this remains a weakness of the hypothesis.

Fortuitously during this time, I found a news video out of Holland documenting the annoyance of townspeople next to a canal where cormorants vomit their food on the walkways.

Looks familiar.

You have to see cormorants eating fish to understand why the fish in the fall looked relatively whole and why there were so many.

If this guy had more, he would have scarfed them up too.

The University researchers managed to pick some frozen fish samples from the local resident who was cooperating with the investigation. They corresponded with us noting that the fish samples did appear to be in various stages of decomposition consistent with digestion (head first). They still currently have the samples and are attempting to test them for bird DNA. We hope to hear the results soon.

Conclusion

We felt confident we know where the fish came from. But the extent and number of fish was still a little shocking. Not everyone will accept the conclusion. Some skeptics might continue to deny the fish fell at all. But we’re very confident that they did. There were many independent witness, reporting at the same time, with photographic evidence over a wide area, including documenting locations off the ground and in private or publicly inaccessible areas (such as the airport runway) that confirm that this was indeed a fish rain. But the most impressive evidence we hoped for was a video.

Thanks to Paul’s diligent work and the generous cooperation of contacting Discount Wheel and Tire, the business on Summerhill Road featured in the news reports, we’ve got a video.

Granted, it’s not crystal clear that all the objects seen falling were fish. At least one could be wind-blown debris. We must consider that the employees collected a bucket full of dead fish in this exact area after the storm and witnessed the fish falling as well. It’s not reasonable to discount or dismiss this video evidence – it supports the fact that the fish did fall from the sky that day, exactly as described by witnesses.

It’s also not reasonable to discount the conclusion we’ve made here. We know this behavior happens in birds. The surprising aspect is the extent of the fall. This scenario hasn’t been this well-documented before. Also surprising is the attention this event received worldwide. It’s my hope that the conclusions made in this investigation also become known worldwide. We’ve learned something highly interesting (though a bit yucky) about the natural world.

Thanks to Fortean Times for being the platform for this investigation report. We are the cover story! SUBSCRIBE!

Additional sources

“Hail, Fish, & Videotape: A Texas Fish Rain Caught on Camera”, Fortean Times, No. 420, July 2022. PDF download here.

“Like Ducks and Penguins, With Nervous Stomachs”, New York Times, 22 Aug 2007. http://www.nytimes. com/2007/08/22/nyregion/22birds.html

“Residents of East Texas town report fish falling from sky”, Dallas Morning News, 2 Jan 2022. http://www.dallasnews.com/news/texas/2022/01/02/residents-of-east-texas-town-report-fish-falling-from-sky/

“Storm rains bushels of fish on Texarkana”, Texarkana Gazette, 29 Dec 2021. http://www.texarkanagazette.com/ news/2021/dec/29/fish-appear-in-several-places-in-texarkana-after/

“A Fishy Day: Fish fall from the sky in Texarkana”, KSLA News 12, 30 Dec 2021. http://www.ksla.com/2021/12/30/ fishy-day-fish-fall-sky-texarkana/

“Fish rain from sky in Texarkana”, KTAL News, 29 Dec 2021. http://www.arklatexhomepage.com/news/local-news/ fish-rain-from-sky-in-texarkana/

“It’s Raining Fish! The Ichthyology Collection Now Holds Rare Fish Rain Specimens.” University of Texas Biodiversity Blog: biodiversity.utexas.edu/news/entry/ ichthyology-collection-now-holds-fish-rain-specimens


Citing this blog: Hill, Sharon A. (2022) “Texarkana Fish Rain Mystery Solved”. SharonAHill.com, 18 June 2022.

Contact

Please contact me at Lithospherica@gmail.com for additional information and interview requests. Contact Paul via https://www.thefortean.com/.

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The coelacanth as a red herring

This post is updated from its original publication in 2009.– SH

In researching three areas of what I concluded were mostly “scientifical” fields of inquiry for my book – cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and creationism – I was amused to find one example used to the same end for all three – the discovery of the coelacanth in 1938. Its frequent use, however, as a symbol of hidden nature and incomplete science, is not what scientifical claimants portray it to be.

In an attempt to showcase how orthodox science is “wrong” or “blind”, proponents of ghosts, creationism, and cryptozoology all cited the finding of the rare, bottom-feeding coelacanth fish as a scientific shocker.

Coelacanth in the wild

Paranormal investigators cite the coelacanth

Ghost hunters say the coelacanth represents unexpected findings still left in nature.

Joshua Warren, in How to Hunt Ghosts (2003), highlights that the discovery was unexpected and the fish’s existence unknown to scientists. Therefore, he surmises, there may be many more unexpected findings left in nature to come to light. Perhaps, paranormalists suggest, we are just around the corner from scientifically proving ghosts exists. That’s quite a stretch – to compare a cave-loving, rare marine fish with spirits of the dead (or whatever ghosts might actually be). It’s hardly a reasonable comparison.

Creationists love so called “living fossils”

Creationists love the prehistoric-looking coelacanth because it appears to not have evolved – looking much like it did from the last fossil find 65 million years ago. If evolution is true, they proclaim, why didn’t it sprout legs and walk by now? (From M. Issak, The Counter-Creationism Handbook, Univ of Calif. Press., 2007, p. 99.) One can find many examples in Creationist-based information that point out similar examples where species alive today do not appear to have changed much from their fossil ancestors. These examples, they say, are weaknesses for evolution as the method of creating diversity on earth. Such claims egregiously misrepresent evolution and life on earth across deep time.

Coelacanth as cryptid symbol

The coelacanth is an iconic species for cryptozoologists – those who pursue mystery sightings based on conjecture that such sightings represent a scientifically unrecognized animal. The fish is frequently used as an example of the possibility of large, interesting animals that might yet be discovered. Several cryptozoology books cite a statement by Georges Cuvier in 1812 who proposed we already know all the large animals out there and that it was likely no more would be discovered. This was a “rash dictum” indeed, and was unreasonable for the time and still is even now. To over-generalize and paint all of the scientific community as a naysaying, closed-minded lot is a silly and unreasonable argument. We know there are plenty of new species yet to be found in the deep sea, in the dense forests, and in the dusty, unattended drawers of the museum.

The coelancanth is a dubious cryptid, regardless of its prominent place in cryptozoology. It had no substantive legend attached to it. No one was actively seeking it. Sure, it was a surprise when found and it was a new species (contrary to the Creationist arguments that emphasize it hadn’t evolved). But a slow, bottom-feeding, fish that was occasionally caught by locals does not compare to the more elaborate tales of Yeti, Bigfoot, large lake creatures, and sea serpents. It does not follow that modern discoveries of new species are support for the claim that certain legendary creatures are real animals.

Coelacanth as a wonderful surprise

This poor fish has been abused as a symbol for the weaknesses and failures of science – but the version of science invoked by pseudoscientifical researchers is false. The coelacanth is serving as a red herring – distracting the viewers from seeing the lack of rigor in these fields through a dramatic but misrepresented example. No reputable scientists are pronouncing that there is nothing new to discover in the world. It’s not the fault of science that many scientific-minded thinkers doubt the reality of ghosts, God, or Bigfoot. That’s entirely due to lack of evidence and suitable explanatory mechanisms.

The finding of the coelacanth was in no way an example of how science as an institution or method is misguided or inadequate. Instead, the finding of the modern coelacanth is a testament to the wonderful ability of nature to still hold surprises for us. And we must credit the fast-thinking museum curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who preserved the carcass as best she could, then contacted a genuine expert to examine it before declaring the jaw-dropping discovery. One can only hope if a sasquatch is found, someone will be that diligent instead of negotiating a fee for viewing the remains. We must realize that scientific efforts by careful, experienced and legitimate researchers are useful and should be supported because another amazing discovery most certainly awaits.

Many pseudoscience proponents will jump at a chance to show that science has a flaw because they wish to promote their own wishful views that can’t quite compete. The lovely coelacanth doesn’t deserve that association.

Freak Out Over Hairless Mysterious Animals

Weird hairless animals attract morbid attention. Is it a mutant? A monster? Well, it’s most likely an unfortunate local animal who fortunately left remains for us to photograph, gawk over, get grossed out about, and share around the world on social media.

The spring/summer season brings us multiple reports and images of mysterious animals on the beach. They are strange and disgusting, but those who find them and post them on social media are compelled by their disturbing nature. Viewers won’t pass up a chance wildly speculate (usually with little zoological background) about what it is.

Let’s examine some infamous examples of hairless and so-called mysterious animals that have surfaced over the years. It turns out their identity is not much of a mystery if you ask a knowledgeable source.

Tenby, Pembrokeshire, U.K.

The Tenby mystery animal was hairless and photographed at a weird angle. The best guess for this is likely a badger, judging from the size, head, teeth and claws. It may look large and horse-like but note the footprints, it’s not large. It’s about medium-dog sized. Scale is important for these photos. Most people forget about that.

Carcasses on the beach are unpleasant. They are smelly, bloated, and missing important parts. There may be trauma to the body. Decomposition will make the creature look nasty and also makes it difficult to comprehend what they looked like alive, possibly so much so that we can’t relate them to a known animal. Often, as part of the decomposition in water, the hair falls out with just a little bit remaining as clues to what it looked like alive. Covered in seaweed, one of the most interesting was dubbed the San Diego Demonoid due to its overall weirdness and HUGE canine teeth.

San Diego possum demonoid

It looked plastic, baked and dried out in the hot sun, but it really was an animal carcass, not a fake. The teeth were noticeably big (helped by the drying and shrinking of the face), and there was a tuft of white hair that remained along the top of the head. Since the fur and color of an animal are often its most obvious identifying characteristics when alive, the fact that this thing has basically no hair left but odd tufts of fur compounds the confusion over what it actually was – an opossum. No kidding.

The Seal Beach creature was also determined to LIKELY be an opossum.

Seal Beach Thing

In 2022, an Australian carcass was popular on Instagram. It also was labeled “creepy” and “alien” in the headlines. But it wasn’t hard to discern that it was likely a local animal, probably a brushtail opossum.

Brushtail opossum carcass from Queensland, Australia

The Montauk Monster phenomenon

A new hairless mystery beast appears about two or three times a year in the media and circles the globe for months through internet channels, featured on mystery-mongering sites and even “reputable” news outlets, Tweeted, Facebooked, and Googled by the curious public who haven’t a clue about what it is.  The creepy picture is often accompanied by the speculation that it’s a new species unknown to science, a mutant, an alien or a government experiment gone wrong.

