Thursday, December 01, 2011

Places Where Bigfoot Might be Hiding: The Internet

Because apparently it is a poorly explored place.

Bigfoot blog finds amazing article on translation of ancient texts discussing 10th century communication between Chinese Imperial scholars and Yeti.

Blog post actually links to the original source

But apparently, this, and the name of the author (Tim Pulju) was not sufficient to show that the source is in fact, a satirical publication, a The Onion for linguistics.

I mean, that would require looking to the fourth-down return if you google "Tim Pulju"

To be fair, many of the comments on that blog post guess that it is likely satire but others suggested it could be a real journal article,or some sort of misunderstanding. While I approve that some were able to recognize the satire, that no one even bothered to take 15 seconds and actually find out, is the real problem. You don't even need to type if that is too much effort, just copy and paste and click.

I have heard professors say they don't like their students to use internet sources for their work. I think this is an excellent example of why they should be using the internet, under the guidance and training of a professional researcher (as any professor is).

In my classes, especially my introductory classes, I have decided to do two things in addition to the standard curriculum of whatever the class is.

1.) If at all applicable, address pseudoscience and mysticism that routinely gets associated with anthropology and archaeology (the subjects I teach). They are so intertwined in the popular imagination, it seems like we have a professional obligation to hit this stuff head-on, not ignore it and hope it goes away. That didn't work for evolutionary biology, it won't work for us.

2.) Have my students use the internet to look things up, especially early on in the class, and to critique how they found information, identify warning signs a site is not reliable, and suggest productive alternative strategies and practices.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Werewolves, "Weird Women," and the Web: How the "Satanic Panic" has never really gone away

The term Satanic Panic is typically used to refer to a period from perhaps the late 1970s into the early 1990s, when fears (largely derived from a surging literalist evangelical wing of American Christianity) of Satanism exploded into lurid accusations of secret underground Satanic cults, ritual abuse and murder of children (tied into a media obsession with missing children, this is where the "face on a milk carton" trope comes from), and claims of secret Satanic codes in heavy metal music and role playing games (specifically the most popular of them, Dungeons & Dragons).

But you know, it never really ended. It continues to raise its ugly head, often in very similar circumstances. It showed up in the Amanda Knox trial in Italy. The West Memphis Three have only recently been released from prison what have been seen by some as the last major prosecution in the Satanic Panic, but this release of course has its detractors. I mention both of these cases in this post in relation to the counter-terrorism problems at the FBI, also caused by religious or cultural ideologues. There are plenty of others, especially now on an international scale.

And it shows up in full effect here, in the case of the "satanic sex crime gone wrong." At the link ( Ritch Duncan discusses how his comedy book The Werewolf's Guide to Life, was found at the scene of, well, maybe a crime (simple summary: guy met up with two girls for sex, some sort of ritual element and knifeplay ensued that apparently got to be too much for the guy, police got involved, guy went home and didn't press charges). Duncan discusses his horror, and then disgust, at how the media exploded and mislead the public about both the case, and arguably about his book (which is an obvious comedy book, I've browsed it in a bookstore, when I was thinking about a similar project involving Lovecraft's creations).

He goes further, and makes an important observation: these media reports didn't do it because they were incompetent or lazy, or least not just for that reason. They did it because they knew it sold to a specific audience. Duncan describes what Glenn Beck did with the story, tying it into vast conspiracy theories of Baal worship and Occupy Wall Street and the Nazis.

Well, yeah. That's the thing with the Satanic Panic, folks. It was always part of a larger ideology, a bigger worldview that was inherently conspiratorial. I've written how a conspiracy theory disguised as scholarship helped inspire both Wicca and H. P. Lovecraft's cosmic horror stories known as the Cthulhu Mythos. Well, it didn't just end there. Margaret Murray argued, incorrectly, that the Satanic witch hunts of the Reformation era were actually a secret pre-Christian religion branded as Satanism. But with the growth and bold assertion of a literalist apocalyptic American Christianity from the 1970s on, this was turned around, and all of it instead seen as Satanism masquerading under politically correct masks. And was tied into other conspiracy theories that are particularly prosperous in the populist right wing, exemplified by Beck's ranting about communist/nazi conspiracies, secret meetings and religions, and global plots against Western civilization (much of which feels lifted from Alex Jones anyway, who has himself flipped around and marched right into the arms of something like Lovecraft's mythos).

It never went away. It just didn't sell broadcast tabloid TV anymore after some of the flashier cases ate up all the oxygen in the room (especially when they fell apart, ala the McMartin case), it was easier to sell stories of aliens in the 1990s (and how that's not that different is a whole other story), and conspiracy theories moved back into the political with the Clinton administration (I'm not saying every witch hunter then went in search of stains on blue dresses or drug planes at Mena airport, as correlation isn't causation, but yeah ;) ). But an audience was always out there, and in internet age of personalized news and entire subcultural media spheres, it can be catered to.

So, when the right "spooky" symbols or associations pop up (creepy books [always available at major book retailers of course. Not, you know, worm-eaten copies of De Vermis Mysteriis], sex rituals, dark outcast teenagers, million-sided dice [or in this case, fantasy monsters]), watch out, here comes the Satanism!

