Saturday, 14 May 2016

Most terrifying mysteries of the real world


There’s definitely an air of ‘the truth is out there’ this week, as we assess some strange and bewildering things that may actually exist in our world … though then again, they may not.

To start with, today’s book review will focus on Steve Alten’s epic action/horror tale of cryptozoology gone mad, MEG. It already enjoys classic status, but if you haven’t yet heard of it, think blue water and an unfeasibly massive dorsal fin cutting a bloody wake along a sun-drenched but worryingly depopulated coastline, and you won’t go far wrong.

For those who’ve only come here for the review, you’ll find it, as always, towards the lower end of this post. Be my guest and zoom on down. However, for those who’ve got a little more time on their hands, I first I thought it might be fun to trawl through my top 10 weird and scary photos from the internet and, where possible, offer real-world explanations for them.

Yes, you’ll most likely have seen several of these images before, if not all of them, but I dug around a bit and tried to come up with some relevant background info. Most, as you’ll see, are not actually as mysterious as they may initially appear, but one or two still defy understanding.
 
1. MEGALODON …


Megalodon, or Carcharodon megalodon, was the apex predator of the prehistoric ocean. In essence, a gargantuan shark, a 60 foot long, 50 ton killing machine, it is probably more deserving of the epithet ‘sea monster’ than any other aquatic creature that has ever lived.

It flourished primarily in the Cenozoic Era, and though there are fragments of archaeological evidence to suggest that specimens of Megalodon might have lived on until as recently as 10,000 years ago (a blip in evolutionary time between then and now!), the clever money is on them all being gone by the year 1,000,000 BC. 

However, when this incredible photograph first emerged in the early 2010s, purporting to show an image captured by German naval forces during World War Two just off Cape Town, it set the cryptozoological community’s head spinning.

Rumours had circled for years that Megalodon might still exist; the ocean’s extreme depths are largely unmapped, there have been many unexplained sinkings of ships, occasional so-called sightings, and so forth. But this picture looked like the first piece of real, solid evidence.

Except, sadly, that it wasn’t.

It was first presented as proof on Megalodon, The Monster Shark Lives, a mockumentary first aired by Discovery Channel in 2013, to which disclaimers attached to the programme before it was aired admitted that some of the evidence about to be screened was fictional.

As such, it is most likely to be a professionally-made fake.

German military forces never used the swastika watermark on their photographic records, the sepia-toning was unknown in military reconnaissance photography at that time, and the titanic dorsal fin, somewhat suspiciously, is leaving no wake. One independent researcher has even claimed to have found the actual footage from which this still was taken, and assures us there was no shark there beforehand, of any size.


2. THE LAST PHOTOGRAPH OF CHARLIE NOONAN …


This now famous American legend tells the tale of a roaming folklorist in the 1920s/30s called Charlie Noonan. According to the tales, Noonan would travel from state to state, seeking out strange and wonderful stories and looking to capture evidence for them on his box-camera. His final trip took him to Oklahoma at the time of the Dust Bowl. He was on the trail of a mysterious old woman who allegedly lived in an area of farmland that had completely died, and who supposedly “was not entirely human”.  It was never specified what the latter actually meant, but she was also said to be accompanied by a demonic hound.

Even then, in a time of despair, the whole thing sounded fanciful, but Noonan eventually got in touch with his wife and told her that he’d met a farmer who’d directed him to a shack where he believed the old woman lived. Noonan apparently set off, but was never heard from again. Several months later, news of his disappearance made the papers, and a Tulsa pawnbroker remembered an itinerant coming into his shop a few days earlier and selling him an old box-camera.

When the pawnbroker examined the camera, it was engraved with the name ‘Charles Noonan’. It also contained a roll of film, which the authorities subsequently developed. The above picture was the only image on the film.

