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Star Wars, UFOs and visitors from a Galaxy far, far away… Considering the impact of the sci-fi saga on the UFO phenomenon

George Lucas’s 1977 feature Star Wars had a massive cultural influence. Released at the end of a turbulent decade for the West, it was a space age fairy tale filled with visual spectacle and feel-good escapism. Star Wars exploded into the perfect pop-cultural storm; it was a refreshing distraction from a decade tired of serious issues and scandals: a messy war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, a recession, and the energy crisis. The 1970s was a decade greatly defined by somber and serious cinema – The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, The French Connection, The Godfather, A Clockwork Orange, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Chinatown – although all great movies, they don’t exactly fit the ‘Fun for all the Family’ market. The 1970s film previously closest to capturing the buzz of Star Wars was probably Steven Spielberg’s 1975 feature Jaws, a tension-filled monster-movie featuring an exaggeration of a real world shark terrorizing a small community and eating several inhabitants (including children) in the process. It’s no wonder audiences devoured the bubble gum escapism of Star Wars

Lucas’s film takes as inspiration the 1930s and ’40s sci-fi serials such as Commando Cody and Flash Gordon (he initially wanted to produce a re-make of Flash Gordon, but couldn’t acquire the rights). It also borrows liberally from several comic book sources, most notably Jack Kirby’s New Gods, with its all-encompassing power ‘the source’, which Lucas copied and re-named ‘the force’. Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, first published in 1963, also provided a strong source of inspiration for Lucas’s Star Wars saga. Herbert himself took as inspiration Shakespeare, Greek tragedy like Oedipus Rex, and the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Star Wars displays its fairy tale template gleefully; the opening caption ‘A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…’ is an obvious play on the ‘Once Upon a Time…’ phrase often found at the start of children’s stories. Its use of a Princess held captive by a Black Knight (Darth Vader) in a castle (in this case the Death Star) plays with classic fairy tale motifs. Dashing young peasants (like the farm boy Luke Skywalker) must rise to become noble Knights (or Jedi in this instance). Magical old wise men (like mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi) have supernatural powers, as do the evil villains of the Dark Side. Although such conventions are often subverted, adapted into a science fiction language, or used playfully, the fairy tale influence upon Star Wars is strongly evident, and indeed intentional. 

The period around 1977 ushered in a new phase in the exploration of space: by 1975, the United States and the Soviet Union had achieved the first international human spaceflight with the Apollo-Soyuz Project, 1977 saw the launch of Voyager 2, and 1981 saw the launch of the space shuttle, the first re-useable spacecraft. Star Wars clearly fit the mood of the time and soon became the most financially successful film of the decade, spawning an almost unprecedented wave of imitators, with an influence that spread beyond cinema into everything from toys, games, books, clothing, music, political speeches and breakfast cereals. Pop culture went space crazy. The aesthetic of Hollywood was fundamentally changed as a new emphasis was placed on spectacle and increasingly impressive special effects. Movies with a space theme remained dominant for a number of years after the release of Star Wars, including films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Black Hole, Moonraker, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Flash Gordon, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator and the first of the Star Wars sequels, The Empire Strikes Back.

It is not a surprise such a phenomenon had an impact on UFO sightings. The rise in popularity of triangular-shaped UFOs following the release of the film and into the 1980s probably has more to do with the general shape of spacecraft depicted in Lucas’s movie as it does sightings of any advanced military aircraft. The Imperial Star-Destroyer, the main transport of the evil Galactic Empire, was designed to be a visual combination of weaponry and military prowess. The resulting model was based on a combination of a dagger and a World War II era battleship, creating an iconic triangular looking craft quite different from the traditional space rockets often seen in previous science fiction movies. Triangular UFOs quickly became a more common occurrence following the summer of 1977.

As early as July that year, three young boys, all aged around twelve, witnessed what they described as a triangular shaped craft in the skies above Connersville, Illinois. Their account reported the UFO to have a military-like appearance and to produce a loud low-toned hum as it passed over them. Another case from November 1977 involved a couple from Plymouth, New York, who spotted a huge triangular shaped craft. Moving slowly overhead it made a loud noise like a rocket and had four glowing engines at its rear. Such descriptions match the iconic opening scene of Star Wars, as a giant triangular-shaped Star-Destroyer passes menacingly overhead, eventually filling the screen with a number of bright, roaring engines. 

Again, in 1978, brothers Gary and David Oickle observed a huge triangular UFO with large windows moving very slowly above Patapsco State Park, Maryland, and in January 1979, Albert Chop witnessed a triangular UFO moving slowly over the mountains southeast of Palm Desert, California. The object was described as extremely large and much brighter that the stars in the background, much like the large, light grey Star-Destroyer designed to stand out vividly on screen against its dark space backdrop. 

Other distinctive designs, characters, motifs and scenes from Star Wars had also begun to creep into UFO accounts from the late 1970s. A series of sightings involving white suited men that, again, began appearing following the summer of 1977, resemble many features that can be attributed to the Stormtroopers of Star Wars, with their distinctive white armour, helmets and featureless black eyepieces. In July 1977 near Minley Manor Woods in England, Hannah Green and other members of her family observed what she described as a group of tall men, all dressed in white, with matching headgear, who she saw as some sort of alien ‘troops’. In September that year, again in England, but this time at Hainault Forest near Essex, a number of otherworldly figures in white one-piece suits, white helmets and full-face visors were spotted. 

Over in South Middleton, Massachusetts, a spate of sightings concerning mysterious figures clad in white, complete with matching white helmets with dark eyeholes where spotted in November and December 1977 and then again in January and April 1978. A month later, in Rio Grande Do Sul, Brazil, a witness claimed that he was grabbed by two humanoids that had disembarked from a metallic craft. The aliens wore shiny white suits with head enclosing helmets with closed visors. 

Another example, often known as the Spanish-Turis landing case of July 1979, describes a sighting of alien beings dressed in shiny white suits with helmets featuring protruding black spectacles. Though these sound very much like the Star Wars Stormtroopers the drawings provided by Spanish farmer Frederico Ibáñez make the beings look more like the movie’s Jawa traders, however, the source is clear: these are Star Wars-inspired creatures.

These Jawa traders, dwarf-like desert hermits who deal largely in the sale of second-hand ‘droids, again feature in a case from September 1977. In Caserta, Italy, a student claims that he passed a tall figure in a metallic outfit, which he thinks may have been a robot, being followed by a number of short dwarf-like humanoids. Such a description seems to strongly reference a scene from Star Wars when a group of Jawa traders parade a number of robots, including the tall metallic figure of C3P0, along a patch of wasteland ready for auction. 

The iconic cantina scene from Star Wars, which features a host of fantastical aliens partaking in drinks in a spaceport bar is also paralleled in a report from July 1977, when an account of aliens drinking in a local bar emerged from Thoissey, L’Ain, France. Another scene from the movie is evoked in a case from June 1978. In Middlesbrough, England, Mike Burley was struck on the head by a rugby ball, when he came to he found he was being cared for by a mysterious figure wearing a brown monk’s cowl, he was then dazzled by a bright light and found himself back on the rugby field. His account somewhat mimics the scene in Star Wars when protagonist Luke Skywalker is knocked unconscious through an encounter with several Tusken Raiders, only to be revived by a mysterious figure in a brown monk’s cowl, who is then revealed to be Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Several more distinctive motifs from the movie also relate to a number of other UFO related accounts. In February 1978, near Braintree, England, a bright light was spotted in the sky, a witness observing it shooting above him described it ‘like something out of Star Wars, with the same type of light as the light saber would make’. Light sabers may have appeared again in March 1978 in a case from Petrozavodsk, Russia, when a strange pair of suited figures were spotted, each brandishing some sort of powerful flashlight that they were able to manipulate into energy beams. Another light saber wielding character may also be at the root of an encounter from September 1977, in Colares, Brazil, when a young man by the name of Luis apparently witnessed a figure descending from a craft. Described as muscular, wearing dark clothing, with a large headpiece, the figure proceeded to produce a red beam of light from one hand which then illuminated the surrounding area; a most Darth Vader style entrance indeed.

In the same month, a different character may have been seen, this time in Cadogan, Pennsylvania, when reports of a tall creature, covered in brown hair with broad shoulders and no neck was seen on a road near woodland. The similarities in description between Bigfoot and Chewbacca, the large hairy companion to smuggler Han Solo, may be obvious, but the connection that some now see between sightings of UFOs and sightings of Bigfoot or other similar cryptoids may be as a consequence of such a similar creature serving as first mate onboard the Millennium Falcon. Indeed beyond some retrospective speculations, no real connection was made between UFOs and Bigfoot encounters until after Star Wars was well established within the popular consciousness. 

Although with diminished frequency after the late 1970s the Star Wars franchise continues to influence UFO sightings and related encounters. The Millennium Falcon itself, another iconic Star Wars spaceship, makes occasional appearances as a UFO. One example, often known as the Tether incident, involves the debris spotted around Space Shuttle 75 during a February 1996 mission, which included a sort of Millennium Falcon shaped UFO, providing you allow a liberal dose of artistic licence.

