Borderlands - "experiences in the wild unknown"


At a Border Crossing
It may be a peculiar coincidence or a freeze-framed moment of deja-vu; it may be something much less common – an odd light in the sky, or a statue drinking milk. But we have all experienced something that we cannot quite explain.

This simple observation is the key to understanding our consuming interest in the unknown. Whatever we are told by the authorities, by science, by sceptical friends or our own common sense, we know that strange things happen because we have witnessed them ourselves.

Everyone visits the borderlands [at least (ed. Saiko)] once in their lives.

Tom D’Ercole was leaving home one morning when he happened to glance skywards. There, hovering not far above the roof of his house, he saw a small, round, basketball-sized cloud quite unlike the occasional cumulocirrus wisps far above it. As he watched, the cloud began to float back and forth over his home, slowly growing and darkening, until, to his amazement, it appeared to gather itself up, pursed its ‘lips’, and squirted a substantial jet of liquid over him and his car.

After a few moments, the unusual shower came to an end and the strange cloud immediately vanished. Changing out of his sodden clothes, D’Ercole drove to the school in Garden City, New York where he worked as a science teacher and ran a pH test on the liquid that had soaked him. It was water.

Borderlands are territories where this sort of thing is not unusual, where the known shades into unknown, occurrences can be both terrifying and hilarious, and fiction mutates slowly into fact. They are the grey areas, though the things that go on there are frequently intensely colourful. We have always known that they exist, and have been exploring them for centuries, though they remain a largely trackless territory to which existing guidebooks are often inadequate and sometimes dangerously misleading. Yet we cannot ignore them. The borderlands surround us, because of that the expansion of knowledge in almost any direction requires us to probe and understand them.

Indeed, this terra incognita is vast and fast-expanding, despite the treasury of proofs and data that have already been collected, since most answers suggest questions, every science has its anomalies, each history its revisionists, and all religions their schismatics and their heretics. Passing into it can be easy; for all the mumbo-jumbo favoured by occultists, the majority of crossing-points are guarded not by massive gates opened only with a coded word and careful ritual, but by ordinary doorways which stand permanently ajar. At such a border crossing, reality and the unreal stand so close together we are not always aware we have moved from one world to another.

No-one could have been more prosaically rooted to reality than Tony Clark, a civil engineer hired to build a cement factory in Iran, and he had no idea he had crossed into the borderlands when he left Manjil, near the Caspian Sea, to drive the 150 miles back to Teheran. At that time – it was the mid-1950s – Manjil was an isolated place, and Clark and his Iranian companion had eaten only some unleavened bread and dugh, a type of liquid yoghurt, before they left. They were hungry, but as their vehicle crawled upwards to a plateau some 50 miles from the nearest town, the men had to concede their chances of finding a substantial meal were slight. At best they might find a tchae khana ¬¬– a roadside cafe where the principal dish was a glass of weak tea strained through a sugar lump held between the teeth. Just then they came upon a distinctive landmark of a pile of rocks, topped by one stone balanced precariously on top of the others, beyond which lay a village which boasted just such an establishment. This tchae khana was a long, cool building, full of Iranian lorry drivers drawing on hubble-bubble pipes, and run by an Armenian who hurried forward to offer them a meal and introduce himself – in flawless English – as Mr Hovanessian.

Delighted at the opportunity to fill their empty stomachs, Clark and his companion gratefully accepted and before long Mr Hovanessian himself served them two bowls of the most delicious iced soup, based on cucumber, raisins and yoghurt. This was followed by delicately flavoured stuffed vine leaves and by an equally superb chelo kebab, the national dish of Iran. The men rounded off the meal with Turkish coffee drunk in a glow of contentment. The atmosphere, Clark recalled nearly 40 years later, was hazy, almost unreal, and when the time came to leave, the bill for what was surely the best meal the engineers had ever eaten turned out to be ridiculously small. Mr Hovanessian invited the men to call again and, as they left the village, they noted down the mileage they had driven from Manjil.

