Fortean Times
(FT147) June 2001

Close, but still no cigar

By Ian Simmons

Myakka hoax story is here...

Promoters of Fortean mysteries should allow investigators open access to original data and witnesses. if they don't says Ian Simmons, they shouldn't be surprised at being branded fakers.

Basically, the Myakka ape photos are cut off from their context.

When it comes to Fortean phenomena, good, clear evidence is rare; you can count stunning-quality films and photos on one hand and can pretty much forget about conclusive material evidence. So, when something out of the ordinary appears it is a cause of much interest, as with the recent Myakka Skunk Ape photographs.

Given that the pictures are extremely clear, showing an ape-like creature seemingly performing a well known ape behaviour -- a "pant-hoot" — we seem well on the way to confirming the existence of this legendary cryptid. But are we! The photos themselves are not conclusive proof because of the possibility that they are good quality fakes. (No amount of analysis can demonstrate any film or photograph to be genuine, only "not yet shown to be fake"). But good evidence should allow researchers to build on it. Do the Myakka photos allow this! Regrettably not; they follow a pattern we have seen with other high-profile evidence that ultimately fails to prove its case simply because of the way it has entered the public domain.

Let's look at how this comes about. We are told that the Myakka photos were taken in September or October last year, were sent to the sheriff's department in December by the woman who took them and that they were subsequently made public by David Barkasy, who owns the Silver City Serpentarium, a local animal attraction. Effectively, it means that all access to the pictures and the story is through Barkasy and we are entirely reliant on his word in judging the truth. We only have a general area for the sighting -- near Route I-75 and no access to the photographer. Months have elapsed since the sighting, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for researchers to make a meaningful investigation of the site for physical traces. Nor can we make any judgement of the veracity of the original witness - who wished to remain anonymous. This basically cuts the photos off from their context, leaving them to stand or fall on their own. In this way, the Myakka photos follow the pattern of two other pieces of sensational fortean evidence — the Minnesota Iceman and the Roswell Autopsy film.

In the first case, showman Frank Hansen says he was approached by a Hollywood star, who wished to remain anonymous, but who owned an ape-man encased in ice which he wanted displayed. The frozen body created a sensation and was pronounced genuine by cryptozoologists Bemard Heuvelmans and Ivan Sanderson after examining it through the ice. The furore that followed prompted Hansen to return the beast to its owner and substitute a rubber replica, which has toured periodically since. Here, again, we are left without access to the originator and no testable samples (the original researchers were not allowed to breach the ice) that would ascertain whether or not the corpse was genuine.

Likewise, the visually impressive Roswell film was made public by Ray Santilli, who obtained it from a cameraman insisting on anonymity. There has been confirmation from Kodak that the film's serial number is from 1947, but no-one except Santilli and his associates have seen the piece of film with the identifying code. A part of the film has been independently tested and dated to the right year, but that did not show any image recognisable from the film released to the public — only what looked like steps; it cannot even be proved to come from the autopsy film.

Again, all evidence rests on the word of the discloser who is also promoting the story. Nor can we get corroboration from the alleged cameraman because, we are told, he is deceased. Even if we could convincingly place the film in 1947 — thus slightly strengthening the case for the rest of the tale being true — we would still have very little chance of clarifying the origin of the dissected entities it depicts. On the other hand, there have been some very effective critiques of the film — notably Rod Dickinson's UnConvention presentation — which demonstrate that it could have been faked; better access to the original material would help refute such critiques.

These three cases follow essentially the same pattern: seemingly impressive evidence; no way for researchers to contact the anonymous originator; difficulties in accessing any potentiallly corroborative evidence; and a single person who is acting as promoter of the material and sole guardian of the story. Such circumstances make for a very frustrating situation: the material is good enough to either produce definite proof of an entity's existence or significantly advance its credibility; but, because of the way it has been disclosed, it falls just short, boosting the mystery rather than solving it.

While I have no proof that Barkasy, Hansen or Santilli have been anything but genuine about their material under less than ideal circumstances, it does leave them open to criticism from the more sceptical (and cynical), that they faked the material to boost a commercial enterprise, be it Serpentarium, sideshow or film company. In an era in which fortean phenomena are increasingly being faked for publicity stunts — for instance, the Cake Company PR agency planting mystery animal stories to promote a video game and faking falls of fruit and simulacra to hype a breakfast cereal — those who turn up genuine evidence have a responsibility to treat it openly. If they don't they will be forever tainted with the suggestion of fakery.

Ian Simmons is the curator of Inspire, an acclaimed hands on centre in Norwich, a contributing editor to FT and editor of Fortean Studies.

© Fortean Times (FT147), June 2001

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