The gold standard for mysterious animals found dead on the beach is the Montauk Monster of the summer of 2008. In fact, often when these stories come out in the news, they will reference good ol’ MM. Did you know that it was actually identified? Probably not because that’s not as good of a story.

Montauk Monster (July 2008) was a raccoon.

This bloated body, missing some flesh as well as hair, was discovered on a Long Island, New York beach. Speculation was that it was an escapee from the offshore laboratories of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Amateurs were stumped by the “beak-like” skull, and, of course, the lack of fur that would have made identification more obvious. Paleontologist Dr. Darren Naish provided a direct comparison of skulls to show, definitively, that this poor beastie was a raccoon rendered hairless and deformed by the action of the seawater and natural decay with perhaps some assistance from hungry sea and shore creatures. Ah, nature at work. Mystery solved. Long live the monster. What happened to the carcass is unknown.

Son of Montauk Monster

East River monster (July 2012)

A second “Montauk Monster” appeared near the Brooklyn Bridge in July a few years later. The story originated in a local news outlet with people speculating it was a pig or a dog or something worse. The authorities didn’t help as they just ignored the questions or made up a lame guess (leftover roasted pig?). But it was such a disgusting mystery that the photo went viral and appeared everywhere. Again, this mysterious animal was hairless and bloated – indicative of being dead and in the water for a spell. Actually identifying the creatures is not too hard for experts to do if photos are taken of the feet, skull (especially teeth) and the entire body with a scale to determine the size. Even though it looked quite a bit different from Montauk Monster version 1.0, this 2.0 version was another raccoon.

Hairless animals freak us out

Hairless animals (that we conventionally think of as having hair) are weird-looking.  Hairless dead animals freak people the hell out. You can easily tell if it is a mammal (cat, rat, groundhog, dog, seal, whale) compared to, say, a fish, but without a close-up examination, it’s very difficult to determine exactly what species it might be. Regardless, there is no sense in jumping to monstrous conclusions like “alien” or “sea monster”. It’s more likely NOT a new species, but a dead thing we aren’t used to seeing so… dead.

How do land animals end up on the beach? A reasonable explanation is that they died near the inland rivers or streams, fell in or were dumped in, and then washed downstream into the ocean. After bobbing around for a bit, they lose their hair through water action, bloat from the gasses of decay, and get picked at by other animals before washing up on shore quite the worse for wear.

Not a chupacabra

Away from water-based hair removal techniques, hairless coyotes, foxes, dogs, raccoons or pretty much anything that is not immediately recognizable is now automatically referred to as a chupacabra. Originally described as a goat-sucking vampire beast native to Latin America, it now is a catch-all for any weird or mysterious carcass with teeth.

There are perfectly natural reasons why these pathetic animals are follicularly impaired.  It’s not unnatural or mysterious and it’s not a reason to shoot them on site or assume they sucked the blood out of your livestock (not true by the way, only a select few animals can actually suck blood). Why do the hairless dead trigger morbid fascination and disgust? Other than those who work with animals, we are not familiar with the many ways that hair follicles can be damaged or destroyed – bacterial and other skin diseases, burns, parasites, poisoning, nutritional deficiencies, hormone problems, allergies, and friction. Perhaps hairlessness provokes strong imagery associated with the effects of nuclear radiation or chemical burns. It’s unnatural and disturbing, leaving a mammal vulnerable and sick. We are pretty clueless about what lives just outside our door and comes out only at night. We avoid bodies left to decay or remove them quickly from sight, unaware of how nature reclaims them. We live sheltered lives. Nature is weird.

Parade of mysterious animals

Here is a parade of repulsive remains that became postmortem media stars:

Cerro Azul Creature / Blue Hill Monster (September 2009)

A group of kids in Cerro Azul, Panama reported that they observed this animal crawling out of a cave near the shore. Fearing it, they killed it. (Note: their stories changed over a few days.) Hairless, bloated and pale, it did look like Gollum. Yet, at my first glance of the thing sprawled on the rocks, it was rather easily identifiable as a sloth because of the distinctive hands. This pathetic thing was very dead when it washed up on shore and likely lost its hair due to being submerged for a while. The kids most certainly didn’t have to “beat it to death” as they reported.  The National Environmental Authority of Panama necropsied the body and confirmed it as a brown-throated sloth. Sloths are native to South America and should have been quickly recognized. But not to the rest of the world. That version didn’t make such an interesting story.

“Omajinaakoos” (May 2010)

Two women with a dog discovered this bald, snarling-faced animal along the waterfront of the Big Trout lake in the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug reserve in Northern Ontario, Canada.  They took pictures and later returned to collect the carcass but it was gone. Locals told the story of the legendary creature called ‘oomajinakoos’  or “the ugly one”. They said the finding was a bad omen.  A professor from the University of Toronto was quoted in the news saying, “It is silly. This is a dead carcass that has fallen in the water.” He identified the animal from pictures as a mink, common to the area, and sounded a bit peeved at the idea it was anything more mysterious.

Minnesota Mystery Roadkill (August 2011)

A white body with remnant tufts of hair and long front claws lay along an Alexandria, Minnesota road looking awful.  It didn’t look quite dog-like enough to be a dog so people labeled it all sorts of things, including chupacabra.   The media reported that local wildlife officials were “baffled”.  I’m skeptical that they were all that confused. Pretty quickly, they pointed out it looked like a really messed up badger left lying in the summer sun, a bit contorted due to being hit by a car. Badgers aren’t commonly seen, being mostly nocturnal and living underground, but are native to American prairie lands. This photo never included scale so it was difficult to judge size. Several people went with the explanation that it was a R.O.U.S. (Rodent of Unusual Size like those from The Princess Bride). Let’s not get crazy, here.  Tests confirmed badger.

Finally, this pathetic guy lived another day.

Prince Chupa (August 2011)

Hairless but not mysterious fox

It’s a deer! It’s a kangaroo-fox-rat thing! It’s (you guessed it) a chupacabra!  Hospital workers on a smoke break at a Maryland hospital noticed this frail, dark grey, hairless critter skulking in the nearby woods months earlier and bestowing a most embarrassing name upon him.  Chicken and some Chinese leftovers served to entice the skinny, long-tailed guy into a cage trap. The workers took photos and video before releasing it back into the woods (without calling animal control?) The local media picked up the story and ignorantly promoted it. The most frightening aspects of this story were, one, people who work in a hospital thought that nature would produce a 3-species hybrid and, two, they couldn’t use Google to figure out they had trapped a fox with mange.

In all these sad cases of animal alopecia, the witnesses went by their gut reaction, ran through their memory bank (no match), and assumed something fantastical. Why do people move to an extreme explanation instead of the more obvious explanation that it’s a variation of a native animal? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s related to our almost entire disconnect from the natural world around us or the simple need to make a story even better.

Poke the dead thing with a stick (No, really, don’t do that*)

Today’s media feeds us these stories in an uninformed way. They often fail to fact-check and find a qualified consultant to comment. Instead, they quote a confused witness and embrace the bizarre and scary, thus creating or justifying community concerns.  “Weird news” stories are picked up from other outlets and allowed to propagate with information from unqualified “experts” and eyewitnesses who spout their otherworldly ideas about what it is. That’s not news. That’s sensationalism and it’s irresponsible. It spreads misinformation and unsubstantiated fear.

Far fewer news outlets follow up when the real identification of the animal is revealed.  By that time, most people embraced the drama and ran with it, leaving the real answer to languish behind, decaying, forgotten, and eventually lost. Even though the most famous of these mystery beasts, the Montauk Monster, was rather quickly revealed to be a raccoon, that part of the story was ignored and people STILL refer to it as a “monster” or “mutant”. It’s not that. For a while, it’s a mystery. It’s nature.

*It may explode.

Going “Off the Edge” is more popular than ever – Book Review

I’ve written twice on Flat Eartherism.

On Spooky Geology – Anti-globular convictions: Flat Earth belief explodes in popularity

On this blog with thoughts on the 2018 Behind the Curve documentary – Flat-earthers as scientifical Americans.

I’ve also been covering some news about them on occasion with my Weekly Weird newsletter but not so much recently, for…. reasons. First, believing in the flat earth isn’t really news anymore – it’s practically mainstream. And, second, talking about it in any way gives oxygen to the beast of misinformation, allowing it to spread. So, I feel bad talking about it now. I would like, however, to recommend a new book by Kelly Weill about Flat Eartherism because it’s informative, important, sobering, empathetic, and well-written. I found it depressing but helpful. The world is a shit show. Sadly, it’s going to get worse, but we need to understand it inasmuch as to not contribute to its worsening.

Weill goes to Flat Earth conferences, was a regular visitor to the online forums, interviews the people in the center of the community, and has done great research about conspiracy ideology. This book is a perfect follow-up read from Christine Garwood’s Flat Earth book on “The History of an Infamous Idea”. She valiantly works at staying grounded in the land of homemade rockets to the stratosphere and high-flying egos of the “knowers”. I could not have done this. She’s a tough lady and I applaud her for this.

The efforts of Flat Earth proponent Samuel Rowbotham were incredibly similar to what’s going on today. Christians feel attacked by new ideas in the world; the working class feel oppressed by elitists; there must be a network of evil in the world. It’s no different today. The internet has allowed fringe ideas to become mainstreamed. I’m doubting that the internet was a net good for the world. I think it might kill us all – “it” being, ironically, the genuine worldwide network of evil, greedy interests who managed to manipulate us all. Sorry to be negative, but as Weill traces the continued radicalization of this cult-like community, the same movement can be seen in general society where extremism is mainstreamed. We’re in big trouble.

But on a more local level, I saw bits in this book that reminded me of why I left the skeptical community: it was elitist, they mocked people as “stupid” and blamed bad education, there was no room empathy or for my middle “gray area”. The “Skeptical” approach of throwing facts at things is a waste of time and may make things worse in some instances. I particularly liked the suggestion in this book of moving to the “middle” as a way to help those caught in this community to escape the extremes. I wish I could manage to change my own communication style and be more creative in reaching audiences who may believe fringe things. The “siloes” people exist in are difficult to access.

Why people choose to go “flat” is complicated. This book doesn’t get deep into all the factors because that would be quite a heavy lift. I contend that along with missing the feeling of “purpose” in their lives, flat earthers are steeped in anti-authority ideas – they are distrustful of government and the institution of science. With the rise of internet sources, everyone knows they can “do their own research” and have their views on the same platform as any other. Social media encouraged the fringe, the bizarre, and the controversial. News media treated the fringe as interesting, possible, and saw it as profitable. So, here we are.

