I recently gave a talk for the National Capital Area Skeptics on some of my investigations into strange topics, from ghosts to curses and monsters, featured in my new book Big–If True. It was livestreamed on YouTube, you can watch it HERE!
Our last Squaring the Strange episode of 2021 is out, and unlike other podcasts, we are giving you fresh episodes… even a BONUS episode like this one, well ahead of our usual biweekly schedule. Our final episode of the moral panic series deals with panics surrounding literature and comics. From the big boss battle between Bill Gaines and Fredric Wertham to the murders attributed to Catcher in the Rye, we go through some historical examples… as well as the philosophy behind worries our forefathers had about how literature might affect “weaker minds.” Get your fainting couches and/or swear jars out and enjoy, you can listen HERE.
I’m quoted in a news article in the Spanish-language newspaper Clarin on the social and cultural drivers of witchcraft, including at Salem: “Más allá del mito: Las Brujas de Salem, la verdad de la ciencia a 330 años.”
House of Gucci tells the true story of the iconic Italian fashion family. The film follows the rise and fall of Guccis (and soon-to-be-Guccis) from 1978 to the 1990s. You can track the era by the hairstyles and cars, as well as Christmas gifts (such as Simon and Teddy Ruxpin). Along the way there’s plenty of melodrama.
Full disclosure: I am no one’s idea of a fashion follower, and I know even less about high-end fashion such as Gucci. Though the film is based on a book of the same title, and by extension a true story, I had no idea what to expect. I vaguely remembered that there was some assassination, or attempted murder involved in the story, but I wasn’t sure who the victim was, so I went into House of Gucci with a clean slate.
Lady Gaga plays Patrizia Reggiani, a middle-class, possible gold digger who marries into the Gucci family via nerdy lawyer Maurizio (Adam Driver), much to the evident dismay of his father Rudolfo. The dramatic dichotomy is set early on: the indecisive, studious Maurizio and the impulsive, passionate, manipulative go-getter Patrizia. The meet cute between them is too long and too cloying by half (I suspect to pad out Lady Gaga’s screen time). Gaga’s giggly character, though annoying and one-note at first, eventually wins over both Maurizio and the audience.
The film is filled with excellent performances, perhaps most prominent among them Lady Gaga. She effectively conveys a range of emotions, ranging from vulnerability to guile. Driver is good as her husband, though often so passive it’s not clear he has much to do in the role. Jeremy Irons has a small but savory part as Rodolfo, brother of Aldo Gucci (Al Pacino). Pacino can do this role in his sleep but, to his credit, decided to show up and not phone it in. Maurizio’s cousin Paolo, played with commitment by Jared Leto, is a talentless oaf with delusions of grandeur largely inspired by his own last name. Yes, Leto’s performance is over the top, but it fits the film. The film is slightly unhinged, but then again the family is unhinged, and the story is unhinged. These are, for the most part, awful people and their fortunes and foibles are writ large.
The Guccis, not surprisingly, embraced the ethos of Leona Helmsley, Donald Trump, and others that only stupid people pay taxes. This is par for the golf course, but sometimes the law catches up with even the rich—just ask Wesley Snipes and Martha Stewart—and sure enough soon the Guccis are swimming in debt and ducking police raids. As if that’s not enough, Patrizia’s marriage is soon on the rocks, and she means to keep it together.
The film follows Patrizia as she unravels into scheming, obsession, and revenge, seeking weaknesses in the family dynamic to exploit for her own purposes. About halfway through the film an important subplot emerges as Patrizia seeks out guidance from a TV psychic named Pina Auriemma. The fortuneteller, played by Salma Hayek, soon become an accomplice to murder (“We’ve run out of spells, it’s time for something stronger,” one says) and soon Patrizia’s husband was dead.
This is perhaps the most interesting role, at least to me as a skeptic, because while psychics often run afoul of the law—despite being rarely prosecuted—they rarely are involved in murders. Auriemma was not only a close friend and confidant of Patrizia, but she also had underworld connection to Benedetto Ceraulo, Ivano Savioni and Orazio Cicala, Sicilian assassins. Patrizia paid them about $300,000 to kill Maurizio, which they did on March 27, 1995. The plan fell apart two years later when anonymous tip led police to wiretap their telephones and they were recorded discussing the killing. Auriemma eventually confessed, which led to the hitmen confessing as well and revealing Patrizia’s role in the killing, eventually leading to her conviction in 1998; she was sentenced to 29 years in prison and served 16 before being released in 2014. Auriemma was sentenced to 25 years and served just over half before her release.
For all the genuine drama and melodrama, the film seems curiously unfocused. The cast are interesting—and Irons and Leto, especially, are a delight to watch. But House of Gucci is perhaps excessive in its excesses. It’s about a backstabbing power struggle in the Gucci family. It’s about a scorned woman who seeks revenge. It’s about the cutthroat world of high fashion in the 1980s. It’s about two and a half hours long, and it either needed more or less Lady Gaga, depending on which way the story wanted to go. It would have been a stronger film (with a tighter plot) had the filmmakers figured out which story they most wanted to tell and stuck with it.
In 2016, before COVID and amid the encroaching commercialization of Christmas, Black Friday sales, and annual social media grumblings about the manufactured controversy over whether “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is appropriate, an ugly episode of racial hatred tainted the beginning of the holiday season.
It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black–a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child’s status on Santa’s naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. “What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy,” Jefferson said in an interview. “[Santa represents] a good spirit. I’m just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys.”
The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn’t wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don’t like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else–not erupt in protest that it’s available to those who want it.
However a black Santa was a first for that particular mall, and understandably made the news. On December 1 the local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story by Liz Sawyer titled “Mall of America Welcomes Its First Black Santa.”
Scott Gillespie, the editorial page editor for the Tribune, tweeted later that night (at 9:47 PM): “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” The tweet’s meaning seemed both clear and disappointing: On a story that the Star Tribune posted about an African-American Santa, the racial hostility got so pervasive in the comments section that they had to put an end to it, out of respect for Jefferson and/or Star Tribune readers. He ended with a sad and sarcastic, “Merry Christmas” and sent the tweet into cyberspace.
Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with titles such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel); “Santa is WHITE. BOYCOTT Mall of America’: Online Racists Are Having a Meltdown over Mall’s Black Santa” (RawStory); “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post); “Mall of America Hires Its First Black Santa, Racists of the Internet Lose It” (Mic.com), and so on. If you spend any time on social media you get the idea. It was just another confirmation of America’s abysmal race relations.
There’s only one problem: It didn’t happen.
At 1:25 PM the following day Gillespie, after seeing the stories about the scope and nature of the racist backlash the Tribune faced, reversed himself in a follow-up tweet. Instead of “we had to turn off comments,” Gillespie stated that the commenting was never opened for that article in the first place: “Comments were not allowed based on past practice w/stories w/racial elements. Great comments on FB & Instagram, though.”
This raised some questions for me: If the comments had never been opened on the story, then how could there have been a flood of racist comments? Where did that information come from? How many racist comments did the paper actually get? Fewer than a dozen? Hundreds? Thousands? Something didn’t add up about the story, and as a media literacy educator and journalist I felt it was important to understand the genesis of this story.
It can serve as an object lesson and help the public understand the role of confirmation bias, unwarranted assumptions, and failure to apply skepticism. In this era of attacks on “fake news” it’s important to distinguish intentional misinformation from what might be simply a series of mistakes and assumptions.
While I have no doubt that the Tribune story on Jefferson would likely have been the target of some racist comments at some point, the fact remains that the main point of Gillespie’s tweet was false: the Tribune had not in fact been forced to shut down the comments on its piece about the Mall of America’s black Santa because of a deluge of racist comments. That false information was the centerpiece of the subsequent stories about the incident.
The idea that some might be upset about the topic is plausible; after all, the question of a black Santa had come up a few times in the news and social media (perhaps most notably Fox News’s Megyn Kelly’s infamous incredulity at the notion three years earlier–which she later described as an offhand jest). Racist, sexist, and otherwise obnoxious comments are common in the comments section of many articles online on any number of subjects, and are not generally newsworthy. There were of course some racists and trolls commenting on the secondary stories about the Star Tribune‘s shutting down its comment section due to racist outrage (RawStory collected about a dozen drawn from social media), but fact remains that the incident at the center of the controversy that spawned outrage across social media simply did not happen.
A few journalists added clarifications and corrections to the story after reading Gillespie’s second tweet or being contacted by him. The Huffington Post, for example, added at the bottom of its story: “CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s comment section was turned off when the story was published, not in response to negative comments.” But most journalists didn’t, and as of this writing nearly two million news articles still give a misleading take on the incident.
The secondary news reports could not, of course, quote from the original non-existent rage-filled comments section in the Star Tribune, so they began quoting from their own comments sections and those of other news media. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein the worst comments from hundreds of blogs and websites were then selected and quoted, generating another round of comments. Many people saw racist comments about the story and assumed that they had been taken from the Star Tribune page at the center of the story, and couldn’t be sure if they were responding to the original outrage or the secondary outrage generated by the first outrage. As with those drawn to see and celebrate Jefferson as the mall’s first black Santa, this was also a self-selected group of people–namely those who were attracted to a racially charged headline and had some emotional stake in the controversy, enough to read about it and comment on it.
I contacted Gillespie and he kindly clarified what happened and how his tweet inadvertently caused some of the world’s most prominent news organizations to report on an ugly racial incident that never occurred.
Gillespie–whose beat is the opinion and editorial page–was at home on the evening of December 1 and decided to peruse his newspaper’s website. He saw the story about Larry Jefferson and clicked on it to see if the black Santa story was getting any comments. He noticed that there were no comments at all and assumed that the Star Tribune‘s web moderators had shut them off due to inflammatory posts, as had happened occasionally on previous stories.
