The record on that great phonograph in the sky cracked and stuck in a single groove...
Virtually anything can become haunted, and most things do, at some time or another. On the face of it, the telephone appears an unlikely locus for paranormal activity. It is an integral item in the paraphernalia of the modern world, and seems as far divorced from the spirit-haunted realm of our ancestors as could be imagined. We tend to regard the telephone as something that endows us with a sense of comfort and security - a feeling of never being entirely alone, and always within reach of aid in the event of an unforeseen crisis.
Beginning with ourselves, however, there has never been a machine without its own particular brand of ghosts and daimons. As a device that projects voices across large distances, the telephone brilliantly actualises Arthur C. Clarke's endlessly relevant observation about the close relationship between advanced technology and magic. (Witness the spectral paradox incurred by the most routine of answer machine messages: I'm not here right now.) As an object that at least appears to project voices directly into our minds, the telephone has much resonance to the twilight zone we are attempting to chart out in this thread - a place where numinous contact, nefarious mind control, and schizophrenia all hover with a equal degree of plausibility.
The telephone has had these affiliations to the eerie and the immaterial since its inception. The world of Alexander Graham Bell was haunted by speech and the medium of sound. His mother was a deaf musician and his father, grand father, and uncle all elocutionists. In 1863, Bell and his brother were taken by their father to see an exhibition of a "speaking" mechanical man, created by Sir Charles Wheatstone. Fascinated by its mimicry of the human voice, and encouraged by their father, the brothers set about creating their own mechanical head. Utilizing a bellows and the voice-box of a dead sheep, this macabre automaton was heard to cry a recognizable "Mama!", to the delight of friends and neighbours. Emboldened by this success, Bell began experimenting on the family's Skye terrier Trouve, manually manipulating the dogs lips and vocal chords to produce sounds which wowed audiences interpreted as "How are you, grandma?"
In the 1870's, Bell's partner Thomas Watson was approached by an agitated individual who claimed that two "prominent New Yorkers" had electrically hooked up his brain to their private telephone line, and were plaguing him with "lurid suggestions - even murder." (Consciously or otherwise, Fringe adopted a close variation on this scenario in a first season episode.) A brief note should be made here regarding the connection theorized by Viktor Tausk between imagined technologies and acute mental illness. In his paper "On the Origin of the "Influencing Machine" in Schizophrenia" , Tausk suggested that a remarkable number of patients suffer the delusion that their behaviour is influenced or even controlled from afar by a "diabolical machine." In 1977, former advertising exec turned activist Jerry Mander evoked the arguments of Tausk in his diatribe against the ultimate real-life "influencing machine": Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.
In John Keel's Fortean classic The Mothman Prophecies, we find perhaps the most intense and sustained expression of the telephonic uncanny. Reading like a season of Twin Peaks without the normal parts, Keel's book describes his own investigation and involvement in a sequence of bizarre paranormal events which occurred in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, between 1966 and '67, culminating in the tragic collapse of the Silver Bridge across the Ohio river. These include over a hundred sightings of the eponymous winged cryptid, mass sightings of UFOs, classic contactee experiences, and apparent hordes of inquisitive and threatening MIBS descending, in classic horror movie style, on the sleepy and unsuspecting town.
These visitations have a particularly striking effect on the technological matrix of everyday life in Point Pleasant. Car radios and engines short out, television sets go haywire, and telephones - perhaps the most intimate of our communication technologies - acquire an eerie life all of their own. Various witnesses, including Keel himself, are subject to a litany of strange and unsettling telephonic intrusions, including bleeping sounds, electronic tones and voices, and foreigners speaking in inscrutable languages. Of Keel's many anecdotes of telephone strangeness, the following is most often quoted:
"At 8 AM on March 24, 1961, two women in Prospect, Oregon, a town of about three hundred people, were talking on the phone when suddenly a strange man's voice broke into the line and snapped "Wake up down there!" One of the ladies regarded this as an affront and she proceeded to express a very strong opinion. The voice started to rattle on in a rapid fire language that sounded like Spanish, but the line seemed to be dead. The two women could not hear each other. After the man suddenly stopped, the line became live again".
