Mark Chorvinsky (© Mark Chorvinsky – photograph
specifically made available to me by Mark for inclusion in this interview)
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.
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.
Magazine #18, depicting the Grim Reaper on its front cover and containing Mark's
in-depth investigation of this uncanny subject (© Mark Chorvinsky/Strange Magazine – reproduced here on a
strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
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
Patterson–Gimlin bigfoot film, frame 352 (current ©
owner unknown to me – reproduced here in low-resolution format on a strictly
non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
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.
Vintage depiction of Merlin carrying the infant who would become King Arthur (public domain)
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
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?
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.
Front cover of the very first issue of Strange Magazine, published in 1987 (©
Mark Chorvinsky/Strange Magazine –
reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for
educational/review purposes only)
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?
Widely disseminated photograph of a marabou stork that
may have inspired some false memories of having seen the thunderbird photograph
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.
My favourite Strange
Magazine front cover (Strange
Magazine #9), depicting the mysterious glowing mummies of Peru (© Mark
Chorvinsky/Strange Magazine –
reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for
educational/review purposes only)
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
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
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
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.
Chessie colouring book published by the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service in 1986 (public domain)
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
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
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.
The late Anna Mitchell-Hedges with the Mitchell-Hedges
crystal skull that she allegedly discovered (© Mark Chorvinsky)
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.
Nowadays, there are indeed numerous mass-produced
crystal skulls in existence, which do not exhibit anything remotely approaching
the extreme craftsmanship of the famous earlier ones investigated by Mark. Here
is one such modern-day example: (© Dr Karl Shuker)