In June 1999 in Sydney, Australia, a witness described seeing some non-human entity moving over the fence of his property. The entity was some sort of rounded blob, but specifically the witness described it as shaped like Jabba the Hut, the large rotund alien gangsta from the third Star Wars movie Return of the Jedi, who looks like a cross between a giant slug and a toad. A distinctive character, Jabba had recently made a cameo appearance in the first of the Star Wars prequel trilogy films, The Phantom Menace, released just a month before the sighting. 

Anticipation for The Phantom Menace was especially high, and it may have been responsible for a small flap of alien related reports following its release. An encounter during the autumn of 1999 in Roslindale, Massachusetts, concerned a strange hooded figure spotted moving un-naturally fast through Arnold Arboretum. Much like the robe wearing Obi-Wan Kenobi and his mentor Qui-Gon Jinn as they force-dashed away from a pack of Droidekas in the opening battle of the movie. 

A new villain introduced in The Phantom Menace, Darth Maul, wears a black hooded robe, has a distinctive red and black patterned face with red eyes and a circle of horns around the top of his head, and is known too for wielding a double-ended lightsaber. Such a character may well also be related to several otherworldly sightings. In summer 1999, in Portland, Maine, a witness claimed he was abducted by a human-like figure who had a black handheld device which produced multiple energy beams, much like Darth Maul’s multi-blade lightsaber. Again in December 1999, in South Windsor, Connecticut, Debbie Summer reported seeing a tall humanoid, with spikes on his head, glowing red eyes and wearing a black cape. 

Cultural phenomena like Star Wars superficially influence other things for purely commercial reasons, but also indicate a wider appetite from a society hungry to engage with the themes of that same cultural trend. Society feeds pop cultural trends, but equally fashionable pop cultural trends influence inclinations within society. This concept relates to what is known by some as cultural tracking. This broadly means that the beliefs, customs and folklore that people hold tend to follow the culture in which they are immersed. As cultures change, so do customs and beliefs, and vice versa. As a result, philosophical, ethical, and social customs and beliefs inform the culture produced and consumed during any particular era and, in turn, that same cultural product can impact on beliefs and customs.

The designs that frequent Star Wars and its sequels often reference or draw heavy inspiration from other things in Science Fiction, history, foreign cultures or folklore. It is a very postmodern assemblage approach to story making. For example, the design for Darth Vader and the Stormtroopers resembles, amongst other things, the designs used for the villain The Lightning and his henchmen in the 1930s Republic movie serial The Fighting Devil Dogs. The Millennium Falcon is in part a reference to The Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of private investigator Sam Spade being a primary influence on the character of Han Solo, and the parallels between elderly Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi and the wizard Gandalf from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are numerous.  

Culture repeats itself by assimilating ideas from the past and reinterpreting them for a contemporary audience. Star Wars is a prime example of this, and the similarities that can be found between it and various aspects of the UFO phenomenon is another example of society reusing existing cultural references in new contexts. Referencing imagery from science fiction is an ongoing pattern in UFO and related alien sightings and abduction accounts, and there are numerous examples that can illustrate this beyond the Star Wars franchise. 

As a brief example, another influential science fiction film released at a similar time to Star Wars was Steven Speilberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Again a series of UFO accounts relate to ideas and motifs presented within the movie. A large ‘mother-ship’ type UFO was spotted in the skies above New Zealand during December 1978. Often known as the Kaikoura lights incident, the description of the UFO craft, with its bright large flashing lights, parallels the design shown in Speilberg’s film. The sighting described by Constable Jim Blackwood at Clarenville, Canada, in 1978, borrows a method of communication used between earthlings and aliens seen at the end of the movie, as Jim claims he used the lights of his patrol car to converse with a UFO. The following year a Mother and Son from Krugersdorp, South Africa, re-enacted the final act of the movie, when they claimed an encounter with a group of human-like entities standing beside a spacecraft, who then encouraged the mother to depart with them permanently. 

Spikes in UFO reports often parallel releases of thematically relevant movies. For example, in December 1996, a few months after the release of Independence Day (a movie that featured huge UFOs hovering over North America), claims of a huge UFO mothership were reported by a number of witnesses over the skies of Yukon, Canada. The report by Allison Reed, first documented in 1998, concerns her abduction by aliens, during which time she was shown tanks containing bodies showing various stages of alien-human hybridization. Her account is very similar to a scene in the film Alien: Resurrection, released the year before.

In 2010, all six Star Wars movies were re-released in theatres in a 3D format, and rumours began to circulate about the possibility of further installments to the series. Later that same year, UFO enthusiast Scott Waring claims to have found what looks like a Millennium Falcon-shaped craft partly obscured by a hangar in part of Area 51. The image was obtained by a study of Google Maps, and can only be viewed by following specific instructions allowing the viewer to travel ‘back in time’ through the viewer to 1989.  In June 2011, an account was made of a UFO shaped like the Millennium Falcon discovered at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Claims made by the Swedish Ocean X Team who discovered it, Peter Lindberg and Dennis Åsberg, include its ability to disable any electronic equipment when divers approach within 200 feet. Geologists have suggested it most likely is a natural formation or sediment dropped by a fishing trawler. 

Following the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, and the subsequent release of new Star Wars movies from 2015 onward, predictably there has been a new wave of UFO related claims particular to the series. Even before the first of the new films was released, trailers for the upcoming seventh installment in the series seemed to have had an impact. In April 2015 the second trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released, which opens with a panning shot of a Star-Destroyer crashed into a desert landscape. By August that year Russia Today had published an image captured on Mars, featuring a rather Star-Destroyer shaped rock, supposedly an alien spacecraft crashed into the Martian landscape. In the month that The Force Awakens was released a witness in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, claimed to observe a solid triangular object with a number of non-blinking lights. Again in August 2016, a couple in New York filmed a UFO that they claimed looked just like the Millennium Falcon.

Mimas, one of the moons of Saturn, has upon its surface a huge crater making it look similar to the design of the Death Star when photographed from certain angles. The details of such a crater were originally discovered in November 1980, just a few months after the first Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back had hit theatres in America, cementing the comparisons. Such associations began to resurface in 2016 in the build up to the release of the spin-off movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; itself based around the backstory of the construction of the original Death Star and the band of rebels who steal its plans. By early summer this year another of Saturn’s moons, Iapetus, was compared to the Death Star, due to a distinctive central ring that again parallels design of the fictional space station. Rather than just a quirk of coincidence, some now believe such moons to be genuine alien space technology. Conspiracy theorists, such as Tyler Glockner, have suggested Hollywood is simply drip-feeding the masses through movies such as Star Wars and its sequels, in a bid to prepare humanity for the reality of alien civilizations.

With Star Wars: The Last Jedi set for release December 2017, and at least three more movies planned for the successful franchise over the coming years it will be interesting to see if future installments influence any further aspects of the UFO phenomenon or such related experiences.

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Zetetic to Zeitgeist: a very brief history of the Modern Flat Earth

Generally speaking, very few people, and certainly not many with a decent education, have considered the concept of the Earth being a flat plane (rather than a spherical ball), for a very long time. The understanding that Earth is a large, roughly round-shaped object can be dated back to the 6th Century BCE. However the idea that many during the Middle Ages believed that the Earth was flat is a myth that seems common even today. Much of the belief that those 500 years ago believed in a flat Earth comes from two sources. One is the 1828 work A History of The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus by Washington Irving, an early example of historical fiction, aimed at retelling the adventures of the famous explorer. Irving claimed Columbus’s incentive to navigate the globe was to prove that it was in fact a globe, and not flat as many at the time allegedly believed. The other source is the 1919 edition of Boy’s and Girl’s Reader, which began with the line: ‘When Columbus lived, people thought the Earth was flat’. American national myth-making was highly active during the first half of the 19th century, and a trend to suggest that the founding of the New World represented not only new opportunities, but also a break from outdated ideas. The birth of the Modern Age was popular amongst many writers, even if such concepts were not always accurate. 

Such ideas seem to have seeped somewhat into the popular consciousness, suggesting that the understanding of Earth as a globe is a far more recent idea. The discovery that Earth is in fact orbiting around the Sun may be a more recent revelation traced back to the Middle Ages, but the general shape of the planet was not really in question. Parts of rural China held belief in the Earth being a flat square (with four distinct corners), until modern astronomy began influencing common knowledge there in the 17th century. For the most part you really need to go back to 8th-century BCE and sections of early Egyptian and Mesopotamian thought to find the concept of a flat Earth being widely accepted.

Type ‘flat earth’ into YouTube, however, and you will find a whole wealth of videos attempting to prove that the Earth is flat. Many are a melting pot of 9/11-inspired anti-government conspiracy theories, religious fundamentalism, new-age pseudoscience concepts, and far-right ideologies. The general message: the government is lying to you, NASA is a scam, and all of the scientific community is involved in an international conspiracy to get easy payouts through fabricated research grants. There is more to the recent proselytizing of the flat Earth, in all its variations (there are many), but that is for another time. Here is an attempt at a very brief history of the concept of the flat Earth in its more modern incarnation. For a far more detailed account, it is worth exploring Flat Earth: History of an Infamous Idea (2007) by Christine Garwood.

