Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Big Black Cats and Goat Eating Otters

Halloween is a time for ghosts and goblins, candy and jack-o-lanterns, screams, and spooky stories told in the dark of night around a roaring campfire. And who can have a good Halloween story without a mysterious black cat somewhere in it? The more mysterious it is, the better the story. The bigger he his, the more fearsome he becomes. If his eyes glow an eerie yellow, all the better! If he's lurking right close to us, it's time keep our ears and eyes open and move in a little closer to the campfire. The only thing that would make the story more frightening was if we knew for certain and without a doubt that he was real and lurking around somewhere in the darkness, looking for an easy victim.

Earlier this month, I was able to listen to some fantastic stories at the 2011 Texas Bigfoot Conference that was held by the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy. There were many excellent speakers there, but these weren't Halloween campfire story tellers. They were doctors, specialists, and authors from many different fields of study. There were photographs shown, evidence presented, theories analyzed, and questions both asked and answered. Some of the stories of interest were not specifically on the Bigfoot phenomena, but on the mysterious large black cats that have been reported and told about in many parts of the United States, including Texas, which was the focus of the days presentation. Chester Moore, author, executive editor of Texas Fish & Game, Outdoors Editor for the Orange Leader and Port Arthur News, and consultant for the Animal Planet, The Travel Channel, and National Geographic, gave an excellent presentation on these mysterious animals and told some stories worthy of not only campfires, but of classrooms and anyone interested in the subject of mysterious animals.

Many skeptics will say that there's no such animal as a large black cat in the U.S. They will say that there's not a chance. First of all, as explained by Moore, there is no "black panther", as they are commonly referred to. There is no such species in existence. It is simply a generic term used to describe large black cats, usually Jaguars. Melanistic cougars are tossed up as an explanation for the sightings, but are quickly ruled out because there's never been so much as a photo taken of a melanistic cougar. The only one close to being black was in a grainy black and white photograph taken in Costa Rica in 1954 of a dark brown one that was killed. According to Mr. Moore, as many cougars as there are in the Americas, there's never been any melanistic ones photographed, observed, tagged, shot, or trapped. Legends of escaped circus animals or exotic pets and their descendants are told by believers to explain the black cat's existence, but this theory also has it's flaws. The main one being that an escaped large cat that has spent it's life in captivity does not know how to hunt enough to survive. Unlike feral house cats, they need more than a mouse or a bird to live. They can make a kill out of an easy target, but hunting for years in order to feed itself and it's young is extremely unlikely. This is evident by observations made by refuge employees who have been unsuccessful to reintroduce captive Tigers to wild habitats. The evidence seems to be pointing away from the existence of large black cats in the U.S., but as the saying goes, don't count your chickens before they hatch.

People are often accused of seeing things or making up stories when they see these large black cats. Sometimes they're even told that they're seeing somebody's big black domestic American Shorthair and, while letting their wild imagination get a hold of the best of themselves, they think they're seeing some mysterious and fabled beast. I should know. I used to have a large black domestic-bobcat hybrid (rumored to be) who, after proudly walking the perimeter of our rail fence and chasing many a dog away, was probably exaggerated in stories told by the neighborhood kids and the superstitious friends. But large black cats are here in the U.S. and they're not the subjects of fables, exaggerations, or misidentifications. They're very real.

We ask if it could then be something like the "black panthers" of South America, which are really melanistic jaguars? "Nah, this isn't topical South America", we're told. Doubters who are stuck on the images of black jaguars leaping through vine covered trees to avoid the flooding Amazon will say that the climate and terrain just isn't suitable for them. The curious will also ask, if they're jaguars, why aren't we seeing spotted ones. The truth, as told during Moore's presentation, is that the southern U.S. has in fact been host to spotted jaguars. According to wildlife maps drawn up in the 1940's, there were jaguars as far east as Mississippi. However, as time passes and wild areas are taken over by subdivisions and factories, animals that once roamed the countrysides move around to avoid us and are soon forgotten about. Maps are redrawn to reflect not only sightings and lack of, but the possible worries of industries who are encouraged to feel uncomfortable about being in territories that beautiful, wild and mysterious creatures call home. If they were here before though, there's a possibility that they're still around. This is especially so, given the large amount of wild habitat that is actually left, combined with the shrinking number of people who are quick to shoot a predator who is stalking their farm. In the process of human expansion, we've actually made nice little pockets of very inviting habitat for some very interesting creatures. The fact that jaguars are currently known by biologists to live in Arizona and New Mexico are proof. The numerous reports from Texas and Louisiana concerning spotted jaguars that Moore has received or reviewed just adds to that proof.

