It is the easiest thing in the world to be a skeptic. Just reject any implausible story as false and give it no more thought. People experience delusions, they have psychotic episodes, or just lie their way out of our shared reality. A skeptic can casually dismiss most of what Charles Forte called High Strangeness as some combination of mental illness and chicanery.
As a child I was trained to be skeptical. The boundaries between reality and fantasy were both well defined and tediously clear. I was educated to control my imagination and remain grounded. “Don’t let your imagination run away with you.” My mother would say. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the same macabre subject matter then that I write about now. Folktales, weird news, and reports of Fortean phenomena interested me far more than anything practical. I was more interested in going to the library than the playground. I spent the money I made mowing lawns in used book stores.
At the age of fifteen I came across a first edition of John Keel’s book Jadoo. Knowing nothing about the author, I bought it because the chapter titles were intriguing and it was just eight dollars. Keel’s writing enthralled me and I was captivated by the romance of his life as an investigative journalist seeking to debunk various stereotypical mysteries of the Far East. I wanted to pursue a similar career, maintaining a similar degree of skepticism and neutrality. Of course, my life had its direction laid out already and I followed my own path.
High Strangeness was something that only seemed to happen to other people. Or, in retrospect, I never had an experience extraordinary enough to overcome my skepticism. I knew people who had their own ghost stories, and I had friends who claimed to have seen UFO’s. My skepticism did not prevent them from believing in the veracity of their experiences, nor did it dull my curiosity about what they believed had happened. As a journalist, the job is to get the story. Folks are much more willing to tell their stories when they feel respected. Even if they are lying, or delusional, the best way to determine whether that is the case is by listening sympathetically.
More often than not, eye witnesses will reveal their own trustworthiness. The incredulous adversarial interview style of political reporters won’t get you anywhere on the weird news beat. Unless you are lucky enough to be on the ground in the middle of a major flap, you’re not likely to make a great living reporting weird news alone. For me, weird news was one of many hobbies I used to decompress from the demands of my regular work. I approached it more like a folklorist, showing respect for the storytellers by accepting their tales at face value. As a dilettante, I didn’t have an editor telling me what stories I could cover. However, as a freelancer, I didn’t have a publisher to subsidize my pursuit of information. Accepting my limited resources, I focused on topics that I considered to be relatively realistic.
For a curious skeptic, the paradoxical mystery known as “Bigfoot” was a source of endless fascination. Even if you take the position that such creatures simply are not real, that just leaves you to ask why so many people keep seeing them. It is actually quite an elaborate and expensive enterprise to pull off a convincing hoax; and, most hoaxes are not convincing at all. Instead of sitting out in the woods waiting for something weird to happen, I ran the numbers on building a “Bigfoot” costume. I seriously investigated the practicalities of manifesting what the eye witnesses allege. And, too often, I found them wanting.
My general belief was framed around the theory that any relic hominids that might have existed in Pre-Columbian North America were driven to extinction prior to the Twentieth Century. Following from this theory, any surviving populations of these creatures would reside in the mountains of the Far West. This framework made me comfortable walking through forested areas late at night. However, I was often flummoxed by the numerous contraindications relating to reports where a hoax was highly unlikely.
My maternal grandfather was kind enough to encourage me to pursue my calling as a writer. I had the privilege of living with him in his final years. After his death, I was made the care taker of his home and while I lived in that house I had an experience that transformed my perception of what was possible.
One night I went out to buy cigarettes after Midnight, I had an uncanny experience I can not forget. I was walking on an empty street, in a place I knew well enough to know logically that I was alone. Yet, as I walked I felt like I was being watched. I looked around behind me to see if someone else was behind me. I’d disabused myself of these sensations before, but something was off. I looked up, and saw three red lights hovering in the sky. As soon as I saw them I felt sick.
My rational mind cannot explain the intense disgust I experienced when I saw those lights. I knew there was something malevolent watching me, and when I looked directly at those red lights I felt like I had locked eyes with a predator. Remembering that moment as I write this is not fun.
When I saw the lights I felt sick, because I knew that was why I felt watched. I had other things on my mind until I felt that predatory gaze focus on me. I looked directly at the three red lights up in the distant night sky, and decided it could be an aircraft. Calm down. Smoke a cigarette.
I opened the pack of Camels I had walked out to buy. I was saving the first cigarette for when I got home. I used the tobacco to ground myself as I resigned myself to the reality that I had to walk several blocks before I could get under a roof. I made the mistake of looking back at the lights, and they were static hovering in an uncanny way. I was not happy.
I lit my cigarette. Made casual, being skeptical. I look back, the lights are static. I watch. They do not move. This fills me with horror. I wanted to see these three red lights move like all aircraft do. It hurt to look at them, but my skeptical mind forced me to look back one more time. And, the red lights were gone. I decided to get under a roof, and fortify my psychic space against whatever had manifested in those three red lights.
There is so much more to this story. But that is all you need to know for now. I still don’t know what I saw that night two decades ago. I just know that the experience of seeing those anomalous red lights opened my eyes.