There is a short bit at the end about what can be done and it is good advice but astoundingly difficult to undertake. I admit, I will not have discussions with fringe proponents of any ilk. But there is value in sticking with your friend or family member who goes down this path. Weill makes clear that it’s a path to either disaster or to disappointment. Living detached from reality will bite you eventually. The bigger problem is that it’s a disease that is rampant in today’s modern society and it affects the rest of us too.

Recommended reading.

TikTok generates multiple scare lore stories about flagged cars

Always keen to hear about the latest “weird news”, I noticed a trend in 2020 where young women (typically) were reporting that their cars were moderately vandalized in busy parking lots. On the video social media app TikTok, they interpreted these events as a signal that they were being targeted for abduction by sex traffickers or for general harm.

The typical scenario is that a young woman leaves her car in the parking lot of a busy store. When she returns, she notices something unusual on the car that captures her attention and may delay her from getting in and driving away. A while later, she realizes that this must have been a tactic to tag her car and, ultimately, herself, as a target. She posts this warning on TikTok emphasizing her conclusion that, had she delayed any longer in assessing the vandalism or trying to remove the object(s), she would have been a victim.

Social media claims are not “news”

With this post, I’m starting a list of claims that I hear about in the news. I don’t use TikTok, so I’m going by what rises to the point of popularity where news outlets will report on it. Unfortunately, many news outlets find it acceptable to simply repeat social media items as “news” without validating the claim or doing any investigation whatsoever. This has the effect of propagating the claim. Even if the claim is later debunked, the fact that it has been repeated ends up reinforcing the basic initial claim and, therefore, more people will likely hear about and choose to believe it. They might also take up valuable police time by reporting nonsense claims.

“Better safe than sorry,” they might say, and think they are doing a good dead by recirculating a bogus claim to everyone they know. The harm in this is that we can end up being afraid of the wrong things. We become scared that someone is hiding under the car, waiting to slash our ankles. Or that a white, unmarked van is carrying nefarious guys trying to grab us and sell us into the sex trade. That kind of unwarranted fear does not empower us. Accurate knowledge is empowering. Fear mongering is harmful to society. These rumors spread uncontrollably on social media and have come to be known as “scare lore” – folklore that promotes fear.

Don’t spread the rumor about zip ties on car handles. It’s bogus.

Zip Ties

Zip ties or plastic ties are found mysteriously attached to part of your car. The rumor that zip ties on cars or mailboxes meant you were a target started around 2018 on social media, apparently in Texas.

From 2019:

TikTok user Makaila, @ohokaygirl, posted a video Sunday, detailing the tactic she first heard about through her mom. She says human traffickers are tying zip ties to car mirrors in an attempt to distract girls who are alone so that they can take them. The video has amassed over 700,000 likes.

“This is really important and we should spread the word immediately,” she says in the video.  “This is a new thing that is being done.”

Daily Dot

Various police departments have tried to squash these viral warnings by publicly saying they are invalid. Police specialists also noted that sex traffickers don’t use these open tactics but are active in online, anonymous forums or through word of mouth.

A later iteration shows zip ties connecting adjacent door handles. This is just a prank.

Twisted wire or string on door handle

In a variation of the zip tie warning, a few people have claimed to find string or wire attached to their car door handles. The reasoning, so they claim, is that the wire or string attracts your attention long enough to be accosted by an abductor. I’ve found NO indication that this scenario has ever happened. If someone knows that it FOR SURE has happened, send me the news report. Everyone should be vigilant when exposed in a remote area. There is little reason for concern when you are in a busy area where cell phones and surveillance cameras can capture criminal activity. At this point, there is just as much reason to suspect that people are doing this activity deliberately just to create a panic because the rumor is so prevalent. Maybe these have even been hoaxed for TikTok videos. Controversial or scary information will get more clicks than debunking or straight news. So, rumor-mongering is good for attention.

Back in 2019, Facebook was tagged for promoting the bogus claim that a rose left in a door handle was part of a sex trafficking plot in Kentucky. Either the rose, they claimed, was to get the driver off her guard or, in a really imaginative scheme, it was coated with chemicals that made the sniffer pass out. One can think of several more plausible and non-nefarious reasons why a rose would appear in a door handle. I would not be surprised if this version shows up on TikTok eventually, if it hasn’t already. It’s bound to happen and be grouped into this social media-generated panic.

White stickers

An early urban legend about marking cars occurred at least since 2017. The police who looked into the claim that small white stickers are markers for trafficking said that car dealers sometimes mark cars like this for their inventory purposes. It’s not done by strangers.

A sheriff in Louisiana noted that a local company used small, white, rectangular stickers to track which vehicles have been photographed.

“We have received calls from several concerned citizens after finding a sticker on their vehicle after reading the rumor on social media,” said Sheriff Webre. “The reality is the sticker or dot is inconspicuous enough that you likely haven’t noticed it.”

These particular stickers are weatherproof and water-resistant, which means they would likely remain on the vehicle even after several washings.

WVUE Fox 8

Again, it’s far more likely that this was a simple mistake by a car owner that got overblown, not some elaborate nationwide scheme. It’s hard to perceive a useful purpose for a little white sticker in relation to a serious and dramatic crime.

Water bottle left on hood

From February 2021, the story goes that a plastic water bottle is left on your car in order to make you get out to remove it, which leaves you vulnerable to abduction. This is one of the more silly claims and it’s hard to believe TikTokers get worked up about it. It simply isn’t a logical plan to lure victims. The woman who reported this incident seems to overreact but she claims to have been first approached by a stranger that made her uneasy. Then, she noticed the water bottle on her car and connected the two possibly unrelated events into an elaborate story.

Sadly, an unintended result of these warnings may be to scare women into being less independent and taking away their agency through fear of violence.

Melted cheese

Posted in May 2021, this one, so far, is the most ridiculous. In what was clearly a prank, a woman who was obviously well-primed by frequent, spurious claims of potential crimes, became very concerned when she found cheese slices on her car after exiting from church on a Sunday. She told her audience that suspicious men in a white van watched as she and her friends cleaned off the cheese. She feared that if she had tried to do this by herself, they would have accosted her. [Source]

This cheesy car prank is not new. In 2020, vandalism was reported in Texas where a car was covered in several slices of processed cheese food. This article notes that it was likely in response to ANOTHER TikTok viral idea – the #cheesechallenge – where nasty tricksters get their jollies out of being assholes.

While the TikTok warning above was done with great seriousness, the poster just sounded silly. She tied together three completely unrelated things – cheese on her car, a white van, and fear of abduction – into a dramatic but unreasonable scenario.

‘1F’ on the back window

In January, 2021, a TikTok user reported that “1F” was written in the snow covering her garbage bin. This reinvigorated the bogus idea that such labeling on cars or other places signifies that the person is vulnerable and targeted for kidnapping. An early social media guess circulated that “1F” was a tag for “one female” and a “1B” indicated “one baby”. This was made-up without basis in fact. Often, friend of a friend stories (FOAF) were passed along that could not be verified, but people tend to take these stories very seriously because they sound plausible.

The Polaris Project, an organization helping victims and survivors of human trafficking, has the following information regarding these rumors on their website:

Rumor: Traffickers use zip-ties or mark vehicles with coded letters and numbers (1F/1B) as a way to target or abduct their victims.

Reality: Rumors about the use of zip ties or marking of vehicles by traffickers have been proven to be false. One of the most pervasive myths about human trafficking is that it always – or often – involves kidnapping or otherwise physically forcing someone into a situation. In reality, most human traffickers use psychological means such as tricking, defrauding, manipulating or threatening victims into providing commercial sex or exploitative labor. Traffickers also rarely target victims they don’t know. What we’ve seen through our work over the years is that many survivors have actually been trafficked by people they know – romantic partners, family members, acquaintances, etc.

Polaris Project

Conclusion

Car tagging rumors have repeatedly been show to be false, mistakes, exaggerations, or hoaxes. Following the pattern of the typical urban legend warnings – like those for gang assaults, kidnapping, or worse – these stories were never substantiated as genuine. The threats sounded real enough because these fears were already propagating in society and we made connections where there really were none. The real explanation was almost certainly more mundane – it’s not that uncommon for someone to be a jerk and mess with your car.

It’s not that people do not ever get abducted from parking lots. Certainly, kidnapping, sexual assault, rape, and murder does occur, but the details in these widespread warnings are not accurate; these are not the usual way a crime is perpetrated. A person who promotes these warnings is making an unsubstantiated assumption as to the cause of the “vandalism”. The underlying theme is the fear of human trafficking. This fear has been bolstered by all forms of media in the past few years due to a few scary stories, but mainly by misrepresenting statistics for runaways, abducted children, and immigrant exploitation. Passing along baseless warnings may seem like one is doing a good deed “just to be safe” but it’s bad for society. Don’t do it.

Seen a new TikTok targeting claim? Link it in the comments.

Examining the Mentor ghost child video

A news article out of Mentor, Ohio attracted my attention this past week. The article claimed that local residents were observing strange, “mysterious” incidents and reporting them on their neighborhood Facebook page. Then, on the night of March 10, someone called the police. The police report was real. The local news station obtained a copy of a front door camera recording that showed what appears at first glance to be a child-sized person running from a house towards a wooded area on the right side of the screen. The timestamp showed no date but a time of 10:16 PM. 

The article itself suggests that this thing in the video may be a ghost, which is the primary reason I came upon it. I don’t think you can capture a ghost on camera (or in any other way) but the video was interesting and the article was more intriguing than typically awful “ghosts caught on camera” for several other reasons.

First, here is the text of the article.* It’s important to note what information is and isn’t provided: 


The Haunting of Lake County? Mentor residents spot “ghosts” in security and doorbell footage

Whether you believe in ghosts and spirits or not, many people find the topic to be interesting and entertaining, especially in Mentor, Ohio.

Author: Kelly Matter, Hope Sloop

Published: 3:19 PM EDT March 22, 2021

MENTOR, Ohio — Do you believe in ghosts? 

It’s a question that many Lake County residents have found themselves asking over the past few weeks due to “supernatural haunts” caught on video. 

In recent weeks, members in Mentor, Ohio Facebook groups have posted videos and images of a “mysterious” object or person. This mysterious image appears to be all white and moving very quickly. WKYC was able to obtain some of those images and videos from residents.