Though it's true that the melanistic gene in jaguars is not that common, it's highly possible. It even seems that there are more reports of black jaguars than spotted ones. If it is indeed jaguars that are being spotted, the answer could be very simple. It's been thought by biologists that melanism presents an advantage in animals that are inhabiting areas where a black coat would be handy. Dark and shady dense forests would be prime. There are even pockets in Asia for example where most of the leopards are melanistic. Since most of the states where large black cats are spotted contain this type of landscape, and since melanistic bobcats have been proven to exist in the southeastern part of the U.S., it's not too surprising to think that there could be areas where melanistic jaguars could be more populous than spotted ones.

Another culprit for the "black panther" sightings, as stated by Moore, could be the jaguarundi. Our habitat is so suited to them that he believes most of the black cat sightings could be attributed to the jaguarundi. He himself saw one in Jefferson County in southeast Texas ten years ago. In the 1960s there was even an abundance of reports of them around the Galveston and Port Arthur areas of southeast Texas. In 1984, there were unconfirmed reports of a local biologist seeing three of them. Seeing that jaguarundis can grow as long as four feet (sometimes larger) and are usually brown to dark grey and black in color, the jaguarundi could in fact be the subject of many of our state's "black panther" sightings.

Before the evening was up, there were several stories told at the conference about sightings of large black cats. A few of these stories reflected one of the problems with any cryptozoological subject: the unwillingness of some people to look past what's commonly cited as normal or official and admit that we don't really know what's out there. As Moore jokingly mocked, "we're not going to go there because it says that in the book". He later related the story of a woman who gave a television interview after seeing a large black cat carry away one of her goats (one that weighed in at about one hundred pounds) near her home in Vidor, Texas. Of course a wildlife official appeared on the segment offering his opinion. Did the official investigate the woman's sighting? Was she asked questions out of concern for an undocumented large cat killing livestock? No. He merely stated that "it could have been an otter". No need to be alarmed and nothing to worry about. It's just an otter large enough to carry away a one hundred pound goat. Call me crazy, but that seems more worthy of investigating than a large black cat.

After the evidence is presented and the stories are told, it definitely appears that it is very possible for a species of large black feline to be roaming certain areas of the U.S.. What it is exactly remains unclear. Should we be frightened and include it in our campfire stories? It won't hurt to include them in an embellished story or two. After all, they are elusive, highly intelligent, and very mysterious. But there's no need to be frightened. In this day and time, we're far more prone to falling victim to someone driving while on the phone or from being mauled by someone's abused dog than we are being attacked by one of these beautiful creatures. If I were you though, the next time you're outside, alone in the dark, hold your kids close to you and keep your eyes and ears open for the legendary goat killing otter of southeast Texas.

Reverend Chaos (aka Shawna Lowman)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Tales of Mr. Smiley and Philip Aylesford

(Originally published October 8, 2010; edited July 2, 2011)

I started to write a serious article. Something all 'scientificky' about poltergeist phenomena or Bigfoot. But then I thought, "..gosh darn-it. It's Halloween. I want to tell something scary." And then I thought about what's more scary, mystery or reality? Of course all the philosophers will say mystery. You know, the whole "fear of the unknown" line of thought. And it's true, the unknown is scary. Then I thought about how scary reality can be too. So I decided to tell about Mr. Smiley's grave and how Philip Aylesford's story could explain it.

Long ago, while reading about many of the ghost stories and sightings around Texas, I came across a couple of tales about Mr. Smiley's grave. Mr. Smiley, they say, was a very mean man. Mean and crazy. He was so mean that he eventually took it out on his poor wife and children. He shot them and then shot himself one night. If you want proof, their grave is in a small cemetery near Garland Texas in Mills Cemetery. The tombstone is of moderate size and has all five names clearly engraved in the stone. Mr. Smiley, his beloved wife, and three children are all listed there. They rest below in a single mass grave. At least four of them are resting...

