Weird Wednesday

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Those of you who regularly read this column may have heard me make the comparison between ‘weird news’ – the type of story you read here – and ‘normal news’- the type of story that crops up on BBC news 24. Generally, ‘normal news’ dominates media outlets and normal stories stay current for rather a long time. By comparison, ‘weird news’, if it receives any coverage at all, is often reserved for a final ‘and in other news’ segment, where the weird story is briefly described and then never referred to again. For me, this is nothing short of a tragedy. ‘Weird news’ makes us marvel, it makes us think, it makes us double-take the assumed conformity of our world and, perhaps more importantly, it can put a smile on your face. ‘Normal news’, by contrast, is, by and large, predictably tragic; describing, as it commonly does, the deaths of innocents in some far-flung conflict, the Byzantine machinations of the political arena and the extra-ordinary depths of human avarice or sexual deviancy. Not that such stories lack importance, but their ubiquitous appearance on our news channels and daily papers has become such a regular feature that they have lost all ability to shock or surprize; they have become mundane. It is my belief that this status-quo exists because we humans generally like things we can predict. Sure, uncertainty and excitement are good in small doses, but for the most part, we enjoy the myth that we live in a world of rules and regularity; a world we can readily understand. Those stories which breach our ‘normality bubble’ can threaten our misplaced assurance that we know the world we live in inside-out. Such curve-ball stories can leave us swinging at thin air as we realize that there is more to our earth and more to human nature than we ever expected. Okay, pontificating over, I’ve descended from my soap-box… let’s get on with the show.

Weird Goings On

Dead Wedding

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The woman in the picture above hails from the town of St Omer in Northern France and she is to be married. ‘Nothing to see here’, I hear you say, ‘move along, move along’, but you may change your mind when you hear that her fiancé died nearly two years ago. The woman, who has been named only as Pascale, wrote a series of letters to the French president Francoise Hollande begging to be allowed to wed her deceased partner, a man by the name of Michel. The two had been set to tie the knot in June 2012, when Michel died of a sudden heart attack only a month before the ceremony. Pashcale, who was understandably devastated at the loss of the love of her life, wished to show the strength of her commitment by seeing their engagement through, even if her partner were unable to say ‘I do’. Now, thanks to an obscure French law and a touch of presidential intervention, she is to be allowed to do so. The law which permits posthumous marriages in France dates back to 1959, when a dam burst in the south of the country killing 420 people. Then President Charles De Gaulle took pity on a pregnant woman who had lost her partner to the tragedy and allowed the couple to be married. In the next few weeks Paschale will follow in that woman’s footsteps and will take part in a solo ceremony where she will be joined with her deceased lover. There have been around 300 cases of posthumous marriage since the law was first passed.

Prophecy of Doom

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Panic recently erupted on the streets of the Filipino city of Manilla when an obscure prophecy made by an Indian holy man appeared to be coming true. The prophet in question Vincent Selvakumar (Vincent, what a nice name) is reported to have predicted that a “deadly disease that would spread across the world, consume human flesh and would pierce through the bones”, would begin in the Philippines. The panic kicked off when a late night Fillipino news program reported that two people from the province of Pangasinan were suffering from a ‘mystery skin disease’. Apparently Vincent and his fellow prophet Sadhu Sundar Selvaraj had mentioned the province in their prognostications of doom. During a visit to the country in April 2013 Mr Selvaraj (pictured above) is reported to have said:

“The Lord says there is a place called Pangasinan. The Lord says it is in the northernmost part in your land. From there a grievous disease will spread all over the world. That will consume the flesh of men; all their upper (outer) skin will begin to decay. It will pierce through the bones. The fear of this disease will spread all over the world. The Lord said that this (disease) will begin from the Philippines.” 

It was no small wonder then that the corresponding news item caused a bit of a stir among the deeply religious inhabitants of the Philippines. Of course the county’s authorities have moved swiftly to quash speculation stating that the two individuals were suffering only from leprosy and psoriasis… only leprosy and psoriasis indeed. Check out the rather creepy news report in the video below!

Siberian Ice Virus

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From imagined viral threats to very real ones. A news report circulated last week concerning a virus which had lain dormant beneath the Siberian tundra for 30’000 years; a virus which has been brought back to life. This deadly organism, which is classed as a ‘giant virus’, kills its victims without mercy and has been found to be still infectious after 30’000 years in the freezer. Fortunately for us, it is harmless to humans and targets only amoebae.