Naturally, Clark told many of his friends about his remarkable find; many were sceptical that it was possible to obtain such superb cuisine in so unlikely a location. So it was with no small measure of satisfaction that he found himself making the same journey three months later with one of the principal doubters, another Englishman, as his passenger. The circumstances were nearly identical; again the men in the car were hungry and tired as they ascended to the plateau. Checking the mileage, Clark announced they were only five miles from his village, and sure enough the little hamlet soon came into view, marked as before by the distinctive pile of stones. But the fabulous tchae khana of Mr Hovanessian had disappeared; nor was there any sign it had ever actually existed. Questioning the villagers was useless. ‘Tchae khana?’ one told Clark. ‘There’s never been one in all the time I’ve been here, and that’s 40 years.’

Tony Clark never could explain what had become of his phantom diner or how he had come to enjoy that remarkable meal in what he thenceforth called the world’s best restaurant. He advanced no theory of a ghostly encounter, hallucination or vivid dream and, four decades later, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to reinvestigate his experience satisfactorily. It will always seem as unreal to us as it was real to him.

Yet let no-one doubt that things that happen in the borderlands do have real effects. The consequences may be rather personal, as they were in the case of a Swedish woman who used a coil for contraception. Shortly after watching Uri Geller perform on television, she discovered she was pregnant; investigation showed her IUD had straightened inexplicably; she blamed the metal-bender for her predicament. Occasionally they are melodramatic: half a world away, a road-worker, Edward Baldock, lost his life because a Brisbane woman named Tracey Wigginton convinced three friends she was a vampire who could read minds and make people disappear, except for their eyes. Anxious to please her, they helped Wigginton entrap and murder the drunken Baldock, then watched as she frenziedly sucked blood from his neck. Sometimes, though, strange events change history, as they did when the celestial visions of Joan of Arc inspired the counter-attack that eventually expelled the English from France, or when a young Xhosa girl named Nonquawuse, standing in her family’s fields one day in 1856, saw two figures apparently standing in a bush next to her garden. Calling her over, these ghosts gave Nonquawuse a disturbing message to impart to her people: that they had sinned, and that as a consequence all their cattle and their crops would be blighted. The only solution, the girl was told, was for her people to slaughter their animals and destroy their crops; if they did so, however, the dead would arise from their graves, the sick and the crippled would be healed, healthy cattle, horses and fowl would rise from the earth, and the entire Xhosa nation would grow rich and fat on the proceeds of their faith.

Slowly, gradually, the prophetess Nonquawuse gathered converts to her cause. Several chiefs declared for her, then Sarhili, the king of the Xhosa, became a convert. With his influence behind her, the girl was able to persuade almost the entire nation to carry out the instructions of the spirits. Some 400,000 head of cattle were slaughtered, the crops were all burned – but, even so, Nonquawuse’s prophecies were not fulfilled. As a result, an estimated 40,000 of the 105,000 Xhosa people starved slowly to death, as many again were forced to abandon their lands in order to survive, and nearly the entire territory was absorbed into the British colony of South Africa. The vision one young girl saw in her garden was thus directly responsible for one of the most cataclysmic events in the history of Africa.

What should we expect, then, as we stand at one of these unguarded crossings? Within the borderlands we may glimpse silver discs that glide across the sky – statues that weep and move, and drink, and menstruate. Big cats live there, real as any in the jungle, and share the land with ghostly jet black dogs with eyes the size of dinner plates. Fish, frogs and hay rain from the sky; the flames of a combusting man belch from his belly without warning; the living receive phone calls from the dead, and phantom ships with masts and spars aglow with phosphorescent light patrol the seas.