The locals say that the cemetery is peaceful by day. It's a well kept one with a manicured lawn and dotted with shade trees. But some will also tell you that it is not the place to be after dark. This is because Mr. Smiley is apparently still angry. He's so angry with what he's done to himself and his family that he's trying to take it out on someone else. He's trying to drag you down with him, as the saying goes.

If you go to the Smiley family's grave well after dark, people say that strange things will be felt and seen. Around Halloween is best. On Halloween is even better. Halloween at midnight is almost a certainty. Stand on top of the grave and they say that Mr. Smiley will try to pull you in. He'll grab your ankles and try to pull you off balance. This is no joke. People have actually stood on his grave and felt this, along with the sadness of the horrible event and a mysterious light in the cemetery.

A while back, I dug around and found out that the Smiley family really died in a tornado. The same tornado also claimed the lives of some of the family's relatives and several others in the town, including the Mayor.

This is just another one of those tales that we often run across when looking for ghost stories and sightings. The real stories are often forgotten, but later gain a new life when someone sees the mass grave of an entire family in a cemetery that they're strolling through for the first time. Such a grave, one containing both parents and children, often spurs images of a terrible disaster. Rightfully so, but those mental images of a nameless disaster that one can only imagine also bring about legends that are many times more scary than just a family's tombstone in a cemetery. It's normal too. That's why the stories are spun and told. They're supposed to scare you.

The feeling of being off balance could be explained by disorientation caused by standing on even slightly uneven ground and relaxing your body or closing your eyes. The orbs, unless there is something just amazingly abnormal and rare about them, are most likely air borne particles. The sadness? That's going to occur with anyone who's sensitive (or not) and see's the names of an entire family on one grave. What about the light around the cemetery? Perhaps it's the reflection of something, or maybe distant car headlights. Perhaps it, like the feeling of being pulled in (if anyone has actually experienced it), could all be from the imagination. What if so many people believing the same thing is making something happen somehow?

Think about it for a second. It's possible for someone to concentrate on a subject in a manner that will cause them to dream about it at night. Perfectly sane people do it all the time when lucid dreaming. Why can't that be done when awake, resulting in someone to see something that they want to see? This could be a perfectly rational explanation for the sightings of lone witnesses.

Then there's the story of Philip Aylesford. He was from England and lived sometime in the 1600s. He was a devout supporter of the King and was married to the daughter of a nearby nobleman. Sometime after his marriage, Philip came to know a Gypsy woman who was from a nearby encampment. After instantly falling in love with her, he had her carried to the stables of his family's manor in secret. One thing led to another and Philip's wife eventually found out. The Gypsy was put on trial and then burned at the stake for being a witch. Soon after, Philip decided that he would take his own life. He jumped to his death one night from the battlements that he often paced at his home.

Philip's story isn't entirely true either. He never lived. His story was created by members of the Toronto Society for Psychical Research who conducted an experiment in the the early 70s to see if they could create a ghost. They started off by creating Philip entirely from scratch. Like a character in a movie, they picked his age, his looks, his occupation, his background, how he died, his family, and so on. Then they imagined that he was haunting the place. Dr. A.R.G. Owen, an expert researcher on poltergeist phenomena, guided the TSPR on conducting their experiment. Seven other people from TSPR were used as guinea pigs to pretend this ghost existed. A psychologist, Dr. Joel Whitton, also sat in as an observer on many of the group's sessions. What happened after that? After about a year of trying, Philip began to make himself known.

The incidents were documented too. It really happened. There were witnesses, film, audio, and doctors present. It started with an episode at a seance where tapping on the table was noted. Objects began to levitate in later sessions. Using the taps, he would even communicate with the group by responding to their questions about his life. To my knowledge, at least three other research groups have conducted similar experiments afterward and have succeeded. So, it appears that this is very much possible. I'm sure it's not the case with all hauntings, of course. There are too many documented ones that don't fit the bill and are witnessed by lone families or single individuals, some of them even non-believers, in places with no known history or influence. But still, it apparently can happen. The TSPR proved that it was possible. They made Philip a reality.

