Nov 272009

Some years back a famous “cryptozoologist” published a blog entry in which he related an anecdote that had been forwarded to him by a reader. The story was that a woman was driving along a road late at night and witnessed a strange creature attempting to cross over a fence. The famous cryptozoologist dubbed the creature a “Fence Fiend”, as the cryptozoologist had a predilection for alliteration.

To anyone but hard-core Forteans and true believers, the notion of a “Fence Fiend” was patently ridiculous and absurd. But let’s think about this a little bit. First off, it’s entirely possible that the account is a complete fabrication, proffered for the simple motive of attention. You see this all the time on the late night radio program “Coast to Coast” where the most outrageous tales are gobbled up by the hosts like so much intellectual Jello.

When I was a sideshow performer back in the early 1990’s I came to the conclusion that I had probably traveled tens of thousands of miles, many of them in vans or tour buses on highways. I saw a LOT of North America, Australia, Europe, and Great Britain this way. When I read about the “Fence Fiend” it occurred to me that what the individual might have seen was a plastic garbage bag or tarp stuck to the fence, fluttering in the wind.

Skeptics are often mocked for suggesting solutions to mysteries that may seem to believers as too simplistic, or unrealistic. UFO proponents seized on “swamp gas” many years ago as an example of an allegedly unrealistic solution to a UFO sighting. And this may have been the case with “swamp gas.” As with all human endeavors, skepticism has a range of values; some of it is good, some of it is not so good, and some of it is really good.

So to attack something as intrinsically weak as a “Fence Fiend” may seem like shooting fish in a barrel, or picking the “low hanging fruit”.

Except that it happened to me.

No, I’ve never seen a “Fence Fiend”, but I have seen many garbage bags, tarps, or other debris caught in fences, and set to fluttering by the wind. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven by things in the roadway which I couldn’t immediately identify. Was that thing metal, cardboard, plastic, or a dead animal? Was it broken and distorted, or new and simply novel to me such that I couldn’t recognize it?

The weirdest sighting of all occurred to me several months ago, right outside my house. There is a large traffic circle at the intersection just west of me. Nine times out of ten, I turn left, not right. I think I’m supposed to go around the circle, but I’ve got a big old American pickup truck, and it doesn’t like the tight radius of the traffic circle.

One night I pulled out and began my left turn. To make sure there were no cars coming from my right, I looked right. On the ground I saw what I believed to be a small mammal. My first thought was that it was a rat, and this bothered me, as no one wants rats in their neighborhood. But it was quite dark in color; too dark for the species of rat found around here. Weirdly, it was quite wide as well. Then I thought it might be a possum, but possums aren’t dark, and don’t scurry like this thing was doing. I wondered if it might be a baby raccoon, as a raccoon would be dark enough, but the proportions were wrong, and I couldn’t see a tail. I began to wonder if I wasn’t seeing a large mole that was somehow making an unprecedented above ground appearance.

Notice how during this entire time, my mind was fixed on “mammal”. I kept searching my mental catalog of mammals to try and correctly perceive what I was seeing. And all this time, I had to keep turning my steering wheel left, and try to drive safely. The entire encounter lasted perhaps 3 or 4 seconds. What made the sighting so Fortean was that the thing was almost hemispherical, vaguely like a turtle. But it moved and scurried like a mammal, and was black.

Because I was driving, and the thing was moving, the encounter lasted mere moments. If the encounter would have been shorter by about 1 second, I would be forever mystified about what I saw. A mole? A mutant rat? A baby Fence Fiend?

No, what I saw was in fact a small black plastic bag, pushed along the ground with just enough force from the wind to create an impressive illusion. I was immediately reminded of those articulated wooden snakes that you could win as prizes at the fair. If one practiced, the serpentine movements of an inanimate object could become a highly effective illusion.

So even as a skeptic, I can say with complete honesty that I see things all the time that I can’t immediately identify, usually while driving. It’s the classic case in which brief, unexpected encounters provoke the mind to place ambiguous stimuli into known categories of previous experience. Every so often events can take on higher levels of ambiguity, and so have the potential to become folkloric, like the “Fence Fiend”.

 Posted by on 11/27/2009 Opinion

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