“THE EXTRATERRESTRIALS ARE HERE FOR OUR TWINKIES!” and More Freaky True Stories! #WeirdDarkness
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IN THIS EPISODE: A 1930s art deco swimming pool is not the first place you think of when people mention the most haunted places in the country. So why is this 85-year-old building bursting at the seams with spirits and specters? The answer to that is not any easy one to give. (The Haunted Smethwick Baths) *** They look strange, there’s a weird otherworldliness to them, when encountered people often find the’ve lost hours of time with no memory, and the beings are often known to abduct people in the middle of the night. It sounds like I’m describing alien abduction – but the same, all of it, can also be said of fairie folk in European legend. Is it possible there is a connection? Could the mythical fairies of old actually be the extraterrestrials we tell stories about today? (The Extraterrestrials Want Twinkies) *** Elsie Eiler pays taxes… to herself. She grants her own liquor license to herself for the tavern she owns – which is possible when you are the mayor… and bartender… and law enforcement, and even the librarian. You see, Elsie Eiler is the sole resident of Monowi, Nebraska – but that doesn’t mean she’s alone. (Monowi, Nebraska – Population One) *** They don’t try for a perfect likeness. They have to suppress their creativity. They even find help from birds nests. We’ll look at some of the trade secrets used by forensic artists. (The Secret Formula of Forensic Artists)
SOURCES AND REFERENCES FROM THE EPISODE…
“Monowi, Nebraska – Population One” by Ripley’s Believe it or Not: https://tinyurl.com/tzd3dqo, Laura Moss for MNN: (link no longer available); Karen I. Chen for Travel & Leisure: https://tinyurl.com/sksb2rq; Maria Carter for Country Living: https://tinyurl.com/tlfbahn
“The Haunted Smethwick Baths” by Andy Moore for Mysterious Britain and Ireland: https://tinyurl.com/snv5dpy
“The Extraterrestrials Want Twinkies” by Julian Whitefish for The New Folklore: (link no longer available)
“The Secret Formula of Forensic Artists” by Jake Rossen for Mental Floss: https://tinyurl.com/tq8vfe3
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OTHER PODCASTS I HOST…
Paranormality Magazine: (COMING SEPT. 30, 2023) https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/paranormalitymag
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Retro Radio – Old Time Radio In The Dark: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/retroradio
Church of the Undead: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/churchoftheundead
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(Over time links seen above may become invalid, disappear, or have different content. I always make sure to give authors credit for the material I use whenever possible. If I somehow overlooked doing so for a story, or if a credit is incorrect, please let me know and I will rectify it in these show notes immediately. Some links included above may benefit me financially through qualifying purchases.)
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As you round a bend on the dusty highway leading into town, you see the small, green sign standing proud against the Great Plains sky. “Monowi,” it reads. And a single number one is printed beneath it. You follow the road into town, if you can call it a town, because if you blink you will surely miss it. On one side is a storage barn, where nothing looks to be alive or stirring—and may not have been for quite a while. On the other side is the cluster of what appears to be a library, a run-down house and a bare, shotgun cottage. If it weren’t for the sign on the outside of the cottage, you’d never know she was there. Still, the sign calls out like a beacon: “Monowi Tavern.” The front door creaks as you enter, spilling light all over the dark, wooden décor. And there she sits, chatting with a customer who’s just finished eating. She says hello, and you introduce yourself. You’re not entirely sure what to say. She is, after all, the biggest celebrity in Monowi. She is the bartender. She is the Mayor. She is the librarian and record-keeper. She is Elsie Eiler, the only person who lives in the whole town. You think back to the sign on the road. Monowi, Nebraska. Population one.
I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness.
Welcome, Weirdos – I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness. Here you’ll find stories of the paranormal, supernatural, legends, lore, the strange and bizarre, crime, conspiracy, mysterious, macabre, unsolved and unexplained.
