Ask not for whom the frog sings
"I'm not there. I'm gone." - Bob Dylan
I'm sure there are better things to think about, but lately I've been thinking about that Chuck Jones cartoon, One Froggy Evening.
You know how it goes. A building is being demolished, and a worker crowbars open the cornerstone, dated 1892, finding a live frog who bursts into "Hello My Baby." Immediately he imagines exploiting the frog's uncanny talent, but the frog will only sing for him, and that quickly becomes his curse. He buries it in the cornerstone of a new building, where it's found 100 years later and the cycle repeats. And all in under seven minutes.
What's so important about this? First of all, that it's a true story.
The cartoon's premise is based upon a phenomenon "not only irrational but completely inexplicable":
There are more than 210 cases of frogs or toads found inside stones, lumps of coal, or within the trunks of large trees – from Europe, the United States, Canada, Africa, New Zealand and the West Indies. The earliest are from the late 15th century, the latest occurred in Australia and New Zealand in the early 1980s. On more than one occasion, the toads were seen by several independent witnesses. Sometimes these people were entirely ignorant that similar prodigies had ever been described. After a close study of some of the best attested cases of entombed toads, the immediate conclusion is that the legend of entombed toads cannot have been based on imagination alone. Certain remarkable details about the subterranean toads and frogs often recur: the mouth covered by a viscous membrane, the skin darker than usual, and the eyes shining brightly.
"Toads-in-the-hole" were seized upon by British clergymen in the mid-19th Century as living refutations of Darwinian Natural History. But like true anomalies - and true frogs - they proved squirmy things, and could not easily be plaster-castered into Victorian-era dogma. And when the demand exploded for entombed frogs, naturally hoaxes proliferated, which had the unintended and inevitable effect of subverting the doctrines for which the anomalies had been conscripted to illustrate. And this is a problem with attempting to exploit, or even simply explain, any supra-normal thing that falls into our lives.
In 1878 Esther Cox was 18 years old, described as plain and sullen, and lived with her family in Amherst, Nova Scotia. She had a nominal boyfriend named Bob McNeal, who invited her out for a buggy ride on August 28 and reportedly attempted to rape her at gunpoint. (The assault was interrupted when McNeal was panicked by an approaching vehicle.) He drove Esther home, petulantly with the top down in a driving rain, and left town that night. Several nights after that began the series of intense poltergeist activity that became known as the Amherst Mystery.
Having blown out the candle on the night of September 4 and retired to the bed she shared with her younger sister Jennie, Esther screamed that she felt a mouse rustling in the sheets. No mouse was found. The next night the same thing happened, except the rustling sound was heard to come from a box beneath the bed. Esther and Jennie pulled it out to the centre of the room, and were about to surprise the mouse when the box levitated a foot in the air. Their screams woke the house, and they were told they’d been dreaming.
Things quickly grew stranger. Esther had sudden, terrifying episodes of unaccountable swelling, accompanied by loud bangs that seemed to come from beneath the bed and bedding which floated across the room. A doctor was called for the following night, who witnessed the same manifestations as well as loud rappings all around the room, falling plaster, and a message scratched into the wall by an invisible hand: “Esther Cox, you are mine to kill.”
Colin Wilson, in Mysteries:
In December, the manifestations ceased when Esther became ill. But in January 1879, she told Jennie that a voice had warned her that the house would be set on fire by a ghost. The next morning, as the family laughed about the idea, a lighted match fell out of the air onto the bed. More lighted matches rained out of the air for the next ten minutes, but were all extinguished. That evening, a dress belonging to Esther was found burning under the bed. Three days later, a barrel of wood shavings in the cellar burst into flame and was extinguished with difficulty.
Paranormal endangerments began to follow Esther around the town. At her work in a neighbour’s restaurant a heavy box moved across the floor and a flying jackknife stabbed her in the back, and rappings echoed down the main street. News of the bizarre goings on had spread far enough that it drew a professional magician named Walter Hubbell to Amherst, and he moved into the family home to observe for himself. Hubbell was so impressed by what he witnessed – an umbrella moving furniture, for instance – that he saw immediately the potential to turn a fast buck. Having persuaded Esther to make a public demonstration, Hubbell rented an auditorium and filled every seat, like the construction worker did to showcase his frog. And just as in the Chuck Jones cartoon, nothing happened.
What’s interesting here is as much the nothing as the something. Whatever energies Esther's sexual trauma had unleashed, and however they were manifesting through her, they would not be commodified as a public amusement.
Imagine people keep saying to you, show me a sign, and you know you've seen it, but it's not by your conscious will that you can make the sign manifest for others. How long will it be before you start faking it; playing ventriloquist to your mercurial frog?
There is a famous, mid-70s case from North London called the Enfield poltergeist. (An excellent documentary can be viewed here). Over more than a year, the manifestations included heavy furniture being tossed about, objects materializing and dematerializing before witnesses, including police officers (and Lego bricks tossed in the face of an incredulous journalist), and the levitation of 11-year old Janet Hodgson. But Janet and her older sister were also mischievous, and bored by the routine of investigation, and so amused themselves by playing tricks. Like hiding the tape-recorder of one of the investigators, and claiming the poltergeist had taken it. (The recorder caught them plotting on tape.)
Asked about such pranks today, Janet explains that she and her sister did indeed play practical jokes - because they were so fed up of being tested all the time. They had become like animals trapped in a zoo, constantly being asked to perform tricks for gawping onlookers.
People would turn up expecting inexplicable things to happen, and when nothing happened, the girls decided to play the occasional prank.
But, crucially, Janet estimates that only about one or two per cent of the many hundreds of separate paranormal phenomena that took place in the house were faked by her and Margaret - and these were minor things like balancing a chair on top of a door and pretending that the poltergeist had done it. Besides, in many cases, it would have been physically impossible for the two young girls to have faked the evidence. How does a 12-year old girl rip out a fireplace, or make a chair levitate in front of police officers?
"I would have been more worried if they hadn't played around from time to time." said investigator Guy Lyon Playfair. "It means they were behaving like normal kids." But their adolescent play served as the easy out the so-called skeptic always looks for in such stories: the excuse to look no further.
A lot of what passes for UFO evidence these days is also bored play and fabrication, with Youtube the playground. For instance, the recent hoax supposedly shot on a Caribbean beach.
Sometimes when the frog sings, it sings only for you. You can try humming a few bars, but it won't sound the same.