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.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Page 101-102: Bunnies, monkeys, hounds, and tuple entendres

Pop Quiz

1. A snow bunny is:
  1. Someone (esp. female) who is learning to ski.
  2. A devotee of winter sports.
  3. An attractive young woman who frequents ski resorts.
  4. Brand name of a rabbit-style vibrator.
  5. All of the above.

2. A powder monkey is:
  1. An old naval term for the person on a warship responsible for carrying powder to the guns.
  2. An explosives expert.
  3. Skier/snowboarder who prefers powdery snow, a.k.a. powder hound.
  4. The cocaine-addicted primates in Amy Farrah Fowler's lab on Big Bang Theory.
  5. All of the above.
A snow bunny
(uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by user Skittle).
Answer Key

1 = e, All of the above. The Billionth Monkey plays the meanings of a and b against e (link NSFW).

2 = e, All of the above. However, The Billionth Monkey is using definition c. A powder monkey is not to be confused with a snow monkey (Japanese macaques), which we will hear about on page 149.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Page 100: Angel Heart

I love New Orleans, and I love the movie Angel Heart (1987), adapted from William Hjortsberg’s 1978 novel, Falling Angel: When private detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is hired to track down heartthrob singer Johnny Favorite—who has disappeared owing a considerable debt to businessman Louis Cyphre (Robert DeNiro)—death follows close behind as Angel puts together the clues to Johnny Favorite’s disappearance.

The movie poster for Angel Heart (1987, dir. Alan Parker, TriStar).
It’s the movie whose love scene with the Voodoo priestess Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet) got the 19-year-old actress in hot water with The Cosby Show on which she was a cast member. It’s the movie that got the MPAA to specify that the difference between an R and an X rating is the number of consecutive butt-thrusts shown (turns out that the magic number is 3, or 10 seconds of footage; four is one thrust too many).

Angel Heart was based on William Hjortsberg's 1978 novel, Falling Angel.
Pictured is my copy of Warner Books' 1986 reprint.
Angel Heart stands up as a great movie today, and—spoiler alert—it is a #DevilReference.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Page 99: Blake House at Torquay

I’m somewhat familiar with Torquay—called the English Riviera—owing to my research for Perdurabo: The Life of Aleister Crowley (2010). Hailing from a wealthy family, it was where young Crowley studied with private tutors, and where he lost his virginity at age fifteen. He would return there half a century later at the advice of his doctor to escape the day-to-day stress of the Blitz, which was exacerbating his asthma.

Since the Devil’s Hoofmarks story on page 98 of The Billionth Monkey established that Belanger's family hailed from Devon before relocating to London, it made sense to send young Niels to Torquay Boys’ Grammar School.

Blake House indeed hosts a December variety show.  Although the house is named after Admiral Robert Blake (1599–1657), the name makes me think of English poet/artist William Blake (1757–1827), whose religiously-influenced works include The Marriage of Heaven and Hell…thus giving us (albeit through an incorrect association) a sly #DevilReference.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Page 98: The Devil’s Hoofmarks

I first read the story of “The Devil’s Hoofmarks” when I was around nine years old, thanks to my Scholastic Books purchase of Strange but True: 22 Amazing Stories (1973). Alongside accounts of the Loch Ness Monster, a woman who survived falling from an airplane, and the inexplicable parallels between assassinated presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, was a terrifying account of the Devil’s Hoofmarks. It was perfect for a child whose brain-candy consisted Hammer horror films and weekly episodes of In Search Of

Perhaps my earliest exposure to urban legends:
Strange but True: 22 Amazing Stories (Scholastic Books, 1973).
In The Billionth Monkey, folklore professor Niels Belanger gives an accurate summary of the tale of the mysterious trail of single-file hoof prints that stretched for scores and scores of miles through the snowy Devon countryside in February 1855, touching off local fear that Satan himself had visited the town.  Making this part of Belanger’s backstory (recall on page 16 that I describe his accent as “a mix of West Country and London”) allowed me to interject an exaggerated version of something from my own childhood, and it also supported the fact that he is a British scholar of American folklore. And bonus: This urban legend gave me another #DevilReference.

