Archive for the Forteana Category

Pyramid Power! The Curious Case of the Bosnian Pyramid

Posted in Balkans pop, Forteana, Mythology, prehistoric on June 24, 2013 by David N. Brown

The lands of the Balkan peninsula are and presumably always have been a melting pot (or, to use an unfortunately more apt analogy, a tectonic collision zone) of diverse people groups. Predictably, the genuine complexities of ethnicities and history have generated an even murkier tangle of partisan theories ostensibly related to anthropology and archeology. Out of the hodgepodge of theories, one would be hardpressed to find one more (polite pause) offbeat than that of the “Pyramid of Bosnia”.

In brief (mainly per Bad Archeology, source for the photo above), around 2005, local media and then some international sources picked up reports claiming that a structure in Bosnia was a man-made pyramid, by strikingly disparate estimates between 230 and 722 feet in height. The principle propagator of these claims was one Semir Osmanagic, a professor of anthropology at a local undergraduate college. Osmanagic evidently theorizes that the pyramid was built by the Illyrians, a known people group of antiquity believed to be the ancestors (or at least the cultural precursors) of the Albanians, and mentioned dates as early as 12,000 BC. He cited various authorities as supporting his views. Unfortunately for him, when said authorities were contacted for comment, they consistently either disavowed any association with him or presented very different interpretations. Among the latter were Dr. Robert Schoch, who recounted a trip to the scene thus: “Osmanagic and I were apparently seeing different things, perhaps viewing an entirely different world. Where he saw concrete blocks and human intervention, I saw only perfectly natural sandstones and conglomerates… For a week and a half this seemed to be the dominant theme: Osmanagic and others who worked with and for him insisting that this or that feature can never occur in nature, and thus must be artificial and human-made, versus me finding a perfectly reasonable geological explanation for each of the same features.” The one favorable aspect of Schoch’s report was that he claimed “evidence of Neolithic occupation of the hill, dating back perhaps 5,000 years.” Less kind critics have turned to such evidence in support of efforts to deny Osmanagic permits for further excavation

Thus, the “Pyramid of Bosnia” presents itself as a typical pseudoarcheological crank theory, and it is hard to disagree with those who discount it as media-generated pseudoscience. Yet, there is just enough in the story to give the thoughtful pause. While Osmanagic has been exposed to some criticism for occultic leanings, he presents a more creditable figure than the typical crank or outright charlatan: He is legitimately credentialed, reportedly holding a doctorate in sociology and university positions in archeology and anthropology, and by all indications sincere and thorough in his efforts to find evidence of his theories. I consider it especially noteworthy that, in contrast to far too many examples of Balkans pseudo-scholarship, there is no sign of ethnic partisanship in his theories: The only obvious way his ideas could be twisted to contemporary political purposes would be to maximize the already compelling claims of antiquity for the Albanian people-group, which he is not a part of.

Then there is the pyramid itself, which all but invites the thoughtful to second-guess common sense: Even taking it as a given that it is entirely of natural origin (as I certainly would), it is certainly a very odd shape, and it is not easy to discount the possibility that human activity had some role in bringing it to its current shape. Then there is the ample evidence of ancient and prehistoric human activity, which suggests that, if nothing else, the hill may well have held special interest to ancient peoples. What is entirely ironic is that Osmanagic’s critics have been placed in the position of arguing certain points for him. The evidence of settlement as early as the Neolithic can be said to satisfy the bare minimum of prior plausibility for the existence of an ancient monument at the scene. Even the charge that Osmanagic’s own excavations may have shaped the hill’s appearance lends some credence to the possibility that ancient humans reworked the natural features of the hill into a pyramidal shape. What is truly unfortunate is that there are little if any signs of anyone else taking an interest in the hill, and maneuvers to block Osmanagic may do far more to deter more orthodox investigation than to protect anything there to be found.

Regardless of the nature of the Pyramid of Bosnia, the Balkans remain an area of interest for pyramid architecture. A number of pyramid-like structures are known from the Balkan Peninsula, the most well-known being the “Greek pyramid” of Hellenikon. Based on the best evidence, this structure may have been closer to an Egyptian mastaba, and the interpretation of the structure of the tomb has been rejected based on the presence of a door locked from the inside. (Though there are ominous ways to explain such a feature in a burial site!) Also of interest are a number of tumulus mounds, the largest accepted form of ancient monuments, and especially tholoi tombs such as the “Treasury of Atreus”. These “beehive” structures represent a striking combination of the features of a burial mound and a pyramid, having a core structure of stone which is then covered in earth. It would also seem very possible, in the event that the original entrance was obliterated or buried, to miss such a structure entirely, giving cause for pause when considering where a natural landscape ends and possible human activity begins.