Some of what we’ll see or hear is real: one might cite the minor mystery of homing pets as an example of this category of phenomena. These determined animals have made journeys of hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of miles to rejoin their human owners – returning not only to their homes, which might be accounted for by exceptional senses of memory and direction, but sometimes to masters who left them behind in moving to another district or country, which is altogether harder to explain. The best-known such case was that of Prince, a collie/Irish terrier cross who lived with James Brown and his wife in Buttevant, Ireland, in 1914. When war broke out, Brown left for France and his wife moved to London, taking Prince with her. Some time later, the dog disappeared, only to turn up two weeks later at Brown’s quarters at Armentieres, near the front line in France, where he was unsurprisingly adopted as a lucky mascot. Another collie, Bobbie, was taken by his owner on a 3,000 mile trip from Silverton, Oregon, to Wolcott, Indiana, in August 1923. There he was chased away by a pack of local animals and could not be found when the time came to return home. Six months later, though, Bobbie returned to Silverton, having crossed three major rivers, the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains to get there. He was found asleep on the grave of a fox terrier who had been his companion in puppyhood, and recognised by a scar and an old hip injury. As a reward, Bobbie received a gold collar, medals, and a new kennel in the shape of a bungalow. The dog’s journey became so celebrated that witnesses who had encountered him on his travels began to come forward; from their accounts it seemed that he had cast about in a thousand-mile arc, making many false starts before somehow hitting on the correct road home.

At the other extreme lie phenomena made up of wishful thinking, poor research and misidentification, such as the fabled Bermuda Triangle. In the early 1970s, this supposed graveyard of ships and planes was promoted by writers who fixed the Triangle’s amorphous boundaries to include the maximum possible number of cases and copied from one to another with little regard for accuracy. Then Lawrence Kusche, a reference librarian at Arizona State University, took it upon himself to check each report against the original sources. He discovered that many of the best-known cases had rational explanations – one derelict had been in harbour when she was struck by a hurricane and broke free from her moorings, and several of the vessels that vanished without trace were known to be at risk from structural failure. Worse, several of the Triangle’s supposed victims had actually vanished thousands of miles away, in locations varying from the Pacific shores of Mexico to the coast of Brazil. The Triangle was exposed as a myth – which is not to say that mysterious disappearances do not take place at sea, simply that there is no evidence that they regularly occur in definable locations.

As for the bulk of what occurs within the borderlands, and is reported as real, much of it is fascinating but not proof of anything in the scientific sense of the word. Accounts of strange and unusual phenomena tend to be subjective, not objective; indeed the very subjectivity of some events is key to their understanding.
A good example of a subjective phenomenon – but one that is all too real, and terrifying, to those who have experienced it – is the ‘bedroom invader’, an entity that materialises inside a home without opening any windows or doors, often when the witness is dozing or asleep. These invaders tend to be female; many are vividly described as hideous and withered old hags who crouch upon their chosen victims’ chests, half-suffocating them. Still more bizarre creatures are also seen, however, sometimes when the witness seems wide awake. One such case occurred when 13-year-old ‘Randy P.’, who lived with his family in a trailer home in Simi Valley, California, returned from school to find a creature sitting in one of the chairs in the living room. ‘It was a small, pot-bellied figure,’ he recalled, ‘with a large head, roughly two feet tall. It was jet black, had glowing red circles for eyes, two small white fangs that protruded from its wide mouth, and pointed ears.’ Strangely, perhaps, Randy did not feel particularly frightened and he did not think the creature was malign. He walked towards it, noticing that it turned its head to watch him, and had approached to within five feet when he blinked, and the being instantly vanished. A few months later it reappeared, again in broad daylight, sitting cross legged on a shelf in the boy’s bedroom and grinning broadly at him before pulling the same vanishing trick. That was the end of the little pot-bellied demon, but some years later, at college, Randy returned to his dormitory room tired at about 10pm, only to be kept awake by the noise of a party going on outside. At midnight the revellers departed, but Randy found himself still unable to sleep. He sat on his bed reading, with the main lights on, until at about 1am he sensed something entering the room by coming through the wall above his head. It was invisible, but Randy heard, or sensed, the distinctive snap and whoosh of leathery, batlike wings, as his visitor flew across the room and exited through the opposite wall. This ‘invasion’, which certainly did scare him, lasted no more than three or four seconds.

