Thursday, December 31, 2015

Page 151: The videotaped honeymooners

A couple returns to their honeymoon hotel only discover to their dismay that they’re featured in the in-room porn film. This story about being secretly videotaped is a bona fide urban legend, and all the facts related about it on page 151 are accurate. A variation of it even featured in an episode of Married…with Children, in which the Bundys go to a seedy motel and encounter a sex video featuring their neighbors (“I’ll See You in Court,” Season 3, Episode 10). Because of the sexual nature of the episode, Fox censors would not allow the episode to be aired in the United States until 2002…some thirteen years after it was originally scheduled to be broadcast.
The urban legend of the secretly videotaped honeymooners was the basis of the infamous "lost episode" of Fox networks' Married With Children. "I'll See You in Court" remained unaired for thirteen years, but is now considered one of the series' best (and most outrageous) episodes.
For Further Reading

Jan Harold Brunvand, “Filmed in the Act” in Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 146–7.

Anonymous, “Screen Play,” March 15, 2015,

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Page 148: The Hundredth Monkey

How many angels can dance on the head of a  pin? How many intelligent monkeys does it take to break reality? How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop? The Billionth Monkey offers an answer to one of these questions. Belanger’s impromptu lecture on page 148 is entirely spot-on and factual, except that bit at the end about the billionth monkey. That’s completely fake.

Or is it?

While I won't repeat what is already in the book, here’s some back-story that Belanger doesn’t cover: The “hundredth monkey” story was first told by Lyall Watson (in 1975’s introduction to Lawrence Blair’s Rhythms of Vision and again in his own 1979 book, Lifetide). It was popularized by two other writers in 1981: Rupert Sheldrake’s A New Science of Life championed the tale as evidence of the existence of morphic (or morphogenetic) fields. Meanwhile, Ken Keyes Jr.’s The Hundredth Monkey used it as a parable about how to affect positive social change. The story soon achieved urban legend status—most relying on third- and fourth-hand accounts with distortions introduced in each retelling—and was also embraced by the New Age movement. The veracity of the story had since been questioned, including the metaphor-busting observation that the number of monkeys in the sweet-potato washing colony studied was only 58, far fewer than a hundred.

Lyall Watson’s story of one hundred macaque monkeys on the island Koshima was, to Rupert Sheldrake, proof of morphic fields and to Ken Keyes Jr., a metaphor for how to avoid nuclear war.
And yes, A New Science of Life was indeed called “a book for burning.” See John Maddox’s now-famous review in Nature, September 24, 1981, 293: 245-6 (article behind paywall).

I meant no slight to Watson or Keyes by not mentioning them in The Billionth Monkey. The truth is that I learned about the hundredth monkey story from reading Sheldrake when his book first came out, so that is how I had Belanger, a fellow academic, tell it. Besides, his monologue is long enough without adding in the above details. That’s what this blog is for!

References (Chronologically)

Lawrence Blair, Rhythms of Vision: The Changing Patterns of Belief (London: Croom Helm Ltd., 1975).

Lyall Watson, Lifetide: A Biology of the Unconscious (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979).

Rupert Sheldrake, A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation (Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1981).

Ken Keyes, The Hundredth Monkey (St. Mary, Ky: Vision Books, 1981).

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Page 148: The Bishop and the Cheesemonger, et al.

The dialog on page 148 about obscure urban legends was an excuse for me to make up some silly—and completely false—urban legends. Unlike the popular ones that play an important role in The Billionth Monkey, I had a lot of fun inventing these obscure ones. At the time I wrote this, I was unaware that the Harvard Lampoon had published the humorous book Mediagate (Atlantic Monthly, 1988), which contained a fake publisher’s notice for the latest urban legend book by the great Jan Harold Brunvand. The Embarrassing Fart and More New Urban Legends purportedly included such doozies as the Senile President, the Adulterous Evangelist, and the Smelly Gym Sock. It would have been meta fun to reference some of these. But then again, the Harvard Lampoon legends seem to be culled from the headlines of 1987 rather than the obscure backwaters of urban lore …so it’s probably just was well that I didn’t reference the book. I like the scene just the way it turned out.

Harvard Lampoon's Mediagate (1988) includes a fake publisher's notice for The Embarrassing Fart and More New Urban Legends, which pokes fun at Jan Harold Brunvand’s many books on urban legends such as The Choking Doberman and Other Urban Legends (1984), The Mexican Pet: More "New" Urban Legends and Some Old Favorites (1986), Curses! Broiled Again! The Hottest Urban Legends Going (1989), and The Baby Train and Other Lusty Urban Legends (1993).

Monday, December 28, 2015

Page 144–147: Room 237

The mentions of room 237 (page 144) and Jack Daniels (page 147) are both references to The Shining (1980). While in Stephen King’s novel the “forbidden room” (or at least the one that Hallorann strongly recommended avoiding) was room 217, but in Kubrick’s film it is 237. The reason for this change is that the Timberline Lodge, which was used for exterior shots of the Overlook Hotel, requested this change out of concern that guests would refuse to stay in room 217; thus, a non-existent room number was chosen. As it turns out, 217 is the lodge’s most-requested room.

[However, see my post about page 127 where I show that 217 is the gematria value of “shining” in Hebrew.]

When Destiny Jones refers on page 144 to weird things that have happened to her while camping, I had no particular urban legend in mind. Campfires, however, are the traditional place for sharing spooky urban legends. Thus, a campfire is the opening scene for the entire Nickelodeon anthology series, Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1990–2000). It is also such a common trope that there best-of lists of horror movies about camping (e.g., here and here). So the possibilities are endless for what Destiny may have meant here.

Moving on to page 147, in Kubrick’s film Jack Torrance (played by Jack Nicholson) is often found drinking Jack Daniels in the hotel bar. On a related note, see my post about page 129 where I insist that the gas station attendant Lloyd is not a (conscious) reference to the bartender in The Shining.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Page 134–142: Tweezer gematria

There just aren’t good kabbalistic terms for “clove cigarettes” or “Overlook Hotel,” so I had to supplement the Tweezer Easter eggs on pages 134 and 142 with some random interesting numbers. While they may not have anything in particular to do with the posts they go with, gematria geeks should nevertheless be entertained.