Understandably irritated and dismayed, he tweeted about it and went to bed, thinking no more of it. The next day he went into work and a colleague noticed that his tweet had been widely shared (his most shared post on social media ever) and asked him about it. Gillespie then spoke with the newspaper’s web moderators, who informed him that the comments had never been turned on for that particular post–a practice at the newspaper for articles on potentially sensitive subjects such as race and politics, but also applied to many other topics that a moderator for whatever reason thinks might generate comments that may be counterproductive.
“I didn’t know why the comments were off,” he told me. “In this case I assumed we followed past practices” about removing inflammatory comments. It was a not-unreasonable assumption that in this case just happened to be wrong. Gillespie noted during our conversation that a then-breaking Star Tribune story about the death of a 2-year-old girl at a St. Paul foster home also had its commenting section disabled–presumably not in anticipation of a deluge of racist or hateful comments.
“People thought–and I can see why, since I have the title of editorial page editor–that I must know what I’m talking about [in terms of web moderation],” Gillespie said. He was commenting on a topic about his newspaper but outside his purview, and to many his tweet was interpreted as an official statement and explanation of why comments did not appear on the black Santa story.
When Gillespie realized that many (at that time dozens and, ultimately, millions) of news stories were (wrongly) reporting that the Star Tribune‘s comments section had been shut down in response to racist comments based solely on his (admittedly premature and poorly phrased) Dec. 1 tweet, he tried to get in touch with some of the journalists to correct the record (hence the Huffington Post clarification), but by that time the story had gone viral and the ship of fools had sailed. The best he could do was issue a second tweet trying to clarify the situation, which he did.
“I can see why people would jump to the conclusion they did,” he told me. Gillespie is apologetic and accepts responsibility for his role in creating the black Santa outrage story, and it seems clear that his tweet was not intended as an attempt at race-baiting for clicks.
In the spirit of Christmas maybe one lesson to take from this case is charity. Instead of assuming the worst about someone or their intentions, give them the benefit of the doubt. Assuming the worst about other people runs all through this story. Gillespie assumed that racists deluged his newspaper with racist hate, as did the public. The web moderator(s) at the Star Tribune who chose not to open the comments on the Santa story may (or may not) have assumed that they were pre-empting a deluge of racism (which may or may not have in fact followed). I myself was assumed to have unsavory and ulterior motives for even asking journalistic questions about this incident (a topic I’ll cover next week).
In the end there are no villains here (except for the relative handful of racists and trolls who predictably commented on the secondary stories). What happened was the product of a series of understandable misunderstandings and mistakes, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age.
Gillespie and I agreed that this is, when fact and fiction are separated, a good news story. As noted, Gillespie initially assumed that the newspaper’s moderators had been inundated with hostile and racist comments, and finally turned the comments off after having to wade through the flood of hateful garbage comments to find and approve the positive ones. He need not have feared, because exactly the opposite occurred: Gillespie said that the Star Tribune was instead flooded with positive comments applauding Jefferson as the Mall of America’s first black Santa (he referenced this in his Dec. 2 tweet). The tiny minority of nasty comments were drowned out by holiday cheer and goodwill toward men–of any color. He echoed Jefferson, who in a December 9 NPR interview said that the racist comments he heard were “only a small percentage” of the reaction, and he was overwhelmed by support from the community.
The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort. Gillespie said that he had expected people to attack and criticize the Mall of America for succumbing to political correctness, but the imagined hordes of white nationalists never appeared. A few anonymous cranks and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.
The real tragedy is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for, as he said, bringing “hope, love, and peace to girls and boys,” he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa.
Some may try to justify their coverage of the story by saying that even though in this particular case Jefferson was not in fact inundated with racist hate, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of reporting if it raised awareness of the issue. The Trump administration adopted this tactic earlier this week when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus (and did not happen as portrayed and described), but insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”–that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.”
This disregard for truth has been a prominent theme in the Trump administration. Yes, some tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists; no one denies that, but that does not legitimize the sharing of bogus information as examples supposedly illustrating the problem. Similarly, yes, some tiny minority of Americans took exception to Jefferson as a black Santa, but that does not legitimize sharing false information about how a newspaper had to shut down its comments because of racist rage. There are enough real-life examples of hatred and intolerance that we need not invent new ones.
In this Grinchian and cynical ends-justifies-the-means worldview, there is no such thing as good news and the import of every event is determined by how it can be used to promote a given narrative or social agenda–truth be damned.
I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth.
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! Part two in our four-part series on moral panics. This week we talk MUSIC, and go into the past, present, and future of (as Fresh Prince would say) parents just not understanding their kids’ music. So sit back and hear about gansta rap, Miley’s twerking, and even some far-too-jaunty Bing Crosby tunes! Check it out HERE!
Colorado Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert sent this weird fear-mongering tweet.
It’s wrong on several levels: 1) she’s confusing missing *children* with reports; 2) “missing” doesn’t imply abducted, and most are runaways who return within hours; 3) “the media” isn’t reporting on it because they know how to read statistics and it’s a non-story.
Also, “enlies” isn’t even a word.
For those who didn’t see it: New episode of Squaring the Strange is out, the first in our series on Moral Panics. This week we look at games: it’s not just first-person-shooters that have caused parents and social guardians to wring their hands and ask “will no one think of the children?” Your grandparents worried authorities when they turned to the vile pursuits of pinball, and their grandparents were paying with Ouija boards without a single care about demons or ghosts.
The first issue of Skeptical Inquirer with me as Managing Editor came out 23 years ago, joining the indefatigable editor Ken Frazier. Been quite a ride; I hope I’ve helped encourage at least a little critical thinking during that time…
I was recently a guest on the Radio Wasteland show, talking about some of the cases in my new book “Big–If True: Adventures in Oddity.” We discuss psychic detectives; why police rarely prosecute psychics; the idea that the government wants to keep Americans uneducated so we’re easily controlled; the truth about subliminal advertising; chemtrails; why Halloween freaks out some Christian fundamentalists; the claimed link between EMFs and ghosts; and much more…
Check it out HERE!
This month is the anniversary of one of the highest profile—and best documented—UFO reports in modern American history, with hundreds of eyewitnesses and reasonably clear (albeit nevertheless ambiguous) video footage. Despite the (at-least-temporarily) unidentified flying object making international news, the incident has been largely forgotten and ignored by the UFO community, precisely because it was conclusively debunked. It holds no interest to them and only serves as a lesson in eyewitness misperception. There is little to gain from UFO believers revisiting the case, but it holds important lessons for skeptics and critical thinkers.
On Monday evening November 8, 2010, something flew in the skies approximately 35 miles off the California coast. Dramatic video of an (apparent) missile streaking into the sky near Los Angeles was captured by a KCBS television news helicopter cameraman and widely studied. The rocket-like contrail rose like an arced pillar in the sunset, unusually wide at base and narrow at top, seeming to rise vertically in the air. Navy and Air Force officials denied that they launched any missiles in the area at the time, and said they were investigating the incident. The Internet was soon abuzz with conspiracy theories about who might have launched it, and for what purpose.
These theories included UFOs; a secret missile launch (China was widely suggested); government testing of chemtrails; a publicity stunt for alien-themed TV show; a secret military launch from nearby San Nicolas Island, often used by the Air Force; and so on. (The “explanation” that it was a launch from a Chinese submarine raised even more questions than answers: What’s a Chinese sub doing only a few miles from California?)
CNN suggested it might be a North Korean missile, while on CBS News former Deputy Secretary of Defense, Robert Ellsworth, suggested it was a missile after all—but an American one: “It could be a test-firing of an ICBM from a submarine… to demonstrate, mainly to Asia, that we can do that.” For the conspiracy theorists who insist that the missile was some sort of secret government test, this explanation collapses under the weight of its own illogic. Why would the government launch a “secret” missile only 35 miles from Los Angeles, and that would be obvious to anyone looking in the skies?
Veteran UFO researcher and former Skeptical Inquirer columnist Robert Sheaffer was among the first to offer an explanation: “As surprising as it may sound, the object seems to have been simply an aircraft contrail, with tricks of perspective making it look like a missile flying away from you, when in fact it was an aircraft flying toward you. It depends on an effect of perspective. The aircraft’s path must be directly toward, or away from, the observer. Second, even though the contrail is five miles above the ground, as it recedes into the distance it appears to touch the ground, because of the curvature of the earth. As shown by the daytime photo of the vertical contrail on ContrailsScience.com, we know that the aircraft that made it was not flying straight up like a rocket, but when seen directly straight-on, that is what it looks like. And for viewers a few miles away, getting a different perspective, all they see is an ordinary-looking slanted contrail.”
This explained many aspects of the sighting, including the fact that according to the Federal Aviation Administration, radar in the area did not reveal any fast-moving unidentified targets. Furthermore, pilots in the area did not report any unusual sightings, which would make sense, since from their perspective the jet’s contrail would not appear strange. Furthermore, Sheaffer noted, this is not the first time that a contrail has been mistaken for a missile launch; an identical missile-like jet contrail was reported south of Los Angeles on December 31, 2009.
Mick West of Metabunk was also quick on the case, and offered a detailed analysis to several journalists. To the best of my knowledge, Robert, Mick and I were the first prominent skeptics to offer a plausible explanation when I wrote about it for Discovery News (now rebranded as Seeker); Mick and I later discussed our work on the case on my podcast, Squaring the Strange.
But some were skeptical of the skeptics. Bill Sweetman, of Aviation Week, was quoted as noting (correctly) that the plume seen in the footage was more characteristic of missile. The reporter who filmed it, Gil Leyvas, said in interviews that he’d seen countless plane contrails during his long career and insisted he’d never seen anything like it. From The New York Times: “Mr. Leyvas said that he had never seen an airplane contrail that resembled the contrails on Nov. 4 and Nov. 8. In fact, while he was recording the contrail on Nov. 8, he briefly panned the camera away when he saw a second contrail in the distance, only to discover that the second one had been caused by a jetliner. ‘There was no comparison at all’ between the two, he said, because the mysterious one was several times bigger. He added, ‘The video speaks for itself.’” Physicist Michio Kaku went on Good Morning America and refuted the idea that it was an airplane contrail (more on that shortly).
