During the early years of my cryptozoological research and writing career, one of the most influential figures to provide me with constant encouragement, soon becoming one of my best friends too, was Maryland-based Mark Chorvinsky. Not only a fellow Fortean investigator, Mark was also a well-respected cinematic special effects specialist, stage magician, and founder/publisher of Strange Magazine – whose pages contained some of the most comprehensive and intelligent research into mysterious phenomena of many kinds, including unexplained beasts, that has ever been committed to print. Consequently, I was both delighted and extremely honoured when, after having already published in Strange Magazine a number of detailed articles by me on various cryptozoological subjects, Mark offered me the opportunity to pen a regular column too, 'The Menagerie of Mystery', which soon blossomed into a major multi-page feature in each issue.
By the late 1990s, I was writing articles for a number of publications both in the USA and in my native U.K., including a British partwork entitled The X Factor, devoted to mysteries of many kinds (and therefore totally unrelated to a certain TV talent show for upcoming pop stars that would be screened some years later!). As it had already published some interviews that I had conducted with various notable figures in the worlds of the unexplained and Forteana, I decided to conduct one with Mark, which, with his permission, I then sent off to The X Factor, where it was duly accepted for future publication. Sadly, however, The X Factor came to the end of its run before it was able to publish my interview with Mark, but I retained the original transcript.
Tragically, after having being stricken with cancer, Mark passed away in 2005, aged just 51, a terrible loss to his family, his friends (of whom I am very proud to have been one), and to the entire Fortean world. Mark has rightly been called a Renaissance Man, because he did indeed possess extraordinary talents in a vast range of fields, and his countless contributions in so many varied subjects are still and always will be remembered. Recently, I found the printed-out transcript of my interview with Mark on file, so now, in a ShukerNature world-exclusive, I am publishing it here, as my tribute to a truly remarkable man and one of the kindest, most supportive friends I have ever known, or am ever likely to. God speed, Mark, and thank you for so much, for so long.
MY INTERVIEW WITH MARK CHORVINSKY, DECEMBER 1997
Mark Chorvinsky is one of America's most renowned Fortean investigators, and an expert in cinematic special effects, thus enabling him to conduct professional, significant analyses upon purported photographic evidence for mysterious phenomena. He is also the editor of Strange Magazine, published twice-yearly in the U.S.A. (P.O. Box 2246, Rockville, MD 20847), which is well-respected worldwide for its meticulously-researched articles, and also has an award-winning website (at www.strangemag.com). Here, in a rare interview, Mark talks exclusively to The X Factor concerning some of his many, diverse fields of Fortean study.
Q1: How did you become involved in what must surely be your most unusual current area of research, investigating alleged encounters with the Angel of Death (aka the Grim Reaper)?
A1: I was writing a column for the American magazine Fate, and from time to time I discussed weird encounters that readers had shared with me. One correspondent of mine described an encounter with a hooded, robed figure. When I wrote about this case, I received a good deal of mail from people who had also seen such a figure. A number of the cases involved an entity that we know of as the Angel of Death or the Grim Reaper. The figure often carries a scythe, has a skeletal appearance, and is associated with a death in some manner.
I have studied this phenomenon for some years now, and find it fascinating, as it was not previously known in the field of the study of Forteana/strange phenomena that there was a Reaper Phenomenon. Consequently, although the motif is centuries old, most of us never thought that it was anything but a cultural image. Who knew, for example, that nurses occasionally see the Grim Reaper at the bedside of a dying patient? I am collecting accounts of Grim Reaper sightings and am working on a book on the subject. I will also be speaking about it at the Fortean Times Unconvention in London in April 1998. If any X Factor readers have had any encounters with a Reaper-like entity, I would like to hear from them [Mark can be reached at email@example.com].
Q2: As a renowned bigfoot researcher and special effects authority, what is your opinion concerning the Patterson bigfoot film footage?
A2: Since 1958, bigfoot has become a part of the American cultural landscape, cemented by the film taken by rodeo rider Roger Patterson in 1967. After investigating this film for many years, I must say that the facts point to the hoax hypothesis. There are too many problems with the film for it to be genuine. Primate experts have major problems with the creature's anatomy, and Patterson was under tremendous pressure to come up with something on film. In fact, there was a warrant out for his arrest for non-payment on his rented camera!
Investigations by bigfoot investigator Peter Byrne have clearly demonstrated that the film could not have been taken at the time that Patterson claims it was. Why lie about the date and/or time if everything is on the level? The location of the Patterson film is Bluff Creek, California, which has been the site of various bigfoot hoaxes in the past, including the highly tainted 'Birth of Bigfoot' case. Also, there are many rumours of a person in a suit, all of which I am currently investigating. The most prominent of these rumours is that Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, who worked on the film 'Planet of the Apes', made the Patterson suit. I personally feel that there are many reasons to think this may be true, including the fact that some of Chambers's closest associates believe that he made the suit. Chambers denies involvement, but to my mind there is growing evidence to the contrary, both on and off the record.