The 2014 horror film Dark Was the Night is based very loosely upon this legend. In recent years we’ve seen a glut of movies “based on a true story” where “based on” is a crass marketing ploy that really means “bears very little actual resemblance to” or “almost entirely fiction.” Examples include The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), An American Haunting (2006), Them (2007), Black Water (2007), The Strangers (2008), The Haunting in Connecticut (2009), Fourth Kind (2009), The Possession (2012), The Conjuring (2013), etc. To me it’s such a cliché that I automatically doubt any movie that claims to be “based on actual events.” Which is why I jokingly describe The Billionth Monkey as being “Based on actual fictional events.” Moreover, in The Billionth Monkey, the “fictional events” are all real urban legends. :)

For a great, thorough investigation of the Devil’s Hoofmarks, see Mike Dash’s  paper “The Devil’s Hoofmarks: Source Material on the Great Devon Mystery of 1855,” which originally appeared in Fortean Studies 1 (1994) and 3 (1996).

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Page 96: Monkey Trails

In December 2014 I spent a night at the Timberline Lodge in order to take the photo for page 142 of The Billionth Monkey. The next day, as I had lunch in the Ram’s Head Bar before getting on the road, I noted the skiers and snowboarders returning from the slopes: What were they wearing? What were they doing? What were they talking about?

The Ram's Head Bar on the second floor of the lodge offers stunning views of Mount Hood
(image from the Timberline Lodge website).
One thing I noticed was a lot of generational slang. The other was a lot of skiing lingo, which was very helpful. All these details informed my writing of this scene.

The view from my room at the Timberline Lodge.
A “monkey trail” is snowboarder slang for a small trail—often through the woods—of the main trail. This term allowed me to slip in another #MonkeyReference. For more snowboarding terminology, see

I wandered around back looking for a Snow Cat, but didn't find one.
This was worrisome. What had Jack done with it?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Page 94: The Exorcist in truth and in urban legend

This classic horror movie from 1973—in which the young Regan McNeil (Linda Blair) is possessed by the demon Captain Howdy and requires an exorcism—needs no introduction. Not only is The Exorcist a #DevilReference in The Billionth Monkey, but the film itself is surrounded by urban legends. This last fact should come as no surprise given that this movie was a phenomenal success…and by “success” I mean it turned heads and stomachs around the world.

A movie poster for The Exorcist
(1973, dir. William Briedkin, Warner Bros.)
The film’s creators primed audiences ahead of the release—the day after Christmas, of all days (talk about a study in contrasts!). On the eve of the film’s release, author William Peter Blatty said of the production, “It was as if some evil force was haunting the film.” He also told People magazine in 1974 that when they played back the audio, they heard “loud rapping sounds” that were not present during filming.

The press supported these claims with reports that the production was cursed with a number of tragedies and catastrophes:  Actors Jack MacGowran (drunken film director Burke Bennings) and  Vasiliki Maliaros (the mother of Father Karras) both died before the movie’s release. Ellen Burnstyn and Linda Blair were injured while filming separate stunt scenes. And a weekend fire destroyed part of a set, causing production delays.

When the movie finally came out at the end of 1973, audiences had never seen anything like it. They trembled and wept with fear. Many walked out, unable to sit through it. At every screening, several people routinely fainted…some while attempting to leave the theater. Others became physically ill. Theater owners complained of carpets ruined by vomit, and stories soon circulated about barf bags being handed out to theater patrons. According to Ruickbie, “there were even unsubstantiated accounts of heart attacks, a miscarriage, a frenzied attack on the projection screen by a man trying to kill the demon, other acts of unspecified violence at showings, and between two and four institutionalizations” (p. 32).

The May 2014 issue of the Fortean Times celebrated
the 40th anniversary of The Exorcist and its urban legends.
People called for the movie—which religious journalists called “thoroughly evil”—to be banned. Some local communities did exactly that. Protestors picketed cinemas showing the film. Religious authorities claimed that the movie had actually caused dozens of viewers to become possessed. In London, clergy and laypeople with “experience in dealing with demonology” set up a hotline and fielded 600 calls in the first three weeks of the movie’s run. Church attendance spiked.

To be fair, the movie also received plenty of praise from religious quarters for being “deeply spiritual,” and it was showered with secular awards and box office profits.