3News spoke with officials from the Mentor Police Department and were even able to retrieve the police report based on information that was sent.

In the report, it states that police officers were dispatched on March 10 around 10:40 p.m., to the area of Bellflower Elementary in reference to a suspicious incident. 

The caller reported seeing a 7-year-old girl running northbound in the area. As one officer approached Wyatt’s Greenhouse, he spotted a child fitting the description from the caller. 

“I was surprised by what I saw, the person appeared to be a small child, running rather erect and too quickly for a child,” the report says. 

When the officer got out of the vehicle to try and catch the child, nobody was in the area. The officer continued along the building expecting to see a child crying, or scared, but still no signs of anyone.

Multiple other departments were searching the area and had no luck finding a child. After the search, the responding officer checked the dashcam video and found no child on the dashcam video, which was saved as an “investigative encounter.”

Shortly after trying to find the child on foot and the use of a K9, the drone team was deployed to search the responding area and did not locate anything suspicious.

Is it really ghosts? Could it just be young pranksters? Who knows!

This video clip did not have ads and repeats the section in question which is really helpful. I could not get a clear clip from WKYN piece to embed.

The article, or its content, was repeated on multiple websites with an emphasis on the paranormal aspect. I searched for other information but was not able to find more details. Let’s examine the article itself: it’s vague and somewhat confusing. Does the video relate to the police incident directly? We are given some local features but not precise details. Did the police question the neighbors on this night? What did they find? What about the other incidents and videos mentioned? These obvious questions go unanswered.

As I said, I don’t think this is a ghost, but it is a bit weird. The police incident occurred on a Wednesday night, after 10PM, which is an odd time for a child to be running around. There were reasonable grounds to take this report seriously. The video shows a figure with what appears to be bare legs – maybe the person was wearing shorts or a skirt/dress. Yet, the upper body is not distinguishable. Resolution is lost likely because the camera is far away and the subject is in low light conditions. Such devices are not meant to capture this kind of movement. Because of what are almost certainly artifacts from the recording process that distort the object, we can’t get the degree of detail needed to see what it really is. This lack of detail, and perhaps video compression distortion, will lead some people who are predisposed to believe in supernatural events to suggest it’s a ghost, not a corporeal being. Promotion of the supernatural angle made the clip go viral.

Weirdly, the upper body is not distinguishable.

People reading this story will typically assume this is all there is to it and make their conclusion based on what they are given in line with their preexisting worldview. So, some will say it’s a spooky video showing a ghost child (which is the trending view) and others say it’s just a person (so why is this news?). Yet others say it’s a moth, or a reflection, or something else mundane. After covering weird news for seven years on Doubtful News, I know very well that media outlets get things wrong or leave important facts out more often than not. Mostly, they don’t do any investigation at all but just report what they are told. In this case, at least they had a potentially related police report  – a bit of evidence that added credibility to the ghost idea but created more questions while providing no answers.

I was curious about what the video really showed and if these ubiquitous doorbell cameras often capture ambiguous events that can be interpreted as paranormal. (Yes, they do. Some also appear to be deliberately staged.) Also, what if it is a child in the video? It’s might be concerning that a child would be speeding through yards at this time of night. Ghost theories aside, I wanted to know what this was and why it looked strange.

If this was MY video, I would not be giving it to the news before I did some very obvious and basic tests. First, I’d find out if this was someone from that nearby house. If not, I would try to recreate the event at the same time of night by having a person run the same path and compare the two videos to see how the camera represented a person of known size and speed.

From the clues in the article, I was able to go on Google maps street view and actually located the site within about 5 minutes of searching. I was able to match up the mailbox, landscaping and driveway of the house and turned the view across the street. I don’t want to give the address here because, understandably, the residents would not want people poking around their street and properties. But here is the view from the street looking towards the area of the video. Unfortunately, these dudes in the Silverado passed by the Google cam.

Notice a few interesting things here. First, the sidewalk ends here. There is a worn area in the grass along the edge of the treeline where the figure in the video appeared. There is a clearing in the direction the object went. And, there is a rock-lined culvert nearby that is close to the road. The culvert appears to lead to a stream or wet area with nearby walking paths near the school. But there is no logical path that would lead to the side of the grey house. There is a logical path that comes out on a road past the culvert on the far right. So, if this figure is a person, he/she has cut close to this house from what looks like a public area. If this was a jogger, that would be odd to cut through a yard. And, it would be reasonable to think such a person (or another jogger) would have been caught on camera before doing a similar thing making it seem less weird. However, what I’m missing here is local context and photos more recent than 2 years ago. I’d bet that the answer is mundane so it’s unusual to see such a big deal made out of it.

I’m at a loss to find out more information for several reasons: I’m not local. I don’t have the time or inclination to contact the police for their report (it’s not readily available online), and I don’t have access, nor do I think I deserve access, to the private neighborhood Facebook group to see these other videos. So, I contacted the local paranormal society, gave them the address, and asked if they could check out the location. Maybe they could see if there was a reasonable explanation for someone to be running this way and if a jogger was to blame for the hubbub. Maybe they could do some measurements. It appeared they had not done anything with such a tasty case that had dropped right into their lap. They responded that they are checking it out. Sure, sure.

I’m posting this for two reasons. First, perhaps someone local might see it and provide the additional info I seek. As I said, the story is popular and the information is only from that single source. I’m interested in why these stories spread like they do. Second, no one seems to have thought about this incident in a more critical way. So, perhaps that might be appreciated. It took very little time to look up some basic facts. This might be a good reminder that when we are presented with sensational news stories, we should always be skeptical. Think about what’s been left out or what deliberate spin was put on it for what reason. These articles get clicks, and they normalize ideas about so-called paranormal events occurring around us. As usual, the evidence is poor and unchecked. It is extremely unlikely this is anything more unusual than a person running through the neighborhood.

Finally, what about the cop who said he saw a running child? I don’t think this is too weird. He was investigating a report of child. (Presumably he was, it’s not altogether clear)  Therefore, he may have seen something vague and interpreted it in that way as he was focused on that idea. He was motivated to observe something strange and so he fulfilled this intent in his own mind. It’s not so surprising that the claims were taken seriously enough to call out dogs, a drone, and other police departments. I hope this is a lesson to the police too who are not above reporting their personal interpretations instead of just the facts.

Mentor has their own local ghost lore. Several strange incidents seem to have been strung together into this haunt-themed narrative. Taken collectively, the situation shows that we very easily fall into traps of assuming certain things happened for definitive reasons when they actually are heavily dependent on our personal interpretations. Just like one commenter on the video certainly sees a ghost child but the next commenter chastises the gullible people who see something other than a running person, it’s all a matter of perspective.

Many people really really want it to be a ghost, so that’s as far as they will go to investigate. Time and repetition turn it into a legend. The truth is lost.

If you have additional information on this incident, please contact me directly. I’d love to hear from you. 

*I have copied the text because these pieces often disappear from the internet or go behind a pay wall. For purposes of examining the details presented, I needed to cite the entire piece.

The odd and clunky guide to researching the paranormal – Book Review

Researching the Paranormal: How to Find Reliable Information about Parapsychology, Ghosts, Astrology, Cryptozoology, Near-Death Experiences, and More

By Courtney M. Block, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2020. 342pp.

There has not previously been a book specifically about how to research the paranormal. Academic librarian Courtney Block aims to help those who may feel embarrassed or confused about approaching unconventional research topics such as ghosts and parapsychology, ufology, cryptozoology, and occult/divination topics. Clearly knowledgeable across a broad scope of paranormal themes and ideas, the author says this book focused primarily on supplying a selection of scholarly and academic references on all these topics to “shine a light on the myriad research that has been done to understand the paranormal”. The volume also revealed the author’s fervent wish to remove the “stigma” that these topics have and to promote “citizen scientists” of whom Block comments are “pushing the boundary of what it means for something to be investigated scientifically”.

This is my wheelhouse. I should appreciate this book. Unfortunately, it loses focus immediately.

Emphasizing the importance of a scientific and scholarly approach, Block states without elaboration that paranormal research challenges the academic status quo and hints that materialistic science may hamper this kind of research. This is odd and reflects the attitude of psi researchers who believe that their evidence is rock solid if only those pesky rules of science were not so strict. So, the reader is left wondering, “what kind of science and scholarship is Block talking about?” The attempt to orient the reader to key ideas of “paranormal”, “scientific”, and even “research” (which isn’t defined until page 94 as “to find out more”) is unclear, buried in a repetitive narrative for which the aim seems more to be about promoting the author’s preferred beliefs than presenting a sound procedure for doing credible research.

The intended audience for this book is also a mystery. Is this a guide for ghost hunters, teens doing research papers, writers? Parts of the book were overly simplistic, as if written for someone who never used a library before. The reading recommendations, however, were often scholarly content that the average non-specialist would find far too challenging to digest.

The author attempts to sort out a research protocol from the ground up, the result of which is disjointed and not easy to follow. For example, Block says one should not use Google as a first step to research. Yet, professionals often begin with broad searches and Wikipedia to get a general orientation to the subject matter prior to a deep dive. Google Scholar is only mentioned in passing and is not explained. Other widely used web tools are not listed. Instead, the author leans heavily on scholarly journals. (Notably, Block is silent on why cryptozoology and ufology have no dedicated journals listed.) It would have been an improvement if the author used an existing concise guide of how to research a topic (of which there are many), supplemented with specific tips for paranormal topics.

University programs, organizations, museums, and special collections are given many pages. These are sources that would be useful mostly for academic research. Yet, this list is also full of holes and barely scrapes the surface of useful material. The sections for books and articles suffer from a similar small sampling, include only a tiny smattering, not even the core literature, for each topic. I question why one would bother with listing fewer than 10 examples of key articles for each huge topic. This didn’t make sense. If there were space constraints to consider, reorganization would have been preferable. Though encouraging approaches to all sides, Block fails to include critical resources or explain their use in fully understanding a research topic. With the massive scope of topics, all end up shortchanged and lacking suitable modern context. Block never mentions anomalistic psychology, and barely touches on sociological studies.

The considerable material from the UK is peppered throughout (mostly related to the Society for Psychical Research) but the remainder is clumped into a strange, disconnected, and aimless last chapter that walks the reader through famous paranormal sites and “magical practices” of the UK. This content was weirdly unsuitable.