One-Shot Week Part 5: The Forest Clown (From Coulrophobia)

Posted in Forteana, one-shot with tags , , , , on March 15, 2013 by David N. Brown

For today, here’s an excerpt from Coulrophobia, my best-reviewed book that nobody has actually bought.  This was one of three different scenes I tried out for an opening, and got very good responses when I showed it around as a sample.  So, here it is as a one shot:

Djani was seven, and he lived with his big brother Besnik in the woods at the edge of Town. If pressed, Djani might have been able to give the name of the town, but to him, it was only “the Town”. He could remember their mother, but not what had happened to her. He and his big brother stayed with families among their Folk, in whatever shelter the Folk had found: Horse-drawn wagons, relics of the halcyon days when they had had horses to draw them with; in tents; in improvised huts; in whatever outlying buildings could be entered unopposed. For one reason or another, the brothers never stayed in the same place twice.

“Stay close to me, Djani,” Besnik said, with the voice of a male just old enough to meet the bare minimum of manhood. “And keep back from the trees.”

“I know,” said Djani, making a point to step back from the line of beech trees that screened the path from casual observers. This was just at the outskirts of Town, where the Folk could walk at will, but still had to walk with care. Besnik had taught Djani the rules, as he had been taught himself, so forcefully and indelibly that one did not even remember learning them: It was no trouble if one of the Town People saw them; they would simply pretend not to notice. But the Folk could not let themselves be seen by a stranger from out of Town, or by one of the unmentionables born among the Folk but were no longer of them. For such would summon the Government Men, the hunters who searched the woods for the Folk, and took brothers from brothers and children from mothers to make them live in houses with the Town People and the ones who were not Folk. Except, now there was talk that there were no more Government Men, nor any more Government either. Now, so the stories went, there were only greedy men, and cruel men, and desperate men, among whom the last were as dangerous as any other. All of which meant nothing to the brothers, except that there was all the more reason to stay out of sight.

Besnik took a hard turn just as the screen began to thin. Djani glanced back. The edge of the trees marked a clearing on the side of the hills, overlooking the town. In the clearing were a proudly towering spire of white stone and the low-slung dome of a military bunker. The stone was a Medieval stele carved with things that harkened to still older days under elder gods: Stylized images of men, and beasts, and things seemingly abstract or wholly obscure; and largest and most centrally among them a thing like a man, with what seemed to be the curled horns of a ram. The bunker, on the other hand, was a miserable fungoid affair, reared within the last generation and already crumbling from age and wear.

Besnik whirled at his brother’s cry, and caught the boy as he fell. “Watch where you’re going,” he said. Nothing else needed to be said. The forest was thickest, here at the edges, where men came just often enough to kill the sizable trees while leaving saplings and seedlings to run riot. There was only a little ways left to walk, but it was a grueling trek, skirting, squirming and even crawling through trees that strove with each other to strangle the path.

Then the path opened abruptly into another clearing, at the center of which was a jumble of half-rotted vehicles, effortlessly dominated by a towering van. The van was big, tall and very ugly, with an extra meter of height and vaguely ghoulish look added by the upper hull of a smaller van welded into the roof. Beside it were a car and a trailer that appeared to have been improvised from two cars cut in half. Also in evidence were the debris that would be expected from a troupe of performers: prop weapons, including a bent rapier; rags that had clearly been colorful costumes; and an assortment of collapsible wooden boxes. The side of the van still bore a forlornly festive legend CIRCU I BUKOVAR.

“Is this the circus?” Djani said.

“There is no circus anymore,” Besnik said. “That’s why these are here. But it means a place where we can spend the night.”

“Maybe we’ll see clowns!” Djani said cheerfully.

“No circus,” Besnik said firmly, “no clowns.” He yanked open the door of the big van, took a good look inside and sighed. “Uncle Adrian and Cousin Belos were supposed to meet us here. I need to have a look around, in case they’re lost, or anything happened to them… or anybody else is coming. You have to wait here. Be quiet, and if anyone comes before I’m back, get in the van.”

Besnik hustled off. Djani waved good bye, and sat down smiling. He had so hoped that he might see another clown…

It could have been minutes, or hours, before he knew someone was coming. It wasn’t someone he saw, or heard, but he knew just the same, and the Folk would not have remained the Folk so long if they had not learned to act upon such intuitions. Djani darted into the van, and only then was there a sound: an almost ethereal droning, clearly from an instrument, but perhaps not exactly music. There was a hint of motion within behind a window as Djani looked out, into the deeper woods.

Even this little way in, the trees were old and big, and the spaces between them wide and dim. The first sign of motion was ivory white flashing briefly in a sunbeam. Then a patch of light on the forest floor briefly lit up a figure, clad in white and deep scarlet, and even as the newcomer darted into deeper darkness, the form only became clearer, the silhouette of a man with a nose like the beak of a bird and great ram’s horns curving out from his head. Already, Djani was stepping out of the van, smiling and waving, to greet a man in the lavish and unblemished costume of clown as he stepped out of the heart of the woods.

