Georgebinning's Blog

Creatures of the Night

Posted in Fortean Times by georgebinning on May 8, 2012

It was a dark and stormy night, and I sat alone. An image, a face from the other side, appeared before me. I was “Skyping” Dr Gregory L Reece, author of Creatures of the Night, on the other side of the Atlantic, in Alabama.

Having tackled the subjects of Weird Science (2008) and UFO Religions (2007), Dr Reece is now dabbling with the occult. In his new book, he befriends a werewolf, chats up a lady in a vampire bar, and attends Mass with both exorcists and Satanists.

“It’s one of those things I love about what I do. Wolf Van Zandt – the werewolf that I talk about in the book – lives very near to me, so we’ve managed to stay in contact. As soon as the book comes out in the States I’ll make a point of having a lunch date with him and take him a copy. He’s a wonderful guy and fun to hang out with.”

Self-professed werewolves and vampires are two major races of the Otherkin diaspora (FT283:44–46), those who identify with mythical creatures, both physically and often in more transcendental ways.

“The vampires I’ve met tend to be very sincere in their approach and they really want to make sure the world gets some understanding of who they are,” Reece tells me.

He also spent a weekend with Druwydion Pendragon/Orion/David de Paul, a man known at various times of his life as the leader of the Brotherhood of Satan, ‘Ipsissimus, High Priest and King of the Morning Star’, and ‘Grand Master, Ancient of Knights of the Temple of Solomon, Baphomet Preceptory’. Although it is said (by William Schnoebelin, the Satanist-turned-Evangelical Christian) that Pendragon had, in the 1980s, boasted of human sacrifice, Reece describes him and the ‘theistic’ Brotherhood as pretty average people, “except that they don’t go to church. Instead they come together four times a year for their special ceremonies.

“Likewise, with vampires. They’re not bloodsucking fiends that haunt the shadows, but normal people who have normal five-day-a-week jobs and just happen to be vampires.”

The werewolves, vampires and Satanists that Reece actually meets all seem quite cuddly, but one has to consider the possibility that, as Schnoebelin claims, some of their practices are perhaps more diabolical behind the scenes.

“That’s always a question I ask because of my approach,” Greg agrees. “I don’t go undercover; when I approach these groups I’m very upfront about who I am and what I do, so there’s always a suspicion that I might only see part of what the reality is.

“But with someone like Wolf, I’ve got no doubts about his testimony because I’ve got to know him pretty well and we’ve developed a kind of deeper relationship. Raven, the vampire I met in the bar in New Orleans… I don’t know. It was just an encounter in a vampire bar – we could have both been putting each other on, on some level, I suppose.

“But I did talk a bit to the vampire alliance in Atlanta. They have a PR campaign; they have material ready to give out so I know they’re aggressively trying to improve their image.

Blood-sucking freaks or just regular folks? Modern vampires are keen to dispel a few stereotypes.

“With Pendragon and the Brotherhood of Satan, I was with them for a weekend and I spent an awful lot of time with them – so I suspect what I saw was what was really happening; they didn’t put on a show for the entire weekend just for me. I was there. I just sort of sat off to the side, and, you know…”

On the subject of access, I wonder whether Greg has been with Wolf at Full Moon. Sadly not, it turns out, although he suspects there might not be much to write to the Vatican about.

“While some ‘therians’ [those claiming close identification with animals, real or fictional, who ‘shape-shift’, to other forms] report that the phases of the Moon have some influence on shifting, many reject this notion,” he says. “Some claim that the Moon has more influence on an inexperienced therian than one with more experience, who is more likely to be able to shift at will. Wolf Van Zandt, I believe, has indicated that his therian states tend to be influenced not by the Moon, but by large bodies of moving water.”

Inevitably, there comes a point where one’s disbelief is suspended by a thread. Many ‘sanguine’ (blood-drinking, rather than confident) vampires, feeling more than just a compulsion to drink blood, claim to have a biological need for blood; some even believe it hides in a vampire gene. But isn’t this quite a straightforward, testable claim? Greg errs on the side of agnostic caution.

“I don’t know if it’s ever been tested by anyone, I’m not familiar with any medical condition that requires someone to consume fresh blood,” he admits.

“I have to say that the sanguinarians – those who do say they need to consume blood in order to stay alive – they’re generally talking about just a very small amount. I was kind of amazed when I was reading some of the literature – you’re talking about maybe the equivalent of a couple of raw steaks a month to maintain their health, so not huge amounts.

“It’s hard for me to imagine the biological cause for that – maybe an iron deficiency or something. Some people seem compelled, and I’m not a scientist, or a medical doctor, so I don’t want to say that they’re completely wrong about what their claims are. Obviously, they are compelled for one reason or another to consume blood.”

If pressed, Greg will admit that his scepticism has occasionally been pushed to outright suspicion. He recalls a tale from the days of Weird Science: “In an earlier book, I did some research into Bigfoot. I was with some people hunting Bigfoot, and there my scepticism was probably at its most extreme. I had an almost impossible time figuring out whether I was being put on by everyone involved or if everyone involved really believed.

“We found tracks of the Sasquatch within five minutes of my arriving on the scene and I immediately started thinking, ‘Well, I’m being conned by the people who are running the show here. They’ve put the tracks here for me to find.’

“But people seemed to be so intense about it that I began to think, ‘Well, maybe there’s another explanation. Maybe the locals or somebody not affiliated with this group have planted it here to fool us all.’

“Then, of course, you have to admit, well, maybe it’s a real track – although I was sceptical of that because of its pristine nature. There were only three tracks in a row and they were all of the right foot, so it looked like a plant to me.”

‘Real’ vampires and werewolves are discovering themselves in increasing numbers nowadays, while Satanists and exorcists have come in and out of fashion. Greg’s book frames these occult lifestyle choices in the context of man’s understanding of horror in both the real and fictional worlds. Alongside a wealth of literary references, he also digs up Conan Doyle’s spiritualist investigations, 18th-century reports of Eastern European vampire (or oupire) outbreaks (see ‘Vampire Autopsies’, pp44–48 this issue), werewolf hunts from 1521 and the 20th-century revival of exorcism.

Reece carefully and wryly withholds judgement on the empirical truth of these and other firsthand reports, except to occasionally question the reliability of the witness. However, I feel I must ask whether his giving equal weight to the study of fiction and to that which is clearly meant in earnest isn’t making a subtle assumption about the latter?

“I would hope not,” he says, “because I approached these eyewitness accounts with an open mind. I also believe very firmly – and if you look at the history of these concepts you will find this to be the case – that the fiction influences the firsthand accounts, and the firsthand accounts influence the fiction, so they have to be treated together; it’s give and take.

“But whether it’s ghosts or vampires or werewolves, they began with real accounts, with people telling stories of things that really happened to them, and only later did they become co-opted by fiction. At this point in the history of Western culture, fiction has had such a pervasive role that most of our firsthand accounts tend to be coloured by it.

“Take vampires, for example. I think people have really begun to identify with the myth that is associated with vampires in the Western tradition. Maybe pushing aside some of the Christian interpretation of vampires, but nevertheless latching onto a lot of the other Gothic imagery. I think people have found that to be a very persuasive model for governing their lives, and so they arrange their relationships around those models that they learn from vampire tradition, vampire fiction.

