Modern Unknowns Part I: The Man With The Bag
In the information age there aren’t a whole lot of blind spots, and thanks to that, a great number of fears have been dispelled. A combination of education and skepticism is a perfect remedy to the kind of terror to which we, as humans, are apt to attribute supernatural qualities. Now that we all have the internet in our pockets, connected to high quality video and sound recorders, we can share the spooky shit that happens to us with the digital world (about one third of the global population). Sadly, for those of us who wish the planet was a little more magical, this proliferation of high tech info-connectivity has killed a lot of the haunted house vibes that used to be so abundant on this ghostless space rock.
Last week’s alleged UFO sighting in California is a perfect example of this idea in action. Residents of the American West Coast collectively saw an unknown, brightly lit object in the night sky. Immediately everyone lost their minds and declared it a UFO—which, though technically accurate, has become shorthand for alien spaceship. Just as quickly, thanks to the modern miracle of the Internet, the US military copped to the disturbance declaring is a sea to air missile test conducted by a submarine, confirming the dreadful reality onlookers were trying to escape: even if we aren’t alone in the universe, we don’t seem to have any company here.
The same thing has happened with ghosts and cryptids. We have an immense resource of scientific data and expertise right at our fingertips, only too ready to dash our horrific fantasies, leaving us with cold hard explanations and a sickening suspicion that nothing is truly special. Yet, for all of our digital knowledge and community, there still do seem to be blind spots on our map, and like all human borders, these blank spaces are ready for us to stamp them with the label “Here be monsters.”
Yesterday I encountered a man on the subway. He was the perfect embodiment of a modern unknown, a monster who had ventured onto my map from beyond the edge. Walking from one end of the train to the other where I was standing, he made popping noises with his mouth while pantomiming a gun with his fingers and pretending to blow his own brains out, spattering passengers with hypothetical grey matter and blood. His eyes smiled as he did this, and his other hand, hanging from a slack left arm, clutched a heavy looking but small black garbage bag.
The bag smelled terrible and, as the man stood across from me committing a million smiling suicides, I was consumed with the mystery of what could possibly be in that horrific black sack. There is no way of knowing what the man was carrying, as there are countless items - both named and unnamed - that have repugnant aromas. Yet my brain wanted so dearly to know the specifics. The obvious answer was feces, but what if it was a dead animal, or a dismembered foot still gloved in a sweaty gym sock? Maybe it was week old calamari or a pile of slimy nightmares. Maybe it was a portal to Hell.
The man himself was as unknown as his bag, as paradoxically repellant and intriguing as his strange accessory. The words he spoke to other passengers were English, but they made no contextual sense. I got the impression that nothing I could say to the man, or that he could tell me, would be any more enlightening of the contents of his skull, or his infernal satchel, than a Google search for “subway suicide street performer + mystery sack” would. He was the void incarnate, joyfully telling everyone entranced by the scent of his bag, though the universal language of physical improv performance, that killing yourself is an option.
Now, I’m sure that an expert in mental illness would be better equipped to diagnose what was going on in this paragon of the void’s brain. When this thought entered my mind, as he popped his invisible gun, I felt the usual pang of guilt. If not scared, I was at least apprehensive of the man who was clearly unwell. I had allowed my personal unknowns seed within me a type of prejudice against a less privileged human. It’s ugly, but it’s honest.
That guilt, I think, is the key to modern ideas of the fearful unknown. Horror is a visceral experience of encountering the borders where our proverbial monsters live. As we become super connected through technology, these drawn limits are disappearing on an interpersonal level, but internally they are still there. Ignorance is an unknown, and it can exist on a one-to-one scale. I can take a train in a world I know and be confronted with the limits of my comprehension, even if they are wholly my own.