David N. Brown

Mesa Arizona

One Shot Week, Part 2: Cassandra

Posted in films, Forteana, Mythology, one-shot with tags , , , , , on March 12, 2013 by David N. Brown

For the second installment of One-Shot Week, here’s a particularly special one-shot.  It started out as a one-off companion piece to a fan novel then in progress, The Rookie.  It was intended as a thoughtful spin on the source backstory, time travel and the apocalypse. Then I incorporated the vignette into the story that became Cyborg Vs. EXOTROOPERS!, the second in the series and the one that really set it up as a franchise in its own right. I also included the short and the full-length story in a collection I currently have available in print as Night of the Yahoo And Other Stories.  Here’s a different version than has appeared elsewhere: A chunk of material from the original that connects directly to the Exotroopers story, but I have included a little additional material from the completed story, which added a philosophical note and seems to confuse people marginally less.  I have always had a soft spot for the original “punchline”, an inside joke about a religious/ pop culture phenomenon that doesn’t seem quite so funny now.

“You’re not officially cleared to see this yet,” said the lieutenant. “But off the record, it’s a tradition to let every new guy in on what’s housed here. There have been leaks over the years. One of the better ones actually inspired a motion picture franchise decades ago. But, we’re confident none have come from our staff.”

“I’ve already heard some of the leaks,” said the corporal. “It was a crazy story about a flying saucer captured from the Nazis, which they built with either help from aliens or from psychic communications with a super race in the future.”

The lieutenant laughed. “That one’s been kicking around for almost a hundred years. Surrendering Nazis did turn over a few specimens, but there wasn’t anything like a vehicle or weapon among them. And the Third Reich certainly didn’t build them.”

He entered a code, and a door worthy of a bank fault opened.

Inside was a corridor, lined with strange objects. Some looked like pieces of human bodies, some like circuitry, and most like strange combinations thereof. The corporal looked curiously at a severed head whose eyes followed them as they walked. He hastened at the sight of a hand whose fingers wiggled at his approach. Thin circuitry was momentarily visible in the pink tubing that protruded from the wrist.

“We know of 213 of these things, and have physical remains of 57,” said the lieutenant. “Almost all appeared between 1928 and 2000. We don’t know if that’s because that period was of special importance, or just because that’s when people with the means to stop them were looking for them. There’s no serious doubt that they come from the future- or, to put it more accurately, futures.

“Where we can identify a time and place of arrival, witnesses consistently report meteors, ball lightning or `UFOs’- presumably how the alien stories got started. Where we can investigate an undisturbed scene, we find fires and tektites- sand fused into glass by lightning- and sometimes a dish-shaped depression. Once, we found the remains of something like a spherical cage, capable of holding someone in a fetal position. The working components self-destructed, probably as soon as the occupant exited. We don’t think it would have worked in any event; whatever technology is involved seems to require a much larger apparatus that remains in the time of origin, which is what the people actually trying to build a time machine are talking about. We thus refer to our specimens as castaways.

“As far as we can tell, they all arrive naked and unarmed. It was thought at one time that only living tissue, or an object encased in living tissue, could be temporally displaced. That was disproved decades ago. Our best guess at this point is that it’s a matter of blending in. It appears that the senders have poor control over the exact time and place of arrival, and may have limited information about the past in any event. Under the circumstances, being seen in nothing at all would raise less suspicion than wearing clothes from the wrong time period. As for technology, no weapon has ever been built that doesn’t need spare parts or ammo sooner or later, and there’s no reason to think those of the future are any different.”

The corporal’s eyes widened. “If we had this, before 1950… How much technology has been developed from these machines?”

The lieutenant scowled. “Nothing of importance. The need for security limits how often we can bring in qualified specialists to examine the specimens, and when we do, it never does any good. The first of them is supposed to have said, `We don’t have the tools to make the tools.’ What we have learned since is that it would be more accurate to say that we don’t have the materials to make the tools to make the materials.’ The only times they have helped is when they recognized something they had just worked out for themselves.”

He walked back to the severed head. “The main reason we give these tours is to keep anyone from being taken offguard by something like this. There are three specimens here which are sufficiently functional to communicate with us. What is remarkable is that they, along every single other castaway known to have communicated intelligibly, all say something like this.” He looked down at the head. Its eyes rose to look at him. “Specimen 23, meet Cpl. Johnson. Why don’t you tell him what you told the rest of us about Judgement Day.”

“A third of humanity will die, and two-thirds of the ground will be uninhabitable for seven generations times seven,” the head spoke in a sibilant tone. “Fires will make the nights as bright as day, and smoke will make the day as dark as night. Then a new city will descend to the Earth, and all men will come to worship their king, or be destroyed…”

The lieutenant said, kindly but condescendingly: “And when will Judgement Day occur?”

“September 11,” said the head, “1988.”