It took another day for the government to complete its investigation. When they did, Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan noted, “With all the information that we have gathered over the last day and a half about this condensation trail off the coast of southern California on Monday night, both within the Department of Defense and other U.S. government agencies, we have no evidence to suggest that this was anything other than a contrail caused by an aircraft.”
Despite these plausible explanations the “mystery missile” video was irresistible to television outlets across the country, which were playing the clip incessantly. Locally, KCBS noted in one segment that “it even looks as if there is some sort of rocket separation” shown on the tape. The mystery deepened when some people reported hearing the rumbling of a missile launch just before it was sighted.
Soon after my article was published on Discovery News piece, commenters were, of course, dismissing me as a shill trying to cover something up. My editor, Ian O’Neill, and I replied with a follow-up piece where I even more clearly laid out the evidence:
Let’s look at the evidence comparing the contrail explanation to the missile theory.
1) According to the Federal Aviation Administration, radar in the area did not reveal any fast-moving unknown targets. A missile would have been picked up on radar, while a jet would not have been flagged as unusual.
2) No trace of the alleged missile has been seen falling into the water off the coast of Los Angeles, nor has the missile or any part of it been recovered; it seems to have simply vanished into the sky. If the contrail was created by a plane, of course, no falling missile would be seen nor found.
3) The object seen in the video moves like a jet, not a rocket. As Michio Kaku, a physics professor at City University of New York noted on Good Morning America, “The trail seems to change direction. Ballistic missiles don’t do that. It doesn’t accelerate. Ballistic missiles accelerate up to 18,000 miles per hour, this is traveling at a constant velocity.” While missiles accelerate greatly during launch, aircraft typically maintain a constant cruising speed once they have reached the desired altitude—exactly as the videotape shows.
4) There is no record of any missiles being fired at the location and time of the sighting, while there are records of commercial jets in the area at the time. One blogger, Liem Bahneman, has identified the route and flight number as US Airways Flight 808 from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Phoenix, Arizona.
5) Perhaps most damaging to the missile theory, the only people who saw (and recorded) the mysterious phenomenon were in one television helicopter videotaping the sunset. None of the nearly 4 million people living in Los Angeles noticed the “missile” launch, and pilots flying in the area reported seeing nothing unusual—and certainly not a missile being launched. This is very strong evidence that the phenomenon was only unusual from one unique perspective; that is, people looking at the same thing from different distances and angles recognized what it was, or didn’t think it was strange. This supports the jet theory and discredits the missile theory.
In the end, the “mystery missile” was indeed exactly what Mick, Robert, and I said it was from the beginning: an airplane contrail (Flight 808) seen from an odd angle. The case provides an interesting case study in social contagion, the psychology of expectant attention (also known as psychological priming), and how people can misinterpret ambiguous sights and sound as confirming their expectations. The people who claimed to hear the rumbling of a distant rocket launch likely weren’t lying or hallucinating; instead they simply reinterpreted ordinary ambient sounds in light of the “missile” launch they believed they’d witnessed. The same goes for the local news analysis that claimed to see “some sort of rocket separation.” There was no rocket separation because there was no rocket; instead people saw what they were expecting to see. This is of course the same principle underlying many reports of ghosts, Bigfoot, UFOs, and other phenomenon.
In any event the conspiracies failed for another reason: there would be no reason for officials to hide or cover up the launch; missiles and satellites are routinely launched from the California coast. All the Pentagon would have to do is issue a statement telling the public that it was a planned launch, and the issue would go away. Maybe we can’t always believe the “official explanation,” but when it fits the facts, we should.
There is an understandable eagerness to opine ahead of the facts, as Michio Kaku, Robert Ellsworth, and many others did. Many took the fact that the original eyewitness who saw and filmed it, Gil Leyvas, didn’t recognize it despite having seen hundreds of contrails as evidence that it must be something else. This principle should be kept in mind when UFO believers state boldly that experienced pilots would obviously be able to recognize a plane, planet, balloon, or any other mundane thing in the sky. Possibly, but not necessarily; after all, that’s why they’re called Unidentified Flying Objects.
I recently presented a talk, “Folklore and Public Health: Partners in Mitigating Medical Misinformation,” for a webinar on Contemporary Legends and Pandemic Lore, put on by the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research in association with Mahatma Gandhi University in India. Nice to be able to apply critical thinking and skepticism to public health issues!
New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! First Tim Mendham from the Australian Skeptics pops in for a quick visit, then we sit down for a discussion with Vegas magicians Matt Donnelly, R.J. Owens, and Vinny Grosso. Each of them has a perspective on magic and skepticism. It’s a fun and fascinating talk, available via your auditory input channels! Check it out HERE!
I’m quoted in a substantive new article on ghost hunting by Joe Capozzi. Check it out HERE!
Also, don’t forget to check out my podcast:
The new horror film Antlers is set in a decaying Oregon town, where a single father, Frank, is seen with his young son Aiden outside a mine. What at first seems like an innocent father-son bonding moment turns dark, literally and figuratively, as we see that Frank is involved in a meth lab, and promptly attacked by, well, something terrifying with the titular antlers.
This situation comes to the attention of a teacher, Julia (Keri Russell), who lives with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the local sheriff. Julia becomes concerned when she sees disturbing (horror film cliché) drawings of scary monsters from withdrawn outcast Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), presumably depicting his troubled family life. Julia eventually realizes that Frank is/was Lucas’s father, and Aiden his brother, and that something sinister and supernatural is going on.
The film, adapted from Nick Antosca’s short story “The Quiet Boy,” was completed in 2019 and its opening delayed several times due to covid. The plot is based on legends of the wendigo (spelled various ways), and the filmmakers hired a professor of Indigenous Nations Studies to serve as its advisor on Native American folklore. It’s an intriguing premise, but one area where the plot falters is in explaining the origin of the menace. We’re told, in an Ojibwe opening verse, of an evil spirit with a ravenous appetite that possesses humans and causes them to kill and eat others. The wendigo is typically associated with winter, famine, need, and scarcity. This is Screenwriting 101: a hero (or heroine in this case) saves the day using important knowledge gleaned from a wise, often reluctant, source in the second act. In this case the wisdom is imparted from Native American actor Graham Greene, best known for his turns in Dances With Wolves and Wind River. Armed with a Cliff’s Notes-inspired, Wikipedia-summarized understanding of the wendigo, plucky Julia goes above and beyond her contractual teacher obligations to face the fearsome foe as mangled bodies pile up.
Writing in The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Brady DeSanti (2015) notes “Many contemporary Ojibwe communities accept the windigo as a real entity that exists alongside countless manitous (spiritual beings) of varying degrees of power and disposition that permeate their experience of the world. Understood to be a giant monster with an insatiable appetite for human flesh, the windigo possesses hideous features and immense physical and spiritual power. The windigo can also be understood as a representation of the freezing temperatures of the northeastern and Great Lakes regions and the resource scarcity that occasionally ensues during harsh winters. And while the Ojibwe never practised cannibalism, the windigo’s appearance can in part be seen as a symbolic projection of the absolute horror at the prospect of, and, at times, instances of, famine cannibalism that took place as a result of food shortages… In most accounts, the windigo possesses a heart of ice and appears emaciated regardless of how much it consumes. The creature’s appetite increases in proportion to how much flesh it eats, ensuring it is never satiated,” even as it seeks more victims to possess and consume.
DeSanti notes that despite its native origins the wendigo “continues to appear in a variety of horror films, television series, novels, comic books, and cartoons. As an example of how expansive the windigo’s reach is throughout the entertainment industry, the cannibalistic entity made a brief appearance in a cartoon episode of My Little Pony in 2011… The windigo is a relatively new and popular option for the entertainment industry, but despite this popularity, it is mostly used by entertainment outlets as just another stock monster comparable to many other notable fiendish creatures, such as werewolves, vampires, zombies, and demons. Unlike these other monsters, however, the windigo remains a viable component of the religious beliefs of many North American tribal nations. In other words, windigo beliefs have not been severed from their original cultural contexts as the monsters of urban lore and cinema have.” In this regard, the wendigo is similar to the Hispanic infanticidal ghost La Llorona in its pop culture depictions.
There is a fair amount of literature on the wendigo. Psychologists and anthropologists have identified a disorder called Wendigo Psychosis, which “has long been regarded as a disorder specific to the people of the northern tribes of Algonkian-speaking Indians. This disorder is marked by the desire to eat human flesh—a desire to do something which is ordinarily extremely repugnant and horrifying to these people—but a desire which was gratified by more than half of the individuals whose cases have been reported,” according to Thomas Hay’s 1971 article in American Anthropologist.
A deeper look at cannibalism is beyond the scope here, but it’s notable that Hay recognizes that eating the remains of the dead is more common than might be assumed: “Ritual consumption of the body of the deceased by his nearest relatives occurs in Australia, New Guinea, and the Pacific, and is relatively frequent among South American Indians. Participation in such socially controlled, ritual cannibalism is not generally regarded asevidence of psychopathology.” And it’s not just native peoples; indeed, “The belief in the efficacy of cannibalism for restoring a relationship with the dead in Western Civilization is evidenced by the symbolic cannibalism in the Communion ritual of the various Christian churches.”