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ghosts In the Museum? Archaeology's Continuing Image Entanglement with the Paranormal

This weekend, the Penn Museum will be hosting "a once-in-a-lifetime paranormal investigation of the galleries and their ghostly inhabitants" in the event "We See Dead People." (UPDATE: more discussion of the event after the fact, including psychics and ghost hunting equipment, as well as some of the general museum artifacts=paranormal points I make below). It is not surprising that We should not be surprised that a museum or other educational institution would find value in a Halloween-season tie-in, especially as neoliberal ideologies continue to cash-strap such institutions. However, I personally will note some surprise that this goes beyond the typical "let's theme a standard educational presentation with some 'fun' stuff" to being, well, an "actual" paranormal investigation, conducted by Free Spirit Paranormal Investigators. But while surprised, I'm not sure I'm terribly bothered, certainly not to the "Harry Potter shouldn't be filmed in a cathedral level."

There are two issues I want to address here: skeptics vs. pop use of the paranormal, and the image of archaeology and the paranormal.

Skeptical use of the Paranormal

The first issue may put me at odds with some other skeptics, but I'm ok with using the paranormal and fiction to talk about and promote science, scholarship, and learning. And arguably so are most skeptics, even if they don't admit it. If your magazine or website or blog persistently has headlines about Bigfoot, UFOs, ghosts, miracles, and so on, you're utilizing the paranormal to get your point across. And I think a lot of skeptics know this, and know that it is an easy way to get an audience, because for many people this stuff is fun. Critical inquiry of homeopathic medicine, medical claims from manufacturers, or pseudoscience and religion trying to push its foot in the door of public school science teaching is real-world and important stuff. But it can also be cantankerous, and it can have a taste of wonkish policy to it (most important discussions about how we should live or lives probably will).

Let's take a look at a recent issue of Skeptical Inquirer, the table of contents (and some items) available on CSI's website. The cover story is on amnesia, and other articles discuss scientific freedom, the science around causes for cancer, homeopathy, and paleoanthropology. But it also covers religious miracles, psychic powers, alien abduction, numerology, and the dread chupacabra. This is a typical mix for one of the flagships of skepticism, though without going through and counting, I do have a feeling from reading it over the years that paranormal topics have been slightly downgraded in representation, and especially as cover stories. Likewise, one of the most critically-acclaimed skeptical podcasts is Monstertalk, which uses the hook of monsters to talk about real science and history in long-form interviews with real experts on these topics. For example, the Loch Ness Monster becomes an excuse to learn amazing facts about real, and extinct, plesiosaurs (including that the structure of their necks means they could not have resembled reports of Nessie).

Simply put, skeptics have learned that there is real interest in these topics, and that they provide a solid opportunity to talk real science and scholarship (btw, while skeptics almost universally praise Science, I think they might benefit themselves to not forget that there can also be rigorous humanities and social science research, at least rigorous in the same critical evaluation sense. Don't do this, ok?). I'm not saying that's what is going on with Penn's weekend program, I suspect it might not be. But I can imagine a "ghosthunting in a museum" program that could indeed work in that fashion, that would be more of a storytelling experience to present information on some of the exhibits in a more charged and perhaps more intriguing atmosphere. But why in a museum? That leads us to ...

Archaeology's Image and the Paranormal

"Professor of Archeology, expert on the occult, and how does one say it... obtainer of rare antiquities." - initial description of Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark
The archaeologist, more than any other real-world scientific character in Western and especially American pop culture, is entangled in the paranormal. At some point, every archaeologist I know has read and laughed at the Onion News article "Archaeologist Tired of Unearthing Unspeakable Ancient Evils." We are routinely the instigators, victims, heroes, or villains of books, films, comic books, television shows, and video games about paranormal activities and phenomena, typically involving ancient curses, resurrected mummies, and sacred objects with mystical powers, but also ranging out to UFOs and mystery animals. In particular, traditional horror stories, in no small part due to the works of M. R. James and H. P. Lovecraft, have the archaeologist or "antiquarian" as a stock character. All of this is just talking about admitted fiction, and doesn't take into consideration the reams of pseudoscience that play on the image of the archaeologist or utilize archaeological imagery (and as a Mesoamericanist, I am particularly cognizant of this due to 2012). A treatment of this topic would need to be at least book-length to do it any justice (and I am indeed working on such a book, dealing with one subset). But we can look at some very basic reasons as to why this is the case, and what archaeologists should do about it.

- Archaeology inherently involves dead people, and westerners (amongst others, but by no means a human universal) find imagery of death spooky and thrilling. An archaeologist will tell you that they study societies that were alive, composed of once living people with agency, no different than ourselves. This is true. At the same time, we dig up graves and tombs, we sift through ruined cities, we examine both discarded trash and ancient heirlooms, and we peer through the years into the past, be it 100 years ago or 100,000 years ago. Our excavations, our training, our museums, our books and articles and presentations, can routinely involve human remains (or imagery thereof), and ancient human remains to boot, with the added distance between death and the present one might find in a ghost story. An archaeologist may be trying to bring the past to life, but they can easily be viewed as examining a world filled with half-open graves (either literally, or metaphorically).