“The way we figure, a castaway begins changing the shape of history as soon as it arrives,” said the lieutenant. “By the time one gets a chance to kill its victim, things are so different that its mission is no longer important. And whatever it thinks will happen, what did happen in the timeline it came from, is certain not to happen. Remember that, and you will be fine.”

The corporal frowned. “But, if they all speak of judgment day, no matter how different their histories are… might that mean it’s inevitable, in any history? Or that it keeps happening because no one believes it will?”

“Well, I figure, if it’s already failed to happen hundreds of times over, then the odds are it never will.” As the door closed, the lieutenant turned to the corporal, who would one day be a lieutenant who gave the same tour to another corporal, and concluded, “Besides- if it is inevitable, what are we going to do about it?”

The Phantom Clown’s Kin Part 2

Posted in Forteana with tags , , , on February 4, 2013 by David N. Brown

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the circus, here’s the long-overdue second part of my study of the roots of the Fortean “phantom clown” phenomenon! The last installment featured five cultural precursors to the clowns we know and love to hate, and their parallels to descriptions of “phantom clowns”. Now, we will be looking at several cases from Fortean literature of curious characters that just might be pieces of the puzzle of the “phantom clown”.


“Bunny Man”

Widely known as an “urban legend”, this is actually a well-substantiated case of crimes committed by suspect fitting the “phantom clown” description. (Loren Coleman’s definitive account of phantom clowns in Mysterious America includes two sightings of a “rabbit”!) Probably the best account is Bunny Man Unmasked, by Brian Conley. The basic facts are that in Fairfax County, Virginia in October 1970, police investigated two separate reports of crimes by an individual reportedly armed with an ax and wearing a… bunny suit. At least, this was the consensus of witnesses: One (at this point the trail is frustrated by a dead wikipedia link on top of the gap in police reports) is said to have compared his head garb to a Ku Klux Klan hood. In the first incident, he made a nighttime attack on a parked but occupied car with a hatchet, and shouted at the occupants. In the second, he exchanged words with a security guard who found him chopping at the support of a newly-built house. On both occasions, he shouted at the victims, whom he accused of invading his property. News and police reports indicate ample evidence, including a recovered hatchet and an anonymous message by an individual who claimed responsibility and, like the subject, made accusations of trespassing and abuse. The case was clearly taken quite seriously by police, more than might be expected for what amounted, apart from the bizarre costume and belligerent behavior of the suspect, to simple vandalism. However, no further incidents were reported, no suspect was caught or identified, and the investigation was quickly closed. Per Conley, the recorded investigation ended with a March 1971 summation that included a potentially poignant comment for Forteans: “The only people who have seen this so-called white rabbit have been (the security guard and) children of rather young ages.”


Bunny Man entered Forteana no later than 1977, when he was mentioned in Daniel Cohen’s Giants, Monsters and Little Men From Mars (where I first heard of him), and is surely one of the least mysterious figures in the lore. By absolutely all indications, he was exactly what he appeared to be: a mentally-disturbed vandal or vigilante who happened to make a very (um…) odd choice of disguise. However, there is at least a whiff of the anomalous in the witnesses’ descriptions: In addition to possible disagreement in descriptions of the costume, no witness could describe his face or identify his race, even though all reported that the face was uncovered, and the security guard in the second gave a precise description of his height and weight. Even this undoubtedly has prosaic explanations, for example the psychological phenomenon of “face blindness”. It might not make this case any less prosaic, but it presents a useful lesson on the role of individual perception that can be usefully applied for truly mysterious cases. It can, indeed, be considered as a possible factor in the one intrusion of the truly paranormal into the story, the supposed haunting of a landmark bridge in the “urban legend” cycle: This just might be a case of a sighted apparition being saddled with a clearly apocryphal “backstory”.


Springheel Jack

This is the most famous if not definitive case of a Fortean “phantom attacker”, and noted for parallels to “phantom clowns”. To recount the most basic facts very briefly, this entity was sighted many times in 19th-century London. Witnesses consistently described him as human in appearance but in bizarre dress and displaying extraordinary if not superhuman abilities, especially to make leaps. Many contemporary accounts assume him to be an otherwise ordinary prankster or deviant, and there is some evidence (including a report of an arrest) of prosaic criminals imitating his appearance. The “real” Jack, however, was clearly something else entirely. In particular, the belief that his characteristic leaps could have been produced by footgear with springs was clearly erroneous: The Nazis built such a thing, with superior technology and the less ambitious aim of absorbing impacts in parachute jumps, and discovered that users frequently suffered broken ankles. The further facts of sightings over a period of decades, several reports of being shot at to no effect, and occasional “high strangeness” such as breathing fire clearly preclude identification as a conventional human being.