Page 134 features a picture of Destiny Jones’ obligatory goth smokes, clove cigarettes…except clove cigarettes were outlawed in the United States in 2009, so she was forced to switch to cigarillos (kind of like cigarettes wrapped in tobacco leaves rather than paper). In this post we find the following numbers:
  • 85 (from 4,285 followers) = the Hebrew word פה, peh, mouth i.e. the place where cigarettes go.
  • 231 (from 2:31 pm) = in the kabbalistic text Sefer Yetzirah, the number of “gates,” i.e. the number of unique pairs of the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, given by the combinatorial 22!/(20! x 2!) = (22 x 21)/2 = 231.
  • 56 (from 56 likes) = Nu (in Crowley’s cosmogony a form of the Egyptian sky goddess Nut, Neuth, or Nuit) transliterated as N=50 and U or V=6. This is a shout-out to readers of Perdurabo.
The 231 Gates described in the Sefer Yetzirah, as illustrated in Aryeh Kaplan, Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation in Theory and Practice (York Beach, ME: Weiser, 1990), 111. I cannot recommend this book highly enough; it's simply amazing.
On page 142, we have a photo of the exterior of the Overlook Hotel (actually the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood, Oregon; photo taken by yours truly). The numbers in this post are:
  • 471 (from 4,710 followers) = “Overlook” transliterated into Hebrew, i.e.
O = ע = 70
V = ו = 6
E = ח = 5
R = ר = 200
L = ל = 30
O = ע = 70
O = ע = 70
K = כ = 20

(I used the non-final form of כ because I needed to keep the increased number of followers in the four thousands to keep it consistent with previous and subsequent posts. A whole lot of juggling was involved in coming up with these Easter eggs while making sure the times, followers, and likes were consistent with the actual story  and from post-to-post.)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Page 131: Slasher under the Car

The “Slasher under the Car” rumor-scare claims that criminals will lie in wait beneath a woman’s car at the shopping mall. When their intended victim returns, the criminal uses a razor or tire-iron on the shopper’s Achilles tendon, immobilizing her in order to facilitate robbery or rape. The story is more popular during the Christmas season, when stealing gift purchases is the motive. Sometimes (but not always), the slashing is connected to gang initiation rituals. Brunvand traces the origins of the “Slasher under the Car” legend to the 1950s at the Northland Shopping Mall in suburban Detroit. It began circulating nationally after 1984, and peaked in 1992.

A panel from “The Slasher Under the Car,” a one-page serial art version of this urban legend from Robert Loren Fleming, Jan Harold Brunvand, and Robert F. Boyd, The Big Book of Urban Legends: Adapted from the Works of Jan Harold Brunvand (New York: Paradox Press, 1994), 18. Art by comic book veteran Dærick Gröss, who has worked with Marvel, DC, Image, Malibu, etc., and adaptations of Anne Rice's The Vampire Lestat and The Queen of the Damned.
Best and Hutchinson (1996) have identified a host of urban legends in which gang initiations purportedly involve committing some horrible crime. These include the well-known “Slasher under the Car,” along with the equally common “Lights Out” (in which a gang initiation involves driving at night with the headlights off and killing the first motorist to helpfully flash their lights), and the far more obscure legends of “The Castrated Boy” and “The Cheek Slasher.” These stories tell us more about how society as a whole perceives—and perceives a threat from—gangs rather than about how gangs actually operate. These perceptions and fears may also tap into a more general fear of initiations and secret societies.

In addition, such urban legends are serve to make sense of otherwise senseless acts of violence. Why did this crime happen? Because the initiation required it.

According to Brunvand (2001), a variant of the "Slasher under the Car" legend began circulating in 1999, with the slasher hiding beneath cars at gas stations. Which brings us to our scene in The Billionth Monkey. For me, the most fun part about writing this book was re-imagining these urban legends into fantastic, larger-than-life, Hollywood-blockbuster versions. The description of the Slasher on page 132 as “the biggest Mexican they had ever seen” is a quote from the opening scene of the movie Desperado (1995):

My comment about the Slasher making the Kessel Run in under twelve parsecs (page 132) references the Star Wars cantina scene, as does the conclusion where Belanger flips a coin to the attendant and says “Sorry about the mess.”

For Further Reading

Joel Best and Mary M. Hutchinson, “The gang initiation rite as a motif in contemporary crime discourse,” Justice Quarterly 1996, 13(3): 383–404.

Jan Brunvand, “The Slasher under the Car” in Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 388–9.

Barbara Mikkelson, ”The Unkindest Cut,” Snopes, March 29, 2011.

Eleanor Wachs, “The Mutilated Shopper at the Mall: A Legend of Urban Violence.” In Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith (eds.), A Nest of Vipers: Perspectives on Contemporary Legend V (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), 143–60.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Page 130: What is L33T, 1337, or LEET?

On the Internet, the cool kids spell words replacing letters with similar-looking numbers. For example, the letter “o” could be replaced with the number 0, giving us “n00b” for a newbie, or “pr0n” for pornography. Similar substitutions can be made with 4 for A, 1 for lowercase L, 3 for E, etc. This practice is called leet, and variously spelled eleet, 1337, L33T. Leet isn’t just about substituting numbers for letters; there are other peculiarities that are unique to computer culture. One example is using the suffix –age to turn a verb into a noun, as in “major suckage.”

We’ve previously seen a couple of examples of leetspeak in The Billionth Monkey: 1) the ID-10-T code back on page 17, and 2) the term “pwn” in Destiny Jones’ Tweezer post on page 118.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Page 129: "The Shining" and the horror of global warming

About that Stephen King novel adapted into a motion picture by Stanley Kubrick…

I’ve posted twice previously (here and here) about references to The Shining in The Billionth Monkey.

Now, in The Billionth Monkey the gas station attendant in Sidewinder (page 129) is named Lloyd. This is not meant as a reference to The Shining. I just thought it was a good name for the character. It was the first thing I thought of, so I used it as a placeholder and in later revisions saw no reason to change it. Not until I later re-watched the movie did I realize that Lloyd was also the name of the creepy ghost bartender in the Overlook Hotel. Nevertheless, my gas station attendant makes for an obscure reference to the movie, even if I didn’t intend it as such. At least not consciously.

Lloyd the gas station attendant in The Billionth Monkey was not intended (consciously) as a reference to Lloyd the bartender in The Shining. [Image from The Shining, dir Stanley Kubrick, ©1980 Warner Bros.]
Stephen King’s The Shining came out in 1977. While the Overlook Hotel doesn’t survive in the book, it does in the film. The thought of someone returning to the scene 30–35 years later and finding things very different due to climate change struck me as a hilarious comment on how much the world has changed since 1977. It’s especially hilarious since the weather was a key plot point in both the book and movie. If Mr. King ever reads The Billionth Monkey, I hope he sees the humor—and fondness—in my little homage.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Page 128: Wikibard

I don’t know if it’s possible to list all the Star Wars and Shakespeare jokes, puns, and references on the Wikibard website. The banner at the top of the page is modeled after Wikipedia. The section “News from around the Globe” (“the Globe” being the famous Shakespearean theatre) consists of actual Shakespeare news stories mixed with fictional news from The Billionth Monkey. The page introduces us to the new Hamlet Special Edition comic book, as well as the opposing viewpoint in “Ham Stabbeth First” paraphernalia. Visitors to Wikibard can actually vote in the poll at the bottom of the page.

