âWe think they’re all bonkers and weirdos, but fringe culture has real implications,â says Colin Dickey, USC Dornsife alumnus, who explores the paranormal and the occult in his books. [5Â¾ min read]
- Author Colin Dickey received his PhD in Comparative Literature from USC Dornsife and went on to write books on the occult, aliens, and paranormal activity.
- Dickey says belief in paranormal activity, aliens and other unproven phenomena – whether real or not – can impact society.
- Some phenomena are both real and unexplained, like the âKentucky Meat Showerâ of 1876.
Colin Dickey’s writing career on the paranormal and the occult began with a gruesome discovery he made while completing his doctorate in Comparative Literature at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Colin Dickey is currently a professor at the National University. (Photo: Courtesy Colin Dickey.)
âI was researching for a course I was teaching and came across a mention of how [English writer and philosopher] Sir Thomas Browne’s skull was stolen from his grave, âsays Dickey. âThen I discovered that the composers Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn had their heads stolen as well. I started to wonder, âWait, is that a thing? “
This discovery became his first book, Crankioklepty: looting of graves and research of genius (Unbridled Books, 2010), which explores how bizarre practices such as grave robbing are linked to larger cultural phenomena such as phrenology, whose skull shape says a lot about personality or intellect. . Slavers, for example, often used phrenology to wrongly assert the inferiority of Africans based on a pseudo-scientific examination of skulls, and to argue against emancipation.
âWhat I discovered is that even if something looks wrong, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a real impact on our world. We think they’re all weirdos and weirdos, but fringe culture has real implications, âsays Dickey, whose most recent book is The unidentified: mythical monsters, extraterrestrial encounters and our obsession with the unexplained (Penguin Random House, 2021).
He recently sat down to discuss aliens, ghosts, secret societies and what we can learn from them about our fears, prejudices and fantasies.
Let’s talk about your most recent book The unidentified, which examines paranormal events. What do you think aliens, for example, are saying about our society?
Dickey’s The Unidentified explores Aliens, Bigfoot Creatures, Flat Earth Believers, and more. (Image source: Random Penguin House.)
Aliens often seem to exist in our culture to help someone promote their preferred sense of reality as inevitable. Some of the earliest extraterrestrial contacts describe aliens with blond hair and blue eyes making a utopian or Christian society known.
Contactee Gloria Lee, an air hostess, claimed to speak with an alien named JW who imparted spiritual teachings to her. She couldn’t just tell people her ideas as a flight attendant and be taken seriously, but the use of this alien invests ideologies with importance.
There is also a racial erasure in ufology. Two of the most famous abductees are Betty and Barney Hill, a biracial couple. Their experience has become the standard model for abductee stories. A film was made about them, which also clearly deals with the racism they suffered, but this element was ignored by the public.
It seems that the stereotype of an “alien contactee” is that of a geeky white dude looking at X files.
Which is wrong because some of the most famous people in contactee history are black men. [Nation of Islam leader] Louis Farrakhan and [jazz musician] Sun Ra both have had elaborate accounts around their contactee experiences.
We don’t talk about it and it raises a few questions: What is an acceptable goal around contactees? Who has the right to have contactee experiences? Aren’t people talking about these experiences because of their prejudices about who they think the aliens want to contact?
The unidentified mentions something called “the Kentucky meat shower,” which sounds incredibly odd. Can you explain what it was and what it might say about the company?
The Kentucky Meat Shower happened in 1876, when a woman and her grandson saw pieces of meat raining down in her yard. No one knew where they came from. It wasn’t a hoax; this is something that really happened. In fact, a reporter showed up and tried to convince someone to taste a piece. There are explanations, but none are so great.
In the 19th and 20th centuries there was this âdisenchantmentâ with the world. Suddenly, everything could be explained scientifically or theologically. So things start to happen that seem to resist explanation. And, I really think there’s always something important to keep your eyes peeled for in wonder.
Your previous book Ghostland: an American story in haunted places is all about ghosts. Do you know a good Los Angeles ghost story?
Most of the haunted places are old Victorian houses, but in Los Angeles we have haunted hotels like the Biltmore or the Roosevelt.
While writing this book, I spent time at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel, which is said to be haunted by a girl in a red dress. We’re probably saying it’s haunted in part because it’s awkward and disorienting; it feels like a prison. It’s not a good place to be, and we attach ghosts to places we feel uncomfortable with: prisons, asylums, cramped spaces. There is in fact a whole philosophy around prison architecture: to build places that inspire melancholy.
Are you working on another book project?
I’m currently writing a book about secret societies, real and imagined, in America – things like the Underground Railroad, Freemasonry, the Illuminati and the New World Order, the CIA and the FBI – and how the theories conspiracy shape our understanding of such societies.
People think the recent rise in conspiracy theories and secret societies came out of nowhere, but we’ve always had moral panics. There was the satanic ritual panic of the 1980s [in which day care providers were accused of molesting children as part of Satanic gatherings], which actually put people in jail. [Former U.S. Attorney General] Janet Reno made her career prosecuting people for alleged Satanic crimes in the 1980s in Miami.
We also think of 2016 as the first âconspiracy theoryâ election, but it wasn’t. There was a scare among the Illuminati in the 1800 election, in which federalist opponents of Republican presidential candidate Thomas Jefferson accused him of being in the Illuminati – only to have their own accusations turned against them by a disgruntled ex-federalist.
Illuminati theory tends to refer to anything uncomfortable or unexpected about democracy. When something is wrong with you in politics, you can take a step back and reexamine yourself or you can say there is a plot against you, which means you don’t have to question yourself.
Halloween is coming. How do you like to celebrate?
I definitely plan to revisit some favorite Japanese horror movies. However, I actually do most of my ghost stuff around Christmas. Telling ghost stories in winter is a very old tradition, which we have kind of lost.
The arrival of Scottish and Irish immigrants to America brought the Feast of Samhain, a pagan celebration of the dead that occurs in late fall, and so Americans eventually shifted their association with ghost stories and the supernatural to what is now called Halloween.
On Christmas Eve I have friends and we sit down to tell ghost stories. The most famous ghost story of all, of course, takes place at Christmas: that of Charles Dicken A Christmas story.