July 12, 2009

The Golden Age of Weirdness


News of John Keel’s passing at age seventy-nine took me by surprise last week (and not just because his official spokesperson was Ratso Sloman). I’d been thinking of Keel lately. As the author of The Mothman Prophecies, Disneyland of the Gods, and other books about the High Strangeness afoot in the world around us, Keel was like a contemporary Charles Fort—a man who wasn’t just tuned to a different frequency, but who was working with a whole new set of dials. And both he and Fort had a big influence on my way of thinking when I was young.

People (especially the ones who hadn’t been born yet) get a kick out of badmouthing the seventies —the goofy hairstyles, the bad fashion, the dreadful Top-Forty music, the disco scene. It was all so bloated and tacky. And that’s undeniably true; those things were all pretty awful. Plus there was an energy crisis, skyrocketing gas prices, an economy in free fall, out of control crime rates, and a dying environment to worry about. People seem to have forgotten about those things.

            They also seem to have forgotten that the seventies were a glorious time to be a weird kid.

            You had Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Bermuda Triangle and a resurgence in UFO sightings. “Pyramid Power” and “ancient astronauts” were commonplace terms. People were interested in ghosts, ESP, reincarnation and other psychic tomfoolery. On top of that you had Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and his countless other books laying out his wackadoodle Biblical “evidence” that we were in the End Times.

            This stuff was everywhere. Documentaries, horror films, and especially those great Sunn International docudramas flooded movie theaters. Television was chock full of shows like In Search of and U.F.O.—as well as series like Kolchak: The Night Stalker, not to mention the endless stream of made-for-TV movies about the Bermuda Triangle and alien abductees. And back then people actually used to read, so bookstores (especially those wire paperback carousels) were overflowing with cheapies and magazines with titles like From Outer Space, Chariots of the Gods?, The Search for Bigfoot and UFO Reporter. There were even Sasquatch and UFO-themed comic books available, and small sets of encyclopedias devoted to witchcraft and peculiar otherworldly phenomena were sold in grocery stores.

            Yes, they were good days to be a strange kid. Everywhere you turned, something was feeding into it. So as a strange kid, I was happy, and buried myself in The Mysterious, setting aside every Saturday evening to watch Leonard Nimoy go in search of some creepy thing or another. A stack of UFO and Bigfoot magazines rested atop the bed stand in my room, and my bookshelves were divided into special sections for Bigfoot books, UFO books, Bermuda Triangle books, and “Other” (I never cared much about the ghosts or ESP, so all that went on the “Other” shelf). Charles Fort and John Keel, America’s foremost documenters of strange and unexplained phenomena, became my new heroes (right after Carl Kolchak).

            Collectively it was proof that there was something else going on—that there was much more to this world than we could see or imagine—and thank God for that, given that the visible world seemed pretty sucky.

            Diving into these obsessions of mine was just fine in the safety of my room, I quickly learned, but once I started carrying them outside there was trouble. I wasn’t expecting that—the national news reported when anything happened in the Bermuda Triangle or another hick saw Bigfoot. But I guess I was too young to notice that superior smirk on the newsreader’s face, or the smug tone to the interviewer’s voice.

            I was lulled into a false sense of acceptability by a fourth grade teacher named Mr. DeGroot. He was a wonderful teacher who not only shared my interests, but pushed me to research them more deeply, to go so far as to write letters to people who’d recently encountered some weirdness in the Bermuda Triangle, or claimed to have been aboard an alien craft.

            None of them ever wrote back, but I gave it a shot.

            Mr. DeGroot left me with the feeling that these were real phenomena worth investigating, and I carried this into my other classes. I wrote book reports about new paperbacks about Loch Ness and the Roswell Incident and the Sargasso Sea. I gave class reports about strange happenings in Wisconsin. Then in science class the teacher (awful bitch, this one, whose name I’ve mercifully expunged from my brain) asked us to draw a picture of a mammal.

            I think that was the real turning point for me. She wanted mammals, so I drew her a picture of Bigfoot. Bigfoot’s clearly a mammal. Unfortunately, as there are no clear photographs of the elusive creature, I based my drawing on a still from the famous Patterson film of a hulking, hairy hominid tromping about in Northern California. The film was shaky and grainy as it was, and was shot from some distance away. As a result, the enlarged still, lacking the image enhancement technology we have today, was of a fuzzy blob with arms and legs. But that was my model, so that’s what I drew, and the picture I turned in was a fuzzy blob lacking any detail apart from arms and legs. But I reproduced the photo pretty well, I thought.

            When the fat old crow asked me what it was supposed to be, I told her. Even after I showed her the photo I was working from she gave me a C on the assignment, telling me that “Bigfoot wasn’t a real mammal,” and that he didn’t exist. That time I did catch the superior smirk on her face.

            I’d given up on Santa Claus long ago without any trouble, but you don’t go around telling little kids that Bigfoot doesn’t exist. She was lying.

            If anything her clear stupidity—her refusal to believe in things simply because she hadn’t seen them herself, cemented my own belief, as well as my belief in those other mysteries. That boring old cow might’ve thought I was weird, but at least I lived in a much more interesting world than she did. Mine had monsters.

            Soon enough, of course, that era passed. Books debunking ancient astronauts and the Bermuda Triangle started coming out. Nobody talked much about Loch Ness anymore, or the hollow earth. (I blame the election of Ronald Reagan). And while there have been bursts of interest in the bizarre and unfathomable, as witnessed by TV shows like The X Files and MonsterQuest, it has a different feel, somehow. It’s less . . . fun. Nor is it as all-pervasive as it was in the seventies.

            I’ve been talking to my friend Don about these things lately. He was a similarly weird youngster in those days, and knew what I meant when I referred to the Golden Age of Strangeness.”

            “When we were kids,” he wrote, “boy all the Stranger than Science stuff at our fingertips, it was the right combination of cultural circumstances (for good and ill), never to coalesce precisely that way again.”

            He’s right about that. The question is, why that particular era?

            My guess is that there were a number of cultural vortices that all collided in the early seventies. The Manson Family and Altamont had brought the big party that was the sixties to an abrupt end, simultaneously unleashing one nasty hangover across the country. Then there was Watergate and that damn war that kept dragging on and on. A generalized malaise, a bored, cynical hopelessness settled over us. The world was ugly, and dirty, and to be honest, just not that fun and interesting anymore. Plus you had the moon landings, which had people looking spaceward. Anywhere had to be better than here, right?

            So what better way to liven things up than to focus on evidence that there was more to the world than what we saw—something bizarre and mysterious and a little frightening, but not really the kind of threat that murderous hippies, corrupt politicians and endless wars were?

            Bingo, you get some spaceships buzzing small towns and some monsters roaming remote sections of the woods and Bolivian cargo ships getting zapped into other dimensions. Focus on some of the inexplicable mysteries around us, and for awhile at least we can forget about the banal cruelties we see every day.

            And maybe that helps explain why I’m still fascinated with these things—and leaves me wondering why more people aren’t.


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