One of the less-discussed aspects of Springheel Jack is his costume, and it is this that offers the most telling parallels to phantom clowns. Reasonably consistent descriptions indicate a tight-fitting costume of smooth or shiny material, colored white, black, or combinations thereof, with a cape and helmet. (A widely-quoted report compared the material to “white oilskin”, which was oil-covered canvas and other heavy fabric used historically in rain gear.) This corresponds with features of the costumes of harlequins and other historic precursors of the modern clown, including the use of black and white, which in turn have surfaced with some frequency as “anomalous” details of “phantom clown” costumes. Of course, harlequins were also known for acrobatics, and superhuman jumps are a not-uncommon feature of “phantom attacker” accounts. Then there is the helmet. It appears that this part of Jack’s garb was taken as resembling a contemporary police “custodian helmet”. (The same account cited above quotes Jack as announcing “We have caught Springheel Jack!”) However, this helmet had significant similarities to headgear used by the priesthood, particularly a form of the koukoulion used in Eastern Orthodox churches Thus, not for the first time, the costume of a “phantom clown” apparition shows a kinship to priestly vestments!


Lawton “Man In Plaid”

This is one of my favorites from the Fortean body of “hairy biped” reports, and direct inspiration for a character in my novel Coulrophobia. As recounted in Creatures of the Outer Edge (1978) by Coleman and Jerome Clarke, in 1971 a number of residents of Lawton, Oklahoma reported what they took to be a mentally-disturbed and very hirsute male roaming the area, and two witnesses reported seeing him outside their residences. These “close encounter” witnesses gave detailed and impressively consistent descriptions: Both described him as wearing dark-colored pants, which one described as “cut or torn off at the knees”. The other witness simply characterized the pants as “way too little”, and also reported a “plaid jacket”. Their accounts agreed even more closely on the bearing and demeanor of the subject. Both reported a slouching posture explicitly compared to an ape, and vivid impressions of fear and disorientation on the prowler’s part, eg. “a glazed expression, as if he didn’t quite understand where he was.” Other cases of Bigfoot-like entities said to be wearing clothes are known, and John Keel took special interest in documenting an impressive body of reports of entities said to wear checkered clothing.


The Lawton case is briefly mentioned in the “Hairy Biped” entry of Clarke’s Unexplained! (1993), as an example an “HB” which is “apparently… disheveled, bearded, deranged but entirely human”. The detailed account in Creatures, however, presents strong hints of the truly paranormal. In particular, both witnesses reported that the entity departed with dramatic leaps: One estimated that the “entity” dropped 15 feet to the ground from the balcony of a second-story apartment without apparent injury. The other recounted that the “man in plaid” leaped 12 feet horizontally over a dry backyard pond, and then promptly ran away with impressive speed. In summary, we have several common elements of “phantom clown” and/or “phantom attacker” accounts: Evidently human appearance, with strange expression and posture; tight-fitting clothing, including a shirt made of patterned material; and the ability to make unusual if not superhuman jumps.


“Leaping Rustlers”

As noted, John Keel is well-known for bringing “entities in plaid” to notoriety. In his famous and unnerving The Mothman Prophecies (1975), the bedroom invaders in checkered shirts share the stage with many more “phantom” entities. An account I find especially interesting for the purposes of this essay closes chapter 10 of the book. Keel reports at some length the ordeal of a UFO witness who also reported problems with “cattle rustlers” at her farm. She blamed a number of deaths and mutilations of her cattle on intruders wearing “white coveralls” which made them highly visible even at night. She claimed to have seen and pursued the intruders on many occasions, and in the process witnessed them “leap over high fences from standing starts”. She further recounted a “bedroom intruder” style incursion in which she awoke and found herself paralyzed as an an intruder appeared to enter her kitchen through a locked door, cross the room and leave through another door that had been locked. (Seeing an entity and experiencing paralysis on waking is considered a “flag” for a form of hallucination, sometimes called the “Old Hag” from folkloric interpretations.) Keel reported finding on his own further investigation that the intruder’s “exit” led only to a ten-foot-drop.


This story presents a case of entities bearing a fair resemblance to “phantom clowns” (also quite strikingly to “Springheel Jack”) being blamed for cattle mutilation and other supposedly mysterious animal deaths and disappearances, an association already widely reported with other Fortean phenomena such as UFOs and cryptids. Unfortunately, this is an area where Forteans have fared poorly against skeptical investigators, especially on the causes of supposed “mutilation” of carcasses. It is worth saying that animals certainly can die in unusual numbers from causes not readily apparent, and that even basically explainable cases can be subject to unidentified factors: For example, cases of “red tide” poisoning would have been completely mysterious historically, and scientists still debate why the toxic algae responsible “bloom” in specific times and places. More importantly, the association of reports of paranormal phenomena with the death or disappearances of animals is much too strong to discount as “unreal” or insignificant. In other words, even if Fortean phenomena do not in any sense “cause” animals to die in large numbers, it would still appear very much as if one “follows” the other.


