Colin Dickey, author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, is back with another excellent non-fiction exploration of the unusual. The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained is a fascinating read, so we called up the author to talk more about it.
Cheryl Eddy, Gizmodo: Your previous book, Ghostland, was mostly about historically significant hauntings tied to specific locations. The Unidentified takes a broader look at the paranormal; there’s a focus on aliens but it also explores cryptozoology and other X-Files-type subjects. How did you decide specifically which topics to include, and how you wanted to approach them?
Colin Dickey: Initially the topic list was quite large, and I kind of had to dial it back. At some point, I realised the connecting threads of the things that ended up being in the book all coalesced around the idea of, I guess you could say, the wilderness. I think that if Ghostland was on some level a book about architecture, this book is more about borderlands and frontiers. So the way that those kind of manifest is, I was drawn to stories of Atlantis and Lemuria as these places that were perpetually off the edge of map that could never really be ever reached again.
That kind of dovetailed for me into the places where I kept seeing cryptids and aliens inhabiting, which are rarely in cities or populated areas, but always seem to be on the edge of things — be it redwood forests in California, where Bigfoot is located, to Area 51 in the middle of the desert, where Nevada sort of becomes an uninhabited space. The places and the creatures themselves all seemed to inhabit these kinds of edgelands and frontiers, and that became the guiding organisation for how the book shaped up.
Gizmodo: What draws you to writing about these sorts of topics? Were you always into spooky stuff as a kid, or was there a specific experience that piqued your interest?
Dickey: Certainly I grew up on things like the show In Search of… that was narrated by Leonard Nimoy, and those Time-Life [Mysteries of the Unknown books], the kind of things you’d see commercials for on Saturday afternoon. That percolated in my consciousness at a young age. But I think the specific driver for this book in particular was, in the wake of the 2016 election, people were talking about social media driving misinformation and false information.
In the wake of that, at the time, the latest figure said something like 42 million Americans believed that Bigfoot was real. I began to think about how this conversation about misinformation and conspiracy theories that was happening in this political realm might also be happening in a parallel realm — sort of less fraught, more anodyne discussions of UFOs, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and stuff like that. I think I was drawn to sort of try and understand how these other beliefs arose, and how they evolved over time.
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Gizmodo: The Unidentified traces how our view of aliens over time has changed, from the superhumans of early sci-fi stories to scary tales of abduction, and everything in between. What do you see as being the cultural and political forces that have helped shape those changing perceptions?
Dickey: It’s really interesting because at a certain point, you can’t believe in aliens without believing in the government keeping aliens from us — which is a bit unusual and not something you have with ghosts, or the Loch Ness Monster, or the Lost Continent of Atlantis. There’s a very specific relationship between government and aliens that I think is kind of unique and also a little bit unsettling. What’s interesting to me about a lot of these stories is that there’s a kind of temporal expectation that happens with a belief like this. When the first sightings of UFOs in the late ‘40s started happening, pretty much everyone assumed it was only a matter of time before we would have undeniable, verifiable, empirical proof of UFOs. The numbers of sightings kept multiplying, and it just became clear that’s the direction we were going.
And when that failed to happen, the diehard believers needed some kind of explanation for why that wasn’t happening on schedule. The longer that promise got delayed, the more complicated and byzantine the explanations for why it hadn’t arrived needed to be. These government conspiracies evolved as a retroactive explanation why we didn’t have documented proof of extraterrestrials: the government had to be hiding them or keeping them from us on some level.
Gizmodo: The chaos of 2020 has taught us many things, one being that conspiracy theories can spring up around pretty much any topic. What do you see as the underlying reasons why we’re so obsessed with them, and why are they so popular at this moment in history? Is social media to blame?
Dickey: Definitely social media is a driver of it, and I don’t want to downplay social media’s role, and algorithms on Facebook and whatnot, but I also think that there’s something more innate in how we view the world that existed long before social media. I think the way I see conspiracy theories work is that we all have our confirmation bias. We all have the things we want to believe are true. Most of us will pick and choose facts that support our beliefs. That’s not great, but it’s sort of common and we all do it — I do it too, and it’s just sort of part of human nature.
But once there are no more facts to support your preexisting belief that you can pick and choose from, it gets a lot harder to carry out that confirmation bias. I see conspiracy theories as arising out of that moment when the facts simply aren’t available to support your confirmation bias, so you have to make up facts or dispute the facts that are right in front of you. Where we’re at right now is a period of such constant upheaval that I think a lot of our prior beliefs are being challenged in a lot of ways. It is easier for a lot of us to respond to that challenge by simply denying the reality in front of us, rather than facing that challenge head-on, and that’s one thing that drives conspiracy theories in this kind of moment.
Gizmodo: Ghostland has a fair amount of scepticism in it, but The Unidentified really digs into how not believing became its own movement, too. Why did you want to make sure to include that point of view, and where do you fall on the sceptical spectrum?
Dickey: With Ghostland, I tried to be as open as I could to different points of view, and a lot of people read that book as being a sceptical debunking, which I wasn’t entirely intending it to be. I did want to leave that space open for the unexplained and people’s differing beliefs. But a lot of the topics in this book, I feel are beliefs that can easily lead us down a very dangerous path. One of the things that I found in researching this is the way that, particularly a belief in aliens, is often a gateway drug to some particularly vile anti-governmental conspiracy theories and also, often, sort of racially-charged or just racist conspiracy theories. I wanted to push back against that.
Obviously there are racial aspects in how we tell ghost stories that I talked about in Ghostland, but with a lot of these, and sort of the linkage between how anti-Semitic conspiracy theories filter in through alien communities, I felt it was important to be a lot clearer on what does and doesn’t constitute legitimate belief, for lack of a better term.
Gizmodo: What do you personally think is the strangest story in the book, and why? For me, it’s gotta be the Kentucky meat shower.
Dickey: Oh, definitely the meat shower is great! I think the meat shower is one of the strangest things I’ve ever come across, and it really drives the book in a lot of ways. The other story that I really like is the Gloucester Sea Serpent, because it often gets left off the standard cryptozoological lists. It’s not as famous as the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot. But unlike those more famous monsters, the number of people who saw it is in the hundreds. It defies the kind of normal template of a lone observer in the wilderness, or a grainy photograph, or an out-of-focus film. There’s dozens of subpoenaed eyewitnesses and hundreds of observers, and yet it’s been sort of lost to history. The history of the Gloucester Sea Serpent really sort of crystallised what I wanted this book to do, so I was happy to give it a little home.
Gizmodo: As a sort of scholar of the unusual, what do you think keeps us coming back again and again to these kinds of stories?
Dickey: I think the thing that draws people, including myself, is a belief and a desire for a world that still is filled with wonder. Even those of us who are pretty rational and scientifically minded, and supportive of hard sciences and the work that those scientists do, I think we are still, on some level, craving a sense that there’s something else bizarre out there left to be discovered. I think as long as there are sort of bizarre case histories of, you know, meat falling from the sky or children being lifted up by giant, unidentified birds from their backyard, we are going to continue to be drawn to these kinds of stories — even those of us who are sceptical and are sure that there’s some sort of plausible explanation. I think that we’ll still want to dwell around in these places.
The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained by Colin Dickey is out July 21; you can order a copy here.