Paranormal activity: A personal story
Some things in life just can't be explained. And that's okay.
Who hasn't experienced strange things in life, events that defy explanation?
Instead of digressing into a long argument as to why such strange events are just coincidences (see a recent Aeon essay on the topic), and that we are the ones who attach meaning to them because we are meaning-seeking creatures, I will tell you a bizarre story, a hair-raising event that remains—at least to me—mystifyingly unexplainable.
When I was seventeen, growing up in Rio, my parents loved hosting dinner parties. One time, we had a very important guest for dinner, Senhor João Rosas, Portugal's former minister of justice (similar to the U.S. attorney general), together with some friends from Lisbon.
All the guests were chatting away in the living room. Ever the gracious host, my father approached Senhor Rosas and offered him a whisky.
The minister took a sip and said, “Ó, Izaac, I'm very sorry, but this is not whisky."
“What? What do you mean?"
“It's tea. Nice tea, mind you, but just tea."
“Impossible! Let me try."
My father took a sip and said, “My God! It is tea! I am terribly sorry!"
My father rushed to the beverage closet and tried the whisky from the bottle he had served Senhor João. Tea. He eyed the other opened whisky bottles on the shelf. Tea in all of them. Horrified, he moved to the cognac. Also tea. Every single bottle of amber-colored spirit was filled with tea. My father almost spontaneously combusted.
He rushed to the kitchen, where Maria, our cook, was muttering something over the stove, no doubt a prayer to Yemanjá or some other deity. She was a small black lady in her late fifties, with pitch-dark beady eyes. A white turban perpetually covered her head. We all knew what that meant: Maria was a high priestess of Macumba, a syncretic religious practice widespread in Brazil, mixing African black magic and fetishism with elements of Catholicism.
On Mondays, the day of the souls, countless candles illuminate crossroads around the country, many with offerings of dead black chicken, cheap cigars, and half-empty bottles of cachaça, together with pictures of loved or hated ones. Macumba rituals involve a lot of drinking and chanting, inducing the “channelers" into a trancelike state so they can “receive" the spirits of the dead. Once they are possessed, their back arches, their eyes roll, and their motions become jerky as they give advice in matters of the heart in otherworldly guttural voices. Channelers are those rare souls with an open door to the beyond, the conduits to the world of the dead. Maria was one of them.
“Maria!" my father yelled. “Did you drink everything in the closet?"
“Almost everything, yes, sir," answered Maria, unabashed. My father was livid.
“Tomorrow morning, I want you to pack your things and get out!"
Maria turned toward my father. Her eyes were shooting angry sparks of light. My father took a step back.
I was standing right behind him and saw his hand go slowly into his front left pocket, where he always kept a head of garlic. In my father's world, evil could strike at any time. It was a perpetual war.
“I will go, Doctor, but something will happen to this house. Just you wait!"
Next morning, Maria called me into the kitchen. She had packed her bags and needed help getting them downstairs. Her eyes were still sparking. She grabbed me by the shoulders and stared right into my soul.
“You, boy, you have corpo fechado. Nothing will do you harm."
Petrified, I thanked her awkwardly while twisting myself from her grip. Corpo fechado, literally “closed body," meant a kind of spiritual shield that protected a person from evil.
About a month after the incident, I was in my room, trying to concentrate on my math problems but couldn't. I felt an uncontrollable urge to walk down the corridor, toward the dining room. Our rococo-style dining table was flanked on both ends by furniture containing fine crystal. Behind my father's seat at the head of the table was a closet with glass doors and three glass shelves, where my parents stored the “too good to use" wineglasses made of Bohemian crystal, beautifully etched with floral patterns. At the opposite end of the table was a brass beverage trolley, with a top glass shelf covered with crystal bottles filled with port, sherry, and liqueurs of all colors, each labeled with a small silver necklace.
I was standing by the dining table in a strange sort of daze when something, maybe a subtle noise, made me turn toward the closet. At that very moment, the top shelf broke in half, and all the heavy glasses came crashing down onto the second shelf, which in turn collapsed onto the bottom shelf in a horrifying waterfall of shattering crystal. Dozens of priceless antique glasses were instantly destroyed. I hardly had time to blink, when another cracking noise made me turn toward the trolley at the other end of the table. In a flash, the top shelf collapsed, taking all the crystal bottles to the floor with it. The noise was deafening. Shards of glass flew everywhere. I was paralyzed. The new cook came running from the kitchen and crossed herself. She packed her things and vanished that same night, never to be seen again.