“The Hat Man”

This last example came to my attention through Deena West Budd’s charming Weiser Field Guide to Cryptozoology (2010), which mentions “The Hat Man” in a chapter dedicated to entities called “shadow people”. Budd describes shadow people as “sometimes humanoid in form but without defined features… Many times (they) appear as two-dimensional or diaphanous.” “The Hat Man” in particular appears to wear a “fedora”, and is said to be more “clearly defined” than others of his kind. Encounters are described as extending from brief glimpses to being pursued or attacked (Budd specifically mentions sexual assaults).


Budd characterizes “shadow people” as “relatively new”, at least to Fortean terminology..In the author’s opinion, they present strong parallels to much older accounts, including Medieval folklore of witches, vampires and fairies. Mere “sightings” of shadow people are easily accounted for as hallucinatory or truly spectral. It seems likely that the “Old Hag” hallucination is at work here. (Repressed memory presents itself as a further and especially alarming possibility.) But there would appear to be just enough here to place these entities in the category of truly problematic “phantom attackers”. It doesn’t hurt that the “Hat Man” in particular converges strikingly with many such shadowy, suited and evidently not-quite unreal entities, including mime-like variants of the “phantom clown”. Finally, these entities offer potential support for a widely-expressed suspicion that Fortean entities are in some sense “shape shifters”: In the framework of this hypothesis, a “shadow person” is intelligible as the initial or even “authentic” manifestation of the same beings or phenomena which appear in “complete” form as more classifiable Fortean entities.


There you have it, a representative sample of Fortean kin to the “phantom clown”! What are they? I don’t know, but I do know I would not care to meet them.


The Phantom Clown’s Kin Part 1

Posted in Forteana with tags , , , , , on October 5, 2012 by David N. Brown

Greetings readers, aka innocent bystanders! So, it’s been a little while, and now I’m back with more about “phantom clowns”. Having previously provided a casual survey of what blogosphere scholarship there is on the “phantom clown” phenomenon, I felt like it’s time to try to make some of my own contributions. I have decided that it would be especially valuable to look at the possible “roots” of the phantom clown phenomenon. This will be done as a survey of two parts. The first part will be covering, not Fortean phenomena, but the cultural and anthropological background of the figure of the clown. Hopefully, this will provide an armchair scholarly insight into the evolution of the clowning costume and profession, and it just might give us a clue why the same cultural archetype would be recapitulated in the curious taxonomy of Fortean entities. So, without further ado, here’s a rogues’ gallery of clowns and other costumed rogues you would definitely not want at your kid’s birthday party…


The native American figure of Kokopelli has become a familiar part of popular culture, especially in the southwest. According to the native mythology, Kokopelli is a being who brings fertility to the land, including human babies he is said to carry in a hump on his back (characteristically omitted from pop culture representations). He also has a darker side, as a mischief maker and even a tempter who may entice people to break the moral laws of their tribe. He may even have served as a representation of death: Given that many native tribes believe in some form of reincarnation, his role as bringer of the unborn may be inferred to extend to traffic in the other direction! Due to this complex background, many native Americans have stated in no uncertain terms that they are not comfortable with the way in which Kokopelli’s image has been used. So, one may ask, what does a fertility spirit have to do with clowns. Because, I am going to go out on a limb and present a theory, that Kokopelli is the foundation of one of the strangest traditions of clowning, the “pueblo clowns”.

Multiple lines of evidence point to this connection: First, kachina costumes said to represent Kokopelli are dominated by uncharacteristically somber black and white, the same colors used in the costumes of those weird clowns. Second and even more tellingly, typical representations of Kokopelli show a headdress which, allowing for stylization and perspective, corresponds with a forked headdress which is characteristic of a pueblo clown costume. (This also provides convincing evidence for the antiquity of the clown tradition and costume, and makes it all the more interesting that the headdress is very similar to that of the familiar European clown/jester.) Finally and most strikingly, the ceremonial activities of the clowns match very well with the attributes of Kokopelli: Whatever the tribe considers appropriate, decent, or just plain common sense, the clowns willfully, outrageously and grotesquely reversed. By the Indians’ accounts, these antics are supposed to show the folly of taboo-breaking and the wisdom and virtue of the kachina spirits embodied by other performers. But it is rather hard not to suspect a more complex symbolic conflict, in which the clowns, like Kokopelli, represent a necessary but volatile part of the forces of nature.