“Do I find it so compelling that I might organise my life in such a way? No, but I can appreciate those who do – it’s a very powerful set of images that we have associated with the vampire, probably more so than any other creature that I talk about in the book. Religious imagery as well as sexual imagery, it’s also pretty cool, dressing in black, living your life at night, there is a certain attraction to that.”

Much of the academic direction for Creatures of the Night is provided by Rudolph Otto’s writing, especially his 1917 book Das Heilige (The Idea of the Holy). Otto asserted that human experience of the divine was synonymous with our experience of the terrible, the entirely Other. Having studied him in the original German, Reece speaks of Otto as he might an old tutor.

“I worked a lot with Otto when I was in graduate school. One of the exams we had to pass in order to prove we had the ability to read and translate German was to translate passages of Das Heilige, so I’ve always had a place in my heart for Otto.

“It just seems he really captures the sense of awe that is at the heart of many religious beliefs, and it struck me that what Otto had to say was readily adaptable to 21st-century culture.”

This is a key theme of Creatures of the Night: aided by this band of ghouls and psychic crusaders, Reece suggests that at the root of religion is Otto’s ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ (the dread-inspiring Other). Quoting Otto, he re-emphasises, “The essence of the ‘soul’ lies not in the imaginative or conceptual expression of it, but first and foremost in the fact that it is a spectre, that it arouses ‘dread’ or ‘awe’.”

When also considering the Research into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art and Custom (1871) by Edward Burnett Tylor, Reece declares: “…all ghosts are holy, for all gods were but ghosts in the ancient primitive heart of human history.”

It’s a broad claim, and I’m keen to test it. Greg notes that God spoke to Job through the tornado that had just carried his family away, and draws parallels with his own experience with tornadoes.

“At the heart of a lot of our concepts of God,” says Reece, “especially in Western culture, but also in the East, is this notion of the awfulness, the sheer difference of the divine from the human, and the unpredictability of the divine.

“Living here in the southern United States, tornadoes are a near constant threat. After 2011, when they came very near to where I live and destroyed the homes of a lot of people I know, it became very real to me that this was a force beyond human comprehension, despite meteorological science as it stands today.”

The ghouls featured in Creatures of the Night actually operate within a specifically Christian framework of the Universe. According to legend, almost all of them react in some way to Christian iconography. Demons, however, are a special case according to Reece. “Demons, unlike ghosts, vampires and werewolves, are accepted in the orthodox within the Western tradition; they are accepted before they are cast out.”

Reading this, I’m thankful for being British; we aren’t possessed by demons half as much as our American cousins, and it’s considered quite unorthodox to exorcise demons in a parish church. I argue that, in Britain at least, a belief in ghosts is more often and more easily accepted into a traditional religious worldview than the literal existence of demons.

“That’s probably true in the States as well,” Reece responds. “But as far as I know they don’t have a theological stamp of approval in the way that the existence of demons does. You don’t often hear sermons from the pulpit or find theologians writing on the subject of ghosts, but there’s always been a part of mainstream Christian theology that deals with the existence of demons.”

The demon, that mediæval meme, has survived the progression of Christian theology – shape-shifting through the imaginations of Milton, Goya, and Philip Pullman – and even now lurks just below the surface of the Christian mainstream. There is the obvious theatrical appeal of exorcism to Protestant evangelists and sure enough, the Catholic Church advises those in the thrall of a serious fiend to ring a priest and get him to ring a bishop.

There are, of course, other equally awful creatures of the night that didn’t make the cut: the book’s concern is perhaps more Christocentric and more otherworldly than to allow for the witch, the zombie or Frankenstein and his monster. In March this year, Greg presented a paper to the American Academy of Religion on the zombie apocalypse, and he gives another reason for their omission.

“I recently wrote a paper on the zombie apocalypse and I considered including zombies in this book. But zombies, unlike werewolves, vampires and demons, don’t have a real-life component. Some people on the panel made some compelling arguments for the idea that one way of understanding the zombies is as a criticism of consumer culture (as in George Romero’s movies); they were identifying zombies with the anti-financial sector movements in the States, the Occupy Wall Street movement…

“But I’m not familiar with any community of people, except maybe in a very small way in the Haitian zombie culture, who claim there are shambling hordes of the undead, or who claim that they are real-life zombies.”

Although not working on anything specific at the moment, Dr Reece has a few ideas “swimming around”, including a look at images of Jesus in popular culture.

“It might tell us a great deal about ourselves, about how we think about the divine. On one level, you have groups of conservatives who treat Jesus as a historical figure who did the miracles, very much as described in the New Testament. At the other extreme, you have people denying he existed at all, and even more interesting are those who say, ‘Well, yes, Jesus was real, but he wasn’t the Son of God… he was a visitor from the planet Clarion’ or from another dimension. When we think of him as Saviour today, do we make him a vampire-hunter, or maybe a zombie-killer, to express what we’re trying to express in this idea of Jesus?”

With a wonderfully offbeat list of titles to his name, Dr Reece is a natural conversationalist, and Creatures of the Night weaves an engagingly dark portrait of the collective unconscious, full of interesting observations, references and factoids, including a potted history of that hoary Gothic opener “It was a dark and stormy night…”
Dr Reece’s website:

Published in the Fortean Times.


The Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith

Posted in features and interviews, Fortean Times by georgebinning on March 30, 2012

Thought and Action

India has long been revered as a unique example of a secular, cosmopolitan democracy in which spiritual traditions still play an everyday role in over a billion lives – “a cultural unity amidst diversity, a bundle of contradictions held together by strong but invisible threads,” as Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, once described it.

But across the country, groups of activists are questioning this rather romantic notion. Having seen the progress of truly secular societies, they are starting to blame India’s more superstitious practices for much of the injustice that exists in the country today. Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS) – the Maharashtra Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith – is one such group, and its members have declared themselves rationalists and sceptics.

I visited founding president Dr Narendra Dabholkar, Pune district vice-president Mr Deepak Girme and Mr Prabhakar Nanawaty, editor of the Committee’s magazine Thought and Action, to learn about their mission and hear the latest on the controversial ‘Black Magic Bill’.

“Basically we want to convert people who are superstitious, people who blindly believe in things, to a rational way of thinking,” says Mr Girme sitting in the Committee’s Pune Office. “You see human beings are not Homo sapiens sapiens, they are Homo half sapiens. We feel that human beings should evolve into nobler animals, who will be able to live in harmony with each other, and with nature around them.”

Later that morning, Dr Dabholkar is announcing to the press that Ajit Pawar, deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, has given his backing to the ‘Black Magic Bill’ which they have been trying to push through the Maharashtra Assembly for 16 years; he has also guaranteed the support of the Nationalist Congress Party when the bill returns to the assembly. They will be a valuable ally against opposition from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Shiv Sena.

Committee Founding President, Dr Narendra Dabholkar (left) and Pune district Vice President, Mr Deepak Girme (right).

With this good news, Girme and Nanawaty are in a jovial mood, despite the fact that their work is normally an uphill struggle. Their website – antisuperstition. org – is subject to regular ‘denial of service’ attacks, but Mr Girme doesn’t mind. “We don’t bother to find out who it is,” he shrugs, “we just know they exist. Instead we have set up five websites so we can replace it when one goes down.”

