Thursday, January 27, 2022

Creative Fakelore for Fun and Enlightenment

The January-February 2022 issue of SKEPTICAL INQUIRER includes an article by statistical ecologist Charles G. M. Paxton, narrating his experiment of creating an imaginary water monster to masquerade as an authentic legend. He was inspired by an account of an eighteenth-century ghost in London that turned out to be a hoax promulgated in the 1970s. Paxton wondered whether his lake monster could gain similar credence. One intriguing thing about this experiement, to me, is that not only did his invented sightings get retold as genuine by multiple sources, new reports of alleged historical sightings sprang up, independent of any effort on his part.

He decided to create, not a generic sea serpent like Nessie in Loch Ness, but a "monstrous aquatic humanoid." He located it in two freshwater lakes in England's Lake District that, as far as he knew, had no existing tradition of monster lore. Paxton named this creature Eachy and devised a false etymology for the word. He also invented a nonexistent book to cite as a source. After he had an article about Eachy uploaded to Wikipedia, references to the monster began to spread. Although the Wikipedia article on Eachy no longer exists, the Cryptid Wiki has a straightforward page on him or it as a real piece of folklore:


The Cryptid Wiki piece mentions the earliest reported appearance of Eachy having occurred in 1873, an imaginary "fact" taken directly from Paxton's material. Moreover, in 2007 the monster sneaked into an actual nonfiction book, a cryptozoology guide by Ronan Coghlan. By January of 2008, Eachy T-shirts were being sold on the internet by someone unconnected to Paxton. At the time the Wikipedia Eachy page was deleted in 2019, it held the status of second-longest surviving hoax on that site.

What do we learn from this story? Paxton proposes that "the tale of the Eachy tells us the dangers of how Wikipedia can be subject to manipulation." As he mentions, however, in more recent years Wikipedia has tightened its standards and introduced more safeguards. On a broader scale, the Eachy hoax demonstrates the danger of how easily recorded history can be distorted or even fabricated from nothing, then accepted as fact. An important caution I'd note, as Paxton also alludes to, is the hazard of uncritically believing what appear to be multiple sources when in truth they're bouncing the same "facts" around in a self-referential echo chamber, repeating what they've picked up from previous sources in endless circularity. That phenomenon can be seen in a field I'm somewhat familiar with, scholarship on Bram Stoker's DRACULA. For instance, after an early biography suggested that Stoker might have died from complications of syphilis, numerous authors since then (in both nonfiction and novels) have accepted without question the truth of the assumption, "Bram Stoker had syphilis, which influenced the writing of DRACULA." The tale of Eachy also reinforces the obvious warning not to believe everything you read on the internet or even in books.

It's fascinating to me that a legend can be invented, disseminated, and perceived as authentic so quickly. Some authorities believe the story of Sawney Bean, the alleged patriarch of a sixteenth-century Scottish cannibal family, first reported in the NEWGATE CALENDAR centuries after the supposed events and repeated as fact in numerous publications since, was just such a fictional legend. And Sawney Bean's tale became deeply rooted in the public imagination long before the internet. In our contemporary electronic age, the chilling scenario in Orwell's NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR comes to mind. If history is whatever is written, what happens when history becomes so easy to rewrite? That's one good reason why, even if it ever became possible to digitize and make available on the web every book in existence, we should still hang onto the physical books. Ink on paper can't be altered at whim like bytes in an electronic file.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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