A rambling narrative is not an effective vehicle for instruction. The clunky titles, casual language, and repetition also revealed the lack of an editorial hand. The use of many contemporary sources, tools, and brands means this book will age fairly quickly. The multi-task effort Block shouldered is just too huge and complex for one book; it would have worked better as a website or shorter books on each topic. A reader comes away with a hodgepodge of information and suggestions but no clear pathway for researching the paranormal.

Toy tiger

Fake tiger tales and other plush hoaxes

Police in the Steyning area of West Sussex, England, were called to a public park on the evening of July 23, 2020 to respond to a report of a big cat on the loose. The Horsham police were likely familiar with the popular idea that large, non-native, “alien big cats” are roaming the UK. Hundreds of reports have been made across Britain alone in the past few years. Many areas have their own local “beasts” that many people believe are real and dangerous. But, hard evidence is scant.

All we know of this latest report is based on a tweet from the police.

The police found a specimen of a “black panther” except it was a stuffed toy. It’s not clear if a hoaxer called in this report on purpose or if someone had mistaken the toy for a real animal.

It would not be the first time that authorities discovered plush animals misinterpreted to be living large cats. In my several years of covering odd stories for Doubtful News, I’d come across several similar incidents. One can bet it won’t be the last, either.

In 2013, local tales of big cats in Essex seemed to be confirmed when officials driving through Epping Forest saw a large black panther perched in a tree.

Epping Forest cat. The Independent. December 12, 2013.

Someone had placed the discarded toy in the position as a joke. The location is known for illegal dumping.

More frequently, replicas of tigers are mistaken as genuine. I found many such stories. On the same day as the Essex plush panther, “someone” reported a tiger in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. When a news crew arrived, a tiger toy was perched on a stroller.

BC tiger. Global News, July 23, 2020.

I suppose it’s possible that a very credulous person could have thought this was real in these upside-down days, but come on!

In 2011, in Hedge End, Southhampton, England, police consulted zoo personnel and prepared a tranquilizer dart after several people reported a white tiger on the loose. Observers had viewed the animal through a zoom lens and were convinced it was the real deal. Before the police could take action, the toy blew over in the wind and it was clear they’d been fooled. What wasn’t clear was who did it. The incident caused public fear and some wasted emergency efforts.

Hampshire police released this photo of the Hedge End fake tiger. (The Guardian online May 22, 2011)

A farmer in Aberdeenshire, Scotland called police after he saw a tiger near his cows. Police mobilized, but after 45 minutes of observation, the animal failed to move and the farmer concluded it was just a toy. He didn’t know who had put it there. (The Telegraph, February 6, 2018)

Scotland tiger, from Facebook February 2018.

Here is a more realistic case. In 2015 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an animal control officer responded to a report of a tiger in a backyard. As he peered into the yard, he viewed a scene he saw as all too real and shocking. A small tiger, facing away from him, was lying in the yard. He called for backup.

Michigan toy tiger. ABC 27 News May 29, 2015

It was only when another officer arrived that they realized the animal was just a toy. No one lived at the vacant property so it’s unclear if this was a deliberate hoax. “I can’t blame the caller because it had me,” the officer said.

A month prior to that, a caller to emergency services in Camas, Washington reported he’d seen a live Bengal tiger with some teens. The 911 caller was convinced that it was NOT a toy as it was “wagging its tail”. “The more I think about it, it seems pretty dangerous,” the caller added. “At first I thought, well it must be a big stuffed animal and then it started moving and it wasn’t stuffed.” You can listen to the call where he says he thought it perhaps their pet and was concerned about laws against such dangerous animals. After joking around with it by the car, the kids tied it to the roof and drove off. Many drivers who passed them had honked and laughed about the rooftop hitchhiker. Offices then flagged them down.

Washington tiger. Good Morning America, June 10, 2015.

Another lifelike toy tiger placed on the roof of an abandoned hotel caused traffic trouble in Humble, Texas, near Houston in 2012. The Houston Fire Department said they received calls about the animal and responded, only to find it was a toy. They removed it to avoid further trouble. (ABCNews Jan 19, 2012)

There is something about tigers, it seems. One of my favorite misidentification stories is from 2018 when NYPD responded to a call from Harlem saying a tiger was on the loose. It turned out to be a raccoon.

The lesson to be learned here is that our observation skills are just not that good. When we get an initial thought about what we see, our brain then fills in details to support that idea. Sometimes, we see things that just aren’t there and even inanimate objects can become alive. These incidents are not infrequent, noted by the handful examples above. There are countless more cases of misidentification that occur every day. Yet, people still think they know what they saw. This does not bode well for the claims that people see unusual creatures, or UFOs, or apparitions. Mistakes and misinterpretations must always be a primary consideration before jumping to any more exotic possibilities.

Update March 2022: Police in Oldham, England respond to a call about a tiger loose in a neighborhood garden that was actually a stuffed toy.

Ghost Studies and Lightforms: A review of two paranormal research books

Long ago, my interest in paranormal topics became jaded because popular books were repetitive, full of the same information and stories as the last one. For decades, books written on cryptozoology and ufology advanced no closer to definitively documenting or explaining these phenomena. Some advocates are persuaded that the many similar stories and imaginative speculation, often tenuously tied to scientific concepts, are sufficient to make remaining skeptics (those that have not been persuaded) or rejectors look absurd. I am not persuaded.

The history of serious ghost research spans even longer than cryptids and UFOs. Scientists have been trying to figure out ghostly experiences for centuries. Scientific-sounding concepts abound to attempt to explain ghosts.

One glaring problem with ghosts is that there are many definitions of ghosts/hauntings and various ideas about what they could be from spiritual to scientific (spirits of the dead, demons or other supernatural entities, psychic transmissions, trans-dimensional receptions, time-slips, environmental recording-playback). Where understanding of the natural world via science has advanced by incredible measure, ghost investigation has decidedly not. Therefore, I am justified in being skeptical of any book that claims to use “cutting edge research” and “new theories” to explain this eternal mysterious human experience. 

Older books about ghostly episodes (and hauntings and poltergeists, as well) were frequently much better. Maybe that was because it was more difficult to write a book before the 21st century. To contract a publisher, you had to have some credibility, experience, and substance. Today, you don’t need to impress anyone but yourself, so the field of the paranormal is polluted with unreadable, useless volumes from part-time or celebrity paranormal investigators. Some of these authors truly believe they are doing something new but have failed to examine what has already been done. Many attempt to do science when they have zero scientific background – these are the topic of my book Scientifical Americans. Then, there are those that do have some science background but are outside their wheelhouse. These authors use abundant scientific jargon, analogies, and experiments to push their ideas. They may publish in parapsychology-related or minor journals. Their work might be heavily referenced by others because it is positive and seemingly impressive. But it often does not get wider scientific acceptance because it is flawed and/or has failed to be reproduced. Or, it just has not proved useful in the real world because it doesn’t accurately predict anything. I recently finished two paranormal-themed books that cited one author that could fall into that category – Michael Persinger. Of note, I no longer take Persinger as seriously as I once did and now find his work relating to paranormal experiences lacking. His ideas about the effects of weak, complex electromagnetic fields may be valid but not to the extent they are promoted. And, the tectonic strain theory was very much a house of cards that could not withstand scrutiny.  Persinger is so frequently cited in scientifical paranormal books that he could be on a Ghost Hunters Bingo card. 

The first book I’ll talk about was advertised as using the latest scientific research and new theories to provide scientific explanations for ghostly episodes. Promises, promises…  Disappointingly, the research was tenuous or out of context, the ideas weren’t new (or logical), and the scope of ghostly episodes was ill-defined and narrow. Listen, everyone: you can’t revolutionize any field with a lightweight paperback for general readers. The Ghost Studies: New Perspectives on the Origins of Paranormal Experiences by Brandon Massullo landed far short of the mark. The author admitted this is a complex subject but then writes in a breezy, affected way with stories, much reiteration, and end-of-chapter summary paragraphs (which I personally find off-putting because it was only few pages and I just read it). 

Curiously, this book was written in 2017 and touches on a few topics (popular ghost theories and use of technology) that were also in my own book published the same year. I found some agreement and was hopeful, but the content was too sparse. The major turn in this book happened when the author describes his version of “ingredients for a ghostly experience”. That is, his “theory” is that the following are necessary for a ghost episode: psychological aspects, changes in internal energy, and external acquisition of information.

Depending on what is meant here, psychological aspects are a given for any ghost experience. With “changes in internal energy”, the pseudoscience flag goes flying. He describes how a ghostly experience requires the energy of a person to be involved – their electrical field, which is powered by emotions. The author puts forward the idea (based on dubious research) that our emotions cause bodily changes that alter our human electric field, which then affects the earth’s electromagnetic field allowing for the transmission of information. Finally, a receiver taps into that frequency and receives the information. None of that is supported by good evidence, logic, or math.

There is the typical misuse of the conservation of energy law that energy can’t be destroyed so something of us must live on after we die. As expected, the entire chapter on energy is overly simplistic and the concepts misapplied.

Other chapters cite work by not only Persinger, but Sheldrake. The author repeats that this is scientific research to give it credibility. Unfortunately, he accepts that this research is perfectly valid and ignores the mountains of criticism about it. Science works as a community effort over time, building on what is confirmed. Persinger’s and Sheldrake’s ideas about electromagnetic fields and morphic resonance, respectively, are not accepted as confirmed. Not even close. But they are convenient to use to promote the author’s imaginative idea and those who aren’t specialists are not going to know that. This is how many people get away with promoting pseudoscience in general as it is hard to check and sounds impressive.

This unconfirmed research constitutes the “studies” of the title and is presented as amazing new results to inform the author’s theory of ghosts. The book quickly became tedious to read as Massullo admits possible weaknesses in the explanations but then cites the few studies as confirmation that we now “know” these things are real/true. By page 51, Massullo tells the reader that they now have “a strong foundation regarding research and possible explanation for hauntings”. I cringe when those making quick and shallow arguments assume they have done a fine job of instructing the reader.

I had a problem with the narrow focus of ghostly episodes. As a parapsychologist, his view is that psi events are the cause of ghosts. This is very much “phantasms of the living” category of ghosts. But this type ignores the much broader range of experiences people consider “ghostly” around the world and through time. The huge span of ghost literature reveals that the concept of ghosts is diverse and culturally-influenced. So, this narrowness of situation is limiting. Additionally, I am not convinced by the evidence of psi as it has not gotten better over time and no reasonable mechanism has been put forward.