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Pithovirus sibericum (pictured above) is only the latest in a series of ‘formerly extinct’ viruses to be discovered by Jean-Michel Claverie and Chantal Abergel, a French husband and wife team of evolutionary biologists. While it, like their other discoveries, has proven to be harmless to humans, their research has raised the prospect that other, more deadly, organisms lie preserved in the permafrost. Claverie told the BBC that he had fears that ancient strains of the small pox virus, thought to have been eradicated from the earth, may have survived in such a frozen environment and warned that industrial explorations in the region might lead to potentially disastrous situations:

“It is a recipe for disaster. If you start having industrial explorations, people will start to move around the deep permafrost layers. Through mining and drilling, those old layers will be penetrated and this is where the danger is coming from.”

Whether its frozen small-pox, or some other as yet unknown threat, perhaps global warming may be the beginning of the end after all… watch this space!

Weird Nature

Evil Columbian Zombie Plant

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I love classic zombie movies and I’m not talking George Romero here, though I do have a healthy respect for his films. What I mean when I say ‘classic’ zombie movies are those of the old school Voodoo variety; White Zombie, The Serpent and the Rainbow etc. etc. Such films are virtually non-existent these days, more than likely because they are considered politically incorrect in their portrayal of Haitian culture, but I always enjoyed their queer blend of religious mysticism, black magic and rampant evil. One of the key features of these cinematic gems was often a substance known as zombie dust or zombie powder which, when blown into the face of a victim, would convert them into a hypnotic and totally suggestible state. Such powders do exist on Haiti, the ‘home’ of voodoo, often concocted from the remains of toxic animal species such as the puffer fish, though scientific doubts have been expressed as to their efficacy.  There is one substance, however, which produces such results, the effectiveness of which is in no doubt, though it comes not from the Caribbean, but from the rain forests of Columbia; it is known as burundanga.

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Burundanga, which translates from Spanish as ‘junk’, is the street name for Scopalamine, a drug derived from the Brugmansia or ‘Angel’s Trumpet’ plant (pictured above). Scolpamine is easily refined from the Angel’s Trumpet and its effects are dramatic in the extreme. In large doses it is deadly; one ounce is enough to kill fifteen people, in smaller doses it has the capacity to render a victim totally compliant. Indeed, it is often used by criminal gangs in Columbia to target wealthy tourists, who, once brought under the drug’s spell, are more than happy to share their credit card details. South America is replete with such stories where the unsuspecting Burundanga taker awakes in hospital only to find that he or she has been robbed and/or sexually assaulted. The drug doesn’t simply render the victim unconscious; it actually leaves them fully functional and awake, only completely open to commands and suggestions from others, effectively eradicating their free will and turning them into a ‘zombie’.

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Although it originated in Columbia, the Angel’s Trumpet, which belongs to the Nightshade family, is now a common feature in gardens and greenhouses around the world; though, few of the people who show this beautiful flower off at their local horticultural society will know its dark potential. Reports of curious teenagers, eager to experience Brugmansia’s hallucinogenic capabilities by brewing a narcotic tea from it, have become common, thought the results can often prove to be tragic. In 2003, Sky News reported on a German teenager from the city of Halle, named only as Andreas, who cut off his tongue and penis with a pair of garden shears after drinking such a brew. That’s enough to put me off, I can tell you… Anyway, check out the documentary video below which highlight’s the drug’s role in the Columbian under world… it’s scary stuff!

Weird Object of the Week

On the Hunt

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Even in today’s consumer culture, where you can buy pre-packaged crocodile or shark off the supermarket shelf without any fear of losing a limb, man still has the urge to hunt. Every year, as soon as ‘the season’ kicks off, millions of men and women step off into the wild and cause animals to die in excruciating pain. Some would argue that this urge cannot be overcome, that it is a natural relic of several million years of human evolution. Man is a natural predator, they say; we should embrace it. So, this begs the immortal question, when the killer instinct takes over what do you wear? Do you go British nobility style and slip on your hunting reds? Do you don your tweed jacket and deerstalker and venture off into the woods? Well, not if you’re hunting bears… at least in Siberia it would seem. The image depicted above, which looks like something straight out of Hellraiser, is in fact a 19th century Siberian bear hunting suit. Covered in one inch wooden barbs, this two piece hunting armour was designed to provide maximum spike-based protection in man to bear combat situations. I’m not sure about its practical value on a day to day basis, but it would certainly come in handy should you ever be forced into an impromptu hugging contest with an angry, razor clawed teddy.

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You can see this fellow in all his spiny glory at the Menil collection in Houston Texas (pictured above). There it is credited as an object which ‘inspired’ surrealist art… no surprises there then!!

Alrighty, I hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s offering at the altar of not so normal… more unusual surprises await next Wednesday… see you then!!

Over and out

Andy G

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