An Interview with Robert Damon Schneck
Monsters are a part of history dating back to Herodotus in his Histories, and Pliny the Elder doesn't leave them out of his exhaustive Natural History. Today the unexplained is tidily swept into fiction or even more marginalized as occult. Scholars whittle out of a narrative what they deem embarrassing and in so doing narrow our understanding of a people in time and space. Unintentionally the academic segregation removes the hot air from the debate and deflates the prospect of such discussions rising to the heights of obsession, where the best work occurs.
It was only by happenstance that as a boy Robert Damon Schneck discovered his calling on his mother's night table. There he spied the dog-eared paperback copy of radio host Frank Edwards's 1959 collection of oddities entitled Stranger Than Science. Thus launched a life-long passion with the paranormal. It's not a linear career path, leading first to art school, where his talent as a draftsman earned him a BFA in Illustration from Parson's School of Design, in 1986. But Schneck confesses never having gotten much satisfaction out of drawing.
I met Schneck at college where his bin of supplies was unironically decorated not with Egon Schiele reproductions or obscure punk rock logos, but a bold red, white, and blue bumper sticker championing Ronald Reagan for President. His was not an overcoat of weirdness put on as a pose, but a genuine strangeness rare even in the eccentric halls of a downtown Manhattan art school. It was some years later when I unintentionally helped start him on the road from artist to historian of the bizarre. I contracted him to review the book Cannibalism by Hans Askenasy for Genesis magazine, a "men's sophisticate" I was editing at the time.
Since then he has gone on to contribute regularly to pillars of the anomalous phenomena community, such as Fortean Times and Fate magazine, as well as have his works collected and expanded in books for adults and children. He is the author of The President's Vampire: Strange-but-True Tales of the United States of America, from which the final chapter, "The Bridge to Body Island" is being adapted into a supernatural thriller called The Bye Bye Man, produced by TWC-Dimension and distributed by the Weinstein Company.
Ironically, "The Bridge to Body Island" stands alone in Schneck's oeuvre, as it is an as-told-to tale, unattributed by his painstakingly involved and accurate footnoting process. It's just a scary story, and he loves it, though forewarning: "readers who are genuinely frightened by the paranormal or troubled by obsessive thoughts should consider skipping this chapter." Don't skip Schneck's work, most recently collected in Mrs. Wakeman vs. the Antichrist: And Other Strange-but-True Tales from American History, if you're at all interested in the untold history of the American people.
Your books are heavily annotated, why nail the facts of fantastic stories down to attributable, confirmed sources?
This is real history. I treat it with respect, the same respect as a historian writing about the Battle of Gettysburg. A lot of this stuff is dismissed. I'm trying to give it some weight so people realize there's value. Maybe there's a bit of insecurity on my part, too. I don't have any of the proper background as a historian. I'm self-taught, so I go out of my way to footnote everything to show that, yes, this is real, this is legitimate. Also, I want everyone to know how hard I worked.
I've often recommended books from academic presses covering oddball subjects, why have you dismissed them?
I've noticed that when someone with a doctorate writes about the paranormal or the very strange, they act as if they're slumming. A lot of them are not interested in history, they're using the paranormal as a springboard to discuss what they really want to talk about. For example, I read a book on the history of the great Spanish fever epidemic of 1918. I didn't know anything about it, and I was interested because in the 1920s, there was an enormous surge in the interest in Ouija boards. I suspect that was because of there being so many deaths from Spanish influenza. Most people blame it on World War I. Reading this book I realize the author is using this historical event as an excuse to talk about the condition of women, blacks, and minorities in the United States in 1918. That's not why I was reading the book.
But your research ends up putting the story in a cultural context, so what's the difference?
It's not the main issue for me, though it does come up and surprise me. For example, the "Four Wild Men of Dr. Dedge" chapter tells the story of a dentist named Dr. Dedge who convinced four black men to undergo an operation in which their scalps were opened and he inserted a flatted piece of silver with little screws that protruded through their scalp. He attached goat horns to their heads and took them on tour as wild men, which was a very popular sideshow attraction at the turn of the last century.
The cultural story wasn't my interest in pursuing the story. For me, I felt the idea of men with screw-on horns was just neat. I didn't know whether they were black or not. You start doing some research and it turns out wild men were either black or very ugly or freaks. A dentist would be hired to put fangs in their mouths to give them that real wild-man look. You start reading the historical accounts of it and it's n---- this and n---- that, and if you know something about the period, ideas of scientific racism were very big at the time. You can't avoid talking about it. It's not something I wanted to talk about. I was really interested in talking about the idea of surgically putting horns on a man's head.
This curiosity for the bizarre and unusual lead you into painting an unpleasant portrait of the times, a picture that is often ignored nowadays because it's too sharp an image of how commonplace and disturbing racism was in society and still resonates today. Aren't you setting the table for these larger discussions?
If somebody wants to have that discussion, that's fine. I'm certainly not going to discourage it, but it's not something I wanted to write about. I try to be honest with the material. For example, I go to the Bronx Zoo often, and every time I walk past the Monkey House I look up at the carving of the orangutan on the door, that orangutan used to be displayed with Ota Benga, a pigmy from Africa who came to this country to be on display at the World's Fair in St. Louis, and ended up being exhibited at the Monkey House in the Bronx Zoo. That's disconcerting.