Coming up in this episode…
A 1930s art deco swimming pool is not the first place you think of when people mention the most haunted places in the country. So why is this 85-year-old building bursting at the seams with spirits and specters? The answer to that is not any easy one to give. (The Haunted Smethwick Baths)
They look strange, there’s a weird otherworldliness to them, when encountered people often find the’ve lost hours of time with no memory, and the beings are often known to abduct people in the middle of the night. It sounds like I’m describing alien abduction – but the same, all of it, can also be said of fairie folk in European legend. Is it possible there is a connection? Could the mythical fairies of old actually be the extraterrestrials we tell stories about today? (The Extraterrestrials Want Twinkies)
Elsie Eiler pays taxes… to herself. She grants her own liquor license to herself for the tavern she owns – which is possible when you are the mayor… and bartender… and law enforcement, and even the librarian. You see, Elsie Eiler is the sole resident of Monowi, Nebraska – but that doesn’t mean she’s alone. (Monowi, Nebraska – Population One)
They don’t try for a perfect likeness. They have to suppress their creativity. They even find help from birds nests. We’ll look at some of the trade secrets used by forensic artists. (The Secret Formula of Forensic Artists)
If you’re new here, welcome to the show! While you’re listening, be sure to check out WeirdDarkness.com for merchandise, my newsletter, enter contests, to connect with me on social media, plus, you can visit the Hope in the Darkness page if you’re struggling with depression or dark thoughts. You can find all of that and more at WeirdDarkness.com.
Now.. bolt your doors, lock your windows, turn off your lights, and come with me into the Weird Darkness!
MONOWI, NEBRASKA – POPULATION ONE=====
84-year-old Elsie Eiler has been running the Monowi Tavern for nearly 50 of those years. According to the census in 2010, she is the only person who lives in town, making Monowi the only incorporated place in America with a population of one.
“I just pay attention to my business,” she says, taking the hamburger patties and throwing them on the grill. “People from around here, they come in and they eat and drink at the bar, and I get them what they want.”
Eiler’s mother was a Nebraska native and her father immigrated from Germany. She grew up on a farm outside of the town, and went to high school in Lynch, seven-and-a-half miles away. After high school, she and a girlfriend went to airline school in Kansas City, then worked as reservations officers in Austin and Dallas. At 19, she married Rudy, whom she’d met in the 3rd grade, once he returned from France where he’d served in Air Force during the Korean War. They lived in Omaha briefly before settling down in Monowi and opening the tavern in 1975.
Once a thriving cattle-industry town aided by a central railway system, Monowi’s population peaked at 150 during the 1930s, but like many small towns in the Great Plains, it lost residents to larger cities with more job opportunities, dwindling to just 18 residents by 1980. Young people, including Eiler’s own son and daughter, left the area in search of job opportunities. She has four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren living as nearby as Sioux City, Iowa, and as far off as the Netherlands. “I get lonely for my kids, but I don’t get lonely. I have too many interests and old friends,” says Eiler.
Open six days a week (she’s closed on Mondays) today, the Tavern is the place to be if you’re from the nearby cities. The residents come in for burgers and suds because the food is reasonably priced and darned good, too. “When you get out in an area like this, people 20 to 40 miles away are considered neighbors,” says Eiler. “We’re like one big family. If anything happens, they’re there to sympathize with you.”
Eiler doesn’t have a municipality to rely on for services, so she often counts on the kindness of her extended community. When it snows, a local farmer comes by to clear her parking lot and main street. “There’s a snowplow for the area but as a general rule, by the time he’s done with the side roads and country roads, I’m dug out by a tractor,” she shares. At the tavern, she’s the only full-time staff, though she occasionally brings on extra help when she’s expecting a big crowd, like the motorcycle group that meets there several times a year. Other than that, “whoever happens to be here, if they see I need help, they’ll help,” she says.
The food and beer is great, just like the customers say – but it’s the other thing that’s gained her the most popularity, the fact that she’s the only person in Monowi. Up until 2004, there was another, but her husband, Rudy, passed away that year and left it all to her.
Some days are busier than others, and sometimes, her daughter and son will come in to help. She’s been featured in newspapers and on television shows across the country, which has resulted in a steady increase of visitors. And things really picked up when she was visited by comedian Larry the Cable Guy, who in 2010 profiled her and the town for his television show, “Only in America,” for the History Channel.
She’s had customers from 48 states (she’s only missing folks from Idaho and West Virginia) and 41 different countries (Pakistan recently invited her to come to the country so they can honor her. She has not taken them up on it).