Some people disapprove of Shakespeare's revisions in Hamlet Special Edition.
Here is a list of puns on the home page:

Prominent Shakespeare Scholars Speak Out
  • the short and the long of it: This phrase, which lives on as an idiom in modern times, is commonly attributed to Shakespeare, who used the phrase in The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Misdummer Night’s Dream, and The Merchant of Venice. The OED says the phrase predates the Bard, but he certainly popularized it.
  • biggest of the biggs: Reference to Biggs Darklighter, friend of Luke Skywalker in Episode IV.
  • secret plans to force it into being a Wedge issue: Three more Star Wars references: secret plans (of the Death Star…what Episode IV is all about), the Force, and Wedge Antilles.
  • doth protest too much: From Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, Scene II.
  • Frances Beye-Cohn: Pun on Francis Bacon. We met her back on page 89.
  • anger leads to hate, and hatred leads to suffering: Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.
  • If you prick us, do we not bleed?: The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1.
  • Randy Goodyear: Shakespearean vocabulary from the phrase Randy=horny. Goodyear is from the phrase “What the good-year?” i.e. what the deuce or devil…making this a Shakespearean #DevilReference.
  • Wyoming University for Social Sciences: See page 87.
  • Hamlet Holiday Special: Refers to the notorious (and repressed) Star Wars Christmas Special.
  • Jack Guardant: In Shakespeare’s works, “Jack” is a contemptuous term, while a guardant is a guard, protect, or keeper. Thus “Jack guardant” is a “Jack on guard” or a “Jack in office.” See Coriolanus, Act V, Scene 2.
  • Central University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne: This references the urban legend about colleges with unfortunate acronyms; see my blog post about page 59.
  • Yowza: Not just a common expression of surprise, it is also the name of Joh Yowza, a character added to the Max Rebo Band in Jabba’s palace in the special edition of Return of the Jedi.
  • song and dance number: Reference to one of the “enhancements” made to the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi.
  • ooh la la: Reference to Oola, then Twi’lek dancer in Jabba the Hut’s court.
  • threepenny space opera: A  play on the Threepenny Opera, as space opera is the genre of film/story that Star Wars falls into.
  • What a piece of work: A line from Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2, famously set to music in Hair. The phrase “piece of work” has quite a different meaning in modern vernacular!
  • Thanks for ruining my childhood: Common fan over-reaction to Star Wars Special Edition.
  • Holly Malkin: Holly was a common plant in Shakespeare’s time, and is recommended to those trying to do a “Shakespearean garden.” Malkin was a familiar form of “Mary.” (Also: the model has a Complete Works of Shakespeare balanced on her head.)
  • “I come to bury the Special Edition, not to praise it”: Based on the famous line from Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2.
  • Bob A. Fettinger: Contains the name “Boba Fett.”
  • has seen better days: The earliest documented use of this phrase is in the play Sir Thomas Moore (1590), which has been partially attributed to Shakespeare. It also appears in Timon of Athens and As You Like It.
  • Bono Bodkin: Not only is “bodkin” a reference to a blade in Hamlet, but the name contains the word “bonobo,” which is a #MonkeyReference.
  • This is the worst: From King Lear, Act IV, Scene 1.
  • Bart Lederhosen: Rhymes with Darth Vaderhosen..
  • winter of my discontent: The famous opening line from Richard III,
  • Luke Gorgas: Spoonerism of George Lucas.
  • Of all base passions… From King Henry VI, Act V, Scene 2.
  • Mort Duvinaigre: “Mort du vinaigre” means “a ridiculous oath,” from All’s Well That Ends Well, Act 2, Scene 3.
  • angry dexters and the jet-setters who have too much time on all their hands: This means something, but I’ve forgotten what. Sigh, sometimes I’m too clever for my own good. Please let me know if you figure it out!
  • Sly Snotless: A play on “Sy Snootles,” the singer in the Max Rebo Band in Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi.
Whew, and that’s just the main page! WikiBard’s first three news stories (at the time of this writing) are also loaded with jokes likes these. The rest are actual Shakespeare news stories, for that added sense of truthiness.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Page 128: Hamlet Special Edition

Like the Wikibard announcement on page 89, the news update on page 128 is another riff on Star Wars. If the previous gag referenced The Phantom Menace, then this one is based on the Special Edition of the original Star Wars (rechristened Episode IV: A New Hope in 1981) and fans’ reactions to the changes that George Lucas wrought on the beloved childhood memories of millions.

The cover of Hamlet Special Edition from The Billionth Monkey
[art by Robert Randle, layout by Aaron Tatum].
Thus, we find Shakespeare revising his beloved Hamlet twenty-five years after originally penning it, much like Lucas’ special edition came out in 1997 to mark the twentieth anniversary of Star Wars). Just as Star Wars Special Edition benefitted from improved CGI, deleted scenes, and cleaned audio tracks, Hamlet Special Edition “features improved iambic pentameter and restores scenes that had become possible due to advances in the technology of dressing squires as women” (p. 128). And just as Lucas sent fans into rages of “Han Shot First” for changing the cantina scene between Han Solo and Greedo, so has Shakespeare enraged purists with a similar change to the deadly confrontation between Hamlet and Polonius.

This meme made the rounds after the Force Awakens trailer hit.
[I am unable to locate the creator, but would be happy to credit them.]
To protest this last change, Shakespeare fanboys scholars don T-shirts proclaiming that “Ham Stabbeth First.” To further blur the lines between fiction, social media, and reality, “Ham Stabbeth First” T-shirts and other products are actually available through Café Press. The pose of the fencer is reminiscent of a famous publicity photo of Han Solo from the original Star Wars movie.

Life imitating art: Ham Stabbeth First merch is available through Café Press.
This blurring of fiction, social media, and reality led to the creation of a six-page preview for a fictional Hamlet Special Edition comic book as part of The Billionth Monkey. But that’s a story that I’ll save for when the blog get to that part of the book.

Han Solo in his younger days
[from a publicity photo for Star Wars, © Lucasfilm].

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Page 127: Even more fun with numerology!

The “Come play with us!” post on page 127 of The Billionth Monkey has some fun Easter eggs. The line alludes, of course, to what the twins say to Danny in The Shining. Therefore in Destiny’s Tweezer update we find:
  • 64 (the number of “plusses” on the post) = נוגה (to shine) i.e. The Shining.
  • 217 (from 2:17 pm) = בהיר, bahir (shining, brightness). 217 is also the original haunted room number in Stephen King’s book. When Stanley Kubrick filmed the exterior of the Timberline Lodge for the Overlook Hotel, the lodge asked him to change the room number in the movie version out of fear that people would refuse to stay in room 217 (it is now, in fact, the most-requested room at the lodge). Take that, Kubrick numerology conspiracy theorists!*
  • 93 (from 4,093 followers) = unrelated to The Shining, this is the number of times in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 that HAL transmits the message “All these worlds are yours to explore.” [Readers of Perdurabo might recall some additional meanings for this number.]
The creepy twins (and creepier wallpaper) from The Shining (1980),
Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of the novel by Stephen King.

*Is it just a coincidence that page 127 and room 217 share the same digits? I’ll never tell!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Page 126: Stories Biblical and nautical

On page 126 of The Billionth Monkey, Nicholas Young’s mention of Abraham “trying to find ten righteous dudes in Sodom” refers to the famous story of Sodom and Gomorrah as told in Genesis 18:16–33. You can read it online here.