When you think about it, that's more scary than the story of Mr. Smiley.

Reverend Chaos (aka Shawna Lowman)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

I See Dead Skin

Last year, I was given the news that a reputable Bigfoot research organization here in Texas was headed to a school to give lessons to local school children. To teach them about Bigfoot? Not entirely, but they did use their search for Bigfoot as an example to teach something that paranormal researchers deem just as important: Critical thinking and rational skepticism when investigating scientific enigmas. This, I feel, is especially true in my favorite paranormal subject, ghosts and hauntings.

One of the most important aspects of researching and investigating the paranormal is critical thinking and rational skepticism. Some people who are into the paranormal see the word "skeptic" and they see a bad word. They despise it and the people who label themselves as such. But for those who are more than just "into the paranormal" and actually spend long hours of pouring over information and research on it, skepticism can be our best friend. In investigating, in true scientific fashion, we must not only try to prove, but try to disprove as well. In fact, that's one of the first things that should be done. It doesn't make our job easier. It actually makes it more tasking and hard. But it makes it more honest. It makes it honest with ourselves, with others in the field, and with those who are acquiring an interest in the subject.

"In true scientific fashion". That phrase is scary to some fans of the paranormal because we all know what those in the realm of orthodox science think about much of the subject. But, let's face it... There is no hard scientific evidence of ghosts. Even the most reputable researchers can't even agree on what exactly a ghost is and why the phenomena occurs. If they claim that they do, it's out of belief. Maybe someday undeniable proof and hard evidence will be found. Until then, all we can prove is that something anomalous is occurring and that there are things happening that have no explanation. We have to prove that there is something paranormal going on. To do this, we have to be skeptical and critical because science, I firmly think, has the answers. The science is already there. It's been there because science does not change. The only thing about science that changes is the minds and biases of the scientists. It's the job of the researchers and investigators to change those minds. And they will never change unless we put on our lab coats, put a little investigative forensics into the field, and start getting down to business and prove that not all that happens has a conventional explanation.

We have to look at things with a discerning eye and try and not let preconceived beliefs get the better of us. When a strange sound is heard, we have to search around and rule out normal causes. They can range from a cougar's scream (possibly the cause of many of the "screaming woman" sounds) to large black walnuts hitting a tin roof in Autumn and making us believe that Old Man Jones doesn't want us in his barn. When a sighting of an apparition is seen, we have to use our equipment to try and rule out non-paranormal causes. How many ghost enthusiasts out there know that electromagnetic energy can cause hallucinations, dizziness, and other symptoms in perfectly healthy people? We have to ask questions. We have to hit the libraries and courthouses to study the history of the places that we investigate. We have to hit the science books and learn all we can about the world we live in so that we can rule out worldly causes.

Why do we want to disprove something that we're trying to prove? We're not. We're trying to weed out what we're not hunting for. It will take longer to find Bigfoot if we automatically treat every sighting and photo as authentic. Psychic ability will never be believed by those who write the science books if we don't rule out the possibility of subconscious influence or stage magic. UFOs will never be confirmed as extra-terrestrial in origin if we treat every weather balloon sighting as a ship piloted by a little green man. The existence of ghosts will never go past being a hypothesis if we keep concentrating on 'possum dander in digital photographs.

Some people will think that if you keep being so skeptical, you're never going to find anything. Not true. You'll find something eventually, just have patience. Sure, you can walk away from a place after hearing a strange sound or seeing a strange sight and inaccurately say "Yep, it's haunted" without really properly examining. It is fun for some and it does get people interested. But if we really want to call ourselves "investigators" or "researchers", then we have to put on the researcher hat, get down to business, and do ourselves and the paranormal community justice. If you really investigate, you'll rule out a lot of what's seen and heard as being normal. That's part of the fun of investigating. But if you investigate enough places while asking the right questions, you'll eventually find a place where you can walk away while honestly saying, "there is definitely something paranormal going on here". That is the first step in finding answers to what, as of now, has no answers.

