Robert Damon Schneck is, in my view, today’s most literate and discriminating historian of Fortean phenomena. By “Fortean” I am referring to the legendary historian of the weird Charles Fort (1874-1932), who taught us to take a second look at claims of strange airships, marauding monsters, and frogs falling from the sky.
Schneck’s career in the shadow regions is about to receive the luminescence of the public spotlight. This October Dimension Films releases its Halloween horror flick The Bye Bye Man, based on a true story from Schneck’s cult classic of twisted history, The President’s Vampire. The Bye Bye Man recounts what happened in the winter of 1990 when a group of bored Wisconsin grad students began playing around with a Ouija Board. Let’s just say things went badly. Very, very badly.
On Thursday, February 25th, I am hosting Schneck for an evening dialogue at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum – the first in my new series of monthly dialogues with masters of the strange, called Morbid ACADEMY.
Below are five questions for the man who dares venture where angels fear to tread…
- What’s the truly weirdest thing you’ve ever investigated?
I can’t pick a “truly weirdest,” but one of my favorites involved a young man who discovered a chemical that brought the dead back to life and restored the body, no matter what its condition. Then he built a machine with spring-driven knives and axes, climbed inside, and was torn apart. A note instructed those who found his remains to sprinkle the pieces with his resurrecting agent, but it wasn’t done, or didn’t work. The story turned out to be a newspaper hoax, but the young man was real, and died of consumption several years later.
- Have you ever been burned by a hoaxer or an unreliable source?
The ringmaster of a flea circus lied to me, claiming to use genuine fleas, when his performances actually involved magic tricks. I was taken in and am embarrassed to say that I repeated his claim in print. When it comes to the strange-but-true, however, hoaxes don’t bother me. Trying to figure out, “Why was this claim made?” or, more importantly, “Why was it believed?” can reveal a great deal about the time and place. People who get angry at hoaxers are under the delusion that their favorite mystery is going to be solved someday, or that the reputation of their “field” has been sullied.
- What person or book has been the biggest influence on your work in the last five years?
I Fought the Apemen of Mt. St. Helens, a 22-page, booklet self-published by Fred and Raymond Beck in 1967. I Fought the Apemen concerns a group of miners who were driven from their mountain cabin by hairy giants in 1924, a story that became a local legend and led to the site being named “Ape Canyon.” The Becks cover all this in a few pages, with most of the work dedicated to the authors’ mystical beliefs, Fred’s encounters with otherworldly beings, how the men used séances to contact spirits that revealed gold deposits, and the spiritual value of searching for Bigfoot and studying flying saucers. It offers a kind of folk metaphysics, shows how the practice of ancient forms of magic continued in the 20th century and, on a practical level, made me aware of “fringe” literature’s potential for providing interesting material. Since I Fought the Ape Men, I have written about a bizarre “Bible” whose author was beheaded, and his family murdered, in Detroit in 1929, while my next article concerns a woman who wrote a booklet in which she argues that the God of the Bible is actually Satan, then shot and killed her landlady to publicize the work.
- If you had one million dollars to dedicate to any one Fortean investigation, where would you spend the money?
It hasn’t been fully worked out, but a friend of mine and I have an idea for deliberately designing and building a haunted house. Several approaches have been floated, including studying known haunted houses and seeing if there is something in their physical makeup (e.g., architecture, layout, material) that could be responsible for causing certain phenomena. Then there is the approach I favor, which would incorporate as many traditional beliefs about the causes of hauntings from as many eras and cultures as possible (e.g., building on land where some horrific event occurred, using materials from the scenes of murders and suicides, particular places, etc.). It could also be done using theories that posit a connection between paranormal phenomena and states of transition, or the creation of conditions such as standing waves, in which people experience phenomena resembling hauntings.
- Do you believe in ghosts?
I’ve never met one, and don’t know what they are, but I do believe in ghosts.
Join Mitch Horowitz and Robert Damon Schneck for “Morbid Academy Presents: Stalking Weird History” at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum on Thursday, February 24th.