The Harlequin

The tradition of the clown can unquestionably be traced to that of the Medieval jester/ fool, as evidenced particularly by the recurring use of the forked or multilobed headdress. (This is as good a point as any to mention a little pet theory of mine, that the murky word “coulrophobia” might be derived from “cowl”, variously meaning a hood, mask or hooded robe, which could broadly apply to this traditional headdress.) In the intervening centuries, the broad tradition can be seen to go through many variations, of which the most famous is the “Harlequins” introduced in the Renaissance. The harlequin is especially significant as evidence of a transition in the style of performance: Where a jester could literally rely on jests, the harlequins were very physical. This opened up the possibilities of “slapstick”, but also for displays of genuine athletic prowess, especially through acrobatics and even staged heroics. The harlequins also marked a significant transition in costume: While the harlequins’ characteristically colorful costumes were definitely in continuity with that of the earlier fool, the telltale headdress was often if not characteristically absent. Also, in the earliest accounts and actual visual representations, the harlequins wore masks. Later use of face paint and artificial noses by harlequins and clowns can be regarded as an evolution of the mask, probably influenced in no small part by simple cost-cutting. But then, there is the kicker: In the harlequins’ combination of physical prowess, colorful costume, and mask, we surely have the archetype of the comic-book superhero!

“The Plague Doctor

Up to at least the 19th century, European clown costumes formed a recognizable continuity. But the fool may not be the only Medieval precursor of the later clown suit. Through the Medieval period, doctors were evidently in the habit of wearing masks, on the theory that it would protect them from the plague. (Given the dismal state of their medicine, there may have been more value in protecting them from reprisals.) The most familiar example is a costume featuring a birdlike mask. Unfortunately, this costume was evidently invented by one Charles Delorme in or around 1619, leaving it uncertain if not entirely doubtful whether anything like it was actually fielded in the Middle Ages. In my opinion, the form of the mask does strongly suggest that Delorme’s “invention” was only an evolution of something older. Spectacle markings around the eyepieces point to a decorative or ceremonial aspect of the costume, which may have been purposefully minimized in the ostensibly enlightened seventeenth century. One might well take note at this point that the harlequins also wore masks, and that these masks often featured long noses. Then there is that bizarre bird’s beak, which calls to mind nothing so much as a shamanistic priest’s costume- and, as we have seen with the pueblo clowns, there is a connection between clowning and animistic religion that must run very deep.

Baron Samedi

Often, it is tricky to separate artistry from authentic history, and this is especially egregious for anything to do with the Afro-Carribean religions. Still, this is one example too good to pass up. Baron Samedi is an unquestionably authentic figure of Haitian vodou, who had the debatable distinction of being immortalized as a character in the James Bond film Live and Let Die. As represented by self-identifying vodou practitioners (see for example a contemporary altar doll), Samedi appears as a figure in a dark suit and top hat, with a face that is either white, or an actual skull. As immortalized by Geoffrey Holder in the Bond movie, Baron Samedi is a witch doctor who appears in his biggest scene in a dark suit with top hat and white face paint in the form of a stylized skull. While the film offers no pretense of attention to authenticity, the scenes with Baron Samedi are surprisingly convincing from an anthropological standpoint. And it is surely of at least passing interest that the central figure of Baron Samedi could be a dead ringer for a subset of phantom clown reports involving dark clothing, such as the egregious “leaping mime” incident!

The Pied Piper

One would be hard-pressed to find a treatment of the phantom clown phenomenon that does not mention this ultimate cultural archetype. Per the lore, the Pied Piper of Hamelin was a strangely-clad traveler who used the power of his pipes to rid a town of rodents, then, on being refused payment, rid the town of children too. Any nucleus of documented fact is bound up in two rather cryptic manuscripts. First, a single passage from Hamelin’s records dated 1384 states, “It is one hundred years since our children left.” Second, according to another manuscript written in ca. 1450, on June 26, 1284, a “piper” with clothing of “many colors” “seduced” 130 children from Hamelin, who were than “lost” at a “place of execution”. The church of Hamelin is supposed to have had a stained-glass window representing the Pied Piper. Unfortunately, the window was destroyed in 1660.

Much ink has been spilled trying to construct some real historical event out of this. In the cold light of day, all they have really shown is that there is very little chance that there is any such foundation to be found. The two manuscripts point to one of two prosaic scenarios: Either a number of the town’s residents emigrated to settle another area, possibly against their will, or there was an uprising against clerical and/or political authorities which likely ended in a massacre by said authorities. (I consider the fact that the 15th-century manuscript lends itself to the latter interpretation the one particularly good reason to take it seriously.) As for the stained glass window, granting that it existed at one time, it’s entirely possible that its supposed connection with the legend is simply an interpretation imposed upon a pre-existing, likely symbolic work of art. In summary, if anything happened in the village of Hamelin on or around June 1284, the story passed down about it is nothing but a red herring. Yet, saying as much will bring us no closer to solving what is, from the folklorists’ perspective, the central problem simply, why the legend as we have it took the form it has.

