April 1, 2012

Land of the Weird


Every few months, something crops up in the news to remind me why I will always consider myself a proud Wisconsinite. There’s already plenty of history to back me up, but a little reminder now and again helps confirm the deeply-held patriotism: Wisconsin’s lack of a statute prohibiting necrophilia is put to the test, or a man beats his wife to death with a second banjo after the first banjo breaks, there’s another werewolf sighting, or the UFOs land yet again. Wisconsin gave the world Ed Gein, Jeffery Dahmer, and the giant monster films of Bert I. Gordon. The people wear cheese wedges on their heads and even went so far as to elect a certifiably insane man as their governor. Say what you will about rampant weirdness in New Jersey, or California, or Louisiana—it’s Wisconsin that dominates those syndicated “News of the Strange” columns. It’s been a hub of eccentric behavior and unexplained phenomena since at least the mid-nineteenth century, when the Knipfels first settled there (and from what I’m told, the arrival of my relatives didn’t help matters much).

        There was another reminder during the third week of March, when the residents of Clintonville—a small town about forty miles west of where I grew up—started reporting something disturbing. It sounded like a series of explosions or the roll of distant thunder, but it was coming from deep beneath the ground. It was loud enough and frequent enough to keep them awake all night several nights in a row. The state undertook an investigation, but could find no obvious natural or human cause. There was no mining in the area, the military wasn’t doing any underground testing, there was nothing wrong with the local dam or the water table, methane wasn’t belching from the local dump, and there was no seismic activity. Yet the explosions continued, and perhaps understandably the residents of Clintonville started to get a little antsy. A few even chose to leave town until the clear and immediate threat had passed, or at least been explained away. Why stick around, after all, when at any instant the ground might crumble beneath your feet moments before the entire town is swallowed by . . . something?

        Then on the fourth day after the explosions started, a team from the State Geological Survey arrived and quickly and neatly explained everything away. Contrary to those earlier statements, they said, there had indeed been a series of very small earthquakes beneath Clintonville—so small, in fact, that they weren’t felt anywhere but within the town limits. So now everyone could just relax. There was no cause for alarm. None at all.

        It wasn’t a terribly satisfying answer, but most people were still happy to accept it—even as the same isolated phenomenon was noted beneath another small town some distance away. It was just easier to accept it and move on.

        A few people suggested that maybe the state was lying about what they knew to be happening. I think we can accept that as a given. That “earthquake” explanation is pretty obvious. A little too obvious, if you ask me. Too obvious and too pat, so I don’t consider it a possibility. But then where does that leave us? To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, once you dismiss the obvious explanations, what are you left with? Monsters.

        Long before the State Geological Survey showed up, some of the locals arrived at this same very logical conclusion, speculating the explosions were the work of aliens or molemen. It’s not that far-fetched a guess, given that both have been known to live underground (especially the molemen), and both have been known to do their share of excavation. Myself, I suspect something a little bigger was behind it all—perhaps still is—but for once I’m not going to say it’s Godzilla.

        After all, Godzilla is an amphibious creature who tends to stay close to the water. The rivers and lakes near Clintonville are much too small for him. Besides, he’s still busy over in Japan, even if the international media refuses to report it.

        No, I see three possibilities here, with one much more likely than the others.

        It might be Baragon, one of the more underappreciated of the giant monsters from the menagerie at Toho Studios. He’s big, he lives underground, and his burrowing does tend to trigger isolated quakes. What he’d be doing in central Wisconsin I can’t exactly say, except that navigation underground has got to be a little tricky. Maybe he made a wrong turn somewhere. In any case, if it is Baragon and he decides to get a breath of air while he’s in the area, well, all I can say is that we should just scratch Clintonville off any lists of planned vacation spots.

        We might also be witnessing the first appearance of the Giant Space Spiders. I guess there’s no need to rehash that whole story, except to say that they brought down the Columbia shuttle before vanishing into the Big Thicket in eastern Texas. It would of course make sense that they would come to Wisconsin, given that filmmaker Bert I. Gordon—the man who gave us Earth vs. The Spider—was born in Kenosha, not that far away from Clintonville, and also because William Rebane’s film The Giant Spider Invasion, was both filmed and set in northern Wisconsin. Maybe Rebane knew more than he was letting on, and intended his film as a warning to future generations about what he knew was coming. On the bright side, thanks to the work of both Gordon and Rebane, we now know what to do should the Giant Space Spiders decide to resurface. So long as someone in the area can open up a temporary hole in the space-time continuum, the people of Clintonville will be just fine.

        The most likely explanation, however, was (sadly enough) first reported on, when they suggested that a portal to Hell was opening beneath Clintonville. That makes perfect sense to me for a few reasons. First, I’ve spent time in Clintonville. More importantly, though, the weirdness that has always made Wisconsin such a wondrous place has often revealed more than a hint of the devil’s handiwork. How else to explain cheese curds? Satan, after all, has traditionally been known for his sense of humor. But maybe over the years his suggestions have become a little muddled in transit. Maybe the bizarre heights which Wisconsin reached still weren’t quite up to his satisfaction, and as a result he decided to open up a more direct line of communication. Should that be the case, and if it means the things that go on in Wisconsin are about to become stranger than ever, then let me be the first to say that I’m all for it. And in simple economic terms, can you imagine what a direct portal to Hell would do for the state’s tourism industry?


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.