Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Ghost Story for Halloween - The Night Death Came to Stumptown

The Night Death Came to Stumptown 
Written July 3, 2013 – the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg

Death paused at the crossroads and read the sign ahead: Stumptown Ferry: 1 mile.  He pushed his hat back on his head, raised his nose, and inhaled deeply, drawing in the night wind.  On the breeze he could smell it - the sweet sweat that comes with fear and panic.  A lot of men were massed, getting ready to die.  These men were not far away and even at a leisurely pace, Death would join them by daybreak.  He spurred his horse in the direction of Stumptown and the odor of terrified humanity. 
            As he rode on, the path closed in around him, becoming a hollow way, the trail steepening downward.  The air became cool, but heavier.  He was approaching a body of water.  Shortly, Death halted his horse at the edge of a sluggishly moving stream.  The moon, showing over head, cast its light upon the clearing the water provided.  On the opposite shore Death could see the outline of a small, rugged looking cabin, with a single orange light flickering in the glassless window.    A few yards ahead of the cabin, resting before a primitive dock, was a sturdy looking flat-bottomed barge, constructed of lashed logs and planking.  This barge was connected to a sagging metal cable which spanned the little water course. 
Looking about Death saw a bell hanging on the skeleton of a dead tree, just to the right of the path.  He urged his horse over and rang the bell, its clanging cutting through the quiet night and causing sleeping crows to flutter out of the trees overhead.  Shadows moved in the cabin across the river and the door opened slowly.  An ancient man, his skin tight across his skull, and black as ebony, emerged, probing the ground with a twisted wooden staff.  He was dressed in course clothing and wore no shoes.   He stared straight ahead, his eyes white with blindness.
            “I hears ya, I hears ya,” hollered the man, making his way to the ferry.  “This boat ain’t free.” 
            “It’s alright,” Death yelled back, “I have coin in pocket.” 
            The old man shook his head in acknowledgement and, feeling his way, unhooked the little ferry from its moorings.  Stumbling over to a heavy wooden crank he began laboriously turning it, the mechanism inching the ferry across the water, gliding on its cable.  The ferry creaked and sloshed in the water and, after what seemed an eternity, came to a rest on the opposite shore.  Death waited patiently. 
            “Alright, mister,” yelled the old man, “get on.  I’ll bring you over.  Have them coins ready.” 
            Death clicked his tongue and urged his horse onto the barge.  It was steady, for its primitive condition, and he saw no reason to dismount.  He yelled: “ready!”
            The old man returned to his cranking, this time struggling under the weight of horse and rider.  But the gears were true and the barge slowly slipped the bank and settled into an easy motion.  Death considered the inky water, a mirror of the night sky, catching the light of a clear moon.  Suddenly, as the ferry reached the center of the river, it stopped. 
            “Is anything the matter?”  Death saw that the old man was no longer turning the big crank and was now resting on his staff. 
            “Not now, sir,” said the old man.  He seemed to be smiling, but Death could not be certain. 
            “You must be tired, but after your rest could you please finish your task and bring me ashore?” 
            The man stood stock still, his expression unchanged.  
            “Do you hear me?”
            “Yes, I hears you, sir.” 
            Death fidgeted in his saddle.  He was not the type of entity accustomed to being played a fool.  “Then what is the meaning of this?  I have important business to attend to shortly, and I must get across this river before dawn!”
The man straightened himself and his smile fell into a deep and serious grimace.  “Oh, I knows about your ‘business’ sir.  I been waitin’ on you three nights now and I knew you’d come along directly.  You’re that old Death.  I ‘spect you don’t remember but we knowed each other before. 
Lordy, must be nigh on 80 year ago, back down South.  My old Grand Momma – she was Africky born – she told me about you.  I was borned blind, you know.  But I can hear and I can smell, sir, better’n anybody.  And I remember that night old Grand Momma died.  She said you’d be commin’ and as I lay there on the floor next to her cot, I heard you come in and I smelled you, sir.  You got a mighty particular smell, you do.
I knowed you’d be coming soon, so I kept a look out.  I could smell you riding down that path.  And now I got you.  A normal man, he could swim for it.  But not old Death – Grand Momma told me death couldn’t cross running water without help.  So you can stay put a little while.” 
Death frowned.  He looked down at the water and shivered.  The old man was right, though how mortals came by this knowledge he never could understand.  He had gotten himself stuck in similar situations before – it usually ended in the soon-to-be dead trying to bargain with him for a few more years of precious life.  Typical mortals, he thought, begging for more life after wasting what little they had. 
            “May I have your name, sir?”
            The old man answered:  “It’s Caleb.  How about you?”
            “Very good, Caleb.  In fact you have identified me correctly.  I have many names, but Death is good enough.  Let me ask you something Caleb, how old are you?  Ninety?  Surely you can’t fear me by now, nor can you expect to live very much longer.  Why keep me trapped here when I have business elsewhere?”
            “Oh, I ain’t afraid of you, Mr. Death, not on my account.  I lived a long life and a good ‘un.  I ain’t sorry for how I lived and my soul is in good order.  It’s not for me I got you trapped here, it’s for the boy.” 
            “Boy?”  Death lifted his head, flaring his nostrils, and taking in the smell of the night air once again.  There was a fresh scent upon it – the odor of youth in mortal peril. 