In 1970 anthropologist Vivian J. Rorhl suggested that the genesis of the psychosis might be due in part to starvation experienced by the afflicted individuals, and therefore that eating animal fat would be considered part of the cure, a way to “exorcise” the spirit from the body. Others, however, including researcher Jennifer Brown the following year noted that employing Occam’s Razor it’s just as likely that better nutrition was instead given to address the body’s (obvious) starvation instead of the mind’s (presumed) wendigo possession. In other words giving the patient calories was part of a behavioral, not psychological, cure.
More recent research (e.g., Kolan et al. 2019) suggests that wendigo psychosis is rare, with 70 cases being reported in the 1960s, though firm data is elusive and much of it anecdotal. “The hunter Plains Cree from Alberta, known as Swift Runner, is held as a classical case of Wendigo psychosis. During the winter season in 1878 a series of tragic events took place. Due to the permanent hunger, the oldest descendant of the trapper from Alberta died. The next day a mother and five children, being close to a food repository in Hudson’s Bay, were suddenly attacked. The culprit was a father and a husband, Swift Runner. The murder was committed for the cannibalistic purpose. Because of the murder’s background, which was a short distance to the food supply and losing all members of the family, the man was diagnosed with Wendigo psychosis. He was sentenced to death in Fort Saskatchewan.”
The diagnosis of wendigo psychosis as a culture-bound condition has fallen out of favor as an explanation, and at any rate the decline of its incidence isn’t surprising. Various factors play a role: with modern food distribution, starvation is less common than in decades past, and even on chronically underfunded Native American and First Nations reservations, psychosis diagnosis and treatment has improved.
Antlers and Wendigo
As for the wendigo in Antlers, it’s all well and good to use a creature as a metaphor for social ills; it’s been done before, for example the consumerism-satirizing zombies in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). But translating folklore into cinema is a tricky task because once a menace is fixed in film it’s crystallized. The wendigo can be seen as a symbol of social and moral decay, in this case drug addiction, child abuse, poverty, environmental degradation, and so on. A folklorist or storyteller can evocatively describe what a monster “means” to the cultures that tell its stories. A filmmaker—and especially a visual effects supervisor—will reply, “Yeah, yeah, that’s great and all—but how do I show it on the screen? I can’t sculpt or animate an idea or metaphor. What, exactly, am I designing? What are audiences going to see and hear?” In the end, Antlers is a monster movie, and the monster is terrifying indeed, with effective special effects.
Working from the premise of the wendigo, as audiences are required to do in suspending disbelief, the question naturally come up: why now, in the context of the story? There’s nothing new about economic hardship or drug abuse, especially in small rural towns. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if that’s all it takes to create a wendigo, then why aren’t they commonplace? Why isn’t the community’s response a jaded “Oh, another one?” instead of “I’ve never seen anything like this before”?
Questions like these become even more relevant when the film concludes and the conflict is (seemingly) resolved; if the wendigo is indeed possessing people more or less at will then all is lost because it will never be destroyed. You can keep killing its hapless hosts, but that’s not really going to solve the fundamental problem as long as there’s still someone alive to possess. This leads to a bit of a contradiction (or plot hole, depending on your point of view) at the end. There’s also a bit of a red herring involving native American medicine bags, which are key to the plot because they make the connection between Frank’s death and the wendigo, but whose presence are never explained…
I strongly suspect that important material was cut for a leaner runtime of 99 minutes—a common occurrence in films. Around the sixth or tenth edit, and with pressure from theaters and distributors for films to be shorter to allow more screening per day, editors and directors often second-guess their decisions: Do we really need to have this dialogue in the film, or does another scene serve the same narrative function? How many scenes that have the same theme do we need to drive the point home? There’s no right or wrong answer—and finished films are inevitably the result of hundreds (or even thousands) of decisions and compromises made along the way—but it may explain the mediocrity of Antlers. I suspect that a longer director’s cut, if one is ever released, will offer a more satisfying storyline.
The considerable narrative power and potential is squandered a bit in the last act, which abandons its folkloric and social themes in favor of routine horror film cliches. There are a few bits of clumsy expositional screenwriting, such as when dialogue explains things the characters already know (early in the film Frank tells his son Aiden that they’re going to pick up “your brother Lucas,” in case Aiden wasn’t sure what his brother’s name was, or which of several Lucases they’d be picking up).
But it’s a low-budget horror film so let’s not get too pedantic because there’s a lot to be said for Antlers, starting with the cinematography and setting. You can feel the grey dampness of rural Oregon creep off the screen. The fog mirrors the gloomy bleakness of the town, shrouded with decay and secrets (a teacher grimly tells Julia that many children in the small community don’t attend school because their parents make methamphetamine and don’t want their kids to smell of it in class, thus triggering a mandatory police check). It’s an ideal setting for a gothic horror film, and it’s not surprising that that writer/director Guillermo del Toro is a producer on the film, as his cinematic sensibilities are (thankfully) everywhere onscreen. The special effects are impressive, in all their gory glory. The acting is effective, especially from the lead characters including newcomer Jeremy T. Thomas; unfortunately most of the other characters are underdeveloped.
Like many horror films that end with a climactic battle with some supernatural presence (usually at night, for dramatic effect) and then a short coda or epilogue taking place the next day, I always have to wonder how everything that happened (homicides, monster carcasses, etc.) was satisfactorily explained to authorities. It’s one thing for outsiders to be skeptical of whatever astonishing claims the heroes are reporting until the climax, but the aftermath would typically leave mountains of incontrovertible proof that would raise more questions than answers. Antlers is a middling monster movie with missed potential, worth a watch on a dark night but wait for a director’s cut if you can.
I’m quoted in a new article by Russ Dobler on techniques that can fool people into thinking you’re psychic (by way of the upcoming Spider-Man movie!) for his Adventures in Poor Taste website… Check it out HERE!
New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! Folklorist Daisy Ahlstone shares some facts, folklore, and even furry art celebrating the thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger, which was declared extinct in the 20th century. Ahlstone talks about the extreme commodification of the species, from hunting bounties to gaffed specimens to logos and travel packages luring tourists to Tasmania. Along the way we learn about endlings, necrofauna, and what genetic projects might produce someday. You can listen HERE!
For those who missed our Grand Opening of the Online Friggatriskaidekaphobia (fear of Friday the 13th) Treatment Center, it’s not too late to join the fun!
We had song, dance, puns, and a short talk by me about the psychology of superstitions, and you can watch it HERE!
After many, many similar encounters, I thought I’d offer this…
Person A: Hey, you should check out this YouTube video, it’s full of interesting information, stuff “they” don’t want you to know. It’s really important to seek out multiple sources, question everything, and not just accept the “official story!”
Person B: Hm. It looks a little conspiracy-like, but okay… Before I do, I have a quick question: I agree it’s important to question everything and research multiple sources. Did you post those other sources? I’m just seeing this one video.
Person A: What do you mean?
Person B: If I’m understanding, you researched multiple sources about this topic. So what other sources did you look at, and what did you find?
Person A: Well, they’re in the video.
Person B: Right. I asked why, if multiple sources are so important, you only posted one source, the video above. What other sources did you look at, other articles or videos that challenge the claims made in video you posted above?
Person A: They’re in the video.
Person B: Well, they can’t be in the video, since that’s a single source. The video might address opposing views, but that’s one source—one point of view—not multiple sources questioning everything.
Person A: The other sources are out there, just look online. It’s not my job to do your research for you.
Person B: I’m not asking you to do any research for me, I’m just asking if you have read or watched any sources that challenge what’s in the video you posted. Like you said: It’s really important to seek out multiple sources, question everything, and not just accept the so-called “official story!” It seems that if you had spent time looking at the topic from different sources or points of view, you’d have posted links to those as well. But you didn’t, and I’m just wondering why. For example if I post a video saying jazz music is horrible—and also that people should listen to “all sides” of the debate—then I’d also post a video saying jazz music is awesome. So where are the other sides you considered?
Person A: Well, you can’t trust the media to tell you the whole truth. I’m not saying it’s all true, I’m just asking questions.
Person B: I agree with you. People need to question what they’re told, whether it’s MSNBC, Fox News, or some YouTube video. So why aren’t you questioning what you’re told in the video? I’m not saying the video is necessarily wrong (though I see some red flags), I’m just asking if you examined both sides of the claims, and if you did, why you trust this YouTube video over its responses.
Person A: So you believe the mainstream media?
Person B: Um… I didn’t say that… So you just watched and shared this one video, and didn’t look for any other sources or information, is that right? This is your version of “question everything”?
Person A: Whatever….
(Not entirely verbatim but pretty close…)
My Spanish-language article on water dowsing is now out for ‘Pensar’ magazine, thanks to Alejandro Borgo for the translation!
Los tiempos de estrés social, dificultades e incertidumbre estimulan el interés en todo tipo de adivinación y profecía. El público va a ver videntes y adivinos con más frecuencia en tiempos de depresión económica que de prosperidad, tiempos de pérdida en lugar de amor. Son la naturaleza humana y el pensamiento mágico en sus diversas formas, incluidas la superstición y las conspiraciones, las que ayudan a las personas a lidiar con el estrés diario. La gente quiere estar segura de que las cosas buenas están a la vuelta de la esquina, que las fortunas mejorarán y los romances apasionados con proverbiales extraños guapos y altos están en las cartas.
Esto fue cierto durante la pandemia, pero hay otras tensiones —ambientales, como el cambio climático, incendios generalizados y una sequía duradera que ha mantenido reseco gran parte del suroeste de los Estados Unidos durante años. No es de extrañar que la gente esté cada vez más desesperada por encontrar agua.
