A recent Sunday found my kids and me careening through the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey as participants in the local “Run with the Devil” MiniCooper rally. Yes, I own one of those goofy little automobiles, and my little devil car has struck me wild-eyed and drooling with car lust, causing me to seek congregation with likeminded enthusiasts. The rally was organized by a charming Empire-type couple, complete with accents from somewhere in the UK or its territories, who are very much into things Gothic. Last year’s Halloween rally, which the Goth couple also organized, took us through haunts of northwestern New Jersey. This October, we were hot on the tail, and the tale, of the Jersey Devil.
The Jersey Devil was an unknown to me as a Midwesterner. When I lived in the Boston area, the legend barely registered in dark, brooding New England with its own rich tradition of ghosts, witches and hauntings. But the Jersey Devil occupies a prominent spot, along with Tony Soprano, in the Gah-duhn State’s mythology. There are many descriptions of the Jersey devil to be found. Here are two articles which provide a reasonably detailed background:“The Jersey Devil of the Pine Barrens,” by Anthony Perticaro in strangemag.com and “The Jersey Devil” by Dave Juiliano. In the many accounts of the Jersey Devil, it is emphasized that its sightings were made by “… reliable people such as police, government officials, postmasters, businessman, and other people whose ‘integrity is beyond question.’”
Eyewitness accounts from “reliable people,” although I might exclude some government officials from this category, are not always so…reliable. When confronted with the unfamiliar, the human mind cobbles together pieces of the known which in turn result in bizarre mental reconstructions. Subtle tweaks of neurotransmitter levels, whether by a toke of spleef, a hit of LSD, a few pints of beer, or allelic variations of serotonin receptors result in profound effects on what we see, feel, and experience. The conscious mind, that intricate network of neurons and neurotransmitters, is thus prone to distraction and interference from external stimuli. Our consciousness is vulnerable to meltdown under high degrees of stress, and even with mild stress, is subject to cognitive glitches.
Humans are notoriously susceptible to bouts of mass hysteria, a phenomenon neatly summarized in this Wikipedia entry. The Wikipedia offering is worth a look since it provides links to historical hysterics such as the Salem witch trials, the lively Spring-heeled Jack, “penis panic,” and my favorite, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon.
As social animals, our brains evolved to be influenced strongly by cultural and environmental context. This certainly has its adaptative advantages to the social unit, for example, group vomiting. If we witness others throwing up, we invariably feel queasy ourselves, even if we do not actively blow chow. This makes sense if one considers a foraging band of early humans. If one of the party ate something toxic, chances were good that others also had partaken of the bad eats. The initial grazer would rid him- or herself of the offending food. Those who witnessed the purge and sympathetically threw up, might then survive to snack, and reproduce, another day. There are many other complex collective behaviors which are thought to have evolved to assure survival of the species. The flip side of these adaptations are inappropriate responses. The origins of collective hysteria likely arise from the evolutionary legacy of “group think.”
The Jersey Devil sightings likely arose from gross misinterpretations of natural phenomena spliced with collective hysteria. Notably, the Jersey Devil was said to be a harbinger of war. No doubt many were under stress at the time of the spate of sightings in 1909, the eve of World War I, so “reliability” is a relative term. Curiously, Jersey Devil sightings were mot reported prior to the Iraq incursion or before the World Trade Center towers were decimated in September 2001, the latter affecting many Garden Staters whose family and friends worked at the WTC. Perhaps 21st century life is so saturated with stress that the Jersey Devil has become an anachronism, no longer to be summoned in times of turmoil.
Nonetheless, it was good creepy fun to peer down the sandy road toward the ruins of the Shroud house in Leeds Point, allegedly the birthplace of the inexplicably long-lived demon, and to indulge those tingles of weirdness and the little thrills of warning skittering around in my nervous system. Many humans like to be scared. We like horror shows. We read scary novels. We pay to be frightened.
I like to be frightened, and even when I was a kid, I got an adrenalicious charge out of scary stories and from the dark, hidden places on our family farm. My brother is ten years my senior, and he took particular delight in frightening the bejeezus out of me. His efforts were as simple as foisting off especially rank sci-fi and horror stories on me, and encouraging me to watch television shows like “The Outer Limits.” The Outer Limits episode entitled “The Zanti Misfits” kept me awake long into the night, much to my mother’s consternation, as I imagined arthropods with humanoid faces scuttling about under my bed.