“Yes, sir,” said the old man, “my boy.  He’s in the cabin.  He ain’t mine exactly but he came here a couple of years back, alone.  Starved and near naked.  I don’t know how he got away and made it across the Line, but he came here, just like you, banging the bell one night.  Maybe it’s the war – maybe his master and mistress got killed and everyone turned loose.  I ran away myself, long time ago and been here ever since.  Sometimes I helps others.  I knows this boy’ll be the last one I help before I go. 
            Three days ago he was fetching wood for the cook stove and turned over a log.  A rattler got him, right on the hand.  I did what I could do.  He’s healing, but it’s slow – gonna take time.  I imagine if he makes it through the night he’ll be alright and out of your grasp for a little while longer.  It’s always at night when they go.” 
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the quiet calm of early morning was broken apart by what sounded like the booming of a ferocious thunder storm.  But there were no clouds in the sky.  Caleb, frail against his staff, collapsed to the ground with the shock. 
“No,” yelled Death, “it’s starting!  It’s starting!  You’ve got to let me go!” 
Caleb got to his feet, screaming over the powerful sound.  “What in hell is that?  What is it?  Old Death, old Death, what are you doing to me?” 
“It’s not me,” Death yelled back from his perch in the water, “it is cannon fire!  There’s a great battle beginning, Caleb, and I must be there.  I swear, I can do nothing for your boy!” 
Death looked overhead and saw that the dark sky was filled with the shimmering glow of tiny lights, like fireflies.  They rose briefly above the trees in an ecstasy of flight and then settled lower, flitting aimlessly about.  Some moved into the water, others dived into holes in trees, while still others flitted around confusedly, to no purpose.  Death rocked in his saddle, clearly in anguish at this occurrence. 
Over the madness of the noise, Caleb roared with a giddy, half-insane laughter.  “I gots you!  I got old Mr. Death on my ferry!  The war done come to Pennsylvaney and I got Death stuck on my boat!  Ain’t no young boys gonna die tonight!  Ha! Ha!” 
Caleb continued to laugh and dance around his staff, while Death tried to get his attention, shouting through the thunder.  The woods filled with gunpowder smoke, drifting in from the battlefield and the men could no longer see each other.  Finally, as suddenly as it began, the noise ceased and the cloud of sulfurous smoke began to dissipate. 
Death sat in his saddle forlorn, his head slumped on his breast.  The tiny flickering lights continued to swarm through the trees but, began to fade to invisibility as dawn rose.  Exhausted from his ecstatic fit, Caleb flopped to the ground, his staff across his legs, panting.  The river was again silent. 
Death spoke, his voice artificially calm:  “You don’t understand, old man, it’s not me that ends life.  That happens on its own.  Man’s time is not dictated by the Fates.  It is my task to collect what remains of him after he dies in order to make sure it passes on…correctly.  Otherwise the little candle of humanity that remains will burn here on this earth until it has no more fuel left and dissipates into nothingness.  Many men have already died this morning, Caleb I can see them – their little firelights moving through the trees.  They’re beyond my reach now and will have to remain, a soul that cannot go elsewhere.  You have a word for them – gast, geist.” 
“No, no sir.  They say that old Death is the devil.  He’s a trickster.  I don’t believe it.” 
“The devil?”  Death furrowed his brow at the word.  “That name has no meaning to me, though I hear it often.  I am telling you the truth.  I can neither end your life nor save it.  Many before you have begged me to do one or the other, and that is not within my power.” 
The sun was beginning to break through the trees and Caleb turned his face toward the warmth, smiling.  A last gloom hung around his cabin door and in that trailing darkness a soft flitting light emerged, bobbing and diving like a firefly.  Death saw it and breathed in sharply.  It drifted forward and passed around Caleb’s head.  He seemed to notice it, reaching a hand out.  It passed through his hand and his smile faded.
“What was that?” 
“I told you,” said Death, “I have no power over life.  I only collect what remains when it is done.  Go to your cabin and find out for yourself.” 
The old man pulled himself to his feet, leaning heavily upon his staff, and trudged toward his home.  He paused briefly before stepping inside.  After a few moments he emerged, a hard, distant look on his face.  He pulled the door closed, firmly, and without speaking made his way to the giant crank.  He began to turn it, this time more rapidly than before.  Death heaved a heavy sigh.  When the old barge made landfall, he dismounted and approached the old man, whose head was hanging low. 
Caleb sensed Death’s approach and faced him.  “Can’t you do nothin’ for my boy now he’s gone? Can’t you take him to that other place?”
Death again sighed.  “No, I am afraid I cannot, though it pains me to say so.  There was not enough time.  He will stay here until the little bit left of him fades, though one can never know how long that will be.” 
Caleb’s stern expression never changed, but he was fighting back tears which welled at the edge of his eyes.   Finally he nodded his head. 
“Mr. Death,” he began, “I’m sorry for what I did.  But I didn’t know better.  I wanted to…” 
“Hush,” said Death, and he put his arms around the man and embraced him tightly, warmly, a feeling that felt to Caleb like his Grand Momma’s old cotton quilt.  “I understand.” 
After Death released his embrace, Caleb once again stood erect, worn, but proud.  “Will you promise me something, sir?  I knows I ain’t got much time left before you’ll be back here for me.  Promise me this – don’t you come back.  You keep away and let me go.  Let me be here with the boy so he doesn’t have to stay alone.” 
Death put his hand on Caleb’s shoulder, a silent assent.  Then he turned and mounted his horse, raising his hand in a salute the old man could not see.  Spurring his mount, Death galloped off in the direction of smoke and flame.         