The New York Times informó recientemente sobre un aumento en el interés y la contratación de radiestesistas (o «brujos del agua») —también llamados zahoríes o rabdomantes. Si alguna vez ha escuchado la frase «No lo harían si no funcionara», la radiestesia es una refutación perfecta. A lo largo de los siglos las personas han venerado y perpetuado prácticas a pesar de que simplemente no funcionan. La radiestesia es un ejemplo de libro de texto sobre el tema. Parte de la razón de la longevidad de la radiestesia es su versatilidad en el mundo paranormal. Se dice que la radiestesia encuentra cualquier cosa, incluidas personas desaparecidas, tuberías enterradas, depósitos de petróleo e incluso ruinas arqueológicas (ver Dowsing and Archaeology: Is There Something Underneath? —Radiestesia y arqueología: ¿Hay algo debajo?— en Skeptical Inquirer, marzo/abril de 1999).
I’m quoted in a Global News Canada article on the search for Sasquatch, talking about why the evidence for Bigfoot keeps falling short. Check it out HERE!
Also, please subscribe to my podcast!
From a library press release: “Benjamin Radford and Joe Nickell are considered to be among the top lake monster authorities in the world. They discuss the different types of lake monster sightings, delve into explanations for those sightings, and examine hoaxes, evidence claims, and legends surrounding the monsters. They have also conducted groundbreaking fieldwork and experiments…”
Technically true, but to be fair there are about ten times as many astronauts as “lake monster authorities.” But, hey, I’ll take it!
I was recently a guest on the Squatch Talk show, talking about Bigfoot sightings, evidence, skepticism, and much more. It was a fun conversation, and since the host’s internet went out, we will be doing a Part 2! Check it out HERE!
Also we briefly talked about my chupacabra book:
My new article is about the new Netflix documentary ‘Misha and the Wolves,’ which examines a famous and bizarre literary hoax: A woman claimed to have walked across Europe and been raised by a wolf pack while searching for her parents during the Holocaust. Her book became a worldwide bestseller, until troubling questions were raised about her story. The film is about history, identity, authenticity, betrayal, and why we choose to believe…
The new Netflix documentary film Misha and the Wolves examines the life story of a Holliston, Massachusetts, woman named Misha Defonseca who stunned her congregation decades ago on Holocaust Remembrance Day by breaking her silence about her past: She was not only a Holocaust survivor, but as a young girl had fled her home in Belgium and walked to Germany in search of her parents, last seen in concentration camps. That was remarkable and brave enough, but she hadn’t done it alone; “She had trekked nearly 2,000 miles across Europe in the middle of winter to search for her parents, and on this journey had been saved from death by a pack of wolves who had taken her in and raised her as their cub. She recalled how, while she subsisted on a diet of wild meat and scavenged scraps, she sometimes heard terrible sounds coming from deportation trains and once had to kill a German soldier with her bare hands when her life was in danger” (Katsoulis 241).
Misha’s incredible story caught the attention of a friend who ran a small publishing house, Jane Daniel, and was soon turned into a best-selling 1997 book titled Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years. It caught the influential (if not particularly discerning) eye of Oprah Winfrey, and would later be published in several languages and optioned for films. Misha became a celebrity, touring the world telling her inspiring story of courage and overcoming adversity.
Eventually, however, some suspected that her story was in fact literally incredible—not credible. Misha and the Wolves expertly describes the rise and fall of Misha’s story. Even though I’d read basic outlines of the events, there were some surprising plot twists that I won’t reveal, as there are enough spoilers already. It’s not just the story of a strange story of a suspected hoax, but perhaps more importantly, it’s the story of people who joined forces to reveal the truth.
The public is of course widely—and rightly—counseled to “believe the victim” in many circumstances. That is the appropriate default position for any plausible claim, and the vast majority of the time the victim is as claimed. Most of the time people, by default, believe what others tell them (see Timothy Levine’s work on Truth Default Theory). This extends to claims of victimization as well; contrary to popular belief, women who come forward with claims of victimization (including by public figures) are generally believed, not doubted.
But in some cases it’s not clear who the victim is (or if there really is a victim at all), and the film explores the continual trepidation of those who questioned Misha’s claims: what if they were wrong? No one wanted to be in a position of casting doubt on the account of a true victim, and especially not of the Holocaust. This reluctance to question victims can of course be seen in many other contexts; see for example the 2012 documentary The Woman Who Wasn’t There, about a woman who claimed to have survived the Twin Towers collapse on 9/11/2001, and—like Misha—became a spokeswoman for the cause of remembrance and honor for the tragic events, heading a survivors group.
Misha’s deception would likely have never been revealed but for the tenacity of not only the book’s original publisher, Daniel, who was sued (and, as it turns out, wrongfully awarded millions) by Misha, but also a genealogist, a journalist, and others. The fact that Misha was invited to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show to promote the book but declined was, ironically, one of the early red flags that something wasn’t right. Oprah, it should be noted, has a long history of promoting heart-tugging memoirs that were later revealed to be largely or wholly hoaxed, along with untold numbers of other dubious and discredited topics. For another Oprah-promoted fake Holocaust story presented as tear-jerking memoir see Herman Rosenblat’s book Angel at the Fence.
The film builds suspense as each new piece of information is revealed. Misha and the Wolves is a story of remarkable detective work, deception, and gullibility and unfolds like a series of Russian dolls, spinning into several smaller mysteries: Is Misha’s story mostly true, like anyone’s subjective recollections and allowing for mistakes, memory lapses, and biases?
Within about twenty minutes (or sooner, if you’ve seen any coverage of the case) it’s clear that Misha’s story isn’t true—or at least isn’t entirely true. But is that significant? Authors James Frey and Joe Mortensen, among many others, eventually admitted to fabricating key parts of their bestelling memoirs, A Million Little Pieces and Three Cups of Tea, respectively. So did Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu in her book I, Rigoberta Menchu, but all of them insisted that the books were mostly true.
Or is it entirely fabricated, and if so, to what end? Was it akin to the influential 1971 young adult memoir Go Ask Alice, which was completely made up by an evangelical middle-aged Mormon woman trying to teach moral lessons? Or is she delusional, perhaps (understandably) traumatized by the war? If Misha didn’t spend her childhood living with wolves and walking through forests to find her parents, then where was she? Surely there would have to be some record, somewhere…
It is perhaps fitting that the real heroine of the film—the person who does indeed find the smoking gun (though where and of what I won’t reveal)—is herself a Belgian Holocaust survivor named Evelyne Haendel. Holocaust memorial organizations are in fact among the most skeptical of such claims, precisely because a handful of people have falsified their experiences, and accepting claims without due diligence dishonors real victims. Holocaust historian Debórah Dwork also provides insight into the complexities of truth and doubt.
Writer and director Sam Hobkinson does a masterful job of letting the participants speak for themselves, with one notable exception (revealed in a twist reminiscent of the 2019 documentary Wrinkles the Clown), revealing conflicting agendas at virtually every turn. Publishers and journalists want a good story; historians and genealogist want the truth; and documentary filmmakers want a blend of both. Misha had her own reasons for creating the story, and others had their own motivation for turning a blind eye—or not—to potential deception. Jane Daniel, it turns out, was warned by at least one expert prior to publication that Misha’s story was dubious. Nevertheless the promise of notoriety and wealth won out, until the time that it served Daniel’s interest to take a closer look at the remarkable story she’d helped launch into the world.
Misha and the Wolves is curiously reminiscent of another documentary series, also on Netflix, titled The Devil Next Door, out in 2019. That five-part series tells the true story of another elderly, otherwise unremarkable American citizen with murky (and contested) ties to the Holocaust: Ivan Demjanjuk. The retired autoworker settled in Cleveland and was later accused of being a prison guard at a Nazi concentration camp nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible” by his victims. But was he? As the series reveals, the answer is yes and no.
The ‘Wild Child’ Myth
Misha’s story was especially compelling because it drew on two popular and powerful narratives. The Holocaust survivor narrative and the wild or feral child stories. Stories and legends from around the world tell of children raised by wild animals including wolves, bears, and apes.
The feral child is common in myth and folklore, dating back at least to Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers of Roman mythology rescued from certain death and raised by a wolf. The feral child image evokes a strong romanticism for many people, and this was especially true at the turn of the last century. Rudyard Kipling made a hero of the feral child Mowgli—an Indian boy raised by wolves—in his classic and wildly popular 1894 collection of stories The Jungle Book. Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years is an example of this. Though not a feral child story per se, Misha’s story evokes the purity and innocence of the animal world as metaphor, and contrasts it with the evil that human genocide can bring.
Misha in Context
When questioned, Misha doubled down and dismissed skeptics for years, daring them to debunk her narrative. When the deception was definitively revealed, Defonseca “apologized unreservedly to the readers who had bought her book in good faith, and in the now familiar terms of a hoaxer pleading an alternative truth as a reason for their deception, went on to say, ‘There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world. The story in my book is mine. It is not the actual reality—it was my reality, my way of surviving’” (Katsoulis 246).
In a March 9, 2008, New York Times opinion piece, Daniel Mendelsohn notes that Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years is “a fraud far more reprehensible than Mr. [James] Frey’s self-dramatizing enhancements [in A Million Little Pieces]. The first is a plagiarism of other people’s trauma. Both were written not, as they claim to be, by members of oppressed classes (the Jews during World War II), but by members of relatively safe or privileged classes. Ms. De Wael [writing as Misha] was a Christian Belgian who was raised by close relatives after her parents, Resistance members, were taken away… a comparatively privileged person has appropriated the real traumas suffered by real people for her own benefit—a boon to the career and the bank account, but more interestingly, judging from the authors’ comments, a kind of psychological gratification, too…. Ms. De Wael has similarly referred to a longing to be part of the group to which she did not, emphatically, belong: ‘I felt different. It’s true that, since forever, I felt Jewish and later in life could come to terms with myself by being welcomed by part of this community.’ (‘Felt Jewish’ is repellent: real Jewish children were being murdered however they may have felt.)”