This is certainly a spooky story, and while investigators have never uncovered anything to prove that it really happened – for example, Charlie Noonan is untraceable as a historical person – they have never been able to disprove it either. It first appeared online on a Creepypasta webpage, which may weaken its provenance in the eyes of some, though the author of that page asserted that he came into possession of it when an anonymous correspondent attempted to sell a clutch of supernatural images to a publishing house he was employed by at the time.
 

3. THE BLACK KNIGHT SATELLITE …



The ‘Black Knight Satellite’ is possibly our most well-known legend of outer space.

In essence, it is an unknown UFO which has reputedly been circling Earth in a near-polar orbit for the last 13,000 years, and from time to time beaming down indecipherable signals.
Conspiracy theorists claim that NASA astronauts have located and examined this elusive extraterrestrial object and, rather suspiciously, have kept the data to themselves. It is shrouded in mystery – even the origins of the name are unknown, but the scientific establishment denies its existence, putting the ‘sightings’ down to a combination of misidentified natural phenomena and science-fiction stories masquerading as truth.

The image above, one of several allegedly depicting the anomaly, is dismissed as a normal piece of space debris, probably connected to one of Earth’s own rocket or satellite launches.


4. THE EJDALLIM WITCHES …


Sometime in the early 2010s, a New Orleans photographer got creative with the wedding he was covering. With the happy event taking place in the city’s attractive French Quarter, the imaginative snapper decided to get some really memorable pix by going airborne (most likely by using a drone). The resulting shots were certainly different from the norm, especially these two, which were uploaded onto the internet from a photobucket account called ‘Edjallim’, and appear to depict a whole row of uninvited guests: weird, masked and hooded figures standing in a row on a balcony overlooking the ceremony.

Amazing theories soon abounded. Had some kind of cult attended the wedding in secret, perhaps to work a spell or maybe profane a Christian ritual? Was it possible the photographer had captured a bunch of ghosts? After all, this was at the rear of the Brulatour House, which was built in 1816 and had witnessed many real-life melodramas over the passing centuries.

Unfortunately, the truth is more mundane. The Brulatour House is an adjunct of the Historic New Orleans Museum, and the eerie figures were part of an installation created by artist Dawn DeDeux.


5. EDWARD MORDRAKE …



The mysterious and distressing case of Edward Mordrake has long been thought to be true. Not least because of this famous photograph of him, which has circulated the internet for years, but also because the most detailed reference to his case can be found in Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, a distinguished publication of 1896, penned by doctors George Gould and Walter Pyle.

According to this august account, Mordrake was heir to a lavish estate in England in the mid-19th century, but he was also born with a second face on the back of his skull. What was more, this second face was actually alive. Most of the time it was inert, though close examination revealed that some changes in its expression occurred when Mordrake was in an emotional state: it inclined towards a smile when he was happy (which wasn’t very often), and to a sneer when he was sad. However, Mordrake begged the medical men of his age to surgically remove it, as he claimed that each night, when he was in bed, it whispered hideous things to him “such as are only heard in Hell”.

When this dangerous treatment was refused, Mordrake became progressively more deranged, finally taking his own life at the age of 23. While such a birth defect is not impossible – modern medicine concludes that Mordrake was stricken by craniopagus parasiticus, a rare form of parasitic twinning – there is still every chance that his story is pure fiction.

Gould and Pyle admitted to never having examined him, and drawing all their conclusions from an earlier article written by a layman who they didn’t name, though modern researchers think that layman was Charles Hildreth, a poet and fantasy author, who in the Boston Post of 1895 quoted the non-existent Royal Scientific Society as proof of famous hybrids like the ‘Fishwoman of Lincoln’ and the ‘Half-Human Crab’ (of whom there are no records anywhere), and of course, ‘Edward Mordrake, the two-faced man’. Meanwhile, the sole physical evidence for Modrake’s life – the above photograph – actually depicts a wax model made long after he supposedly died, though where it resides today, nobody knows.


