In 1983, as a fresh-faced young Cub, I traveled to Waddecar Scouts Activity Centre for an exciting weekend of camping and tree conservation. Long before Bear Grylls was appointed Chief Scout, with his dark vision of tearful young boys bedding down for the night in hollowed out camel carcasses, we unfurled our sleeping bags onto a network of bunks in the comparative luxury of a Swiss chalet-style hut, where we swapped scary stories by torch light.
To this day, the one story that stays with me from that weekend – forced into our impressionable young minds with such relish by our Scout chaperones – was the tale of ‘The Devil’s Horseshoe’.
“Not too far from here,” they whispered, “there are some stone steps leading down to the River Brock. On the middle step, there is a horseshoe embedded in the stone – it is the Devil’s Horseshoe. Be warned, if you stand on it at exactly midnight it will kick you down the steps to your death.” We were also solemnly informed that a Cub had died only a few months earlier in very suspicious circumstances, and that he was last seen heading down to the steps as the witching hour approached.
Rather than giving the mysterious horseshoe a wide berth in favour of staying indoors to eat Double Deckers and playfully fart on each other’s pillows, we decided to march down to the Devil’s Horseshoe, en masse, at a few minutes to midnight. We then proceeded to daringly stamp and spit on it, as if challenging the forces of evil to hurl our brittle bodies into the darkness below. (I’ve since pondered that if the broken body of a Cub really was found at the bottom of the stone steps, it’s entirely plausible that he tumbled to his death after slipping in a gloopy puddle of devil-baiting spittle while trying to find the toilet block.)
Unfortunately, in spite of several minutes of frenzied provocation…absolutely nothing happened. And so, making sure to dodge the powerful beam of Akela’s torch, which scythed through the pitch-black night in search of giggling curfew breakers, we crept back to our quarters with a feeling of disappointment that the demonic horseshoe had remained, well, just a horseshoe. On that occasion, at least.
Had I stayed in the Cubs long enough to eventually become a Scout, the Devil’s Horseshoe would probably have notched up a substantial body count in my version of the story. “Whenever a Cub’s life is taken,” I would tell ashen-faced young boys, “the Devil hangs a bloodstained woggle from the branches of a nearby tree.”
I have to admit, the telling of urban myths on that first night sort of set the atmosphere for the weekend. By the second day of the camp I’d convinced myself that I’d seen a creature lurking in the mist during a woodland ramble. Thanks largely to my over-active imagination and a book called Photographs of the Unknown, which I’d read cover to cover on numerous occasions beforehand, my mind was swimming with images of Roger Patterson’s 1967 film of a purported Bigfoot striding purposefully through Bluff Creek. I don’t think the Forest of Bowland is a known Bigfoot hotspot – where they roam close to the fresh meat at Waddecar – but the injection of supernatural forces and mysterious cryptids into our little camping weekend was thrilling.
I’ve told you this because it seems like there’s no longer a place for mystery in the modern world. We have an insatiable urge to know everything, and we have the tools and technology at our disposal to explain the unexplained, solve all the puzzles, establish the truth and explode the myths. But shouldn’t some things just remain mysteries?
I recently watched a superb Channel 4 series called the Bigfoot Files, which saw Mark Evans and leading geneticist Bryan Sykes examining the legend of Bigfoot. It was a truly fascinating series, but one episode in particular left me feeling quite sad.
Evans met a Native American ‘Bigfootologist’ called Marcel Cagey, who claimed to have heard a Sasquatch howling near his house in 2011. The experience, which closely followed a family bereavement, had a profound effect on his life and led to him turning his back on his business career and returning to his roots. In Cagey’s own words:
“When I had this creature come to my house and scream, it really shook my cultural beliefs. It made me understand who I am, kinda like a message: ‘Money’s not for you; this is for you’. You know, I just lost my mother from just before that creature came here, so it was almost like a message: ‘Don’t go after that world, son. Stay who you are’. I was shedding my native ways and my teachings, and I was becoming like all the other people out there. Just corporate America, you know? So this creature has brought me back to my people, to where I need to be.”
Marcel’s Sasquatch experience was hopelessly intertwined with his personal loss and provided him with the symbolism he was desperately searching for amid the turmoil of his life. But it did make me worry that the Sasquatch hair sample he provided for analysis (found in his garden) might ultimately do more harm than good.
You see, science isn’t sentimental; it deals in cold, hard facts. If science dealt in emotion, Bryan Sykes’ DNA analysis of Marcel Cagey’s hair sample would have returned the result: ‘Inconclusive’ (perhaps with the inclusion of a smiling emoji, winking knowingly) so that he could continue to find comfort in his Sasquatch experience. In reality, of course, science determined that Marcel had encountered nothing more spiritual than a wolf or a dog. But as his reaction to the result wasn’t televised, I sincerely hope that he rejected the scientific findings and continued on his journey of self-discovery.
Even modern mysteries aren’t safe. A lead story on the Mail Online – featuring a photo of a man in a flat cap and paint-spattered overalls – recently posed the question: ‘Is this Banksy?’ I know this is a giant leap from the Bigfoot legend (after all, you don’t see people collecting evidence from the street to send to labs for analysis, only to be told that their sample is nothing more than a piece of silver-lacquered plinth from a penniless human statue and not evidence of the world’s most famous street artist) but Banksy is a figure who thrives on the mystery of anonymity. Why destroy that?
Only yesterday, in response to various ‘sightings’ of a woman wearing a lime green Morphsuit around Northfield, Birmingham (sometimes with a tutu, sometimes with a top hat) the Birmingham Mail and Mirror both ran articles asking: ‘Who is the mysterious Green Lady of Northfield?’
“I haven’t seen her myself, but I’m absolutely fascinated that she has been spotted around the ward. I get around the area quite a bit, but she’s obviously been hiding from me. I shall go hunting for her now!” said Conservative Councillor Randal Brew, sounding like a real-life Elmer Fudd, with a passion for shooting eccentrics.
The Birmingham Mail claimed that “locals now want to know the identity of the emerald phantom” (so much so, in fact, that they even provided a phone number at the end of the article for people to call with further information). But do we really need to know this person’s identity? Isn’t it more interesting if the Green Lady remains mysterious, with only fleeting sightings here and there? Once we know her name, occupation, motivation and Twitter handle (and she’s been signed up as a housemate for the next Big Brother) the interest will have flatlined. The mystery will be dead – and all because we simply have to know everything.
So let’s leave some mysteries to just be…mysteries. Science will be telling me next that the Devil’s Horseshoe didn’t belong to the Dark Lord’s steed and that it was taken from a local stables and set in concrete in the early 1980s.
But I hope not.