Book review: The Unidentified, by Colin Dickey
Belief in fringe topics like Atlantis, or cryptids (Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and other associated “hidden” animals), or UFOs, or ancient aliens—has risen drastically in the last few years…We are, in other words, experiencing a time of resurgence of fringe beliefs, when ideas mostly dismissed by science are being embraced and are spreading throughout popular culture.
Colin Dickey’s last book, 2017’s Ghostland, is a favorite of mine. In it, Dickey, a cultural historian, explored the history of various “haunted” American locales and meticulously replaced myth with historical fact and cultural context to explain why these ghost stories exist and have such staying power.
In his new book, The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained, Dickey applies the same techniques of rigorous journalistic research and a skeptic’s curiosity and drive for logic and reason to the topic of cryptids and “unexplained” paranormal tales. Spoiler alert: they’re explainable. So with that out of the way:
Why the need to go poking in about the trees and underbrush, looking for unseen creatures? What drives us to populate the forests and lakes and deserts of the world with thunderbirds and the chupacabra, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster?
Dickey’s engrossing storytelling focuses more on this psychology rather than disproving each of the incidents or phenomena covered here on a granular, point-by-point level. Although he does do that as well. The more interesting question is why we’ve invested so heavily in these stories in the first place, and why we cling to them steadfastly even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
It’s much more telling, although perhaps to many less interesting and exciting, that “the hunt for the Yeti was inescapably tied to Cold War politics” and had geopolitical implications far more complex than the myth of the creature itself. Or the many connections to Native American lore, appropriated by white colonizers. There are a lot of answers to be found in parsing the history around the stories — sometimes surprising ones. As Dickey writes, “history is like a lake in Scotland: it’s always a bit murkier than you expect.”
And although he’s ruthless in how thoroughly he tracks these myths to their all-too-real and worldly origins and leaves little room for argument in favor of the paranormal, he’s also never sneering, arrogant, or derisive. He shows a lot of sympathy and understanding for why these stories held enduring importance for people, and he gently explores the breadth of reasons behind that — some emotional, and many rooted in a range of social considerations.
There has been a feeling among some segment of the population—one that’s not small and is actively growing—that this scientific disenchanting has cost us something, and they turn to fringe beliefs because it is in Atlantis and Bigfoot and little green men from outer space that they find the world once again reenchanted.
Among other stories, creatures, and incidents, Dickey covers Mount Shasta, said to be the home of the survivors of the lost continent of Lemuria, the Jersey Devil, the Gloucester sea serpent, cattle mutilations (something I really thought didn’t have an explanation but it’s such a mundane one), the Kentucky Meat Shower (a shame I’ve lived so long and am only learning of this now), and several cases of alleged alien abduction, including the infamous ones of Betty and Barney Hill in New Hampshire in 1961 and the 1975 incident of forester Travis Walton (of Fire in the Sky fame).
I feel like I should mention in a full disclosure sort of way that although I don’t believe in any of the other cryptids or phenomena explored here I do believe in aliens, but to borrow perfect wording from BuzzFeed Unsolved, in the most boring way possible. That is, I think they exist, but I don’t think nearly all of the things attributed to aliens, abductions, and high strangeness are true. For as much as they passionately look into such stories (Henry is after all a card-carrying Mutual UFO Network member) Last Podcast on the Left has done a lot of debunking in this area too, including that often the truth behind abduction stories is much sadder and uglier, i.e., molestation. But it also doesn’t surprise me that in the service of self-preservation, we come up with extreme explanations for things that certainly feel inexplicable.
And sometimes the explanations are rooted in issues that are even more universal and ubiquitous — race was a factor in the case of the Hills, an interracial couple first to identify the type of aliens now instantly recognizable as “grays,” and seemingly a “means of escaping the black-white dichotomies of American racial politics.” Walton and his forestry crew were failing to deliver work on time and concocting a fantastical story to explain the delay and cancel a contract is a lot less far-fetched than believing his tale of alien abduction.
Other explanations Dickey digs up include one of my personal favorites, a usual suspect found lurking behind many elements of hokum, conspiracy, and woo: “apophenia, the tendency to see shapes and patterns where none exist.” Or merely “the desire to be taken seriously,” a driving force he identifies similarly with cults; “cognitive dissonance,” which he writes provides “key insight into the nature and function of conspiracy theories and apocalyptic beliefs”; and an enduring romanticism connected to the unknowable vastness of both America and the wider world coupled with distrust of what we do know, i.e., people we find threatening for their supposed differences, superimposed onto the scary monsters of legend: “It is the story of the creature uncannily close to us, encroaching from the wilderness into our homes, battering on the door, threatening to come inside.”
And what I love about Dickey’s writing is how he exposes simple truths that are so basic we almost don’t want to hear them — the dullness of the Occam’s razor principle ruining the magic of wonder — but they end up explaining so much. You could apply this to whatever headline-grabbing conspiracy is making the rounds, be it Wayfair child trafficking, the coronavirus “hoax” for government control, or whatever QAnon is stirring up this week: “One of the ways conspiracies function is by taking the ordinary and suddenly devoting an inordinate amount of attention to it. Just as taking an ordinary word and repeating it endlessly will make it sound strange and foreign, so too will focusing intently on the mundane often make it feel sinister, haunted, conspicuous.” This book certainly comes at an appropriate cultural and sociopolitical moment.
I’m drawn back to those stories that consistently resist an easy and final explanation. If you believe that this world is truly bereft of wonder, then there are countless events that will challenge those beliefs, things not easily explained, things weird and wild that hover all around us.
It is a bit of a bummer to have someone poke holes in your balloon if you do believe in these things and to lose that sense of wonder and element of mystery that Dickey references, but for those of us who insist on a rational, logical explanation, all the better when it’s thorough and contextually-grounded, this book is a wonder in and of itself.
Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained
by Colin Dickey
published July 21, 2020 by Viking
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.