“Some days we’re busy, some we’re real slow, but that’s the way it goes,” she says. “After 47 years I don’t worry about a slow day.”
Up until 2004, Elsie ran the town with her husband, Rudy, and the sign noted a population of two. But when he died, it left her by herself. So she started a 5,000-volume library in his honor, and the town had another attraction.
Measuring just a fifth of a square mile, you can take in all of Monowi just by turning around in a circle. But the Tavern is where the party’s at—it’s where she is, after all. Elsie grew up and went to school in nearby Lynch, and although she likes to travel to visit her daughter in Arizona, she says her heart belongs here.
“The summers are always busy,” she says. “People come in and stay for the day. In the winters, people come by at night and they chat at the bar.”
Eiler acknowledges that it’s a “whole different life” out where the nearest Walmart is 60 miles away. She knows some people wonder why she stays, the sole person keeping a nearly nonexistent town afloat. She could lock up and walk away at any time if she wanted to, she says.
Still, the question remains: What will happen to the town, and the Tavern, once Elsie is gone?
“My son, who lives nearby, has shown some interest about keeping it going, but I don’t think it’s possible, really,” she says. “I’ve had so many things grandfathered in for me, it would not be very beneficial for someone else… I get asked, what happens when you’re gone? That’s not my worry. I believe in living each day and not worrying about down the road. I’m going to enjoy it while I am alive.”
Like how she can grant herself a liquor license, which she pays—to herself. Or how she develops her own road plan every year to get state funding for their traffic lights. Behind the tavern sits a 5,000-book library that Eiler constructed in 2005 in memory of her husband. The library was her late husband’s dream, and it’s become a hit with residents of surrounding towns. Never mind the fact that it’s just a large shed filled with books.
“She’s in charge of everything,” says Frank Hanzlik, a bear-sized man who just finished lunch in the tavern, just as he does most days, although he lives in a neighboring city seven miles down the road. “This is her town.”
Eiler is the mayor, librarian and bartender. She manages the town’s budget (about $500 a year) at “city hall,” – an old desk inside the tavern she also owns and runs. She colleccts “taxes” (on herself, presumably) to keep the village’s four streetlights functioning. Nearby towns supply most of the tavern’s customers.
She serves burgers ($3.50), hot dogs ($1.25), and beers (the “coldest beer in town,” claims the sign posted on the wall) to tourists curious about her one-person town. She may have seen visitors from 47 states and 41 countries, but she mostly spends her time with regulars who come from nearby towns to use the tavern as a sort of community meeting place where they play card games, show off baby photos, and talk about their families.
At the end of most days, she’s cooked so much that she can’t even come to make anything for herself. “I like peanut butter sandwiches,” she says. “No jelly. Then again, sometimes I do like a burger. Sometimes that just sounds good.”
Online you can read the reviews on sites like Yelp and Google. Most recommend the burgers. But all will agree on one thing: The management rates five stars. Because Elsie comes out to sit with her clientele, to talk with them. And they love her for it.
Eiler jokes that being the only resident of a town does have its perks. For one, she doesn’t have any competition when she runs for mayor each year, winning by a landslide every time. As she told Reuters, “I‘m the whole thing. There’s no need for any elections because I’d be the only one to vote.”
But she doesn’t feel like a celebrity.
“When I meet a celebrity, I’ll tell you what it’s like,” she says, laughing. “I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. I’ll just keep cooking up hamburgers and serving beers.”
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. In the 1930s Monowi was a relatively bustling railroad town of 150 with several businesses including grocery stores, restaurants, and even a prison. But gradually, as farming conditions worsened and jobs were lost to automation, people started moving away in search of greater opportunity and those who stayed eventually passed away. When Eiler’s husband Rudy died in 2004, she became the last remaining resident — but she hasn’t dreamed of moving.
“I really don’t have any desire to live anywhere else. I’m perfectly happy right where I’m at now,” she told the BBC. “I know I could always move closer to my children or stay with them whenever I want, but then I’d have to make all new friends again. Hopefully I will be able to stay here. It’s where I want to be,” she said.