The post-truth defense rang hollow to others as well. Adopting a cultural studies approach, Anne Rothe states that “Defonseca’s fabrication is revealing because it indicates the extent to which readers are willing to suspend their disbelief and to accept in a supposed Holocaust memoir that a young girl could walk across Europe in the midst of the Second World War and even that she was adopted by wolves… It is also illuminating because the ensuing legal battle…constitutes the clearest indication to date of the vast commercial potential of representing the Holocaust as an ahistorical, kitsch-sentimental horror fantasy of trauma and redemption in contemporary Western culture” (142). For more on this fascinating case see Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes, by Melissa Katsoulis, and Popular Trauma Culture: Selling the Pain of Others in Mass Media, by Anne Rothe (full disclosure: I’m referenced in the latter book). Also check out Squaring the Strange, episode 112, on literary hoaxes.
Misha and the Wolves is rife with lessons on critical thinking, skepticism, and confirmation bias. The film also highlights the dictum about how it takes exponentially more effort to debunk falsehoods than it does to create them—and how the burden of proof is often tacitly shifted from claimant to investigator. This is excellent documentary filmmaking, and about much more than one woman’s audacious hoax or delusion; it’s about history, identity, authenticity, betrayal, and why we choose to believe.
A longer version of this piece appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it HERE.
New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! We discuss the recent Snopes plagiarism revelations and put it into context, and then look at sound therapy and vibrational healing. If you’re not quite sure what “Vibrational Medicine” is, join the club! You can listen HERE!
I’m a guest on the “Something to Sasquatch About” show! We talked about the evidence for Bigfoot, the nature of skepticism, why the 1967 Patterson/Gimlin film hasn’t been replicated, the lack of quality control in Bigfoot research, the “Bigfoot Butt Print” cast, and the time a crazy Norwegian hulk confronted me with blurry Bigfoot photos at a conference.
Check it out HERE!
Did you hear our recent episode of Squaring the Strange? We talk a bit on the resurgence of dowsing and announce some upcoming appearances… then we sit down with guest Prof. Brian Regal, who takes us on a tour of pseudoscience and pseudohistory. Learn how confirmation bias leads to weaponizing fringe theories in order to rewrite history (and change the color of major players). Check it out HERE!
Times of social stress, hardship, and uncertainty spur interest in all kinds of divination and prophecy. The public goes to see psychics and fortunetellers more often in times of economic depression than prosperity, times of loss rather than love. It’s human nature, and magical thinking in its various forms—including superstition and conspiracies—helps people cope with daily stresses. People want to be reassured that good things are just around the corner, that fortunes will improve and whirlwind romances with proverbial tall handsome strangers are in the cards. People want an edge against random chance.
This was true during the pandemic, but there are other stresses—environmental ones such as climate change, widespread fires, and an enduring drought that’s kept much of the Southwestern United States parched for years. It’s no surprise that people are getting more desperate to find water.
The New York Times recently reported a jump in interest in, and hiring of, dowsers (or “water witches”), such as Rob Thompson, who “claims that he can locate streams of water in the fractures in the earth’s bedrock, using two L-shaped rods that together resemble an old-fashioned television antenna. Amid California’s extreme drought, just a two-hour drive north of the nation’s technology capital of Silicon Valley, the water-seeking services of a man relying on two three-foot rods and a hunch are in demand. ‘This is my busiest I think I’ve ever been in my life,’ said Mr. Thompson, a third-generation water hunter with silvering hair and the lumbering gait of a bear… His busy schedule is a sign of the desperation of ranchers, vineyard owners and land managers as California reels from a crippling drought that has depleted aquifers, shrunken crops and forced some farmers to sell off their water rights.”
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work,” dowsing is a perfect rebuttal. People through the centuries have revered and perpetuated practices despite the fact that they simply do not work. Dowsing is a textbook example of this. Part of the reason for dowsing’s longevity is its versatility in the paranormal world. If we conceive of the paranormal as a tasty (but ultimately nourishment-free) meal, dowsing is a sort of all-purpose side dish. It can stand alone as a New Age endeavor when searching for water or missing jewelry, or it goes equally well with a variety of pseudoscientific main dishes, including crop circles and fortune-telling. Dowsing is said to find anything and everything, including missing persons, buried pipes, oil deposits, and even archaeological ruins (see “Dowsing and Archaeology: Is There Something Underneath?,” in Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1999).
I most often encounter dowsers during ghost investigations. Many amateur ghost hunters use dowsing rods to search for ghosts, believing that ghosts can be detected by (or communicate through) dowsing rods. In 2007, I demonstrated dowsing for the National Geographic Channel’s Is It Real? TV series on “Ghost Ships” in response to a woman who used dowsing rods on ghost hunts.
The dowsing with which most people are familiar is water dowsing (also known as water witching or rhabdomancy), in which a person holds a Y-shaped branch or two L-shaped wire rods and walks around until he or she feels a pull on the branch or the wire rods cross, which allegedly indicates that there is water below. Often a pendulum is used, sometimes held over a map.
According to proponents, dowsing has a robust history, and its success has been known for centuries. For example, in her book Divining the Future: Prognostication From Astrology to Zoomancy, Eva Shaw writes, “In 1556, De Re Metallica, a book on metallurgy and mining written by George [sic] Agricola, discussed dowsing as an acceptable method of locating rich mineral sources.” This widely cited reference is a rather transparent example of a logical fallacy called the appeal to tradition (“It must work because people have done it for centuries”).
However it seems that the dowsing advocates didn’t actually read the book because it says exactly the opposite: Instead of endorsing dowsing, Agricola states that those seeking minerals “should not make use of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him.” So even 465 years ago, dowsing was recognized as worthless.
How Dowsing ‘Works’
If you assume that dowsing works—and that is of course a huge unproven assumption— how does it work? The proposed mechanisms are as varied as the dowsers themselves. One source states that “Dowsing is possible … through the strong psychic energy radiated by the object and picked up by the [dowser]”; another confidently states that “dowsing is not weird or spooky … it is as natural as memory. In fact, some scientists believe it may well be one of memory’s forms … a vestigial memory of a survival method of searching, using senses other than the five obvious ones.” The Amazing Randi in his Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, notes that dowsers often cannot agree on even the basics of their profession: “Some instructions tell learners never to try dowsing with rubber footwear, while others insist that it helps immeasurably. Some practitioners say that when rods cross, that specifically indicates water; others say that water makes the rods diverge to 180 degrees.”
I don’t believe dowsing per se is fraudulent—that is, for the most part it’s not a scam, hoax, or intentional deception. Instead it’s a form of self-deception that often convinces others. There’s no intent to deceive, it’s more of a mistake or misunderstanding. I’ve met many dowsers over the years and without exception they have been credible, down-to-earth people. They seem sincere because they are sincere: they really believe they have this power, and have convinced themselves over and over with their results. In this way they often convince other people—especially those who haven’t researched skeptical or science-based explanations. Sometimes the dowsing rods cross or the forked twig does seem to dip—but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s water below. The cause is what in psychology is known as the ideomotor effect: unconscious movements that make the dowser think that some other mysterious force is at play. If the dowsing devices were moving independently of the dowser then this should be easily demonstrated, but it doesn’t happen.
Dowsers have been subjected to many tests over the years and have performed no better than chance under controlled conditions. There are various ways to scientifically test dowsing abilities. I have done it several times myself, and read studies done by others. The easiest is to get 20 identical 5-gallon opaque plastic buckets and (with the dowser out of sight or at another location) place a sealed gallon jug of water under one of the buckets (being careful of course not to leave any traces that might reveal where it is). The buckets should be placed 2-3 meters apart (or at whatever interval the dowser claims they can discriminate water from non-water). Have the dowser come out to the field or lot and find the water. You can do a similar experiment hiding valuables on sandy beaches in grids as well. For more on this see CFI’s Jim Underdown of the Independent Investigations Group demonstrating dowsing testing for NBC News.
The problem is that dowsers fail to demonstrate their ability in scientifically controlled experiments and tests. It also depends on what you’re looking for and where. In fact it can be difficult to disprove a dowser’s claim for the same reason: if they claim water will be found in a spot at a certain depth, they can always insist that the water is there—just that they were a bit off on the depth: It’s 50 meters, not 20 meters like they thought. In order to prove or disprove that, of course, you’d need to dig another 30 meters (possibly a difficult and expensive proposition).
And if they find water, does that mean that dowsing works? Not necessarily. In most places on Earth there’s water somewhere below the surface—maybe a few inches, maybe a few meters or more. So any dowser who says “If you dig here you’ll find water” is statistically very likely to be correct—and would be just as correct if he or she chose a spot 10 meters away in any direction, or 10 miles away. There’s also the issue of what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” also known as “remembering the hits and forgetting the misses.” People generally tend to better remember their successes than their failures, or they rationalize away their failures (“I was having an off day,” or “The sun was too hot,” etc.). Unless dowsers keep careful track of all their claims—both correct and wrong— it can be easy to misremember their success rate.
Of course when dowsers are wrong they simply point out that no one is 100% accurate all the time—doctors, mechanics, scientists, and others make mistakes, and this is of course true. But the problem with that comparison is that doctors and mechanics can reliably prove their skills most of the time; this is not true with dowsers, and in fact there is no known scientific mechanism by which a forked branch, pendulum, or two L-shaped rods could possibly “detect” water. Keep in mind that dowsers claim to be able to find a great many “hidden” objects, including missing keys, water, oil, gold, and even ghosts! This raises the interesting question of how dowsers could know what the rods are reacting to: Is it a vein of gold 20 meters below the earth, a reservoir of water 100 meters below the earth, oil shale 200 meters down, or the dead spirit of someone who died at that spot in 1973? There’s no way to know. British Petroleum and other multinational oil companies spend billions of dollars trying to locate offshore oil fields through expensive, difficult, and time-consuming sampling, computer models, and so on.