The modern considerations around the flat Earth can most likely be traced back to the mid-17th century, when a pair of London tailors, Lodowicke Muggleton (1609-1698) and John Reeve (1608-1658), founded a small Protestant Christian movement. Muggletonianism, as it was called, was essentially a splinter group of the Ranters, a nonconformist religious sect who positioned themselves in opposition to the early Quakers. The founding of Muggletonianism came, according to Muggleton and Reeve, after a direct commission by God, announcing them as the two witnesses described in the Book of Revelation. The pair and their followers were Bible-literalists, taking particular interest in the Bible’s description of the immovable Earth. As a result Muggleton and Reeve began to create their own unique cosmology to support God’s scripture. They began making claims such as Heaven being located around six miles above Earth’s surface, that the Moon shines by its own light, and that a lunar eclipse is caused by some unseen planetary body. Later members of the group produced a number of writings to support the idea of their founders, such as Two Systems of Astrology by Isaac Frost, published in 1846. Here Frost compares the Newtonian system with one based in accordance with the Holy Scriptures, the emphasis being on providing legitimacy to the latter. 

Arguably the most influential individual to the early modern development of the flat Earth concept was English inventor and writer Samuel Rowbotham (1816-1884). He is probably best known for his writings under the pseudonym ‘Parallax’, such as the 1849 pamphlet Zetetic Astronomy: Earth Not a Globe and its expanded book form of the same name from 1881. In his model, Earth is really an enclosed flat plane, centered on the North Pole, and surrounded by a wall of ice on its outer edge, with the Sun, Moon and Stars circling above, only a few hundred miles up. Although he never made any reference to it in his writings, it seems quite likely that Rowbotham was influenced by a 38-page pamphlet published in 1819, titled The Anti-Newtonian: Or, a True System of the Universe, with a Map of Explanation, Proving the Sun to be a Moveable Body and Central Circulating Equator of Equal Time, etc. This pamphlet, by an anonymous author, describes a model of Earth as a vast circular plane surrounded by a wall of ice in a very similar manner to Rowbotham’s writing.

Rowbotham was born on the outskirts of Manchester, into a moderately prosperous middle-class family. From a young age he questioned the authority of teachers, gradually becoming unsure if what they had to tell him held any validity. A period spent with his grandfather, a mathematician and scientist, did not help his studies; for example, when the pair explored the Moon through a telescope, Rowbotham demanded proof that it was as far away as claimed, as it looked so close. Young Samuel began to find the poetic universe of the Bible a more seductive narrative than the cold hard facts of science. By the 1840s, now in his twenties, Rowbotham began to write his own scientific literature, generally under pseudonyms, such as ‘Tryon’ and ‘S. Goulden’. Here he rejected the conventions of modern science. Rather, starting from scratch with his own observations, he began to draw wild conclusions on a range of topics. In 1842 he produced the 64-page pamphlet called An Inquiry into the Cause of Natural Death, which speculated that the body naturally hardened over time from birth, beginning with the bones and spreading to the whole body, which would result in death. Such a process, according to Rowbotham was not an inevitability, and could be controlled with a suitable diet: eating lots of fresh vegetables would prolong the process, eating salt or white bread would speed it up. 

Additional influences upon Rowbotham’s concepts can be seen in the emerging idea of self-education, popular in Britain following the economic upturn of the 1840s. Rowbotham began to greater educate himself, possibly inspired by the reform-minded social philosophies of those such as Welsh philanthropist Robert Owen (1771-1858), who had invested greatly in workers living conditions and prosperity close to the area of Manchester where Rowbotham grew up. He also seized upon the idea of promoting himself as a travelling scholar, a common form of income for scientists unable to gain employment within the scant university departments of the time. A distinguished academic career was not a requirement for such pursuits, just ideas and bravado. Taking ideas from Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid (1719-1796), who rejected any abstract scientific speculations, arguing instead for facts needing to be self-evident, Rowbotham found a vehicle from which to reject many ‘scientific theories’. The Earth looks flat, and so self-evidentially, in the view of Rowbotham, it is. He gave talks at Trowbridge Mechanics Institute and Burnley Workingmen’s Club, though became known for fleeing talks when faced with rebuttals he could not counter.

To add weight to his theories, he went about developing experiments to prove that the Earth was flat. Most famous is his Bedford Level experiment, a series of observations that attempted to demonstrate that there was no observable curve over the surface of the Earth. The Bedford Level is a six-mile long stretch of slow-flowing drainage for the Cambridge Fens canal network that runs more or less in an uninterrupted straight line. Rowbotham argued that by positioning himself at one end of the level with a telescope, and sending a small boat with a flag to the far end, the supposed curvature of the Earth would render the flag non-visible due to the boat curving away to 11ft below his line of sight. He reported that the boat remained visible to him for the full six-mile stretch, therefore disproving the notion of a curved globe Earth. Such experiments gained little attention until a supporter of Rowbotham, John Hampden, offered a wager to anyone if they could counter such findings. Hampden’s wager was met by naturalist, biologist and anthropologist Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913), who also happened to be a qualified surveyor. Wallace realized that Rowbotham had, amongst other things, largely not accounted for atmospheric refraction, and he went about re-designing the experiment to produce more accurate results. When Wallace was independently awarded the bet, by the editor of The Field sports magazine, Hampden alleged there had been cheating, and attempted to sue Wallace, later threatening to kill him. 

Another avid follower of Rowbotham was William Carpenter (1830-1896). A printer by trade, Carpenter produced many of Rowbotham’s works. Already open to unconventional thought, Carpenter had launched The Spiritual Messenger: A Magazine to Spiritualism, Mesmerism, and Other Branches of Psychological Science in September 1858. Following his partnership with Rowbotham, Carpenter became a passionate advocate of the flat Earth, producing his own works on the subject, such as Theoretical Astronomy Examined and Exposed – Proving the Earth not a Globe (1864) and One Hundred Proofs the Earth is Not a Globe (1885). By 1879 Carpenter had set his sights on America, relocating there with his family to teach shorthand. Here he found comfort in the admiration of Dr. George Davey, president of the Ocean Express Steam Navigation Company, who after coming across Rowbotham’s Zetetic Astronomy work promptly ordered 1000 copies through its printer. In 1885, on release of his second book, Carpenter sent copies of One Hundred Proofs the Earth is Not a Globe to anyone influential he could think of, and as a result the book was widely reviewed in the American press. 

The writings of Rowbotham and Carpenter became a likely influence on Albert Smith, an obscure aristocrat from Leicester, who produced the book Is the Earth a Whirling Globe as Assumed and Taught by Modern Astronomical ‘Science’? (1887), and also became editor of Earth – Not a Globe! – Review, with William Carpenter later contributing to several editions before his death. Smith also had the ear of the affluent but eccentric Lady Elizabeth Anne Mould Blount (1850-1935), who, encouraged by her own research into after-death experiences and ideas around the flat Earth, helped form the Universal Zetetic Society along with Adventist John Williams in 1892. The Society never managed to grow to a size that allowed it to become self-sufficient, relying instead on the ongoing funds given by Lady Blount. Most of the publicity for the Zetetic Society happened through religious publications, such as Christian journal The Torch, whose editor was sympathetic to flat Earth ideas. Lady Blount’s social status gave her access to society’s elite, and membership of the Zetetic Society soon included Archbishop Isaac Stevens (1835-1917), William Thomas Wiseman (1876-1962), and several other scholars and aristocrats. Blount also funded the publication of a flat Earth journal, Earth: A Monthly Magazine of Sense and Science, which ran from 1901 until 1904. Despite the focus of the group, several influential members, and several publicity stunts—including a re-creation of the Bedford Level experiment—the Society failed to gain much attention. By 1897 interest in the Universal Zetetic Society had peaked, and it eventually fizzled out during the first decade of the 20th century. In 1923 Lady Blount remarried, and her interest in the flat Earth subsided, her final contribution being the 1914 book Our Enclosed World.

The efforts of those such as Lady Blount and William Carpenter had done enough to spread the concept of a flat Earth, so that pockets of interest began appearing in seemingly random places. Carpenter’s influence in America was noted by the formation of the Baltimore Zetetic Society, and writings such as Is the Bible from Heaven? Is the Earth a Globe? (1890) by New York-based Seventh-day Adventist Alexander Gleason. A small flat Earth movement sprung up in New Zealand in the 1890s, encouraged by correspondence with an aged William Carpenter. A missionary in Australia, Wilbur Glenn Voliva (1870-1942), returned to Illinois in 1906 to become leader of The Christ Community Church in Zion, and brought with him several ideas from Zetetic astronomy and also Muggletonianism. Another Bible literalist, Voliva had gradually become convinced that the Earth was flat, going on to calculate that the Sun was only 32 miles across, and no more than 3000 miles from the surface of the planet. From 1914 onward Voliva began preaching the flat Earth gospel to his congregation, gradually gaining notoriety for his tirades against astronomy and science. One of his number, Apostle Anton Darms, was tasked with finding evidence in the Bible to refute the globe, which he did to a tune of fifty so examples. Voliva had hymns re-written to emphasize the flat Earth, and wrote lesson plans for the local schools regarding the shape of the world. By this point Voliva’s Theocratic Party, the political offshoot of the Christ Community Church, was in control of several school boards, and effectively paying the salaries of a number of teachers. In order to keep their jobs, the new curriculum was observed. Voliva’s efforts to spread his message intensified in 1923 when he became the first American evangelist to have his own radio station, WCBD Radio, allowing greater spread of his flat Earth ideas. The voice of Zion, broadcasting with 5000 watts of power, sent his flat Earth sermons across not just America, but as far as his early missionary base in Australia. Preaching about the evils of astronomy, and equally evolution, garnered him support from other religious fundamentalists, including the Reverend George H. Dowkontt, pastor of a popular Brooklyn church, and Father John Dumich, a priest of the Serbian Rite Orthodox church, who held parishes in Minnesota and Ohio.

