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Mothman Prophecies and Cognitive Treadmills [Trenchant Edges]
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 34 seconds. Contains 1516 words
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, a newsletter kind of on hold because I’m working too much elsewhere.
I’m Stephen, your host, and I wanted to pop back and talk a bit about a book I’ve been reading, The Mothman Prophecies by John Keel.
Last year we spent a lot of time focusing on UFOs and UFOlogists. As part of that hunt, I read about a dozen books and read a ton of ancillary material. Which in the world of UFOs is barely even scratching the surface.
If it even counts that much.
Two names I didn’t really get into then kept coming up: Jacque Vallee and John Keel.
I’d always kind of written Keel off because Mothman just seemed too weird to even be possible. But it turns out Keel and I have plenty in common on that front. Valee’s corpus will wait till later, but Keel has a bigger blockbuster title.
I knew things were going to get good when I came across this paragraph:
“I abandoned the extraterrestria l hypothesis in 1967 when my own field investigations disclosed an astonishing overlap between psychic phenomena and UFOs ... The objects and apparitions do not necessarily originate on another planet and may not even exist as permanent constructions of matter. It is more likely that we see what we want to see and interpret such visions according to our contemporary beliefs.”
And later on, he elaborates on the historical depth of the phenomena.
"During the witchcraft craze of a few hundred years ago, people really thought they saw witches flying through the air... with lanterns hanging from the front of their brooms. The vampire legends of middle Europe are almost identical to the modern UFO lore. As late as the nineteenth century the devil existed as a physical personage to many people.
If you saw a strange light in the sky in 1475 you knew it had to be a witch on a broom because you had heard of others who had seen witches on brooms skirting the treetops. Now in 1975 you might decide it is attached to a spacecraft from some other planet. This conclusion is not a qualified deduction on your part. It is the result of years of propaganda and even brainwashing. If you are under thirty, you grew up on a diet of comic books, motion pictures, and television programs which educated you to believe in the extraterrestrial hypothesis. A small knot of nits has talked to your year after year on interview programs, telling you how the sinister air force has been keeping the truth about flying saucers from the public; that truth being that UFOs are the product of a superior intelligence with an advanced technology, and that the flying saucers have come to save us from ourselves. The gods of ancient Greece are among us again, in a new guise but still handing out the old line. Believe.
Belief is the enemy."
And this is a challenge: If you have a theory, a slew of processes in the brain and mind rework things to fit it. This is a basic fact one has to deal with.
Especially when dealing with phenomena apparently sensitive to one's state of mind more than physical conditions.
“The UFOs do not seem to exist as tangible, manufactured objects. They do not conform to the accepted natural laws of our environment. They seem to be nothing more than transmogrifications tailoring themselves to our ability to understand. The thousands of contacts with the entities indicates that they are liars and put-on artists, the UFO manifestations seem to be, by and large, merely minor variations of the age-old demonological phenomenon.”
It seems more or less clear to me that a lot of folklore and UFOs overlap pretty well. Call it demonology, call it fairies, call it whatever you like.
But that brings up the challenge of how much of any paranormal researcher one should take seriously.
Keel tells stories of mysterious birds, missing time, places that terrify for no rational reason, inexplicable phone calls, odd people who are definitely fairies, and constant harassment of witnesses by dark forces.
And dozens of other stories.
One way to look at this is he's providing a ton of evidence.
Another way is that he's only providing the most shallow evidence and that no matter how many chainlinks you make out of smoke you're never going to tie down the truth with it.
If you examine the depth of each claim made, they're insubstantial. And simply by being the star of the book Keel makes himself suspicious.
Now, I'll grant that he comes off as sincere and says a lot of the right things. Unlike the stars of the paranormal research show Hellier which I watched a disappointing episode of last night.
There was a moment where a girl had drawn a 3 toed footprint and a generic monster face that they oversold as being exactly like what they were looking for.
Keel wouldn't have played it as the most conclusive evidence and he would have been all the more persuasive for it.
Anyway, I shouldn't mess with ghost shows. Too much sizzle, not enough steak.
One of the challenges of having both a skeptical mind and a slew of dubious experiences is how much trust to place in others with similar claims.
Keel almost oozes sincerity. But again and again, he describes things even I'm pretty sure can't happen.
As literature, it's superb. But if even 10% of this is true I don't understand anything about reality.
No surprise most people just ignore this shit.
Like vampires, if you invite weirdness into your life and there's any around it'll oblige you.
Is there anything to be gained from it? I'm less sure.
I think of the guy from our investigation last year. Dude sacrificed so much of his life. For what?
The rush of secret knowledge? The smug assurance he knows better than everyone? The sheer pleasure of the puzzle?
I don't know.
Things worked out for me, but what the fuck good is that? Maybe I just quit looking before I ran out of luck.
I don't know.
Maybe here's the answer: despite the incessant hype of commercial society, there are times and places where things are far better and worse than advertised.
That fact scratches something deep in my soul.
What are those strange lights in the sky? Who can say?
Reminds me of a bit from Welcome to Night Vale:
“We understand the lights. We understand the lights above the Arby's. We understand so much. But the sky behind those lights, mostly void, partially stars, that sky reminds us: We don't understand even more.”
That sense of awe and humility in an infinite universe that just might be comprehensible is one of my favorite things about being alive.
If we imagine learning as a race, paranormal research like UFOs is a race where the ground shifts and twists beneath you like you’re on a treadmill.
You can sink whole lifetimes of effort and skepticism in them and not ever really be closer to an answer than you started with.
Does that make them a trap to be avoided? Maybe. Or maybe they’re a place to work out your mind in a weird and novel context.
The trick, I think, is to recognize that you’re almost certainly never going to reach the goal no matter how close it looks. That’s just your brain priming you for more running on the treadmill.
Or something else entirely ;-)
There’s always enough doubt to write the fringes off your map and always enough fringe that people will want to map it. What do we know now about UFOs that we didn’t in 1960? In 1950?
Lots of lore, lots of sightings. Lots of data.
And looking for that one piece of evidence so good it’ll overturn all disbelief is a delicious-looking carrot.
And hell, what’s the harm in checking?
Time. And Opportunity Cost.
One of my, “I’m not like other cranks” beliefs is that I don’t take other people’s lack of interest or competence in investigating weirdness personally. Is that true? Sure. Does it make me not like other cranks? Probably not. But there’s always vanity in these things.
The costs in bits of your life you could spend better or alienation are real enough.
That’s where I’m at about UFOs and their associated mysteries right now.
Lots of activity and theorizing, little fact.
And that’s OK with me. Ambiguity tolerance is an important skill to cultivate in our wicked world.
And so we carry on anyway, no matter how strange the world gets.
*cue ad music*
If you like our logo here, I’ve made a bunch of stickers for it. They’re quite neat.
So I’ll leave you with my UFO hot take: The main reason fringe topics like UFOs and paranormal research is shunned in the US doesn’t have anything to do with the validity of those topics or even the number of frauds involved and everything to do with “protestant work ethic” snobs hating on people following their unproductive curiosity and sincere interest.
Ooops, all capitalism!
Anyway, I’ll see y’all on Sunday back permitting.