Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Strangest, Most Fascinating Stories I Have Found on the Internet


This is a photo that hangs above my desk, taken by the wonderfully mischievous Elliott Erwitt. I like to think it summarizes what I love about the world, and about capturing the world through pictures — reality can become magical just by looking in the right place. We don't have to depend on spaceships and faraway lands to get our jaws to drop in wonder. We just have to pay attention, and know what to look at, and, I think, to want to find magic. Herzog is a master at this. He knows there is beauty and mystery everywhere; all he does is ask the right questions.

Lately I've been coming across a lot of hidden beauty and mystery from all over the world. Well, not so much beauty. Mostly grotesque, macabre, and downright unbelievable stuff. Phantasmagorical would be the right word. Some of the stories I've found are so fantastic that I've broken with the theme of my ostensibly cinema-based blog to assemble a list of the more sensational ones for your reading pleasure. I'm convinced they all have grounded, scientific, and probably unexciting explanations, but that's beside the point — these stories sent chills down my spine in more or less all the various ways one can get chills down the spine, and the final chill was from my awareness that these all took place in the same real, so-called everyday world that we're sitting in right now.

1. The Dyatlov Pass Incident

In 1959, nine Russian mountaineers headed into the deep snow of the Ural mountains. Many days later, when they all failed to return, search parties found their tent abandoned and destroyed. The tent had been ripped open from the inside, and everyone within had fled out into the snow, some of them in just their bare feet. The tracks led off into the nearby forest, where it then took weeks to locate the bodies of all nine hikers.

When they were finally found, the mystery had just begun. All nine were in a bizarrely advanced state of decomposition. Some were missing clothes beyond their shoes. Their skin had turned a strange orange color. Three of the hikers had internal injuries consistent with massive blunt force trauma, like getting hit by a car, but no external wounds. One woman's tongue was missing.

The official cause of death was "hypothermia," but a later investigation could only describe what killed them as a "compelling unknown force." 

The History Channel does a good job of creepy-ing up this story in the video below — not that it needed it. I would stop watching around the 5-minute mark, once the show spins off into its Ancient Aliens pigeonholing. This is a story that doesn't need the trite explanation of aliens to be totally compelling.

2. The Japanese woman in the closet

I note that this story is from Japan only because of how insanely it evokes every Japanese horror movie ever made, wherein a creepy woman/girl appears inside of a previously safe/friendly place, like your stairwell, your wardrobe, under your covers, your closet.

Cracked tells this story best so I'll just leave it to them:

"A 57-year-old man living by himself in Japan began to notice small things amiss in his house -- objects wouldn't be where he'd left them. Food would disappear that he swore he didn't remember eating. He'd wake up to strange sounds in the middle of the night, but every time he'd go and check them out, the door would be locked, the windows tightly shut. Nobody was there.

Was he losing his mind? Being messed with by a shy poltergeist? To find out, he set up a series of spy cameras around his house. The next morning, he ran back the footage on the camera and that's when he saw it. A strange woman crawling out of a cupboard like it was the TV in The Ring. And if you think that's terrifying, imagine what happened inside his stomach when, at the end of the video, she crawled back into the cupboard. The one that was just a couple of feet away from where he was standing, watching the video.

Presumably in an effort to maintain bowel control, the man assumed the woman was a burglar who was only temporarily hiding in the cupboard, and had since left. He called the police, who pointed out that all the locks on his doors and windows were undisturbed. There was simply no evidence whatsoever that anybody had broken in -- in other words (cue dramatic strings) the woman had been in the house all along."

Yes, it turns out she had been hiding in his closet for nearly a year. (The story is corroborated by such sources as MSNBC, Reuters, and the BBC.) Think about that the next time you go to grab a shirt without turning the light on in the middle of the night.

3. The Man Who Floated Through a Thunderstorm

I can't tell this story nearly as well as this account does, and it's also described passingly by Wikipedia and TIME.

In 1959 — curiously the same year as the Dyatlov Pass Incident — Marine Corps pilot William Rankin was flying his F-8 Crusader jet through North Carolina, passing over an enormous thunderstorm wreaking havoc on the countryside below. Only as fate would have it, his jet took a dump in midflight and he was forced to eject, not only at an unusually high altitude, but directly above the storm.

As he dropped into the dark grey clouds, he kept his hand on his parachute, waiting to descend to the right height before pulling the cord. Unbeknownst to him, however, the storm had other plans. An incessant cascade of updrafts and air currents slowed his descent, and when he finally released his parachute he was still in the thick of the storm. The chute gave the storm winds something to grab on to, and Rankin would spend the next 40 minutes in mid-air, being tossed, spun, lifted, and pelted by the thunderstorm.

