There is a trend toward unified theories of strangeness. I recently mentioned The Vengeful Djinn, whose authors suggest: ‘the djinn could be the hidden source of the diversity of paranormal events everywhere’ (Guiley & Imbrogno, 2011: xxi). The Cryptoterrestrials by Mac Tonnies is another recent text in a similar vein: ‘Could “fairies” and “elves” – and all their mythical successors – be distorted representations of an actual species?’ (Tonnies, 2010: 18).
Cases of so-called ‘high strangeness’ provide a very good reason for the supposition of a single source for paranormal phenomena. In a high strangeness case we may confront phenomena that refuse the usual distinctions but manifest as an intimidating mixture of UFOs producing poltergeist-like phenomena, for instance, or saquatch-like animals, which behave as if they were ghosts by vanishing or impossibly flying away.
A recent case of high strangeness was the notorious Skinwalker Ranch (Kelleher & Knapp, 2005). The classic, of course, were the happenings of 1966-67 at Point Pleasance in Virginia, described by John Keel in The Mothman Prophecies (2002). Indeed, it is Keel who was perhaps the first to propose a unified theory of strangeness, accounting for the bewildering explosion of phenomena that confronted him. He mooted ‘ultraterrestrials’ as a possible cause – multi-dimensional beings whose reality intersects with ours in a way that enables them to produce effects wildly at variance from the ordinary.
Yet the logic of these arguments leads to something perhaps unexpected. It’s clearest in Mac Tonnies’ text. He proposes the cryptoterrestrials are possibly a race of terrestrial beings with whom we have shared the planet for millennia. They are physical, like us. The way they manifest diversely as greys, reptilians, space brothers, man-beasts or fairies is simply a decision on their part, to lead us along whatever lines of supposition best suit their purposes. Tonnies suggests that, technologically, the cryptoterrestrials may not be that far in advance of us, but for the time being they certainly know how to hide from and mislead us, and this is perhaps all that they technologically require.
We arrive at a similar conclusion as we follow Guiley & Imbrogno’s musings on the djinn. The authors posit some theoretical ideas to support their view that the djinn may inhabit dimensions of space unavailable to three-dimensional human beings. But once we apprehend them behind this barrier, what do we find? The djinn are created male and female. Some are Muslims and some are not. Some are enlightened and some are not. Some wish us harm and some do not. They have free will just like us, so the choice is theirs.
Where there is a unified theory of strangeness, it starts to seem that once we peer behind whatever veil separates us from them (‘hidden dimensions’, ‘cloaking technology’) what we find is not very different from ourselves. Perhaps this is conveyed most vividly in the movie version of The Mothman Prophecies (2002), where ‘John Klein’ (Richard Gere) is walking down the street with paranormal expert ‘Alexander Leek’ (Alan Bates). Klein expresses the view that they must be dealing with something far more intelligent than themselves. ‘If there was a car crash ten blocks away,’ responds Leek, ‘then that window washer up there could probably see it. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s God, or even smarter than we are. But from where he’s sitting, he can see a little further down the road.’
So, we have three unified theories of strangeness – cryptoterrestrials, ultraterrestrials and djinn. But in each case the logic of the argument implies that by bringing paranormal phenomena together, we also draw them down to earth. What is it about a unified theory of strangeness that transforms ‘the other’ into something not very different from ‘us’?
The nature of the other is to be other than us. But the troubling thing about the other is precisely its otherness. It offers no hooks onto which we can attach labels or identities, or guarantees. Even to label the other as ‘other’ is a step away from otherness; a means of trying to grasp a reassuring handle. Assuming the other is ‘one’ thing, or even that it is ‘anything’, is a step away from otherness. The problem we presume to solve with a unified theory of strangeness, therefore, is the problem of the otherness of the other.
A unified theory is an attempt to arrive at the other of the other. The problem with the other, as it stands, is that it’s a jumbled mess: UFOs, fairies, ghosts, monsters, etc. If we could only ‘get behind’ all of this, we reason, we could get a grip on what’s really happening. Yet the problem with the phenomenon at hand is precisely that it is ungrippable. The immediate problem is actually the temptation to regard ungrippability as a problem, rather than as a real characteristic of what is to hand.
Orthodox wisdom is represented by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who regarded ‘the other of the other’ as a fiction that finds expression particularly in paranoia (Žižek, 1997). If we do not accept phenomena that arises for us as phenomena, but instead put trust in something that lies behind the scenes, then we entertain the fantasy of ‘the other of the other’ – the one who, despite the otherness of what appears, is secretly and masterfully in control of its appearance. The fact that this manoeuvre seeks to keep at bay the threatening otherness of the phenomena is betrayed in the way that the theory returns only another version of the self: the djinn, the ultra- or cryptoterrestrials, who are fundamentally, reassuringly, like us. By trying to attain the other of the other we reach instead only more of the self, displaced slightly into ‘another dimension’.
There is an alternative that is not limited by dualistic thinking. Contrary to Lacan, there is an other of the other, which is circumscribed neither by narcissism nor paranoia. The other of the other is no-self. What arises in cases of high strangeness, far from bearing the traces of a reassuringly coherent agency, instead bears the traces of no-self, of non-existence. What we seem to be witnessing is not something working to hide from us, or existing elsewhere, but something struggling to reveal itself and exist here.
This logic, of the other of the other as no-self, is what I propose to continue to explore.
Rosemary Ellen Guiley & Philip J. Imbrogno (2011). The Vengeful Djinn: Unveiling the Hidden Agendas of Genies. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn.
John A. Keel (2002). The Mothman Prophecies. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Colm A. Kelleher & George Knapp (2005). Hunt for the Skinwalker. New York: Paraview Pocket Books.
The Mothman Prophecies (2002). Dir. Mark Pellington. Lakeshore Entertainment. Film.
Mac Tonnies (2010). The Cryptoterrestrials. San Antonio, TX: Anomalist Books.
Slavoj Žižek (1997). ‘The other does not exist’. Journal of European Psychoanalysis. Spring-Fall.