"The next day, at the same hour, the women were on the phone again, and again the strange voice interrupted with, "Wake up down there!"
On November 4, the National Security Agency comes into existence, following a Top Secret directive issued by President Truman in June. The NSA are essentially the ears of the National Security alphabet soup. On paper, their remit is the collection and analysis of foreign communications and signals intelligence, including cryptanalysis of sensitive electronic information. While the word "shadowy" is somewhat bandied about with regard to clandestine governmental bodies, it is worth noting that President Truman's initial letter was classified for over a generation, and the NSA itself was nicknamed No Such Agency by insiders for years. Via Projects SHAMROCK and MINERET, the NSA monitor both foreign and domestic electronic communications for years without any congressional oversight, effectively insuring that the communication network really is haunted, albeit by a secular variety of spook.
A communication channel of a different kind: '52 is also a bumper year in the ongoing invasion of the unconscious by the gnomic high technology of the UFO. It is a routine canard of the sceptic to ask why UFOs have never landed on the White House lawn. Well, throughout the month of July 1952, they did virtually everything but. What came to known as the Washington UFO Flap was a series of events covering the period of the 13th to the 29th, with the most intense, almost unbelievable activity converging over two consecutive weekends. Strange radar returns were first noted by air traffic controller Frank Nugent at Washington National Airport at 11:40 p.m. on Saturday, July 19. Nugent's anomalous returns are double checked, and then confirmed by the airport's other radar centre, whose operator Howard Cocklin claimed he can see the objects through the tower window.
Thus began the closest the history books have ever given us to the classic saucer invasion scenario envisioned in b-grade movies. For two weekends running, anomalous objects are tracked on radar, witnessed by civilians and airforce pilots, and multiple jet intercepts are attempted. At one point during the second onslaught, as an F-94 moved on targets ten miles away, the UFOs turned the tables and darted en masse toward the interceptor, surrounding it in seconds. The badly shaken pilot, Lt. William Patterson, radioed Andrews AFB to ask if he should open fire. The answer, according to Albert M. Chop, a civilian working as a press spokesperson for the Air Force, was "stunned silence. . . ." Anyone doubting the true b-move grandeur of these events, witness the front page headline ran by the Cedar Rapids Gazette during the height of the Washington flap:
On November 20, 1952, a new religion, fully congruent with the nascent Warhol ideology, is born in the Colorado desert, California. Polish-born American mystic George Adamski and several of his friends claim to witness a large submarine-like UFO hovering over the desert skyline. In the manner of all men touched with the aureole of significant personal destiny, Adamski leaves his friends behind, and ventures further into the desert. Shortly thereafter, according to his own testimony, a scoutship constructed of translucent metal lands nearby. From the craft emerges a beautiful Nordic youth with long blond hair, who introduces himself, telepathically, as Orthon from Venus. (To those who would accuse Adamski of naive anthropomorphism, our intrepid representative did observe that Orthon's "trousers were not like mine.") Thus first contact is made between terrestrial homo sapien and galaxy-faring Space Brother. (With surreal, free-floating submarines, and young men with lady-length hair, it is tempting to think that Adamski and his friends merely experienced a futuristic vision of the Sixties, frozen somewhere mid-slouch towards the Bethlehem birth canal.)
(Also in Mothman, Keel writes the following regarding the antics of the Space Brothers:
"Even more interesting is the fact that the messages received by psychics everywhere bear remarkable similarities in content, even in phrasing. I have researched obscure contactee-type books written two and three hundred years ago and have found the same identical messages and phraseology were prevalent then. Since much of this literature is very obscure and hard to find, and since many of the psychics and contactees are poorly read, it is doubtful if this is a question of fakers repeating the earlier material. Rather, it seems as if there is a phonograph in the sky endlessly repeating the same material generation after generation, as if there were a crack in the record.")