6. THE FALLING BODY …


Texan family, the Coopers, moved into their dream home sometime in the mid-1950s. On the first night in the new property, the father took this photograph of his wife, two children and mother-in-law. When the picture was exposed, this ghastly falling form appeared, even though the family swore that no-one else was present when the picture was taken, much less someone hanging upside down or falling from the ceiling.

It certainly looks ghostly and no completely convincing explanation has ever been offered, but attempts to track down the Cooper family in modern times have noticeably failed – which seems odd, and in addition analysts have pointed to minor details apparently indicating Photoshop activity.

It has also been suggested that this is a double-exposure, or even that the entire set-up is fake, the family nothing more than models posing for a contemporary ‘horror art’ exhibit. The only problem with this latter, more prosaic theory is that there’s no record of that ever happening either.


7. SKUNK APE …


In 2000, this image was mailed anonymously to the Sheriff’s Department in Sarasota County, Florida, and purports to show the terrifying ‘Skunk Ape’, an unknown hominid said to roam the swamplands of the American South. 

As weird and mysterious photographs go, this one is certainly impressive. The person who sent the picture withheld their name, but claimed to be a local female resident, who caught the image in her own back garden and said that that on three separate occasions the monstrous ape had approached the house in search of apples scattered in the yard. She herself thought it might be an escaped orangutan.

The picture’s origin has now been traced to the vicinity of the Myakka River, and though it may seem suspicious that the photographer has still not come forward, the official explanation – that this is an everyday black bear – seems unrealistic to me. This is like no black bear I’ve ever seen.


8. THE FACES OF BELMEZ …


From 1971, the Pereira house in Andalusia, Spain, became the scene of a famous so-called paranormal event, when human faces began to form naturally in the concrete on the main floor.
Sensation followed sensation when the floor was torn up and re-laid, and yet more faces appeared, only to disappear later and then reappear again. Some were said to have aged, others to have changed their expressions depending on the mood of the Pereira family.

Excavations later revealed that the house was constructed on an old burial site, which in the eyes of many parapsychologists confirmed that this was a genuine supernatural incident, though scientists also got in on the act, claiming to have found various traces of paint which suggested that it might have been an elaborate hoax.


9. MIDWESTERN MATRICIDE …



This legendary Halloween photograph depicts the Buckley Family, hardworking Midwest farm folk, whose happy life came to a grisly end sometime in the late 19th century.

The story goes that, as part of a Halloween prank, local kids decided to make dummies, behead them and then pose for photographs. The Buckley children – somewhat disturbed, it would seem – opted to join in the fun by decapitating their own mother. The photographer only realised that he had captured a real murder scene on film later on, when the plate was developed.

The police were quickly called and attended the house, only to find the children missing. They were never seen again, though the mother’s remains were still on the premises, partially eaten.

So goes the story, though sadly it’s another classic hoax. In actual fact, the original photo depicted a normal rural family; it was modern day Halloween artist, Edward Allen, who craftily and skilfully adjusted it into the scene of Victorian horror you see here and called it ‘Midwestern Matricide’.


10. THE WHOPPER HOPPER …



This infamous image is another curiosity that’s been making rounds of the internet for years, and is allegedly a record of a 1937 incident when a Montana farm labourer brought down a gigantic grasshopper near Miles City with a single blast of his trusty shotgun.

No further details have ever been made available: who the farmhand was, who the photographer was, what happened to the bizarre creature’s carcass afterwards, why it hadn’t been blown apart by his Winchester 12-gauge, etc.

As you may have guessed, the reasons for this are because the whole thing is a fake.

Comedic ‘whopper hopper’ images were quite popular in the American Midwest in the 1930s, a time and place when grasshopper hordes were posing a particular problem for agriculture and the local community did their best to put a brave face on it. Most of these images were sold as postcards or for advertising promos, and were never intended to be taken seriously.
Frank Conard of Garden City, Kansas, may well have been the genius behind this one. He made several such, using carved wooden grasshopper models as props.

