Category Archives: Science

Paranormal Pilgrimages

Although the Allegheny Mountains are hardly the Rockies—they’re much older and gentler on the eye—they harbor many tourist locations.  Even before my daughter attended Binghamton University, I’d been drawn to the natural beauty of upstate New York.  Prior to when college changed everything, we used to take two family car trips a year, predictably on Memorial and Labor day weekends, when the weather wasn’t extreme and you had a day off work to put on a few miles.  One year we decided to go to Sam’s Point Preserve (actually part of Minnewaska State Park) near Cragsmoor, New York.  It features panoramic views, a few ice caves, and, as we learned, huckleberries.  What my innocent family didn’t suspect is that I’d been inspired to this location suggestion by the proximity of Pine Bush.

A friend just pointed me to an article on Smithsonian.com by my colleague Joseph Laycock.  Titled “A Search for Mysteries and Monsters in Small Town America,” Laycock’s article discusses how monster pilgrimages share features with nascent religion.  People report strange encounters with all kinds of creatures and objects, and science routinely dismisses them.  Odd encounters, however, leave lasting impressions—you probably remember the weird things that have happened to you better than the ordinary—and many towns establish festivals or businesses associated with these paranormal events.  Laycock has a solid record of publishing academic books on such things and this article was a fun and thoughtful piece.  But what has it to do with Pine Bush?

Although it’s now been removed from the town’s Wikipedia page, in the mid 1980s through the ‘90s Pine Bush was one of the UFO hot spots of America.  Almost nightly sightings were recorded, and the paranormal pilgrims grew so intense that local police began enforcing parking violations on rural roads where people had come to see something extraordinary.  By the time we got to Pine Bush, however, the phenomena had faded.  There was still a UFO café, but no sign of the pilgrims.  I can’t stay up too late any more, so if something flew overhead that night, I wasn’t awake to see it.  Like Dr. Laycock, I travel to such places with a sense of wonder.  I may not see anything, but something strange passed this way and I want to be where it happened.  This is the dynamic of pilgrimage.  Nearly all religions recognize the validity of the practice.  It has long been my contention, frequently spelled out on this blog, that monsters are religious creatures.  They bring the supernatural back to a dull, capitalist, materialistic world.  And for that we should be grateful.   Even if it’s a little strange.

Unnatural Connections

The last time we moved internet service was just becoming an issue.  When we first came to our Somerville apartment we had dial-up.  Do you believe it?  Shortly after that FIOS came to town and we decided to give it a try, but at a fairly low speed.  We’ve always tried to be responsible with money and I naturally balk at paying for something as intangible and amorphous as “internet connectivity.”  I guess I’m a naive realist after all.  In any case, one of the top priorities in moving to our new place was getting internet set up.  Even before electricity or gas or water.  It has become THE utility.  The place to pay the bills for all the other utilities.  And since I’m now telecommuting, the umbilical cord that connects me to work.

I don’t mean to sound all grandpa-ish on you, but just twelve years ago we struggled for any connection at all.  We had one computer (and one work laptop) and only the desktop had internet access.  Many of the arcane pieces of hardware found in the attic were from attempts to get us onto the net more efficiently.  We even had to draw up a contract for who could use the computer and for how long since all of us wanted that magic window onto the virtual world.  Now, like most households, we have wifi and high speed access.  When we’re not at the computer, we have our smart phones at hand.  The strangest thing about all of this is that now that we’ve got constant connection, our nation has become as polarized as it has ever been.  Perhaps we see a little too much of each other?  Or too little?

The web has connected us to those we like.  Walking down the street it’s rare to find someone not staring at their phone, ignoring all living beings around him or her.  We’ve been able to filter out those we don’t like.  Those who have different points of view.  The net shows us that we aren’t alone, and even those with extreme views can find plenty of compatriots in cyberspace.  There’s a reason we used to be told not to discuss religion or politics.  Now we know everybody else’s business.

There was a time when moving meant going to where the jobs are.  Especially in academia.  Colleges and universities exist in set locations.  In space-time.  Telecommuting isn’t an option (although even that’s happening in some cases now).  Moving these days means weighing your internet access options.  Satellite is just too slow and unreliable.  Who would’ve imagined, for those of us born just after Sputnik went up, that now even space-based connections just aren’t advanced enough?  Cyberspace has become more infinite than outer space.  And I still prefer pencil and paper.

Behind the Scenes

Although I confess to being a horror aficionado, it took many years before I could convince myself to watch The Exorcist. I finally saw it in the mid-20-aughts, and have watched it many times since. It’s a movie that I discuss in Holy Horror, and it will star in Nightmares with the Bible as well. Although younger people often don’t experience the movie as scary—certainly the increasing trust in science and growth of secularity contribute to this—there is a sincerity about it that earns it its deserved place in the pantheon of horror. Bob McCabe surely counts as a fan for his The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows. Sub-subtitled The Full Story of the Film, this book is a gallimaufry of anecdotes, interviews, and facts about the movie and even its sequels. It’s like of like a sustained reaction shot.