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Where are the Cryptoarcheologists?

Yeah, yeah, yeah...the hot Bigfoot news today is the report that studies of DNA samples taken in the High Himalayas indicate that a previously unknow species of brown bear might be the source of Yeti sightings.  Not surprising - Big Foot sightings and bear sightings in North America seem strikingly similar.  If you want to read about that, check out the news here.  

But as I see more and more episodes of "Finding Bigfoot" and get wind of new "Squatching" clubs cropping up, I have a simple question to ask: where the hell are the cryptoarcheologists and cryptopaleontologists?  

In the world of science it works like this: if you want to discover a new species, you have two choices: 1) find it in nature or 2) find its fossil remains.  We already have cryptozoology - the search for "living" legendary creatures.  So where are the researchers looking for these creatures in the fossil record?  It's pretty clear that Bigfoot is an elusive guy - finding him in the woods is a moving target.  That hasn't worked out so well.  But he's not immortal - he has to die.  Even if he scatters the remains of his dead, they're going to turn up eventually.  Cryptozoologists like to famously proclaim that "no one finds bear bones in the woods."  OK.  I don't think that's true...but even if it is, we sure as hell find bear bones in the fossil record.  

And we sure as hell find the remains of gigantic primates in the fossil record, as well.  In 1935 Ralph von Koenigswald turned up the first known fossils of the mega-ape Gigantopithecus in an apothecary shop. Where are the researchers scouring the riverbanks of the Pacific Northwest for washed out Bigfoot teeth or combing through museum collections for anomalistic fossils? This is an aspect of Squatchology that has always bothered me, for a rather simple reason: I don't think Bigfooters, deep down, actually take what they're doing seriously.  This especially includes those who have actual scientific training.  Two of the leading lights of cryptozoology over the past century have been men with university training in physical anthropology: Grover Krantz and Jeff Meldrum.  Admittedly neither of these scholars are "fieldmen," but their professions rest on the work of analyzing data extracted from the environment.  Without "physical" remains, "physical" anthropology has no work to do.  It has always struck me as irresponsible on the part of these researchers to approach the question of Bigfoot without access to the kind of evidence upon which their professional opinion would necessarily be based.

Forget about the dodgy folklore upon which Bigfootery rests and approach this question as a matter of serious scholarship.  Like a police investigation, other than establishing a claim, it is a waste of time to rely on witness testimony as a source of objective cryptozoological evidence.  Here's an example of why this fails.  If someone comes to the local university's paleontology department and describes the bones of a new species of dinosaur that they have found on their property the paleontologist is not going publish a paper establishing this new species based on that information alone.  The researcher is going to want to go to the site, examine the evidence for themselves, examine the remains, and perform an objective analysis.  WITHOUT ACCESS to those remains there's nothing for the researcher to do but stay in their lab - otherwise they're merely adding to the extant body of dubious folklore by putting themselves on the record.  In other words, it's the remains that speak - not the expert.  All the opinons of all the physical anthropologists in the world matter nothing, if those opinions have no foundation in evidence upon which to rest.   

This is why I doubt the sincereity of so-called Bigfoot researchers - even those with professional training. They know better.  They know that without physical evidence they have no work to do.  Sure, Meldrum's interest in footprints brings him a bit closer to the realm of seriousness, but without understanding the means by which that print was created, that evidence is little better than worthless.

In fact, a serious Bigfooter - as opposed to someone trying to get on TV, earn publicity for themselves, or simply having fun with their buddies in the woods, would spend their time doing what Raymond Dart, Ralph von Koenigswald, the Leakey family, Donald Johanson, and a whole host of anthropoligsts and archaeologists have done to better understand our human origins: dig for the remains.  By digging, I don't just mean in the ground.  Diggers have been pulling fossils out of North America for close to two hundred years by now.  A serious Bigfooter would begin their search for evidence in the collections of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History or the American Museum of Natural History.  If Bigfoot were truly real, there's a very good chance one of his teeth or digits got dug up and tossed into a bag or box at some point during a field expedition.  New species are discovered every year by researchers working in old collections.  This is a common practice of grad students looking for material with which to break new ground.

So if you're looking for Bigfoot - or any cryptid, for that matter - put down the infrared camera and pick up a book on anatomy and get busy combing the museums for remains.  Read old journals and catalogs of finds. Ask your local fossil club to let you tag along when they go to "Bigfoot country."  In short, if you're serious, get serious about finding REAL physical evidence.  If a great ape ever lived in North America, he had to leave some of himself behind.  


Monday, October 14, 2013

Space Columbus: The Question of Extraterrestrial Explorers

Of all the theories related to what we call the "paranormal" the least crazy among these is the idea that the planet earth was once visited by beings from outer space - and that these creatures influenced, in some way, the development of our planet.  The reason being: the universe is ONE HELL OF A BIG PLACE.  If civilized life can evolve on this planet then it stands to reason it can - and likely has - evolved on lots of planets.  So I want to approach the ancient aliens theory in a serious manner.  It's not worthwhile to dismiss the notion out of hand because unlike a lot of what falls into the realm of the so-called "paranormal" this particular theory exists within the realm of scientific plausibility.  Indeed, it is entirely possible that a technologically advanced civilization has had prior contact with humanity.  Technologically advanced life can - and possibly does - exist somewhere else in the universe.

But it is a far cry from asserting the plausibility of alien contact with humanity and stating that it has actually happened.  As things stand today, there's just no evidence of that.  However, rather than simply dismissing the "ancient astronaut hypothesis" out of hand, I want to take a look at why it has problems and offer some guidance on what actual evidence historians and archeologists would need to see in order to give it credence.

But first, a brief overview of the ancient astronaut hypothesis and its history.


Modern-day science fiction is, really, a product of the late nineteenth century.  Though, throughout history, authors have told fanciful tales, stories rooted in what could be called the extreme fringes of scientific knowledge, like modern science itself, began to emerge during the Victorian era.  The universe became "real" to the Victorians.  By the close of the nineteenth century, the average person carried around in their head a basically accurate conception of what the cosmos looked liked: the sun was a star at the center of our solar system, surrounded by planets similar to our home world earth, other celestial objects such as comets and meteors orbited the sun, and it was possible that other stars were part of solar systems like our own.

In the distant past a more or less accurate conception of what the universe is was totally impossible. Every civilization had its own pet ideas and while some civilizations were brilliant at tracking celestial objects, any notion of what those objects were was little better than a guess.  So science fiction, as a literary genre, required that the reading public have some idea of the basic scientific consensus of the day.  That became a reality at about the time authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were writing.

These authors, arguably, were the pioneers of science fiction as a genre.  It was out of their work that the popular conceptions of "extraterrestrial aliens" was born: creatures from other planets, perhaps in our own solar system, with a civilization and technology not entirely unlike our own.  In the same way that we humans conquered new lands - the Americas, India, Australia, etc. - a writer like Wells found it entirely plausible that an advanced alien civilization might like to conquer this planet to suit its own ends.  Thus stories like War of the Worlds were born.

The idea of "space aliens" took hold in the popular zeitgeist very quickly.  Human beings do not like the notion that we are alone in the universe.  Ancient humans peopled the heavens with gods and other such divine and diabolic beings.  Modern humans invented a plethora of alien civilizations to fill the celestial void.