Because The Exorcist is the first horror movie whose production is claimed to have been cursed, this distinction spawned a number of urban legends about the production:
  • For instance, the aforementioned set fire morphed into a legend that the entire set of the McNeil house burned down on a Sunday of all days…except for Regan’s room (in which the exorcism takes place): it was mysteriously untouched.
  • Another legend claims that nine people died while making the movie. Much like the rumor of a curse on King Tut’s tomb, most of these deaths have nothing to do with the movie, while others occurred years after filming was completed. Four deaths apparently occurred during filming, but the “victims” were not people actually involved in making the movie (e.g., an assistant camerman’s baby, actor Max von Sydow’s brother, or Linda Blair’s grandfather).
  • Another urban legend has it that The Exorcist was banned on video in the UK until 1999. In fact, the film was released on home video in 1979. The Video Records Act of 1984 required all home videos to be classified, and Warner Brothers did not submit The Exorcist until 1999…whereupon it was passed by the board and promptly re-released.
  • Three Jesuits served as technical advisors on the film, and two even appeared in the movie: William O’Malley as Father Dyer, and Thomas Bermingham as the president of Georgetown University. According to urban legend, the film crew were so disturbed about the project that the director had Bermingham perform an exorcism on the set. Other versions say that Bermingham visited the set every morning to bless it before filming began.

For Further Reading

Leo Ruickbie. “What Possessed Us?” Fortean Times, May 2014, 313: 30–35.

Mark Feldt, “Urban Legends of The Exorcist,”

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Page 89: WikiBard

This scene in The Billionth Monkey was an exercise in how many Shakespeare or Star Wars puns I could cram into one passage. Here goes:

Wikibard: There’s really no such thing as Wikibard. At least there wasn’t when I wrote the book, so I made one. There are minor spoilers at this Website, so the eBook version doesn’t include a clickable link to Wikibard until page 128. So I’ll wait until that part of the walkthrough to tackle all the jokes there.
An unused red variant of the Wikibard logo header.
“greatest poet and playwright of the English language”: As Aleister Crowley’s biographer, I couldn’t resist sneaking in a few sly references to AC. When in his Confessions Crowley gives his birthplace as Leamington Spa, he includes the cheeky footnote “It has been remarked a strange coincidence that one small county should have given England her two greatest poets—for one must not forget Shakespeare (1550–1610).” Crowley actually held the Bard in great esteem, writing to his son that in order two properly understand Western culture and literature, one must be familiar with the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.
Aleister Crowley in his poet phase with a floppy bow-tie, ca 1905.
(Actually, he remained a poet throughout his lifetime.)
Dame Frances Beye-Cohn: Here I’m alluding to the conspiracy theory known as the Baconian theory of Shakespeare authorship. According to Wikibard, “Those who subscribe to the theory that Sir Francis Bacon wrote the Shakespeare work generally refer to themselves as ‘Baconians,’ while dubbing those who maintain the orthodox view that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote them ‘Sheeple.’” According to the Baconian theory, Shakespeare actually died in a car crash outside Albert Hall. The publishing industrial complex sought to protect its profits by having Francis Bacon fill in, writing plays in Shakespeare’s name. Those who knew the truth, however, hid clues to what was going on. Thus the First Folio’s engraving of Shakespeare depicts the bard bare-footed. As You Like It is obviously an anagram of “Alike ’tis you.” And let’s not forget the blatant lyrics to his sonnet “Number 9”:
Is it for fear to wet a widow's eye
That thou consumest thyself in single life?
Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die,
The world will wail thee, like a makeless wife;
If this isn’t Bacon writing about Shakespeare being dead, then I don’t know what it’s about.

Come in person hither, nay, and thou art: Plain silliness as “telltale use”

Tempest: Refers to Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

King Hamlet: A common question about Hamlet is “What is the name of the dead king?” Although the answer turns out to be “Hamlet,” the confusion seemed like a great foundation on which to build a joke.

“indentured servant who gained his freedom by winning a chariot race. After entering a religious order…”: All a reference to Star Wars Episode I, and a little bit of Episode II.

“An indentured servant who gained his freedom by winning a chariot race.”
Stilted language: This is a complaint often levied against the Star Wars prequels, overlooking the stilted language of the original trilogy.

Offensive stereotypes: The Phantom Menace has been accused of basing various aliens on offensive ethnic stereotypes about Japanese (the Trade Federation), African-Americans (Jar Jar Binks), and Italians (Watto).

Is the most-hated character in the Star Wars universe based on an offensive stereotype?
Or do you hate Jar Jar Binks just because?
Ian McDiarmid: The Scottish actor is renowned in British theatre for his roles in Shakespearean dramas such as Hamlet (1972), The Tempest (1974), Much Ado about Nothing (1976), Macbeth 1976), etc. He is however perhaps best known worldwide for portraying Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars prequels.