In fact in September 2015 the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation abandoned its drilling in the Alaskan waters after spending $7 billion searching fruitlessly for oil. Why would they do that if all they need is to have a dowser on hand to point them directly where to drill? Any dowser who could reliably and successfully do what they claim could easily become a multi-millionaire consulting agent. Why doesn’t it happen?
There is no science behind dowsing, and though the main harm is wasted time and effort, it can also cost lives: in 2010, modified dowsing-rod devices claimed to detect bombs were sold by a man named James McCormick to the Iraqi military. As Slate noted, “McCormick’s company was selling these fraudulent magic wands at great expense to the Iraqi government, which spent $16,500 to $60,000 each for these things, devices which might as well have been crayon boxes full of rocks. They were useless. Or, as it turns out, far worse than useless. The Iraqis were using them at military checkpoints. On Oct. 25, 2009, terrorists carrying two tons of explosives got right past the magic bomb sniffer and detonated their cargo, killing 155 people. Two months later, it happened again, with 127 people killed. Not long after, McCormick was arrested under suspicion of fraud.” In April 2013 McCormick was convicted.
The consequences of water dowsing is less dire but no less real: wasted time and effort. Still, as long as there are desperate people who need increasingly scarce resources, water witches will not be far behind.
A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it here.
Our recent episode of Squaring the Strange had as our guest historian Jay Smith, who joins us to talk about the murderous 18th century French monster known as the Beast of Gévaudan, thought by some to be a werewolf, a hyena, or perhaps even some Frankenstein-inspired hybrid! Dozens of peasants were left dead, while Paris and the rest of the world were enthralled by the story–but what was really behind it all? Check it out HERE!
The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! Pascual leads us on a fun discussion of MYSTERY MUSICIANS! Celestia starts with the OG mystery musician, a dude who was rumored to live under the Paris opera house, and we look at some folklore and urban legends that arise for artists who put on disguises. Check it out HERE!
Tuesday night the 15th at 5:30 MT / 7:30 ET, I will be giving a live Zoom talk for the Rio Rancho Public Library discussing my research into the famous Hispanic vampire el chupacabra and my book “Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore.” The talk is free but you need to register, so sign up if you’re interested! Register here:
A few years back I wrote a short piece on karma for the late, great, independent weekly The Alibi. There is a dark, cruel aspect to it: Everything bad that happens to you is your own fault… If you’re beaten, robbed, raped, get hit by a bus or get cancer it’s because you deserved it. It gets a New Agey warm glow, but it’s actually a very bleak worldview…
While waiting in line for coffee in Santa Fe a few years ago, I met a nice young woman. She was in her early 20s—an intelligent college student and a bit of a free spirit. While her double-
“I believe in karma,” she told me.
“Are you a Buddhist?” I asked.
She cocked her head, slightly amused. “No, why?”
“Well, karma is part of Buddhism; I just wondered if you were Buddhist. Just like if you said you were visiting Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, I’d ask if you were Muslim …”
“Oh. No, I’m not really religious, but I do think that what comes around goes around.”
She handed a $5 bill to the cashier and got back a few pennies in change. Before I could inquire further about her understanding of karma, she smiled and was gone.
I wondered if she really did believe in karma, or if she just thought she did. I suspect she embraced the superficial, pop culture version of karma, without really understanding what it is.
The word karma comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “fate, work or action.” The concept of karma varies somewhat among Buddhists, Hindus and Jainists, but the popular understanding is that karma assures that good things will happen to good people and bad things to bad people. Karma in Buddhism holds that the fate of the soul is determined by its karma, its actions. Every act—whether good or bad, no matter how insignificant—will eventually return to the person who does the act, and with equal force. So far, so good.
Most people mistakenly assume the good or bad will come back in this lifetime, but that’s not what karma says. Those who do good deeds will be rewarded in future lives, and those who do bad deeds will be punished in future lives (such as by being reborn as a lowly animal).
Karma says you deserve every moment of pain and anguish and terror in your life.
While many people say they believe in karma, most don’t really understand, or believe in, the Buddhist idea of karma. For one thing, there would no need for prisons or punishment; cosmic justice will be meted out in another realm. If people really believed in karma, they would believe that thieves and murderers will be punished in a future life, so there is no need to seek legal justice. Furthermore, karma is inextricably linked to reincarnation; in Western society anyway, the idea of being reborn as a dog or rodent in a future life doesn’t really seem very likely, nor that much of punishment.
There is a dark, cruel aspect to karma, one that is rarely discussed. Everything bad that happens to you is your own fault: the car accident that killed your loved one, the disease that ravages your body, everything. Karma says you deserve every moment of pain and anguish and terror in your life.
As Robert Carroll notes in his book The Skeptic’s Dictionary, “Karma says that everybody is getting what he or she deserves. Even the child brutalized by drugged adults deserves the horror. The mentally ill, the retarded, the homosexuals and the millions of Jews killed by the Nazis deserved it for evil they must have done in the past. The slave beaten to within a breath of death deserved it, if not for what he did today, then for what he did in some previous lifetime. Likewise for the rape victim. She is just getting what she deserves. All suffering is deserved, according to the law of karma.”
I suspect the woman in the coffee shop probably would reject the real idea of karma in favor of her own sanitized and misunderstood version. I didn’t expect her to be an expert on comparative religions, but if you claim a belief in (and support of) an idea, it implies you actually understand what you say you believe.
Calling what she believes “karma” isn’t quite right. If you don’t believe you deserve all the pain in your life, you don’t believe in karma. If you don’t believe you will be reincarnated, you don’t believe in karma. Saying you believe in karma but not these tenets is like saying you believe in Christianity but not Jesus. People can, of course, believe whatever they like and call their beliefs whatever they wish, but if they’re going to make up their own idiosyncratic idea of karma that has little or no resemblance to its true meaning, they might as well say, “I believe in framoozle.”
Furthermore, I’m not sure I trust someone whose life or actions are truly guided by karma, because I believe people are inherently good. If you think about it, the premise of karma is that people need to be threatened with cosmic retribution into good conduct: Don’t do evil, or else it will come back to you. How about just being good to others because it’s the right thing to do? Do people who believe in karma really need to be threatened into doing the right thing?
What comes around goes around. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Take your pick. I’m in favor of the golden rule, and it is certainly true that our actions guide our lives. Just don’t call it karma.
For this episode we are joined by a surprise guest, the critical thinker behind the Steak-Umms popular brand voice (aka Nathan Allebach), who talks to us about targeting misinformation as a PR strategy, managing viral posts, and the brand’s recent dustup with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Then I bring us back in time twenty years to a hot Indian summer in New Delhi, where reports of a mysterious and malevolent Monkey Man sent residents into a panic. Police and local skeptics were mobilized to combat this phantom in very different ways, as rewards, injuries, vigilante groups and media reports fueled public fear.
You can listen to it HERE!
Twenty years ago last month the capital of India was gripped in a panic. Early reports claimed that some mysterious monkey-like creature attacked many residents in New Delhi, leaving fear, scars, and ultimately even dead bodies in its wake. The Monkey Man, as it came to be known, made international news as police and news media struggled to make sense of the mysterious menace.
Sociologist Robert Bartholomew and I wrote briefly about this episode in our book Hoaxes Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking, but overall there has been relatively little written about it from scholarly and skeptical perspectives. On this twentieth anniversary of the panic, it seemed like a good time to revisit this case in more depth.
Descriptions of the Monkey Man varied widely, and details were often ambiguous because most of the sightings occurred at night outside in the night sky, with the creature leaping away into the darkness before anyone could get a good look at it—much less a photograph. Some people described an ape-like figure with a dark hairy body and glowing red eyes. Others described the figure as between three and six feet tall, with arms ending in sharp claws or even metal gloves, like Freddy Krueger. Some said instead that it wore a motorcycle helmet, leather jacket, and dark glasses. Most people, however, just reported seeing a shadow of something; overall, there were few first-hand sightings; instead many people described what they heard other people saying they saw.
Indian news media picked up on the story and ran with it, sensationalizing reports in the process. The most lurid and dramatic descriptions, of course, got the most attention—which in turn triggered demands from the public to be protected. Local law enforcement officials, understandably, were not sure how to handle the bizarre situation. They were used to dealing with accidents, homicides, and neighborhood disputes—not mysterious and menacing half-monkeys armed with steel claws. Inundated with panicked calls but no suspects or leads, the police soon set up special hotlines and offered a large 50,000 rupee ($1,000) reward for information leading to the capture of this monster. Though meant to generate useful leads, this financial incentive had the effect of increasing the number of crank calls and false alarms. Indeed, as news of the Monkey Man spread, there was a snowball effect; more coverage spurred more sightings, but also more attention-seeking pranks and hoaxes. Many people got in on the action, offering ever-wilder (and evidence-free) stories to an eager news media.
As days turned into a week and the panic increased with no arrests being made, citizens took the law into their own hands. Vigilante mobs took to patrolling the streets at night, armed with clubs, poles, and machetes. The rolling blackouts which often plague the city only added to the sense of fear and foreboding. As in other monster panics I’ve investigated including the chupacabra (in Puerto Rico) and the popobawa (in Zanzibar); there were overnight vigils and stakeouts, where armed men took turns at sentry while the others slept. Predictably and tragically, in some cases mob justice ensued and several people were attacked. The Washington Post reported that “a van driver was chased by a mob that believed him to be the Monkey Man, dragged out of his vehicle, and severely beaten. He was hospitalized with multiple fractures.”
One of the most puzzling things about the case was that there was no real evidence of this phantom attacker. With no photographs or footprints the main forensic evidence offered in support of the attacker(s)—and implicitly refuting growing skepticism that it was all a hoax or hallucination—were injuries said to have been caused by encounters with the Monkey Man.