It was, thus, not very long before extraterrestrials made the leap from science fiction to the real realm of scientific possibility.  The great astronomer Percival Lowell proposed that structures thought to exist on the surface of Mars were built by an alien civilization.   If such civilizations could exist and change their environment in such a radical way, it was thus assumed that such civilizations might be able to leave their planet altogether and voyage to earth. 

On April 19, 1897 the account of a Martian spacecraft crash in the small town of Aurora, Texas ran in the Dallas Morning News.  Fifty years before the Roswell Incident, this stands as the first true account of what purported to be an actual encounter between humans and extraterrestrials.  A tidal wave of similar stories was soon to follow.  In the popular mindset aliens were now "real."  

For a group of would-be historians, the possibility of human contact with an advanced space traveling civilization solved a lot of problems: everything from how the Egyptians built the pyramids to the question of the miracles of the Bible could be ascribed to ancient visitors from other worlds.  Such theories fit neatly into the emerging rationalist mindset.  For instance, instead of climbing a mountain to visit a god, Moses had an encounter with an extraterrestrial bringer of helpful knowledge.  To an unscientific mind, advanced technology would have resembled magic.  Had not the Aztecs mistaken Cortes for a god?  
Charles Fort
Arguably, the person most responsible for initially popularizing this hypothesis was Charles Fort, the famed paranormalist.  Fort spent his life trolling libraries and newspaper archives searching for stories he thought were anomalous - that is couldn't be easily explained by science.  He published several works based on this research, including the 1919 Book of the Damned, which laid the groundwork for how ancient astronaut theorists would support their ideas over the next century.

During his research Fort ran across a report of some masks discovered in Sullivan County, Missouri which he believed could not have been the work of ancient "savages."  He thus hypothesized that these artifacts represented contact between Amerindians and advanced space traveling beings who shared their knowledge of metal work with humans.  Form that point forward everything from the colossal statues of Easter Island to the Mayan calendar have been ascribed to "aliens" for the simple reason that we moderns have a hard time of conceiving how our ancient ancestors managed to do seemingly miraculous things with "primitive technology."

In the classic example of a feedback loop, Fort's seriously proposed hypothesis was enthusiastically incorporated into the emerging science fiction genre.  In this the author H.P. Lovecraft should be noted especially.  His fiction represents one of the earliest and most comprehensive attempts to reconcile ancient human belief systems with the notion of space traveling hyperintelligences.  Gods such as the Great Cthulhu ("Call of Cthulhu," 1928) are revealed to be alien creatures who colonized earth millions of years ago and who took a hand in the rise of humanity.  All human religion, thus, is merely a perverted misunderstanding of our true story.

By the 1960's this idea was bubbling at the fringes of Western pop culture and it took the work of a shameless self-promoter and outright plagiarist to really bring it to the fore.  Though many authors had taken up pen to write on the subject, it was hotel manager Erich von Daniken who made ancient astronauts a household concept.  His book Chariots of the Gods? hit the stores in 1968: a year of near unprecedented culture change in Western society in which traditional institutions and social norms were being questioned - and doubted - like never before.  The idea that all of human history was somehow a lie (or a joke) and that our ancient gods, the sources of our morals and laws, were merely aliens was VERY appealing.  The book and its sequels sold so many copies that to this very day a visit to any random Goodwill store or garage sale will guarantee that you find a copy. 

From Battlestar Galactica to the X-Files, von Daniken's pseudoarcheological approach - cribbed directly from Charles Fort - became a fixture of global popular culture.  So much so, in fact, that today, in 2013, a television show based on the concept and running on the History Channel - "Ancient Aliens" - has entered its sixth season.  The idea is here to stay.

The Ancient Alien Hypothesis

The idea of ancient astronaut or ancient alien contact with earth should more correctly be called the "paleocontact hypothesis."  It states that in pre-history, ancient space travelers visited earth and these visits - whether on purpose or accidentally - left a tangible impact on human culture.  To support the hypothesis proponents summon forth evidence along the same lines as that presented by Charles Fort: so-called anomalous artifacts which could not have been created by human beings without outside influence.

Paleocontact: The Pros
  • The Universe is a Big Place:  As theorems such as the famous Drake Equation illustrate, it is not merely scientifically possible, but quite likely other civilizations exist in the universe.
  • It's Logical:  We've seen it before here on earth - the Aztecs mistook Hernan Cortes for a god, Pacific Islanders mistook Western soldiers for gods and founded "cargo cults" designed to bring them back, and Plains Indians suddenly found themselves in possession of anomalistic weapons, tools, and animals shortly after the Spanish arrived on the American continents in 1519.  Humans adapt - we'll use new technology when it is provided and incorporate outlandish encounters into our mythology.
  • It Gives Meaning to Ancient Religion in the Modern Age:  It's tough to believe in god in the twenty-first century.  But believing that hyperintelligent space beings are looking out for us is a comforting feeling.  
  • It Looks Like There's Evidence:  When Egypt built the Pyramids it had not yet mastered the wheel.  We still aren't entirely sure how Stonehenge or the Easter Island heads were built.  And what about those giant stone balls in Central America?  Maybe we had a little help. 
Paleocontact: The Cons
  • The Universe Might be Too Big:  Albert Einstein dramatically expanded the size of the universe when he demonstrated that faster-than-light travel is probably impossible.  And if not impossible, it's REALLY hard.  At sublight speed there are no casual trips to pretty much...anywhere.  And even at light speed just getting to a neighboring star system would take lifetimes.  Thus space visitors would not only need to possess advanced technology - but mind-boggling advanced technology.  Also, though the universe may be teaming with life - not all of that life is going to be sentient.  Even less is going to be technological.  Even less will be space traveling.  AND EVEN LESS is going to have developed faster-than-light travel.  Of all the billions of species to evolve on our own planet ONLY ONE has developed advanced technology.  By that logic, the universe is starting to sound like a much lonelier place.  Aliens not only have to survive, develop the technology, and use it to visit earth - they would have needed to do so during our very brief 10,000 year history of civilization to leave a notable impact.  The likelihood of that happening is now getting much closer to zero.
  • It's Logical, but There is No Evidence:  The paleocontact theory relies on the fact that it is possible for all of its credibility.  Short of evidence, simply because something is possible doesn't mean it's probable.  The theory's proponents make a critically fallacious leap in logic: just because something COULD happen doesn't mean it DID happen.  
  • Religion, Like All of Human Culture, Evolves:  Religion doesn't need ancient aliens to persist into the modern age.  Well before Charles Fort, theists were already reconciling their beliefs with science.  From Thomas Jefferson removing miracles from a new translation of the Bible to spiritualists proposing that heaven and hell are "other dimensions" rather than physical places, the adaptive nature of religion insures it will survive.  In fact, we have seen new iterations of faith simply incorporate science into their belief systems - including the possibility of aliens.  The Mormons postulate that god lives on another planet called Kolob and Scientologists have developed an intricate "space opera" to explain the rise of human civilization.  Mythology cheerfully evolves in the face of all objective understanding of the universe.  
  • There Actually is No Evidence:  Sure, the ancient astronaut theory is possible.  More on this later, but to date no one has yet to provide any artifacts that could not be defined within the context of the evolution of human history.  Just because a hotel manager couldn't figure out how to build the pyramids without wheels, that doesn't mean that our ancient ancestors were in the same boat.  Or modern archeologists for that matter.  There really is no evidence to support the theory. 
The Racism Caveat