“One may write this shite, but one cannot say it.”: A reference to Harrison Ford’s famous quip to George Lucas during the filming of Episode IV: “George, you can write this shit, but you can’t say it.”

“younger scholars say this is every bit as good as the original Hamlet”: Children don’t seem to have a problem with the more recent Star Wars movies. It’s only the people who saw Star Wars as children and then grew up who complain about the prequels.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Page 84: Mashed-potato sculptures: ¿Que demonios?

On page 84, the Spanish exclamation ¿que demonios? is roughly equivalent to the English “What the hell?” or “What the devil?” (literally “demon”)…making it another #DevilReference.

That’s too short for its own blog post, so let’s move on to page 88:

For the crazy chase across the U.S., I selected locations significant in pop/nerd culture that were theoretically drivable. My starting point was Devils Tower not only because it’s a #DevilReference, but also because the site was central to the classic film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). I tried not to be too obvious about the location at this point, instead referring obliquely to a “famous mashed potato sculpture”…which may be lost on people who haven’t seen the movie in a while.
Richard Dreyfuss molds his spud masterpiece in this still image from
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (© 1977, dir Steven Spielberg, Columbia Pictures)
 Here’s YouTube clip of of the scene I’m talking about:

The location’s Close Encounters linkages also serves as a red herring, as the urban legends encountered here have nothing to do with UFOs.

After reading The Billionth Monkey, Jan Harold Brunvand kindly advised me that there’s actually no downhill skiing in this area. I can only hope that the Billionth Monkey effect also has power over geology!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Page 83: The Hook

Everyone knows the urban legend of the Hook. Like me, you probably heard it huddled around a flashlight with your friends at a slumber party, campfire, or Halloween party at which scary stories were told. Rudinger (1976) called it “one, if not the most widespread, of all modern horror legends” (p. 90).

It goes like this: A young couple are making out in a car in lover’s lane when their radio mood music is interrupted by a news bulletin: A homicidal maniac with a hook for a hand has escaped from a local mental institution. The date, frightened by this report, asks to be taken home where it is safe. After some protestations and reassurances in vain, the boyfriend relents and, disappointed and annoyed, speeds off toward her home. Arrived at her home, he walks around the car to open her door. From the handle dangles A BLOODY HOOK!!!

Bugs Bunny gets the hook!
(Still from a classic Looney Tunes cartoon, © Warner Bros.)
As Brunvand puts it, “The legend has also been incorporated into comic strips, films, and TV programs to such a degree that the very image of a hook dangling from a car-door hangle is enough to suggest for most people the whole genre of urban legends” (p. 200). This is why I decided to get The Hook out of the way early: It’s so well-known that I couldn’t use it later, so I took advantage of its archetypal nature to immediately set the stage for Belanger.

Although variations of the basic story are rooted deep in history, its present form apparently emerged in the 1950s, originally centered around Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles. Ellis (1994) argues that its resurgent popularity owed something to a real-life incident which vaguely echoed the legend: the 1948 arrest of lover’s lane robber-rapist Caryl Chessman, nicknamed “Hooknose” because of an accidental deformity. Peaking in popularity in the 1960s, it gradually transformed from an urban legend and into a nigh-universal “children’s scare story” (Ellis, 66).

Dustin Hoffman at Peter Pan's nemesis in Hook
(©1991, dir. Steven Spielberg, TriStar Pictures.)
This legend has been interpreted from many different perspectives: sociological, psychoanalytic, Jungian, structuralist, etc. So depending on who you ask, you may be told that the Hook represents:
  • Girls’ fears of how otherwise nice boys in romantic settings may transform into aggressors if unrestrained, the Hook being a phallic symbol of that most threatening appendage (and its removal—or “castration”—symbolizing removal of that threat).
  • Adolescent boys’ fear of parental reprisal—symbolized by cutting off the hand—for exploring their burgeoning sexuality through masturbation.
  • Or, more broadly, adolescents’ fears at a time when their bodies are going through a bewildering and possibly frightening sexual transformation.
  • From a Jungian perspective, an early encounter with the Shadow.
  • The discomfort often experienced by those encountering the handicapped or mentally ill.
  • From a structuralist standpoint, the Hook can be seen as part man and part thing, representing the liminal state between social order and chaotic nature…much like the secluded lover’s lane setting in the semi-wilderness.
  • A morality play in which abruptly leaving lover’s lane not only saves their lives, but also spares the youngsters from “losing their virtue.”