*

THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.


MEG by Steve Alten (1997)

Former US Navy deep-sea diver, Jonas Taylor, is still haunted by the day he plumbed the bottom of the Mariana Trench and thought he glimpsed the long-extinct Megalodon. Few people took him seriously at the time, including Maggie, his ambitious TV reporter wife. Even though Taylor is now a civilian scientist, reasonably respected for his palaeontology work, Maggie knows that people still smirk behind his back and that this is no good for her career. As such, she embarks on a non-too-discreet affair with Bud Harris, Taylor’s former college buddy, who now leads a wealthy playboy lifestyle.

Taylor is thus at his lowest ebb when he is contacted by old friend Masao Tanaka, who runs a marine science operation. Tanaka has lost an earthquake-detecting submersible deep in the Mariana and wants Taylor to retrieve it for him with the aid of his two hotshot aquanaut kids, the adventurous, self-assured DJ and his sister, the uber-cool Terry.

Taylor is not enthusiastic about returning to the Trench, and his proposed assistants give him little confidence, DJ treating the whole Megalodon thing as a joke, Terry jealous and mistrustful that a non-family member is being brought into such a complex and costly enterprise.

Initially the recovery mission goes well. Though the descent into the Trench is horrific, Taylor starts to rediscover his old deep-sea diving touch. But then disaster strikes – DJ is attacked and killed by a colossal bioluminescent fish. The Megalodon …

It comes as no surprise to me that Steve Alten’s famous deep sea action/horror has been under option in Hollywood since 1997, or that it spawned a hatful of successful sequels. Because this is pure escapism at its best. Okay, even though the science sounds good I’m sure it doesn’t add up to much in reality – but who cares about that? Because this book has got everything that Jaws had, and more: clearly defined goodie and baddie characters, a hero with vulnerabilities, an exotic location (endless acres of cobalt-blue water!), and a gargantuan, near-indestructible monster, which according to cryptozoologists the world over could still very likely exist.

It’s also written in that wonderfully slick American style, especially the bone-jarring action sequences, which come thick and fast and at times seem to explode off the page.

A creature feature for sure, an ocean-borne Godzilla in which an ancient beast proves too mighty for all of man’s weapons, meaning that only a truly ingenious solution will fix it (and that solution turns out to be an absolute eye-popper). But great fun and another easy, rapid-fire read. One that anyone can happily get their teeth into (sorry).

As always, and it’s just a bit of fun, here are my picks for who should play the leads if Meg someday makes it to the screen (it’s allegedly been stuck in Development Hell for the last 18 years, somewhat uncharitably referred to as ‘Jurasssic Shark’ – but at last there are rumours that movements are now afoot, which is no surprise if true, as it’s too good a basic concept not to make it at some point):

Jonas Taylor – Jeremy Renner
Masao Tanaka – George Takei
Terry Tanaka – Anna Nagata
Maggie Taylor – Alice Eve
Bud Harris – Dustin Clare 

(PS: I've no idea who to credit for the marvelous image I use at the top of this column - no name was mentioned on the site where I found it. If the snapper responsible would like to get in touch, I'll happily credit him/her, or even, if they so wish, take it down).

2 comments:

  1. An excellent post, Paul. Even when you know some of the images aren't real they still make you shudder. I love sea creatures even though I'm pretty scared of them. The pic you've used here brings back memories of kayaking in the sea in Wales, and seeing lots of jellyfish around me - then I looked down and saw one almost as big as my kayak. I was terrified but also mesmerised by its beauty. It inspired the title story of my new story collection, They Move Below. I always think horror works best when it evolves from something genuine. By the way, I lvvoe the fact that you didn't just review a book, but filled the post with all sorts of interesting material that created the right atmosphere!

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  2. Thanks very much, Karl. Jellyfish are certainly a dangerous prospect when you're out swimming. Some species that live in the abyssal depths are aboslute giants.

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