In Britain, arguably the birthplace of the modern flat Earth concept, the subject maintained a rather subdued presence during the war years, but was eventually resurrected by a sign writer from Dover. In the 1920s Samuel Shenton (1903-1971) had begun researching a design for a new type of aircraft, one that rose to remain stationary, allowing Earth to rotate below to bring the craft to its destination. Amazed that no one else had come up with such a simple idea before, Shenton began to scrutinize the validity of his idea through material at the British Library. It is here that he discovered Zetetic Society member Isaac Stevens had previously suggested a similar idea, which also alerted Shenton to the writings of the Society (if he got as far as discovering his aircraft idea wouldn’t work is another matter). Impressed by Rowbotham’s writings, particularly the Zetetic Astronomy works, Shenton soon became a flat Earth convert, and began constructing ideas to develop his own cosmology, based partly on the Zetetic Society writings and partly on his own interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Dropping out of school at the earliest opportunity he enjoyed lecturing about the flat Earth to youth clubs and student groups. In 1956 after finding a relative of a past Zetetic Society member, William Mills, the pair founded The Flat Earth Society, with Mills as President and Shenton as Secretary. Essentially a re-launch of the Universal Zetetic Society, the Flat Earth Society amassed few members and had little influence. It did briefly manage to attract Ellis Simon Hillman (1928-1996), who became a British politician for the Labour party, and later Mayor of the London Borough of Barnet, as president. In 1966 Shenton produced the pamphlet The Plane Truth, which argued that modern astronomy and space flight were insults to God. As the space race developed, media interest viewed Shenton as an amusing curio, with his views on manned spaceflight featuring in the Coshocton Tribune and even The New York Times. NASA’s Lunar Orbiter program, and its subsequent Apollo program, led all but a very few to consider Shenton’s ideas as anything but fantastical nonsense.

After Shenton’s death in 1971 the Flat Earth Society entered a new phase. Acquaintance Charles K. Johnson (1924-2001) inherited part of Shenton’s library, and became president of his own version of the group, The International Flat Earth Research Society of America and Covenant People’s Church in California. Under his leadership this new Flat Earth Society grew in membership, briefly peaking at 3500 members. Johnson also began publication of a quarterly tabloid, Flat Earth News. As a teenager Johnson had come across Wilbur Glenn Voliva’s radio broadcasts, with the pair exchanging letters in 1942, shortly before Voliva’s death. Although Johnson did little to develop the actual models of the supposed flat Earth, he did plenty to embrace the anti-government mentality that has been a staple ever since. Johnson believed that the leaders of all major governments understood that the world was flat, but kept this information hidden to better control the general masses. He was convinced that the United Nations was primarily developed to announce to the world that the Earth was flat, its symbol, in Johnson’s view, was a Rowbothom inspired flat Earth map, but after the death of President Franklin Roosevelt, there were, apparently, second thoughts. Johnson became one of the first to embrace Moon landing conspiracy theories; after all, photographs depicting Earth from space did not help his general argument. The Flat Earth Society’s main contribution through the 1980s was to feed space program-themed conspiracies, mostly about the space shuttle being a hoax and the Moon landings actually being filmed within a secret Hollywood studio. By 1995 Charles Johnson was old, an invalid, and when his home caught fire he could only watch as his collection of flat Earth literature went up in smoke.

The 1990s embraced many conspiracy theories, often involving aliens and UFOs. Fueled by a popular culture busy devouring science fiction, the concept of a flat Earth fell full out of fashion. An abrupt change came on 11th September 2001, when coordinated terrorist attacks resulted in passenger airliners crashing into, and subsequently destroying, the World Trade Center towers in New York and part of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Conspiracy theories soon became dark and paranoid: UFOs were out, government cover-ups and sinister New World Order groups were in. A noted difference to years past was the Internet, with its ability to disseminate information at a previously unimagined rate. As the 9/11 conspiracies grew, the theorists embraced the new medium, especially Internet messaging forums and video sharing platforms. In 2003 Dylan Avery (b.1983) began production on a fictional screenplay centred on the 9/11 attacks. Based on researcher Paul Thompson’s 2002 website, which collated a timeline of events before, during and after the attacks, Avery’s screenplay began to change from fiction to conspiracy-themed documentary. The result, Loose Change, was released in 2005, with subsequent revisions released up until 2009. The film found favour online, and its style of selective news clips and out-of-context statements, along with an ominous hip-hop-inspired soundtrack, became the standard format for conspiracy videos.

Others soon followed the formula. Most similar is Zeitgeist: the Movie, a 2007 film made by Peter Joseph (b. 1979), that embraces a whole host of conspiracy theories, not just those concerning 9/11 but also the Jesus myth hypothesis, the international banking conspiracy and the steps towards a single world government. Its modus operandi seems to be a desire to make viewers question everything that they know, and to insinuate as a consequence that most, if not all, accepted mainstream narratives are false. By 2013 Zeitgeist had passed 5 million views on YouTube; increasingly, by this stage anything that questioned accepted truth was open to acceptance from some conspiracy fringe. Whilst Joseph has publically stated that he sees no validity in the flat Earth argument, his brand of the grand over-arching conspiracy, in which all conspiracy theories come together in a paranoid mega-mix, creates the potential for anything to be thrown into the narrative.

Back in 2004, just before the release of Loose Change, Daniel Shenton (b.1977) resurrected the International Flat Earth Society via a web-based discussion forum. Shenton, originally from Virginia, but now based in London, became interested in the flat Earth after hearing Thomas Dolby’s 1984 new wave synth album The Flat Earth. The impact of the revived Flat Earth Society was remarkably underwhelming, but in 2009 the Society was officially re-launched and by 2014 had attracted around 500 members. Specifically what influence Zeitgeist had on interests like the flat Earth is hard to quantify, yet it, and other videos like it, did send enough people out searching for the next piece of the grand conspiracy puzzle. Nevertheless, by 2014 there was also some dissatisfaction with Shenton’s flat Earth revival. Perhaps it lacked a certain amount of paranoia, or an unwillingness to embrace other conspiracies – Shenton himself has stated he sees no issue in the official narrative of 9/11 and believes much of the science around things like climate change. Splinter groups began to emerge, confusingly one also calling itself the Flat Earth Society, and another the International Flat Earth Research Society.

The current wave of flat Earth enthusiasts, who seem to be creating a near constant output of YouTube videos, do not hold with Shenton’s reluctance to explore other conspiracies. As suggested in Zeitgeist, everything is connected, and so seemingly unrelated ideas, such as chem-trails, free energy, global micro chipping and Bigfoot all sit comfortably, in the eyes of some, within the logic of a flat Earth cover-up conspiracy. Like Samuel Rowbotham, they seek to question much of what has been told to them as fact. Take, for example, Eric Dubay, a highly vocal flat Earther who has made countless videos on the subject, most notably his ‘200 Proofs Earth is not a Spinning Ball’ series, as well as producing his own book The Flat-Earth Conspiracy (2014). In addition he also made videos announcing dinosaurs a hoax, the existence of giants, and support for Holocaust denial. Another is Mark Sargent, who has been producing flat Earth-themed content since 2015. In his ‘Flat Earth Clues’, a 12 part video series, he provides his evidence for a flat Earth, such as stars being a giant projection onto some sort of dome or screen, and allusions to an enclosed dome in Hollywood movies such as The Truman Show (1998). Jeranism, the video pseudonym of Jeran Campanella, is another who moved from making Moon landing conspiracy videos to focus on a flat Earth narrative. Campanella has also suggested that the Stonehenge monument is fake, that George H. W. Bush was an accomplice in the assassination of JFK, and that even mathematics may be a hoax established by the fraudulent scientific elites. Beyond the rhetoric of the videos, Campanella has also been involved with a number of attempted experiments to demonstrate the shape of the Earth. One involved launch of a high altitude balloon while another was a laser level test that effectively is an update of Rowbotham’s Bedford Level experiment. While he and his supporters see a growing body of evidence in favour of a flat Earth that cannot be refuted, academics, and indeed most others, see nothing of the sort. These three examples alone have amassed close to 200,000 subscribers on YouTube, and are but a sample of the many others who produce similar content. Contemporary flat Earthers are out to re-design established reality into a new myth for modern times, in this case one that is not always about the actual shape of the Earth, but rather about a distrust for authority and a quest to create a wisdom of their own. Perhaps this time the focus is not on the birth of a New World, but on an unraveling of an existing one. 