Under the proposed law, the practices of black magicians and aghoris (members of a taboo sect reviled by many as non-Hindu) the performance of miracles for financial gain and rituals that cause physical harm, will all be prohibited. The detailed list of banned practices includes violent exorcism and forcing a person to drink footwearsoaked water, inhale chilli smoke or be hung from a roof by the hair.

The bill has been hotly disputed in India: after protests from the Wakari (a monotheistic offshoot of Hinduism) the term ‘mental harm’ was removed from the bill, but the Wakari proudly declare that their annual pilgrimage on foot to Pandharpur still causes them a certain amount of physical harm. Although the bill “will not apply to any religious rite or ritual in which no physical or financial loss is caused to any individual”, there are also concerns from the Hindu community that “one has to take physical or psychological efforts or monetary harm when one performs any [religious] act”, potentially subjecting all Hindu rituals to the new law.

When we join Dr Dabholkar at the press conference at Sane Gurujee Hall, named after Maharashtra’s beloved social activist, it turns out they have another piece of news. They have given the government one month to close down a Muslim dargah (shrine) in Chalisgoan or they will stage a “peaceful agitation”. According to Dabholkar, around 60 patients are being held there and submitted to torture because of superstitious taboos around mental illness. This can involve being chained to a wall and beaten or forced to drink dirty water in order to purge evil.

“People think they are being possessed by something, so automatically they will get treatment from somebody who also thinks this. But the authorities should not allow them to use such wrong treatment,” says Dr Dabholkar. He also offered Committee resources to look after the victims, accusing the government of not taking mental health seriously enough.

“Who is going to look after these psychotics? That responsibility is taken by the Committee; we are hiring a team of psychiatrists who are ready to treat them. Out of the total expenditure on health in India, only one per cent goes to mental health. We have hardly 4,000 psychiatrists in a country of over 1.2 billion people. The government needs to pay more attention to mental health.”

As the press conference winds down, the local journalists round on me and start asking whether Fortean Times supports MANS’s work. Should Britain have laws against black magic? And if not, why not? The following day, the Mid-Day News reports that “a 25-year-old rationalism activist from the UK… formally declared his support to the MANS” and shows a photo of this bewildered and jetlagged reporter.

But the Committee’s line does raise the question: is the harm done by exploitative superstition a necessary price for total religious freedom in India? Perhaps this seemingly inalienable right only works on the assumption that each citizen is a rational, free-thinking individual? This is not an assumption shared by MANS.

“This species should evolve into a better species, not the one we are now. We are a miserable creature that does not know what’s good for us,” says Girme back in the office.

Prabhakar Nanawaty in front of the MANS bookshop.

Of course, India already has laws to prevent physical, emotional and financial harm, but they are regularly flouted in the name of the supernatural. While witches are burned and demons thrashed out of the mentally ill, dubious gurus accumulate huge riches from poverty-stricken devotees; the committee believes tighter legislation is needed.

MANS has almost 3,000 volunteers working in 180 branches in Maharashtra and their monthly magazine, Thought and Action, has a circulation of 15,000. They organise debates and lectures in rural areas, have an inflatable travelling planetarium and (perhaps taking their cue from high-profile US ‘skeptic’ James Randi) offer a reward of 2.1 million rupees (£270,000) to any ‘godman’ who can perform a miracle in font of a MANS judge. Their campaign against superstition becomes a lens through which to view all the issues facing Indian society: women’s rights, systemic corruption, mental health and basic education all fall within their purview.

Mr Girme and most of the MANS executives are committed atheists, with some sympathy towards Buddhism; but atheism is a word that still carries an element of danger in India, and they are not so foolhardy as to push it onto the society they are trying to change; they already oppose the (illegal but prevalent) caste system, unaffordably large marriages and astrology. Instead, Girme explains, the committee tries to persuade people to believe in more modern (and Western?)-sounding Gods.

“If we want to go to them we have to talk their language: I believe in a God that lives in my heart, in your heart, that is all-knowing in your mind; so you have to be careful because you can’t fool him.

“You can’t make a business out of a God and you can’t have a foolish God – if you flatter him, he’s not going to give you something. You don’t put that idol in a temple and treat it like a child. It is a stupid way of doing it.

“You have to improve the concept of a God. What is becoming for a modern human, being a God should also be like that, not like the ancient God. So slowly, slowly, people are changing.”

Their pragmatic approach to religion and social improvement is about winning minds over hearts, an approach inspired by Lokayata, the atheistic, materialistic, and naturalistic philosophy of 6th-century India. While staying committed to religious tolerance, rationalists like Mr Girme envisage a future in which no sensible person could possibly draw different conclusions about the world than do he and his colleagues. Asked where religions would fit with man’s ‘evolved’ state, he exclaims: “What religions? The religions that came in five, six, seven thousand years ago, when they were childish, as Einstein says. They didn’t know the answers so they invented religions. Lokayata says we don’t need religions.

“You can make civilised rules for each other: you don’t spit here, I don’t spit here. You don’t run off with my wife, I don’t run off with your wife. You don’t rob me, I don’t rob you, and so on.

“Then you say we must not proliferate like rabbits, because we are pushing out all the other species. No place for tigers, elephants, or anything. We will not survive that way.”

Population control is not always a popular idea in the West, but it perhaps becomes more persuasive when you look out of your window on a sea of people that’s more than doubled in the last 30 years. Mr Girme argues that the human race should be drawn to his rational conclusion: “Eugenics is a bad word, but unless you have a healthy body and a healthy brain, you can’t be a Homo sapiens sapiens. So you’re supposed to strive for that. People are doing the research, so that you can get the best foetus and put it into the womb, so you have a brilliant son and a brilliant daughter. Then people will stop producing so many babies.

“How much money is spent in India on religions? More than is collected by the government in taxes. You know why China turned around? Because chairman Mao came along and said, ‘Boss! No religion.’ Then China improved.”

The progress of irreligious China might impress Mr Girme, but he laments the collapse of secularism in Iraq: “Why did they have to get rid of Saddam Hussain? They could have befriended him, got into him.”

While the Committee for the Eradication of Blind Faith views the supernatural with heavy scepticism, their belief in rationalism appears to be quite zealous. Johannes Quack, a German social scientist, spent three months studying MANS on a teaching tour, discussing the topic of Indian Rationalism in his book Disenchanting India. Here he draws parallels between the behaviours of Indian rationalist movements and of religious believers. He makes note of some members’ use of the words “mission” and “convert”. He told me that Indian rationalism had divided opinion in the Western scientific community.

“As a social scientist, I tried to keep a ‘neutral’ view – some speak of ‘methodological agnosticism’ – with respect to MANS,” says Quack. “This was not always easy, since some of my colleagues would openly criticise the rationalists for ‘destroying the local knowledge system’ or ‘mental colonialism’ while others think that they are doing a pretty good job because they spread ‘scientific temper’ and are therefore allies of scientists.”

Following the press conference, we eat in a delicious Pune restaurant while Mr Girme describes how MANS has transformed his life. The Committee is very proactive about healthy living – it is irrational to be fat, or addicted to anything. He does not smoke, and tells me he has lost 7kg (15lb) since becoming an atheist. He is well travelled, having visited Europe, Australia and, at a conference in Seattle, met Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. Girme says that having been able to study in English was crucial to his development. “It meant I got to read a wide range of books that are predominantly in English. Plus I got to communicate with other people in India because I could speak English. ”

The Committee has a bookshop near its office, where they sell rationalist literature not widely available in India.