Yeah, I said it. "Possum dander".

Reverend Chaos (aka Shawna Lowman)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Bumps in the Daylight and Monsters in the File Cabinets

"And sometimes to this day, when the sun is out and the birds are singing, when the roadsides are covered with wildflowers, you can smell freshly baked bread and hear sweet old Mrs. Johnson's sewing machine humming away in the distance. If you're really lucky, you might even get a glimpse of her ghost, wearing her favorite sun bonnet and pulling weeds around the place where her little cabin once sat."

Not a very spooky ending to a ghost story told around a campfire late at night, is it? It's definitely not. And because of it not being very spooky, stories like this are all too often overlooked when digging around for haunting legends to investigate. However, stories like this are out there and not uncommon at all. Sadly, they're largely ignored in favor of the thrill of night time investigations and hunting.

Most ghost hunters these days focus on spooky places at dark. Why? Probably because of the age old superstition and misconception of "ghosts only come out at night", combined with a various assortment of bits and pieces of beliefs and mythology from all over the world... Light is positive, dark is negative. Three A.M. is the "anti-hour". Let's not forget the witching hour of course, and tons of other beliefs pertaining to the dark of night. All of those reasons equate in some form or another to some type of negativity and somewhere along the passage of time, ghosts were thrown into that mix of negative things that are associated only with the dark and night.

Of course, to many ghost hunters, it's also just more spooky at night. It's part of the thrill of the chase. Old superstitions and fears that we don't even think we have lay hidden in the subconscious and add to that thrill. You can't see everything around you and the absence of daytime nose pollution, in addition to the sounds that only manifest while most of us are sleeping, enables one to hear things that many are not normally used to hearing. Screech owls in the back of the property bring about startled utterances of "Oh my God, what was that!?". Stray cows mournfully bellowing out for their bedded down herd makes the unaccustomed want to run for their cars. Even the small and harmless out-of-site armadillos shuffling and rooting through the pine straw and undergrowth leaves impressions of a 400 pound unknown beast trampling around in the dark while watching your every move.

Often times though when the suggestion is made to investigate or begin an investigation at daylight, the suggestion is met with hesitation and the sense of spoiling the fun. That's fine if you're into ghost hunting for just that thrill or to wear the badge of "I'm a ghost hunter and I walk around cemeteries and abandoned houses at night because I fear nothing". But for the serious investigator, the one who gains fun, enjoyment, and a thrill from the critical and analytical aspect of investigating the unknown, for the one who likes to keep objectivity in mind and biases out, it's just plain common sense to have an investigation during daylight, or at least arrive during daylight hours for a pre-investigation inspection. Sometimes people learn that when they go the old local house place that's rumored to be haunted and find nothing at night, but later hear someone make the comment of "you should have went there in the early afternoon. That's when the grounds keepers always smell freshly caught fish under that old oak tree". Sometimes people learn when they arrive at the popular haunted cemetery after dark to see gates locked and "no visitors after dark" signs posted.

Many reputable and long time paranormal researchers have stated that the best evidence is often captured during the daytime. According to them, the evidence tends to be of better quality due to the fact that night time photography and video has limitations because of the lack of light. According to some, up to 80 percent of the unexplainable apparitions caught on film were done so during daylight. Stephen Wagner, who writes for the paranormal section of About.com, has stated that in the collection of photos that he's acquired over the years, the majority of the truly unexplainable ones were taken during the day. Long time investigators and researchers (Price, Holzer, Auerbach, Southall, Chacon, etc...) have all documented unexplainable phenomena during the day. Such phenomena from apparitions to heavy poltergeist activity have all been witnessed during broad daylight.

The office that my mother formerly worked at during the day was often plagued with unexplained occurrences. The occurrences soon turned into to allegations of the office, a former apartment building, being haunted. They had toilets to flush by themselves, heard footsteps on the old wooden floors, and several of the ladies working there were even witness to a drawer in one the file cabinets suddenly and quickly opening all the way up. The incidents were truly unexplainable. After checking, no one was in the back that could have walked through the hall. Everyone was busy with paperwork and not in the bathroom. And everyone in the main section of the office were sitting there at their desks when the cabinet opened up by itself right in front of them. So many strange things happened there that the resident office skeptic soon turned into a believer, acknowledging that something was going on that couldn't be explained by his rational sense of logic.