Q3: One of the most famous figures of legend that may have actually existed is the Arthurian arch-mage, Merlin. Based upon your own findings, what conclusions have you drawn regarding the erstwhile reality (or otherwise) of Merlin?
A3: One cannot conclude anything definitive about Merlin: to paraphrase San Marte: "Merlin comes to meet us as if from a fog." The fog is a thick mist that has accumulated in the 13 centuries that have passed since Merlin may have lived. However, I feel from my 22 years of research into this subject that there probably was a Merlin, or Myrddin as he is referred to in Welsh, and that he should be afforded a rightful place in early British history.
In recent years, there has been a movement in the direction of accepting the historical reality of Merlin, but the Merlin that is being discussed has been stripped of his magical aspects and turned by rationalists into a Northern bard. I have done extensive research at the British Library, the National Library of Wales, in local libraries throughout Wales, and on location in the major Merlinian locales. Merlin was most certainly a druid-bard and was adviser/prognosticator for a number of heads of state in the fifth and sixth centuries.
Certainly, if such personages as Arthur, Vortigern, Hengist, and Horsa are accepted as historical figures, then Merlin should not be excluded, since he is mentioned in a number of early British manuscripts in a context that clearly depicts him as a real person of some importance. In the Annales Cambriae, the Welsh Annals, there is an entry for the year 573 AD stating that Merlin went insane at the battle of Arderydd (Arthuret). There is corroboration for the approximate date and the event, and we know the historical context for the battle. Thus, we accept everything in this entry except for Merlin, who is excluded out of an academic prejudice against things magical, anomalous, Fortean. Merlin has been excluded from history just as many Fortean phenomena are excluded from science due to aspects of their existence that do not easily fall into today's scientific fashions. I consider my study of Merlin to be my life's work, and I hope to spend some time in Wales working on a biography of Merlin based on everything that we know about him from all sources.
Q4: Since its inception in 1987, Strange Magazine has deservedly become one of the world's most widely-respected Fortean publications. As its editor and publisher, what do you personally consider to be its single greatest achievement?
A4: Strange Magazine's greatest achievement is following through on its policy of undertaking in-depth investigations into various strange phenomena. My feeling is that Fortean studies have traditionally been at their weakest when it came to actual investigations. Without serious, objective investigation, we will get nowhere in this field.
Most investigators are either believers or disbelievers, but neither of these groups is usually objective, despite their (often transparent) claims to the contrary. While there are occasional exceptions, most believers use their investigation to try to prove the existence of their favourite phenomenon. The disbelievers, meanwhile, are generally using the facts of their investigations to disprove the existence of the phenomenon that they disbelieve in.
When we investigate a case for Strange, we are often able to add a good deal of significant information to the field, and in some cases a conclusion is reached. Investigations are difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. They are also often thankless, as many people would rather hear the myth than the reality behind it. We are rather tough investigators, in the sense that we like to leave few if any stones unturned. There is no room for credulity in Fortean investigations, but one should not have a closed mind about strange possibilities either.
Q5: One of your most well-known, and tenacious, research pursuits is seeking the elusive thunderbird photograph. Bearing in mind, however, that it has evaded discovery for many years, how likely do you think it is that this picture really does (or did) exist?
A5: I think that it most likely does not exist, but if it does not there is still much to be learned from the phenomenon of a missing photo that so many credible witnesses believe they have seen. For those who are unfamiliar with it, the thunderbird photograph is a missing photograph that many have described as variously depicting an exceptionally large bird or pterodactyl, with outstretched wings across a barn and a number of cowboys or professor-type figures standing in front of it. The photo was alleged to have been published in Arizona's Tombstone Epitaph newspaper in 1886, but this has been disproven.
Many of my Fortean friends and colleagues, including Mark Opsasnick, David Robbins, David Walley, and the late Vincent Gaddis, all are absolutely certain that they have seen the photograph, and these are not people prone to wild first-person claims. Why would so many people be certain that they saw it if they did not? But on the other hand, if the photo does not exist, how valuable are first-person accounts, which are the foundation for the widespread belief in many phenomena? If the t-bird photo is merely a false memory, how many other recollections of various phenomena are too?
My current investigation into this case involves magazine and newspaper research at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., a study of reports and alleged sightings of supposed thunderbirds and living pterodactyls, and an attempt to list and compare all known recollections of the location of the thunderbird photograph. At least once a week someone contacts me concerning their recollection of the photograph. So far, none of the leads has panned out, but it is a fun search as it is very different from my other endeavours. It would be great if someone found the photo, but it would have to be provided in a verifiable context - such a photo would not be difficult to fake today. In fact, there have been several very lame attempts in that direction. Luckily, our staff at Strange Magazine is very film/video/photography savvy as we are all film-makers/cinematographers/photographers, and have all worked on special effects for film and television.
I predicted a while ago that the thunderbird photo would be one of the top mysteries of the immediate future, which it now is, and I think that we will still be talking about it into the next millennium.