Rationalism here has matured under very different influences to those in the West, and arguably has yet to fully develop. But the Committee could be a positive force and make a significant difference to popular thinking in India.

I’d wish them luck… but I don’t think they’d see that as helpful to their particular cause.

Published in the Fortean Times.

Weird Weekend 2011

Posted in features and interviews, Fortean Times by georgebinning on November 11, 2011

Cryptozoology is often affectionately dismissed as a quixotic hobby, but leading British cryptozoologists hope to bolster the subject’s credibility thanks to the weight of their recent discoveries, and the increased use of cutting-edge scientific techniques and rigorous methodology.

The intensive annual event of lectures and presentations that is Weird Weekend gave academics and cryptoenthusiasts the opportunity to learn, trade ideas, compare notes and drink beer. As well as this, Jon Downes – WW organiser and founder of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) – revealed plans to release a peer-reviewed journal of cryptozoology; a world first in the field, showing that the crypto-community was finally ready to be subjected to the scrutiny of mainstream academia.

This pivotal moment for the CFZ is the culmination of 20 years of work by Jon and his colleagues, and he is pleased with their progress.

“I’m very, very proud, because I’ve been doing my best for the last 20 years to weed out some of the nut jobs, and I think we’ve got 90 per cent of the world’s best cryptozoologists under our belt,” he said. “The CFZ is a broad church, and very much community-orientated, but I’ve been trying to steer it for the last 20 years to a situation where cryptozoology is becoming a valid branch of zoology, rather than something akin to the Flat Earth society.”

It may be a significant boost for the CFZ, but starting a peer-reviewed cryptozoological journal is not the ultimate goal, as Downes told FT.

“For years I have resisted any pressure to start a peer-reviewed journal. I actually agree with Dr Charles Paxton, who says cryptozoology shouldn’t be trying to start its own peer-reviewed journal, it should be trying to have cryptozoologically-themed articles published in mainstream zoological journals.”

One report the CFZ deemed worthy of scientific attention was the search for the orang-pendek, due for coverage in the upcoming journal. Adam Davies, the History Channel adventurer who has hunted the ‘real Hobbit’ and the ‘Chinese Wildman’, presented the evidence he had collected so far for the undiscovered, upright-walking primate which is thought to live in Sumatra. The discovery of a new primate would cause huge waves in the zoological world.

Having visited Sumatra three times, finding hairs and footprints, and both hearing and seeing the elusive ape, Davies was cautiously optimistic that the team would find it when they set off to the jungle three weeks later.

There have been numerous sightings by locals, and the first hair samples, analysed in 2009 by Lars Thomas at Copenhagen University, were found to be structurally similar to, but distinct from, an orang-utan’s. Unfortunately, they were contaminated by foreign DNA; and while a photograph may be worth 1,000 words, DNA gives a definitive ‘yes’.

This time, two teams of five will be armed with 16 camera traps, hair traps, and a vast body of previous intelligence as to where the creature might hide out. Davies described the urgency of their quest and the tremendous ecological pressure on Sumatra from population growth and palm oil plantations.

“Even after all the scientific evidence I’ve got, this is still a fringe topic, and we might not have much time before the orang-pendek is extinct,” he said.

Ablaze with passion, he railed against nay-sayers who dared suggest the pendek was a nice excuse for a holiday. The jungle, he said, was a hellish place, with only fish heads and monkey balls to eat.

“We fund the whole trip ourselves, and we really suffer. I can’t think of anywhere I’d less like to be than the jungle – if it wasn’t for the orang-pendek.”

Speaking on the eve of departure (8 September) with the grim determination of a soldier before battle, CFZ zoological director and team member Richard Freeman said they were wellprepared and expected things to run to plan.

In another talk of scientific note, Bryan Sykes, celebrated Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Oxford, revealed the opening of a genetic database compiled from ‘crowd-sourced’ cryptozoological samples. Working in conjunction with Michel Sartori, director of the Museum of Zoology in Lausanne, Switzerland, any genuinely unrecognised DNA, taken from the wild, or from museum pieces, will be collected and archived for future research.

Professor Sykes also gave a lecture on his study into the seven mothers of almost all European people, published as The Seven Daughters of Eve (2001). Using the mitochondrial DNA passed down an unbroken maternal chain to every human being, Prof. Sykes claims to have detected the existence of seven women who lived between 11,000 and 50,000 years ago and were ancestors of 97 per cent of modern Europeans [FT139:12].

Having championed techniques to extract and replicate DNA from samples as old as 14,000 years, Prof. Sykes explained that there is a popular misconception that DNA always degrades very quickly after death.

“It’s the conditions of the preservation that are critical,” he said. “DNA survives well in bones and in teeth, particularly in alkaline environments such as limestone caves where the matrix of the bones is made of a similar mineral to the stone.The DNA doesn’t degrade because the acid stabilises in these environments.”

This sort of science opens up countless possibilities for cryptozoologists. Prof. Sykes is one academic anxious to integrate cryptozoology into the scientific canon. In an interview with FT, he described the requirements for crypto-research to achieve this status.

“It is vitally important that cryptozoology should enter the peer-review process,” he said, “and for that reason we need to embrace scientific methodology along with irrefutable DNA evidence.

“Having spent many years getting scientific articles published, and knowing how difficult it can be, even with uncontroversial subjects, I can see that to get articles on cryptids published is going to be difficult, but that’s not a bad idea. As Hume said [of miracles], ‘Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.’”

As part of Weird Weekend’s network, Prof. Sykes agreed to help study any DNA the Sumatra team might find and was able to give advice on how to ensure their findings would hold up.

“I’ve talked to Adam, Richard and Charles and I hope that I can offer advice about how, if they do find any organic remains, they must ensure that they are analysed by different laboratories, so that when the time comes to publish them, that will be an additional strength.”

It is this spirit of cooperation and support that Downes feels is so important for the future of the CFZ; working with university institutions and respected laboratories is crucial to their progress.

Dr Darren Naish and Max Blake gave a report on a stuffed lynx that can be dated to 1903 – making it the oldest modern lynx in Britain, and significantly predating the Dangerous Wild Animal Act of 1976, when a number of privately owned big cats were released into the wild rather than put down.

Naish and Blake are currently in the process of tracing the lynx’s exact origins using cutting-edge nuclear technology to analyse mineral isotope present in the cat’s bones.This pioneering technique was first used in a criminal investigation into voodoo murders in March this year; their report will be published in the first issue of the CFZ’s new peer-reviewed journal.

Their research hit the front page of the Western Morning News that Saturday, with the headline “Big Cats are still Living in West: Experts have DNA proof”. Over the course of the weekend, Downes was bombarded with calls from at least eight national and local papers; and in the month following Weird Weekend, there were more than 10 big cat sightings reported in the press.

Other presentations over the packed weekend included bug-breeder Nick Wadham on giant insects, and the limits thereof; intrepid journalist Matt Salusbury on the pygmy elephants of Kerala (FT252:42–47; 263:25); and John Hanson and Dawn Holloway on Haunted Skies, their continuing encyclopædia of over 40,000 UFO witness accounts spanning over 70 years.

But although the academic and media recognition is certainly encouraging, there is more to cryptozoology than science – GlenVaudrey’s talk on the folkloric origins of the Scottish water-horse was a case in point.