Jan Brunvand. “The Hook.” In Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 199–201.

William M. Clements. “Mythography and the Modern Legend: Interpreting ‘The Hook.’Journal of Popular Culture, spring 1986, 19(4): 39–46.

Linda Dégh. “The Hook.” Indiana Folklore 1968, 1(1): 92–100.

Alan Dundes. “On the Psychology of Legend.”  In Wayland D. Hand (ed.), American Folk Legend: A Symposium (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 29–31 (full paper: 21 – 36).

Bill Ellis. “‘The Hook’ Reconsidered: Problems in Classifying and Interpreting Adolescent Horror Legends.” Folklore 1994, 105: 61–75.

Barbara Mikkelson, “The Hook,”, June 2, 2008.

Joel D. Rudinger. “Folk Ogres of the Firelands: Narrative Variations of a North Central Ohio
Community.” Indiana Folklore 1976, 9:  41–93 (esp. page 90n).

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Pages 80-82: A French Market lagniappe; plus grammar nazis!

Lagniappe is a Louisiana French term for a bonus or extra gift, often given by a merchant to a customer. Niels Belanger uses the term on page 80 of The Billionth Monkey, and—for the benefit of those who have never been to the French Quarter or who, like me, always long to return there—I offer the following lagniappe: a "virtual tour" of the French Market and Dutch Alley using my research photos walking what was going to be Belanger’s escape route.

The view of Café du Monde from Jackson Square, across Decatur Street.
A tray full of beignets ready to serve.
The Dutch Alley, out the other side of Café du Monde, showing the neighboring shops' palladium windows.
The bronze statue and fountain in Dutch Alley.
Stairs leading up to the French Market Lot.
A view of the long, narrow French Market Lot, whose length runs between the French Market (on the left) and
the Mississippi River (on the right) for the seven blocks between Jackson Square and Barracks Street.
The exit for the French Market lot onto Barracks Street.
As you can see below, the editors’ joke about capitalization on page 82 is no urban legend. It’s absolutely true, and I have the photo to prove it!

The joke on page 82 for copy editors and grammar nazis is based on fact!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Page 76: The Goetia vs. Robert’s Rules of Order

This scene humorously juxtaposes Nicholas Young’s overblown and ominous verbiage from the Goetia with those of his associates, who are far more interested in Robert’s Rules of Order.

For those unfamiliar with one or both texts, the Goetia refers generally to magical practices designed to summon demons to do your bidding, particularly those practices based on the seventeenth-century grimoire The Lesser Key of Solomon, whose first section is called the Ars Goetia. British occultist Aleister Crowley famously published an edition of the Goetia in 1904.  While it remains a popular text, more scholarly editions have appeared in recent years, including those by Joseph Peterson (2001),  and Stephen Skinner & David Rankine (2007). . In addition, Colin Campbell’s Of the Arte Goetia (2015) is an invaluable analysis of the primary texts.

