Sunday, January 31, 2010

Monster Walks: The Mainstreaming of Cryptozoology Continues

Of course, calling it mainstreaming is a bit disingenuous. Monsters, politely called "cryptids" by some, have had lots of popular interest for decades now. If Bigfoot isn't defending his beef jerky, he's fighting the Six Million Dollar Man (youtube link)(and by the way, six million dollars in 1974 would be $25,000,000 today. Steve Austin's cutting-edge cybernetics weren't much more expensive than an AH-64 Attack Helicopter, and I never saw an Apache fight an alien-controlled Sasquatch or go solve mysteries on the moon).

But when I read this article/friendly plug about a monster walk business set to open in London, it grabbed my attention. If ever any urban city in the world was going to be home to an entertainment experience focusing on monsters, London's going to be your best bet. From the Highgate Vampire, Springheeled Jack, and possibly even (though the article doesn't mention this) stretching the definition out to Jack the Ripper (more on that in a sec), London's got more than its fair share of historical monster tales for an urban environment. Then you get all the stories about monsters either set in London (the various werewolves of London, Gorgo, the dinosaur loose at the end of The Lost World, I imagine that's how they'll work in the Hound of the Baskervilles, etc. etc.).

And in a larger sense, London was the heart of the colonial empire that produced cryptozoology's most basic narrative: an intrepid explorer goes to "exotic" places to search for an animal never seen by civilized eyes (in colonial days this would have been explicitly White eyes), guided by native folklore that has mythologized the beast. While earlier studies of sea serpents can be considered the origins of cryptozoological ideas, the first great star truly owned by cryptozoology was the Abominable Snowman (or its various local names, mangled or otherwise), which was the stuff of British exploration and derring-do, propagated by the sensationalist media that still thrives in London.

And arguably, the very concept of the non-magical monster, a flesh-and-blood giant from the past, was born in London with the classification of dinosaurs, and their exhibition to the public at the Crystal Palace in 1854. At that moment, giants and dragons were declared real by science, and the only question was whether some of them still might be wandering about, in the exotic colonial lands (or Scotland) in the gaps where civilized history couldn't see them. Billions of dreams and fantasies by the young and young at heart were soon to follow.

Ghost walking tours have been around for years. In New Orleans, where I used to live, these spawned not just numerous ghost tours, but vampire tours inspired by the works of Anne Rice but soon including other monsters of the city's past, and in one case during the first year I lived there, a tour group witnessed a real-live murder. Folklorist Heather Joseph-Whitham has done some research on the New Orleans vamp tours. And in London, similar Jack the Ripper tours have been a staple for decades (while I've never been on one, my ex went on one as a teenager, and her description makes it sound very similar to many a ghost tour, and reminding me that a little drama and performance study in school never hurt anyone). UFOs had a higher-rent version of this, when one group would host paying would-be-contactees as they signaled UFOs with high-power lights as well as sound and thought. Bigfoot research has its pay-to-go expeditions too in the BFRO, though this year they are apparently limiting the expeditions to those who have previously joined in the hunt. So I guess with numerous television shows and other media dedicated to cryptozoology, a tourist walk would eventually emerge. We'll see if it has the same reproductive success other evening quests into the dark and mysterious.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Monster Talk

My current work allows/demands me to listen to audio while I do other things. As a result, I've been consuming a lot of podcasts and audiobooks as of late, many associated with topics relevant to this blog. So expect more discussion of them here.

First up, a fun and informative new discovery I made last week, Monster Talk. It's the podcast affiliated with the site Monster Science. It's a skeptical podcast, now affiliated with Skeptic Magazine, about cryptozoology. I mention this to warn some of the people who have read this blog in the past. More importantly, I am someone who would be placed by most people into the skeptic box, but yet who usually doesn't like to read material specifically generated with that label in mind. And I can say that the sins (some folks in this little sub-subculture of paranormal culture can get overly pompous or derisive, and at times can be not much better than their targets when it comes to ignoring data) that drive people away from a lot of Skeptical writing are rare on Monster Talk.

I get the distinct feeling that this podcast was designed to counter History Channel's MonsterQuest. In addition to tv sound bites from earlier woo-docs of television past (I don't care what you say, but Leonard Nimoy's hosting/narration of In Search Of ... was awesome), the show is name dropped from time to time, and one of the hosts (Ben Radford) and several of the guests have participated in the show. Given the popularity of MonsterQuest, I'm not surprised, and I think this isn't a bad idea.

The real key to Monster Talk being good stuff is that more often than not, it gets good scientist or scholar guests, lets them talk with fairly good direction of the interview, and doesn't ask that the material be dumbed down. You learn about cryptozoological claims and their standing, but you learn more about the methods of biological science, fascinating ancient or modern creatures, the geology of fossils, the history of evolutionary thought, and other technical or weighty topics wrapped in a fun package. When the show delves into history or cultural examination of these topics, it isn't quite as good as it is with the physical sciences of biology or paleontology, but then my background is in anthropology, so that may be my bias/expectations showing.