Downes agreed. “Cryptozoology is so important,” he insisted, “because it’s a portmanteau discipline which brings in zoology, folklore and mythology, sociology, and dozens of other things. I think the world needs more of this: because when you have a world run by specialists who don’t know anything outside their particular subject, you end up with a very peculiar world!”

One real triumph of Weird Weekend and the CFZ is the establishment of an enthusiastic, multigenerational community with a passion for every aspect of cryptozoology. Jon sits at the centre, gently coordinating his grand plan and enjoying every minute of it.

“I’m an old hippie who believes that all you need is love, and we should all work together and have a good time and make things good. Half the people here come and speak for nothing and we are the only conference in the world that has little boys and girls dressed up as aliens dancing to a Hawkwind song… these kids, who come in every year and draw those pictures of dragons, will be going on expeditions in 10 years time.

“What went wrong with previous organisations is that they didn’t think of the future, and nearly every fortean organisation in the past has not survived the death of its local founder. I want to make sure that this one goes on after I die.”

This is a time when many cryptozoological riddles are on the brink of being solved and new technology has made a wider range of DNA available for analysis; at the same time, Boris Worm, a biology professor at Canada’s Dalhousie University and Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii published claims in August that there could 8.8 million living species on Earth, of which only 1.2 million are properly described. It’s a study which throws up countless new questions; as a community, the Weird Weekenders appear to be thriving happily in their habitat.

Published in the Fortean Times.

Meeting Raven Kaldera

Posted in features and interviews, Fortean Times by georgebinning on September 19, 2011

Being a pagan shaman is a complex role. “It’s the only job for which being transgender is not just an advantage but a necessity,” says Raven Kaldera, who has been a herbalist, author, transgender activist, ordeal-master, god-slave and shaman for over a decade now.
Earlier this year, Raven undertook a teaching tour of pagan BDSM (yes, that’s pagan Bondage, Dominance, Sadism & Masochism) lectures and workshops across Europe, accompanied by Jessica, Raven’s daughter (who naturally calls him ‘mum’), and Joshua, his slave (“The ‘slave’ word,” says Raven, “I don’t like it, but there isn’t a better one.”). Meanwhile, Raven’s wife Bella has been looking after Cauldron Farm, the Massachusetts homestead where they grow vegetables and keep goats, sheep and chickens.
Amid this intense programme, Raven took a little time out to see the Chelsea Physic Garden and spend a while in conversation with FT.
“I’m a herbalist and a garden geek so I really love these plants,” he says, delighted by the 17th-century Apothecary’s garden.
It’s not every day I get to relax on a park bench with a transsexual shaman, and I wonder how he became one.
For Raven, as with shamans throughout history, it began with the shamanic calling, brought on by a near-death experience while battling with lupus. Shamanism is an especially challenging vocation as one’s working, spiritual, and personal lives are inextricably linked. More than that, shamans are ‘selected’ by the gods and, it seems, given no choice but to do what they are told.
“I was already a neo-pagan, certainly, but I had planned to be a science fiction writer and a folk musician on my little farm… but then it came out of nowhere.
“During this drawn-out illness, I had a massive vision of the goddess who had been involved with me throughout my life. She wouldn’t tell me her name, but I knew she was a death goddess. We played a Rumpelstiltskin sort of game: ‘Are you Hecate? Are you Kali?’”
The goddess revealed herself to be Hela (or Hel), the Norse goddess of death, who set about transforming the stricken Raven.
“She hung me up, tore me apart like a butchered animal and rebuilt me. When I came to, I was different. I lost some fears, I lost some memories, I lost some personality traits, and there were some new things. I’d always been able to sense ghosts but now could see them much more clearly. I’d always been able to vaguely sense the presence of gods and divine entities, but suddenly they were there, like an electric fence.
“What’s happened to me is not something that’s going to happen to everyone – only a few people are called by the spirits to be a shaman. They only pick the people who would be good at it. For that reason, I don’t expect everyone to believe what I believe. I’m aware of how strange it can look, but the question is not whether it looks strange but whether it seems to work for that person.”
The experience left Raven at the beck and call of the various gods and goddesses he now works with. They have instructed him, for example, to learn 27 forms of divination and he asks for their advice on a daily basis.
Animistic religions such as neopaganism see spirits in everything from stones and the land itself, to plants and people. Spiritual herbalism is a large part of Raven’s work; through his eyes, the Physic Garden is alive with entities and every healing shrub and herb has a spirit of its own.
“You have to be able to talk to the spirits. There are two levels of plant spirit: there’s the spirit of that one plant, which may not be more intelligent than a chicken, and then there’s the grandfather or grandmother spirit, and every plant is a piece of their body. They are huge wise entities, many of which have a history of helping humans”
Raven consults these spirits even to help with issues beyond general health, he says. “People come to me for all kinds of things. The biggest question put to me is: ‘What should I do with my life?’ But also they come to me if they think they’re seeing ghosts, and we’ll check if it is ghosts or if it’s something in their own heads, or something else. What is harder is when they’re suffering from a mental illness and picking up something real as well.”
Raven has congenital adrenal hyperplasia, a genetic abnormality that causes gender confusion in girls and very early puberty in boys. When he recovered from lupus, Raven’s goddess, Hela, told him to make the change from woman to man; it was a procedure he’d been considering for a while.
“I was told, ‘You need to do this’ and I was like, ‘But why?’ And Hela said, ‘I’m sending you where you’re needed most.’ I had held out for a long time because back in those days intersexuals weren’t supposed to get sex changes. I went ahead and took testosterone and had chest surgery. I decided to stick with the bits I’ve got, because they are what they are, and lower surgeries aren’t very good right now for FTMs [female-to-male transsexuals].
“It was a gamble, it was a leap in the dark, but it was absolutely wonderful. For me it was sacred shape-shifting. OK, socially it’s been very difficult, but y’know, it’s hard to be a minority.
“The irony was that I went through my second puberty at 30, around the same time my daughter went through normal puberty.”
The celestial root of transsexual conditions is a mismatch between what Raven describes as the physical body and the energy body. He describes what it is like to feel gender dysphoria.
“It’s kind of like phantom limb syndrome: if you get your arm or your leg whacked off, for a very long time you feel an arm or a leg there. Physically, your brain doesn’t believe that your arm isn’t there, and it keeps giving you stimulus. On a cosmic level, your energy body is still whole, your energetic limb is still there communicating to your physical body.
“People who are transgender are born with the wiring to think that their bodies are maturing in a certain gender direction, and so they get phantom limb syndrome for bits they don’t have.”
Many pagan gods are intersexual or hermaphroditic, and shamanism has long been associated with transgenderism in various cultures. This mismatch between the energetic and physical bodies is actually an advantage in shamanism.
“Shamans have to work with their energy bodies a lot,” says Raven, “they have to shape-shift and things like that. If you grew up with an energy body that was different to your physical body, you’re used to that distance and you’re used to being able to do things with your energy body that the ordinary person doesn’t even think about. I found that many transfolk are able to see and know and move their energy body around much faster than others.”
In spite of these spiritual benefits, transgender people are the victims of attacks and persecution around the world. Raven’s online advice to those considering sex change surgery makes for harrowing reading, and he is a fervent campaigner for transgender rights.
“People are being hunted down in the streets and murdered. In America, in November, we now have the transgender day of mourning where we get together and read off the list, which gets longer every year, of transgender people who have been murdered. The site has all the names. Some were just hunted down and beaten to death in the streets, intersex babies were found dead in trashcans. It’s really sad.To be one of my people is to live in a war zone.”
Unsurprisingly, there is a kinkier side to Raven’s shamanism; his relationship with Baphomet (who he sees as a filth-eating god from 12th-century France), is jaw-dropping. “I didn’t know much about Baphomet till he showed up and started talking to me. The reason that he, or she, liked me is that he’s a hermaphroditic god. He can shift back and forth, but he’s always mixed.
“I’ve lent him my body. In Afro- Caribbean terms, I’m a ‘horse’, in that I will lend my body consensually to god-possession under certain circumstances or rituals. He makes sure, while he’s using my body, to leave me a lesson of some kind.”
As well as lending his body to Baphomet, Raven runs, Baphomet’s online temple, on which he sells books and publishes articles and poetry devoted to Baphomet along with instructions for some really quite bizarre sexual rituals. Be warned: the text is surreal and explicit.
“Baphomet made me accept my own sexual perversions. I was doing the whole ‘Oh, maybe I should purge myself of that,’ and he came down and he said, ‘This is a tool and you won’t be able to fix it anyway. It’s who you are, which means you have to use it. Get going!’”
As part of his shamanic duties, Raven is an ‘ordeal master’ acting as Baphomet’s tool to help others “let go of their junk” through spiritual BDSM.
“If you put BDSM into a spiritual context, it’s not a question of if something deep will come up; it’s a question of when.
“It has to be a very humble position. I am the one in charge, but it’s also all about the person who’s going through it. It’s not about my ego, it’s about me being the best possible instrument to help them to their underworld and back safely – especially with the gods watching. The gods and spirits, they love to smack you around with your ego.”
As we slowly tour the garden, our conversations about plants, spirits and gender identity blend into one great puddle of polytheism. Raven’s is a complete worldview, made possible by his pantheistic approach to spirituality. While doing my best to take on board what he says, my imagination throbs as we discuss the responsibilities of actually having a slave.
“Basically, Joshua has dedicated his life to serving me and to helping me to do my work. And because he enjoys that, it’s very fulfilling to him to be in a position of service. I am a slave myself: I am a god slave. This tattoo is my slave brand, and I am Hela’s property. She’s made it very clear to me that as I treat him, so I will be treated. If I’m a jerk to him, she will create circumstances to teach me the error of my ways.”
Although what Raven believes is far out – and even in his own words “perverted” – it is at least organic. I might be interested to spend a day in Raven Kaldera’s shoes, talking to gods and plants – although I’d make sure I was safely out of them before night fell.

