Skepticism

Demons from a Kid’s Birthday Party

Before I start this post, I gotta give a shout out to Naomi (Geek Goddess here on Skepchick) and Mark for organizing another fun gathering of Skeptics in the Pub for the Houston area skeptics tonight. I was drinking Shiner Bock, and fortunately, Shiners were happy hour price. So to keep pace, I lowered my price as well.

Now I know you’re thinking, “Sam, why would you lower your price? You’re already a cheap bastard.” And where that might be true, tonight I was even cheaper. In fact, I was extra cheap. With a coupon, I was actually free.

The sad thing is, there were no takers. Never before was the concept of ‘caveat emptor’ exercised so profoundly. I was like day-old shrimp. I was like a Kevin Trudeau book on a skeptic’s bookshelf. Are you kidding me? I was being passed over like I was covered in the blood of a spring lamb.

But before I use up the entire Internet with my inane rambling and groan-inducing references, let me just say, we had a good time at the pub. It’s always awesome catching up with all the Houston bad asses. Thanks again, Naomi and Mark.

So anyway, with my work schedule woes of late, and because I still try to catch a wave or play some beach volleyball games here and there, I’ve been forced to do me some TiVo-ing to get the TV shows that interest me. And I was looking forward to seeing a program on the History Channel called MonsterQuest.

Now, we’ve discussed the History Channel here many times before, and I think we all realize that there is a ton of bad information to sift through in their programming to get to something worth watching. And as you all know, MonsterQuest might actually make up the biggest percentage of the bad programming. It’s mostly Squatchy and Loch Nessie type searches that feature so-called investigators — who are way too impressed with anecdotal evidence and electronic gadgets — placing motion-sensitive cameras around for an hour, until they ultimately admit they’ve found nothing. The quests for monsters on the History Channel are decidedly unsuccessful.

This particular episode was called Terror from the Sky. The description on the website states:

Across North America there is something strange and frightening circling overhead. Witnesses tell of human-like creatures that float or hover in the skies and often descend to attack. Legends and folklore tell of strange flyingcreatures, but in the 1940s and 1950s, strange humanoid forms were spotted above small towns, bringing waves of panic. Sceptics claim that misidentification explains these creatures, however the mounting evidence says otherwise. MonsterQuest will analyze the video proof of this monster while scientists work to discover the identity of an eerie corpse that may unlock the mystery of these flying humanoid monsters.

But the reason I wanted to catch this episode is because, as long as I’ve been writing about skeptical topics, this is the first time I ever heard of this phenomenon. Well, it’s the first time I had heard of it in relation to anything other than the movie Rocketman. I wanted to find out what it was all about. So I dialed it up, and watched.

It goes without saying that it was about what you’d expect for a MonsterQuest episode. The concept is indeed bizarre, and I suppose if you actually saw a humanoid floating about, descending and attacking, it would be pretty scary. But the evidence the History Channel had for the phenomenon, which they provided at the very beginning of the program (at about 2:33 of video), set the tone for the rest of the hour.

They offered some shaky video footage of one of these “beasts” terrorizing some innocent people in the US and in Mexico.

Now, I suppose if you tried real hard, you could see a humanoid figure in the blob floating in the footage. But you can also see Sylvia Browne with an axe in her skull in the clouds, if you try hard enough.

The thought that immediately came to my mind when I saw it was, “It’s a cluster of balloons someone released.” In fact, I have a hard time imagining how the witnesses skipped right over that thought in favor of, “It’s a floating demon what’s come to kill me in the face.”

The good news is, the token skeptic for this particular episode of MonsterQuest was our old buddy, Joe Nickell. And of course, Joe looked at the video footage, and immediately said, “Balloons.” He was even allowed to do a couple of trials (much to the History Channel’s credit) where he released clusters of balloons and videotaped them to see how the footage would look.

Spoiler alert: It looked exactly the same as the evidence footage!

At any rate, I was interested in hearing about a supposed supernatural phenomenon I had never encountered before, but was disappointed it turned out to be such a bad attempt. And the presentation was pretty flimsy as well. If you all have more information on the subject, I would be glad to re-visit it. But I’m not going to hold my breath.