On its surface the ancient aliens theory seems like a bit of harmless fun - a bit of "what if?" speculation.  However, lurking under the surface is one rather ugly problem: it is pretty damn racist.  None of the theory's proponents propose that ancient aliens built the Roman Coliseum or the Greek Parthenon.  They reserve their assumption that ancient humans needed help for non-white cultures: Africans, Amerindians, the Chinese, etc.  Sure the Romans could build megalithic structures in ancient times!  But the Great Zimbabwe?  Forget it.  Those poor brown people needed the help of spacemen.  It's this aspect of the theory that takes it out of the realm of speculative fun and makes its misunderstandings of history insidious.

What Kind of Evidence Does the Theory Demand?

Ancient astronaut theorists often point to places like Pumapunku or Easter Island as examples of anomalous structures that we have "no idea about how they were built."  In fact, this whole notion is purposely ignorant.  Von Daniken himself calls Pumapunku in Bolivia the best evidence for prehistoric alien contact.  The architecture at the site is supposed to be too advanced for human technology of the era and archeologists are supposed to be baffled about how the site was built.

EXCEPT - we know exactly how the site was built because the tools of construction are still there.  The same goes for the heads at Easter Island and the Pyramids of Giza.  The quarries, the tools, the stone marks - all of it is still laying around.  At all of these places there are partially finished stones still left in place.  To believe that these sites were built with the help of aliens using advanced technology ignores the archeology sitting right on the ground.

So, what kind of evidence do we need to lend some validity to the ancient astronauts theory?  Here goes:
  • Some alien remains: If the alien theorists are correct, aliens were constantly visiting earth and just like Aurora and Roswell, their ships crashed from time to time.  If that's the case, a piece of non-terrestrial skeleton, ship, technology, clothing, etc. would be pretty convincing evidence.  Considering archeology has gotten so good we can find a place like the tiny short-lived Fort of Jamestown or the site of a crashed WWII plane in a cornfield, an alien base camp or wreck site should show up...eventually.  
  • Totally anomalous technology: Finding stone building being used in the Stone Age is not an anomaly.  Finding the remains of a glass and steel structure in Iron Age Jerusalem or the Australian Outback would be.  We know Egyptians built the Pyramids because we can see on the ground the various phases of their evolution: from mustaba, to the Step Pyramid, to the Bent Pyramid, on to the Great Pyramid.  If the Egyptians suddenly leaped from the Step Pyramid to the World Trade Center, that would be serious evidence for alien interference.  Finding a microchip turned into a Comanche arrow or a piece of polyester sewn into a medieval garment would all indicate technology extant totally out of time.  We see instances of this in actual human history as related to the incursion of outside influence.  For instance, an archeologist studying the horizons of Amerindian culture, around the start of the 1500s is going to suddenly find the natives using guns, steel, horses, and trading in currency.  This great technological leap forward is not evolutionary, but the result of new contacts.  We would expect to see the same thing if aliens had played a serious role in our history.  
  • We make contact:  We meet some actual aliens.  Nothing proves the existence of something like it showing up on your front porch.  If aliens visit earth or if we establish contact with them in some other manner, that raises the likelihood that we have made contact before. 
In short, what we need to affirm these ancient astronaut theories is something incontrovertible: bodies, machines, or a personal visit.  Anything less than that is just speculation.   

Monday, September 30, 2013

BOO! What is a Ghost?

The author's home featuring its resident specter.
If you believe in ghosts and spend a little time in my house, you will likely believe it is haunted.  It's old, the interior has not been given one of those hideous modernizing remodel jobs, it's noisy, doors swing open by themselves, the lighting is ancient, so dark figures move about the walls, it's furnished with our vast collection of books, antiques, and occult artifacts, and there's even a grave in the back yard.  The first week we lived there I took a picture of the second story and found the face of a "ghost" looking back at me out of the bedroom window.  Carl Sagan once famously noted that there "are no haunted houses, only haunted people."  If you are a haunted person - that is, someone disposed to believe in paranormal explanations for the mundane - then our old Victorian would put the scare into you.  I just happen to like it.  I'm a fan of ancient buildings - behind my wife my greatest love is history.  And I feel most comfortable surrounded on all sides by it!  