Published in the Fortean Times.


Posted in Fortean Times, music and art by georgebinning on July 12, 2011

Writer/Director: Brett Simmons
Starring: Wes Chatham, CJ Thomason, Devon Graye, Tammin Sursock
Distributor: After Dark Originals



Written and directed by Brett Simmons, Husk starts with a fantastic isolation-type set up and offers some chilling and highly enjoyable horror to offset a band of fairly uninspiring youths who meet their hellish ends.
A field of nine foot corn becomes an impenetrable labyrinth of horror in which the stems of space and time are tangled and knotted. A dark force lurks within, lures a group of unsuspecting teenagers into this netherworld and sets to work. For a start there’s something wrong with the scarecrows… something about the way they stalk you through the corn and cut you to ribbons.
From Groundhog Day through to Army of Darkness and the Hellraiser series great things have been by screwing with time and space. Simmons must have known he was onto a winner with a setting reminiscent of Stephen King’s Children of the Corn, but with zombie scarecrows, and the success of Lost and Donnie Darko must have turned a few lights on in his head. The film is well conceived and directed but the miserable college archetypes who get sucked into the plot deserve everything they get. Can all students in America really be categorized as an earnest geek, cool dude, meat-headed jock, steady-Eddy or rebellious pair of tits? Chuck in a Czech exchange student or a young tree-surgeon every so often why not?
I found myself rooting for evil, eager to see these tedious characters put out of their (and my) misery. No prizes for guessing the most expendable character who’ll get it first, or which bookish student eventually works out the mystery. The meat-head survives for an infuriatingly long time and an unlikely, sorry, likely Jock-Geek combo makes it the furthest. That leaves the dude and the tits to battle it out for third place.
A fate that doesn’t quite amount to death is usually worse than death, and for victims and audience alike, Husk has a good one. The strange space-time anomaly is neatly reconciled with the outside world and the film concludes with a one of those endings that makes you slap your thigh and say “Aha!”

A combine harvester of horror, truly arable. 7/10

Published in the Fortean Times.

Norwegian Ninja

Posted in Fortean Times, music and art by georgebinning on June 10, 2011
Norwegian Ninja

Writer/Director: Thomas Cappelen Malling
Starring: Mads Ousdal, Jon Øigarden, Linn Stokke, Amund Maarud
Distributor: Euforia Film



The great thing about a film with a name like Norwegian Ninja is that you can approach it with no great expectations… and then be surprised by something that turns out to be a complete joy.
The real-life inspiration for this bewildering, brilliant com-fu romp is the 1985 arrest of Norwegian politician Arne Treholt who was accused of high treason and espionage. His collaboration with the Iraqis and the Russians proved to be one of the most serious cases of Cold War-mongering in Norwegian history. In 2006 Thomas Cappelen Malling wrote a spoof military manual about ninja invisibility powers which purported to be work of Treholt; then the Norwegian Film Institute gave him 10.5 million krone (roughly £1.2 million), to film an alternative history in which Treholt leads a group of peace loving ninjas loyal to the late King Olaf and fighting for peace and justice. Treholt colludes with the Soviets only to combat a secret western organisation which inflicts terror on their own people in order to justify all out war against Russia; an idea which resonates with a number of popular conspiracy theories today.
The film is regularly both thoughtful and funny. The illuminated way of ninja life is widely misunderstood and its place in Norwegian society is under threat. But the enlightened Treholt serves a higher cause, and shares pleasant flashes of zen philosophy- “Every place and every moment is always the best.” he says, “Every pine cone falls to its rightful place.” His motley band of ninjas raise an affectionate smile. The old sniper, the driver, the chosen one and the animal lover are vaguely reminiscent of Baron Munchhausen’s team.
Norwegian Ninja is humorously faithful to every aspect of 1980s action cinema. Visually the film delivers all the luscious treats that make Jason and the Argonaughts or the Fly so good. Every beautiful old fashioned effect is used: stop motion animation, flick book sequences, classic fonts, exploding miniature models, and tacky first person views provide a blissful viewing experience.
Another advantage of this retro style is being able to use analogue gadgets that the audience has a hope in hell of understanding- the logic being that an iPod app. that that can hack pentagon data, though useful, is not half as entertaining on screen as an exploding clockwork glider. The remote control quadrocopter is very cool, as are the sub marine motorbikes and the feng-shui powered base defenses.
It seems daft to be giving this film such a rave review, except that it is such a complete pleasure to watch –a funny, stylish comedy with an infectiously good-natured tone.

An unexpected gem from a first time film maker: 9/10

Published in the Fortean Times.