So don’t feel too bad for Eiler, as she stays in Monowi by choice. In fact, we could learn a thing or two from her about living happily in the moment. “I see people all day long, coming and going, strangers and regulars. When I go home at night, I’m perfectly happy to have that time to myself.”
As she told Country Living, “I believe in living each day and not worrying about down the road. I’m going to enjoy it while I am alive.”
Up next… Why is a 1930s building bursting at the seams with spirits and spectres? The answer is a bit complex.
Could the mythical fairies of old actually be the extraterrestrials we tell stories about today? These stories and more when Weird Darkness returns!
STORY: THE SMETHWICK BATHS=====
A 1930s art deco swimming pool is not the first place you think of when people mention the most haunted places in the country. So why is this 85-year-old building bursting at the seams with spirits and spectres? The answer to that is not any easy one to give.
The Subways below the pools holds the most paranormal activity and even without the resident spooks looks like something from a horror movie. Built from reinforced concrete the dark tunnels act as a storage area, but their original purpose was for the storage of staging from the concerts and dances the baths used to hold during the winter season. Hundreds of years prior to the building the land was fields and farm land, but a secret was kept on the land which still holds true today.
When the building was built 300 bodies were discovered in a medieval plague pit 10 ft. below the main reception, these bodies still remain there to this day. The area above this mass grave is the old 2nd world war air raid shelter and forms part of the subway system. Within this area on many occasions has been seen the ghost of a young boy covered in white powder. The interesting thing about the powder is that plague victims were covered with lime powder to stop the spread of infection. Is this the powder the ghost boy is covered in.? This boy has frightened many an unsuspecting member of staff or contractor as they turned on the lights and then he vanishes in front of their eyes.
The wood store at the far end of the subways holds the spirit of a male energy who holds a hatred of women. So much so that when a group of all female ghost hunters were in that room he threw a heavy wooden table at them, causing a mass panic for the exit. This mystery spook only shows himself in the form of a mist that travels from room to room. Emily is the spirit of a little 8-year-old girl who has been witnessed many a time by paranormal investigators who have visited the baths. Not only has she shown herself as a full apparition but also held people’s hands and whispered in their ears. Through communication from mediums she has told of how her house was located near the large pool hundreds of years ago, where she passed from a disease, she likes to come back and communicate with people and on the whole seems very happy.
The man in the boiler suit has a habit of saying hello to people who are doing work in the subways. Dressed in a navy boiler suit and red hair he often greets people as they walk around. Contractors genuinely believe they are talking to a member of staff and have had long conversations with this ghost. Its only when staff explain that there are no staff working on site of that description that makes their jaws drop and hair on the back of their necks stand up. In fact, many a lone worker has reported to the office that there are gangs of kids running around the subways and they can’t get on with their work.
Add to the mix ghost of cats and dogs and even a horse has been seen makes the subways very haunted indeed. But the most terrifying place in the whole building must be the morgue. The Morgue was used during the war as a body storage area for all the local bombing victims. In this area a pungent smell of death hangs around and extreme temperature drops have been recorded. So cold in fact you can see your own breath. Orbs have been seen by the naked eye and a dark figure of a man with a long beard and hair is often seen. The chute where bodies were lowered into the morgue from the carpark holds a strange atmosphere of its own, with people only being able to stand in there for a couple of seconds before they feel sick. Grown man who have visited on ghost hunts have burst into tears for no reason and strange groans have been recorded. The subways aren’t the only area to hold a spiritual presence in the building, most of the rooms hold a ghostly tale. But I can assure you that their presence has never caused any harm.
We have had mysterious footsteps heard in the reception area when no one was about. Puddles in the changing rooms have had fresh footprints come out of them even though the building has been closed for 12 hours. Plant room equipment has been switched off over night. The ladies’ toilet upstairs people have seen a women dressed in RAF uniform. Ghostly children’s voices have been heard by staff locking the balcony after the public have left for the night. Back stage area a woman has been seen pushing a tea trolley and leaving the scent of lavender perfume. The stage where the Beatles and other big bands from the 60s played has had doors slammed shut and door handles moved by itself.
Even though we have our fair share of ghosts on site, the building retains a happy community feel and has an amazing history. Maybe that’s why the spirits remain?