Q6: Looking to the future, as a major figure in Fortean research what do you see as your greatest challenge?
A6: My greatest personal challenge is to keep all of the balls in the air at the same time. At any given time, I am in the midst of a dozen on-going investigations and a number of articles and books, and there is always another issue of Strange Magazine to put out right around the corner. I would like to see all of the classic Fortean cases investigated, and all of the information gleaned put into print without regard as to whether or not the data supports any particular hypothesis. Most of the better-known phenomena are constructed like houses of cards that quickly fall apart when subjected to the weight of close, impartial scrutiny.
One of my goals is to train other people to do what I do and to have them work in their respective regions. I have started doing this over the past few years, but with mixed results. The biggest problem is that some investigators are approaching a given case as if there is little chance of hoaxing and a great chance that the phenomenon is "real". In fact, the opposite has turned out to be true in many of the cases that we have investigated. While there are certainly some notable exceptions, most cases have proved to be hoaxes or misidentifications of some kind.
Certainly, with film and photo cases, the vast majority are hoaxes - indeed, it is more probable that a film or photo is a hoax than not. This does not necessarily mean, of course, that any phenomenon that is the subject of hoax films and photos cannot be real itself (i.e. there may be, for example, a fake photo of a sea monster, but this does not rule out the possibility that sea monsters do exist). However, it does imply that the investigator should be prepared to look for red flags and ask the right questions, and to reserve judgement until enough information is in for a conclusion, tentative or not, to be drawn. There are many Fortean investigators in films and on TV, but there are very few in real life. It is hard to be sceptical and to retain a Fortean sense of wonder tempered by investigative experience.
My other great challenge is to get our archives in order, as we have newspaper clippings and personal accounts that have been sent in from all over the world. Data is both the love and the bane of the Fortean researcher.
BOX FEATURE QUESTIONS
Q1: North America lays claim to numerous water monsters, so why do you consider Chessie - the sea serpent of Chesapeake Bay - to be of particular interest?
A1: Chessie is of interest to me largely for selfish reasons - it is the closest alleged sea serpent to where I live in Maryland. I can drive for an hour or so and be in Chessie territory. I enjoy studying Chessie because most of its reports are not known to Forteans or cryptozoologists, and because Chesapeake Bay presents an interesting zoological situation. The bay is partly fresh and partly salty water - thus there is a great array of creatures that live in or find their way into here. Some of them might be mistaken for monsters, and many are in fact quite unusual.
There have been a considerable number of accounts describing close sightings of a giant eel, but some sightings are of a classic Nessie-esque plesiosaur-type form. Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the United States and is connected to the Atlantic Ocean. Whales, tremendous leatherback and green turtles, porpoises, manatees, giant rays, sharks, huge sturgeon, and lots of eels live in or have made it into the bay. Consequently, if there are such things as sea serpents, perhaps they have made their way into - and back out of - the bay too.
There are also a lot of wild but fascinating accounts of Army experimentation at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, including the area near Pooles Island, on the Chesapeake River. In this restricted area, very bizarre fish and other strange creatures have been sighted.
I was surprised to see a very old map of the United States in the National Museum of Wales's Welsh Folk Museum in St. Fagans. On this map, and heading straight for the Chesapeake Bay, is a sea serpent fitting Chessie's description! Chessie is a world-class mystery creature(s) but understudied, and is therefore very deserving of attention.
Q2: There has been much renewed interest lately concerning the crystal skulls. As a longstanding investigator of these enigmatic artefacts, what is your view as to their origin and possible authenticity?
A2: The crystal skulls were the objects of my first full-blown investigation, and I still find them amazing artefacts, despite the fact that so much myth surrounds them. Whereas the most famous example, the Mitchell-Hedges skull, is of highly questionable origin, the British Museum skull appears to have come from Mexico or Central America. There have always been a number of smaller skulls that are in various collections, including those of the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution; but while my investigation was in full swing, there were only two known, confirmed, life-size quartz crystal skulls.
In recent years, however, there has been a sudden proliferation of crystal skulls. These newer entries in the field appear to a veteran crystal skull student like me to be very different from the "classic" crystal skulls, and may well be modern in origin. There is nothing to stop any lapidary expert from carving a crystal skull from a large piece of quartz. Frank Dorland, who had the Mitchell-Hedges skull in his possession for several years, told me that he could create a duplicate of the Mitchell-Hedges Skull in under a year.
Some academics have suggested that there is a crystal skull "factory" somewhere in Europe, and that the skulls are originating from there. This is supported by the fact that occasionally someone comes to the Readers' Room at the Museum of Mankind in London and asks about a crystal skull of European origin that they have in their possession. The recent New Mexican skull turned out to be a fake - the sculptor came forward after the skull was being taken too seriously.
One thing is for certain - the crystal skulls are very attractive objects with a great deal of lore attached to them. We may never know their true origins, and they will forever be items of mystery.