Nicholas concludes the conversation by referring to being between the devil and the deep blue sea—an idiom that dates back at least to 1637. As with “the devil to pay” on page 106, proposed nautical origins of this phrase are dubious. The more parsimonious and generally accepted explanation is that the phrase simply refers to facing two options both of which are deadly. And it’s also a #DevilReference!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Page 125: Lamborghini Diablo VT

The Lamborghini Diablo VT is a real car, manufactured from 1999–2001. Automobiles aren’t my forte, so I’ll just say that it’s a high-powered, 550 horsepower, V12 sports car. According to Car and Driver, its horsepower is more than that of four Toyota Camrys

At $275,000 apiece, only 23 of the 1999 model sold in the U.S.  It’s unlikely that the 2001 model sold many more than that. So Nicholas and Bruiser are lucky to have found one! And a good thing, too, since the Diablo is also a #DevilReference.

The 1999 Lamborghini Diablo VT (photo by VT5700, source: Wikimedia Commons).

Monday, December 14, 2015

Page 124: Overlook Hotel

Although Stephen King’s famous novel The Shining was inspired by his stay at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, the author states plainly on the recto of the dedication page, “Some of the most beautiful  resort hotels in the world are located in Colorado, but the hotel in these pages is based on none of them. The Overlook and the people associated with it exist wholly within the author’s imagination.”

Similarly, Kubrick’s equally famous movie adaptation was mostly filmed on soundstages, not in any real hotel. Elements were inspired by other hotels. Exterior shots in the film were of the Timberline Lodge near Portland, Oregon, but the inside of the lodge looks nothing at all like the fancy resort shown in the movie. In an ironic bit of life imitating art, the Stanley Hotel announced just a few months ago that they were adding a hedge maze as an homage to The Shining.

The Timberline Lodge (above) was used by Stanley Kubrick for exterior shots
of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. [Photo © Richard Kaczynski.]
Nevertheless, this fictional hotel has secured a very real place in our popular imagination. On the Internet, one can find all kinds of Overlook merchandise to buy: t-shirts, mugs, barware, posters, etc.

Because the Overlook Hotel is such an important part of pop culture—and because it was conveniently located between Devils Tower and New Mexico—I wanted to pay tribute to this fictional place. In so doing, however, I wanted to clearly credit the place to Stephen King’s novel, and its visual aspect to Stanley Kubrick. By doing so, that made its becoming real in The Billionth Monkey more striking. But I also wanted to emphasize (humorously) that the hotel’s transition into reality in the 2010s involved some interesting changes from what we’re familiar with in the 1970s. I only hope that Stephen King—if he ever reads this short scene in the book—takes it as the lighthearted tribute that it was intended to be.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Page 123: Tweezer Easter egg numerology

Destiny’s Tweezer post on page 123 “The bigger the dick, the harder they fall” concludes the “Ski Accident” urban legend that started on page 109. Her post contains the following numerical Easter eggs:

  • 405 (from the time 4:05) = שפכה (penis), which relates to the first half of Destiny’s post.
  • 160 (the number of followers Destiny picked up since her previous post on page 118, i.e. 3946-3786=160) = נפל (to fall), referring to the second half of her post.
  • 42  (number of “plusses” for this post) = the number that Douglas Adams made famous as the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Page 120–2: Who the heck is Frank Scotus? Plus the true story of the chimpanzee Goblin

The iconic “I’ve had it with this bully” moment undoubtedly comes from the 1983 holiday classic, A Christmas Story (which, as you read this, is undoubtedly playing 24 hours a day on some cable TV holiday channel). Indeed, on page 121, the narrator even refers to Ben Tucker taking the Scott Farkus Incident “to an extremely dark and brutal place.” As you can see in the clip below, the original was pretty brutal…so just imagine what it was like with Bruiser!

And so, in need of a name for my bully, I tried to make a spoonerism of Scott Farkus. That gave me a profoundly unsatisfactory Fark Scottus. With only a slight tweak, it became Frank Scotus. Close enough for an urban legend!

Page 122’s tale of Barbara Smuts and Goblin is a true story, one of those quintessential NPR “driveway moments.” I still remember listening to Radiolab while driving home one afternoon in 2010, turning onto my gravel driveway about halfway through recounting her tale of the bully chimpanzee. I had to sit in the car until the story was finished. Hearing her first-hand account was entertaining and hilarious. And the fact that she wound up at the University of Michigan—my home state!—where she is now professor emerita made the story extra appealing. It always stuck with me, and when I began writing The Billionth Monkey—and Bruiser’s origin story in particular—I flashed back to this tale and realized it not only really explained Bruiser’s psychology, but also gave me another #MonkeyReference.

Here’s a link to the original broadcast.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Pages 117–118: More Easter eggs

Destiny’s social media update on 117 was a tricky one numerologically speaking because there just aren’t ancient Greek or Hebrew words for “colander,” “jumper cable” or “photocopier.” So I tossed in a pair of references for readers of Perdurabo:
  • 13 (number of plusses to the post) = אחד, Achad (One), the magical motto of Charles Stansfeld Jones, Crowley’s heir apparent.
  • 667 (from 3,667 followers) = η κοκκινη γυνη (The Scarlet Woman), 1. the title Crowley gave his magical consorts; 2. the neighbor of The Beast.
The Easter eggs were similarly tricky for the “knockout game” post on page 118. Here we have one actually relevant entry, plus two more just for kicks (again for readers of Perdurabo):

  • 786 (from 3,786 followers) = פון, or PWN transliterated into Hebrew. Pwn is leetspeak slang for totally owning or conquering something.
  • 11 (number of plusses) = the number of magick in Crowley’s system.
  • 333 (from the time 3:33) is the number of Choronzon from John Dee’s Enochian system.
These early posts involve small numbers and weird subjects that make it hard to come up with goodies to hide in them. But I promise these numerical Easter eggs get better!

A word on the “knockout game” is in order. The existence of the game—in which youth sneak up on a random, unsuspecting stranger and hit them as hard as they can in the head in an effort to knock them out—has been hotly contested. Some claim that the prevalence of such attacks has been grossly exaggerated by the media to create hysteria, and that some attacks that have simply been assaults have been mischaracterized as the knockout game all in order to feed a racist narrative. The other side of the argument claims that the liberal media just doesn’t want to accept the truth. At the time I wrote The Billionth Monkey, the news was full of reports, debates and refutations. Read more about the knockout game here and here. Things have quieted down since then, but either way mention of the knockout game—along with other pop culture references in the book—place the story sometime in the early 2010s.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Page 115: Colander lie detector

Before the humble colander was embraced by Pastafarians who have been touched by the noodly appendage of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it played a role in urban legend. Indeed, appears in my favorite urban-legend-based scene in The Billionth Monkey. And best of all, the legend is one of those rare stories that may actually have some basis in reality.

According to legend, some small-town police (Radnor, Pennsylvania, is the most common location) are interrogating a clearly guilty but uncooperative perp. In order to extract a confession, they put a colander on his head and connect it to a photocopier which has on its copying plate a piece of paper on which the police have written “He’s lying!” On questioning, whenever the suspect gave a dubious answer the police pressed the “copy” button, and out popped a piece of paper alerting them to the suspect’s falsehood. Before long, the police had their confession.