- Archaeological ruins and artifacts, from before the existence of archaeology as a discipline, have long been taken as evidence of the supernatural, and still are. Megalithic sites in Britain almost universally are associated with faerie stories or similar magical legends, and have been for centuries. Europeans interpreted lithic projectile points as "elf shot," faerie arrows shot at people to make them ill. Mayas believed in some cases that archaeological ruins were home to the aluxob, the Central American version of faeries or little people, while in Central Mexico, the ancient metropolis of Teotihuacan was named by later people as "The City of the Gods." Muslim Egyptians referred to the Sphinx as Abu al Hul, "The Terrifying One" or sometimes cited as "The Father of Terror." We might argue that this derives from the fascination with the dead mentioned above, but in a number of cases, that conceptual link doesn't exist. Also, some natural phenomena, such as fossils, were interpreted in a similar fashion. Star-stones, the fossils of sea urchins and similar creatures, are the subject of much folklore as magical items, and have been found in archaeological deposits suggesting that they had this value to some prehistoric people. The basalt Giant's Causeway of Ireland would be another example. I would argue that star stones or basalt formations, like archaeological artifacts, show signs of order not usually found in geological processes, and stood out to pre-scientific observers as potentially of intelligent design, presumably by the supernaturals of creation legends or beings otherwise older than humans.

- Archaeology's nineteenth-century roots lay in three basic traditions: the exploration of the antiquity of humanity; the antiquarian material study of art and architecture of historically-recorded people like the Classical Greeks and Romans; and the exploration of the most highly visible elements of early state-level societies - their monumental works. The first of these traditions seems the one least likely to lead to paranormal entanglements, but even here, the deep time aspect does have mystical overtones for some. The second tradition, of Classical, Biblical, or medieval archaeology, had its doses of myth and legend chasing, most famously that of Heinrich Schliemann's pursuit of the Homeric heroes and their homes. And Classical studies, particularly in the formative years of archaeology, was quite concerned with gods, heroes, and myths. But it is the third strand that is perhaps most to blame. Pyramids, statues, temples, palaces, and tombs were enticing, highly visible, and relatively easy to recognize and understand without knowledge of taphonomy or site-formation processes (or so early archaeologists thought), aspects of the material culture of these early states. And in such early state societies, religion and kingship were routinely blended. Rulers were glorified with myth and legend, and their monuments captioned with magical hieroglyphic writing intended in some respects to be a mystery esoteric but to the few literate, but still on public display to impress the rest. While usually more mundane than depicted in fiction, nonetheless early archaeologists focused on the 1% of society that were considered supernatural, who claimed divine ancestry and the ability to touch the otherworlds. And depicted this legacy in evocative art and iconography. Probably the most influential event in archaeology's public image, the popular and media infatuation with the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, and media-driven rumors of a curse, is a perfect example of this focus.

- This is compounded by archaeology's and anthropology's colonial legacy, and of particular prurient interest in the "exotic," usually manifesting in archaeology with valued or sacred objects from colonized peoples (or from the ancestors of colonized peoples). In reality, most actual work by archaeologists involves mundane objects, and can in practice be just as likely relatively recent trash from the ancestors of the archaeologist's own society as materials from some far-away "exotic" place. But as with our previous point, the "exotic" was of more interest earlier in the discipline's history, and this informs much of the popular image of archaeology. In fiction, "exotic" cultures and objects, though rarely presented in any sort of accurate or respectful manner, routinely are treated as part of the paranormal or supernatural. The quote earlier in this post, referring to the most famous fictional archaeologist of them all, actually is the exception that proves the rule. In two of the Indiana Jones films, the magical items of interest (the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail) are sacred (though not "real" in that they do not currently exist if they ever did) objects in the religions and cultures of the filmmakers and their likely audience. Much more commonly in fiction, if magical items or rituals "really" work in a supernatural way, they are often "exotic." There are any number of cliches from the "Indian" burial ground that haunts a modern family, as in The Shining

the "African" mask that raises the dead, like the subject of this clip from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where an occultist mocks a "mundane" American for not automatically assuming a piece of art might be a dangerous supernatural object

to the Sankara stones, the non-Judeo-Christian entry in the Indiana Jones films, the one that turns a skeptical materialist Jones into someone open to supernatural abilities and rituals. Even when a film or book calls for a Christian ritual or holy object, it will likely turn to a Catholic image, as the more "exotic" faith (in societies such as the United States, where Protestants have traditionally been the dominant and unmarked branch of Christianity), and hence more likely to be able to work magic. The Exorcist immediately comes to mind, with its famous scene of Catholic priests confronting a possessed child, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention the almost baffling inclusion of an archaeological excavation as the root of the evil, just as an archaeological site plays into the climax of The Omen.

From this perspective, museums (especially those stocked in the bad old days) are warehouses full of supernatural power. This has become a fictional trope all its own, with entire film and television series dedicated to the concept. Having ghosts wandering around the Etruscan wing, as in the Penn video at the top of this post, is right from this trope. The scale of earlier archaeology conducted in colonial contexts, and of museums from this age, also increases the impact of early stereotypes.