THE EXTRATERRESTRIALS WANT TWINKIES=====
In his 2016 book written with UFO abductee Whitley Strieber, The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained, Jeffrey Kripal notes:
“Grays were, in appearance, strikingly similar to the fairy folk of Northern Europe. Also like them, they were frightening, came out of the night, and abducted people. I might note in passing that the majority of ur correspondents had last names suggesting Scotch or Irish descent. What this might mean I don’t know, but, as is true of most of this material, there must be an as yet unknown significance.”
Kripal is not the only one to make this connection. There have been multiple authors who’ve note the similarities between alien abductions and stories of fairy folk from the British Isles, some Beyond the physical appliance, there’s the distortions in time, the ethereal otherness that both sets of being seem to possess, and the fact that they do both come in the night and take people away. There does indeed seem to be some unknown significance here.
Fairies were a constant threat in the folklore of the British Isles. They lived in the hills and the woods, in the air and the water. They could sicken and kill livestock with their tiny arrows. They could could turn the milk bad with an angry glance. They could steal a healthy child and replace it with a shadow that would sicken and die. They were a real and constant threat to prosperity and to continued existence.
But against this threat, the people developed defenses. Carrying a little bit of iron with you. Saying the right prayer quickly at the right time. Leaving a little dish of milk out for the fairies at night. There were ways to keep the harm the fairies caused to a minimum.
Working in the 1970s and 80s, folklorist David Hufford noticed that there was a striking similarity to a number of cultural accounts of a specific form of supernatural encounter, a phenomenon he knew from his work in Newfoundland as “Hag Riding.” According to this tradition, a witch will visit someone in the night, sitting on their chest and keeping them from breathing. Someone being ridden by the hag would be unable to move to shake the witch off. Even if they can’t see her, they felt her presence.
Similar traditions existed in the Appalachian mountains, West Africa, Gullah/Geechee culture, Scotland, Ireland, and other cultures spanning the globe. Some cultures described these as encounters with witches. Others as meeting with devils, or demons. Hufford even encountered a detailed description from an atheist medical student who was absolutely skeptical of any supernatural explanation, and was interested in working with Hufford to find out what was going on..
What they pieced together from all of this was that there was a similar physical cause for all of this, eventually helping to describe a medical phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is , i n very rough terms, what happens when while waking from sleep the body’s systems get rebooted in the wrong order, causing immobility and hallucinations. It’s a medical phenomenon that any human on the planet may experience at some time during their life. But the interpretation of that phenomenon was cultural. Whether it a witch or a devil sitting on your chest at night depended on what cultural ontology you approached the situation with.
Hufford described this a core experience. Sleep paralysis is a biological phenomenon, but that’s largely irrelevant for the person experiencing it. Because it is an entirely subjective experience, a misfire happening inside the brain, the only way it can be interpreted is within a cultural context. Something is happening to us we do not understand, and so we form a narrative around it based on the tools that are culturally available to us.
Now, I’m aware that sleep paralysis has also been suggested as an explanation for the alien abduction phenomenon, but that’s not what I want to focus on here. Instead, I want to look at the connection between alien abduction, fairies, and the idea of viewing these as the same core experience, expressed in different ways in a different cultural context. I’m also aware that there are some problems making that aliens equals fairies connection. Compilations of reports of meetings with fairies are generally put together by people looking for historical reports of meeting with fairies. There’s some problems with how representative that data set is. We have quite a few counterexamples in the form of historical reports of people not meeting with fairies. But take a leap of faith with me here and let’s assume that this is the same phenomenon, that there’s a core experience connecting these encounters with the Unknowable across cultures and across time.
Now, I am making no claims that I have any idea what the material cause of this core experience is. We only know that sometimes, occasionally, people tend to encounter beings from somewhere beyond. What these beings are, where they come from, and even whether they’re real or not I’m willing to leave, for now, as unknowable. Accept hat it’s just something that happens. And if we understand that it’s just part of the human condition that we live under constant threat from otherworldly beings, that’s where it begins to get genuinely disturbing. It seems like its definitely the sort of thing we should be worried about. Obsessed about, even. So what do you do about it? That’s where it becomes helpful to look at this core experience as a cultural experience. Because multiple cultures have come up with answers for what to do.