My brother went to more elaborate lengths to scare me. The rustling and muffled thumps in the dim hayloft of the old barn made me nervous. My sheep, a 4H project, resided in this outbuilding, and in the fall and winter, the interior of barn was ink-dark when I attended to my wooly charges after school. Logically, I knew the bumps and rustling in the loft were the signs of mundane hayloft critters such as rodents and raccoons, but in an effort to allay my irrational fear, I jokingly suggested there might be a hay monster living amongst the bales. Naturally, my brother capitalized on my confession. During his periodic visits home, (he was a grad student in engineering physics at the local university), he secretly constructed a faux hay monster from a dry cleaner’s bag which he spray-painted black, and for good measure, added a Zanti-Misfitish visage. He then rigged it up in the rafters of the corn bin, a side room for grain storage in the barn, from which I retrieved ground corn for my sheep. He positioned two small jars, one filled with baking soda and the other vinegar, such that when I opened the door of the bin, the vinegar would spill into the baking soda, inflate the bag with carbon dioxide, and allow it to slowly fall in front of me. That was the theory.
He clandestinely set this up one weekend, and that Saturday evening, accompanied me to the barn to feed the sheep. When I opened the door of the corn bin, my brother and the hungry sheep trailing, I was startled by the two jars clambering down in front of me. I was so discombobulated that the identity of these everyday objects did not register. The jars were followed by an amorphous black thing which settled down on the pile of corn in front of me. I shrieked and jumped back as the sheep shot out the barn door, and my brother emitted a stifled gasp, which in retrospect was probably a laugh. He inched forward as I quavered, “What is that!?” He responded in an uncertain tone that he didn’t know, and moved closer to the black object which was now writhing on the cracked corn. He moved his hand forward toward the bin door with caution. Suddenly, the undulating mass burst upwards, and again I jumped away, but at the same time, saw my brother’s face grimace in repressed laughter. I then realized he pulled the “monster” up from the corn by means of an invisible-in-the-dark black thread attached to the bag. His plan was for it to inflate with the thread, which was tied to a rafter, to hold it in a vertical position so I could get a good look at the Zanti face. That design failed but the undulation of that bag on the corn was effective. Although I got a good adrenaline rush out of this, it was short-lived since my brother’s presence kept me from being well and truly frightened.
Some weeks later, I ambled to the barn at dusk on a Monday evening, and as usual, my sheep followed, eager for their grainy treat. When I opened the corn bin’s door, something shot out of the pile of grain straight at me. I tossed the can I used to dip out the corn at the monster, screamed shrilly as only a 12 year old girl can, and sprinted out of the barn. Yet even as a prepubescent sprout, some bit of rational thought clicked away in my head, a vestige of my characteristic skepticism glowed, and my inherent curiosity caused me to go back in and investigate. There, dangling from the rafter in the corn bin, were the remnants of the “hay monster” bag. My brother visited that weekend, and had taken pains to bury the bag in the corn. He swung the thread up over a rafter and tied it to the door such that when I opened it, the hay monster would spring forth from the grain…right at me. Because I was alone, the effect was that much greater, and to this day, I give my big brother a tip o’ the harlequin prankster hat for his efforts.
I got a charge out of my brother’s scare tactics, and be assured, my dear bonobos, he was the victim of my revenge when I became a young adult. But why did I like these frights? Why do I enjoy Stephen King’s novels as I turn the pages for the next thrill? Why did I indulge myself in feelings of unease in the Jersey Devil’s territory? I believe that many humans enjoy being frightened because it may be “practice” for real situations of danger. When we are frightened by what we know in the back of our minds is imaginary, our fear is on a tight leash. We are in control of the situation. I am no expert on evolutionary psychology, and as a practitioner of the “hard sciences,” I am inclined to view that field as rife with speculation, but I wonder if these bouts of controlled fright constitute a survival mechanism. Perhaps practicing fright conferred an adaptative advantage to those who reflexively were able to maintain some control over their fear when confronted with a real danger.
However, humans can be scared witless, individually and collectively. Humans all too frequently fool themselves into believing quite irrational things are real. The title of my piece alludes to the late Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s wonderful book, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. For those of us who look upon the ghouls and demons who will fly through the dark during All Hallow’s Eve as quaint figments of imagination, as convenient tools for controlled fear, there are those who are utterly convinced that UFOs routinely abduct hapless humans, that alien fetuses are implanted in human women, that we can dredge up real memories of past lives, and that by a laying on of hands and a hearty “Praise Jesus!” someone can be healed of terrible afflictions. Our demon haunted minds are fully capable of misleading us.