The book doesn’t lack insight and McCabe is surely right that this was one of the most influential movies of the early 1970s. It has become a frame of reference on its own and it has defined, in large measure, what people believe about demonic possession. One of the quotes from McCabe’s treatment however, uses the phrase “metaphysical unknown” to explain why the film retains its power to scare, and there’s a great deal of wisdom in that assessment. Fear of the unknown, of course, is prime real estate for horror, and one of the most interesting things about demons is how little the Bible, or other ancient texts, really says (or say) about them. They are an embodiment of the unknown that can take over a person and make her somebody else. But it’s that metaphysical that’s really scary.

As we continue into a time of less and less that remains unclaimed by scientific theory, those metaphysical unknowns continue to lurk and to frighten. Maybe it’s the concept of the metaphysical itself that scares—can there really be something larger, more intelligent than us? The human psyche bruises easily, and we don’t like to be reminded that we lack the control we suppose we have each day. The metaphysical challenges all that. Since it refuses to submit to empirical verification, it remains unknown. A great many people interpret this as the same as not believing in it. Every once in a while, however, a powerful statement such as The Exorcist comes along. Few people thought about demons before William Peter Blatty’s novel and subsequent film. Then the world was full of them again. Requests for exorcisms are on the rise, and the metaphysical unknown haunts us now as much as it ever has.

Faithism

Religion, in general, has come upon hard times. Many proponents of science and secularism point disparagingly toward what is, in all likelihood, one of religion’s strengths: its utter diversity. The fact is all people are believers. No amount of denial will change that. Whether the belief is in science or magic, we all take things as true, based on our outlook. My wife recently forwarded me a story about Faithism from the New York Times. A religion built around the Oahspe Bible, written about the same time as the Book of Mormon, Faithism very nearly went extinct before undergoing a modest revival in the present day. Instead of casting aspersions on it, a far better approach is to consider the basic, underlying human element to the movement.

Faithism was based on a book written by a dentist, a one John Ballou Newbrough. Although I’d never hear of Newbrough before, I can make a safe assumption about him—he was struggling with trying to understand a supernatural that can’t be measured or tested. This same element applies to scientists. Measurables have to leave at least a physical trace. Millennia ago, religions were already claiming that outside this mortal coil there was an entire realm that we could experience with our feelings but which would never offer any physical confirmation. There’s a pretty obvious difference between the living and the dead (at least to most people). Since nothing measurable changes at human death, it must be something incorporeal. Scientists begin to shake their heads here, but even they must face it some day.

The other takeaway from Faithism is that spiritual writings, like tiny particulate matter in clouds, can lead to the coalescence of something larger. Orally based religions, such as Zoroastrianism, seldom survive long. (Zoroastrianism, however, had very compelling ideas.) Written texts, once believed to be inspired, will naturally grow like a pearl over a grit of sand. The factuality of the text doesn’t matter, as long as it is the object of belief. When it rains, it pours. Some architects of new religious movements, such as L. Ron Hubbard, perhaps implicitly know that. While his science fiction may not have been inspired, his religious texts were. Unlike Scientology, science requires objective measures of what it considers reality. The title of Faithism, however, makes a trenchant point—it is belief in faith, like fear of fear itself, that makes religion. While historically few have believed in Faithism, even atheists have faith in what they don’t believe.

Evangelical Angst

Unless you know what it’s like to face life with no real prospects beyond making it to Heaven when you die, you can’t understand evangelical angst. That last phrase might seem odd to you. Aren’t evangelicals uber-smiley, happy people angry over the way society’s going? Yes and no. Many of them were raised (or converted into) a faith that holds out no hope for this world and that constantly reinforces the idea that what we like is bad. Having grown up in that world, I knew what it was like to be hoodwinked by an evangelist. I can’t remember the guy’s name, but he was famous. He came to my small town and packed a local Methodist Church. During his rambling, long sermon, he had us afraid for Hell burning under our feet. Grateful that we’d just managed to avoid it, he announced there would be three collections that night: the first was your normal tithe. The second time the plates came around you were to empty your pockets and purses of all change. The third time, you were to contribute to his private jet. If you gave over a thousand dollars your name would be inscribed on a plaque inside.

Almost as if nothing has changed in the decades since then, a Washington Post story expresses amazement that evangelist Jesse Duplantis is asking his followers for a fourth private jet. Uncomprehending, the world doesn’t show much curiosity as to why otherwise intelligent people would give to what is so obviously a scam. Or why such people would vote for Trump. The academic world doesn’t understand evangelical angst. As I sat in that audience that night, a poor kid from a poverty-level family, I fervently wished I had more money to give. Until he asked for his plane. My young doubts crept in, for I had more angst than most other evangelicals I knew. Was this really the Gospel?

