Crop Circles, Siberian Holes, And Bloody Mary: Creepy Mysteries Solved By SCIENCE!

I admit it: I faked every single enthusiastic Bloody Mary experience in middle school. Sorry everyone.
Publish date:
August 4, 2014
seems legit, science, nerd stuff

There’s only one thing I love more than a good mystery, and that’s a solution to a good mystery. I know, this reeks of fun-destruction to a lot of people, but for me, very often the answer is just as thrilling as the question.

Plus, Louise is off for a couple weeks so I am picking up the Creepy Corner banner in her absence. I’ve got three spooky mysteries for you that have been (sort of) solved by science, although I don’t think that makes them any less spooky.

It’s Crop Circle Season

As a youth, I went through a period of fascination with crop circles. I vividly recall one image in particular, from a book on mysterious phenomena I got out of my elementary school library, in which an artist’s rendering showed a shiny, saucer-shaped alien spaceship shooting pinkish beams down into wheat fields and producing elaborate patterns that seemed to be laden with meaning, although what the meaning was I could not say.

Crop circles are hardly an ancient undertaking; although fans often claim that evidence of crop circles dates to the 1600s (then, they were credited to fairies, or the devil), the idea seems to have originated in Tully, Australia, where in 1966 a farmer reported a UFO sighting that corresponded with the discovery of a circular area of flattened vegetation, apparently representing the landing site.

The crop circles we all think of really gained momentum in the late 1970s, when they began appearing in farmers’ fields in the English countryside, first as simplistic clusters of literal circles, but over time growing increasingly more elaborate, sometimes representing complex mathematical concepts. This led to further speculation that an advanced alien species was trying to communicate with humanity by, well, stamping pretty pictures of fractals into farmers’ fields in the middle of the night. Add to this the claims that some circles contain radioactive isotopes, or emit strange sounds for days after formation, and you’ve got a pretty sweet paranormal theory setting up.

But in 1991, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, two Hampshire-based artists, laid claim to the creation of the first crop circles in the 1970s, and multitudes more since, and it’s likely their work inspired others to create the ever more intricate patterns that make up the most impressive examples. Bower and Chorley were inspired by that original Australian UFO report, and were curious as to what would happen should they create “evidence” of a UFO landing for people to speculate over.

Crop circle artists are now an actual thing. While Bower and Chorley used a simple wooden plank system to stomp down their designs, some of today’s circle makers probably employ more complicated technologies, including GPS, lasers, and possibly even hand-held microwave emitters (which can apparently be extracted from a standard microwave oven) to heat crops and ease the construction process. Many of the more recent designs are not things you would expect an alien to know about, like Hello Kitty or Doctor Who.

Thus, most science-minded folks today agree that these formations are not alien communication, but the work of teams of perfectly normal humans, albeit humans with a unique and highly secretive hobby. So if it’s NOT aliens, and just people, why the hell are they doing it?

Many of those invested in circle-making consider it a contemporary art movement, sharing a symbiotic relationship with those who research crop circles as otherworldly phenomena, because the circlemakers provide the mystery which the true believers then promote. Therefore, people should absolutely continue to believe that crop circles have a non-human origin, because it is that belief that enables their earthbound human creators to continue to produce them. And really, they are beautiful, no matter their source.

For practice, enjoy this massive new crop circle that was discovered in a field in Bavaria last week, and is now drawing thousands of visitors.

The Apocalypse May Be Coming From Inside The Planet

Speaking of circles, you may have heard something about the weird holes turning up in Siberia -- the third of which was discovered this week by reindeer herders. I didn’t even know reindeer herding was a job, so we’re learning all kinds of things today. It sounds magical.

The first and largest of the holes, discovered earlier this month on the Yamal Peninsula in Russia, measures roughly 262 feet in diameter, and about 230 feet deep, with an icy lake at the bottom. It was spotted by helicopters and was strange enough for researchers to be dispatched to investigate.

While these holes were only recently discovered, they are probably not recently formed. All of the holes are in fairly remote locations -- I mean, it IS Siberia -- which makes it difficult to pinpoint what happened, although people nearby to one of the recently discovered examples reported seeing smoking and an explosive flash of light in one of the locations back in September of last year.

Naturally, theories are flying on what the cause might be, from meteor strikes to crashed UFOs to Kaiju invasion to the impending (or possibly imaginary) cataclysmic pole shift that will throw the whole planet into tectonic upheaval and destruction. One of the more boring theories is that these holes were formed by a known landform called a pingo, which is a mound of ice covered by earth, found in arctic and sub-arctic regions. During warmer temperatures, this ice can melt and the pingo will collapse, leaving a divot behind where the ice once stood.