- Prehistoric societies, and the archaeology of them, have long been conflated with contacting other and alien realms. With the establishment of deep time, it has become clear that most of human existence was not documented by contemporary written records, but is pre-history. Both fictional and pseudoscientific mythmakers have been in competition with archaeologists for a long time in trying to fill the maps of time. Archaeologists have tried to carefully chart out the outlines of the past, while fictional authors and pseudoscientists and mystics have more often than not written "here be monsters" on the blank spots of the past. Sometimes literal monsters in the form of strange Lemurians (as per the Theosophists), monstrous aliens like Cthulhu and its ilk (despite being monstrously old and inhuman, they still have the trappings of ancient archaeological sites not too different from human settlements, a symbol of their antiquity or way of making them intelligible to the audience), or somewhat less monstrous beings like ancient aliens correlating with modern tales of Grays or Reptilians. Alternatively, and more commonly, wondrous ancient peoples, though often visually taking cues from real societies, have been created to populate the past. Any number of mythical civilizations and Golden Ages have been constructed to satisfy modern ideologies or emotional desires. When archaeologists feel frustrated by paranormal and pseudoscientific believers, this is the angle that bothers them the most.

- Archaeologists are conflated with detectives, and detectives are an integral part of supernatural fiction. In his book Archaeology is a Brand, Cornelius Holtorf explores the images of archaeologists in popular culture, and argues (as I will to some degree below) that archaeologists should curb some of the excesses of their image, but that their "brand" has power and value that should not be simply denied or discarded (if this were even possible). One of the four major images of the archaeologist that Holtorf identifies is the Detective, piecing together clues from the past. When archaeologists popularize their work (Death by Theory, Time Detectives), the Detective is one of the most common images chosen (it can avoid the colonial baggage of being an adventurer or in presenting "exotic" wisdom, but is more popular and "fun" than being presented as a heritage manager in a worksite vest). And the Detective is also one of the most common characters in supernatural horror fiction. Most traditional horror stories (as noted by Kathleen Spencer in her article "Victorian Urban Gothic: The First Modern Fantastic Literature" in Intersections) conform to a "discovery plot," where monstrous horror (often arisen from the past) threatens decent people and civilization. Our protagonist or protagonists slowly learn of the horror and its nature, but must piece it all together from clues, and will have difficulty convincing society of what they have discovered. Only through solving these mysteries, often through embracing "exotic" knowledge, can the evil be destroyed or contained. While literal detectives (see The X-Files) are common in such stories, all that is needed is a character that acts in the fashion of a detective, piecing together clues with an inquiring intellect and perhaps expert knowledge of scholarship or science. Dracula is a classic example of this, where van Helsing (a scholar) leads a band of materialist Victorians (including a psychiatrist) in piecing together clues that demand they adopt supernatural knowledge (holy rituals to destroy vampires, and knowledge of how a vampire operates) in order to defeat an ancient evil.

What to do about it?

Archaeologists can shape their practices and products to be engaged with postcolonial concerns, relevant social and ecological inquiry, and participate in discussions and policy regarding cultural and historical heritage. And yet for all that, they still end up being seen by the public as cavorting with mummies, curses, aliens, and spirits. Given the above reasons for this entanglement, what can archaeologists do?

- Is there any benefit to utilizing the paranormal as a "hook," as I've argued skeptics have with varying degrees of success? This is a very difficult question to answer. On the one hand, it seems like this path is fraught with peril, given the colonialist aspect to some of this entanglement. Yet two facts remain. First, there have been successful applications of skeptical invocation of pseudoarchaeology to teach the real deal. Kenneth Feder's Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries is a very successful text on this topic, and other authors have likewise been able to teach by applying principles of science, critical thinking, and archaeology to such "mysteries." Second, as noted above, this entanglement is going to exist to some degree whether archaeologists like it or not. As biologists have learned from the rise of Intelligent Design Creationism, ignoring pseudoscience won't make it go away and may help it to spread in influence. While there is an inherent tie between death/the past and archaeology, archaeologists should emphasize they are more interested in trying to understand once living people through their material culture. Death is not the point, it is simply the necessary context to try to study the once-living. Most archaeologists would indeed say as much, but this point should continue to be emphasized, including in dealings with the press.

- Should archaeologists avoid the exotic? Yes, but they have to understand it won't just go away. "The exotic" has huge problems, and no real place in the practice of modern anthropology. And yet, because it is such a powerful "brand," there is the temptation to utilize it. I find myself wanting to resort to it at times in informal discussion, and have to re-evaluate and rewind. While none of this is news to anyone educated in anthropology in the recent past, the exotic or sensational will be the expectation of the press and public. Archaeologists that ignore this expectation completely run the risk of making their voice irrelevant to the larger audience, leaving space for pseudoscientists and mythmakers more than willing to trade on pop cultural expectations. Again, a difficult balancing bridge between reifying colonialist images and practices, and removing oneself from the public conversation by being too ethically informed for the room.