This is not to say all such bizarre experiences occur when the witness is asleep, or nearly so. Some occur in broad daylight and in the most familiar of surroundings. For example, the Guardian of 30 November 1976 contained the following rather remarkable letter, signed by ‘A Wiltshire Teacher’:

‘In East Anglia a few years ago... I was teaching in a small village school and the caretaker’s husband declared that he had seen strange orange lights in the school field as he walked the dog home at about 10.30pm. Cynics suggested that he had seen more light ale than anything else. I thought little of it.

‘Next day a little lad brought me a small plastic toy pistol which he had found near the school. I popped it into my drawer until such time as someone claimed it. Near the end of the afternoon of hectic pre-Christmas activities I felt I could not tolerate the compulsive and ceaseless chatter of one Sandra, and on impulse I pointed the pistol at her, saying mentally, ‘Got ya!’

‘To my astonishment she immediately vanished. The other children, conditioned to ignore her perpetual trivialities, didn’t even notice.

‘At the end of the session I dismissed the class and sat down in the ill-lit room to ponder over the unprecedented situation. I was suddenly aware of the figure of a man standing by me dressed in some kind of boiler-suit protective clothing. I assumed he was a parent on his way home from work. He extended his hand, lying in the palm of which was another toy pistol. Wordlessly, I passed the first one over to him. He examined it briefly, clicked a small ratchet at the side, pointed it towards the corner of the room and pulled the trigger.

‘To my utter amazement Sandra reappeared immediately in full spate, breaking off only to observe that it was time to go home. And as I sat there, Sandra and the stranger independently disappeared into the evening gloom.’

Nothing could be more personal, no experience harder for a sceptic to concede a basis in reality, for it seems inconceivable that the other children would not have noticed their classmate’s disappearance and that the teacher would wait until the end of the lesson before contemplating a search . Yet the experience seemed real enough at the time, and even the best-witnessed phenomena can remain just as indefinite and just as frustratingly difficult to interpret.

This was certainly the case on 30 October 1917, when an estimated 70,000 people packed themselves into a 500 yard wide depression at Cova da Iria, near Fatima in Portugal, in the hope of seeing what was widely expected to be the sixth and final apparition of the Virgin Mary to a trio of peasant children. At noon, on cue, the children saw a flash of light and Mary appeared and conversed with them. None of the people in the crowd saw or heard anything of what passed between them. At the end of the brief conversation, however, 10 year old Lucia Santos (and perhaps the other two children as well) saw Christ and other holy figures appear with the Virgin in the sky. Following a prompt from the children, the crowd stared up towards the sun – at that point the general miracle that had been promised did seem to occur. To a portion of the vast gathering – though less than half of them, it seems – the sun appeared to whirl about and dance in a sky that changed from grey to vivid blue. This might have been a fantasy induced by expectation, or a collective hallucination, except that no-one has ever proposed a mechanism that would enable such a tining to be shared by 30,000 people – and in any case, the ‘dance of the sun’ was also seen by several independent witnesses standing up to two miles away. On the other hand, it is indisputable that the sun did not actually leave its place in the sky that day, and few of those present on that day seem to have agreed on what, precisely, had occurred. Some saw the sun sway from side to side in the sky like a falling leaf, others watched it spin violently in circles, like a catherine wheel. And although there are pictures that show members of the crowd witnessing the miracle, no-one seems to have photographed this dance of the sun itself; the only snapshot sometimes said to depict it has been identified as a picture of a pre-1917 solar eclipse. Nothing should be less personal than a vision seen by tens of thousands in the presence of scientists and members of the press, yet – setting its religious significance aside – the solar miracle of Fatima, which was the best-witnessed phenomenal event of this and probably any other century, might just as well have occurred to Randy P., alone in his trailer home, for all the sense that can be made of it.