Throughout, he repeatedly states he “believes” this or that is happening. Science-based work has no place for “belief”. You either have demonstrated something to satisfaction or not. The author is highly intelligent and probably a fine therapist. However, the volume fails to take seriously the very real effects of social suggestion and exaggeration of experiences for storytelling purposes. People frequently feel what they are told to feel in places they view as haunted. And, those who experience the death of a loved one have unique personal responses that have nothing to do with “biological radio” transmitted via the earth’s electromagnetic field. Books are difficult to write, for sure. I support expressing opinions and concepts about mysterious things but I do not support dressing up suppositions with sciencey language. This is deceptive and confuses the lay reader into thinking the ideas have more merit than they really do.

The second book was Lightforms: Spiritual Encounters with Unusual Light Phenomena by Mark Fox. This second edition, published in 2016, has been retitled from the first. The author promotes the term “lightforms” as a description of these experiences of light. It is deliberate that it sounds like “lifeforms”. This book is also called a “study” suggesting it is original research. I enjoyed the intro and Chapter 1. It was well-written and entertaining as well as effectively framing the previous research for this topic. Fox’s work was to distill 400 personal accounts of experiences with unusual light phenomena collected by the Religious Experiences Research Centre. I was hoping the experiences and analysis would not be constrained by the religious aspects, but, unfortunately, they were. There was very little on what is called “earth lights” that I am interested in. And an argument could be made for a crossover with UFO experiences. Yet, the author did note that accounts where “angels” were mentioned, other than a reference to NDEs, were nonexistent. Since the database used included accounts that were 30 years old up to relatively recent (I assumed, it’s not clear), the cultural aspects are muddled.  

The accounts were categorized weirdly by some lesser characteristic: seen by many, seen alone, lights that embrace and fill, that illuminate landscapes or people, that penetrate (beams, rays, shafts), that invoke visionary experiences, brighter than the sun. I could not make any sense of this division. I quickly got bored with short account after account, chapter after chapter. As I noted at the start of this piece, that’s what turned me off to paranormal lit in general. I admit to skimming beginning around page 115 because the text was mostly anecdotes.

The author does very little with these accounts except to count them and call that a “statistical analysis”. Then he tries to be precise with this volume of highly imprecise anecdotal data by categorizing percentages of accounts that produced positive feelings, occurred during a personal “crisis”, those followed by positive “fruits” (outcomes) – a word the author overuses ad nauseam. Because the anecdotes do not follow a set structure, this is a flawed approach. He then presents a model of these experiences by mashing all of those most noted features together. There is no detailed analysis here. 

Then, the author explores some possible explanations from psychology and neurosciences. Along with a decent array of other researchers, here is where Persinger is invoked regarding his work on Temporal Lobe Transients. Again, I see the word “cutting-edge” appear to describe the research. But is it? It’s fringe, but is it expanding our understanding, pushing the limits? Is it predicting anything? Is it paving the way for more research? I’m not convinced it did any of that. Fox does not consider Persinger’s work as particularly enlightening toward an explanation he seeks because of the difference in response by experiencers – Fox’s respondents interpreted a more fulfilling experience. While the book leans fairly heavily towards a Christian version of God, Fox ultimately fails to arrive at a solid conclusion for lightforms. It remains a mystery, he says, but they are “proof that this world is not all there is”. Well, I agree that people can certainly imagine another world that isn’t this one but, again, stories and speculation alone aren’t going to get all of us on board. I finished the book a bit more knowledgeable about the variety of personal spiritual encounters with light, but that’s it.

Meanwhile, I’m always hoping the NEXT book will leave me pleasantly surprised. Am I too critical? I don’t think so. Writing a book is tough but I expect an author to write thoughtfully, logically, and to do a good job of laying out a decent argument. Those qualities seems difficult to come by. 

Paranormal tourism paper shows themed tourism is popular and profitable

I collaborated on a new paper now online for Cornell Hospitality Quarterly about paranormal tourism called “Paranormal Tourism: Market Study of a Novel and Interactive Approach to Space Activation and Monetization”.

Abstract

We review the premise, popularity, and profitability of paranormal tourism, which involves visits to any setting or locale for the explicit purpose of encountering apparent supernatural phenomena for leisure, investigation, services, products, or conventions. This niche sector can offer an inherently engaging conceptual framework for seasonal or year-round space activation and monetization by businesses situated in specific settings or cities. On a broader level, the niche also illustrates how tourism–hospitality brands and operations can navigate and even capitalize on three paradigm shifts that have disrupted contemporary markets, that is, the mobilities, performative, and creative turns. This assertion is underscored with a case analysis of a historic site that successfully leveraged paranormal themes as part of its space reactivation and rebranding. Finally, our market study suggests that the success factors of paranormal tourism might indicate a fourth paradigm shift across the wider tourism–hospitality industry, whereby the experience economy is transforming to an enchantment economy.

My job was to gather information on the popularity of paranormal beliefs and themed tourism. I collected data via Google searches and compiled the results. I can’t take credit for the structure or conclusions. As with my other papers with Houran’s group, they are the academics. I get down to the local level and pull out the popular cultural information and themes and they form it into models and structures for further research. And, someone other than me uses words like “space activation”, which isn’t something that could be conceived in my brain. But that’s how collaborations work. I could never do this kind of paper on my own. Science is a community effort.

From Houran, et al. (2020)

The conclusions were that there is a distinct benefit in leveraging a paranormal theme for those sites that can find a way to do it. The surge in paranormal themes in branding a site is further evidence to support a widespread cultural move towards “re-enchantment” of the landscape. It appears that many sites risk their reputation as a “haunted” site because the short-term economic benefit far outweighs the potential dip in reputation. People visit! The example given is the Eastern State Penitentiary that capitalized on their Halloween events and their spooky tales to draw increased crowds to what essentially is a historic landmark to a failed experiment in mass incarceration. People come to be creeped out and the scary tales enhance that branding.

Advertising for the ESP’s seasonal moneymaker.

We connect the creative turn towards paranormal branding in tourism to the previously described VAPUS model.

I’ve made a copy of the paper available here.

Copy-paste cryptozoology

A review of Chasing American Monsters: Over 250 Creatures, Cryptids, and Hairy Beasts by Jason Offutt (2019).

I’ve been thinking a lot about cryptozoology lately. While consuming content about many other subjects, I see excellent examples in cryptozoology to illustrate public attitudes towards and understanding of science, paranormal thinking, colonialist themes, misperceptions about evidence, media depictions of factual events, and sociology. I still am in love with the idea of monsters. I require, however, some substance in the discourse. As such, I am a tough book critic. I expect some quality standards. When the world is full of good books, I resent wasting my time on poor ones. I expect a nonfiction book to contain solid references and useful, preferably original, information. If a book is not specifically marketed as juvenile non-fiction, I assume it will be written for adults to enjoy. I probably should not assume those things.

Chasing Monsters (on Kindle) sounded interesting. I’m very sorry to say that this volume lacked the positive qualities I expect and committed several major blunders common to books on anomalies.

It gets off to a bad start with attribution to mystery-mongering personalities associated with the Mysterious Universe website (a site that blocks me from commenting because they reject fair criticism). When I was about halfway through the book, I discovered that all of the content was previously published on MU. While Chasing Monsters contains the standard language that “no part of this book may be used or reproduced…including Internet usage” the text is still up at MU. This doesn’t make sense. Also, why would Llewellyn publishing want non-original content to begin with? More on this copy-paste lit in a bit because it’s ubiquitous with paranormal topics. 

The chapters of Chasing Monsters are alphabetical by state with 4-7 very short snippets about a local cryptid or monster lore. Many subjects are repeated because similar stories (and folklore motifs) aren’t contained by state boundaries. (The only state without a Bigfoot-type creature is Hawaii.) Thus, a state by state layout is not a good way of presenting mysteries or paranormal ideas. It is disjointed, worse than alphabetizing by the first letter of the name. Worse than that, the entries are so short that the reader can’t really grasp the story. Most are woefully incomplete. Several subjects have widely known or readily available interesting proposed explanations or outright conclusions but these are not mentioned. We are left to think that there is some mystery that remains when there isn’t. For example, there is no cave in the Grand Canyon filled with Egyptian artifacts or giant humans – these were fictionalized news stories. The legend of the Jersey Devil does not go “exactly like this” – the story has always varied with different versions. And, readers are not provided the rather important fact regarding the “green clawed beast” near Evansville, Indiana – that it was reported the year after the movie Creature from the Black Lagoon was released. Such omissions of critical context borders on deception, unless it’s just incompetence. I can’t say which it is here but I really dislike it. On the flip side, the author sometimes includes ridiculous explanations instead of substantiated ones, such as saying one explanation for the Honey Island swamp monster is that circus chimpanzees escaped and bred with alligators. Maybe absurd inclusions like that are meant to be entertaining. Offutt can’t decide if he wants us to take this seriously or just for fun.

I couldn’t work out what this book aimed to accomplish. If this was to be an entertaining book of stories, the content is too skimpy. If it is meant to show cryptids are worthy of investigation, it is confounding. Offutt makes the claim in the intro that all animals were once “hidden”, therefore, cryptozoology is important because people are seeking answers to mysterious animal reports. However, he fails to distinguish between tall tales (he admits some stories in this book qualify for that label) and legitimate zoological investigation, which so few self-styled cryptozoologists actually do. The standard hand-waving “cryptid success stories” of the okapi, mountain gorilla, Congo peacock, megamouth shark, and coelacanth are trotted out, again confusing normal zoological discovery with the unstructured and nebulous “cryptid hunting”, and misconstruing a scientifically discovered new species as a validated cryptid (after the fact). Later, the book includes descriptions of the Squonk hoax beast and the legendary cannibalistic Wendigo. How exactly are those monsters comparable to an unusual zoological specimen that is definitively documented not long after it is sought? (Or, fortuitously found without any pre-knowledge?) 

Things gets really cringey when Offutt invokes the naive reasoning that if all these once unknown creatures are now real, why couldn’t something like Bigfoot be out there – a possible remnant Gigantopithecus, Neanderthal, or unknown species of North American ape.

“Whatever Bigfoot is, I think it just may be out there. I have faith in you, big guy.”

Ugh. So is the purpose of this book to promote belief in legendary monsters? I don’t know. 