 

Post edited at 10:40 on August 5 to add links to videos.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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50 Comments

  1. “It’s a floating demon what’s come to kill me in the face.”

    Hmm. I’m betting it’s a race of intelligent bears come here to serve Rebecca.

    Didn’t think of that possibility, did ya?

  2. I love MonsterQuest, it’s one of my guilty pleasures. The show is so ridiculously credulous and cryptozoology is one of the more fun types of pseudoscience.

    Takes me back to my childhood when I gobbled up all things sasquatch, Atlantis, and aliens. I think I watched every show about pseudoscience that was on when I was about 12. Still remember one about Indian gurus where a skeptic showed how they did their tricks. This was a long time ago so I have no idea the name oo the show or who the skeptic was but since it was magic related it might have been Randi.

  3. @Noadi: I was the same way, ate it up! But never believed much of it, except ghosts, for some reason that made more sense then aliens.

    In junior high while reading a compilation of weird (but true!) stories, I came across a something that has stayed with me. Would love to have followed up on it.

    It seems Bob Denver (aka Gilligan) was at a cocktail party for actors. He was a bit drunk and flirting with a starlet. In order to impress her, he sat down at the piano and played beautifully for some time. The starlet wasn’t very impressed but his friends were shocked. Mr. Denver had never played piano for them before.

    Why? Because he doesn’t know how! No lessons in childhood! Never touched a piano before! *dramatic music* It was a one time thing and never repeated.

    Of course my memory of this is very flawed after 30 years but I’ve always wondered what kernel of truth was hidden in this ridiculousness.

  4. @Noadi:
    Takes me back to my childhood when I gobbled up all things sasquatch, Atlantis, and aliens. I think I watched every show about pseudoscience that was on when I was about 12. Still remember one about Indian gurus where a skeptic showed how they did their tricks. This was a long time ago so I have no idea the name oo the show or who the skeptic was but since it was magic related it might have been Randi.

    I remember seeing that too, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Randi. At least not the on eI saw.

    As for all things supernatural, yeah, I believed in those too. Or rather, I didn’t experience them firsthand, but did think they sounded plausible, and exciting.

    Of course, common sense and a slightly better understanding of physics pushed those over the edge of what’s possible and what’s absolutely not.

  5. @Bookitty:
    From Wikipedia: The Sweet Ride is a 1968 American surfer/biker exploitation film, starring Anthony Franciosa, Michael Sarrazin and Jacqueline Bisset in an early starring role. The film also features Bob Denver in the role of Choo-Choo, a Beatnik piano-playing draft dodger.
    Perhaps he could play the piano all along!

  6. flying balloon monsters. scary!
    i cant stand to watch those shows.
    i believe in ghosts because i have seen them, but i have no proof. the only thing is that my friend and myself saw one at the same time. the black shadow like being looked back at us then ran up the air over a 7 foot wall. it could not have been a person. it jumped too quickly over and on the other side was a 20-25 ft drop. after that we looked in the attic of the house and found memories of the previous owners of the house, they ended up in divorce and who else knows what, we were too scared too find out. when we first went into the attic we found creepy dolls.
    it is pretty much confirmed my friends house is haunted. his entire family has encountered them.

  7. yea, i used to watch Monsterquest until i just got so bored of them always doing the same shit and realizing how ridiculous of a show it is. Eh, might be good for a laugh though, but i agree that was a very pathetic attempt to prove the existance of floating demons.

  8. @Sam Ogden:
    yeah. im not shitting anyone. do people believe ghosts are bs? i have experienced high levels of psychical activities too. its pretty normal i think. it can be debated. but when you have good connections with people interestingly odd things start to happen. i think its called synchronization or something. there is alot of other crap too. i think my mother has telekinetic abilities that she doesnt know about or to control. my family has conical fingers( a sign of psychics) my mother has had migranes her whole life. i dont. i do think there is a connection of the minds through mutual knowledge.
    for another time. and no im not crazy.
    one night in a vacation in mexico. i shared a bedroom with my mother. i woke up and heard her mumbling prayers in her sleep. i shook her until she awoke then a huge gust of wind shot out of the room through a window.
    i dont think that is typically how nature works.
    so it was either my mothers telekinetic powers or an unfriendly ghost of some sort.
    i believe this because i have seen it.

