Sunday, November 26, 2006

Murder Stories and Conspiracy Theories: Death for Entertainment and Profit

This weekend, I purchased the brilliant graphic novel From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Moore's magnum opus is about the Whitechapel Murders of 1888, supposedly committed by "Jack the Ripper." Long a favorite of science fiction writers, Alan Moore takes Saucy Jack and uses him as a jumping off point to write a tremendous historical novel, conspiracy thriller, and occult treatise. In addition to repeatedly besmirching Freemasonry (as the author readily admits to in the footnotes), Moore includes a number of strange and/or occult happenings, including some collected by Charles Fort.

But another reason I really recommend it, in addition to all that, is Moore's overarching commentary on murder and violence as entertainment. Moore makes considerable effort to contextualize and desensensationalize (at points) the lives of Jack's victims and the city they all lived in, whilst simultaneously spinning a tale of secret societies and ethereal time travel. Throughout the book, Moore makes it clear that he has some animus towards his own work as another way of making a living off of spinning stories murder, no matter how remote. This is made explicit in the appended and illustrated (and highly amusing) history of Ripperology. This history has had a tremendous impact on some of my own writing, including my Crashed Saucer Legend site.

Moore is of course right, that much money and sensation moves because of murder past and present. The "big" story in the American media during the last week was O.J. Simpson's "confession" book and Fox news special. This was retracted due to incredibly bad press. Yet more reputable media sources indulge in murder (though they may not share the profits with those who were found responsible for the deaths, as in the Fox/Simpson case).

Sources like the BBC. The BBC ran an investigative report (for the actual BBC report, go here) this week which claims to have identified three CIA men at the scene of Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968. The implication, a variant of previous notions dating back decades, is that Sirhan Sirhan was in a hypnotic trance, possibly a product of MKULTRA, to do or cover for the assassination for the CIA. If these identifications can be shown to be accurate, this is extremely interesting. Yet one wonders if the words "Kennedy" and "assassination" in conjunction simply demand people to spin murder tales.

Going back even further, the BBC also is airing a new crack at Jack the Ripper. Working with a set of forensic criminologists, the report came up with a composite of a Ripper suspect in regards to appearance, likely residence, and psychology. I sympathize with the effort (I am an archaeologist, after all) but some of the text in the article is a bit much in its optimism in science and reason. But then, this is what history and archaeology and related fields are: murder stories. Not every time, but sooner or later we tell people tales of murder and bloodshed, and we get paid to do so. My dissertation is on pottery bits, but I am studying them to better understand the charnel house of the sixteenth-century Spanish Conquest of the Americas. And as with Bobby above (no doubt timed to coincide with the release of a biopic of that name, concerning the day of Kennedy's assassination), conspiracy theory is overwhelmingly a murder story. If historians, as Moore puts it, could boil the past down to a game of Clue such as "Hitler. The German Economy. Tanks" the conspiracy theorist is entirely about such a game of "The CIA. The Grassy Knoll. The Magic Bullet." amongst any number of examples.

This, probably more than anything else, is one of the major dividing lines between conspiracy theory and the rest of the Spooky Paradigm. Cryptid or lost civilization or UFO stories are rarely murder stories. Ghost stories often are, in a fashion, but the object becomes not the murder but a survival of the murder in some sense. Conspiracy theory, on the other hand, is nearly always a murder story.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Spooky Paradigm in Academia

I have proposed a course regarding the Spooky Paradigm, to teach here at Tulane. I don't want to say anymore until the proposal is rejected or approved.

But I would not be the only person teaching a course along these lines. Stanford has a course on cryptozoology. So does Baylor. A professor at California University at Pennsylvania leads ghost hunts, though doesn't teach classes about them. An entire society interested in the topics Spooky Paradigm covers, the Society for Scientific Exploration, includes about 800 members from academia, and as mentioned in a recent profile, some of those members teach on the topic. On the other hand, Princeton has closed its paranormal studies lab after a number of years. The Fresno Adult School has Paranormal Studies 101: Investigating Ghosts and Hauntings.

Edit: As discussed later in the blog, My course CSAN 291 Monster Hunters, Ufologists, and Vampire Slayers has been approved for Summer 2007.

Von Daniken Mystery Park Closes

Mystery Park in Switzerland, dedicated to presenting ancient astronaut and other New Ageish ideas associated with Erich von Daniken, has closed. I'm amazed the thing ever opened to begin with.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Cryptozoology at the American Anthropological Association Meetings

I was somewhat surprised to see a paper on cryptozoology at the 105th annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association. These took place last week in San Jose. I went largely to do job interviews and collect intelligence on what is going on in my little corner of archaeology. But while I was there, I noticed the following paper in the program, in a session entitled Disorder, Dangerous Terrains, Topics, and Critiques

Pamela D McElwee (Arizona State University) "The Dangerous History of Cryptozoology: Curious Cases from Vietnam"

UPDATE: Loren Coleman reproduces the abstract of the paper on his blog

The paper addressed the way cryptzoologists have decided that Vietnam is a "lost world," a terra nullius within which we can imagine and dream. During the 1990s, as Vietnam opened up to the post-Cold War world, reports and then discoveries of large mammals and other species began to emerge from Vietnam. This attracted the attention of not just mainstream zoologists but cryptozoologists. They looked for somewhat more mundane game, such as the Kthing Vor cattle with twisted horns (there is debate on whether it actually exists or if the horns are created by humans as magical items) as well as for the more exotic Yehren-style wild men.