The differences in emphasis and interpretation that divided the throng at Fatima are certainly not confined to those who have personally witnessed peculiar events. The re-examination of historical sources often proves equally problematic. Thus, several decades of close study persuaded Iman Wilkens, a Dutch scholar, that the events reported in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey occurred not in Asia Minor, where they are ostensibly set, but in the Fenlands of East Anglia. Troy, for Wilkens, is not the dusty archaeological site in Turkey identified and excavated by Heinrich Schliemann, but Wandlebury Ring in the Gog Magog hills, close by a fast-food restaurant at the junction of the A11 and A604 roads – an identification that at least allowed one newspaper to run the attention-getting headline ‘Troy Relocated to a Happy Eater off the A11’. Similarly, Kamal Salibi, a Lebanese-Christian scholar, resolved some of the inconsistencies of the Bible to his own satisfaction by relocating events to the southern Hejaz, in Saudi Arabia – a suggestion which would have been disputed by Comyns Beaumont, a prominent Daily Mail journalist, who wrote a book to show that Galilee was in Somerset and that Edinburgh had once been called Jerusalem.

The problems with such theorising – Salibi and Beaumont cannot both be right, after all – must be borne in mind whenever we seek to enter the borderlands through ancient chronicles and histories. Such sources can certainly be rich in suggestive parallels to the cases and concerns of the present-day investigator, but they are also potentially misleading, taken out of context. The latter point is well made by recent reassessments of one of the most peculiar of such stories, which appears in two early thirteenth century chronicles: the tale of the Green Children. These infants, a boy and a girl, were found in wolf traps dug around the village of Woolpit in Suffolk some time during the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154). Not only their clothing but also their skins were of greenish hue, and at first their only diet was green beans. Communication was difficult, since they spoke only an unintelligible language of their own; before much could be learned about them the boy died. The girl however, grew up, adopted a mixed diet (after which her skin assumed a normal colour), learned English and eventually married a man from King’s Lynn. From her, questioners learned the children had come from a Christian land they called St Martins, which existed in perpetual twilight, and had walked from there to the place where they were found through an underground passage, following the sound of church bells. This story could be a symbolic invention, or mean the children came from an underground kingdom or a parallel universe of some sort, but it has also been interpreted more mundanely as the tale of two malnourished waifs from the Suffolk village of Fornham St Martins, caught up in the civil war of Stephen’s time and arriving in the vicinity of Woolpit after walking through passageways in the Neolithic flint mines in Thetford Forest. According to this explanation, the skin which alarmed the chroniclers was caused by a form of anaemia called green chlorosis, which is known to give flesh a greenish tinge, and the unintelligible language was merely a thick local accent.

Similarly, zoologists in search of the Great Sea Serpent have welcomed the discovery of early sighting reports, sworn before magistrates, among the legal records of Norway; who, after all, would risk perjuring themselves in court in order to testify to such an experience? Yet the same records also contain sworn accounts of what would today be regarded much less plausible encounters with trolls – in Jamtland, in 1671, one Peter Rahm made a notarised complaint that his wife had been abducted by such creatures to serve as a midwife. It seems arbitrary to accept one report as evidence, and reject the other, simply because the former accords better to current notions of reality.

The study of strange phenomena, in short, must sometimes be allied to study of the witnesses and an understanding of what they themselves believe. There are, for example, differences in the way that UFOs are perceived between the US and Europe and some African societies which suggest that, whether or not the objects are alien spacecraft as is popularly supposed, the details that are picked up on and reported owe something to cultural conditions, and the frequency of the reports themselves to the degree to which western influences have penetrated the local culture. There are also percipients who are capable of interpreting what is mundane as unexplained in quite spectacular ways – looking at the moon, but seeing a flying saucer, in one extreme case.

One part of the problem is the conditions created by a climate of expectation. Where one phantom social worker has been reported, others may be lurking; and one is more likely to assume the worst in matters of identification when something as precious as a child’s safety is at stake. The same principle perhaps applies to UFO abductions; in one recent, Scottish, case, the two principal witnesses described how they had been motoring across a lonely moor at night when they observed a strange light in the sky. Presently the light got closer; the next thing the men were aware of was that it was considerably later and they were rather further down their road – a typical ‘missing time’ experience, one which frequently can, and in this case did, turn into a full-blown abduction under hypnosis. Yet the key to this particular case may lie in a tiny, incidental detail which one of the witnesses mentioned to the man investigating their experience: that on first seeing the strange light, he and his companion had leaned over and locked their doors, the suggestion being that strange lights equal UFOs, and UFOs equal abductions and the forcible removal of victims from their vehicles. With expectations so high, it is not perhaps surprising that the men did indeed report being taken on board an alien spacecraft.