- But what about that inherent view of ruins as "spooky?" Explain it. Archaeologists are accustomed to dealing with multi-component sites, with several time periods of occupation, even if they are only interested in one. Rather than ignore that the site or culture or artifacts you work with have gained supernatural baggage, archaeologists should investigate the history of how that baggage came into existence, and why it has persisted. In his book Objects (my review), on material culture studies, Chris Caple emphasizes studying all of the transformations an object has had, including after it was deposited in the archaeological record, recovered, and brought into a laboratory or museum. I think we should have the same attitude towards the "historiography" or memory of an artifact, a site, or an archaeological culture. It isn't just being able to demonstrate that a tomb doesn't have a curse, or that a henge was built by neolithic farmers and not faeries, but also understanding the historical evidence for where these beliefs come from, how they've changed, and why they're held. If we're interested in how humans construct identity and practice with material culture, surely this should be of interest to archaeologists. And it makes answering the usual questions from the public much easier.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Why Skepticism is So Important: The anti-Muslim FBI CounterTerrorist Expert and the Satanic Panic


UPDATE 5-10-12: It's even worse than you thought

A recent revelation of anti-Muslim FBI counterterrorism training suggests disturbing parallels to previous panics, including the Satanic Panic of the 1980s.

Wired Magazine is running an expose on counter-intelligence training within the FBI that trains agents that, I'll quote the Wired piece

"“main stream” [sic] American Muslims are likely to be terrorist sympathizers; that the Prophet Mohammed was a “cult leader”; and that the Islamic practice of giving charity is no more than a “funding mechanism for combat.”
At the Bureau’s training ground in Quantico, Virginia, agents are shown a chart contending that the more “devout” a Muslim, the more likely he is to be “violent.” Those destructive tendencies cannot be reversed, an FBI instructional presentation adds: “Any war against non-believers is justified” under Muslim law; a “moderating process cannot happen if the Koran continues to be regarded as the unalterable word of Allah.”
These are excerpts from dozens of pages of recent FBI training material on Islam that Danger Room has acquired. In them, the Constitutionally protected religious faith of millions of Americans is portrayed as an indicator of terrorist activity."

The author of the training briefings is William Gawthrop, a faculty member at American Military University, a for-profit university focused on military and law enforcement issues, aiming its recruitment especially at veterans. Gawthrop, prior to the Wired piece, was an expert on Islamic law and war for WorldNetDaily, a far-right website known for calls and dreams for secession and "civilian uprising" by actor Chuck Norris and singer Pat Boone, but more recently for being the center of "birther" conspiracy theories that claimed U.S. President Barack Obama was not born in the United States or otherwise is not a natural citizen.

This pattern should be very familiar to anyone who paid attention to the havoc wreaked by the Satanic Panic a generation ago. In the 1960s, foreign and new religions were recognized and gained ground in the United States, including the Church of Satan, driven by charismatic showman and entertainer Anton LaVey. But starting in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, a few of these new religions, or cults as their detractors called them, met disastrous ends. The Manson family and its infamous murders was not a religious movement, but was lumped in due to its cultish structure and nature. The nadir of all of this was the Jonestown murders and massacre in which 918 people were either killed or committed suicide in the self-destruction of the People's Temple after the murder of a fact-finding mission led by a U.S. Congressman.

Jonestown became the bedrock of the anti-cult movement. While the movement was already underway, the Jonestown horror gave it much more credibility. As a result, throughout the 1980s especially, the myth of a grand Satanic Conspiracy thrived in American culture. It was a popular theme in movies and television, and it wasn't hard to find media with scenes of ritual human sacrifices by robed cultists. Satanic-themed entertainment had already been popular with movies like The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, or The Omen, but the trope became commonplace. Satanists became the first explanation for rumor panics of "cattle mutilations" in the American Plains and West, until UFOs became a more popular explanation. The most public and most ridiculed component of this was the campaign against Dungeons and Dragons (let us all remember to mourn Black Leaf) and against heavy metal music, both products of 1970s pop culture that incorporated elements of fantasy and demonic imagery, just as did the previously mentioned films and television shows. However, because these were media aimed primarily at teenagers, they were seen as particular threats.

But the Satanic Panic also intersected at times with law enforcement. You can explore the extensive wiki page as a start on the topic, but people were investigated, accused, and tried for crimes based on what turned out to be faulty or misleading coaching of witnesses, in some cases alleging vast mass murders and other crimes that were simply physically impossible, and would leave overwhelming physical evidence where none existed. These investigations were at times prompted either directly or as part of a general atmosphere encouraged by "anti-cult experts" that would give instructional briefings to law enforcement, educators, and other authority figures. While not in all cases, in quite a few these experts were heavily invested as activists of a fundamentalist Christianity that was on the rise starting in the 1970s. And some of their "expert advice" reflected this, while other advice was simply silly (infamously telling parents or educators that graph paper [for Dungeons & Dragons maps] and mirrors were signs of Satanic ritual magic on the part of their children or students). I've blogged about this before as a form of "folk archaeology."

The Satanic Panic isn't old news either, at least not entirely. It made headlines again in a different way, with the release of the West Memphis Three. Likewise, such allegations have become involved in the prosecutions in the Meredith Kercher murder case, better known by the name of the woman convicted for the crime, Amanda Knox, who like the West Memphis Three has attracted considerable international support by people who doubt the case against her.

The revelation of the FBI briefing authored by Gawthrop reminds me strongly of some of the "anti-cult expertise" offered to law enforcement during the Satanic Panic. I don't know Gawthrop's religious background, but it is hard to miss the zealotry against Islam, while praising Judaism and Christianity (Gawthrop even provides a graph!).