Adding to the overall problems with this volume is the use of recent anecdotes pulled from unreliable internet sources (such as forum posts). This is an awful practice that should only be used when there is a clear justification (e.g., to note first use or trends). I was glad to see some original news sources in Chasing Monsters but the good sources are outweighed by some stinkers. For example, he uses a story from “an account on about.com by an anonymous author who posted as ‘Bob'”. For some entries, there are no sources provided and these are cited as “cases not specific enough for a reference”. That is unacceptable. If the stories exist, they have a source. 

I kept going in the book, getting more annoyed, until I got to the New York chapter. Included was the illustrator’s dramatic depiction of the Montauk Monster. Except it wasn’t; it was another one of these same critters sighted along the East River years later. Why not include the more popular Montauk Monster? The only reason I could guess was that the Montauk beast has its own Wikipedia entry that clearly states it was a raccoon carcass. This “East River monster” had fewer internet references (because we’d already exhausted the Montauk Monster hype) so it couldn’t be as easily googled for an answer. There was no mention in the entry of it being a dead raccoon. I became so irritated by this point, I stopped reading and skimmed the rest. 

Stop me if you’ve heard this before

Cryptozoology is remarkably deficient in original, scholarly content. The literature largely consists of the same stories repeated from source to source often without fact-checking or new information included. It makes the body of work repetitive and intellectually weak. I can’t fathom why any publisher thinks we need yet another encyclopedic book with hundreds of uninspired short entries. In a quick search for cryptozoology on Amazon, I counted 12 field guides, encyclopedias, collections, or compendiums. There are many more short-entry type volumes grouped by themes. This format – generally quick to cobble together and lacking depth – applies to too many modern cryptozoology books! Only a rare few have any analysis or original ideas.

Cryptozoology is not unlike its sibling topics in the paranormal neighborhood – UFOs and ghosts – where there is considerable copying and even outright plagiarism that occurs. Note the recent Zak Bagans and Troy Taylor scandal with Ghost Hunting for Dummies. In 2013, Ben Radford called out blatant plagiarism in a vampire “encyclopedia”. And I’ve seen hundreds of websites that copy directly off other sources without attribution. It is not uncommon. Another MU writer, Nick Redfern, also recycled his previous work into an encyclopedic book that had similar issues as Chasing Monsters with poor sourcing and short, incomplete entries. Each writer wants to be viewed as knowledgeable and produce readable content but copy/pasting isn’t research. It’s lazy and I don’t feel bad calling it out when I know these writers can do better. (Well, maybe not Bagans…). 

Cryptozoologists who promote their interests lament why the field isn’t taken seriously. It’s partly the parade of overtly similar content that is sloppy, shallow, and illogical. It’s fine for kids or casual consumers and that’s it. There is little new to build on.

Two major problems rampant throughout cryptozoology literature were exhibited in Chasing Monsters: poor scholarship and a muddled, contradictory depiction of the field. Specifically, this book, and many other paranormal-themed books, have the following flaws: 

  • Dramatic, exaggerated, often unverified anecdotes
  • Recycled material lacking crucial explanatory information, context, and analysis
  • Overly-simplistic, uncritical arguments with illogical speculation in a blatant effort to persuade belief in fringe ideas
  • Noncredible sources used for convenience, or lack of sourcing entirely

This is a fascinating topic – a blend of folklore, human perception, sociology, pop culture and zoology. It doesn’t have to be mostly awful copy-paste media. Is cryptozoology real science or monster stories? Important research or entertainment? Serious evidence or just for fun? The observer can’t tell because the participants and their aims vary widely, usually missing their mark, which compromises any integrity and leaves little substance in the field.

Chasing Monsters is bland and redundant, I recommend skipping it.  I’ll rate it 2 out of 5 on Goodreads and Amazon only because there are minimal grammatical errors and the illustrations were cool.

Dead bulls generate media BS

News outlets have picked up and run with the story of five bulls (Hereford bovines) that have died under mysterious circumstances near Salem, Oregon last July. I’m not sure why this is getting attention again now except for the obvious – that ideas about aliens are back in the public consciousness thanks to a whole bunch of hype from the To The Stars Academy claiming to have videos of unidentified aerial phenomena and “metamaterials” they claim may not be of earthly origin. I find all that entirely underwhelming. But dead cows that have seemingly had some of their organs removed (notably the genitals) is an American paranormal trope that has been around for decades, and animals dying under strange circumstances is a curious thing. I don’t have the time or expertise to look into the cases in detail. I am looking at this as an interested person reading the news and hearing some really bizarre paranormal-themed conclusions pushed.

The latest story of cattle death and mutilation began in local media outlets in August. The five carcasses found at the Silvies Valley Ranch were all males, there was no immediate cause of death, and they all happened in the span of a few days.

From Oregon Live:

The five dead bulls were found on July 30 and 31, in a wooded area about 15 miles from U.S. 395, the nearest major road. They were each about a quarter mile apart, Marshall said. There is some official disagreement on when they were killed – the Harney County Sheriff’s Office, which saw only four of the bulls, puts the deaths at three to 14 days before discovery, but Marshall believes the cattle were discovered within 24 to 48 hours of their deaths.

The officials at the ranch and the local sheriff’s deputy described it to reporters as unexplanable. Yet, even these early articles invoked bizarre, fringe ideas. The new wave of articled from mainstream sources (took them a while to grab on) are even worse. Even NPR did a story without critical commentary:

The bull looks like a giant, deflated plush toy. It smells. Weirdly, there are no signs of buzzards, coyotes or other scavengers. His red coat is as shiny as if he were going to the fair, but he’s bloodless and his tongue and genitals have been surgically cut out.

It’s important to always understand that many sensational stories end up not being what was told in the media. Key facts are left out, exaggerated, or entirely wrong. When careful research is done, the story often resolves into something far less sensational. Taking a logical view of these cattle mutilation stories, a few things very obviously jump out:

  • The cases are assumed to be related. They are lumped together and other claims from the past are added to the conglomeration. Then they are tied together by some dubious facts under a common name that strongly assumes a common cause. Is this justified? No. Lumping things together that may not be related implies mysteriousness when there may be none – each case needs to be investigated individually before concluding that they are related if the evidence leads that way.
  • Several facts about the carcasses are assumed or misrepresented. The idea of the wounds being from lasers or scalpels is not at all well-demonstrated. There are data and real world experiments that show this appearance and missing soft tissue is explainable by natural causes – bloating that leads to splitting of the skin, insects and predators that remove parts. While it is certainly possible that someone could have taken a tool to the carcasses, that seems less likely than more obvious explanations. The idea of lasers seems high tech and fits in nicely with a dramatic tall tale of aliens abducting cows for some unknown use and dumping the remains.
  • Almost every story includes the claim that there was “no blood” left in the carcass. This is a total red herring. When an animal dies from sickness or internal injuries, it doesn’t bleed out. The heart stops pumping and the blood pools due to gravity, coagulates, and is not in “drop” form anymore. Even if there was an opening, the blood would soak into the ground or be eaten by various carrion feeders like flies. Does roadkill bleed if you cut it days later? No. This is nonsense from people who don’t know what naturally occurs in dead organisms.
  • The same media reporting patterns occur – the stories from those affected or afraid are provided and the expert information is marginalized unless the expert’s comments play into a dramatic conclusion. There are plenty of people who could cogently argue the opposite view – that this is not nefarious or all that mysterious – but that wouldn’t get clicks, would it?
  • There are no tracks around the body. This suggests that the animal just died on its own. This is somewhat mysterious, for sure, but it is not so weird if the animal was felled by lightning, poisoning, an acute allergic reaction, or illness. Has every possible toxin, disease, or illness been ruled out? No. In fact, almost none of the articles on the Oregon deaths included information from a veterinarian. None mention necropsies were done. One reason was that the remains were not fresh enough for this kind of evaluation. I’m not clear on why that would be an issue. You can certainly discern if the animal was injured in some way. Obviously, blood tests were not possible.

Opinion of the Vice-president of the ranch, Colby Marshall, is quoted repeatedly in the media pieces:

“We think that this crime is being perpetuated by some sort of a cult,” he said. NBC

Marshall said he wonders if the killer used poison darts. “We think that these are very sick and dangerous individuals and they need to answer for this horrible crime,” he said. Oregon Live

Marshall speculates the bulls were darted with a tranquilizer that knocked them out. While some people acted as lookouts, others bled the animals out by inserting a large-gauge needle into the tongue and into an artery, then removed the organs after the heart stopped beating, he surmised. LA Times

Guesses and wild speculation printed in the media sound like “facts”. They are not.

Deputy Sheriff Jenkins also chimes in with ideas put forward by others and his own thoughts:

“A lot of people lean toward the aliens,” Jenkins says. “One caller had told us to look for basically a depression under the carcass. ‘Cause he said that the alien ships will kinda beam the cow up and do whatever they are going to do with it. Then they just drop them from a great height.” NPR

“Personally, I would lean more toward the occult, where people for whatever reason – whether it’s a phase of the moon or whatever rituals they’re going to do with their beliefs – are coming to different areas and doing that,” he said. LA Times

Jenkins, the deputy, said the wounds, when examined, appeared clean-cut. “The parts were definitely cut out with a sharp blade,” he said. “There weren’t any signs of predatory eating or chewing. They were cut out by at least one person.” Capital Press

None of Jenkins claims given above are factual but his capacity as a law enforcement officer carries weight even though he may have zero expertise in this particular area.

The articles note that common causes were ruled out – poison plants, predators and gunshots. Lightning storms did not occur during the time. There was not a full moon. The animals were not found close together. NBC news at least noted that natural causes were likely and explained the missing blood and the conditions of the carcasses. They cited Dave Bohnert, director of Oregon State University’s Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, who said he believes people killed the bulls, but it could be natural – he had not investigated the case. It is odd that all were bulls, much less numerous in the herd than cows. So there is something here to solve but none of these people quoted are helping much.

The articles, not to mention the voluminous and really cringe-worthy commenters, serve up ridiculous “conclusions” about what could have done this. If someone can point to reliable sources that confirm any people butchered cows in this way in the name of Satan, please supply citations. There is little to no evidence of this far out claim. Mention of exsanguination automatically triggers people to yell “Chupacabra” which is goofy, but some people seriously believe there are vampire creatures preying on livestock. And, even early on, jokers suggested Sasquatch was messing with the cows. Unfortunately, this is not a new idea – it has been suggested that Bigfoot likes to hang around cows and even slaughter deer in spectacular ways. Again, it’s goofy. It is not reasonable to suggest some outside nefarious source (alien or human) is responsible when the natural sources have not been adequately studied. The best you can say is “I don’t know” what happened to these animals.