Later I saw him on television. His personal mansion had literal streets of gold. Jesus, he said, wanted us to get ready for Heaven right here on earth. Did this turn his followers against him? Decidedly not. In fact, he may have believed it himself. You see, neuroscientists have learned that our brains have the evolved capacity to hold and dismiss reason simultaneously, for strong emotional stimuli. Sex, for example, or music. Or religion. These can motivate people beyond the realm of logic, and they often do. Evangelical angst says you’re not buying a scam artist a jet to spread the Gospel, it says your trying to avoid Hell. Rational or not. And that, it seems to me, is more than adequate ground for evangelical angst.

Driving Truth

One of the problems with driving is that you can’t get pictures of billboards. Well, given the way people drive around here, I suspect that may not always be true. Nevertheless, I always think of billboards as trying to sell something. There’s sometimes fairly easy to shut out, but in long stretches of otherwise uninteresting road you fall into their trap. Now having grown up in western Pennsylvania, we always thought the people out east—Philadelphia was the largest city in the state, after all—were more sophisticated. It is around here, however, that I often see billboards selling evangelical Christianity. If you put out your wares, you’ve got something to sell. Money to make.

As I was traveling that stretch of somewhat plain highway 33 between Stroudsburg and Easton I noticed a billboard reading “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” To shore up its academic credentials the billboard footnoted Genesis 1:1. An inspirational sunrise, if I recall, shown over the Bible. Of to the left—of course to the left!—was a small “no circle” and inside the famous skeletal progression from ape to human. The message was “no evolution.” The more I pondered this, the more strange it became. Most Americans are well aware that billboards aren’t exactly the locus of truth. They are gimmicks to try to get you into the store. Like the one a few miles down that advertises the world’s largest humidor; even those with no interest in tobacco might feel just a touch curious what such a place might look like. Why would you take your most intimate personal beliefs and put them on a billboard? Does that make evolution any less likely?

A strange perception has lately taken over this country. The idea that an individual’s wants equate with the truth. Shout it loud enough and it has to be true. Billboards would never stretch the truth, would they? Is that image enlarged to show texture or what? And wouldn’t a better choice of anti-evolution rhetoric have been Genesis 2? That’s where God makes Adam from lowly dirt. Yes, Genesis 1 gives us the dramatic six-day creation, but Genesis 2 manages to say it all happened in one day—isn’t that more in keeping with capitalistic ideals? Greater efficiency leads to greater profits, after all. And profits, we all know, are the real purpose behind billboards for any product under the sun.

Crafting Magic

There’s a disingenuousness about an extremely wealthy white man claiming he’s the victim of a “witch hunt.” Such super-slurring devalues the many thousands of lives lost in actual witch hunts, most of them female. Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve long been fascinated by witches, and since I have so little time, Very Short Introductions are appealing. Malcolm Gaskill’s such introduction on Witchcraft is a surprisingly sensitive book that manages to touch on many important aspects of those who spend time thinking. The relationship between religion and science, for example. Witches force that question in various ways. The main takeaway, however, is another that the witch-in-chief would do well to take to heart—we must learn from history. History may be the key to human survival.

Gaskill has an unnerving balance when it comes to witch hunts. In places his attempts at objectivity can appear a little cold—history has demonstrated that the numbers of people killed in Europe’s witch madness aren’t as high as often claimed. Still, the loss of over 100,000 lives to propitiate our collective fears is tragic. This little book crams a lot of information in and it carries an appropriately warning tone. We don’t really understand what witches are, and we do still live in a world where hunts for them take place. Our psychies, ever so rational, crave magic. Societies from earliest times feared as well as desired it. Our belief in witches, and witchcraft, betrays quite a lot of what it means to be human.

This quick study isn’t all about witch hunts, though. It also explores the world of witchcraft, both in ancient and modern times. From Mesopotamian diviners to Wiccans, “the craft” has always been with us and is believed in by a surprisingly large number of people in industrialized societies. Magic, of course, generally leads to unexpected results. And the metaphor of its power over our imagination is forgotten at a terrible price. As Gaskill makes clear, the “witch” can be a stand-in for the other—the other religion, the other nationality, the other we fear and, now with government sanction, drive out or destroy. There is no magic to a wealthy man buying the presidency of the nation. There is, however, a culpability, a reckoning, if you will, that must attend abuses of this metaphor. The GOP has become a party of familiars in this compact with the Devil, it seems. That’s just a metaphor. But then again, metaphors can sometimes truly be magic.