According to Brunvand (2001), the story first appeared in print in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1977. Columnist Clark DeLeon reported that Judge Isaac Garb heard the associated case and suppressed the confession. In 1993, Garb confirmed that he did indeed hear the case before his Court of Common Appeals in Bucks County, Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Mikkelson, however, is skeptical that a colander would just happen to be sitting around a police department.

True or not, the story had legs, spread widely, and underwent predictable changes as it grew in popularity. It appeared in the TV show Homicide: Life on the Streets in the episode “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Season 1, Episode 8, March 24, 1993). Amar and Lettow (1995), in their law journal article about the Fifth Amendment’s self-incrimination clause, report that this actually happened recently in Detroit (page 873–4). Critics of voice-stress analyzers have compared the technique to the colander copier caper (as Brunvand calls it). And according to Savage (1998), the story was told to the Supreme Court as part of the testimony in its decision concerning the use of polygraph evidence.

A variant of the story was used in the January 6, 2008, episode of The Wire, “More with Less” (Season 5, Episode 1).

Jimmy Kimmel Live! has reinvented this legend—with buzzers and lights—into a hilarious series of “Lie Detective” shorts with children. Here’s the first in the series:

In this scene from "Lie Detective" on Jimmy Kimmel Live!,
Jimmy finds the tables turned (© ABC).

For Further Reading

Akhil Reed Amar and Renée B. Lettow. “Fifth Amendment First Principles: The Self-Incrimination Clause.” Michigan Law Review, March 1995, 93(5): 857 – 928.

Brunvand, Jan Harold. “The Colander Copier Caper,” in Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 78–9.

Mark Hansen. “Truth Sleuth or Faulty Detector? Voice stress analyzer as polygraph alternative goes on trial.” American Bar Association Journal, May 1999, 85(5): 16.

David G. Savage. “Let Trial Judges Decide: High Court Rejects a Per Se Rule on Polygraph Evidence.” American Bar Association Journal, June 1998, 84(6): 52–3.

Barbara Mikkelson, “Next Case on the Court Colander,” Jul 4, 2011,

Monday, December 7, 2015

Page 114: Bruiser

The character name “Bruiser” may sound as cliché as his evil-Popeye appearance, and initially I only intended it as a placeholder for a to-be-determined better name. But as I wrote this scene, I recalled the old Steven Wright joke:
“Some friends of mine got me a sweater for my birthday. I'd have preferred a moaner or a screamer…”
Once I made that connection, I was in love with the name. It’s one of my favorite jokes in the book. And—unbeknownst to me when I wrote this scene—over the course of the story Bruiser would turn out to have a host of other little problems.

Despite my describing him as an “evil Popeye,” his dialect is actually an homage to another comic book character: Ben Grimm, better known as the Thing from the Fantastic Four…my favorite comic book as a child.
An example of Ben Grimm's dialect, from Uncanny X-Men Annual #5 (©1981 Marvel Comics)
[written by Chris Claremont, pencilled by Brent Anderson, inked by Bob McLeod,
colored by Glynis Wein, and lettered by Tom Orzechowski.]

Friday, December 4, 2015

Page 113: Muad’Dib

Muad’Dib is the name of the kangaroo mouse on the desert planet Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s epic Hugo and Nebula award-winning sci-fi classic, Dune (1965). The book’s hero, Paul Atreides, adopts the surname Muad’Dib as his chosen name of manhood while living incognito among the Fremen. Haunted by visions of his destiny, Paul ultimately concludes that the Sleeper must awaken: that is, he must drink the deadly Water of Life and, surviving the ordeal, become the Kwisatz Haderach, the super-powered Bene Gesserit of prophecy.

The original cover of Frank Herbert’s Dune (Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1965).
This may sound a bit confusing if you haven’t read the book, seen the movie, or watched the miniseries, but rest assured it’s a beloved staple of nerddom. It has even inspired Eli Tripoli’s religious tract-style comic, Me and the Muad’Dib.

Read Eli Tripoli’s Me and the Muad’dib here.

Or if you want to add a little Dune to your holiday season, you can make this festive spice-filled Sandworm bread, recipe courtesy of Dangerous Minds:

Make this spice-filled Sandworm bread for your next holiday get-together.
The cake must flow! (From Dangerous Minds.)

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Page 112: Caught wearing nothing but a football helmet

Destiny’s offhand comment about being caught wearing nothing but a motorcycle helmet references another well-known urban legend from the 1960s, often passed off as a true story (see, for instance, the Madison State Journal article about “an Ohio housewife” reprinted in “Percolation and Runoff,” 1964). The legend typically goes something like this:

While doing the laundry, a housewife decides to add her dress to the wash. She also puts on a football helmet that happens to be in the basement. In some versions, she does this to protect her just-set hair from leaky pipes, and in other versions it’s because of spider webs. Just then, the naked woman hears the cough (or knock on the door) of the meter-reader who professionally does his job and, on leaving, remarks, “I hope your team wins, lady!”

"I hope your team wins, lady!"
Details vary, as expected with urban legends: Sometimes the housewife is wearing a raccoon coat (perhaps added to “clean up” the story for print). Sometimes she is discovered not by the meter-reader, but by the mailman, or by a plumber who finally showed up just as she had given up on him. The story is popular enough to turn up in Erma Bombeck’s Aunt Erma’s Cope Book (1979).  Although the person caught unaware (and undressed) is always a woman and her discoverer always a man, but Brunvand (1990) reports a parody version in which the characters’ genders are reversed.

For Further Reading

Anonymous. “Percolation and Runoff.” Journal of the American Water Works Association, December 1964. 56(12): 35–36, 38, 40, 42, 44.

Jan Harold Brunvand. “The Nude Housewife,” in Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001, 294–5.

Jan Harold Brunvand. “Some News from the Miscellaneous Legend Files.” Western Folklore, January 1990. 49(1): 111–120.

Barbara Mikkelson, “Chicago Bare,” September 20, 2015,

[I make a conscientious effort to credit all images used on this blog, but the image accompanying this post appears on several hundred sports websites and none that I looked at gave photo credit. I would gladly add credit if provided with the information.]

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Page 111: Laurence Fishburne just slipped me the red mickey

It seems hardly necessary to explain The Matrix to anyone reading this blog, but the movie did celebrate its sweet sixteen this year, and a few people have been born since 1999. In the film, Laurence Fishburne plays Morpheus, a mysterious character who offers the hacker Neo (Keanu Reeves) a choice in the form of two pills: blue and everything goes back to the way it was before they met, or red and how he sees the world will never be the same.

The scene has become so ensconced in the meta-language of pop culture that it has launched a thousand “What if I told you” memes beginning in 2012.

A Billionth Monkey-themed example of the Morpheus Meme.
(This one points out that various fictional people, places, and things in TBM also exist on the Web.)
Here is the original scene:

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Page 111: Fun with numerology

Here’s a Tweezer Easter egg twofer. If you thought the first Tweezeer Easter eggs on page 106 were obscure, then prepare yourself!

