“Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows—only hard with luminous edges—and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen. Alas, a few years ago, I should have said ‘my universe’, but now my mind has been opened to higher views of things.”
― Edwin A. Abbott, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions
Physicists don’t usually mean to insult you. They just don’t get to talk to people very often, so they sometimes miss out on the finer points of polite conversation. When popular physicist Brian Greene tells you “we might be the holographic image of a two-dimensional structure”, he doesn’t mean to make you feel bad (or at least, you can’t assume so. I mean, I’ve never met him, maybe he’s just a jerk). I’m reasonably certain I’m at least three or four dimensions, albeit some of them very shallow. It’s what differentiates us from those bastard trapezoids. Perhaps its unfounded human hubris, but we pride ourselves on having width, length, and breadth, which of course is not an especially distinctive achievement, given that everything around us does as well, excepting a variety of theoretical constructs that only your math teacher cared about. While the physicists are busying inadvertently casting aspersions at our lack of an interesting personality and strange phenomena enthusiasts spend time positing that those pesky supernatural creatures we keep seeing are inter-dimensional beasties bleeding into our universe, they have neglectfully failed to warn us about the threat of two-dimensional monsters, that is, the insidiously flat Stick Men.
An emaciated monstrosity is nothing new. It tends to symbolically accentuate the fact that they are insatiably hungry for human flesh. You don’t generally encounter a zombie with six-pack abs. Slender Man (calm down, I know he’s an internet meme, although I’m willing to acquiesce to his importance for the sake of a good joke, that there resides a certain semiotic significance in even the odd imaginary critter – that’s right, I’m looking at you Der Großmann) while an extremely svelte and well-dressed octopoid, nonetheless retained a fairly mundane set of three dimensions. The hungry ghosts of Hindu/Buddhist mythology, while doomed to eternal anorexia, still have some relative depth. We’re not talking about monsters with bad diets, a poor sense of nutrition, an eating disorder, or a health club membership. Our concern is with entities that are missing a full dimension. Doing away with an entire dimension is simply a visceral violation of something basic. And gosh darn it, downright rude. Stick Men have been thusly dubbed, not because they are particularly thin dudes or made of twigs, rather they appear to be the living, breathing incarnation of a stick figure drawing, and as such have eschewed the need for three dimensional existence. Reports of sightings of what has been named the “Black Stick Man” have recently begun to proliferate on the internet. No pictures have been forthcoming, which makes a certain amount of geometric sense. A photo is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional object. What do you get when you take a photo of a two-dimensional object? That’s right, a point. I love math jokes. Paranormal researchers have been quick to distinguish between the Stick Men and the elusive Shadow People, and the entire species seems to have exploded on the scene due to one of those ubiquitous top ten lists on the web (which if you want to talk about the truly monstrous, I find the reduction of everything in the universe to a top 10 list to be the first of the seven signs of Armageddon. Of course, I also believe the second sign was the 2003 cancellation of Farscape, so I may not be a credible eschatological resource). Jamie Frater of the Listverse website dutifully recorded Stick Men in his list of creepy Paranormal Phenomena for 2009, observing:
The black stick man is another entity encountered in modern times. Not to be confused with the shadow man, incredibly he is even stranger. Stick men are supposed to look like totally black, thin, stick figure drawings, such as teachers would make in kindergarten. They have been reported as between average height to impossibly tall. Their heads are just a black circle with no facial features being discernible. They are totally two dimensional, without any depth. Usually they’ve been sighted walking along roads at night, or at transitional times such as twilight or just before dawn. Bizarrely, some have reported them wearing what appears to be a top hat. Their walk is described as a weird “lolloping” gait. They are surprised when actually seen, and have followed unfortunate witnesses on occasion. Their pace remains leisurely as they approach. Obviously to be pursued by such an otherworldly creature would be anything but pleasant, and those who have encountered them have been understandably terrified. So far however, apart from being bizarrely frightening, they have done no physical harm, and ultimately just disappear (#3, “Top 10 Bizarre Modern Paranormal Phenomena”, listverse.com, April 24, 2009)
This was followed in due course, by an explosion of internet forum discussions among the paranormally inclined set, including countless additional reports. As a firm believer in the fact that there is absolutely nothing new under the sun and an aficionado of the deep weird, when faced with lack of citations, hearsay, and the world of rapidly replicating internet memes, I turn to the comfort of historical precedent. It’s my happy place. Actually, I sob quietly under my desk. Then I look for my tinfoil hat. Then I pour a glass of scotch. Then I begin combing through literature for connections. Don’t judge. It’s a method.