Still, there are many apparently credible witnesses to the unknown. On 11 July 1881 the future King George V and his brother Edward, Duke of Clarence, were on board HMS Inconstant as she sailed through the Bass Strait on passage from Melbourne to Sydney. ‘At 4am,’ the princes noted in their journal, ‘the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which the masts, spars and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow.’ Another royal, His Highness Jigme Dorgi Wangchuk, King of Bhutan, reported seeing the ‘great, white, fast-swimming shape’ of a monster in one of his country’s northern lakes. Then there are other respectable witnesses: presidents, priests, and policemen. Jimmy Carter reported his own UFO sighting a few years before his election, and an Anglican priest, Father William Gill, was the chief witness in what remains one of the most baffling of UFO reports, a multi-witness encounter with a craft that hovered over a mission in Papua-New Guinea on two successive evenings. A few years later Jeff Greenhaw, the police chief of Falkville, Alabama, discovered and photographed a silver-suited robot which outran his car as he chased it down a dirt road.

Any of these men might be regarded a reliable witness, too sober to be easily confused, too responsible to make wild guesses, and with far too much to lose to tell a lie. Yet every one of their accounts is open either to doubt or to serious criticism. There is no firm evidence that either of the royal princes on the Inconstant were among the 14 sailors who saw the phantom ship, and some that the account was probably elaborated and the identification of the phantom as the Flying Dutchman was made on no very good authority. The King of Bhutan may well have seen the white shape he described, but his account does little to support the reality of the sort of monsters said to dwell in Loch Ness, which are always described as black, brown or grey in colour. Jimmy Carter’s UFO has been explained as either a misidentification of Venus or a mirage of the star Altair; Father Gill, too, may have seen a mirage, though this is far less likely – and as for Jeff Greenhaw, an investigation suggested the case was a hoax involving a man dressed in a silver fire-fighters’ outfit.
There are, in short, no unimpeachable witnesses to the unexplained, and few things that even apparently respectable people will not do for publicity, for fun or to make a point. Still more remarkably, some of those who deliberately mislead seem undeterred by the serious consequences of their actions. One can only wonder at the actions of Paul Ingram, another police chief – from Washington State this time – who voluntarily admitted to raping and abusing his own daughters, and coercing them into an incestuous relationship with their brother, as part of the activities of a satanic coven which he supposedly ran with the help of his wife and several other policemen. His vivid confessions led the judge to impose a 20-year jail sentence, despite the fact that he subsequently retracted his testimony and that many of the outlandish events he described were demonstrably invented. Nor are such actions confined to the United States. In the little Yorkshire town of Halifax, in 1938, a dozen men and women reported they had been attacked, and cut, by a mysterious razor-wielding slasher. An investigation by two detectives seconded from Scotland Yard soon proved that, while the wounds were real enough, the maniacal attacker did not exist. His supposed victims had slashed their own arms and faces, for reasons they themselves could never adequately explain. If apparently sensible and normal people are capable of such extreme actions, one can only conclude that hoaxing is likely to be considerably more common than most investigators care to admit.

If neither memory nor reputation are proper safeguards, what certainty is there that anything occurring in the borderlands is real? The occasional piece of physical evidence has been preserved, and sometimes the proof is of somewhat spectacular nature. At Uniontown, Alabama, in the spring of 1956, hundreds of living fish fell from the sky onto a patch of farmland around 200 feet square. They came from a small, dark cloud that formed in the sky on an otherwise clear day, and their descent was witnessed by Mrs Para Lee Phillips and her husband. When the remarkable shower subsided, about 15 minutes after it had begun, the couple were able to gather enough fish – catfish, bass and bream – to fill a washtub three feet in diameter and about a foot deep.

