Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Five Fingers of Fear

While feverishly assembling the shattered pieces of an ancient tablet, I drew ever closer to unlocking the secret of the Haunted Archipelago, but then the kitchen clock chimed and I realized that it was high time that I got to work on the newest entry in our wildly popular Monster of the Month series

They say a picture is worth a thousand worlds...well, this one is worth 1,003.

This 1963 films tells the heartwarming tale of a disembodied appendage of an astronaut; who is ripped to shreds when mission control presses the suicide switch and detonates his capsule after he becomes stricken by an alien force. The mangled hand falls to Earth, where it is discovered by a teenager named Paul (who naturally decides to bring it home). Soon the hand is strangling people right and left, but what makes this mitt particularly malicious is its corrupting influence on the teenage mind. The hand exerts a strange control over the young Paul, causing him to develop dark rings under his eyes and avoid society. Soon Paul has taken up strangling too and the feds are hot on his heels.

It doesn't end well, and thanks to some comic-relief morgue attendants the Crawling Hands escapes to lure more gullible young Americans to their doom. So, be vigilante. Report suspicious hands.

Would you like to know more?
-Watch this trailer and soak up the hyperbole

Friday, February 24, 2012

Laughing to Death

Comets have long been the archetypal herald of the apocalypse, and Halley's Comet in particular has caused predictable hysteria every 75 years, but one visitation stands out from the others.

In 1910, as the comet drew close to Earth, astronomers at the Yerkes Observatory of Chicago announced that they had studied the comet's tail and discerned that cyanogen (oxalyl cyanide) gas was present. This discovery didn't receive much attention until an amateur chemist began propagating the idea that the cyanogen would react with the oxygen in the atmosphere as Earth passed through the comet's tail. The two gases would combine into nitrous oxide (colloquially known as laughing gas) and the world's population would die in fits of horrible, choking laughter.

Fear burned through Chicago and spread out into the rest of the nation. The Yerkes Observatory tried to dispel the doomsday rumors, but religious doomsayers brought up "Wormwood," a fallen star mentioned in Revelations that was prophesied to poison the Earth. This wasn't terribly helpful. In a desperate attempt to keep out the gas, people tried to seal shut their homes using tape and newspaper. Other panicked citizens bought crude gas-masks and phony "comet pills" from unsavory figures out to exploit the situation.  One Georgian man decided to lower himself to the bottom of a forty-foot well with a gallon of whiskey.

There were also those who decided to embrace the end of the world in style. By the time May rolled around and the comet became visible, numerous roof-top comet parties were held. One wonders if they were faintly disappointed when, inevitably, the world continued. The headline of that morning's Chicago Tribune was "We're Still Here!", needlessly alerting people to the fact that they were still alive. It seems the astronomers at Yerkes Observatory had the last laugh.

But don't take my word for it!
You can read about it in a book

Two Bombs for Two Kings

Second only to the classic, bolt-necked Frankenstein, King Kong has the most expansive pop-culture legacy of any movie monster. Even when the film was first released in 1933, it was clear that Kong was destined for an iconic status. It wouldn't be long before imitators and spin-offs started to crop up.

In fact, before the year was over, Japan had produced their very own Kong. Shochiku Studios had made a nice profit distributing King Kong in Japan and sought to replicate their success. Called Wasei Kingu Kongu (or literally "Japanese King Kong"), it was a short, silent movie that featured a giant ape on the rampage. The giant ape effect was achieved using a man in a costume and tiny model cities; a technique that would become the standard operating procedure for all the giant monster (or kaiju) films to follow.

Five years later, a different studio decided to try their own variation on the King Kong story, but they wanted it to be official. Zenshō Cinema approached RKO Pictures and received their permission to do a Kong film. The result was King Kong Appears in Edo (or "Edo ni Arawareta Kingu Kongu"), a period piece that featured a Kong-like beast attacking feudal Tokyo, warding away samurai, and running off with a geisha. 