Like those on page 106, these Tweezer Easter eggs involve numerology based on the idea that alphabets also doubled as number symbols in ancient Hebrew (gematria), Greek (isosephia), and other languages, thus meaning that words in those languages all have numerical values. (This is unlike English, whose alphabet has no designated numerical values.) Practitioners of gematria often work from the premises that these numerological values are inherent in the language's morphology, that words have specific meanings for a reason, and that words with equivalent numerical values are therefore meaningfully connected. Some use it as a tool for contemplation. In The Billionth Monkey, we’re using it for entertainment.

In the first Tweezer post—“Some college kid just told me that I don’t exist”—we find:
  • 21 likes = אהיה, “existence”; one of several names of God in the Old Testament, the “I am” part of “I am that I am” in Exodus 3:14.
  • 120 (from 3,120 followers) = ον (being), a term from Plato’s dialogue Parmenides to express the idea that to exist means to be intelligible.
  • 310 (from 3:10 pm) = יש, another Hebrew term meaning “existence.”
This diagram of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, as popularized in Western esotericism, shows אין, Ain (Nothing), as one of the three Veils of Negative Existence at the top. (Art by Frater Ash, image from Thelemapedia.)
The second tweeze—“Not only do I not exist, but I’m also wrong”—only has one goodie hiding in plain sight: 61 (from 3,161 followers) = אין, literally “nothing” or “non-existence.” So the Easter eggs on these two posts go hand-in-hand, not only in terms of the plot of The Billionth Monkey, but also in terms of the numerological Easter eggs.

There are plenty more to come as we work through the book.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Page 109: Ski Accident

“The Ski Accident” is the favorite of pioneering urban legend researcher Jan Harold Brunvand. Belonging to a class of stories that give listeners an intense dose of schadenfreude, it has been told as an absolutely true story since at least the winter of 1979–1980. It goes something like this:

Having exited the ski-lift at the top of a mountain, a snow-bunny’s first time downhill is temporarily pre-empted when she feels the call of nature. Unable to locate any facilities, she skis to a private location behind some trees to relieve herself. It turns out that leaving her skis on was a bad idea, for once she’s dropped her pants around her ankles and squatted, she begins to slide downhill backwards. Not only do all the other skiers witness this embarrassing incident, but her journey is interrupted by a tree, necessitating a trip to the first-aid room.

There, she encounters a ski instructor who, like her, has a broken arm. She asks him how a pro sustained such an injury. He explains that he was riding to the top of the mountain when he saw a woman with her pants around her ankles skiing backwards downhill, and when he leaned over to get a better look he fell off the ski lift. [Or, in some versions, the sight of the bare-bottomed backward skier distracts the instructor so much that he collides with a tree himself. Sometimes the other person isn’t an instructor at all, but just another spectator/skier.]

Then he looks at her and asks, “How about you?”
A panel from “The Ski Accident,” a one-page serial art version of this urban legend from Robert Loren Fleming, Jan Harold Brunvand, and Robert F. Boyd, The Big Book of Urban Legends: Adapted from the Works of Jan Harold Brunvand (New York: Paradox Press, 1994), 104. Art by the great Dan Barry (1923–1997), who began in the 1940s with Doc Savage and Blue Bolt, did daily strips for Tarzan and Flash Gordon, and most recently drew Indiana Jones and Predator comics for Dark Horse.
Like most urban legends, details such as the skier’s hometown and where the incident happened vary in the retelling, often to someplace relatively nearby. In The Billionth Monkey, the story plays out in slightly altered form: Our character, although quite embarrassed, does not require a trip to first aid. And the injured ski instructor is replaced by her date…and not here, but in the story’s replay with Bruiser on page 123. While the urban legend doesn’t seem to ever name the skier in this mishap, I added the fictional detail that she is typically identified generically as “Miss Jones.”

For Further Reading

Jan Harold Brunvand, “The Ski Accident,” in Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 386–7.

Robert Loren Fleming, Jan Harold Brunvand, and Robert F. Boyd, The Big Book of Urban Legends: Adapted from the Works of Jan Harold Brunvand (New York: Paradox Press, 1994), 104.

Barbara Mikkelson, “Ski Bum,” December 27, 2004,

Friday, November 27, 2015

Page 106: Devil to pay

The phrase “devil to pay” has its origins in the classic German legend of Faust, who sold his soul in a pact with the devil…the original “Faustian bargain.” The legend was popularized by Christopher Marlowe (The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, 1604) and Goethe (Faust, written between 1772 and 1831).

Christopher Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604).
The popularity of the Faust legend led to coining the nautical term for caulking (“paying”) the seams (“devil”) in a ship’s hull. See In The Billionth Monkey, it is used in its modern colloquial sense for “serious trouble resulting from some (in)action,” and is another #DevilReference.

In 1926, F. W. Murnau [of Nosferatu fame] directed a silver screen adaptation of Goethe's Faust.
It was distributed by MGM, which was also handling Rex Ingram's adaptation of The Magician (1926),
based on Somerset Maugham's novel of the same name whose villain is inspired by Aleister Crowley.
Image source: News from the Boston Becks.
Bonus entry: Destiny Jones shows off her smarts when she tosses off the phrase Summa cum risu. In graduation ceremonies, students who graduate at the top of their class with the best grade point average receive the distinction summa cum laude, “with highest honors.” Naturally, Destiny figures that those at the bottom of her class must graduate summa cum risu, “with greatest ridicule.” But as the joke goes, “Do you know what you call the medical student who graduates at the bottom of his class? Doctor.”

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Page 106: NunMoreDark

There’s a lot to unpack in this one screenshot!

Here we encounter the first of (the as-yet-unnamed) Destiny Jones’ social media posts. Her username NunMoreDark is a double entendre: The phrase “none more dark” references the classic rock-n-roll mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap (1984), from the scene in which the band discusses the cover for their record Smell the Glove:

In the context of our newly-introduced goth character, “Nun More Black” is simultaneously an homage to Spinal Tap and a reflection of her own gothness.

Since today is Thanksgiving, let me say that I’m thankful for Stoya and her photographer steve prue for giving me permission to use her photo as Destiny Jones’ avatar/icon. When looking for a user icon, Stoya was my first choice. She not only looks the part—she’s gorgeous, after all—but for a book layered with in-jokes and social commentary, Stoya’s prominence in pop culture brings to the table an additional layer of resonance and meaning (which I’ll get to below). I was also hoping she’d enjoy being part of the project.

Stoya began modeling in the alt scene (sometimes wearing her own designs), and eventually became a pornographic actress celebrated as the first major alt contract star and as the “goth girl next door.” Moving from contract star to indie entrepreneur, she writes columns for websites like Vice and The Verge, among others. She and her business partner Kayden Kross manage their own adult website, (link NSFW), offering curated content where they are free to call the shots in the artsy side of the business ...along with the business side of the business. She even had a brief cameo in a Daily Show skit earlier this year. Stoya has gone from being a sex-worker to a pop culture phenom: “America’s sweetheart” and “the prettiest girl in New York,” according to the Village Voice. What’s next? She’s smart, talented and tenacious enough to do anything she wants.

