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When we think of monsters we automatically think of Dragons, of maybe King Kong, or perhaps the Loch Ness Monster. Through myth, media or mystery, such monsters almost become part of our psyche. However, there is another category of monster – creatures, or even strange people, who seem to invade the world briefly, and then disappear, becoming nothing but a puzzle at the extremities of paranormal literature. Let’s have a few examples. DEMON AND GASSER

One night in April 1977 a teenager was driving near Dover, Massachusetts, when he saw an entity with large head, protruding eyes, long, thin limbs and peach-coloured skin. Two hours later, another teenager saw the same entity. The following night, what became known as the Dover Demon was seen by another teenager for one last time. Researchers subsequently matched the entity to the pygmy Mannegishi, a mythological creature believed in by the nearby Cree Native Americans. Several decades earlier, in September 1944, the residents of Mattoon, Illinois, were terrorised for nearly a fortnight by a Mad Gasser, a tall, dark-clad man with a tight-fitting hat. First seen as a shadowy figure outside houses, the gasser eventually squirted something into people’s bedrooms, resulting in temporary paralysis.


The Mothman terrorised Point Pleasant in West Virginia for several years in the 1960s. A grey, tall creature with wings, no head, human legs and red eyes in its chest, it was seen on over a hundred occasions. Some researchers associated it with ‘Big-hoot’, a Native American legendary monster, whilst journalist John Keel, who investigated it in the 1970s, associated it with the UFO phenomenon. So engrossed in the case was Keel that he began hearing voices, and all kinds of phenomena exploded around him.


Perhaps the most famous such entity was Spring Heeled Jack, who terrorized Britain from 1837 to 1904. Described as a cloaked figure with red eyes, pointed ears and talons, he could breathe fire and jump over houses. Usually attacking young women, clawing at them and breathing fire into their faces, it is interesting that such savage attacks didn’t leave permanent injuries.


The nature of the above manifestations can be adequately explained by a concoction of hallucination and hysteria. Even the paralysis involved with the Mad Gasser can be put down to sleep paralysis, a phenomenon where the body reacts to the mind at the borders of sleep. Of course, you may disagree with that brief analysis, but the point I want to explore in this essay is not so much the ‘mechanics’ of the incidents, but what causes them in the first place. To do so, please accept, for the moment, my above explanation. Also, I want you to imagine that the ‘entities’ experienced came from a common thread of experience, made different only by the culture involved in the experience.


When we do this, a possible explanation can be found, which also ties in with the more obvious ‘entity’ manifestations such as aliens, vampires and a host more. And it all revolves around what we class as ‘culture’. In one sense, culture is the collective input of artists, musicians and storytellers, enriching a society and giving it meaning. However, could it also be that culture is a social force in its own right, not only giving meaning, but representation of experience? In this sense, we can see culture as a kind of ‘over mind’, directing, from above the individual, his thoughts, beliefs and experiences. Hence, life becomes a tug-of-war of ideals born from the individual AND culture.


Into this dual form of experience and meaning we can place ‘media’. In effect, media is that form of cultural transmission throughout a culture of current news, ideals and symbols to guide, entertain and inform. Much of this media outpouring is of no consequence, and is forgotten, but occasionally a ‘story’ arises that continues to fascinate, and can even become part of the overall culture in itself. Of course, ‘media’, in this sense, is more than newpapers, television, etc. It is also the transmission of gossip, beliefs and stories, which may, or may not be true, but nonetheless can take on a life of their own.


Just how fundamental can be this expression of media within culture? The famed Angels of Mons can offer insight. Appearing when the British Expeditionary Force fought to bring the German onslaught to a halt during World War One, a typical case was that of a Lt Col who reported a retreat during the night, escorted by a column of ghostly cavalry. Most researchers answer the mystery by way of a short story, The Bowmen, by Arthur Machen. Appearing in the Evening Standard on 29 September 1914, it tells a tale of the British being helped by the appearance of Agincourt archers. The angels thus become simple battlefield hallucinations common during such campaigns, made more stark by a story upon which to focus. However, as the campaign progressed, stories began to emerge of an even more fundamental nature, removing them from simple hallucinations. However, as to their validity, we must introduce characters such as Phyllis Campbell, a patriotic nurse at a Mons dressing station. Hearing stories of angels from injured soldiers, she was one of many who went on to embellish the stories in an attempt to prove God was on the side of the British.


We can see, in the above, how a ‘culture’ can be interpreted by ‘media’, leading to the manifestation of phenomena. Normal psychological ideosyncracies are enforced, giving character to what is seen in terms of cultural hopes, fears and desires. This can work in society as a whole. For instance, if we take the Mad Gasser, fears were high throughout America at the time of attacks from Nazi Germany, including gas attacks. It was inevitable that, somewhere, sometime, such a phenomenon as the Mad Gasser would appear. But why Mattoon? The city has associations with war in its culture due to the future President Grant taking his first post there during the Civil War. A high spiritual element exists in their culture by being beside an Amish community. Still in their consciousness was a fear of disaster following some 100 deaths during a tornado there in 1917. And the town was, at that time, undergoing an oil boom, complete with fears of gas leaks from the field.


We can see, in Mattoon, influences that make it a perfect location for the hallucinated expression of a fear within the society of the United States at that time. Basically, it had to happen somewhere, and Mattoon fitted the cultural bill A similar scenario exists with Spring Heeled Jack. He attacked young women at just the time when society decreed, through an increasingly militant feminism, that they didn’t automatically have to be chaperoned at night. Indeed, attacks in London increased when the Mayor spoke in public of the dangers of such attacks. As for the Dover Demon and Mothman, they appeared at just the time that America had a growing New Age movement which pricked the conscience of America as to its treatment of Native Americans. Indeed, their mythological ‘beings’ were popping up all over the place, the most famous being Sasquatch, or Bigfoot.


It is here that we can see the importance of studying these ‘monsters’ at the edge of paranormal literature. Caused by cultural expression leading to phenomena, Sasquatch shows their future progression if they capture culture’s imagination in a big way. They become, in effect, national, or even global, phenomena, and continue to be sighted. With this information, their importance is equally enlarged. Consider the idea that the UFO phenomenon could be a cultural expression arising at the time that we dreamt of going into space. The present UFO flap began in 1947, and the sighting by Kenneth Arnold that produced global headlines. And within ten days, a flying saucer ‘crashed’ near Roswell, New Mexico. How relevant is the fact that the area contained the only atomic bomb squadron in the world? Where else could it have manifested other than by the leading edge scientific and military unit on the globe?


Paranormal phenomena and cultural expression go hand in hand, with culture the director of what will be manifested, as well as when and where. It is as if an ‘over mind’ above us decides what we will experience. Even Spiritualism can fall into line with this idea. After all, it is no coincidence that the seminal incident of Spiritualism concerned the two Fox sisters communicating with a ‘dead pedlar’ in New York State in 1848. Spiritualism gave a new ‘occupation’ to the housewife, with mediums being predominantly women and gaining financial and cultural independence from the practice. How strange that the central moment of the rise of feminism was born from the first feminist conference - in New York State in 1848.

© Anthony North, September 2007

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