Petroglyphs are those funny little rock carvings dating from between 20,000 – 3000 B.C. found on every continent, and demonstrating remarkable consistency in patterns of symbols cross-culturally. Psychologist Carl Jung and scholar of religion Mircea Eliade both argued that the stunning consistency in the symbols used had to do with organic archetypes in our little monkey brains. Other modern researchers point out that many of the geometric patterns found repeated throughout the world are consistent with the sort of hard-wired patterns that occur when there are disturbances in the visual centers of the brain (i.e. cavemen getting “trippy”). Around roughly 7000 B.C. a strange symbol emerges across the globe, carved into rock faces by countless cultures, ominously named “the stick man” (also popularly referred to as “squatter man” petroglyphs). Its puzzling that people around the world, at the same time, all relatively isolated from one another would suddenly start drawing the same creepy stick figure, in the same creepy position (see Stick Man petroglyphs picture). Plasma physicist Anthony Peratt has argued that the worldwide similarity of the stick man petroglyphs is directly related to high-intensity auroral activity that appears to have occurred contemporaneously, and would have been visible in the sky across many continents. Either that or caveman were universally crappy artists. These are perfectly reasonable suggestions, but none so reasonable as the possibility that our forefathers were faithfully depicting exactly what they saw – a rash of sightings of two-dimensional monsters.
Numerous Native American tribes have mythological traditions of the “Stick Indians”, which are often conflated with Sasquatch or the Wendigo by researchers, despite the fact that one of the defining characteristics of the Stick Indians was considered to be the fact that they didn’t seem to have a whole lot of depth (dimensionally-speaking, that is). The account below is from Pacific Northwest mythology, but accounts can be found of “Stick Indians” across North America and Canada, from the Nez Pierce in the southwest to the Lower Columbia Valley in Washington, and what strikes me as particularly puzzling is that the appellation “stick men” seems to be consistently applied.
As the days grow shorter and the nights get colder, people continue to usher in the winter season with gatherings, costumes, candy and stories. One story that many have grown up with is the story of the race of people known as stick Indians. Whether you believe in them or not, legends of stick Indians have been around many years. Often referred to as Tsiatko, the race of stick Indians were said to wander through the forests at night especially during the fall. The Tsiatko were tall, slender, athletic in build, and were great runners. They were ventriloquists, using a sort of whistle to communicate, and that gift made them all the more feared. Even when people could not see them they often heard this whistle in the distance. When these strange people would arrive, their calls were in high, clear pitch, and their odd whistles were blood-curdling. Even the dogs refused to chase them or bark at them; horses would rear up and strive to break away, and tremble in fear. Some believed that by the use of some unknown substance, the Tsiatko would at will cause people to become senseless and helpless, going into a deep slumber (“The Story of Stick Indians”, Puyallup Tribal News, October 13, 2011).
In Britain, the Stick Man of Loose, as recorded by Neil Arnold in Paranormal Kent, exists as our sole U.K. instance of two-dimensional monsters, but sounds alarmingly like our critter of interest, described as “the outline of a tall, thin figure wearing a hat, dancing”. A sort of Cliff-Note horror. Interestingly, the ancient Chinese tried to warn us about the danger to our world seeping in from two dimensions in their mythology of the “Fauna of Mirrors”, popularized in Jose Luis Borges’ 1957 work The Book of Imaginary Beings. Borges found the account in 1736 scholarship of Jesuit Father Fontecchio, which was elaborated upon by British diplomat and sinologist Herbert Allen Giles (1845-1935) and although particularly concerned with a fish in the mirror, it did describe the eruption of two-dimensional monstrosities into our world (I’m assuming they were two-dimensional, as their ecological niche was a mirror). Ultimately they are driven back into their mirrors, but are awaiting the chance to re-emerge into our world. Perhaps the Stick Men are the vanguard.
The Fish is a shifting and shining creature that nobody has ever caught but that many say they have glimpsed in the depths of mirrors. According to Herbert Allen Giles, belief in the Fish is part of a larger myth that goes back to the times of the Yellow Emperor. In those days the world of mirrors and the world of men were not, as they are now, cut off from each other. They were, besides, quite different; neither beings nor colors nor shapes were the same. Both kingdoms lived in harmony; you could come and go through mirrors. One night the mirror people invaded the earth. Their power was great, but at the end of bloody warfare the magic arts of the Yellow Emperor prevailed. He repulsed the invaders, imprisoned them in their mirrors, and forced on them the task of repeating, as though in a kind of dream, all the actions of men. He stripped them of their power and of their forms and reduced them to mere reflections. Nonetheless, a day will come when the spell will be shaken off. The first to awaken will be the Fish. Deep in the mirror we will perceive a very faint line and the color of this line will be like no other color. Later on, other shapes will begin to stir. Little by little they will differ from us; little by little they will not imitate us. They will break through the barriers of glass or metal. Side by side with these mirror creatures, the creatures of water will join the battle. In Yunnan they do not speak of the Fish but of the Tiger of the Mirror. Others believe that in advance of the invasion we will hear from the depths of mirrors the clatter of weapons. And this time, they will not be defeated (Borges, 1978, p67-68).
We obviously need to get out of our ingrained habit of focusing our concerns on geometrically solid monsters, for as American novelist Ellen Glasgow observed, “The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions”. Oh, and stock up on erasers. They may be our last line of defense.
Borges, Jorge Luis, 1899-1986. The Book of Imaginary Beings. New York: Dutton, 1978.