The paper was somewhat skeptical of the more extreme claims of cryptozoology, though more open-minded than one might expect. But the real takeaway message in regards to cryptozoology was that it is wrong to treat Vietnam as some kind of "lost world" or otherwise unknown place of mythical beasts, when it is actually an increasingly populated and urbanized region.

This in turn led to a spirited debate with a member of the audience, clearly a bigfoot researcher. This individual (who I didn't catch his name, but was at the meetings for the duration, not just for the individual session) took issue with some of the skepticism from the presenter and others at the session, and made it clear that he and his fellow researchers know much more about bigfoot genetics, society, and other issues than one would expect. I could tell, by the time the Minnesota Iceman was mentioned, that I was the only one in the symposium (besides perhaps presenter Dr. McElwee) who knew what this man was talking about.

I had to skip the SETI session, which had some real SETI luminaries. It was at the same time as the annual Ceramic Ecology session, and I figured that was better for my career.

Friday, November 10, 2006

British UFO Wave

UFO sightings are on the rise in the UK. In particular, sightings of either lights in the sky or in some cases triangular "craft" of the sort described in Black Triangle sightings. Opinion in interested parties has often focused on the "secret military aircraft" explanation for Black Triangles, but in the more spectacular cases, exotic or even interactive behavior very uncharacteristic of military maneuvers is reported. The most detailed military craft or "Aurora" sighting occurred in the North Sea, but with no mistaking it for anything else (especially refuelling in mid flight.

Brainscanning Speaking in Tongues

This study suggests that glossololalia, or speaking in tongues, is the opposite of meditation. Rather than concentration and increased frontal lobe activity, those who speak in tongues give up control and reasoning and reconfigure their notions of self/consciousness. Speaking in tongues is a famous part of Pentacostal Evangelical Christianity.

The connection to the parietal lobe makes Dr. Persinger happy, as this has been his avenue of research for years. He is probably most famous, and brings himself into the Spooky Paradigm, for claiming to partially create alien abduction like encounters in the lab by beaming energy into the parietal lobe.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Danger of Pursuing Heretical Science

Or Pseudoscience. Or madness. Or whatever else it might be called. But just as in the case of the late Dr. John Mack of Harvard, seriously studying cryptids or aliens or other things that aren't supposed to exist can put your tenure in danger. in the case of Dr. Mack, enough scholars stepped forward to defend his research into alien abduction as covered by the protections of tenure. In this case, Dr. Jeffrey Maldrum, professor of anatomy at Idaho State University, is being targeted by his peers for studying Bigfoot.

I found this criticism particularly interesting

Martin Hackworth, a senior lecturer in the physics department, called Meldrum's research a "joke."

"Do I cringe when I see the Discovery Channel and I see Idaho State University, Jeff Meldrum? Yes, I do," Hackworth said. "He believes he's taken up the cause of people who have been shut out by the scientific community. He's lionized there. He's worshipped. He walks on water. It's embarrassing."

Sounds like the actual science isn't the only thing being attacked here.

Childhood Dreams Dashed

Paleontological research shows that pleisosaurs could not raise their necks above the water, insteading using them below their bodies to collect food. This makes sense, if you look at a reconstruction of one of these creatures, or think about what there might be to eat above the waterline (pterodactyls?). The reason this story is getting any press, of course, is that ever since the infamous and supposedly hoaxed Surgeon's Photo, the Loch Ness Monster and all other lake monsters have been associated by monster hunters and the general public with the extinct pleisosaur. In fact, this is why most non-biologists have ever heard of the coelocanth, because it is often raised as the example of a living fossil discovered after supposed extinction.

The article correctly mentions that most cryptozoologists and other monster hunters don't believe that lake monsters are pleisosaurs (there are a variety of suspects, including very large sturgeon, eels, or a form of unidentified whale). But none of these possibilities capture magic or the imagination like the notion of a living dinosaur or dragon.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

UFO Days

After Roswell, New Mexico found it could make money off being the most famous UFO spot in the world, UFO festivals and field days have started to pop up (Bigfoot and other similar topics have been known to inspire festivals). I've talked about that before on one of my other websites, and I'm sure I'll hit the topic here again.

But it should be pointed out that despite the typical reaction that such festivals and promise of dollars are an incentive to invent stories, it doesn't work that way. As Loren Coleman points out here, places like Point Pleasant, West Virginia often are reluctant to embrace their weird heritage, as it embarasses many people. It is only when national and international media get involved, and entrepeneurs and politicians see the potential for fame and fortune. Roswell went through that phase in the early 1990s, and as far as I know, it is one of the few recent sites (especially not those associated with now established religions) of a strange anomalous event to turn a profit. A few spots in Europe, after the book and film The Davinci Code have likely cashed in on what is obstensibly a fictionalized version of Holy Blood, Holy Grail and as such a conspiracy theory.

But that doesn't quite explain why this Wisconsin town moved its UFO days, from incidents in later Winter, to Halloween weekend.

EDIT: Not directly related to a UFO incident, but the Alien Encounter Halloween Event