That brings us to the best visual artifact we have, a 1592 painting representing the Pied Piper and an intelligible outline of the legend. It has been speculated that it was based upon the lost window, but if this was the case, there were almost certainly major interpolations, including what appears to be the drowning of the rats. But at least two elements invite serious attention. First, there is the subtly odd foreground figure of the piper. The most striking thing about the figure, and the strongest hint of some deeper archetype, is the that the costume is actually surprisingly plain. The colors are red, green, yellow and white, and the pattern is simple vertical stripes, which in comparison to the harlequins that would have been contemporary with the painter is simple and even subdued. The face is pale, and may be painted. Then there is the hat, another subtly strange detail. It looks very different from any well-known Renaissance or Medieval headgear, being exaggerated in comparison to the utilitarian hats of the peasantry, but far less elaborate than typical specimens from the aristocracy. Curiously, the closest counterparts to the design are mitres worn by priests!

Then there is the most prominent background image, clearly representing the legend’s climax in which the piper leads the children into a mysterious door or cavern in the side of a hill. And what is it with that hill?? Actually, it’s reasonably consistent with a real model: the tumulus burial mounds that dot many parts of the world. Several are known to exist in the same region as Hamelin, Lower Saxony. This association would reinforce the theory that the Piper is an allegorical representation of death. On the other hand, it should readily come to the Fortean’s mind that ancient mounds have frequently been correlated with virtually all forms of paranormal phenomena. Might it not be just conceivable that the “real” Pied Piper was such an apparition?

Phantom clowns as atavisms

I propose, from these examples, a significant conclusion about phantom clowns: Whatever they may be, a significant part of what they represent is a recapitulation of different phases in the cultural evolution that led to what we know as the clown. A number of recurring features in “phantom clown” reports become intelligible in these terms:

  1. Dark or black and white clothing.
  2. Plain white or “blackface” makeup.
  3. Displays of unusual if not superhuman acrobatic ability.
  4. Relatively traditional or archaic clown costumes, as indicated by use of headdresses and especially masks, with parallels to ancient priestly garments.
  5. Appearances in abandoned, neglected or unpopulated areas, including woodlands.

The next logical step is to consider, where else do we see these features in the gallery of Fortean entities? That will have to wait for next time…

David N. Brown

Mesa, Arizona

Bibliography and further reading

Clowns and Tricksters: An Encyclopedia of Tradition and Culture.   Kimberly A. Christen and Sam Gill (eds).

Reincarnation Beliefs of Native American Tribes.” Gary R. Varner.

“Jester: A Fool and His Clothing.”

“Hamelin’s Children”  Mike Culpepper.

King Clown

Posted in Forteana with tags , , , , , on September 24, 2012 by David N. Brown

Here’s another entry on “phantom clowns” and my project on same.  First off, here’s a concept sketch of the “leader” of the phantom clown circus:

The face and headdress are pretty much as they have always been envisioned, and previously sketched.  The horizontal stripes are a new decision, influenced in part by review of Hopi Pueblo clowns which were considered as models when I first thought of this project.

Also, here’s a little bibliography of online articles on “phantom clowns”:

Phantom Clowns Are Back!

A 2008 piece by Loren Coleman, probably the first writer to bring the phenomenon to people’s attention.

Those Elusive Phantom Clowns

A brutal critique of a “skeptical” article on phantom clowns published by Fortean Times, which also offers a good deal of information and further observations and analysis.  Unfortunately, this insightful author doesn’t seem to have followed up with any further content at the blog.

Phantom Clowns, Bogus Social Workers and Men in Black

A mix of Fortean and pop culture material, including some details on another phenomenon, the “phantom social worker”.

The Anomaly Wore Plaid

An interesting piece on one of the more obscure Fortean memes, mysterious characters wearing “checkered” clothing.  I have personally contemplated subtle parallels between the appearance of these entities and a clown costume.

Phantoms, Daemons and Finders

This could be considered “off the deep end” even for “phantom clown” studies, but still insightful.  Of most interest, the author places particular emphasis on parallels between “clown flaps” and the much higher-profile  “Satanic panic”  abuse allegations of the 1980s, in the process taking the very lonely view that the latter should be regarded as at least possibly something more than mass hysteria and urban legends.

David N. Brown

Mesa, Arizona

The faces of evil clowns

Posted in Forteana with tags , , , , , on September 6, 2012 by David N. Brown

As the next installment in covering my “phantom clown” sketches, here’s a couple concept sketches.

I consider this the best of my sketches.  It’s patterned after  a 19th-century German “peasant”.  The face paint is meant to be flesh tones, which have been used historically by clowns.  In the story, there are an indeterminate number of these guys, indistinguishable from each other and acting as helpers to a smaller number of clowns who each have their own costumes.  What I like about this design is that the costume is just “normal” enough that they could stand on the street without attracting immediate attention… sort of an “undercover” clown.

Now this sketch got very favorable responses from those who have seen it.  He’s called the Puppeteer, and I still haven’t decided how much he should be featured in the story.  The costume is actually modelled on garb worn by Medieval and Renaissance physicians.  An underlying idea in my story is that there is a connection between clowns and the costumed priesthoods of the ancient pagan times.  The Medieval “bird mask” presented an especially striking illustration of the idea.

David N. Brown

Mesa, Arizona