Shaking uncontrollably, I phoned my father at his office.
“It's the curse, dad. She did it! Everything crashed, right in front of me. The closet and the trolley, practically at the same time!"
“Don't touch anything! I'm coming home!"
I was stunned. How could something like this happen? Coincidence? Sure, if it had been only the closet or the trolley. There was tension on the shelves, they were overloaded, years of exposure to tropical humidity had rotted the wood pins supporting them . . . but both closet and trolley practically at the same time? And in a region of the world where there are no earthquakes or even slight tremors? Could it possibly have been some sort of resonance effect? Highly unlikely, as the crash was so quick. A supersonic blast wave from a jet flying nearby? Nah. Let's accept what happened for what it was: a very bizarre occurrence of spooky synchronicity. Any rational explanation simply doesn't add up.
The disaster couldn't have been more attuned to the curse. There's no question that I witnessed a very unnatural occurrence. Had Maria used me as her conduit? Was that grabbing of my arms, that fiery staring into my eyes some kind of hypnotic technique? Did I break everything under some sort of sleepwalking trance and couldn't remember a thing? Not very probable. I'm not prone to hypnosis or to sleepwalking. And as far as I know, I don't suffer from multiple personality disorder and forget what my other self had been up to.
The fact is that both the closet and the trolley collapsed in near-perfect synchrony. The curse had been fulfilled.
Any explanation that I can come up with challenges what I consider to be “normal." If I broke everything and can't remember it because I was in some kind of hypnotic trance, then it means that there are dimensions to my existence beyond my control. That's pretty scary. If I didn't do it and it happened through some supernatural magic, then my whole worldview is in bad need of revision. If it happened through some perfectly natural cause, and I—or anyone else I told this story to—can't figure out what it was, it means that there is much more to reality than we know.
This last option is by far the best. It sustains my hope in our ability to comprehend the world at least in part, even when faced with what is apparently incomprehensible. After all, isn't modern science a tool to comprehend what is so different, so distant from our immediate reality?
Doesn't science probe into the mysterious, inching its way into understanding, explaining the unknown with the knowable? Indeed, but there will always be room for the mysterious out there. Perhaps it's better this way. Not everything must be explained, not every question must have an answer. Life would be quite boring otherwise.
A bit of the unexplained is good, keeping us a little unsettled.
This essay is adapted from Gleiser's book, The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected.
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.
- An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
- Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
- Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
The plica semilunaris<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NDg5NTg1NX0.kdBYMvaEzvCiJjcLEPgnjII_KVtT9RMEwJFuXB68D8Q/img.png?width=980" id="59914" width="429" height="350" data-rm-shortcode-id="b11e4be64c5e1f58bf4417d8548bedc7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The human eye in alarming detail. Image source: Henry Gray / Wikimedia commons<p>At the inner corner of our eyes, closest to the nasal ridge, is that little pink thing, which is probably what most of us call it, called the caruncula. Next to it is the plica semilunairs, and it's what's left of a third eyelid that used to — ready for this? — blink horizontally. It's supposed to have offered protection for our eyes, and some birds, reptiles, and fish have such a thing.</p>
Palmaris longus<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzQ1NjUwMn0.dVor41tO_NeLkGY9Tx46SwqhSVaA8HZQmQAp532xLxA/img.jpg?width=980" id="879be" width="1920" height="2560" data-rm-shortcode-id="4089a32ea9fbb1a0281db14332583ccd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmaris longus muscle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> We don't have much need these days, at least most of us, to navigate from tree branch to tree branch. Still, about 86 percent of us still have the wrist muscle that used to help us do it. To see if you have it, place the back of you hand on a flat surface and touch your thumb to your pinkie. If you have a muscle that becomes visible in your wrist, that's the palmaris longus. If you don't, consider yourself more evolved (just joking).</p>
Darwin's tubercle<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgxMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODUyNjA1MX0.8RuU-OSRf92wQpaPPJtvFreOVvicEwn39_jnbegiUOk/img.jpg?width=980" id="687a0" width="819" height="1072" data-rm-shortcode-id="ff5edf0a698e0681d11efde1d7872958" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Darwin's tubercle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> Yes, maybe the shell of you ear does feel like a dried apricot. Maybe not. But there's a ridge in that swirly structure that's a muscle which allowed us, at one point, to move our ears in the direction of interesting sounds. These days, we just turn our heads, but there it is.</p>