Cultures that lived with fairies had ways of defending yourself from, and ways of appeasing, those fairies. Cut a cross in your soda bread before baking it to let the fairies out. Turn your coat inside out if fairies were bothering you on the road. Always leave a little milk out at night for the fairies to drink. These were a set of understood cultural tools. Everyone in the community knew why there as a cross in the bread, why your coat was inside out, and what the milk was for. There was a cultural toolkit for dealing with the Unknowable on an everyday basis.
In mainstream American culture, this toolkit has been by and large banished. We don’t have a common understanding of what otherworldly beings are threatening us, we don’t have any socially acceptable way to deal with this threat. And I do think that threat is a core experience, though whether it is from actually otherworldly beings or not is beside the point. The core experience is the fear itself. Its that any of us can feel like we’re facing an otherworldly threat. And constantly facing a threat is not fun.
This os particularly true with a threat that only manifests itself rarely and unpredictably. When you never know exactly when something is going to pop out from behind a bush and whack you, it’s easy to become obsessed with looking behind every bush. And the longer that threat looms out there, the bigger it seems to become. Worry becomes obsession becomes paranoia.
That’s where I think that missing cultural toolkit comes into play. Because if this worry that can blossom into paranoia is part of the baseline human condition, when that paranoia gets out of control it can cause problems not just for the individual, but for all of society.
If you’re worried about the alien coming for you, you need ways to deal with that. Some people find that hanging tin foil in their rooms is enough to help them keep the aliens away. Some people build landing strips for the flying saucers. Some people form suicide cults. And without a recognized cultural context and socially acceptable ways to deal with these feelings, having them spiral out of control seems more likely.
I’m going to suggest here that actions like leaving milk out for the fairies can be something like a form of cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s a simple, concrete action that helps control the emotion, diffuse and deflect that paranoia before it gets too big. If leaving the milk out works 99% of the time to keep the fairies away, the 1% of the time they get though it’s not as big of a deal. And if you live in a culture that recognizes fairies, and recognizes as legitimate the methods of dealing with that threat, it helps keep the society as whole healthier. It gives the fear of the Unknowable room to breathe. Individual actions collectively become a form of cultural behavioral therapy that keeps society sane.
Here in America, there are minority cultures that have these methods for dealing with threats from the Unknowable. But in the majority culture, these methods don’t exist, and the expression of these fears is not socially acceptable. We don’t have little things we do that we all agree will keep the saucer people away. And without those individual actions to take away the pressure, the paranoia starts to snowball until it infects the culture on multiple levels. I think we need to find ways of reintroducing those small coping mechanisms, for the good of society as a whole.
What would it look like to deliberately construct cultural methods to deal with this core experience? Are there ways we can find cultural equivalents for leaving milk out for the fairies? What would happen if we all started leaving Twinkies on the roof as offerings for the saucer people?
This is not an unserious proposal. I suspect that a lack of culturally acceptable ways to deal with paranoia is why we’re seeing it spiral so rapidly out of controlat the current moment. Finding constructive ways to diffuse this energy may very well help the next Comet Ping Pong shooting from happening. And keeping away the saucer people on a small scale may be enough of a totemic influence to keep the collective paranoia from building until it builds to point where the only thing that will keep the evil forces away is to build an absurdly massive totemic wall. Cultural behavioral therapy.
Twinkies for the saucer people might actually work. Folk concepts of outer space are deeply embedded in American popular culture at this point. So, for that matter, are folk concepts of Twinkies. The fact that I strongly suspect that somewhere in the back of your mind the idea that aliens would like Twinkies makes some kind of intuitive sense means that the the necessary cultural vocabulary is already there. Now we just need to find ways of putting it to practical use. If we started putting decorated boxes on our roofs, or sitting on top of long poles out in yards, it would be the sort of individualized yet collective experience that makes customs like this productive and successful. The fairies want their milk. The saucer people want their Twinkies. Even if there are no actual saucer people, we are still living with the core experience of the fear of the saucer people. Relearning a cultural language to deal with this fear seems like a UFO landing strip worth going down.
When Weird Darkness returns… We’ll look at some of the trade secrets used by forensic artists.