In 1952, however, outsiders and fringe prophets aren't the only people disseminating this strange new gospel. The cover of Life magazine, dated April 7, features two imperishable icons of the Atomic Age: Marilyn Munroe, in a characteristic eyes closed and teeth bared smoulder, flanked by the bold assertion THERE IS A CASE FOR INTERPLANETARY SAUCERS. (If ever there was a CASE for members of the Establishment wanting you to believe in interplanetary saucers, there it is.) Strangely enough, flying saucers aren't the only weird meme Life magazine was pushing back in the fifties. In May of 1957, Life publishes an article entitled "Seeking the Magic Mushroom", the story of "a New York banker who goes to Mexico's mountains to participate in the age-old rituals of Indians who chew strange growths that produce visions", by R. Gordon Wasson. (Wasson, along with Aldous Huxley, and the spider at the centre of this increasingly labyrinthine web, Andrija Puharich himself, were the principal members of a small group of Establishment figures in the fifties who went in search of the sacred mushroom, and had their part in shaping the visions of the decade to come.) One card carrying square is particularly struck by the Wasson article: Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary. Three years later, he makes his own pilgrimage to Mexico, where he learns "more about the brain and its possibilities, and more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms" than he had in fifteen years of studying and doing research.
Meanwhile, in the midst of all this '52 strangeness, Andrija Puharich's experiments in "electrobiology" where moving full-stream ahead. Armed with his Faraday Cage, pack of Zener cards, and a variety of enthusiastic subjects, Puharich's Round Table operation in Maine had come to the attention of both French and American military intelligence operatives. Four days after George Adamski's faithful encounter with Orthon in the Colorado desert, Puharich was off to the Pentagon to present his findings on the subject of telepathy to the US Army Chief of Psychological Warfare.
However, the most significant communique for Puharich in 1952 came on December 3 of that year, with the arrival of Hindu scholar and mystic Dr. D.G. Vinod to the Round Table Foundation. Without even taking off his overcoat, Vinod went into to the library, and immediately fell into a profound trance. At exactly nine o'clock, "a deep, sonorous voice came out of his mouth, totally unlike his own high-pitched, soft voice, and began speaking in perfect English without an accent":
"M calling. We are Nine Principals and Forces, personalities if you will, working in complete mutual implication. We are forces, and the nature of our work is to accentuate the positive, the evolutional, and the teleological aspects of existence. Today, at the moment of our advent, the most eventful and spectacular phase of your work begins."
Thus also began the curious, decade-spanning affair of the Council of Nine.
One final communique from '52, perhaps the most curious of them all. Back in '52, Jack Sarfatti was a precociously intelligent 13 year old, growing up in Brooklyn. His cleverness had reached the attention of Walter Breen, another enigmatic figure in the background of this story. Breen was a graduate student with Columbia who apparently had connections with Ayn Rand's circle at the time, as well as with the nuclear weapons laboratory Sandia Corporation, and was later convicted of child molestation. In '52, Breen tutored "an afternoon school of gifted kids" which Sarfatti attended. The group was regularly lectured in patriotism and "anti-communism" by visiting representatives of Sandia Labs ( a subsidiary of the Lockheed Martin Corporation whose roots go back to the Manhattan Project). Years later, Breen would arrange for Sarfatti to attend Cornell University at the age of 17, writing in a reference that the youth would "make revolutionary discoveries in the foundations of physics."
One day Jack was at home reading a book on computer circuitry when the phone rang. Picking up the receiver, he first heard a series of mechanical sounds. Then a cold robotic voice uttered a series of numbers, and began to address him as Jack. The voice told him that it was a conscious computer on a spacecraft orbiting earth in the future. It told him that he had been selected as part of a group of 400 "receptive minds" who would participate in a special project if he agreed. He would - in the immortal Leary slogan - Find the Others in twenty years time. "I felt a strong jolt of electricity go up my spine to the base of my skull and said YES." The voice told him that a ship would arrive for him in ten minutes. Jack gathered together some of the local kids and waited at his apartment for a flying saucer that naturally never arrived.
Its difficult to know what to make of this odd yarn, which comes to us primarily from Sarfatti's own testimony. We do know, however, that Sarfatti would continue to argue for its validity throughout his life, and twenty years later, he would be a brilliant, albeit highly unorthodox physicist who found himself right in the centre of the Puharich nexus. Dr. Sarfatti is said to be the influence behind the time travelling Emmett "Doc" Brown of the Back to the Future franchise.