A magician conjures a demon in this image from the frontispiece
to the 1620 edition of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus).
Here is an example of “The Second Conjuration” (of three) for a spirit who is reluctant to appear upon the first summons. Some phrases turn up in Nicholas Young’s rant in this chapter of The Billionth Monkey:
I DO invocate, conjure, and command thee, O thou Spirit N., to appear and to show thyself visibly unto me before this Circle in fair and comely shape, without any deformity or tortuosity; by the name and in the name IAH and VAU, which Adam heard and spake; and by the name Of GOD, AGLA, which Lot heard and was saved with his family; and by the name IOTH, which Jacob heard from the angel wrestling with him, and was delivered from the hand of Esau his brother; and by the name ANAPHAXETON which Aaron heard and spake and was made wise; and by the name ZABAOTH, which Moses named and all the rivers were turned into blood; and by the name ASHER EHYEH ORISTON, which Moses named, and all the rivers brought forth frogs, and they ascended into the houses, destroying all things; and by the name ELION, which Moses named, and there was great hail such as had not been since the beginning of the world; and by the name ADONAI, which Moses named, and there came up locusts, which appeared upon the whole land, and devoured all which the hail had left; and by the name SCHEMA AMATHIA which Ioshua called upon, and the sun stayed his course; and by the name ALPHA and OMEGA, which Daniel named, and destroyed Bel, and slew the Dragon; and in the name EMMANUEL, which the three children, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, sang in the midst of the fiery furnace, and were delivered; and by the name HAGIOS; and by the SEAL 1 OF ADONI; and by ISCHYROS, ATHANATOS, PARACLETOS; and by O THEOS, ICTROS, ATHANATOS; and by these three secret names, AGLA, ON, TETRAGRAMMATON, do I adjure and constrain thee. And by these names, and by all the other names of the LIVING and TRUE GOD, the LORD ALMIGHTY, I do exorcise and command thee, O Spirit N., even by Him Who spake the Word and it was done, and to Whom all creatures are obedient; and by the dreadful judgments of GOD; and by the uncertain Sea of Glass, which is before the DIVINE MAJESTY, mighty and powerful; by the four beasts before the throne, having eyes before and behind; by the fire round about the throne; by the holy angels of Heaven; and by the mighty wisdom of GOD; I do potently exorcise thee, that thou appearest here before this Circle, to fulfil my will in all things which shall seem good unto me; by the Seal of BASDATHEA BALDACHIA; and by this name PRIMEUMATON, which Moses named, and the earth opened, and did swallow up Kora, Dathan, and Abiram. Wherefore thou shalt make faithful answers unto all my demands, O Spirit N., and shalt perform all my desires so far as in thine office thou art capable hereof. Wherefore, come thou, visibly, peaceably, and affably, now without delay, to manifest that which I desire, speaking with a clear and perfect voice, intelligibly, and to mine understanding.
You get the idea.
This popular meme (from a photo by Marcus Ranum) shows a young woman performing a ritual
while reading from the Dover paperback of Aleister Crowley's Magick in Theory and Practice,
a reprint edition which introduced a whole new generation to "magick."
Robert’s Rules of Order, on the other hand, is a guide for conducting meetings. Originally penned by Brigadeer General Henry Martyn Robert, it was first published in 1876. Deliberative bodies use it for meeting procedures that are not covered by the society’s by-laws or other procedural rules. And if ever there was a deliberative body that needed rules for conducting meetings, it’s a deliberative body of occultists!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Page 74: The naked surprise party

This popular urban legend—dating back to at least the 1920s—appears under a few different guises. One common variant involves the office secretary inviting her boss back to her place. He agrees, and when she goes to her bedroom “to get ready,” he assumes that his fantasy is finally going to come true, so he strips to prepare himself as well. The joke’s on him when she emerges from the bedroom with friends, neighbors and coworkers who had gathered for his surprise party.

In some versions of this legend, an amorous newly-engaged couple strip for action, believing they are home alone, only to be caught in the act by a surprise engagement party.

Henken (2002) discusses how the social transgression of this story escalated as the times have become more liberal. Thus, versions of the Surpriser Surprised story from the 1950s had a young lady offering her virginity to her paramour without knowing she was about to step into a surprise party. By the 1980s it had escalated to a pair of lovers being caught in flagrante. And by the 1990s the shock value had been cranked up even higher in the form of “a single woman [who] is caught by the surprisers when she appears nude, except for peanut butter spread on her genitals, and calling for her dog to come get his treat” (p. 261). Haken (2004) also points out that when the gender of the sexual transgressor changes, the outcome shifts from the male character simply being embarrassed to the female character losing her job and having to leave town…consistent with prevailing double standards in society.

A NASA artist's rendition of the Naked Surprise Party urban legend referred to in The Billionth Monkey.

For Further Reading

Anonymous. “Birthday Suited.” July 1, 2007.

Jan Harold Brunvand, Encyclopedia of Urban Legends. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001, 430–1.

Elissa R. Henken. “Escalating Danger in Contemporary Legends.” Western Folklore, Autumn 2002, 61(3/4): 259–76.

Elissa R. Henken, “Gender Shifts in Contemporary Legend.” Western Folklore, Summer 2004, 63(3): 237–56.

William Hugh Jansen. “The Surpriser Surprised: A Modern Legend.” Folklore Forum 1973, 6: 1–24.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

New review at Amazon: "Get your meme on"

Here's the latest review of The Billionth Monkey at Amazon:

You do have to know your modern memes. The book is fast-moving and amusing, and I can see why people who like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy like Billionth Monkey.