STORY: THE SECRET FORMULA OF FORENSIC ARTISTS=====
Despite recent advancements in DNA evidence-gathering and high-tech investigative tools, a simple pencil-on-paper sketch can still have a significant impact on criminal cases. Forensic artists who create such sketches use eyewitness accounts, crime scene evidence, skeletal remains, and more to help illustrate and personify criminals and victims—all of it in the pursuit of bringing perpetrators to justice.
To better understand the details of the job, Mental Floss asked three veteran forensic artists about tricks of the trade, why they’re not actually trying to create an exact likeness, and how a bird’s nest can be one of their best tools. Here’s what we’ve learned.
When witnesses sit down with law enforcement to relay their description of a criminal’s appearance, they might believe the only relevant information is what their eyes have seen. But according to Melissa Cooper, a freelance forensic artist based in California, all of their senses matter. “It often helps to ask questions that will trigger memory recall,” she says. “During one case interview, I asked [a witness] what stood out the most. She said, ‘His cologne.’ You’d think, ‘Oh, great, I can’t draw that,’ but scent is a huge enabler for memory. Now I know she can smell him and she’s right back in the scene. It’s a perfect state to be in.”
It’s easy to imagine that forensic artists might remain hunched over a sketch for hours, trying to insert every last dimple and laugh line they could tease out of a witness. Wrong. According to Cooper, trying to create an exact likeness might make a sketch less likely to resonate with the public. “With a highly realistic portrait, someone might see it who knows the person, but if there’s one thing wrong, one detail, they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s not my buddy,’” Cooper says. “When it’s more sketchy, more scribbled, you’re leaving more open to interpretation.”
Lisa Bailey, author of Ask a Forensic Artist and a consultant for several law enforcement agencies, agrees. “[Artists] are by necessity keeping their own self-expression and artistry out of it, and not adding information that would create a ‘prettier’ image that could lead someone away from recognition.”
Forensic artists have responsibilities that go far beyond sketching criminal suspects. Sometimes, they’re called upon to recreate the facial features of a deceased person by “building” out a face using a 3-D replica of a retrieved skull. Teaming with a forensic anthropologist who can usually determine the age, sex, ancestry, and height of the deceased, the artist uses clay to sculpt their missing features. “The skull says so much,” Cooper says. “It can tell you where the eyes angled, where the nostrils went, where the eyebrows were. Given the choice of a photo of a corpse that’s decomposing or a skull, I’d take the skull.”
By some estimates, there are less than 100 full-time forensic artists in the country. That’s because most of the artists working cases are either freelancers hired by departments or active-duty officers or other agency employees who are called in when needed. “For the average-sized or smaller agency, it doesn’t always make sense to have a full-time artist,” Bailey says. “Lots of cases don’t require one—there’s a video of the suspect, or investigators have already developed leads to the identity of the suspect. Even if an agency estimated the need for 20 or so sketches year, that’s still not enough work to justify keeping a full-time artist on the payroll.”
Charles Jackson, one of the “dual duty” artists who retired from law enforcement as a detective in 2013 but continues to provide forensic sketches, says that his fellow investigators were often reluctant to circulate the art he produced. “The most surprising thing about the job is that it’s hard to get detectives to use the tool,” he says. “Generating evidence based on memory, I think they can sometimes be afraid to [have victims] testify to it.” Despite the potential for defense attorneys to call sketches into question, Jackson says that almost all detectives who wind up using them are glad they did. “It’s always been a positive.”
Once a sketch has been completed and passed on to the investigating officers, it’s considered official police evidence that needs to adhere to a chain of command. To make sure the illustration came from the memory of a specific person, the witness is usually asked to endorse it with a signature. “For a pencil composite, the witness will usually sign the back of the sketch, behind the area of the face so that it won’t unintentionally be made public when it’s scanned, or can’t be accidentally cut off if the sketch is trimmed down to fit in a case file,” Bailey says. The original is then kept on file in an evidence room.
For cases where artists are called to help reconstruct the likeness of a decomposed or otherwise de-featured body, Cooper says that a good reference source for bodies found in the woods can often be found in a very unlikely place. “When dealing with a decomposed body, we’d like to get the color of the hair, and a good place to find that is in a bird’s nest nearby,” she says. “Birds love hair.”
