December 28, 2015

A UFO Sighting in Malden: Reality, Daimons and Hoaxes

Did a UFO land outside Boston earlier this month?

According to MUFON (the Mutual UFO Network), a Malden resident reported seeing something strange the evening of December 10 in the skies over either Malden or Revere. (The two towns are adjacent so I understand how it could be hard to tell where it was.)

The witness was out walking around 11:00 pm when he saw something unusual flying above him. The object was described simply as "an odd light" which hovered and then landed on the ground. After it landed the witness saw a red light shining through the trees but was unable to make his way to it.

It was dark and too far away to see it, but I swore I saw a red light on the ground. So I tried to get closer to it, but the only way was through a forest and it could have been miles away. I was unarmed and had no flashlight so I did not proceed, but I am in the morning. Waited to see if it would go back up for a few minutes. It didn’t and I went home.

I have a lot of friends who live in Malden and have been there innumerable times, so I definitely find this story interesting. The town is densely settled but also has a lot of forested land. In particular I'm thinking of the the Middlesex Fells, a 2,500 acre park that is partially located in Malden. It has lots of rocky hills, woods, lakes and even some open fields that might be large enough for a UFO to land in. It's also a great place to hike!

A photo from Woonsocket, Rhode Island taken in 1967. Real or fake? From this great site.

I have two initial and immediate reactions whenever someone claims to have seen a UFO.

First, I ask myself, "Did they really see something mundane and mistakenly think it was some kind of weird flying craft?" Maybe it was a plane, or a meteor, or a satellite. The MUFON website itself notes: "Please remember that most UFO sightings can be explained as something natural or man-made." The witness in this case claims that it was definitely not an airplane or helicopter. They are familiar with those because a relative was in the Air Force. Interestingly, when the witness tried to take a photo with their iPhone it immediately lost all power. Hmmm. I don't think your standard 747 makes phones shut down...

Second, I ask myself, "Is this person playing a hoax?", which might be the case here. I'm not sure what an anonymous hoaxer gains by posting something to an online UFO site, but there are plenty of hoaxes online. The details in this report are a little hazy which does make me a little suspicious. For example, where was the witness when they saw the UFO? How could they see the light on the ground if it was miles away and in the woods?

After I have those two immediate reactions I will sometimes think about this passage in Patrick Harpur's 1994 book Daimonic Reality:

Charges of fakery, lies and hoaxing are leveled at all paranormal phenomena. ... It is nowhere more true than in UFOlogy, where debates run for decades about whether "contactees" really contacted aliens or whether they were lying. I suspect that, reality being what it is, the they themselves don't know half the time. In other words, I prefer to see hoaxing as a daimonic quality inherent in, and continuous with, anomalous events - which are neither "genuine" nor "fake" but, in a deeper sense, both

Oooooh! That's a philosophically shifty paragraph if there ever was one. I tend to think of things as being either real or fake. Were there really weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Do vaccines really cause autism? Is the Earth really round? We should be able to determine what's true or false.

The key word in Harpur's argument is "daimonic," which refers to the daimones, minor spirits in ancient Greek mythology who filled the world. The singular form is daimon, which the English word "demon" is derived from. The daimons weren't necessarily evil, though. Some were good, some were bad, and a lot them were just tricky. They could bring dreams to people who were sleeping, or visions to those who were awake.

Harpur claims that although we think of these daimons as purely mythological (if we think of them at all), they are still here, but rather than flying around in the material world they are now lurking in our psyche waiting to play tricks. He quotes Jung to support his argument:

There are no conclusive arguments against the hypothesis that these archetypal figures are endowed with personality at the outset and are not just secondary personalizations. In so far as the archetypes do not represent mere functional relationships, they manifest themselves as DAIMONES, as personal agencies. In this form they are felt as actual experiences and are not "figments of the imagination", as rationalists would have us believe.

Harpur further claims that these daimons want our attention, but since we ignore them they tend to show up as weird anomalous phenomena like Bigfoot, ghosts, spectral animals, and of course UFOs.

Sometimes they show up on their own, but sometimes the daimons will unconsciously urge people to imitate them or pretend they have seen them. They get humans to do their work for them. So that guy who dresses up like Bigfoot to tromp around the woods may have been inspired to do it by the daimons. That UFO hoaxer who posts a fake sighting online might have been inspired by these tricky spirits as well. A good hoax serves the daimons' purpose: to remind us that not everything is rational and that weird things still lurk out there in the darkness.

You may not buy Harpur's theory, but I find it interesting. It's exciting to think that strange entities are still out there in the world, either hiding in our psyches or in the woods in a Massachusetts town with two subway stations.

PS - It seems like there are a lot of UFO sightings in New England during the winter. Does anyone know if that is true? Is it just because it gets darker so much earlier? Please share your thoughts on this subject if you have any. 