What's interesting in your work compared to other writers of strange and occult phenomenon is that you're not like Carl Kolchak, the bulldog reporter from the old TV series Kolchak, the Night Stalker, who traces unbelievable events to supernatural conclusions. You're respectful, not exactly debunking, but do you find truth in the paranormal?
I rarely do. That's not the issue. I have no idea if something happened that was supernatural. I just don't know. I don't worry about it. One of the stories I write about in the new book is about a poltergeist. I happen to think that poltergeists are real. The phenomenon is very consistent over the years and it's very well-studied and well-documented, so I think it's real. But once you've said that, now what? I don't know what causes it. I don't know how it works. I have some theories, but once I mention them let's get on with what happened and what it meant these people and how it affected their lives. I guess I use these stories as a way to get a different look at American history.
The same things happen generation after generation, and it's just that our explanations for them change. Scientific racism was the result of science. It grew out of Darwinism. We have such faith in science, but this was one of the results. Now, of course, we dismiss it as pseudoscience, but they certainly didn't at the time. Eugenics was progressive. Eugenics and racism are very closely knit. To an earlier generation who wanted to assert their racial superiority, they went back to the Bible, the sons of Noah: Shem, Ham and Japheth. We're just changing the explanations. The same attitudes continue.
Is the Ape Canyon chapter an example of how you follow the facts to a surprising end that unearths how people acted in a particular time and place?
The reason I wrote the story of Ape Canyon is because it was a magical treasure-hunting story, or at least it seems that way to me. I found this so interesting because magical treasure hunting was once such an accepted part of our culture.
For thousands of years people believed in magical treasure hunting. In the United States magical treasure hunting took the form of very widespread beliefs. There was treasure hidden all over the country, treasure hidden by pirates, Tories who fled the American Revolution, even treasure hidden by American Indians and gnomes and misers and others. There were books and formulas for finding these treasures.
Treasure hunting went through several periods of popularity, often connected to a bad economy, but not necessarily. It was also a hobby, people just did it, and there were always stories about someone who struck it rich. There was a ritual that went with it, and you had to follow that ritual in absolute silence, as these treasures were usually guarded by a demon or a ghost or a monster and if you spoke you lost the magical protection that you cast and you'd be driven away by the monster.
I can't prove that's what Ape Canyon was, but all the elements are there. The story involves five miners who claimed they were attacked by rock-throwing Big Foots at their camp near Mount St. Helens in 1924. They believed they were on the verge of discovering gold because they had done an assay, an evaluation, which indicated they were about to tap a very rich vein.
One of the men involved, Fred Beck, told his own version of the story in a pamphlet called "I Fought the Apemen of Mount St. Helens," published in 1967. It turns out that Fred Beck was a mystic and a spiritualist, and the mine was discovered using seances. Spirits lead him to the mine, but before he could mine the gold the Big Foots arrived and drove him away.
What most would dismiss as a bogus Big Foot sighting lead you to a lost cultural tradition, so the traditional scientific method ignores these connections?
Take cryptozoology, which is, one, the study of animals that are officially extinct but still exist, two, animals that are known to exist but are wildly out of place, for example a kangaroo showing up in a wheat field in Kansas, or, three, animals that people claim to encounter but there's no real evidence that they exist, like Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster.
Cryptozoology tries to be as scientific as possible and here is this pain-in-the-ass story of Ape Canyon where Big Foots act in ways no one has ever recorded them acting. Then there's this book by Fred Beck, which is filled with spiritualism, his encounters with beings that don't quite seem real, his use of seances, his belief that Big Foots are manifest beings from another plane of existence, the cryptozoologists don't want to hear that. They have this story that's not unreasonable, if you accept the fact there might be a wild primate living in the Pacific Northwest. Then there's all this stuff attached that the cryptozoologists don't want to deal with. It's awkward, it's uncomfortable, but I found it fascinating. It doesn't fit anywhere. It's annoying to everybody.
Do you consider your work a new way to record history?
It's very strange. I have trouble discussing this stuff in the abstract. I tend to stick very closely to what it is I'm working on. I don't know who the people were who decided there should be such a thing as women's history, that there should be such a thing as black history or gender history. I don't know how those things got started, but I'm sure somebody sat down and wrote a sort of manifesto. I wish I could do that, but every time I've tried to outline it I felt like a pretentious fool.
I wish I could create an influential framework that people would read and say, "Ah, he's right!" I don't seem to have that ability, so if there's any validity to what I'm doing I hope it's apparent in the work. I hope other people can see that and say there is something to this. Obviously, this is a part of our culture that deserves further exploration. This is a rich area that shouldn't be allowed to be forgotten, shouldn't be allowed to decay and is extremely revealing about what we are, who we are, where we came from and what being American means.
Peter Landau is shopping a memoir, Schmuck: Faith, Fatherhood, and Foreskin, and a children's novel, Underground with Nickelan Wand, Book One: Kid City. He can be found online @PeterLandau and publishing his writings weekly at tumblr.peterlandau.com.