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Does the word candy kill? – the legend of poisoned Halloween treats

On Halloween night, 2018, Amy Dixon, mother of four, arrived flustered and tearful at Wallsend Police Station in North Tyneside. She presented to police officers a brown jiffy bag containing around eight pills, which she claimed were the drug ecstasy. More disturbingly, Amy recounted, was the manner in which the bag came into her possession. It was collected by her daughter that evening whilst out trick-or-treating in her local neighbourhood of Shiremoor. The pills, which her daughter assumed to be sweets, were spotted just in time to prevent them from being eaten. 

As Amy describes the events, she herself had stayed home that evening to prepare dinner, whilst her partner, Mark Richardson, took the four children, aged between 2-13, out trick-or-treating. Their travels mostly included the local streets close to their house on Farne Road. After a sufficient stash of goodies were collected the group returned home, and five-year-old Lexi-Mai rushed to show her mother all the sweets she had collected. Eager to begin sampling her horde, Lexi-Mai sprayed her bucket of sweets across the kitchen counter, with all manner of treats laid out in front of her she couldn’t resist just diving straight in. Amongst the collection was a single unmarked brown jiffy bag, to which Lexi-Mai was curiously drawn. Upon opening it she found a collection of what looked like pink sugar sweets. Quickly partner Mark snatched the bag away, claiming they didn’t look like ordinary sweets. Amy soon showed the sweets to a neighbour, who thought they were ecstasy pills. Amy then drove to the local police station to report the incident, stopping outside in her car to record a ‘reaction’ video for Facebook. The social media video soon spread, and the story was picked up by press and media across the UK. 

Police have logged a report on the matter and have taken the ‘sweets’ as evidence. Northumbria Police have stated; “We are investigating a report from a parent that unknown pink tablets were placed in her daughter’s trick-or-treat bucket in Shiremoor last night. Enquiries to establish if the tablets are harmful are ongoing but any reports of this nature are extremely concerning and will be taken seriously by police.”

The idea of a child collecting some mysterious treat during Halloween, that is seemingly designed to seriously injure, or even kill, is not a new one. This is what is known as the Halloween poison candy legend, and is a common scare-story that frequents the season, occasionally in the UK, but more often through America. It should be noted that although scare stories, rumours and urban legends surround the distribution of poison Halloween treats, no cases of strangers killing or seriously injuring children in this manner have ever been proven. That is not to say Amy Dixon’s account is not accurate, but that the context of trick-or-treating, and especially Halloween itself, may be an irrelevance. 

Joel Best, professor of sociology at the University of Delaware, is considered a leading authority on Halloween poison candy, and can explain the legend in more detail. When talking about poisoned trick-or-treat goodies, Best has said, “You cant say that it never happens, but it certainly isn’t a giant problem.” In his 1985 essay ‘The Razor Blade in the Apple: The Social Construction of Urban Legends’ Best describes the principle fears around poisoned candy, and how they relate to a danger to children and a contamination of food. 

Fears around contaminated food gained popularity in the general public consciousness following the changes in food production associated with the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly food was not made locally, by known and trusted neighbours, in kitchens and bakeries visible to those who ate the bread, pies, and sweets made in them, rather it was made in some remote location, involving strangers and new machines. During such social change, fears were actually exacerbated by many local Doctors, who would often blame sickness in children on strange things they had been eating. By the 1890s the US Bureau of Chemistry was called to inspect foods produced specifically for children, such was the general insistence that many products were contaminated with something. After investigating numerous facilities and hundreds of products, they found nothing to suggest there was any evidence of sweets and candy containing poison, industrial waste, or any other contaminants.

The fear of strangers, contaminated food and the targeting of children reemerged in America during the 1960s and 70s. Another time of social change, old legends were reinvented for a new audience. Following the economic boom of post-war America, many social conventions of old were challenged, as racial integration was encouraged, and women were able to make notable steps to greater social status.  Many questioned the levels of trust between those of different social standing as well as cultural and ethnic difference, and found changes to who could do what within society disconcerting. African Americans were no longer limited to segregated facilities, or menial low-paid labour jobs, equally women were not confined to the role of housewives, all had the potential to become people of responsibility, as much as any other, or certainly in a way far improved from previous generations. Other events – the assassination of a president, the Cold War, a long and ugly conflict in Vietnam – all contributed to a growing feeling of paranoia, and an erosion of trust in figures of authority. Given this context, the Halloween poison candy legend essentially asks the question – do you really trust your neighbour?

The 1983 essay, ‘Does the word Dog bite? Ostensive Action: A Means of Legend-Telling’ written by folklorists from the University of Indiana, Linda Dégh and Andrew Vázsonyi, discusses the idea of ostension as a method of how urban legends develop through a society. Ostension, as it relates to folklore, is a way of communicating a legend, or developing an aspect of an existing legend, by means of acting out part of the narrative. For example, someone may act out and claim an existing legend as their own experience, others may misinterpret the actions of others as an example of such a legend, or people may re-evaluate real events to fit the narrative of a legend. Local stories of haunted houses and mysterious boogymen generally develop this way, and in turn create a palpable manifestation of a story that evolves with each reenactment, or perceived reenactment.

In Dégh and Vázsonyi’s essay Halloween is used as a specific example of ostension, as it is ‘based on legends, communicates legends, and creates legends.’ Noted too is the idea of ‘status reversal’ within the context of Halloween, where power structures are changed around – such as children who go door to door extorting gifts from obedient adults. Role reversal is common through costume, with the young and innocent transforming into the old and grotesque, adults change genders, upstanding citizens become masked villains and monsters, the living pose as the dead. Austrian psychoanalyst Richard Sterba argues too that, in general, Western society has a habit of suppressing knowledge around the reality of death, specifically in the context of children, however, Halloween night seems to actively encourage the opposite. With children dressing as ghouls, ghosts, monsters and zombies, and travelling house to house, the most innocent of society become the most potent and noticeable representations of the spirits of the dead. It is not surprising therefore, given this scenario, that many of the scare stories that originate from Halloween come from the imaginations of the children themselves, as they are whipped up into a morbid frenzy around the themes of death, fear, and collection of trick-or-treat candy.

The narrative of poisoned Halloween candy is a perfectly crafted one for the season. It centres on the ritual of trick-or-treat, of interaction with strangers, and of the fear expressed between children and the monsters they dress as and also encounter on their evening festivities. Early examples of tainted Halloween treats emerged in the late 1940s, with The New York Times publishing a story in 1948 warning of the dangers of poisoned candy. Since 1964, the year after the assassination of JFK, and the year in which the Civil Rights Act was passed, America has not been without some form of annual Halloween trick-or-treat scare story. As Dégh and Vázsonyi point out, many such legends develop first by rumour, and then by action. In what is termed the ‘incubation period’, scare stories are imagined first, and then acted out second through the ritual of ostensive reenactment. Many of these stories are just that, works of fiction, others are exaggerated or misinterpreted events, repurposed to fit the mood of the season. Though, as with many good legends, there is a kernel of truth to some of them. 

In 1959 Californian dentist William Shyne handed out around 450 laxative pills coated in sugar to trick-or-treaters. Around 30 children consumed the treats, and subsequently suffered the consequences of eating a bag full of laxative, though none were seriously harmed. Five years later, Long Island resident Helen Pfeil took to pranking teenage trick-or-treaters she deemed too old to be out asking for Halloween candy. Pfeil’s prank involved the handing out of arsenic soaked poison pellets, known as ant buttons, to selected children. It was eventually discovered she had handed out nineteen such ‘joke bags’. Though no one had consumed any of her ‘treats’, the prank resulted in her eventually being questioned by Police, and charged with two counts of child endangerment. 

A more sinister case of poisoning began in the run up to Halloween 1982. Known as the Chicago Tylenol murders, when seven people died during late September after consuming Tylenol brand acetaminophen capsules that had been laced with potassium cyanide. The poisonings were seemingly random, with tainted bottles of capsules hidden amongst non-tainted ones on the shelves of local stores. Widespread panic resulted in company Johnson & Johnson recalling the 31 million bottles of Tylenol in circulation at the time. The case has never been solved, only adding to public fear of a crazed boogyman out to randomly poison people around the Halloween festival. Fears concerning trick-or-treating poisoning were at an all time high that season, unsurprisingly numbers of children going out door-to-door asking for candy dropped considerably that year. Matters were not helped by a number of copy-cat style crimes committed following the Chicago Tylenol murders. Cases emerged of pills tainted with rat poison, others involved medication containing hydrochloric acid.