The Demon Haunted World was published in 1996, and nearly ten years later, Sagan’s clarion call for rational thought is as urgent as ever. Although the initial rumblings were audible when Sagan was alive, the cacophany of borborygmi has reached new levels since his death. You might ask, my gentle bonobos, what is “borborgymi?” This is the plural of borborygmus, which means “bowel sounds.” More and more, it seems that many Americans devalue expertise, and instead elevate “gut-level feeling” as a guide to their thought, to their reality.
Charles Pierce recently published a sharp indictment of this “thinking-with-the-gut” tact in Esquire magazine: Idiot America. To read the whole article, one must fork over $2.95; Pierce’s piece has the five Bonobo Hoots of Approval from Doc Bushwell, so it is money well spent. Commentary on Idiot America is making the rounds in the rationalists’ corner of the Blogosphere, e.g.,Pharyngula and on one beaming visionary’s blogspot among many others. Pierce’s words are acerbically witty and angry. With reference to the borborygmic yammerings in our country, he writes:
In the place of expertise, we have elevated the Gut, and the Gut is a moron, as anyone who has ever tossed a golf club, punched a wall, or kicked an errant lawn mower knows. We occasionally dress up the Gut by calling it “common sense.” The president’s former advisor on medical ethics regularly refers to the “yuck factor.” The Gut is common. It is democratic. It is the roiling repository of dark and ancient fears. Worst of all, the Gut is faith-based.
It’s a dishonest phrase for a dishonest time, “faith-based,” a cheap huckster’s phony term of art. It sounds like an additive, an artificial flavoring to make crude biases taste of bread and wine. It’s a word for people without the courage to say they are religious, and it is beloved not only by politicians too cowardly to debate something as substantial as faith but also by Idiot America, which is too lazy to do it.
After all, faith is about the heart and soul and about transcendence. Anything calling itself faith-based is admitting that it is secular and profane. In the way that it relies on the Gut to determine its science, its politics, and even the way it sends its people to war, Idiot America is not a country of faith; it’s a faith-based country, fashioning itself in the world, which is not the place where faith is best fashioned.
Hofstadter saw this one coming. “Intellect is pitted against feeling,” he wrote, “on the ground that it is somehow inconsistent with warm emotion. It is pitted against character, because it is widely believed that intellect stands for mere cleverness, which transmutes easily into the sly or the diabolical.”
The Gut is the basis for the Great Premises of Idiot America. We hold these truths to be self-evident:
- Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
- Anything can be true if somebody says it on television.
- Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
Gut level thinking may serve useful purposes, for example, the instincts which take over and aid us in responding to dangerous situations, thus saving our own hides. But we need to keep much of that gut-level thinking reined in with our rational minds, because allowing the Gut to take over our thoughts leads to uncontrolled, collective fears. These irrational fears clamor that one cannot elevate intellect without sacrificing love and affection, that if one is rational, one cannot be altruistic, and that if one has faith, one cannot give full merit to science. The pervasiveness of the Gut as described in Idiot America makes us vulnerable to collective hysteria. A world of darkness then descends, and our demon haunted minds perceive the ghosts, ghouls and goblins of fear as real.
There are two pumpkins, each carefully selected by my teenagers at a local farm market, sitting on my front stoop. Both kids like scary books and movies as I do, and still relish Halloween, one of the most ancient of holidays in the Western World. They will hollow out the gourds and carve frightening visages on them to scare away the demons and just maybe the Jersey devil. We will light small candles which will flicker in the dark, protected by the pumpkin lanterns. Just as Carl Sagan described science as a candle in the dark world of superstition, so must we nurture our intellects and those of our acquaintances, our families and our communities to keep our demon haunted minds from gaining the upper, and sometimes deceitful, hand.
This is an leftover but still nutritious entry from the old Refuge. I wrote it last October, and it seems appropriate for the season. I’ll join the far more prolific Kevin shortly once I’m past the big promotions meeting later this week. This event is sucking up a far chunk of my energy as I prepare to joust with my fellow DOPI directors (I’m not the one being promoted but two of my staff are, and I will defend their honor).