December 20, 2015

Snow Magic

There's an old New England saying that a green Christmas means a full graveyard. This is one of those classic reverse weather predictions, like a sunny Groundhog's Day indicating winter will last a long time. In this case, mild Christmas weather means the winter will be ferocious later on.

Friends in Vermont have posted pictures of snow, but we're definitely going to have a green Christmas down here in southern New England. But who knows? Myaybe we'll get walloped with snow later in the winter. Last year it was so warm and humid on Christmas that I saw a salamander on our front porch, and we all know what the rest of the winter was like for Boston.

So, in case we do get some snow this year, here are some snow charms from 19th century New England.

  • It's a sign of coming snow if your wood sizzles when you put it on the fire. 
  • The day of the month of the first snow storm indicates the number of storms in the year. So, it it snows on the 2nd you'll get two storms, if it storms on the 3rd you'll get three, etc. Let's hope the first storm doesn't happen on the 31st.
  • If the bottom of your teakettle is white when you take it off the stove, it means a snow storm is coming. 
  • Wish on the first snowflake of the season and your wish will come true. (It flurried here in October so it's too late for me!)

Those are from Fanny Bergen's book Current Superstitions (1896), but here are a few more from Clifton Johnson's What They Say in New England (1896).

  • Snow that comes in the old moon will stick around for a long time; snow that comes in the new moon will melt away fast. 
  • A snowy winter indicates a good harvest. 

Perhaps we shouldn't be too upset that we're having a green Christmas. According to Johnson, if the sun shines through the branches of an apple tree on Christmas it means there will be a good apple crop. I do like a good apple...

December 13, 2015

Ghosts for Christmas: "What the Reef takes, the Reef will give back..."

There'll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago
It's the most wonderful time of the year...

Andy Williams, It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (1963)

So what is it about Christmas that goes so well with ghosts? Such a question inevitably brings up the issue of why we celebrate Christmas in December at all.

Jerome K. Jerome, Told After Supper (1891)


A few years ago Tony and I went to visit a friend around Christmastime. We looked at her tree, we had appetizers and cocktails, we talked about our lives. As we talked our friend mentioned that she thought her apartment might be haunted by a ghost.

She had heard strange banging noises in the middle of the night. Lights would turn themselves off and on. Items that she placed on her bedside table would vanish, only to show up later in another room. Doors would slam shut when no one was there. She had mentioned these phenomena to her neighbors, who told her that a previous tenant had committed suicide in the apartment. Maybe this former tenant was still lurking around?

When I got home that night I dreamt about a friend who had died recently. I saw him standing in a subway station next to a rack of postcards. He didn't seem sad or scary, simply present. The one odd note was that while alive this friend always wore a brown leather jacket, but in my dream his jacket was black.

Then next morning I told my dream to Tony. Surprisingly, he had dreamt something similar, but about a different friend. It was definitely an interesting coincidence and a little spooky. The Roman poet said that Sleep was the brother of Death. Maybe ghosts are the siblings of dreams?


I am something of an agnostic about ghosts. I can't decide if they are objective or subjective phenomena. Many people I know and respect have experienced ghostly phenomena, but most of the uncanny phenomena I've experienced have happened while I am asleep or in that liminal time between dreaming and waking. Something weird even happened to me this week.

I was lying in bed sleeping when I felt someone sit down next to me. I felt someone tap me on the shoulder and heard a man whisper something unintelligible. I woke up quickly and kicked off the covers. There was no one there. It was 3:30 am. I thought, "It must have just been a dream..."

I started to fall back asleep when I heard my cell phone buzz, signaling that someone had sent me a text. I briefly worried it was my mother texting me to say that someone in the family had died. What if the presence I felt on my bed was a relative saying farewell en route to the afterlife? But then I realized my mother doesn't text and I fell back asleep. When I finally checked the phone in the morning there was no text message at all. No one had passed away.

Christmastime has traditionally been the season for ghost stories. Here in North America we tend to celebrate ghosts and the restless dead around late October, when the dark season has only just begun, but in Europe ghosts more often make their appearance around Christmas. For example, ghost stories were an important part of Christmas festivities in Victorian England. Many Victorian families would gather by the fireplace to tell ghost stories after supper on Christmas Eve, and Charles Dickens drew on this tradition when he included the four ghosts in A Christmas Carol.

It makes perfect sense to me. The Northern Hemisphere is at its darkest now, and most of us are walking around in a somnabulant state even during the day. It just seems reasonable that ghosts would pervade our waking consciousness at this time of year. Christmas celebrates the return of the light but we have to go through the darkness first to get there first.

All of which brings me to this week's main story, which is about a haunted lighthouse.

Penfield Reef Light is located about a mile off the shore of Fairfield, Connecticut. The reef is said to be one of the most treacherous areas in Long Island Sound, and the lighthouse was built in 1874 to guide ships safely past it.