In the rare cases where a phenomenon persists for weeks or months or years, much more may be achieved: at Hessdalen, in Norway, and Gulf Breeze, in Florida, the repeated appearance of strange lights in the sky has drawn in investigators from miles around and produced a substantial body of film and sighting records for study. Very occasionally, it is even possible to predict when something strange will occur: stigmatics – people who bear the wounds that Christ suffered on the cross – tend to bleed most profusely on high days and holy days, especially Good Friday. And, finally, there are some cases where evidence for the peculiar is embarrassingly abundant; there were once, for example, three rival Veronicas – pieces of cloth said to have been miraculously imprinted with the face of Jesus when he wiped his face on the road to Calvary – and two survive today, one of them in the Pope’s study in Rome; there are likewise three heads of John the Baptist preserved in various churches, and several dried scraps of skin which purport to be the Holy Prepuce, Christ’s foreskin, severed in the Temple. (One of these, kept in the parish church of Calcata, north of Rome, was stolen in 1983 from the wardrobe of Don Dario Magnoni, the parish priest, drawing unwelcome attention to a category of relic the church prefers not to discuss.)

It is more usual, though, for evidence to be less physical and more ambiguous than this. Photographs and films of a wide variety of strange phenomena exist, as do a handful of tape recordings, radar traces, plaster -casts of footprints and statements made under hypnosis. All of them can be challenged. Of the myriad of UFO photographs, most are clumsy hoaxes – pieces of paper pasted onto windows or hubcaps tossed into the air. It has been suggested that the most famous of all these snapshots, a domed flying saucer with portholes and three spherical ‘landing pods’, photographed from below by an amateur astronomer and hot dog salesman named George Adamski, is actually either a cut-down pith helmet, or a chicken brooder. Then again, there had never been a photograph of a living sea serpent – not one that had been published, at any rate – until an eccentric named Doc Shiels produced several dramatic examples in the late 1970s and early 1980s, most of them shot in Falmouth Bay during a wave of sightings of the local ‘sea giant’, Morgawr; but a lengthy investigation later suggested that Shiels’s long-necked, double-humped monsters were plasticine shapes placed on a plate of glass and held between the camera and the horizon. And, during the heyday of photography in the mid-nineteenth century, dozens of photographers specialised in the production of so-called ‘spirit photographs’ which portrayed a sitter surrounded by the ghosts of the dear departed, using either double exposure of the crudest of papier mache models to achieve their effects. Today, even a credulous person would be hard-pressed to believe such pictures showed what they purported to, but in their day the claims were widely believed.

In a world in which the Flat Earth Society (and some other, less obviously biased, commentators) continue to argue that America’s moon landings were faked in a film studio, not even the most apparently conclusive proofs can expect to go unchallenged. In 1988, the Vatican agreed to submit the fabled Shroud of Turin – the reputed burial cloth of Christ – to scientific examination. A series of carbon-dating tests were planned, with the aim of establishing whether the shroud really was a first-century winding sheet, or dated from the middle ages, when the earliest historic records of its existence appear and when, sceptics argued, the image of a crucified man that appears on it was painted by a cunning forger. In order to conduct the tests, small fragments of the cloth were cut away and, to ensure both fairness and accuracy, sent to three different, carefully-selected laboratories in the United States and Europe. The dates produced by the experiments were then collated and averaged, allowing the investigators to announce ‘with a 95 per cent probability’, that the shroud was woven between 1260 and 1390, and must therefore be a fake.

Almost instantly, the test results were challenged. It was suggested that carbon-dating can give anomalous results if samples become contaminated (on one occasion, one of the laboratories chosen for the experiments dated a Viking cow horn to 2006AD), which might have occurred when the shroud was caught in a fire in Turin cathedral in 1532; also that a burst of energy accompanying the resurrection might have artificially dated the cloth. One might add that, had the results suggested that the shroud genuinely was of first-century origin, the sceptics would merely have regrouped and fallen back on the argument that the shroud was that of some other crucified man, or an ancient piece of cloth obtained by a mediaeval forger.