Goosebumps<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNzEyNTc2Nn0.aVMa5fsKgiabW5vkr7BOvm2pmNKbLJF_50bwvd4aRo4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d8420" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="8827e55511c8c3aed8c36d21b6541dbd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Goosebumps. Photo credit: Tyler Olson via Shutterstock<p>It's not entirely clear what purpose made goosebumps worth retaining evolutionarily, but there are two circumstances in which they appear: fear and cold. For fear, they may have been a way of making body hair stand up so we'd appear larger to predators, much the way a cat's tail puffs up — numerous creatures exaggerate their size when threatened. In the cold, they may have trapped additional heat for warmth.</p>
Tailbone<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQwMjc3N30.nBGAfc_O9sgyK_lOUo_MHzP1vK-9kJpohLlj9ax1P8s/img.jpg?width=980" id="9a2f6" width="1440" height="1440" data-rm-shortcode-id="4fe28368d2ed6a91a4c928d4254cc02a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Decade3d-anatomy online via Shutterstock<p>Way back, we had tails that probably helped us balance upright, and was useful moving through trees. We still have the stump of one when we're embryos, from 4–6 weeks, and then the body mostly dissolves it during Weeks 6–8. What's left is the coccyx.</p>
The palmar grasp reflex<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMyMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjY0MDY5NX0.OSwReKLmNZkbAS12-AvRaxgCM7zyukjQUaG4vmhxTtM/img.jpg?width=980" id="8804c" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="67542ee1c5a85807b0a7e63399e44575" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmar reflex activated! Photo credit: Raul Luna on Flickr<p> You've probably seen how non-human primate babies grab onto their parents' hands to be carried around. We used to do this, too. So still, if you touch your finger to a baby's palm, or if you touch the sole of their foot, the palmar grasp reflex will cause the hand or foot to try and close around your finger.</p>
Other people's suggestions<p>Amir's followers dove right in, offering both cool and questionable additions to her list. </p>
Fangs?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Lower mouth plate behind your teeth. Some have protruding bone under the skin which is a throw back to large fangs. Almost like an upsidedown Sabre Tooth.</p>— neil crud (@neilcrud66) <a href="https://twitter.com/neilcrud66/status/1085606005000601600?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hiccups<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sure: <a href="https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG">https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG</a></p>— Stephen Roughley (@SteBobRoughley) <a href="https://twitter.com/SteBobRoughley/status/1085529239556968448?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hypnic jerk as you fall asleep<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">What about when you “jump” just as you’re drifting off to sleep, I heard that was a reflex to prevent falling from heights.</p>— Bann face (@thebanns) <a href="https://twitter.com/thebanns/status/1085554171879788545?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> <p> This thing, often called the "alpha jerk" as you drop into alpha sleep, is properly called the hypnic jerk,. It may actually be a carryover from our arboreal days. The <a href="https://www.livescience.com/39225-why-people-twitch-falling-asleep.html" target="_blank" data-vivaldi-spatnav-clickable="1">hypothesis</a> is that you suddenly jerk awake to avoid falling out of your tree.</p>
Nails screeching on a blackboard response?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Everyone hate the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. It's _speculated_ that this is a vestigial wiring in our head, because the sound is similar to the shrill warning call of a chimp. <a href="https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN">https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN</a></p>— Pet Rock (@eclogiter) <a href="https://twitter.com/eclogiter/status/1085587006258888706?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Ear hair<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Ok what is Hair in the ears for? I think cuz as we get older it filters out the BS.</p>— Sarah21 (@mimix3) <a href="https://twitter.com/mimix3/status/1085684393593561088?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Nervous laughter<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">You may be onto something. Tooth-bearing with the jaw clenched is generally recognized as a signal of submission or non-threatening in primates. Involuntary smiling or laughing in tense situations might have signaled that you weren’t a threat.</p>— Jager Tusk (@JagerTusk) <a href="https://twitter.com/JagerTusk/status/1085316201104912384?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 15, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Um, yipes.<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sometimes it feels like my big toe should be on the side of my foot, was that ever a thing?</p>— B033? K@($ (@whimbrel17) <a href="https://twitter.com/whimbrel17/status/1085559016011563009?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Ultimately, this is a fight between a giant reptile and a giant primate.
The 2021 film “Godzilla vs. Kong" pits the two most iconic movie monsters of all time against each other. And fans are now picking sides.
The more you see them, the better you get at spotting the signs.