The author and the model
(you can probably tell which one is which).
She’s also no stranger to the pop/nerd culture that permeates The Billionth Monkey. In fact, she’s part of it. She’s friends with Neil Gaiman and has done cosplay modeling as Death for Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School. She’s known to read sci-fi and fantasy, play D&D, and enjoy videogames (she’s even on Steam). Perfect for a storyline about urban legends and pop culture changing reality.

I feel that my inclusion of Stoya also makes a statement that sex work—for all that it gets stigmatized and marginalized—plays a significant role in pop culture. Just look at Avenue Q’s breakout hit, “The Internet Is for Porn”!

And sex workers—like anyone else with a job—have interests and hobbies outside of work (duh!). In my experience, alternative subcultures are very sex-positive and overlap a lot; one is not surprised to find the Ren Faire leather worker at a kink fest, a sci-fi con, or pagan camp-out. So yes, a porn star fits very comfortably into my fictional world alongside references to Star Wars, comic books, Stanley Kubrick, and social media. I’m very grateful to Stoya for going along with this, and for putting me in touch with steve prue for photography. They are both fantastic people. You can give Stoya your business at, and steve through (both URLs NSFW).

Moving on to the conent of the Tweezer post: Tim Gunn is a famous fashion consultant and longtime co-host of the reality TV show Project Runway. He’s fashion sensitive, so the appalling couture in this scene of The Billionth Monkey would most certainly make him cry.

Wherever possible, I tried to sneak Easter eggs into these screenshots. For instance, the time of this post is 2:20, which is a shout-out to the readers of my book Perdurabo (2010), because Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law contains 220 verses. Similarly, the number of “followers” in this post, 59, reflects the fact that the letters in “Tim” add up to 59 in Hebrew gematria (t=ט=9, i= י=10, m=מ=40), as do the unique letters of his last name (g=ג=3, u=ו=6, n=נ=50). There are plenty more hidden jokes throughout the book, so this will get extra fun as we go along.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Page 105: Your hands are trembling

When I encounter something surprising, I invariably remark “Inconceivable!” in the style of Vizzini from The Princess Bride. When someone insults me—hopefully in fun—I reply with Jack Sparrow’s “But you have heard of me!” When extremely frustrated and throwing things is a real possibility, I’ll say “Hulk smash!” And whenever I hear someone say “I’ll be careful,” I can’t resist blurting out, “You’ll be dead!” from the Star Wars cantina scene: the more serious the “careful” remark is, the funnier the retort is (to me, at least).

Conversations with my friends invariably involve quotes and references to movies, TV shows, and song lyrics. It’s probably the same with you and your friends. It is a normal part of interaction, an affirmation of the shared experiences that bond us with our friends. 

That such one-liners are touchstones of popular culture demonstrates the incredible influence of movies and the other sources from which such “memes” derive. I wanted to make that part of Destiny Jones’ repertoire (as far as “fair use” would allow). Their inclusion in The Billionth Monkey is therefore not just a reflection of how real people talk, but a tribute to things which have a big place in the hearts of millions, myself included. Additionally, writing a commentary on pop culture by liberally salting in pop culture references is very meta.

Take, for instance, the scene on page 105 of The Billionth Monkey. As Destiny Jones implies by calling Belanger “Princess Leia,” she recognizes his remark to be an unintended quotation from The Empire Strikes Back. If you can’t immediately picture the scene I’m talking about—inconceivable!—here’s the relevant snippet:

Technical note: I would have preferred to embed the official video from, but for some reason Blogger won't allow it in an iframe. If the above video gets removed from YouTube someday, here's a link to the video at And if all else fails, here's a still image from the scene to jog your memory:

But Destiny doesn’t stop there. She follows Star Wars up with The Princess Bride by adding, “As you wish.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Page 105: The hairy-armed hitchhiker

This legendary encounter in The Billionth Monkey is based on the myth dubbed “The Hariy-Armed Hitchhiker,” even though some later permutations of this urban legend don’t involve hitchhiking at all. It’s basically a “stranger danger” story: A woman narrowly escapes gruesome consequences when she agrees to give a ride to a little old lady who turns out to be a homicidal man in disguise. As Belanger tells us on page 111, the myth has its origins in the 1977 “Yorkshire ripper” scares. The "hairy-armed hitchhiker" legend became so popular that at least seventeen different police stations received reports of this near-miss that happened to a friend-of-a-friend. It soon spread to other locales throughout England and from there into other countries. The original tale is generally of the following form:
A young woman in Leeds was getting into her car during a blackout when she is approached by an old woman asking for a ride, as she cannot find her way home in the dark. The driver agrees. However, as the hitchhiker places a large grocery bag in the back seat, the girl notices something suspicious about her passenger: hairy arms. Thinking quickly, the driver asks the stranger to check her recently-repaired tail-lights, as she wouldn’t want to have trouble from the police. When the obliging stranger exits the vehicle, the driver takes the opportunity to speed off. Only later does she look in the big grocery bag left behind and discover that it contains a hatchet.
Image source: Freebie Photography.
By the time the story made spread across the US in the 1980s, the location became a shopping mall, and other details fell away: The scenario shifted away from a hitchhiker—which by then was a less common sight in the US and prone to more suspicion thanks to things like the movie The Hitch-Hiker (1953)—to the more ubiquitous American shopping mall. There is no blackout. And sometimes the hairy arms are missing in favor of some more generalized suspicion.

The 1953 movie The Hitch-Hiker caused this urban legend
to move to American shopping malls.
By the 1990s the story morphed further: Returning to her car from shopping at the mall, a young lady discovers that she has a flat tire. The nice man who offers to help her turns out to be a not-so-nice killer. This variation appears to have its basis in a real-world incident from 1989. As Mikkelson (2011) reports,
On 16 December 1989, 29-year-old Sedrick Cobb kidnapped 23-year-old Julie Ashe from a department store parking lot in Waterbury, CT, after he helped her change a flat tire on her car that he had let the air out of while she was in the store Christmas shopping. He then drove Miss Ashe to a wooded area, raped her, bound her, and pushed her off a dam into an icy pond 23 feet below. Her feet were found protruding from the ice on Christmas Day, nine days after she disappeared.
Although the legend has changed, chameleon-like, to reflect current events like the 1977 ripper scare or a 1989 murder-kidnapping, its roots are actually much older. Mikkelson points to antecedents going back as far as the early nineteenth century.

This urban legend is a favorite of academics. As Brunvand explains, “The story appeals to folklorists because of its long history, its numerous texts and variations, it similarity to some current crimes, and its thematic content.” (2001, p. 186). The most interesting elements are:
  • The intended victim is always a young woman.
  • The assailant is disguising his gender by dressing as an elderly woman.
  • The absence of a male rescuer.
Naturally, different people bring different perspectives to bear when analyzing this story. As noted at the beginning, it can be taken as a “stranger danger” tale, expressing a general xenophobia symptomatic of the Mean World Syndrome (which we will discuss when we get to page 149). Carroll (1988) offers a Freudian explanation, arguing that the killer symbolizes the mother and the tale reflects her daughter’s feelings on realizing that her mother doesn’t have a penis. The lack of a male rescuer makes this a tale of female empowerment.