Especially in the cases of children, several deaths occurring on October 31st have been misattributed to events concerning the celebration, and specifically consumption of poisoned treats. In 1970 five-year-old Kevin Toston died in mysterious circumstances just after Halloween. Traces of heroin in his system resulted in a story that he had eaten Halloween candy sprinkled with the drug. Medical analysis soon suggested the quantity of heroin was similar to that commonly found within a capsule of the drug, and it then emerged that Kevin had eaten a stash of his Uncle’s heroin, and the family attempted to cover it up by blaming it on poison candy.

Another case occurred in 1974, when Ronald O’Bryan had taken his two children, including  eight-year-old son Timothy out trick-or-treating. Going out in a group with their neighbour, along with some other children, they began the ritual of calling at homes in their local area. After the group called on one door the house remained silent, the occupant had failed to answer, so the children ran ahead. Ronald’s neighbour went with the children, but Ronald briefly stayed behind. Rejoining soon after, Ronald presented the children each with a Pixy Stix – a sweet and sour powdered candy treat packaged to look like a drinking straw – that he claimed had been given by the previous house who had, eventually, answered the door. On returning home Timothy ate some of the Halloween candy, including the Pixy Stix. He began vomiting, and became limp, concerned parents soon rushed him to hospital, but it was no use, he died en-route, less than an hour after eating the candy. It was later found that father Ronald had laced the sweets with cyanide in order to cash in on the life insurance payout following his Son’s death. There had been no mysterious boogyman at the silent house, Ronald was just waiting for an opportunity to present his tainted sweets. His plan was to make the death look like a random Halloween poison candy attack, and it is just pure luck that none of the other children ate the other Pixy Stix, as they too contained cyanide. O’Bryan was convicted of murder, and sentenced to death, ultimately receiving his own lethal injection of poison, in March 1984.

Other deaths occurring on or around Halloween night have also been attributed to tales of poison candy, such as that of Ariel Katz, a seven-year-old from Santa Monica, who died whilst trick-or-treating in October 1990. After she collapsed and died whilst out for Halloween, police quickly warned parents to confiscate any treats picked up in the streets that Ariel had been out in. Officers cordoned off the area, and began hunting door-to-door, looking for the source of the poisoned sweets. However, it later transpired that Ariel Katz had been diagnosed earlier that year with having a heart murmur, and was not receiving any medical treatment for the condition. It was this, not candy, that was the cause of her death.

Reports of actual Halloween candy being tampered with, with the malicious intent to cause harm to strangers, specifically children, is so rare, both in the UK and the USA, that it is virtually non-existent. Like the cases discussed above, deaths are generally coincidental, and misattributed to some aspect of the Halloween season, or like the case of Ronald O’Bryan, pre-meditated murder targeting a specific individual. Though it is not true to say that no cases of tampering have ever been found, though often they do not take the form of poisoning. Since 1959 there have been approximately 80 cases recorded through America of foreign objects, such as pins or razor blades being discovered having been placed into Halloween treats. Of these, the vast majority were found to be hoaxes, conducted in most part by the children themselves, though sometimes also the parents, and only ten resulted in minor injury. That averages out to one minor injury, every 5 to 6 years, from adulterated Halloween candy.

Pranks with the intention to scare is all part of the Halloween tradition, and in good taste or not, a razor blade obviously lodged into an apple and given out as a Halloween treat, is largely considered to be a joke. Generally those who devise such pranks, like Helen Pfeil and her ant buttons, do not fully think through the potential consequences. The intention is to scare, it is not to seriously injure and certainly not aimed to kill, and in most cases the recipient will either be in on the joke, or the joke so obvious that it can’t be confused with hidden intent. Many razor-blade-in-apples accounts were later shown to be devised by the children themselves, pushing a shaving blade into a piece of fruit for example, and then using the item to ‘freak out’ their parents.

One exception may be the case of James Joseph Smith, a resident of Minneapolis, who, in 2000, was caught after putting needles into Snickers bars and handing them out to children. This was not done as a prank, Smith was genuinely out to hurt strangers. He was charged with adulterating a substance with the intent to harm, after a fourteen-year-old bit into one of the chocolate bars, cutting himself on the needle and requiring medical attention. A possible copy-cat case emerged in Ohio, in 2015, when a child discovered a razor blade pushed inside a Snickers bar. It was however a single isolated incident, and Reynoldsburg police lieutenant Shane Mauger had stated it was the first such case of tainted candy he had seen in nineteen years on the force.

Equally the idea of drugs being produced specifically to target children, is an often circulated, but infrequently proven occurrence. Part of the potency of Amy Dixon’s account of her daughter almost eating ecstasy pills is the notion that they readily resemble sweets, and that children are susceptible to trying them if they ever come into contact with such drugs. Warnings about free drugs deigned to have a candy-like appearance in order to hook children are widely untrue. Reports of ‘Strawberry Quik’ a type of methamphetamine aimed at children emerged during 2007, when bright pink forms of crystal meth appeared resembling rock candy sweets. The shape, colour, and strawberry flavour was all designed, according to rumours, to make the drug appealing to children. Emails warning of the drug being used to tempt children into trying meth are still being circulated. However subsequent statements by federal drugs agencies have claimed that the name of the drug is in reference to the bright colour of the drug, created as part of the production process, it has nothing to do with any flavouring. US Drug Enforcement Administration spokesperson Michael Sanders has said methamphetamine targeted at children is not a trend or a real problem, rather it is an urban legend, fuelled by concerned parents sharing viral emails. 

Other cases of illegal drugs allegedly targeted specifically at children include brightly coloured cannabis ‘pots’ – jars containing real cannabis plant heads, inscribed with names such as ‘bubblegum’ and ‘peanut butter’. Another is a variety of MDMA tablet, moulded to resemble Lego bricks, which appeared in 2016. In both cases police issued statements warning about the drug, and also how they believed the style of manufacture meant the intent was to target children. There is however a long established history of particular types of drugs resembling garishly coloured sweets. Partly, in the case of pills, such mouldings likely already exist making some aspects of production easier, and second, drugs such as ecstasy are promoted as ‘fun’. Bright, often child-like designs, smiley faces, along with references to children’s television, are all part of the acid-house and rave cultures to emerge in the late 1980s, a fashion now synonymous with increased recreational use of drugs like ecstasy.

The fear that such drugs are being made to target children has also, unsurprisingly, been pulled into the Halloween poison candy legend – as seen with Amy Dixon’s experience – however hers is not the first such account. In September 2015 scare stories began being shared via Facebook around images of ‘new shapes of ecstasy’, specifically aimed at killing kids, that were likely to be distributed via Halloween trick-or-treat gifts. The rumours even resulted with Police in Jackson, Mississippi, putting out warnings about MDMA laced Halloween candy. Other Halloween rumours involve circulation of drug-laced gummy bears, and in 2017, again via Facebook, rumours of pink-teddy-bear shaped ecstasy pills being given out to children on Halloween began to circulate. 

This Halloween, over in Galion, Ohio, five-year-old Braylen Carwell tested positive for methamphetamine after he was taken to hospital following his eating of some trick-or-treat candy. The assumption his sweets had been purposefully contaminated with the drug prompted warnings concerning tainted candy being circulated in the local area. Police had begun advising families in Galion to be vigilant and to check all of their children’s collected candy for anything suspicious. Further investigation however has revealed that Braylen’s parents have a history of drug use, and a search of the family home uncovered drug paraphernalia, along with marijuana and meth. Tests on Braylen’s candy came back negative for traces of any drugs, suggesting it most likely his consumption of methamphetamine is related to some activity within the home.

Back in Shiremoor, Amy Dixon’s bag of pills, collected by daughter Lexi-Mai, and then delivered to Police, have now been confirmed as ecstasy. Police have also stated however that no other reports of children receiving tablets like this in the area have occurred. The Lexi-Mai case is being treated as an isolated incident, and Chief Inspector Ron Charlton has stated that ‘we believe it more likely the tablets have been received by accident’. So why did Lexi-Mai receive a bag of ecstasy pills? Perhaps a drug pick-up gone wrong, delivered to the wrong family, taken somehow by accident, possibly even given as a joke, but without more information, you can only speculate. One thing is clear though, the spectre of the Halloween boogyman, dishing out poisoned treats to children, lives on for another year.

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Daisy the Dog and post-trauma mythology

A touching story concerning a dramatic rescue of survivors trapped in the crumbling towers of the World Trade Center continues to circulate online through social media channels. The story concerns ‘Daisy’, a golden retriever and guide dog to worker James Crane, who was working on the 101st floor of the north World Trade Center tower when the first plane struck on September 11th 2001. So the story goes that on hearing a great explosion several floors below, James instinctively knew he was about to die, and that as a blind man he had little to no hope of navigating his way down a hundred floors of a burning, and soon to be collapsing, building. He instructed his beloved guide dog Daisy to flee. James believed he wouldn’t make it out, but he reasoned Daisy just might, and so sent her off into the panic and smoke of the building while he himself sat down calmly, awaiting his fate. There he sat for approximately 30 minutes until Daisy re-appeared, along with James’ boss, whom the dog had recovered from the 112th floor. Daisy, along with James’ boss, began to lead James gradually down the fire routes to safety. On their way the group came across many other trapped survivors and, thanks to the instincts of Daisy, they eventually navigated 300 people out of the burning building. The miraculous rescue does not end there. Against James’ wishes Daisy dashed back inside the World Trade Center, the structure now on the verge of total collapse. A time later Daisy re-appeared, along with a group of another 392 people she had found inside. Daisy, knowing yet more people were trapped inside, dashed back into the building again, with James pleading her to come back. This time, whilst Daisy was inside, the building collapsed. James fell to his knees in tears. But from the burning rubble a fire fighter appeared out of the smoke, carrying Daisy in his arms. The dog was alive, but with four burnt paws and suffering smoke inhalation. Behind them, another 273 people Daisy managed to round up and guide to safety. On that day Daisy directly helped save 967 lives. For her gallantry Daisy was awarded the Canine Medal of Honour for New York, the first civilian canine ever to receive such an award.