But a bigger pattern is present. In both cases, horrific criminal acts including mass murder provide credibility to "experts" who instead push religious or political issues. The horror of these mass casualty events, as well as smaller but more gruesome events associated with the larger threat, is a powerful influence on people who might otherwise rationally dismiss some of the more absurdist ideology coming from these "experts." Further, by pointing at the wrong targets, these "experts" get to attack those people and communities they don't like, but actually cloud and damage real efforts to deal realistically with threats. Was training like Gawthrop's responsible for the detention, interrogation, and strip searching of Shoshana Hebshi this last weekend, along with other unnamed people, all of whom were either from southern or southwest Asia, or had genetic heritage as such, and committed no crimes nor ultimately were found to be at all suspicious?

The pattern of rumor panics is a familiar one. It's no accident that Arthur Miller was able to find such easily parallels between McCarthyite anti-communism and the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. In the case of McCarthyism, in addition to the general Cold War fears, that war had recently turned hot in Korea. It has been suggested that the Salem trials may have been nursed by anxiety stemming from recent bloody wars with Native Americans, wars that had not gone well and were considered incompetent or failed by the populace. The witch trials may have been an expression of powerlessness, fear, and anger over failure.

I visited Salem this summer, a weird tourism experience to say the least. But in the more serious moments, the tragedy does come through, and reminds us that just because something horrible is happened, we shouldn't just listen to whoever gives us the most lurid and enticing take on the matter, one that we can deploy against the innocent when we can't lash out against real threats.

So I'll leave this with part of the memorial to the victims of the Salem trials

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cryptids: A glaring dichotomy

The sci-fi/fantasy arm of Gawker, io9, is having a "cryptid summer," about which I was initially, well, skeptical.

But I think they've handled it fairly well. And today brings us probably the best example of this:

Compare and contrast

The Weirdest Mystery Animals in the World


Ten extinct animals that have been rediscovered

Look, I think monster stories and legends are fun and awesome. But it is notable that, with one "exception,", discovered land animals of the 20th century and early 21st century are more or less mundane. They aren't the monsters of folklore and cryptozoology.

The "maybe" exception is the Bili Ape. The exact nature of the Bili Ape is still a matter of controversy, but it is physiologically fairly similar to other chimpanzees (it is behavior which is more strikingly different). While extremely interesting and important for primate studies, it is not very surprising that one group of chimpanzees with different behavior might not be recognized without careful observation, and certainly isn't the stuff of cryptozoology (the typical cryptid quarry is usually something monstrous that looks nothing like any other species around it).

In the oceans, more "monstrous" creatures do continue to be discovered, which is not surprising given the largely unexplored nature of the seas (whereas exploration of the land was largely a matter of Europeans and their documentation entering the rest of the globe, a process mostly concluded by the twentieth century). However, these creatures are typically not the stuff of legends, but instead complete surprises (see the megamouth shark for example, or the coelacanth for that matter, and arguably the colossal squid). The last great discovery of a truly monstrous creature of legend from the seas would be the giant squid, and while video of a living squid has only been captured in the early 21st century, bodies of the Architeuthis dux have been collected by scientists for a century and a half.

A century of specimens of one of the "name brand" cryptids would easily move such creatures (as it did with the giant squid) out of the shadows of myth, and into the realm of biology. But body parts or complete specimens of "name brand" cryptids, on the other hand, often only surface in the context of conflicting stories, before the whole thing falls apart (any number of examples can suffice, but the Georgia Bigfoot is a good recent example).

A project for an enterprising researcher might be to count up the number of documented sightings of the giant squid during the time period specimens have been recovered (since the 1850s). I'd be curious to know which has been seen more often and with more regularity: the giant squid which produced numerous carcasses, or a sea serpent/lake monster/hairy humanoid/pteradon/bloodsucking freak that has produced no corpses.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Demons, the Great Old Ones, and the Unified Field Theory of the Paranormal

Is there a unified theory of paranormal thinking replacing the alternative belief structures of the 20th century? A recent address by conspiracy theory master Alex Jones veered into territory he normally doesn't cover, non-human entities and their role in what he believes to be a global elite bent on depopulating the earth.

The statements in the video above may not make a great deal of sense to you, but they are in fact quite in keeping with some of the more esoteric theories held by some of the more esoteric thinkers or intellectuals of the UFO community and other alternative belief sets. John Keel, author of The Mothman Prophecies (my review can be read here), was one of the first to suggest that rather than spaceships, UFOs and their occupants were signs of interdimensional entities that had been here for far longer than the modern era of flying saucers. Keel echoed Charles Fort's infamous phrase from The Book of the Damned, "I think we're property," while contemporary Jacques Vallee wrote of a control system that might be guiding (and not necessarily for the good) the religious and cultural development of humanity.

With the rise of abduction changing the face of ufology, Terrence McKenna's machine elves, which he said he saw while under the influence of DMT, became roped in with aliens, opening the suggestion that they weren't aliens at all, or not even necessarily physical in the sense we may suggest. Graham Hancock, famous for his books and tv shows arguing for lost Paleolithic Civilizations leaving traces like the Sphinx (or inspiring its makers), possibly from the continent of Antarctica, has picked up this idea, suggesting in his book Supernatural (review) that human modernity and civilization derives from contact and influence with such entities or constructs through the use of hallucinogens.