As a skeptical "ghost hunter" my house serves as a kind of laboratory for understanding a haunting.  Did that door just swing open on it's own?  Yes.  The floor has settled toward the street and the doors with hinges on the street side open on their own. Was that a shadow man in the old servants quarters?  No.  It was the giant oak in the yard of the mansion behind us throwing up shadows.  Were those voices I heard in the attic?  Yes!  Our house is a row house and the neighbors have their television against the adjoining wall.  Were those footsteps on the stairs?  Yes - they were yours!  When you walk on the steps the boards bow slightly and pop back a few minutes later in quick succession, just like walking.  And is that a ghost in the window?  No - it's pareidolia, the mind misinterpreting the pattern of the leaves reflected in the window glass. 

For more than twenty years I have investigated claims of the paranormal.  I was raised by my parents to believe in these things.  As a young child I saw what I thought to be "a ghost" (what paranormal groups today would call a "shadow person.")  As a result, I became deeply interested (my wife would say "obsessed") with the paranormal - and the occult.  But as I grew up, I developed a keen interest in more mundane research pursuits; chiefly history, anthropology, and psychology.  My budding expertise as a researcher in these areas shaped me to be a more critical thinker - and caused me to abandon my beliefs in the paranormal in favor of a more skeptical outlook.  I am still consumed by interest in these the paranormal, but now from the position of skeptical inquiry. I don't want to "debunk" - I want to understand.  I want to actually know what people are experience when they have a paranormal experience.  One of the primary areas of paranormal research is ghostly encounters.  Though ghosts have been with us, arguably, for as long as human culture has existed, very little has been done to answer the question: what is a ghost?  I want to take a few moments to explore that.  

What is a Ghost?


If you asked "the person on the street" or at least the nearest flat-brimmed cap wearing denizen of your local ghost group what a ghost is, they'd probably give you a definition along these lines: the disembodied soul/spirit/energy of a deceased human being.  OK, fair enough.  But is that what a ghost really is?  For one thing, there's not a shred of evidence that anything of human life continues on after we die.  No "energy" in the universe persists without its source - in our case, our bodies.  So that's not an answer as to what a ghost is - it's a hypothesis.  One of MANY hypotheses.  Some (the Catholic church, for one) have suggested they're demons.  Others suggest they're extra-dimensional beings.  Still others think they're merely psychical recordings of "events past" - a hypothesis expressed in the popular film The Stone Tape.  But, again, these are merely hypotheses - guesses.  I have a "guess" myself.  I think, for the most part, a ghost is a misinterpretation of some non-paranormal phenomenon.  My years of field research have led me to that conclusion.  I have collected evidence to support my claim.   I intend to explore many of these cases on this blog.

Any useful definition of "a ghost" cannot include a hypothetical possibility within it.  

As skeptics, when we talk about "ghosts" we're not talking about demons or dead souls, we're talking about what people have claimed to have experienced as a result of what they are calling a ghost.  Thus a ghost is in the eye of the beholder.  To some, my window photograph above is a piccy of a ghosty, to me it's my bedroom window reflecting the shadows cast by leaves, a hypothesis demonstrated through objective analysis.   

So, we know ghosts not by what "they are" but by what "they do."  There is an analogy from medical science that will help us to better understand this: syndromeA syndrome is not a disease - rather it's a collection of symptoms that may have many causes.  Or even psychosomatic causes.  Unlike a disease, a syndrome is not "one thing," it's a collection of things.  It can only be known by its symptoms.  A ghost is much the same.  We know of a ghost or a haunting through the manifestation of some symptom - some phenomenon that popular culture associates with ghost lore.  Doors opening on their own, creaking stairs, cold spots, mysterious lights at night, anomalies in photographs or on recording equipment - they are all "signs" of a ghost.   

When a skeptic investigates these phenomena, she isn't looking to tie them to a dead human or a demon, she's trying to find out the cause of the occurrence, whatever it may be.  A lot of people have investigated "ghostly phenomena" - not yet have these been tied to paranormal sources.  Indeed they are often boringly mundane.  So when we speak about "a ghost" - what we are really talking about are "the things ghosts are supposed to do."  That is, we're referencing a claim or set of claims attributed by someone to ghosts.  It's a useful shorthand to call such phenomena "ghosts" until we understand their actual causes.  If that cause turns out to be a disembodied human - outstanding!  I will enjoy collecting my Nobel Prize.  But to assert we know the cause (e.g. a dead human) is an affront to the scientific method, the means by which a true explanation is achieved.  

All in a Name

The word "ghost" has an interesting history.  It comes to us, in English, from the Old English word "gast."  That word, in turn, originates from the proto-Germanic word "gaistaz," which has several meanings: soul, mind, or terror/fear.  This word is an ancient one with Proto-Indo European roots dating back at least to the late Neolithic.  One of its ancient meanings was simply "bewilderment or fear," perhaps an equivalent to our modern word "spooked."  

The origin of the word itself illustrates that our ancient ancestors, like us, knew ghosts in the same way that we know them - by what they do.  They cause fear, they disconcert.  And, as the linguistics show, they, like us, theorized that these phenomena were caused by some disembodied aspect of the human psyche - the mind or soul.  This is a logical explanation for a pre-scientific people to consider.  Any unexplainable phenomenon might well be the result of a hidden, supernatural force.  After all, the wind is invisible and acts upon us, fire emerges from nothing, the sun and moon hang in the sky without aid.  Within that context, where one has so few tools for knowing, virtually any hypothesis is equally likely on its surface.  

We know from how these words were used that even the ancients were prone to fear regarding the things they associated with ghosts.  An unknown cause of fear is a powerful thing - worthy of its own word and a comforting definition.  The quest, then, to hang the name "ghost" on certain happenstances is an ancient one.  So in investigating ghostly phenomena we face thousands of years of cultural knowledge - and cultural baggage.  We can't know what scared the ancients, but we can analyze and group together some of the commonalities of what characterize ghostly behavior in our Western culture today.  