Penfield Reef Light at high tide, from Wikipedia

In December of 1916, the light was staffed by two men: lighthouse keeper Fred Jordan and assistant keeper Rudolph Iten. On December 22 Jordan decided to row ashore to see his family for Christmas. It wasn't that far a distance, and he was an experienced boater. Sure, the waters were rough but he was determined to spend the holiday with his loved ones.

It was a terrible mistake. The waves were rougher than Jordan estimated, the winds wilder. His small boat capsized a short distance from the lighthouse as Iten watched in horror, unable to aid his partner because of the rough seas. Jordan's body was recovered a few days later on the shore.

Two weeks later Iten was on the ground floor in the lighthouse when he saw Jordan walk down the stairs and enter the room where the log was kept. When Iten followed him into the room Jordan was gone, but the log had been opened to the day of Jordan's death.

From that time on Jordan's ghost appeared regularly at the lighthouse. Iten told the local newspaper:

I have seen the semblance of the figure several times... and so have the others [two assistant keepers], and we are all prepared to take an affidavit to that effect. Something comes here, that we are positive. There is an old saying, ‘What the Reef takes, the Reef will give back.’ 

(Quote from Jeremy D'Entremont's Lighthouse Digest site.)

Although Iten was spooked by the appearance of the ghost, Jordan's spirit was not malevolent. For example, two boys whose rowboat capsized reported that a man pulled them ashore onto Penfield Reef Light. They assumed that it was the lighthouse keeper, but as they looked for their rescuer they realized they were completely alone on the island. The man who saved them had vanished.

Similarly, a man in a power boat reported that he was guided to safety by a man in a rowboat. Once the power boat was safe the rescuer and his rowboat vanished. Many other sailors have reported seeing a shadowy figure on the lighthouse during stormy weather. Of course, the lighthouse had been automatic and unmanned since 1971...

It shouldn't be surprising that Fred Jordan's ghost is friendly. He was committed to guiding people through the darkness while alive, and kept that commitment even after death.

Sources for this week's post: Joseph Citro's book Passing Strange, Wikpedia, Jeremy D'Entremont's Lighthouse Digest, and The Deseret News.

December 06, 2015

The Man Who Sold His Genitals to the Devil

Here's another story about someone making a deal with the Devil. It's a little raunchy, and was recorded among the Penobscot Indians of Maine in the 1930s by anthropologist Frank Speck.


Many years ago a poor old man lived alone with his equally poor old wife.

They had a hard life working their meager farm out in the woods. The soil was rocky and the growing season short. They were so poor they didn't even have any horses to pull their plough. The old man had to do it himself.

One day while the old man was out dragging his plough across the field the Devil showed up.

"Hey there old fella," the Devil said. "That looks like awfully hard work. Wouldn't you rather have two strong horses to do that for you?"

The old man said, "Of course I would! But I don't have any money."

The Devil said, "Well, then I have a deal for you. I'll give you a team of horses, and you just have to give me one small thing..."

The old man knew he was talking to Satan. He said, "I'm not giving you my soul!"

The Devil paused thoughtfully, and then he said, "OK, but how about this? I give you a team of horses now, and then in one year I'll come back and cut off your genitals."

The old man considered the offer for a moment. He was quite old, as was his wife, and he didn't use his genitals as much as he used to. He probably wouldn't even miss them...

"It's a deal," he said. He and the Devil shook hands. The Devil vanished, and two strong horses appeared. The man hitched them up to his plough and went back to work.

Many months went by. At first the old man thought he had gotten a good deal, but he started to reconsider as the anniversary of his bargain approached. Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea after all...

The night before the Devil was supposed to claim his payment the old man just lay in bed and cried. His wife asked him what was wrong.

When she found out what he had done she was furious. "You idiot! I'll fix this. You just stay in bed and cry like a baby."

The next morning the old woman put on her husband's pants, coat and hat. Looking just like her husband, she went out into the field to meet the Devil.

The Devil was waiting there with a big knife in his hand. He smiled and said, "Hello old man! I've come to collect my payment."

The old woman smiled right back. She dropped her trousers and said, "I was afraid you would cut too deep, so I cut them off myself. See?"

The Devil stared down at the woman's exposed body. He said, "Well old man, you fooled me, but you paid the price anyway." And with that he disappeared.


Really, what can be said about this story? I'll just add two little comments. 

First, this is another story where someone cheats the Devil. It's a common theme in folk stories, and the joy of these stories is seeing how the hero does (or doesn't) get out of his bargain. Happily the old man's wife knows how to trick the Devil.

Second, French Catholic missionaries converted the Penosbscots in the early 1600s. Still, it's interesting to see how Christianity has been incorporated into the Penobscot worldview. I think this story might be a good example of how the two belief systems interact. It's certainly not something you'd find in the Bible! Another good example is this violent story about a rabbit impersonating a priest. Christianity isn't a uniform monolithic religion across the world. Different cultures do different things with it.