“I wonder if other dogs think poodles are members of a weird religious cult” – Rita Rudner
I’m an Olympic channel surfer, a skill honed by years of insomnia. I wouldn’t mind a relative inability to sleep soundly if I could be productive, but when it’s three o’clock in the morning, and the carnival has once again erupted inside my head, the only thing to do, should I wish to have a small existential footprint and avoid waking the wife and kids, is mindlessly consume the numbing pabulum graciously provided by modern media, from cable television to Twitter. Luckily, this is highly conducive to reinforcing my interest in cataloging strange phenomena, since we tend to relegate our monsters and mysteries to the wee hours of the dawn. You certainly don’t want your anomalies loitering about after the sun has come up. You might have to take them seriously.
That said, I find myself remarkably disinterested in what passes for scholarly research into paranormal phenomena, and avoid it as I would not mere lepers. I do this to amuse myself, and what could be more joyless than toxic mold as an explanation for hauntings, or star jellies mistaken as flesh falls. Imagine the arid universe where everything is mundanely explained. Oh wait, we don’t have to, as we currently live in just such a universe. Sure, there are unsolved problems in science, but they simply await the next big-brained Brad lurking out there as of yet undiscovered to triumphantly wrap things up. We have great confidence in our ability to discern the real from the unreal, and this is why, as a society, we comfortably relegate the odd, the inexplicable, and the anomalous to a ghetto of what is popularly called “Weird News”, associating the bizarre and inexplicable with what I like to think of as “Stupid Human Tricks”.
The latest conspiracy theory, UFO sighting, Bigfoot flap, or case of spontaneous human combustion is conveniently nestled alongside crocodiles taking up residence in Florida pools, inadvisable prosthetic implants, extreme tattooing, or a woman asking an Italian fire crew to cut her free from her chastity belt after losing the key. The only significant alternative is to watch a bunch of heavily bearded mountain men chase nothing across the Appalachians, listen to speculations on how ancient aliens are responsible for literally everything, from monumental construction to genetic manipulation of life on Earth, or mindlessly consume poorly-acted docudramas of ghosts who adversely affected real estate values.
Let’s get something straight. I don’t care whether any particular expression of anomalistic phenomena exists, but the particular way in which we bundle odd occurrences with the often ludicrous, insane behavior of our fellow humans (although well within the bounds of recognized human pecadillos), is communicating a clear message. It’s a simple equation. The alien abductee is not regarded as something significantly different from the strange woman who had undergone repeated plastic surgeries to look more like a living Barbie doll. The intrusion of the otherworldly is summarily assigned to a realm of stupid human tricks, that is, people doing odd things, for odd reasons, but well within the bounds of recognized psychopathology.
A peculiarly human phenomena, oft noted by psychologists, is our propensity to express an opinion on absolutely anything, whether we are aware of any actual facts or evidence related to it. This was once thought to be particular to Americans, but the ubiquity of social media has evolved this into a global phenomenon. This has led to a certain uniformity in belief, that all expressions of the anomalistic are simply manifestations of the extremes of human experience, laughable and dismissible.
Perhaps, those anomalists amongst us share in the blame, as we recognize the entertainment value inherent in documenting the ways in which we respond bizarrely to a bizarre universe (and as Las Vegas waitresses are wont to say, “you never get down on anybody else’s hustle”). Yet, in the witching hours, I wonder if perhaps we are performing a disservice to our cause. We have spent millennia wondering, documenting, and investigating those pieces of the puzzle that do not fit into the accepted dogma of the day. Alchemy became chemistry. The great chain of being metamorphasized into evolution and quantum physics has begun to recapitulate ancient mysticism. We know what we know, at this moment in time, but we routinely discover that what we know now is a malleable thing, awaiting unexpected insights. Deep in the heart of what we believe to be true today, we find kernels of doubt, and the nascent seeds of what we will believe tomorrow. Yet, we strut about with a strange confidence in the supremacy of today’s logic, and today’s philosophy, and thereby with great self-assurance tell ourselves that there is no essential difference whatsoever between the religious ecstatic, the experiencer of strange phenomena, and the comically incompetent criminal.
The expansion of “Weird News”, reality TV, and the need to play more on the History Channel than documentaries about Nazis has a certain value. Folks can now make a living entertaining the wilder ideas about anomalistic phenomena (although I myself do this for free out of neurotic compulsion and have a day job). I’ve got bills, a mortgage, and mouths to feed, not to mention a complete lack of willingness to sacrifice myself for my art, such as it is. I get it. Sadly, with renewed amusement comes a certain uniformity in reports of strange phenomena, tending towards the aforementioned extremes of either the stupid things people do or the breathless anticipation that “hidden facts” are suddenly and shockingly being revealed to us through the medium of Giorgio Tsoukalos.
This is why I’m a tad maudlin about the sudden resurgence of strange phenomena as fodder for popular media. The potential for a paycheck, an audience, or a Wikipedia page is alluring and good work if you can get it, but perhaps the acceptance of the status of a carnival sideshow that it entails does a disservice to philosophy, science, and an understanding of what it means to be human. Try as we might, we are stuck with the inexplicable and the uncanny. Today’s anomalies may be tomorrow’s accepted fact, unavoidably supplanted by yet another set of strange phenomena. And maybe that’s the point. Regardless of time and place, Hunter S. Thompson’s maxim holds true in that, “The world is still a weird place, despite my efforts to make clear and perfect sense of it”.