This is half the idea that Jones lays out in his "rant" above, that "clockwork elves" speak to DMT users, that they are not in our dimension but might be able to reach it via a machine like the Large Hadron Collider, and that they are the fairies and aliens of our legends and occult lore.

The other half of the equation according to Jones is that they are either worshiped or otherwise served by a secret global elite society. Jones himself says in the video that this sounds like David Icke's talk of a cult led by shapeshifting Reptilians (an idea lifted right from Robert E. Howard's fantasy story "The Shadow Kingdom," and alluded to in the film Conan the Barbarian). Indeed, Jones is suggesting with this statement an immense time depth and possible purpose to the Illuminati he fears are planning to install a global police state to control those who aren't killed in vast depopulation plans. But an equally appropriate link would be to a section of Christian evangelicals that have embraced the idea that UFOs are demons in disguise. One group has set up shop in the flying saucer Mecca, Roswell, New Mexico (I attended a Raelian meeting in their lobby, something I still don't entirely understand). Nick Redfern has recently published a book, Final Events, specifically suggesting something akin to Jones' concerns, of a group within the US government and US politics trying to contact and control such entities, or alternatively planning to turn America into a theocratic police state in order to fight such creatures, or rather, demons.

In short, Jones is arguing that there is a world-wide conspiracy that either is (or believes it is) contacting ancient extradimensional entities, ones with plans dangerous for humanity, in order that they can join with these entities. The group lives without morality, practicing bizarre rituals behind closed doors and acting without concern for Christian or conventional values, instead planning a bizarre future and the mass killing of millions. They intend to bring about the end of the recognizable world and let demonic aliens through interdimensional gates, ushering in the fall of man as dominant species on this planet.

If you read my other blog, Miskatonic Museum, based on the history and science associated with the cosmic horror tales of H. P. Lovecraft, this should sound very, very familiar to you. It's the Cthulhu Cult with a bit of the Whateleys thrown in for good measure (compare with the excerpt from the Necronomicon in "The Dunwich Horror".

Nor is it to be thought (ran the text as Armitage mentally translated it) that man is either the oldest or the last of earth's masters, or that the common bulk of life and substance walks alone. The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be. Not in the spaces we know, but between them, they walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen. Yog-Sothoth knows the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the gate. Yog-Sothoth is the key and guardian of the gate. Past, present, future, all are one in Yog-Sothoth. He knows where the Old Ones broke through of old, and where They shall break through again. He knows where They had trod earth's fields, and where They still tread them, and why no one can behold Them as They tread. By Their smell can men sometimes know Them near, but of Their semblance can no man know, saving only in the features of those They have begotten on mankind; and of those are there many sorts, differing in likeness from man's truest eidolon to that shape without sight or substance which is Them. They walk unseen and foul in lonely places where the Words have been spoken and the Rites howled through at their Seasons. The wind gibbers with Their voices, and the earth mutters with Their consciousness. They bend the forest and crush the city, yet may not forest or city behold the hand that smites. Kadath in the cold waste hath known Them, and what man knows Kadath? The ice desert of the South and the sunken isles of Ocean hold stones whereon Their seal is engraved, but who hath seen the deep frozen city or the sealed tower long garlanded with seaweed and barnacles? Great Cthulhu is Their cousin, yet can he spy Them only dimly. IƤ! Shub-Niggurath! As a foulness shall ye know Them. Their hand is at your throats, yet ye see Them not; and Their habitation is even one with your guarded threshold. Yog-Sothoth is the key to the gate, whereby the spheres meet. Man rules now where They ruled once; They shall soon rule where man rules now. After summer is winter, after winter summer. They wait patient and potent, for here shall They reign again."

These stories speak of ancient conspiracies and cults of bizarre and amoral cultists who seek to allow horrific alien monstrosities known as the Great Old Ones into our world, to do horrible things to it and us, so that they can rule as humanity's masters, free from morality. Just as Lovecraft's writings were heavily influential (though not exclusively so) in creating the idea of ancient astronauts, are we now to see Lovecraft and co. birthing the 21st century's mix of demology, conspiracy theory, and paranormality?

Jones would not be the first to take this route, as David Icke has pointed to the faux-Necronomicon by "Simon" and to Doreal's Howard and Lovecraft inspired writings as evidence of his claims. Kenneth Grant's Typhonian writings also tread this territory, as ably dissected by Justin Woodman in his four-part lecture series on Lovecraft and "occulture," where he also discusses the alien astronaut tie, and briefly discusses Icke. It's a recurring theme in Nick Redfern's books, not just his Final Events (in which he reports on, but does not believe in, this worldview, an attitude echoed by Jones in the above video), but in others where he describes occultists and Fortean investigators dealing with extradimensional spirits or entities, and elite secret groups well aware of them. Cattle mutilation researcher and Trickster theorist Christopher O'Brien has also speculated that government or other shadowy operatives may be involved in animal mutilations as a method of controlling or preventing the arrival and actions of interdimensional entities through techniques similar to what ancient religions called blood magic and sacrifice.