Signs of a Haunt

  • Visual Phenomena: A visual impression, often anomalous.  A strange shadow figure out of the corner of one's eye, a weird shape off in the distance, a strange face or pattern in the woodwork or wallpaper, a bizarre mist or cloud, strange lights, etc.  Visual phenomena are experienced with the eyes.  
  • Aural Phenomena: An impression that is heard, often anomalous. Disembodied voices, the sounds of machines no longer present or not in operation, the sound of movement with none visible, the sound of footsteps with no one present to make them, the sound of doors opening, etc.  Visual phenomena are experienced with the ears.  
  • Olfactory Phenomena:  An impression that is smelled, often anomalous.  The smell of tobacco smoke, perfume, ozone, animals that are not present, etc.  Olfactory phenomena are experienced with the nose.  
  • Somatosensory Phenomena:  An impression that is felt, often anomalous.  The feeling of being touched, unexplainable scratches or marks, the feeling of being pushed, anomalous pain, etc.  Somatosensory phenomena are felt with the body.  
  • Sensations:  An impression that is felt "all over," though not necessarily through the five senses, often anomalous.  One's hair standing on end, a feeling of dread, cold chills, a vague impression of something being present, etc.  Sensations are more abstract than somatosensory impressions.  
  • Psychological Phenomena:  An impression that originates solely in the brain, often anomalous.  Hallucinations, disembodied voices, sleep paralysis, paranoia, "communicating with the dead," out of body experiences, etc. Psychological phenomena are internal to the person having the experience with no external manifestation.  
  • Technological Phenomena: An impression that is derived from interacting with technology, often anomalous.  Ouija boards, dowsing, spirit photographs, electronic voice phenomena, electromagnetic readings, "ghost boxes," etc.  Technological phenomena are generated by device, machine, or tool and interpreted by the observer.    

Get to the Source

Often the most important aspect of investigating a paranormal phenomenon is isolating it.  A lot of ghost hunters, untrained in proper research techniques, never quite figure out how to do that.  If you're told that the phenomenon is a rocking chair that moves on its own - then investigate the chair.  This is a technological phenomenon - a device is behaving in an anomalous fashion.  It's the investigator's job to find out why.  This does not require one to run a detailed history of the home and the chair or to bring in loads of equipment, like thermometers and electromagnetic field detectors.  The chair itself is the only piece of technology that needs to be involved. 

Why is it moving?  You start by asking the simplest question first: what could cause it to move?  There's no reason to believe it's moving because of a ghost.  After all, it could be an invisible Big Foot rocking away.  Or the wind. Or the shape of the floor. It is helpful for us to dissuade ourselves of some of that cultural baggage that goes along with the term ghost and simply look at the phenomenon in itself.  That's how an investigation intent on answers begins. 


Aural Anomalies Number 1: Screaming Tunnel, Niagara Falls, Canada

Screaming Tunnel, Niagara Falls, Ontario
The landscape that surrounds the Niagara Valley, to me, seems anachronistic.  A drive from Washington, DC to Niagara Falls will take you through the mountains of Pennsylvania and New York.  The spectacular falls rest in a deep valley and represent, truly, some of the world's most spectacular natural beauty.  But the lands north of the falls are flat and scrubby, reminiscent of where I grew up north of Dallas, Texas.  The area around the falls was scraped clean during the last great Ice Age and has really only been exposed to human habitation for the past 10,000 years.  As such, it lacks the ancient, claustrophobic feel of the deep forests of New England and the Mid-Atlantic.

On the day we visited the Screaming Tunnel - the day after Thanksgiving in the United States - it was as if I were visiting one of the old railroad underpasses near my childhood home in the Cross Timbers of Texas.  It felt uncannily familiar - not a feeling I had expected.  I have explored such places all my life, so I didn't expect much.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised.  It turns out that the Screaming Tunnel of Niagara Falls is, indeed, something special. 

The Story

The description published on the Niagara Falls Public Library's website can tell the background story better that I can.  Screaming Tunnel:

The haunting of the Screaming Tunnel is one of Niagara Falls’ most enduring legends. Located off Warner Road, the tunnel runs under the railway tracks that link Niagara Falls to Toronto and New York City. The tunnel is made of rough-cut stone and measures 16 feet high by 125 long. Around 1982, Canadian movie director David Cronenberg chose the tunnel as the setting for a brutal murder scene in his horror movie The Dead Zone. According to local legend, over a century ago, a farm house located just past the south entrance to the tunnel caught fire one night. A young girl, her clothes engulfed in flames, fled screaming from the house. She ran through the tunnel in an attempt to extinguish her garments but collapsed and died on the tunnel floor. A variation of this story has the girl set ablaze in the tunnel by her enraged father when he learned his wife had won custody of their children during an nasty divorce battle. Another version tells of a young girl who was raped inside the tunnel and her body burned to cover the evidence. All these stories allege that if you stand in the middle of the dark tunnel at midnight and light a match, the flame will go out and a girl’s screams will be heard.

The Location

The site is not too difficult to locate.  We navigated to it just after breakfast with the help of directions found on a local paranormal club's website.  It is located off of Warner Road, within a few hundred yards of Queen Elizabeth Way.  However, Warner Road dead ends before it reaches that larger highway, so it is necessary to approach from the west rather than from Queen Elizabeth Way directly.  Essentially you will follow Warner Road as it runs from west to east to its termination point, just to the west of Queen Elizabeth Way.  You cannot miss the tunnel - it is heavily trafficked and the parking spot is obvious.  Accessing it does not require a walk, but the ground is perpetually wet and muddy as a small watercourse seems to permanently flow through the tunnel.  If you are staying in Niagara Falls and wish to visit the site and you have access to a car, it's no more than an hour's diversion - especially if you plan on touring some of the local wineries (makers of the finest ice wines in the world.)  For collectors of paranormal real estate, it's an easy trip.

The site is not as rural as the paranormal groups which have "investigated" it like to indicate.  In fact, there are several houses across the street from it, just to the north.  And, again, there is a major highway literally within "shouting distance."  The tunnel, itself, is a heavily trafficked foot path.  During the two hours we were on site we observed fresh horse hoof prints in the mud from morning riders and a large hiking club passed through the tunnel into the fields to the south while we explored. From the amount of litter left behind and the tire ruts off the side of Warner Road, it's clear the site gets daily visitors.  The local houses are so close by we could smell the scent of their morning bacon wafting through the air as we explored.  Indeed, according to recent news reports, officials are contemplating closing the site due to the large number of visitors and the inconvenience they create for the neighbors.