Sadly, beyond these scraps of information, along with a poster and single photo, nothing more exists of Japanese King Kong and King Kong Appears in Edo. During World War II, the bulk of Japan's films were lost, and it is believed that all the prints were destroyed in the fiery nuclear blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The devastation wrought by the bombs that finished the two Kongs of Japan would ultimately inspire their successor. Sixteen years later, Japan produced a home-grown creature with Godzilla (or Gojira for the purists out there). The film drew heavily upon the dread of atomic warfare, and Godzilla's radioactive flame scorched Tokyo just like Hiroshima. 

But don't take my word for it!
You can read about it in a book.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Horse Sense

Beginning in 1927, thousands of curious people traveled to Stop 10, Petersburg Turnpike, Richmond, Virginia to visit Lady Wonder. Despite that she was unable to speak, Lady Wonder obediently provided answers to the astounded onlookers at the bargain price of fifty cents per question. But Lady Wonder was no mute gypsy mystic or mentalist act. She was a mare, descended from some prominent thoroughbred race-horses.

Owned and raised by one Mrs. C.D. Fonda, Lady Wonder communicated by manipulating alphabet blocks with her nose and stomping her hooves. She could seemingly identify distinct members of the crowd, do arithmetic, spell, and identify objects. No small achievement for a beast of burden, but Lady Wonder also went one step further with acts of clairvoyance.

She reportedly predicted Franklin Roosevelt's presidential victory, along with the correct outcomes of numerous races and boxing matches. On two occasions, the horse's advice was sought out for cases of missing children. One spectator described the show as nothing less than the "subconscious connection between the mind of man and the mind of an animal."

Many, however, were less credulous. One such person was professional magician Milbourne Christopher. Christopher had written several books on the subject of Extra-Sensory Perception and the occult, and had made it his mission to expose fraud and trickery. Milbourne studied Lady Wonder and found that the mare's miraculous abilities simply did not hold up to scrutiny. The horse was observing the unconscious body language of those in the crowd (especially the body language of her trainer Mrs. Fonda) and had no genuine comprehension of the questions asked of her. The predictions could easily be written off as mere coincidences.

As Lady Wonder's reputation was by this point firmly established, Christopher's conclusions had minimal impact on the horse's fame. Thanks to the endless novelty of a psychic horse, Lady Wonder continued to receive questions until 1955, finally dying two years afterwards.

Would you like to know more?
Read some old newspaper articles about Lady Wonder here
Or you can read about in a book!

Monday, February 06, 2012

Look Back in Angkor

The Ta Prohm temple of Cambodia is a popular destination in the ancient city of Angkor. Originally known as Rajavihara, the temple was constructed by the mighty Khmer empire during the twelfth century. After the empire crumbled, the jungle moved in and tightly embraced the temple. Tree roots and vines coil around the massive stone structure, and the seamless synthesis of architecture and nature is breathtaking.

Once a center of Buddhist meditation and education, the temple has numerous bas-reliefs depicting dancing spirits, monks in prayer, temple guards, and (naturally) Buddha. One distinct carving has an anomalous subject matter that has garnered great interest in recent years.

Now what would you say that this looks like?

If you said that it resembled a dinosaur (specifically a stegosaurus) then you're not alone. We've all been there; especially the adherents of a movement known as Young Earth Creationism. After cherry-picking ambiguous and esoteric quotes from the Bible, these folks became convinced that man and dinosaurs rubbed elbows only a few thousand years ago. The carving (along with other archaeological oddities) is frequently heralded by the group as a confirmation of their belief. Apparently the stegosaurus, along with the rest of the thunder-lizards, lounged around in Eden before ultimately drowning in the Great Flood.

Another triumph of rational thinking.

Putting aside that theory for obvious reasons, the question remains: what does this carving depict? Some have said that the creature is meant to be a bull or boar wading in front of some large tropical leaves. Others have postulated that it's a bad likeness of a chameleon. A third group believes the carving is modern day vandalism, but it does appear to be neatly integrated into the surrounding tableau. Barring some kind of invasive investigation, no one can know for certain. We actually prefer it that way. Some mysteries are more fun when left unsolved.

Would you like to know more?
-Read this article from the Smithsonian Institution
-Read this article from Skeptoid