It’s a heart-warming tale of hope and survival, juxtaposed against the tragic backdrop of the 9/11 attacks on New York. It would be lovely if such an account was true, or even partially true, but in this case, it is entirely fiction. A version of this story has been circulating online since as early as November 2001, and always presented as if a factual account. So much do people want this story to be true that it continues to be widely circulated seventeen years later, a far longer life-span than many internet memes. Rumours have attributed its origins to a story published in The New York Times on 19th September 2001, but no story even faintly resembling Daisy the dog was published by that paper, or any other, on that date, or at any time since. 

There are accounts of guide dogs helping individuals to escape the Twin Towers, and so it is a possibility that Daisy is just an extrapolation of these accounts, though it is a wild exaggeration if that is the case. The closest real events that can be related to the Daisy the dog myth involve the story of Michael Hingson, a blind worker who was guided to safety by his guide dog Roselle from the 78th floor. Another worker, Omar Rivera, also made it out of the Twin Towers safely after being aided by his dog Salty, this time from the 71st floor. In both cases the only people involved in the ‘rescue’ were the dog and its owner, and in both cases such an escape prompted subsequent media attention and recognition. Michael Hingson has even written a book concerning his account, Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust (2011), a best-seller that prompted Hingson to also produce the sort-of prequel Running with Roselle (2013). Both dogs, Roselle and Salty, were awarded the Dickin Medal for their efforts concerning 9/11, an award for gallantry granted by the PDSA. Generally the award is reserved for animals serving in military conflict, essentially an animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross or the Medal of Honor. A third dog, Appollo, also received the Dickin Medal, but did so on behalf of all search and rescue dogs involved with activity around ground zero. A great number of search and rescue dogs were used to explore the rubble of the Twin Towers, risking their lives for nearly 3 weeks in a bid to save others. Yet, even if every dog story even faintly associated with 9/11 were combined into one uber-narrative, the real events would not come close to the claims of Daisy. If her tale was true, she would likely be the most famous dog in the world, not some obscure unsung hero confined to internet memes.

The interesting questions around the Daisy the dog story are why it came to exist in the first place, and why people are so ready to believe and circulate it. Firstly though, for those in any doubt, there are clear reasons as to why there is certainty the story is a myth. At 8.46am, when American Airlines Flight 11 struck the north tower, it smashed a gigantic hole into the building, essentially destroying the 93rd-99th floors. Those on these floors would have likely died instantly, and the vast majority of those on the floors above would have not fared better, the resulting fireball from the exploding plane quickly devastating the upper-levels. Indeed, only 19 people survived the 9/11 attacks who were in either tower above the point of impact. James Crane was not one of them; indeed he wasn’t on any floor, as no worker of that name existed in association to the north tower. The 101st floor, where it is claimed he was based, was occupied by a number of companies—Cantor Fitzgerald, Kidder Peabody & Co, The Boomer Esiason Foundation, eSpeed, and the charity Chances for Children—none of which employed a James Crane. His boss, who worked on the 112th floor is certainly not real either, for no less of a reason that the north tower only had 110 floors. Even the Canine Medal of Honour award is false, the closest award as previously mentioned is the Dickin Medal. No dog named Daisy has ever been awarded the Dickin Medal, and no dog, or any other animal, has been awarded the medal for events resembling her story; the closest are Roselle, Salty and Appollo. Stories concerning survivors of 9/11 filled newspapers for a considerable time, and there is not a chance that one concerning a guide dog rescuing close to 1000 people would have been missed by every media company in the world.

The September 11th attacks on America comprised of four coordinated terrorist attacks involving the hijacking, and subsequent intentional crashing, of passenger airlines. Two of the planes crashed into, and destroyed, the World Trade Center in New York, while a third plane crashed into the west side of the Pentagon, America’s headquarters of its national department of defense. The fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, came down in a field in Pennsylvania after the passengers overpowered the hijackers, ultimately sacrificing themselves to prevent greater loss of life. Flight 93 was headed for Washington, DC, with the likely target of the White House. The attacks on that day killed 2996 people and injured more than 6000. There was approximately $10 billion of infrastructure and property damage associated with the attacks, and the financial hub of America, New York City, saw an economic decline of $27.3 billion in the year following the events of 9/11. The events became a type of national trauma for America, one of the most significant and destructive attacks on its own soil in the history of the nation. Media response to 9/11 was unprecedented, and for the vast majority of Americans it was through the screens of their televisions that the events were presented to them. Certainly a defining moment, for many Americans recent history can be divided into Pre-9/11 and Post-9/11.

A national trauma is a wounding event, or series of events, that affects a large collective of people and, as a consequence, leads to a notable collective response. Common responses to instances of national trauma frequently involve a call to national unity, and a greater demand to improve the moral purification of a country’s citizens. This can be evidenced after the 2001 attacks in America, with noted increases in church attendance, greater focus on family and home life, and a growth in patriotic acts such as frequent flying of the national flag. Psychoanalyst Charles B Strozier, who produced the book Until the Fires Stop Burning: 9/11 and New York City in the Words and Experiences of Survivors and Witnesses (2011), argues that the collective trauma suffered by the American people in the wake of 9/11 activated deep-seated complexes in the national psyche around apocalyptic fears, or what he refers to as ‘Endism’. Put simply, Endism is the realisation that we will all die, and the palpable realism of that thought brought about by a real world event. A common response is fear, or horror, and in the case of 9/11 feelings of anger and rage were also rampant. Such emotions can be easily manipulated, directly or indirectly, through conscious action or subliminal shifts in culture.

With the case of 9/11 examples of such subsequent cultural shifting are numerous. From changes in music taste governed by revised radio playlists, to heighted national security and the ongoing ‘War on Terror’, the impact has been both subtle and profound, and certainly long-lasting. Fear and paranoia are exemplified by the increased hostility toward Muslim communities, often seen through simplistic post-9/11 views that pigeon-hole many Middle Eastern countries as hotbeds for fundamental terrorists. Such shifts in attitude impact culture, and 9/11 certainly has its share of post-trauma mythologies. Most obviously this can be seen in the numerous 9/11-inspired conspiracy theories, generally dark, paranoid, and focused on government corruption or sinister New World Order plots to enslave humanity. Real effort has been put into providing credibility to the long disproven theory that the World Trade Center towers were brought down by controlled demolition, as well as far more outlandish claims, like those of Dr Judy Wood, who claims a directed energy beam from space vaporised the towers by a process that she terms ‘dustification’.

There is another brand of post-trauma mythology that is as based as much in fiction as the paranoid conspiracy theories. This brand does not deal so directly with fear and rage, as it does with hope and sympathetic emotion. There are several fraudulent 9/11-themed claims that could be described as appeals to emotion that have clear ulterior motives, beyond creation of a simple feel-good story. One example is the account of Alicia Esteve Head, a woman of Spanish origin who falsely claimed to be a survivor of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Her claims involve her survival by crawling through smoke and flames to escape the 78th floor of the south tower. She later established an online forum for survivors of 9/11, and Gerry Bogacz, founder of the World Trade Center Survivors Network, soon found out about Head’s forum and assimilated the group into his own. ‘Tania Head’, as she was now calling herself, became a prominent member of Bogacz’s group, and by 2005 she was delivering talks at universities about her experiences and leading tours for the Tribute WTC visitor center. Head was featured in numerous 9/11-themed articles, was photographed with New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, and eventually became president of the World Trade Center Survivors Network. In September 2007 The New York Times began research toward a 9/11 anniversary piece focusing on noted survivors. They began to look into the histories of survivors, such as Tania Head, with the aim of enriching their article. It was at this point that her claims began to rapidly unravel.