  9. @Sam Ogden: “Are you serious about this, nen?”

    Pulling out my Field Guide to the Trolls let’s run through the checklist:

    – no familiarity the proper use of caps CHECK
    – only nodding acquaintance with grammar CHECK
    – bizarre claims that only get more so CHECK
    – shows no awareness of the forum purpose CHECK

    I’d say what we’ve got here is a yellow-bellied, gutter troll. Probably juvenile based on the lack of adult plumage.

  10. jeez who thought a man with a beard and glasses would be so unfriendly? ill take some pointers though. next time ill comment in the form of a poem.
    just trying to contribute on the topic fellows.
    it would be nice if some did the same instead of grammar-bashing.

  11. Well @nen, sometimes a coincidence is just that, two things happening at the same time for no reason whatsoever.

    I bet you don’t remember all those times you woke your mother and the window DIDN’T slam shut.

    As for a shadow jumping over a wall, wall, maybe it was just that, a shadow of an actual person walking across a lightsource somewhere outside of your view.
    The fact that two people saw it doesn’t mean what you saw wasn’t real. It doesn’t automatically mean that what you saw was a ghost either.

    What you have to wonder though, is which explanation requires the most unlikely assumptions.

  12. yes. i see.
    i try to think critically about these things. the way i see it. no it didnt have to be necesarily a ghost, it could have been a ninja assasin. my claims are such because i know the difference between a shadow and a 3 dimensional figure. the wind gust is far more bizzare and less believeable. the window did not shut though. i do remember alot from that time as i didnt really sleep much due to boredom.
    i understand it seems really sketchy.
    i wish for there to be proof. but i think that would be very difficult because i think things like these are more on an intimant personal level.
    btw. nice thumbnail. pchan

  13. @ojisan: Interesting. Although many people who play piano in a movie don’t really play. Still…a few lessons, some previously hidden natural talent…could happen.

    More importantly it leads to a more rational explaination. 30 years ago Bob Denver was the epitome of fool. Someone tossing together a YA book of weirdness might want a “talking dog” story. They see a late-night b-movie on TV, suggesting a complex artistic talent and frame the story around that. Chances are the movie wasn’t widely seen or remembered enough to expose the fiction.

  14. @Bookitty:

    This sounds exactly like an episode of Taxi where Jim Ignatowski sits down at a piano and after stumbling badly through London Bridge a few times plays Beethoven brilliantly. “Hmmm. I must have had lessons.”

  15. @nen: When I was 8 years old, I awoke to find myself laying on my stomach. (I normally sleep on my side) Something was crouched on my back holding me down. From that position I could see only a small piece of the wall, on which was a twisted demonic face glaring at me and soundlessly mumbling. The fear was so great that I passed out, mentally falling into darkness.

    This terrifying event was repeated several times, leading to a belief in the supernatural that lasted well into adulthood. A spell which was only broken when I heard a very similar story from a woman who had just told me that she was going to a meeting of UFO survivors.

  16. @Bookitty: “When I was 8 years old, I awoke to find myself laying on my stomach. (I normally sleep on my side) Something was crouched on my back holding me down.”

    Ooh ooh this is classic. I forget the name of it, but someone around here will know. The brain paralyzes the body during sleep so random firings of your motor cortex don’t thrash you or your sleep partner (a feature that seems to be somewhat limited on my wife). Usually the paralysis is turned off before you reach wakefulness, but sometimes it isn’t. The combination of moving to a dream state to a waking state coupled to the sensation of being immobilized can create some truly traumatic experiences. I’ve only had just a taste of this and that was quite enough.

  17. @ davew:

    Ooooh! Ooooh! I know! Sleep paralysis!

    Yep – very annoying. Trying to explain to someone that he/she had a sleep paralysis episode instead of a ghost encounter can be surprisingly difficult (I used to work in a sleep research lab)…

  18. @davew: Night hags is the common term, can’t recall the scientific one.