Perhaps, though, this lack of consensus, this absence of agreement on what constitutes an objective reality, is one of the keys to what goes on within the borderlands. In this upside-down world, precision and clarity can be suspicious: the clearest UFO photographs, for instance, are generally the least convincing. In addition, there is always the temptation for believers and sceptics alike to bolster their cases by stating as fact what is only supposition, or make definite figures that can only be tentative. Told by occultists that 133,306,688 demons fell with Lucifer, and that at Vienna, in 1583, no fewer than 12,652 of these were expelled from a single possessed girl, we are entitled to ask who counted, and how carefully?

In truth it seems the real and the unreal are closely intertwined throughout our territory – so closely that they sometimes change from one into the other. The folklorists who study urban legends have coined the term ‘ostention’ to describe a fiction that becomes a reality, and indeed there are now documented cases of poodles exploding while being dried in microwaves, a story that had been doing the rounds as a piece of folklore for many years. But the same sometimes applies in reverse; it was always assumed that tales of alligators living in the sewers of New York, living off debris and vermin, and slowly mutating into half-blind albinos, were nothing more than myth – until a researcher named Loren Coleman discovered a report in the New York Times of 10 February 1935, which described how a group of young boys investigating strange sounds from a sewer on East 123rd Street found a young ‘gator thrashing feebly in the slushy water beneath a manhole cover. This particular piece of solid evidence was dragged from the sewers and beaten to death with sticks.

We have travelled far through trackless lands, but perhaps only in a circle. In the end, we regain our border crossing convinced of one thing above all others: this is a pliable realm. Though hundreds, or millions, of people may be visiting the borderlands at any given time, most of the things that happen here happen in private, and become known only through the perhaps unreliable testimony of a single witness. Almost all the evidence for the rest is by definition contentious, and for every expert there seems to be an equal and opposite expert. In such a situation, everyone is free to make up their own mind about the evidence and testimony, though it helps to realise from the start that no two people will draw precisely the same conclusions from the same case histories.

What then is the point of studying something so ephemeral? Because if only half of one percent of what is said to happen in the borderlands actually occurred, the chances are some sciences will be revolutionised and some histories rewritten. Because if the other ninety-nine-and-a-half percent did not, the witnesses still thought their experiences were real; not all of them are fools or liars, which makes the cases worthy of study in their own right, for what they may tell us about perception, memory, and belief. And, of course, because all of us are curious. Everyone visits the borderlands once in their lives.


I got this book and I'm nearly a third of the way through. It's quite an entertaining read but even though it's 500 pages long, it covers so much ground that the treatment tends to be a bit superficial. For example, this is all he has to say about Ganzfeld experiments (the book was published in 1997, but the references all seem to relate to the Ganzfeld/Sargent controversy a decade earlier):

"For some time, it seemed that the elusive repeatable results could be produced by searching for telepathy in the 'Ganzfeld' ('total field'), a state in which the subject is subjected to mild sensory deprivation by having half table tennis balls placed over their eyes and white noise pumped into their ears through headphones. Then a row erupted over whether the Ganzfeld researchers had been randomising their targets correctly, and, as a result, the viability of this approach is now open to question."


Sorry - that should have been the "Blackmore/Sargent" controversy.

As the book goes on, Dash moves from cataloguing the phenomena to discussing the whys and wherefores, which is more interesting.

There's still relatively little on experimental work, but his summing up of psi studies is rather negative. After mentioning suggestions that psi is a "weak and capricious effect", and evidence of "psi-avoidance" by "goats", he concludes:
"Even a single subject is thought to be prey to a range of influences, ranging from his general state of mind, his motivation and whether or not he is suitably relaxed to his relationship with the experimenter. The difficulties of making the correct allowances for all these variables proved so great that much of the 1960s and 1970s was spent in a fruitless search for a suitably 'psi-conducive' experiment, and failure was taken to suggest that, even if every condition is favourable from the subjects' point of view, the outcome of the test can be affected by the experimenter himself, whose own state of mind, motivation and so on are also vital, and who may, even unconsciously, use his own psi to distort the results. This phenomenon is know as the 'experimenter effect'. Since it is virtually impossible to allow for such a wide range of variables while designing an experiment, it seems quite probable that, even if psi exists, a repeatable experiment that proves as much will never be developed."