And so on, there are others. But Jones, a commentator that has appeared on Fox News and other mainstream mass media, that has been pointed to as the underground inspiration for Glenn Beck, suggesting that the core of the secret societies he has dedicated his life to fighting, and in doing so becoming the highest profile conspiracy theory advocate in modern America, is a landmark moment. It could mean that Jones alienates (so to speak) many of his listeners. Alternatively, this may be a tipping point for mainstreaming what I believe is the coming focus of alternative or paranormal belief systems: demonology. I've outlined above how it has always been with ufology before there were flying saucers, and how it has grown. It is also a topic not too far from many discussions of ghosts and ghost hunting. The Warrens on a number of occasions emphasized the possibility of a demonic role in the hauntings they were involved in. More recently, demons and ghosts have mixed on ghost hunting television shows like Paranormal State. A recent book suggests a very similar model behind beliefs in Djinn in Muslim societies, complete with an American secret effort to capture a djinn, and a secret history of djinn as masters of the planet aiming to re-enter our world and take it over. Even cryptozoology shades into the demonological and extradimensional in the writings of some of the authors mentioned above, and in narratives such as Hunt for the Skinwalker, documenting a secret but high profile investigation in Utah in the 1990s, painted with heavy overtones of the interdimensional, an including Bigfoot in the mix.

What might this change suggest? One obvious, perhaps too obvious solution, would be to point to the growth of politicized and radicalized religion in the United States, and an increasingly loud war with science. The idea of ghost hunting and parapsychology emerged out of Spiritualism in the Victorian era (when scientific progress was the definition of civilization over barbarism, and evolution the philosophical backbone of modernity), coming into its own in the interwar period, and gaining some modicum of scientific cover with psychic research in the mid-20th century. Around mid-century, cryptozoology and ufology both took their early cues from science, either in the form of expeditions and writings with a strictly biological bent suggesting the discovery of unknown or supposedly extinct creatures, or saucer organizations modeled on amateur science clubs or scientific organizations, focused on collecting sighting data for statistical analysis.

They did this in the era of big science, when laboratories could cure diseases, win wars, and build a better tomorrow through chemistry and atomic power. But then it all changed. Anti-science sentiments grew on the political left (over concerns of ecological damage, a revulsion at modernity, and the role of science in imperialism and warfare), and on the religious right (in ways too numerous to note, but generally involving both the clash with biblical literalism, and elements of populism and class conflict, what gets labeled "the Culture War" in the media). Within scholarship, the flaws and human frailties of the scientific community were also given a greater profile through postmodern and deconstructionist techniques (most famously Thomas Kuhn's argument that science is a succession of paradigms, tied to the production of knowledge and internal politics within the scientific community, rather than a simple accumulation of knowledge and understanding). For these and other reasons, science's prestige has been tarnished, and it is more often associated with visions of a future dystopia rather than a Gernsbackian or Jetsonian wonderland of Tomorrow.

Should we be surprised that belief communities that had once modeled themselves after prestigious science, have now backed away from this role, and that some have turned to demonology in the face of a resurgent movement of Biblical literalism in religion and politics?

EDIT: Found an even more illustrative passage from "The Dunwich Horror." Read and compare with Jones' video.

'It was—well, it was mostly a kind of force that doesn't belong in our part
of space; a kind of force that acts and grows and shapes itself by other laws
than those of our sort of Nature. We have no business calling in such things
from outside, and only very wicked people and very wicked cults ever try to.
... if you men are wise you'll dynamite that altar-stone up there, and pull
down all the rings of standing stones on the other hills. Things like that
brought down the beings those Whateleys were so fond of—the beings they were
going to let in tangibly to wipe out the human race and drag the earth off to
some nameless place for some nameless purpose.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

When Prophecy Fails and the May 21 Apocalypse

By now, you may have heard of the Christian sect that believes that the world is going to enter its final days on May 21 of this year, concluding with the planet's destruction in October.

I could pontificate about this, but really, the best thing you could do between now and then, is to read the classic work on apocalyptic cults and cognitive dissonance, Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter's When Prophecy Fails (link leads to for purchase). It focuses on a flying saucer contactee group in the 1950s (more info at the wiki). The group advertised the end of the world, looking for others to be saved by their space brothers (the one leading them, Sananda from the planet Clarion, also appeared in the past as Jesus according to the group's views). Since it has been written there have been rebuttals and debate regarding the book's key element, the idea of cognitive dissonance. The authors argue that apocalyptic groups invest themselves so much in a falsifiable event (either the world ends, or it doesn't) that when it is falsified, they redouble their efforts and modify their ideology, because admitting their error (often accompanied by public and potentially embarrassing decisions such as quitting a job or leaving a community due to the end of the world) would be too painful. But never minding that, it is easily comparable to the current May 21 group, except that the May 21 group is closer to a much bigger religious tradition, while the followers of Sister Thedra were part of a much more fringe subculture.

The opening of When Prophecy Fails makes it clear exactly how unoriginal such apocalyptic groups are, and how often they follow a similar pattern: once the prophecy fails and the world continues, the group decides that their faith saved the planet, and they launch into a surge of proselytizing. It won't be terribly surprising if we see the same thing here.