Interestingly, Oregon Live states the ranch is owned by a veterinarian. It seems odd that little science and mostly wild speculation and assumptions pad these news stories. Also of note, back in August, tissue samples were taken but there is no mention of the results. Decomposition makes the results difficult to interpret.

UFO investigators and alien believers deeply cling to the conclusion that this is very mysterious and point to other amateur sleuths that they claim have uncovered valuable clues. Yet, it remains that valid natural explanations are likely and these are accepted by the majority of scientists, veterinarians and experienced animal professionals. An FBI investigation in New Mexico in 1980 concluded there were no unnatural causes at play. [Rommel, Jr. Kenneth M. Project Director, “Operation Animal Mutilation: Report of the District Attorney, First Judicial District, State of New Mexico,” published in June of 1980.]

What is a fact is that some animals die suddenly and we sometimes just can’t figure out why.  That makes us nervous. People come up with creative ideas about what happened. But as a news consumer, it’s of paramount importance to think critically about the information provided. It’s unreasonable to propose extreme explanations and it’s irresponsible for the media to market these nonsense claims as if they had merit.

My three favorite vintage books on monsters and the paranormal

Every once in a while, I remember one of the books from my childhood that I recall with great fondness. Thanks to the Internet, I can usually find a blurb on what I had long discarded or gave away.

I have been trying for a while to locate a kids activity book about monsters that my grandmother bought me in the late 70s at a downtown department store when downtown stores with book departments were a real thing (and were really awesome). I’m not one for nostalgia at all but I recalled this book was my favorite and the information I learned from it was my first exposure to many monster ideas. It had sections on vampires and other movie monsters, but also the Yeti and Bigfoot. I even remembered the cover of the book was orange with purple. I swore it was named Monsters and was possibly one of the large Golden Books featuring puzzles and games.

I was trying every keyword I could think of, knowing if I saw the cover I would recognize it instantly. My searches turned up empty, until today. My results delivered a link to The Haunted Closet Blogspot site featuring vintage kids books, a site that began in 2008 but since 2011 only has a handful of posts per year. It didn’t show what I was looking for and there wasn’t all that much on there but it was fun to scroll through the entries.

I think I searched for “monsters” and, incredibly, there it was on the page. Monsters: Fiendish Facts, Quivery Quizzes and Other Grisly Goings-on was a Golden Book, part of the Family Funtime series. It was sold in 1977 for $0.79.

My favorite monster book (1977)

I was gleeful that there were several pictures of the pages included in the blog post, which reminded me that this was the book that introduced me to voodoo, showed me how to recognize people who were really werewolves, and the story of UFOs over the White House. There was also this neat drawing of a green devil head with instructions to stare at it for a long time and then look at a white wall whereby the afterimage that appeared would be red. It worked!

I’d love to hear from other people who remember this book as a kid in the 70s. (I was probably 8 years old when I got this gem.) They just don’t write quality kids content like this anymore. Two other books that I distinctly remember have also been fondly remembered by friends and paranormally-inclined acquaintances – Monsters of North America by Elwood Baumann that was my introduction to Bigfoot and his southern cousins, and Haunted Houses by Larry Kettlekamp that had classic photos such as the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall and stories that are still discussed today.

I have a copy of Baumann’s book. I noted Lyle Blackburn also referenced it in his latest book on Momo, the Missouri monster. Baumann was my first source of information on this classic small town monster. I also will pick up Kettlekamp’s book soon and am actively looking for a copy of the Monsters book at the top. Well, that was a spooky but joyous walk down memory lane. These books are treasures.

Flat-earthers as scientifical Americans: One message from ‘Behind the Curve’

Most people react to flat-earthers by labeling them as stupid or scientifically illiterate. A moderate effort to examine what they say will reveal that is not so. On the contrary, those who embrace conspiratorial beliefs seem to be bored with the conventional. Their active, creative brains spin more intriguing, complicated, and colorful trappings around mundane events and explanations. This was clearly in evidence in the documentary on flat-earthers, Behind the Curve.

The film has received good reviews and I recommend you watch it for yourself in an objective frame of mind. 

Decider does a brief overview of the important points but the reviewer thinks the execution of the project is inconsistent. I disagree. I think it’s marvelous. But I saw it by way of my own work on Scientifical Americans. So, unlike other commenters, I was not yelling at the screen. Instead, the film connected some dots for me, and a more coherent, but still complicated, insight into fringe beliefs evolved.

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The monsters of cryptozoology: Book review

Cryptozoology literature has a problem. 

Too often, popular cryptid books perpetuate unreferenced tales, elevating certain unwarranted details that are probably not factual, but opinion. Any references are often poor quality work, frequently web sites or blogs. There is a distinct lack of original scholarship, and generally poor scholarship overall. Cryptozoology proponents are notoriously adverse, even hostile, to criticism. This is a downer because I want better books on these subjects. 

What follows is my review of The Monster Book: Creatures, Beasts and Fiends of Nature by Nick Redfern, published in 2016 by Visible Ink Press. Visible Ink sent me this book before it was released but I just got to it now. I have to start with some caveats so I, hopefully avoid being misunderstood. 

First, I like some of Nick Redfern’s stuff. He’s a highly entertaining writer, speaker, and general spokesperson for paranormal subjects. His living is made by writing popular books. This book was entertaining. There is plenty of room for that in the world. It was not written for someone like me, though. It seems to be aimed more at the younger crowd just getting into the subject. Also, the book is not actually entirely on cryptozoology if you consider that some of these “monsters” may be supernatural stories or occult tales (i.e., Hexham’s wolf creature, the dancing devil, vampires). But, it includes many typical cryptids and mentions the word early on. For those other authors and commentators who stress the “scientific” aspects of cryptozoology (note: not Redfern), they sure leave a wide berth for the supernatural to creep in. There is internal confusion about what cryptozoology is today. Is it serious? Or is it monster stories? That’s for another post but consider the issues I found within this book.

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Supernatural Creep: When explanations slide off to the fringes

Originally published as Supernatural Creep: The Slippery Slope to Unfalsifiability for my column Sounds Sciencey on csicop.org May 29, 2013.

I’m taking a step beyond sciencey with the following topic. What happens when science doesn’t cooperate with your subject area? Researchers of unexplained events may get frustrated and disenchanted with the scientific process when the eyewitness accounts they collect are too weird to explain via conventional means. They go unconventional.

Captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel led the hunt for a beast that was attacking and devouring victims in the Gevaudan, France, in 1794. He had a problem. He could not catch and kill the man-eating monster. Being a proud man, he had to justify why he could not conquer this particular foe. Since the option that he was an inadequate huntsman was not acceptable, the creature must be supernatural in its abilities to escape his capture. The characteristics of the beast were exaggerated—it was huge, cunning, and not just an ordinary wolf. Captain Duhamel left defeated by what must truly be an extraordinary beast.

The cognitive dissonance experienced by the French captain is reflected today by those who can’t capture Bigfoot. When normal processes and causes fail to satisfactorily explain events or answers to questions, then the reasoning slips beyond nature, into super nature, beyond the testable claims of science.

I call this “supernatural creep.” Although, I swear I’m not the first one to name it as such. I searched to find where I have seen this referenced before. (If anyone knows, please email me so I can give the originator due credit.) Once I noticed this kind of reasoning, I saw it frequently. Wherever I come across this concept, it reveals a bit about human nature:

If you have to choose between the belief or a rational explanation, the rational explanation may be that which gets rejected.

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Paranormal education classes showing up at major universities

Paranormal subjects typically lie outside the circle of academic respectability. One can argue that they have been deliberately marginalized to keep them diminished in credibility. But, with the majority of the population of the U.S. subscribing to at least one paranormal belief, I’d argue we should be discussing these phenomena in an intellectual context. Things are changing. But for a while now, non-credit, community education classes have been providing a certain degree of legitimacy to these subject areas. 

In recent news on paranormal-themed websites, I’ve heard that David Halperin, retired professor of religious studies, is teaching a non-credit course about UFOs and alien visitation at Duke University. Entitled UFOs–Encounter, Mystery, Myth, he writes about it here. These kinds of continuing education courses, aimed at those with leisure time for enrichment activities, are very common. In this situation, at least we see a qualified teacher. He’s qualified in both instruction and in UFO lore. I suspect this course will be interesting and worthwhile. Here is the summary:

This course rests on two premises: (1) UFOs are a myth; (2) myths are real.  UFOs became a feature of the cultural landscape 71 years ago.  They’ve been debunked innumerable times, yet remain firmly fixed in our shared consciousness.  In the changed socio-political environment since the 2016 election they’ve achieved a surprising new respectability.  We’ll explore these “visitors from inner space” from a psychological and religious perspective, asking the essential question –not “Where do they come from?” or “How do they fly?” but, “What do they mean?” –for us as individuals, as a culture, as a species.

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Doubt and About: Revisiting Fort and more short book opinions

It’s been a long while since I did a “doubt and about” post detailing what’s going on. I’m in a weird space right now. I don’t really feel like talking about anything but I also want to share some things. Going by that last sentence, I am admitting that I am inconsistent. I have internal conflicts. I know something is bad, yet I indulge it – like talking about Bigfoot. I have changed my mind about things. I have discarded previous modes of thinking. I find there is nothing wrong with that and I am enjoying the exploration. 

Blogs are dead. Yet, people still write them and others read them. I likely will regret this post and others tomorrrow. But it feels natural to write publicly at this moment.

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Science and cryptozoology: The taboo subject of Bigfoot doesn’t add up

Episode 7 of Laura Krantz’ Wild Thing podcast on Bigfoot, science and society explores the contentious relationship between the orthodox scientific community and those scientists who choose to seriously explore fringe topics like this one. Several science-minded Bigfoot advocates are profiled who lament the way society and the “Ivory Tower” of science (a monolithic metaphorical straw man) treats the topic of Bigfoot as a joke or a career taboo. Why, she asks, does other “fantastical”-sounding research, like looking for life on other planets or showing that the universe may be a hologram, not receive the negative rep that Bigfoot study does? [Edit: I originally thought she mentioned wormholes and quantum mechanics so the first version of this post was different.] Well, I’m not sure that talking about a hologram universe is taken to be legit and goes unquestioned, but it’s not equivalent to the well-marketed claim of a huge human-like ape supposedly hiding behind a tree watching our forays into the woods. There is a significant difference between science on the edge and fringe ideas that purport to be scientific.

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