 Tania Head had given so many talks about her life experiences that her whole history had gradually become one of fiction through numerous embellishments. She claimed a degree from Harvard and employment by Merril Lynch Wealth Management. For added tragic twist, her fiancé ‘Dave’ was killed in the attack on the north tower. Research from The New York Times found that neither Harvard or Merril Lynch had any record of her, and later that ‘Dave’ was David S Suarez, who did die during 9/11, but his family had never heard of a Tania Head. Claims were even made of a charity set up by Head in Suarez’s honour – ‘Dave’s Children Foundation’ – but again no records of any such charity exist. Finally, evidence emerged that Tania Head was Alicia Esteve Head, and on September 11th, 2001 she had in actual fact been recorded as sitting in class at ESADE, a private Jesuit education institution, in Barcelona. Travel records showed the first time that she stepped foot in America was in 2003. Serious questions needed serious answers. She soon fled from public view, and in 2008 a rumour was circulated (likely from Head herself) that she had committed suicide. In a final twist, documentary film maker Angelo J Guglielmo Jr, whilst making the film The Woman Who Wasn’t There (2012) about the Tania Head story, tracked down the alive and well Alicia Head, still living in New York City as of 2011. If the desire motivating her false claims was to gain attention, Alicia Head was certainly successful, if only for a period. She claims she never really made any money through her deception. If her aim was to offer hope that perhaps one more person did in actual fact survive 9/11, then this seems less clear, but it remains a possible aspect of her actions.

Some appeals to emotion are more blatant in their materialistic motivations, such as the account of Cyril Kendal, who claimed his son, Wilfred, died during 9/11. For his loss Cyril later received $160,000 in compensation via the Red Cross. He subsequently spent a significant amount of the money on a sports car, but soon after it was revealed that he in fact had no Son — Wilfred Kendel had never existed. Cyril was later sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Certain types of stories that have emerged are clearly inspired by traumatic events—stories that are joyous, hopeful, uplifting and life-affirming—all of which have claimed to be true, but all of which are complete fabrications. Their reason for existence does not seem to be part of any paranoid conspiracy theory or a direct scam, yet they do seem capable of having a tangible influence on some members of society. This is a sub-genre of fiction-presented-as-fact that I term ‘Hope-Porn’, which resides somewhere between click-bait spam and conspiracy theory; certainly Daisy the dog sits comfortably within this category. Hope-Porn is always false; Hope-Porn is a cathartic response to a tragedy, personal or national; Hope-Porn narratives often borrow their structure from religious sources, or reference divine intervention; and in Hope-Porn, either everybody lives, or a death has profound meaning.

Hope-Porn can be seen as similar to the idea of Inspiration-Porn, a term coined by Australian disability rights activist Stella Young. With Inspiration-porn, remarkable, or seemingly remarkable, achievements accomplished by people with a disability are presented as wondrous triumphs, either in a condescending ‘they’re almost like normal people’ tone, or as some sort of magical super-power worship. The accounts render any achievements of a person with disabilities as uplifting inspirational fodder for the consumer, objectifying the individual at the heart of the story. Equally similar is the idea of a ‘Glurge’, a catch-all term for an inspirational tale, overtly fictional or otherwise, which often conceals a much darker meaning than the moral lesson it seems to present. Frequently such things take the form of sentimental parables that hammer home a simplistic moral message at the expense of wider ethics or logic.

Examples of Hope-Porn can be found with reasonable frequency online, and many ‘amazing true story’ click-bait items can at least contain some of the required ingredients. An example with some parallel to Daisy the Dog is the story generally titled ‘The Old One’. Here, in the run up to Christmas, a brother and sister visit the farm where their elderly parents keep a heard of horses. The youngsters despair at the poverty of the farm, pleading with their parents to not waste more money on caring for old show horses. As the brother and sister depart, the barn catches fire, due to some old and frayed electrical cable. No one notices as the blaze begins to spread, except ‘the old one’ — the oldest horse in the barn. By the time the fire department arrives, nothing is left of the barn but smouldering ash, and the old couple are devastated at their loss, assuming all their horses dead. A walk to a nearby hill to gather their thoughts turns sadness to joy, as behold, the old one stands, surrounded by the entire herd they thought they had just lost. The story actually has its origins in a sermon written by the Reverend David L Griffith, around 1998. Always intended to be a parable about caring for the old, it was revived into a ‘true story’ sometime around 2005 and is often attributed to be the account of the equally fictitious Eunice Day. The tragedy here may be a more generic house fire, but it could be easily seen as relevant to anyone recently having suffered some form of loss.

Another example is the story of Herman and Roma Rosenblat, which is sometimes circulated as ‘The Fence’, and concerns a Jewish holocaust survivor and the girl who once fed him apples over the fence of a concentration camp. The girl is described as an angel, sent by Herman’s dead mother to look after him. Years after the war has ended, Herman is taken on a blind date, and discovers his date is none other than the apple-girl, who he credits with his survival. He proposes to her then and there, and the pair remain happily married for the next 50 years. Herman Rosenblat is a real holocaust survivor, who began writing his memoirs during the 1990s. By 2008, Berkley Books, who planned to publish the finished work, Angel at the Fence, withdrew plans to do so as it came to light much of the narrative was false. There was never a girl who gave apples at the fence, and although Herman did marry Roma, the circumstances of their engagement are quite different. The story still circulates in an abridged form online, and rumours of a film adaptation of Rosenblat’s unpublished memoir continue to resurface.

The story ‘Pink Rose’, which has been circulating around the Internet since 2002, is supposedly written by a young girl in response to the September 11th attacks, and in particular dedicated to her fire-fighting father who died that day. The piece is actually a re-working of a poem by Cheryl Costello-Forshey, first published in 2000. The original poem, ‘Daddy’s Day’ was a fictionalised expression of loss that first appeared in the compilation book Chicken Soup for the Parent’s Soul (2000), but has been since changed to represent a factual account; sometimes it is also re-worked so that the father is a deceased marine. 

Other 9/11 post-trauma myths have a more obvious spiritual aspect. NYPD lieutenant Frank Marra claimed to have witnessed the ghost of a Second-World War Red Cross worker helping to search for the wounded amongst the debris of 9/11. Lillie Leonardi, a former police officer and FBI agent who retired due to post-traumatic stress disorder following the aftermath of 9/11, has described seeing the shimmering lights of angels in the grounds where Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania, as documented in her book In the Shadow of a Badge: A Spiritual Memoir (2012). Finally, freelance photographer Rich McCormack, who documented the fifteenth anniversary event of 9/11, took pictures of the beams of light shone upward as part of the tribute. At the top of one of the beams McCormack captured what he described as ‘a vision of the Lord’. After the image was shared online, many supported his sightings saying that they could identify an image of Jesus or an angel on top of the beam of light. All such accounts offer hope of some sort, and the notion that some great other is watching out in times of need. 

The story of Daisy the dog may too have a spiritual aspect, though far subtler. It is important to note that Daisy was a guide dog, and while the original inspiration may have been an embellishment of Michael Hingson’s escape with his dog Rosella, a guide dog sets up an immediately sympathetic narrative centred on one who cares for the disabled. In this case a guide dog could be re-interpreted as a guardian angel. When Daisy leads James to safety, hundreds of people are drawn to follow her. There are no details in the narrative as to what her ‘saving’ involved. Did she dig them each individually out of rubble? Or were they compelled to follow her as a beacon of hope? Upon her third attempt at saving people she is assumed to die, crushed under the collapsing building. Amazingly she re-appears, resurrected, in the arms of a fire fighter—a literal rising from the ashes—surrounded again by hundreds of people she has ‘saved’.

Hope-Porn, like Daisy the dog, continues to be spread as it offers optimism for the future and comfort for the past. People will such accounts to be true because they are life-affirming, and if enough people help share such stories, then in a strange way the stories like that of Daisy almost do become true, at least to those who believe them. The reality however, is that such events did not happen, and despite the likely good intentions of distributing a feel-good story, there is a real danger in believing in such claims. For families whose loved ones were amongst the many unidentified dead at 9/11 there remains a distant hope that they are still out there and claims like those of Alicia Head offer a brief chance that there may still be survivors yet to come forward. For those who lost loved ones during the World Trade Center attacks, the miraculous rescue of people by Daisy offers some reprieve or comfort that hope was on the side of at least some people. Ultimately however fake viral click-bait does nothing to help real victims of a tragedy, but it might help the advertising revenues of whatever site is pushing the video around. Endorsement of Hope-Porn narratives leaves someone only a step away from engagement with Internet scams, as appeals to emotion can be easily turned into a good cause donation. Plenty of ‘sick child’ scams play on this very idea.

There are commonly understood responses that the average person will experience in the face of any tragedy. Disbelief, confusion, anxiety, fear, guilt, and sadness are matched with hyper-vigilance, poor decision making, changes to routine activity and recurring thoughts. Basic assumptions that a person may have about the world may be challenged. A person may lose hope, and view their environment as filled with danger and uncertainty. Survivors of a tragedy may struggle to give meaning to any event, and look for answers about why something happened, or if it could have been anticipated or prevented through intervention. Accounts like the Daisy the Dog story aim to take a tragic event, and make it a little less tragic by inventing a tale of rescue and escape. By giving a tragedy some meaning, such as a dog saving 1000 people, the tragedy seems just marginally less tragic, even if it does so by bolstering the  often erroneous ‘everything happens for a reason’ mantra. At its best, even when understood to be false, such accounts bring feelings of hope, in much the same way as an uplifting TV drama might. At its worst though, Daisy the dog is manipulative, and through its dishonesty is more likely to harm rather than help. It is a gateway to more overt scams and conspiracy theories, which collectively, well-intentioned or not, slowly corrode the understanding of what is real, and what is not.