Collapsed pingoes are not usually this deep, though. This theory is further complicated by the proximity of the holes to Siberia’s underground gas fields. Now some scientists are positing that these holes may in fact be connected to global warming. Warmer temperatures lead to more permafrost melting. Trapped in said permafrost are loads of methane, a gas that accelerates the warming process and which is 20 times more formidable on this account than carbon dioxide. When the methane is released into the atmosphere -- in this case, ostensibly in a tremendous explosion in a remote part of Russia -- it contributes to more warming, which then melts more permafrost, which releases more methane… you get the idea.

So yes, you should probably be worried, but not because we are decades away from monster-battling giant mech technology. Worry because we will probably eradicate ourselves long before enormous amphibious aliens get the chance.

That Bloody Mary Mirror Trick Wasn’t Just Your Preteen Imagination

When I was a preteen, Bloody Mary was a slumber party staple. You and a bunch of your bravest friends would crowd into a bathroom, turn off the lights, look into the mirror, and chant, “BLOODY MARY” three times, or until one of you thought she saw something and screamed and maybe cried and called her mom to come take her home. (The “Candyman” movie series made this way worse, incidentally, as a dude made of bees is way scarier than some lady with blood on her head.)

The idea, as I recall, was that we were summoning the spirit of Bloody Mary, whose origins and fate changed by the party (the only immoveable details were that she was evil and covered in blood) and she might try to reach out of the mirror and grab you and pull you in with her, because your best friend’s cousin’s classmate said this happened to a kid she knew once and the kid got away but totally had claw marks on her arm for like weeks after.

If I’m honest, I never saw anything during these lurid experiments, but that’s probably because I wasn’t actually looking in the mirror. I was quite happy with not seeing Blood Mary or getting grabbed by her hand-claws, but I didn’t want to be obvious about my wussery, so I just faked it.

Those of you who were not lousy fakers, and who did think you saw something? It might not have been in your head. Well, okay, it WAS in your head, but you weren't lying about it.

Giovanni Caputo, a psychologist at the University of Urbino in Italy, was doing self-identity studies using mirrors when he discovered that looking into a mirror in low light resulted in his own face appearing to change, and subsequently, other, unknown faces to appear. He tested this effect on 50 individuals, all of whom reported seeing changes, from dramatic deformations of their own faces, to the faces of relatives, strangers, and even terrifying fantasy creatures and monsters.

This failure to recognize oneself probably has its roots in our brains’ face-processing ability -- for some reason, looking at our reflection in low light for a certain length of time causes our minds to detach our individual features from the whole that allows us to know our own face. That said, the appearance of entirely new, unknown faces would seem to be unrelated to this process, so more research is needed.

Knowing yourself in a mirror is a often used as a measure of self-awareness; animals that can do this are considered more intelligent, and thought to have a sense of individual self. It seems our human ability to recognize ourselves has deeper psychological effects as well, because when you take it away, some weird stuff happens.

The participants reported that apparition of new faces in the mirror caused sensations of otherness when the new face appeared to be that of another, unknown person or strange `other’ looking at him/her from within or beyond the mirror. All fifty participants experienced some form of this dissociative identity effect, at least for some apparition of strange faces and often reported strong emotional responses in these instances. For example, some observers felt that the `other’ watched them with an enigmatic expression – a situation that they found astonishing. Some participants saw a malign expression on the ‘other’ face and became anxious. Other participants felt that the `other’ was smiling or cheerful, and experienced positive emotions in response. The apparition of deceased parents or of archetypal portraits produced feelings of silent query. Apparition of monstrous beings produced fear or disturbance. Dynamic deformations of new faces (like pulsations or shrinking, smiling or grinding) produced an overall sense of inquietude for things out of control.

It is, in a sense, an induced state of dissociation, and as such is of tremendous use to psychologists studying dissociative states. But more than that, Caputo is investigating this illusion’s potential as a therapuetic treatment for people with schizophrenia. People with schizophrenia report a more rapid and intense experience of the illusion effect, but some have also stated that it was useful to be able to visualize the faces of the voices they hear, and that doing so may help them to manage their symptoms.

If you’re curious, you can try this yourself. Sit or stand across from a large mirror in a dark room, and set a timer for ten minutes (part of this length of time is to allow your eyes to adapt to the low light). By ten minutes, odds are very high you will at least see your own face start to look unfamiliar, and you may even see Bloody Mary.

I’ll have to take your word for it though, as I’m still too chicken to try it myself.