    A few other facts about that specific episode. The wall with the face was wood paneled, across from a window that let in a beam of light from the porch. Fairly bright as my father had his workshop in the garage. I remember moths beating at this light at night.

    I still get them about once every 5-7 years. While it is happening, I can tell myself what is going on but the fear does not leave until I awaken entirely. There is always the feeling of hands, usually smaller than human, on my shoulders.

  19. I had sleep paralysis several times as a child. After a few times, all it did was piss me off because I knew it would wear off and I wanted to get up or roll over. LOL
    I never had any “visitations” or anything like that. It was just that I was awake, but frozen in place.

  20. @GodlessEmilie:
    Personally, I found the scientific evidence to be a relief. Freaky dream is much better than demonic forces.

    That’s not always the case. I have great empathy for people who cling to a supernatural reason even when presented with scientific fact and my own, non-scientific but similar anecdote. It is terrifying. To think that it is the subconscious makes it seem as if your own brain is attacking you while you are helpless.

    It might be easier for them to blame it on outside, possibly controllable factors than to admit that it is within them and liable to happen at any time.

  21. @GodlessEmilie: No, I didn’t think for a moment that you had. And yes, people who cling to the irrational in the face of overwhelming evidence are frustrating.

    More so if they are being told that what they had was an understood sleep-related issue. AND they are getting this info from someone who works at a sleep research lab!

  22. sleep paralysis can maybe unlock hidden unintentional abilities in the human brain. i didnt claim that ghosts were the cause but a possibility .
    the result of the awaking person was a gust of wind shooting outwards, i believe it may have been telekinesis. but there may be explanations for that too.
    either way ghosts are real to me. my proof was that i have seen them on multiple occasions.
    and how exactly should we prove that ghosts are infact ghosts. giving them an interview.
    if you saw a ghost would you give him shit about it. there has got to be some real science behind ghosts. if anyone knows of any please tell me.

  23. @nen: yes, I’ll only speak for myself on this one (just because I’m trying to keep the know-it-all side of myself in check…too late now, I guess) : I don’t, because I don’t believe that the explanation for the “evidence” shown (usually anecdotes or blurry pictures) is automatically paranormal.

  24. @nen:

    No science behind ghosts that I know of – and I’m sorry, but saying that sleep paralysis is not caused by ghosts but actually by telekinesis or hidden brain powers is not looking for the most plausible explanation.

    Perception is everything – but we shouldn’t put all of our faith in it. Can you leave some space for the thought that maybe the “waking up mom” and the “gust of wind” episodes were not related at all?

  25. @nen: I’ve been on several ghost hunts and have experienced things that felt real. But no, I do not believe in ghosts.

    I am, however, fascinated with the way that the mind can take the smallest suggestion and (a shadow, a mood, a brief sound) and create an entire story to fit it. The shadow becomes a man walking, the sound is from the other side of the room, the dowsing rods are moving on their own, etc.

    To me, the workings of the mind are far more interesting than the possibility of the supernatural. Ghosts, if they were real, are more easily explained (i.e. there is a motivated personality after death.) than the fact that we can, under the right conditions, revert to cringing cavemen creating legends for the sounds out there in the dark.

  26. @nen:

    there has got to be some real science behind ghosts. if anyone knows of any please tell me.

    No there’s not; at least none to confirm that ghosts exist. And that’s precisely the problem folks posting here have with claims like yours that say there is proof.

    Usually those claims come in the form of the witness saying, “I saw something/Something happened to me that seemed strange and unsual. I can’t explain it, so it must be a ghost.”

    Now, where we may often encounter things we can’t explain, it doesn’t mean they are unexplainable. And it doesn’t mean it’s okay to jump all the way to the conclusion that there are ghosts messing with you.

    With that kind of thinking, it’s just as valid to say, “I saw something/Something happened to me that seemed strange and unsual. I can’t explain it, so it must be Wayne Newton hypnotizing me.” There is the same amount of evidence to support both claims — none.