Because many forensic artists can be skilled in age progression—trying to realize how a missing child might look years after their disappearance—families with missing loved ones will sometimes inquire about having a sketch done as part of their grieving process. “Sometimes it’s the actual parents, and sometimes it’s just one spouse who wants to give it to the other one,” Cooper says. “I sometimes get scared, not knowing how they’ll react, but they’re usually very grateful.”
According to Jackson, not all sketches are done in the proverbial dark. In some instances, authorities have a suspect in mind and are curious if a witness can match that image with their own description. “Detectives frequently call us to corroborate a suspect they have in mind, so it’s basically a composite sketch for a lead,” Jackson says.
When Bailey is tasked with sculpting the features of a cold case victim, she pays attention to anything unusual or unique about their teeth. If a tooth is crooked or their smile is distinctive, she may decide to add a little smirk. “If there’s anything unusual about the teeth, like gaps or crookedness, then we’ll sculpt it with parted lips, or with a small smile, because someone might recognize the person just because of the teeth.”
Some departments without the resources to hire forensic artists rely on software that can digitally render faces. While their efficacy compared to hand-drawn images is open to debate, many forensic artists often rely on software when it’s time to prepare a victim’s photographed image for public consumption. “There’s a lot of work to do to make an image suitable for public release,” Bailey says. “The artist will have to digitally open the eyes, close the mouth and adjust the jaw, remove swathing and cloth that has been placed around the head, and realign the head so the shoulders aren’t hunched up around the ears when they are lying on the morgue table.” Bruises, blood, wounds, and other marks are also retouched.
Not all renderings of suspected criminals come from memory. Sometimes, an artist will be called on to fill in the blanks left by incomplete or obscured surveillance footage. “If they have only a three-quarters shot of someone’s head from above, I can look at that,” Cooper says. “Knowing the anatomy of the head, I can show them what the rest of the person would look like.”
Jackson says that many witnesses tend to retain visual information relating to the center of the face: the eyes, nose, mouth, and chin. “People generally have a hard time picking out ears,” he says, mainly because they just didn’t notice them. To assist witnesses with feature identification, some artists use an FBI manual that catalogs many common features and asks interviewees to point out which ones look familiar. Jackson uses one; Cooper doesn’t. “Pictures can be suggestible,” she says. “I like [details] to come from them.”
Forensic artists occasionally tackle work outside of law enforcement duties: Cooper has worked with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles with taxidermy efforts for exhibits. But requests to do anything too far off the beaten path are usually met with refusal. “My primary clients are law enforcement, but I once had someone from the Ellen Show wanting me to do a composite of a chupacabra, which Ellen’s wife apparently saw outside their house,” she says. “Someone else wanted to help interpret a dream for them. There’s an element of integrity to the job. I declined. You get a lot of weird requests.”
Artists working with law enforcement do everything they can to try and take a person’s memories and make them into a tangible image on a page. But no matter how striking the image, nothing will happen unless it ends up in the right place. “We’re dealing with luck and timing,” Bailey says. “The right person needs to be looking at the right time. The best, most accurate facial approximation in the world can’t do its job if a family member or friend isn’t looking.”
All stories in Weird Darkness are purported to be true (unless stated otherwise) and you can find source links or links to the authors in the show notes.
“Monowi, Nebraska – Population One” by Ripley’s Believe it or Not; Laura Moss for MNN; Karen I. Chen for Travel & Leisure; Maria Carter for Country Living
“The Haunted Smethwick Baths” by Andy Moore for Mysterious Britain and Ireland
“The Extraterrestrials Want Twinkies” by Julian Whitefish for The New Folklore
“The Secret Formula of Forensic Artists” by Jake Rossen for Mental Floss
Again, you can find link to all of these stories in the show notes.
WeirdDarkness™ – is a production and trademark of Marlar House Productions. Copyright, Weird Darkness.
Now that we’re coming out of the dark, I’ll leave you with a little light… “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves…” – Philippians 2:3
And a final thought… “The problem is people are being hated when they are real, and are being loved when they are fake.” – Bob Marley
I’m Darren Marlar. Thanks for joining me in the Weird Darkness.