The location of the Screaming Tunnel is important - in fact it's the key to understanding the mystery.  (More on that later.)  The reality is, the site is not remote and it is regularly visited.  Even if you go there at midnight, as legend suggests you should, you're not going to be "truly" alone.  There will be people within a hundred yards of you the whole time you are there.  Any phenomena that occur to you while at the tunnel, therefore, should be examined in this light.

The Claims

Putting aside the dodgy photo, video, and EVP evidence one can find on the web that has allegedly been captured here, the essential claims related to the Screaming Tunnel are pretty basic:

1.  A young girl died at or near the site of the tunnel and was consumed by fire.  

2.  If you stand in the middle of the tunnel at midnight and light a match, the match will burn out.

3.  You will hear the ghostly scream of the woman who died.

Investigating the Claims

1.  Death of the Young Girl

There is no reason to expend any time determining whether or not a young girl died in a fire at or near the Screaming Tunnel.  If an exhaustive search could prove this, that would provide no additional support for the latter claims of matches extinguishing themselves and disembodied screams.  Indeed, finding that a girl had burned to death would only provide us with the folkloric source of the legend that surrounds the tunnel.  Any investigator wishing to thoroughly examine this site - to be comprehensive - should, indeed, put in the hours of library research to determine if this tunnel's legend has a basis in reality.  However, my aim in visiting the site was to examine the actual physical claims that are said to be manifest. 

So-called ghost hunters who spend their time looking into the history of deaths at a site are really wasting their time.  Such investigations make two false leaps in logic.  First, it supposes that the "ghostly" phenomena at hand are connected to a dead human being (instead of a dead cat, an inter-dimensional being, a Sasquatch, a vampire, a living hoaxster, someone's imagination, or a mundane physical action/reaction.)  Secondly, it assumes that a death at a site is somehow an anomaly.  In fact, all living creatures die.  The older a site is, the more likely it is that someone has died there.  With enough digging at a site of significant enough age, it is virtually guaranteed the ghost hunter will eventually come across a death they can retrofit to the circumstances of their investigation. 

In most cases, unless the history of the site is directly related to the phenomena under investigation, such background research is simply a waste of time - and overly confusing to the primary focus of one's inquiry.

2.  Matches Will Extinguish at Midnight in the Tunnel

No need to wait until midnight - if you stand in the middle of the Screaming Tunnel and light a match, it will blow out.  Like virtually all structures built in tubular fashion, with ventilation at either side, the Screaming Tunnel forces a draft to channel through it.  As such, it acts as a "wind tunnel" through which air currents pass.  

On the day we visited there was virtually no wind blowing outside and a draft could not be felt in the tunnel.  However, experimenting with matches and a few blades of dried grass quickly reveals that even on a calm day, the Screaming Tunnel forces a strong enough draft that a match will not hold a light.  It is the subtle nature of this draft that gives one the impression that the tunnel is essentially windproof.  It is not.  One need merely stand in the middle of the tunnel and drop a few blades of dried grass to see that a heavy breeze is forced through the tunnel constantly.

3.  Ghostly Scream

It is this final claim that actually makes the Screaming Tunnel an interesting site.  As it turns out, there is an aspect of this claim that is valid.  Due to a trick of the tunnel's design and the landscape that surrounds it, the Screaming Tunnel functions as a whispering gallery.  The tunnel is long with a high vaulted ceiling.  To the north, it opens onto Warner Road and the relatively flat surrounds of the adjacent fields and neighborhoods.  To the south, however, just to the other side of the tunnel entrance, the pathway ascends sharply, boxing in the entrance and creating a very effective echo chamber. 

On exploring the site, my wife and I discovered this phenomena.  I was standing in the center of the tunnel and she was exploring just outside the south entrance.  I suddenly heard her voice, very clearly, over my shoulder, speaking as if she were standing right next to me.  This gave me a start!  She was yards away! 

I asked her if she had been speaking - and she admitted to merely mumbling to herself.  After additional experimentation, it turns out that a person standing at the center of the Screaming Tunnel is privileged to amplified sounds that could not normally be heard over such great distances.  We noted that the sound of people walking in the woods to the south of the tunnel was heavily amplified, as were big rig horns on the highway, and the sound of the limbs of trees rubbing together.  The sounds of the adjacent trees were an especially compelling noise when carried to the center of the Screaming Tunnel - the gave a high-pitched and eerie sound, very like a human voice. 

The fact that the Screaming Tunnel functions as a whisper gallery opens up a wide range of possibilities for explaining the mysterious "scream."  A neighborhood hoaxster familiar with the tunnel's properties would have no trouble sneaking into the woods undetected and giving a midnight shout.  It is obvious to all the neighborhood houses when cars are parked at the site.  The bark of the indigenous red fox carried through the tunnels echo chamber would be terrifying.  Even the sounds of the trees rubbing together, as we observed, creates a creepily compelling sound. 

Mysterious sounds at the site of the Niagara Falls' Screaming Tunnel, it turns out, are not in short supply.  Whisper galleries are disconcerting and unusual aural phenomena.  Most people have never experienced one. It is quite easy to encounter strange, disembodied sounds at the Screaming Tunnel.  Doing so in the dead of night, while expecting a ghostly encounter, would be terrifying.


To those interested in the paranormal, Screaming Tunnel near Niagara Falls is well worth a visit.  It is the rare "haunted" site actually capable of delivering an experiential phenomenon.  Disembodied sounds can be heard at the site and, through limited experimentation, it's possible to understand why.  I hypothesize that the screaming tunnel might provide us some greater insight into understanding that physics behind so-called haunts that manifest themselves aurally.  When an actual phenomenon is present, the landscape, the architecture, or a combination of both might well be its origin.  It is my hope that others who visit the Screaming Tunnel will forgo the ghostly seance, and put my theory to the test and try out the site's unique ability to transmit sound.