Indeed, evidence was offered of encounters, much of it ambiguous. Monkey Man victims showed off a variety of minor injuries and wounds—most of which were indistinguishable from bites from rats or dogs—along with rashes, scratches, and the like. To many people who saw photos and video of the injuries (widely shared in news media) it was compelling. Though it was surely true that not every Monkey Man sighting or report was accurate, for many people these disparate reports offered evidence corroboration: Unless the dozens of ostensible strangers offering (superficially) similar stories and injuries had all somehow conspired together to fake the incidents, surely there must be something to it, many people thought.
However a closer look at the injuries revealed a different story. Some people had faked injuries for medical and media attention; others reframed existing, unrelated injuries as having been due to encounters with the Monkey Man. There is not much in the published literature about this incident, though I did find one journal article in the August 2003 Indian Journal of Medical Sciences. S.K. Verma and D.K. Srivastava examined sociodemographic patterns and injuries among alleged Monkey Man victims. They found that between May 10 and 25, 397 people made calls to the police claiming to have been attacked. Of those, fifty-one cases were detailed enough for medical examination.
Two-thirds of the victims were male, and most were between twenty and thirty years old. The vast majority (94%) were from the poorest sections of the city, East Delhi and nearby, and 89% were of low socioeconomic status. Two-thirds of the victims reported that incident occurred between midnight and 6 AM. As to the nature of the wounds, about 95% of the individuals showed abrasions they attributed to the Monkey Man. As the researchers noted, “One of the most striking features observed in the injuries among these individuals was they were possible either by a blunt or a pointed object only.” About 88% had multiple linear abrasions and 11% displayed lacerations.
In addition to the mob attacks mentioned earlier, there were also dozens of serious accidental injuries caused by mobs of people trying to escape from the monster. There were fatalities as well; one man died falling off a rooftop fleeing from what he thought was the Monkey Man, and a pregnant woman fell down stairs and died panicking as well. A third man also fell off a rooftop, running in fear when he heard another man nearby panicking, shrieking in the darkness that something had pulled on his sheets as he tried to sleep. Eventually the local power company agreed to temporarily suspend rolling blackouts in some of the poorer parts of New Delhi, allowing people to sleep inside in the safety of their apartments under electric fans.
In the end the injuries offered merely the illusion of corroboration. It’s a common theme among paranormal believers, who use the (often presumed) similarities of different, disparate eyewitnesses and experiencers to argue that there must be something to it.
Social panics do not occur in a vacuum. In the climate of fear that swept New Delhi, people interpreted anything as a threat: Any sound in darkness or cry in the night could be interpreted as an imminent attack. It’s also important to remember the physical environment: crowded, poorly-lit sweltering rooftops during rolling blackouts. In a city of 14 million people during a heat wave of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, the situation was ripe for misperceptions.
There was also the socioeconomic factors of illiteracy and poor education. In a situation reminiscent of the panic and fears surrounding the chupacabra in 1996-1998 Puerto Rico, most of the rumors spread among poor. New Delhi’s wealthiest residents were not sweating and exposed on dark, crowded rooftops but were at home under air conditioning—using portable generators during the blackouts. The religious aspect may also be relevant; the fact that the creature was said to be half (or more) monkey—and not some other wild animal—may be significant. Many people noted that the Monkey Man was reminiscent of Hanuman, a Hindu warrior god depicted as a monkey (or half-monkey) that leads an army…of monkeys. There are also many monkeys in and around the city, so the creature would be a familiar one to New Delhi residents.
Some took the descriptions at face value and thought it was some sort of actual half-human creature, though other explanations included an evil spirit, a robot, “a computerized creature who someone is operating with remote control”; and a terrorist who was using the panic, confusion, and police reaction as a cover for some assassination—possibly by the Pakistani intelligence services, India’s neighbor and arch-enemy.
In the final analysis the Monkey Man panic has all the hallmarks of mass sociogenic illness (MSI), or mass hysteria. Mass hysteria is often misunderstood as being an illness that sufferers are making up. In fact the symptoms are verifiable and not imaginary. The issue is instead what is causing the symptoms—whether some external environmental contaminant or instead a form of suggestion-driven social contagion.
Social contagion can easily spread from person to person in tight quarters, and especially during times of high stress and anxiety. Cases of MSI can vary widely in context and manifestation, but typically include the sudden onset of dramatic (yet clinically minor) symptoms. There are underlying psychological and/or environmental stressors, ranging from workplace discipline to boredom (in this case a heat wave). There is usually some trigger, such as an ambiguous smell, sight, or sound. A hallmark is that the phenomenon is socially contagious—that is, it is spread from person to person like a virus, usually people with whom the victim has come in close contact, such as a friend, family member, co-worker, or classmate. Mass hysterias often affect people who have a real or perceived lack of social support, such as those in poverty or subjected to regimented routine and authority (such as in schools, factories, and so on). Many cases of MSI are recognized only after the fact (and sometimes not even then), with victims often vigorously rejecting the diagnosis, assuming incorrectly that it implied that they were mentally ill or making it all up.
For as bizarre as the Monkey Man incident is, he (or it) is not alone; indeed the phenomenon is best understood as part of a larger social phenomenon known as phantom attackers. These are mysterious figures, usually male and dressed in some distinctive way, and who are seen and reported as menacing ordinary citizens in public. Examples include Spring-Heeled Jack, the mysterious dark-cloaked figure reported threatening and scaring people (mostly women and children) in London from the 1830s through the 1870s; the Phantom Slasher of Taiwan, who was reported stalking the streets of Taipei in 1956 trying to slash people (again, mostly women and children) with a razor; and the phantom clowns, reported to lurk near schools trying—thankfully in vain—to abduct children (for more see chapter 12 in my book Bad Clowns).
Though the details and descriptions vary in these cases, they have much in common, including that they all had sincere eyewitnesses who reported their encounters to police and other public safety officials; the cases were reported in the local news and residents took action to protect the public from further attempted “attacks”; the reports appeared in a given community suddenly but soon faded away with no arrest or resolution. In the end all these phantom attackers—like the Monkey Man—were thoroughly investigated and eventually determined not to have existed.
Throughout the panic police reacted as best they could, increasing patrols and thinking that enough arrests would stop it—not because they assumed they were going to actually arrest the Monkey Man (who would likely demand a simian public defender)—but because hoaxers would finally be deterred. It was semi-successful. Police were getting hundreds of hoaxed calls, and when people were threatened with jail and fines for spreading false rumors, it did indeed curb the appeal of pranksters and copycats. Even those who were sincere in their reports had second thoughts about contacting the police without real proof or evidence. This, coupled with a strong media-influence copycat effect, became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy when the news media started to lose interest and reported that fewer people were seeing it—which in turn led to fewer people seeing it. A few things led to the Monkey Man being less reported and by about May 20 the reports had slowed to a trickle; the whole incident lasted about two weeks, from May 10 to May 25 or so. The pattern was entirely expected to psychologists and sociologists who recognized the cause. Most cases of mass hysterias tend to be self-limiting; there’s a clear and predictable bell-shaped rise and fall in reports, usually a steep increase and an equally quick fall.
Amid the chaos and panic, skeptical investigators from the Indian Rationalists Association, led by Sanal Edamaruku, tried to explain the situation and calm public fears. Though the news media were more interested sensationalism than skepticism, the organization was quoted, however briefly, in The New York Times and The Washington Post press coverage.
In the Rationalist International Bulletin Edamaruku wrote a first-hand contemporaneous account of his organization’s efforts to investigate the mystery and calm public fears: “India’s capital is looking back on two weeks of mass delusion and panic, sometimes dangerously turning into mass hysteria. The shadow of the ‘monkey man’ is still looming large over suburbs and urban villages.” Edamaruku’s actions serve as a model for on-the-ground skeptical investigation and activism: “We started to collect all information so far available and went to the affected areas to talk to people. I personally questioned at least forty persons who claimed to have seen something and hundreds who were terrified by what they had heard. We evaluated all recorded material and got some important clues.” With no photos of the creature, nor footprints, or anything else tangible, Edamaruku also assessed what little physical evidence there appeared to be: wounds allegedly made by the creature: “We went out to have a close look at the victims’ injuries, which had become something like the last bastion of the spook. We succeeded in tracing most of the known causes and were ‘disappointed’: There was not a single serious wound, only little scratches, cuts, and rubbings [rashes] which under normal circumstances would not get any attention…Interestingly there was no uniformity in them, though they were claimed to come from the same source… With every new case we were more convinced that all these injuries were self-inflicted, either deliberately or unknowingly.”
In the end Edamaruku notes that “Our lonely initiative and intervention to deflate the giant balloon of the monkey man mania has opened many eyes and minds. They have reminded the authorities of their duties and responsibilities and encouraged many scientists to play their part in educating the public. This is in my opinion one of the classical roles rationalist organizations can play, and have to play, in society.”
This is a crucial point because skeptical and rationalist organizations, investigators, and activists (and, I might add, folklorists and psychologists) fill this important—and often overlooked—niche. Many of these panics are not recognized as such at the time, and journalists play a key role in disseminating information, both good and bad, to the public. It’s vital that skeptics and their organizations such as the Indian Rationalists and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (and their many counterparts) make informed skeptical commentary and analysis available to journalists and the public.
Two decades after the Monkey Man appeared, and then disappeared just as quickly, the case remains one of the strangest examples of mass hysteria panics in modern times. With sober analysis we can hopefully learn from it and be better prepared for the next mass sociogenic panic.
A longer version of this piece appeared on the Center for Inquiry website; you can read it HERE!
Four years ago this week, ‘Wonder Woman‘ was released and became a blockbuster hit. As part of a publicity stunt, the Alamo theater chain announced that it would hold “Women-only Wonder Woman screenings,” as it did with “Clowns-only ‘It’ screenings.” It was a hoax and neither happened, but the publicity was huge–until Alamo ran afoul of the law and had to apologize. Here’s the fascinating inside story of what happened.
You can read the full story HERE!