Wake Wood

Posted in Fortean Times, music and art by georgebinning on March 23, 2011
Wake Wood

UK Release Date: March 25, 2011 (UK – Theatrical)
March 28, 2011 (UK – DVD)
Price: £15.99
UK Certificate: 18
Director: David Keating
Country: Ireland/UK/Sweden
Distributor: Momentum Pictures



In the last two years, the revitalised Hammer Films has released two new horror movies, including the acclaimed Let me in, a very creditable remake of the Swedish Let the right one in. This year sees another three titles scheduled for release, starting with Wake Wood, produced in conjunction with the Irish Film Board and the Swedish Film Institute.

After losing their daughter Alice in a tragic dog attack, Patrick and Louise Daly (Aidan Gillen and Eva Brithistle) move to the quiet, if somewhat Wicker Man-esque village of Wake Wood, in rural Ireland. As they try to deal with their grief and settle into the tight-knit community, he working as a vet and she a pharmacist, they discover that the villagers, led by Wicker Man-esque country-squire-turned-shaman Arthur (Timothy Spall), are engaging in decidedly odd nocturnal rituals. It turns out they have the power to bring the recently deceased back to life — on the understanding that they can’t have been dead more than a year and they will only return for three precious days, during which time the grieving nearest and dearest must come to terms with their loss once and for all before saying goodbye.

Initially sceptical (well you would be, wouldn’t you?), Patrick and Louise decide to take up Arthur’s offer; one problem is that the ritual requires a recently vacated body as a medium for Alice’s rebirth. Luckily the people of Wake Wood suffer accidental deaths with alarming regularity, so a corpse is always close at hand. In this case, an unfortunate accident involving a farmer and a very large bull saves the day.

Of course, problems ensue; the mourning parents have clearly never read “The Monkey’s Paw” nor been straight with Arthur about precisely how long their little girl has been dead. The ritual, very pleasing with all its fire and slime and chanting, seems successful enough, but the newly reborn Alice is… not quite right.

Wake Wood uses its low budget to good effect, while the Swedish tie in provides the instinctively bleak feel that characterised Let the Right One In, adapted successfully to the rural Irish setting. David Keating directs well enough, using roaming unsteady cams, and does not attempt any visual acrobatics that would stretch or betray the budget. Some may find Gillen’s performance a bit weak, but Spall steals the show with his engrossing and faintly comic rural mysticism.

Low budget horror with a pleasingly bleak feel: 7/10

Published in the Fortean Times.

The Minister of Chance

Posted in Fortean Times, music and art by georgebinning on March 23, 2011

Price: £1.49
Director: Dan Freeman
Country: UK
Distributor: Radio Static
Available from:



You won’t find the latest Dr. Who spin of in the TV listings; the Minister of Chance is, in the words of its creators, “a radiophonic serial”. In other words, it’s a continuing audio drama in the form of a downloadable podcast.

The series opens in another time, in another world, in a local pub where, in typical Who fashion, the regulars speak in northern accents. When a man appears from a door, larger on the inside than the outside, Dr Who fans, myself included, start to writhe with excitement. No, it’s not the Doctor, but an equally cocky Time Lord called the Minister of Chance. The situation very quickly escalates from a search for a missing scientist to matters of international diplomacy, and unanswered questions start to pile up by the dozen.

Cut to Ambassador Durian (played by none other than eight Doctor, Paul McGann) of the invading Sezuan forces, blackmailing the king with his oily charm and military superiority, and without, as it transpires, authorisation. And this is where the medium of high-tech audio-drama surpasses the cranky old television — because instead of the by now almost obligatory CGI battle-scene, we are treated to one of the most eloquent, non-violent invasions ever devised. Whilst TV audiences are easily placated with explosions, chases and gadgets, good storytelling is key to holding a radio audience, and it’s central to the appeal of Minister of Chance.

The world created for the Minister of Chance is a highly engaging one. The invading Sezuan are a race of magicians in a world where science is outlawed for the good of the people. However the Sezuan do secretly employ captured enemy scientists in the hope of developing the fabled ‘ballistic missile’; the greater good justifies this act of heresy, and the missile will supposedly only be used as a deterrent. It’s a world in which rationality and superstition are inverted, in which “raving scientists” with their “æthereal musings” are pitted against the practical uses of magic spells.

The voice acting — from a cast including not just McGann but Sylvester McCoy (the seventh Doctor), Paul Darrow and Jenny Agutter — is top notch, the sound design is highly effective and the script completely faithful to the blunt, witty style of Dr Who. An if the eponymous Minister (Julian Wadham) sounds familiar, that’s because he first appeared (voiced by Stephen Fry) in the 2001 webcast Death Comes to Time, the director of which, Dan Freeman, has written, produced and directed this follow up.

It’s rare that I find myself so completely wrapped up in a series as this, but now I really want to know what happens next. However an ominous message on the Minister of Chance website reminds us that unless enough copies are sold, the Radio Static team cannot afford to finish the series. You can download the Prologue for free, and Episode One (‘The Broken World’) for £1.49 from

A thoroughly enjoyable addition to the Who-niverse: 8/10

Published in the Fortean Times.

Sideshow Al and the Golden Age of Ballyhoo

Posted in features and interviews, Fortean Times by georgebinning on February 23, 2011
Image from Ballyhoo, Al Stencell

The 1986 Hall and Christ sideshow at the Dallas, Tex. State Fair

“At school I’d see guidance councillors and they’d say, “What career would you like?”
And I’d say, “I want to be in the circus.”
And they’d say, “No, no, no, no, no. How about advertising?”
But since landing a summer job, aged 12, at a travelling fair in 1958, Al W Stencell has never left the circus. By the age of 27 he had started The Royal Brothers Circus with a man named Johnny Frazier, only two hours after they met.
“I started my own circus mainly because I kept getting deported from the United States when I couldn’t get a work permit,” Al says.
Having formed and toured two more circuses with his wife Shirley between 1976 and 1991, he has amassed a collection of 80,000 photographs and hundreds of pieces of memorabilia. Using this giant archive, he has since devoted his time to writing histories of the circus. Stencell’s latest book, Circus and Carnival Ballyhoo (ECW Press) – which he’s here to talk about at Blackpool’s Showzam! Festival – is a definitive insider’s history of circus sideshows – the freaks, natural oddities and working acts, the jamboree that drew in the crowds and coaxed the money from their pockets.

Image from Ballyhoo, Al Stencell

Frank Lentini the three-legged man

Al’s guidance councillors may have been onto something, if his accounts of seasoned sideshow patter are anything to go by. The little heists and stunts Al’s team used to pull at each town bear more than a little resemblance to those of the world of advertising – just reflected in a warped carnival mirror. Every aspect of the sideshow experience was designed to part punters from their cash. And as well as the efforts of the shills and barkers to get patrons into the shows, I’m amazed to hear about the professional brokering that went on behind the scenes with the local law enforcement.
“The big carnivals all had professional “patches”, as we called them, and they squared the police so that crooked games could work. They would tell the game operators and fortune-tellers what they could do and what they couldn’t do.
“You could maybe only take the mark for 20, maybe 30 bucks during the week, but then on the last night of the fair, the getaway night, there were usually no limits.
“If the town was solidly squared you could work strong all week, but if it wasn’t there would be certain levels you could work, and certain days you couldn’t. On kids’ day, for example, they would tone it all down because the state fairs were the lifeblood of the carnival. They had to go back and re-sign them for next year, so they didn’t want too much heat.”