I haven't listened to all the shows yet, but I would particularly recommend the following episodes

- July 2, 2009: Bigfoot DNA. Interview with Professor Todd Disotell of New York University, who has analyzed a number of alleged "mystery hairy hominid blood" and hair samples. This is exactly what most people who are interested in "monsters" in a scientific sense should be interested in, regardless of whether they like the results or not.

- August 31, 2009: The Plesiosaur Hypothesis. Discussion of all things plesiosaur, and the relationship between lake monster claims and the history of paleontology, with Dr. Adam Stuart Smith of the National Museum of Ireland. Unless you are a real aficionado of this branch of paleontology, I guarantee you will enjoy learning things about these creatures that you did not previously know.

- October 28, 2009: Darwin vs. the Wolfman. Dr. Brian Regal of Kean University discusses his observations on the effects of the theory of Evolution by Natural Selection on myth, folklore, and what would become cryptozoology. I don't entirely agree with his hypothesis, but I think much of it is correct and provides some important insights into the Victorian and 20th century ideas of monsters and science.

Go check out these and the other episodes.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

What is ufology?

Michael Swords poses that question (What is ufology) over on his blog. It's a thought-provoking essay, in which Swords suggests that the boundaries of "UFOs" have basically disappeared to include every sort of weird thing imaginable, from channelers to crop circles to cattle mutilations, and so on, and that this hampers the study of UFOs, since one can't even know what they are studying. He contrasts it with the original consensus, of studying structured craft in the sky, and suggests something open to new data, but closer to the old consensus than say a Keelian "anything goes."

I think that in addition to, as Swords notes, the cases where high strangeness and UFOs go together without any interpretation by a third party, there is a simpler element here. The vast majority of UFO studies, regardless of level of rigor or seriousness, are studying human-told accounts in order to understand not the accounts, but something the people telling the accounts may have witnessed. There are exceptions (physical trace studies, radar studies) that go along with the accounts, as well as some that may be contained without accounts (some photos or videos).

But in general we're talking about accounts. And this is to a large degree why other "weird" fields intersect with UFOs. Most other field sciences study either physical samples, or in some of the social and behavioral sciences, they may study testimony, but they study the individuals giving the testimony and their communities, and are not trying to get significant insight into something else they may have seen (usually). This leaves, a couple of fields as potential scientific or science-like inquiry models: history and folklore.

History does indeed want to get at past events utilizing human testimony (in contrast with archaeology, which studies material culture discarded by humans, a very different affair). However, in order to do so, a significant part of the work of history is analyzing those accounts in order to better understand them, and very possibly to reject them. Such methods become problematic in investigating something like UFOs where rejecting such accounts may either hurt the feelings of the living, of the family or friends of the recently deceased, or by proxy, insult those who have made similar accounts. This situation is only exacerbated by the fact that much of the money to support the activities of ufologists (or other weird-ologists) comes from the presentation fees, book and DVD purchases, and other revenue largely provided by people who have some stake in particular desired research results or directions. This phenomenon is not completely foreign to academic studies of the past (history is a powerful tool for influencing present events, and many a project has been designed with a specific political intent in mind, by the funders at least if not the researchers), but I'd guess that in most cases, the effect isn't as strong as in the weird fields (get labeled a skeptic or a debunker, and whole audiences no longer care what you have to say except in opposition).

Folklore of course studies the accounts themselves, their structure, their cultural and historical context, their importance, and in many cases is not concerned if they describe some reality (though in some cases that is also an issue). This has made folklore, as well as sociology, anthropology, and psychology, slightly safe harbors for studying UFO accounts, but by doing so, they are in the skeptic category.

Other suggested models have been something akin either to intelligence work or journalism, both of which take accounts from the living (who are expected to potentially be duplicitous), possibly quite fragmentary accounts, in order to understand and describe events and trends either large and abstract, or limited and specific. Unlike the sciences, however, these fields are generally fairly confident they can model what they are after: human networks of interaction and behavior. While there will be surprises of one sort or another, an intelligence analyst knows the general sort of thing they are looking for (a military operation, a spy network, a terror cell, an economic pattern), as does a journalist (a scandal, a cover-up, a network of criminals, a social trend, a crime). As Swords notes, this is not true of ufology, though it largely was at one time.

Ufology studies, in the main, human testimony (at times in conjunction with other kinds of evidence) in order to study what that testimony describes, and it generally does not do this from the perspective that all of the accounts can be explained by mundane observational error, cognitive or neural events, or cultural or psychological factors, as to do so would bring ejection from the field. What the "thing" described in these accounts should be, is Swords' question.