A good friend of mine who is somewhat sensitive to ghosts has had quite a number of experiences during the day. She's experienced the sighting of a man wearing overalls outside her house, heard whistling and shuffling in the grass while doing chores outside, has heard someone moving around dishes and utensils in the dish strainer when there was no one there, and many other experiences. She's said that probably thirty percent of the things that happen around her place happen during the day. Daytime phenomena at her place is not in the majority, but it's definitely not rare when it happens.

Another good friend of mine relayed a story to me about the house that a friend's friend lived in at one time. The friend stood in amazement one day while a commode seat lifted up and then closed back down repeatedly. They later moved from the house after coming home one afternoon and seeing all of the kitchen cabinet doors wide open and their contents laying in the middle of the floor.

Of course those are just local incidents. If they can happen here in a place that is not famous for it's hauntings, it seems to reason that they could happen anywhere. Many daytime visitors to the former Civil War battlefields have reported apparitions as well as the smell of gunpowder, disembodied shouts and moans, and hearing the galloping of horses. Even the smell of lilacs has been smelled by visitors to Gettysburg, said to be from the use of lilac water at the time to cover up the literal stench of death that overtook the town. Daytime visitors to an old courthouse in San Jacinto County, Texas have reported seeing the apparition of Rufus, a man that was hung there. The famous Waley House in San Diego, said by researchers to be one of the most haunted structures in the United States, has had it's share of daytime phenomena witnessed by vacationers. A woman who works at Tamworth Castle in Staffordshire, England, recalled the time when she was struck in the face by what felt like sand when opening up one morning. A fellow employee of hers has said that never a day goes by that something unexplained doesn't happen. Again, these are just a handful of instances. The Queen Mary, Hand Hotel in Wales, The Lemp Mansion in Missouri, Alcatraz, The Myrtles Plantation, Bachelor’s Grove Cemetery, etc, etc... All have been the locations of reported daytime unexplained phenomena ranging from dishes being thrown by unseen forces to phantom houses appearing out of nowhere.

Some other reasons for investigating (or at least beginning an investigation) during daylight are objectivity and basic safety. It's good to get a different perspective on things during daylight. Sometimes the sources for those strange sights and weird sounds seen and heard at night are easily explained during the day when their source can be more clearly seen. Hazards from uncovered wells to the hidden run down house of a crazy neighbor hermit who likes to fire his gun in the air to scare off strange vehicles driving down 'his' road are more easily noticed. Ghost investigation can be lots of fun if taken seriously, but that fun starts to fade away when an investigator falls for a teenager's prank, sprains an ankle while tripping on a loose floorboard, or gets lost down a road that they shouldn't have taken.

This of course is not at all to say that ghost investigators shouldn't go at night. Going at night does have it benefits. Due to it being dark, actual apparitions are many times easier to see against the dark back drop. Abnormal sounds are also more easily heard due to the absence of the daytime noise pollution mentioned earlier. Depending on the location and the type of activity, some are definitely more haunted at night and a night time visit could very well pay off. There does appear to be more evidence gathered at night. But one has to ask if it's because more people go hunting at night. Night also seems to be a more active time for hauntings. But again, is it because less attention is paid during the day due to that preconceived thought that "nothings going to happen while the sun is still out"?

It's clear to see that night time isn't the only time of day when the ghosts come out. In an attempt to answer some of the questions regarding day vs. night hauntings, it would seem that the best time of day for a thorough investigation is both. Arrive early in the day, talk to witnesses, ask about times and days that have the most activity, and gather base readings for everything. Look around, familiarize yourself with the surroundings, and make note of everything you see, hear, smell, and feel. Stay until well after nightfall and do the same. When morning comes, you might walk away with nothing new. Or you might walk away with the most compelling evidence that you and others have ever seen. After the data is in and the evidence is reviewed, you just might get a bigger surprise than you've ever gotten at night.

Reverend Chaos (aka Shawna Lowman)