No movie could imagine such a fantastic scene. Jagged bursts of lightning flashed in front of him, dozens of feet away. The thunder rumbled so strongly he said he didn't hear it so much as feel it. He was spun so many times at one point he vomited. The air was so wet he had trouble breathing, and later described being genuinely afraid of drowning in mid-air.

Eventually, the storm released him, he parachuted safely down, hitchhiked back to civilization, and went on to lead a full life. Talk about a good party story.

4. The Human Nerve Gas Bomb

This story is covered extensively in Discover magazine, but with a pointedly scientific tilt including much discussion of solvents and oxygen atoms, so I'll render the cinematic version of the narrative myself:

On February 19, 1994, a 31-year-old woman named Gloria Ramirez was wheeled into the emergency room of a hospital in Riverside, California. She was conscious, but could respond to questions only in short, incoherent mumbles. She was breathing rapidly and her blood pressure was plummeting. As the emergency room team was starting to lose her, they stripped off her shirt to defibrillate and noticed an oily sheen covering her body, that was giving off a garlic smell. A needle was inserted into her arm to draw blood into a catheter. The nurse drawing the blood noticed it was full of mysterious tan flecks, and gave off a potent chemical smell, described as smelling like ammonia.

Within moments that nurse keeled over, saying her face was burning. Minutes later a second nurse left the room, feeling light-headed, but got no further than the office outside before she collapsed and started quivering violently. In the emergency room a third nurse blacked out and began shaking, in an apparent seizure.

The emergency ward was evacuated and a skeleton crew stayed behind to try and save Ramirez, whose vitals were nosediving, but to no avail. Ramirez died 40 minutes later and her body was taken to an isolation room. On the way, the nurse transporting her there started to feel her face burning, then nauseous — she would end up spending ten days hospitalized herself. One of the original stricken nurses was hospitalized for two weeks, and diagnosed with hepatitis, pancreatitis, and avascular necrosis. The latter means the bones in her knees were literally starting to break down and die.

In the end, 23 people were afflicted by the mysterious noxious gas that wafted from this dying woman. And to be clear, we are talking one seriously potent nerve gas: it laid people out within minutes, and started to break down bone tissue to the point that the one nurse had to use crutches for months. When one band of researchers eventually came up with a theory as to what the chemical might have been, they pulled part of their research on it from a Department of Defense book called the Reference on Chemical Warfare.

After Ramirez died, a massive forensic investigation followed, during which pretty much everyone came up with dick, except one team months later who determined...well, read the science-y article if you want to understand. It's a shot-in-the-dark theory that has drawn as much scorn as support and is somewhere along the level of the crazily random and obscure way that Christopher McCandless of Into The Wild fame died.

One way or the other, it is apparently possible for a human body to be transformed into something like a nerve gas bomb capable of taking down more than two dozen people. It makes you wonder, is the fact that we haven't heard about this before a good thing, or a bad thing?

5. The Mystery of the Somerton Beach Man

There's quite an exhaustive Wikipedia article about this one. Here's my summary:

A man dressed in suit and tie is found dead on a beach in Australia, December 1st, 1948.

He has no identification, and all the tags and brands have been cut or stitched out of his clothing. Eventually the authorities trace his jacket to America, but his dental records don’t match anyone who had lived there...or anywhere else. In fact no one can figure out who he was, in the entire world. The autopsy shows he was in perfect health, with no injuries and no trace of poison. Cause of death unknown.

Then a suitcase is found that apparently had belonged to the man – but inside are only more clothes, all with the tags removed. The only label left intact are several instances of “T. Keane,” but searching turns up no missing T. Keanes in all of Australia or anywhere else, and that name seems to have been deliberately left to be found. A further search of his clothing then reveals a secret pocket sewn into the man’s pants, and inside is a single scrap of paper with the words “Tamam Shud”, which translates to “FINISHED.”

The bit of paper is cut from an 11th-century Persian book called The Rubayait by Omar Khayyam, and not only that, but it was cut from an extremely rare First Edition version of the book. When the original copy of the book is finally located, with the same phrase cut out of one of its pages, detectives find it contains no clues to the man’s identity – instead, on the back of the crucial page, is scribbled this code:


.....and to this day, despite massive fascination in Australia and years-long international investigations, both the identity of the man and the meaning of the code remain unsolved.

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