Recent research confirms that hitchhiking can also be very dangerous for the hitchhiker.
For Further Reading

Brunvand, Jan Harold, “The Hairy-Armed Hitchhiker” in Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 184–6.

Carroll Michael P., “The Sick Old Lady Who Is a Man: A Contribution to the Psychoanalytic Study of Urban Legends,” Psychoanalytic Study of Society 1988, 13: 133–48.

Mikkelson, Barbara, “Shopping Mauled,”, April 8, 2011.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Page 104: Samuel L. Jackson, call your service

I suppose I ought to fess up right now that in this scene from The Billionth Monkey I imagined the bartender looking kind of like Samuel L. Jackson’s character Stephen from Django Unchained (2012). Not that the bartender is (to use Jackson’s description of Stephen) “the most despised Negro in cinematic history.”  I was just picturing a distinguished-looking older man who dressed better than the establishment he was tending.

Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen in Django Unchained
(2012, dir. Quentin Tarantino, Weinstein Company).
Given this, I also thought it would be hilarious to see the bartender’s proper demeanor crumble when he reached for a shotgun and reverted into Snakes on a Plane-vintage Samuel L. Jackson. Which is exactly why he makes the remark about the motherfucking snipers. I just love the fact that Jackson insisted that the 2006 movie keep its original working title, Snakes on a Plane, because it was the reason he agreed to be in the movie in the first place.

Samuel L. Jackson as Neville Flynn in Snakes on a Plane (2006, dir David R. Ellis, New Line Cinema):
Feel the fury!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Page 103: Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes is another #MonkeyReference in The Billionth Monkey. This is my shocked face. Yes, I know that apes are not monkeys...but they’re both primates. I freely and knowingly exercised creative license here. Nevertheless, obvious though it may be, the reference is far from being a throwaway. It’s actually kind of important to Niels Belanger's backstory.

We’re talking old-school here: the original series of five films, not the recent reboots and remakes.

Back on page 50 of The Billionth Monkey, we learn that hanging in Belanger’s office is a photograph of actor and photographer Roddy McDowall (1928–1998), signed to Belanger’s mother, Diane. The implication is that Belanger's mother has passed, and that the photo hangs in Belanger’s office as a keepsake. (Her name comes from my older sister Diahann, who died in the 1990s...far too young.)

McDowall began as a child actor in films such as How Green Was My Valley (1941), My Friend Flicka (1943) and Lassie Come Home (1943), and appeared in a long string of movies before being cast—some might say typecast—in his defining role as Cornelius in Planet of the Apes (1968). He would go on to appear in the successful franchise’s sequels, portraying the characters Cornelius (Escape from the Planet of the Apes, 1971) Caesar (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, 1972, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, 1973), and Galen in the short-lived Planet of the Apes TV series (1974).

Despite appearing in over 150 movies, ironically enough it is his work on the Planet of the Apes movies—in which his itchy prosthetics prevented him from eating, touching his face, or emoting very much—for which he is best known.

He died of lung cancer in 1998, and in December of that year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences named its photo archive in his honor: the Roddy McDowall Photograph Archive at the Margaret Herrick Library.

This cast photo from the Planet of the Apes TV series (1974; source: Wikimedia Commons)
shows Roddy McDowall in his role as Galen. I still have my childhood action figures from this show.
However, not until page 103 do we learn the real significance of the signed Roddy McDowall photo in Belanger’s office. His parents were big fans of American television and movies, and Diane was fond enough of Roddy McDowall that she not only managed to get a personally signed photo of the actor, but she named her son after the character for which he is best known.

This is where I tantalize you by saying this wasn’t the only reason I picked the name “Niels.” For that you have to wait until the blog gets to page 174. Or you can read that page yourself and get a pretty good idea.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Page 102: You don’t speak like anyone I’ve ever known

I love language. Language and all the funny things that can be done with it. You can completely change the meaning of a sentence by replacing a word with its homonym. Or another word that rhymes. My brain constantly makes spoonerisms with common phrases. From Bugs Bunny’s “Pronoun trouble” to George Carlin’s “You can pick your finger, but don’t finger your prick,” I am endlessly entertained by tinkering with language. That comes with being a writer.

One of my favorite modern language-tinkerers is Joss Whedon, who I already name-dropped back on page 30 of The Billionth Monkey. He created a style of witty banter that is much-emulated these days, but it all started with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Not being a fan of the movie, I tuned into the TV show’s premiere prepared to hate it. Then I heard star Sarah Michelle Gellar use words like “inscrutable” and “platitudes.” There was more to this show than I expected, and I invariably became a huge fan.

What intrigued me most was how the characters didn’t just use common English phrases, but played with them and created new and original turns of phrase. Buffy actually created slang that crept into modern vernacular, rather than vice versa.

The dialogue on hit TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer was creative and inspirational.
In retrospect, it’s pretty unsurprising: A large part of culture and language involves pop culture references. Conversations with my friends invariably involve quoting TV shows, movies, song lyrics, internet memes, etc. Like sharing an inside joke, it bonds us together by acknowledging shared cultural referents. So yeah…not only will people quote a popular show like Buffy, but they will also start using its invented slang. As someone who loves to tinker with language, that is the coolest thing imaginable.

I wanted Destiny Jones to embody that linguistic playfulness. I’m pretty obvious about that intention with “English 2.0” and all. So before writing The Billionth Monkey, I literally spent several weeks dreaming up unique phrases with which to pepper her vocabulary. And I read through a dictionary of idioms in search of inspiration for new catchphrases. I eventually came up with pages of them, only about half of which made it into The Billionth Monkey. We never get to hear Destiny Jones say “All that jitters is not nervous,” “like comparing assholes and orangutans,” “deny before you try,” or “regurgitate one’s pride.” It would be a dream come true to see even one of her phrases make it into modern vernacular. My favorite contender for that is “I don’t have a cock in this fight” (p. 123).

My three dialogue heroes: Joss Whedon, Quentin Tarantino, and Kevin Smith.
[Wikimedia Commons photo credits to Gage Skidmore, Gage Skidmore, and Neil Grabowsky].

Two other masters of dialogue also deserve a shout-out here: Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith. Whether it’s Kill Bill or Dogma (or any of their other fantastic films), both of them sure know how to write captivating conversations that leave you hanging on every word. It may not be the first thing that folks remember about their work, but I sure do. For all of the action scenes in Kill Bill I, the best thing about Kill Bill II were the conversations between characters. And who but Kevin Smith would open a movie with an existential conversation about religion and sin, and manage to make it hilarious?

Whedon, Tarantino, and Smith: these were my inspiration for The Billionth Monkey’s introductory conversation in between Destiny Jones and Niels Belanger.