    I have no doubt that something bizarre happened to you, but instead of jumping to a conclusion, you could exercise a bit of critical thinking, try to gather some evidence, and base your conclusions about what happened on that. And barring any evidence or rational explanation surfacing, remember, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.”

  27. no, i didnt say it was caused by. but unlocked because of. i had heard of sleep paralysis before but it had escaped my thoughts .
    i dont believe the “evidence” that i have seen about ghosts either. pictures and video can be manipulated too easily. thats why i went on experience. my own experiences.
    a person cannot produce a gust of wind from a small room no matter how hard they try.

  28. one night in a vacation in mexico. i shared a bedroom with my mother. i woke up and heard her mumbling prayers in her sleep. i shook her until she awoke then a huge gust of wind shot out of the room through a window.

    From this we can assume the window was open. It is not uncommon for gusts of wind to come through an open window. In a small room with no other opening, the wind might even circle the room. A person, awakened from the sound of the wind might not remember the sound but might feel a wind coming from the other side of the room.

    You say you were in Mexico. Perhaps on vacation? Perhaps by the ocean where there is a greater chance of gusty wind?

    There is a greater possibility of confusion when first awaking, especially because having another person in the room who is talking in their sleep could be sort of spooky.

    But let’s say for a moment that there was some “thing” in the room. Your evidence would point to a harmful entity that was some how chased off when a woman muttering prayers in her sleep awoke. What is the motivation of the thing? Why would breaking off prayers affect it to the point that it would dramatically leave?

    The logical explaination (that you were affected by sleep and misinterpreting a natural event) is far more plausible than the idea that a supernatural event occurred.

  29. no. i believe prayer can conjure energy. just like meditation. i dont believe it was god. i woke her up. causing a release.
    by this point you guys are right it wasnt a ghost. but i will not rule out telekinesis.
    no, actually it was in the center of mexico. it was a warm area with not much wind.
    but you are right. it does seem unlikely.

  30. @nen: but i will not rule out telekinesis.

    Curiosity is one of man’s best attributes. When combined with skeptical thought, the most rewarding. We all find our own level of inquiry. The path is long, with several entertaining and diverting branches.

    You have a delightful journey ahead of you.

  31. @nen: “a person cannot produce a gust of wind from a small room no matter how hard they try.

    I agree completely. A person cannot create a gust of wind. Not with telekinesis. Not with prayer. It’s physically impossible to influence the molecules in the air any way, with enough force, that is not detectable by some really sensitive equipment.

    And yet, you still think it was telekinesis anyway.

    How can two mutually exclusive explanations both be right at the same time? Does it not make sense that the explanation which has not scientific evidence to back it might actually be incorrect?

  32. Sam – nice to meet you in the real world at Ernie’s. Your first Shiner’s on me next time. Right now, however, I am currently experiencing a severe case of the woo-intolerance we all discussed last night.

    It is incredibly frustrating that many people, when they don’t have a rational explanation for something weird that happens, think it very well could be/mostly likely is/absolutely must be caused by something supernatural.

    *bangs head*

    I had to stop the YouTube video because I was going to start throwing things at my laptop.

  33. @rhondaforonda:

    I feel your frustration, but go easy on the head bangs. There’s a lot of this type of thing floating about, and if you bang your head for each one you come across, you’ll end up doing damage to yourself, like I did. I mean, I’m okay for the most part, but occasionally I wear my underwear on the outside of my pants, and for some reason I once spoke Swahili for a year.

    Severe head trauma and the negative results should be left to the experts, like football players and Gary Busey.

    But I think we’ve all felt those pangs of intolerance. And you’re right. It is tough sometimes.

    These days, I try to turn those instances into opportunities (if possible) to show the person how to apply his or her critical thinking skills. I figure if I’m successful, the person may come away with a better understanding of the world around them. And if not . . . Well, I look around for the softest tabletop I can find.

    By the way, it was great meeting you, too. And be careful buying me beers. You just might have a friend for life.

  34. I watched that entire lame show. What makes me mad is that there was no good evidence anywhere in the show, but for some reason the idea of flying humanoids makes the hair on the back of my head stand up, no matter how absurd the “evidence”!

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