Image from Ballyhoo, Al Stencell

Prince Arthur, his wife and child, 1958

Palmists were amongst the craftiest and boldest tricksters. ‘Screamers’ would offer a young man a private reading, then threaten to scream for help once they were alone. Al doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the claims of psychic or other paranormal abilities in any sideshow he has seen.
“They would promise you anything,” he laughs. “Many of those readers would say, ‘Well for an extra two dollars I’ll show you my privates’, and then they would lift their skirt and there would be a cat tattooed onto the side of their knee or something.”
Weird animals were a staple sideshow attraction, and sideshow owners were always upping the stakes to find, or fabricate, the most bizarre menagerie. In spite of failing to inspire any serious cryptozoological investigations, tracking down the origins of some of the more improbable creatures was still no easy task.
Back-end showmen (those placed at the far end of the lot to ensure steady customer traffic through the whole area) traded exhibits back and forth to keep their material fresh; the “Minnesota Iceman” – a purported ‘apeman’ corpse frozen in ice and acclaimed “the missing link” ­– became the centrepiece of Frank D Hanson’s show, and had allegedly travelled across America before it crossed Stencell’s path.
“Frank had given me this phoney story, but later on I talked to the showman Rick West who had been up to visit him, seen the creature and said that it looked like a Hollywood prop. Then a few years ago I was in Florida and I was visiting the Kolozsy family who were famous for back-end shows, and Pete [Kolozsy] said this chap up in Dollywood, Tennessee, painted all of Hansen’s shows. So I finally located him and he said he saw a picture of it up on a sculptor’s pole, so it was obviously made by someone in Hollywood, and a very good job.”

Image from Ballyhoo, Al Stencell

The Clyde Beaty Cole Bros. sideshow in the late ’60s

Some of the animals were real: the two headed or six legged cows and sheep were born on farms and there was a roaring trade in mutated animals, both alive and dead. During the early 20th century, the boom years for animal oddities, Variety magazine regularly ran adverts for farmers with mutant livestock. But as the wow factor wore off such exhibits began to lose their place in the limelight. Al seems quite upset by the fading of these curiosity sideshows.
“I went to an auction of show stuff in Florida about 10 years back,” he tells me. “They brought up Al Moody’s stuffed two-headed bull and it didn’t reach the minimum, so it didn’t sell. I walked away thinking I saw the death of the back-end business right there.”
As well as the giving inside story on classics such as the blade box queens and living unicorns, Al’s book also charts the decline of traditional freak show. As people began to lose their appetite for ogling the deformed and disabled, the law protested against the exhibiting of freaks, and care in childbirth improved, fewer people sought a career in freaking. But Stencell looks back fondly on the days of freak shows, pointing out that in those days freaks could earn a very good living, with their private lives sheltered from the prejudices of the world beyond the circus.
“There was a strong community; that was how I tried to present it in the book. The images show them with their kids and you see them backstage playing cards. The armless man would hold his cards in his feet, playing with the tattooed lady and the fat lady. That was quite good you know. Today there are literally no real freaks around, just illusionists and what we call working acts [non-freak acts performing such feats as sword swallowing, fire eating and so on].
“In the early days there was a whole edginess to it – the rigged carnival games, the girl shows, the sideshows, the freaks and the risqué stuff all went together for a night out that people wouldn’t find in their home town. You couldn’t find it anywhere else.”

Image from Ballyhoo, Al Stencell

But it’s easy to see the problems that Stencell’s utopian, old-time sideshow might run into when faced with the rather different tastes of today’s audiences. Perhaps the closest thing we have these days is the Jim Rose Circus, a stage show that manages both to horrify and delight worldwide.
“I think Jim stays true to the sideshow tradition because he’s very aggressive and his patter’s very good.” says Al. “The last time I seen it, the best act on it was a big fat yoyo guy [David Capurro], he was terrific. That really brought it back to the old sideshow.
“Traditionally you’d sell it with the freaks, and you’d square it with the working acts, the speciality acts, and that was sort of Jim’s thing: he’d have this mayhem and gore going on and raw sexual suggestion, and then he’d have this kid come with a yoyo and he’d settle the whole place down. When you see what he does with it, everybody’s amazed – everybody’s happy, right?”
Talking to Al Stencell, and reading his book, its easy to realise just how beguiling was the pull of the carnival; the colourful banners, outrageous criers, sexy girls, and promises of the impossible all drew you in, and in so many ways that there was practically no defence against it.
Whilst the packaging of the sideshow may have changed, it will always be a weirdly persistent feature on the cultural landscape – and I, for one, will always want to see it for reasons I do not quite understand.
Al sums it up nicely: “People are always curious. You put up a hording around a construction site, cut a hole in it, and pretty soon someone is looking through it, right?
“These sideshow banners were a titillating art that made people think, ‘I want to see that’. There’s no cure for human gullibility, there’s no shot yet. So all that stuff will survive a long time.”


Showzam! Festival presents Ballyhoo and Girlie Shows – Al Stencell’s book signing and talk, Sun 27 February 2pm, Showzam! Central, Blackpool Winter Gardens.

Admission is free but places are limited. Tickets must be picked up in advance from the Showzam! Central Information Point.
For more information call 01253 478222 or visit for details of this and all other festival events.

Published on the Fortean Times Website.

Alien vs Ninja

Posted in Fortean Times, music and art by georgebinning on February 22, 2011

UK Release Date: 07-02-2011
Price: £12.99
UK Certificate: 15
Director: Seiji Chiba
Country: Japan
Distributor: Revolver Entertainment



Alien vs Ninja, or AVN as future generations of film buffs will surely know it, is the latest kung fu sci-fi gore-fest from Revolver Entertainment. Our heroes are a motley crew of emo-like ninjas who enjoy nothing more than going on missions, slapping each other on the back and throwing ninja stars at each other for fun. That is until a meteor full of half dolphin, half human aliens lands near their village and kills everyone.

The economy of script is clearly inspired by haiku, and the music and plot by Sega Megadrive. Fight scenes are peppered with thought provoking dialogue such as: “What is the first rule of being a ninja?” “To sneak about?” or “What does it want?” “It’s a monster alright? It just wants to kill us all!”

AVN takes you on a journey of loss, revenge and gory glory. I was on the edge on my seat when an alien tried to rape the lady ninja, and was sure all was lost when the dapper ninja awoke to find himself hanging upside down, bound with his friend’s intestines and impregnated with a baby alien. I cowered in fear when a squad of impregnated zombie ninjas started chanting “fuck you” in English – although luckily there is a stupid ninja whose goofy ways of falling over lighten the mood considerably. Once everybody is dead, and the protagonists seem to be out of the woods, the cool ninja says to the dapper one, “I hate reaching into your throat.” and they all laugh. Clearly something is lost in translation, though perhaps they are making a joke about kissing? I don’t know.

With Oscar-losing performances from Mika Hijii and Ben Hiura and some unspecial effects that frankly just miff, AVN is bound to cement its place in cinema history. The film delivers everything you would expect it to, especially a twist ending that doesn’t quite add up. Thankfully it is only an hour long, another good reason to watch it.

A highly recommended 2/10

Published in the Fortean Times and online.