Modern consensus ghosts such as the Monkey Man and the Gatwick Drone

20.47, Tuesday 8 Dec 2020

Conjecture: under great pressure, societies can collectively manifest illusionary objects. These psychic projections, which sometimes appear as terrifying beasts, encode powerful fear or anger or disconnection – and also its resolution.

This is a post about the Gatwick Drone, but I’m going to take the scenic route.

Longtime readers will know of my interest in the Monkey Man. Almost a decade ago, the Monkey Man terrorised New Delhi.

Here’s a great summary of the phenomenon:

Early in May 2001, rumours began spreading though New Delhi that an aggressive monkey-like entity was rampaging through the overcrowded suburbs after sunset.

Householders who habitually slept on their flat roofs during the sweltering Indian summer claimed that they were being indiscriminately attacked by the Monkey Man, who leapt from roof to roof, biting and scratching as he went. One man had even fallen to his death fleeing from the creature.

Descriptions of the entity varied considerably, but most witnesses agreed that it was short and furry with glowing red eyes.

And a contemporary article communicates some of the terror (16 May, 2001):

In Noida, a mechanic wearing a black outfit and fitting a description of the Monkey Man was beaten up. A second man was attacked for apparently performing “mystical formulations”.

Some witnesses say the failure to capture the Monkey Man is explained by his ability to make himself invisible.

Deepali Kumari, from Noida, said: “It has three buttons on its chest. One makes it turn into a monkey, the second gives it extra strength, the third makes it invisible.

“He touches a lock and it breaks. But he is afraid of the light.”

I’ve found a cache of old news stories. Since they tell the story of that month pretty well, I’m going to copy and paste the subheds below. (These are all the stories tagged “Monkey Man” on this particulare site.)

  • Panic caused by a weird monkey-man has grown in the Indian town of Ghaziabad following more attacks and sightings. (13 May, 2001)
  • Indian police say anyone who sees the “monkey man” who has been terrorising householders should shoot him on sight. (14 May)
  • Reports are circulating in India that the ‘monkey man’ attacker is an extra-terrestrial or a remote-controlled robot. (15 May)
  • Indian police have issued pictures of the Monkey Man killer, amid reports he has claimed his second victim. (16 May)
  • A person suspected of wearing a monkey mask to scare people has been arrested in an Indian city. (16 May)
  • A zoo director says India’s feared ‘Monkey Man’ can’t be an animal. (17 May)
  • India’s Monkey Man mystery has deepened with Indian police suggesting it is a treacherous Pakistani plot. (17 May)
  • Indian authorities are trying to quell Monkey Man hysteria by employing counsellors to talk to New Delhi residents. (18 May)
  • Medical experts in New Delhi have been offering advice on what to do in the event of an attack from the Monkey Man. (18 May)
  • India’s Monkey Man is alleged to have killed directly for the first time by puncturing his victims’ skulls. (18 May)
  • A doctor has been become the latest participant in Monkey Man mania that has spread across New Delhi. (19 May)
  • Delhi police say they’re close to solving the Monkey Man mystery. (19 May)
  • An Indian psychiatrist has compared the Monkey Man mystery to a penis-related panic among Nigerian men 10 years ago. (20 May)
  • Sightings of the Monkey Man are said to be reducing after Indian police arrested a dozen people for spreading rumours. (21 May)
  • A second reward has been offered for information leading to the arrest of India’s Monkey Man. (21 May)
  • The number of attacks in India attributed to the Monkey Man is continuing to fall. (22 May)
  • Reports of Monkey Man attacks in New Delhi are falling off. (23 May)
  • As Monkey Man hysteria dies down in Delhi, villagers in north-east India are claiming a new menace is on the prowl - Bear Man. (27 May)
  • Russian media are reporting a plane passenger flying from Delhi to Moscow acted like Monkey Man, who terrified residents of the Indian capital recently. (11 June)
  • Experts in India remain baffled by the identity of the mysterious monkey man. (15 June)
  • A special Indian police team says mass hysteria was to blame for the Monkey Man attacks. (18 June)
  • The Indian Monkey Man’s apparent victims say authorities have denied its existence because they failed to catch it. (19 June)
  • The Monkey Man has reportedly resurfaced in India and been blamed for several attacks. (29 August)
  • Reports of a ‘monkey man’ in India have reappeared a year after panic over the mystery creature hit the capital, Delhi. (21 July, 2002)

Appearance. Chaos and fear and the inability of authorities to do anything about it. The fear is taken seriously and the attacks abate. A tentative speculation about the Monkey Man’s psychological origins; a fierce denial. The phenomenon tails off.

There were people wounded in cases of mistaken identity! There were riots!

So what was going on?

I can’t dismiss this as a delusion, or mass hysteria, for three reasons:

  • those labels only defer the important questions: why then, why there.
  • we deal with many non-actual yet real things in the world: money, status, soap operas, celebrity, sport. I wouldn’t call the Monkey Man any less real than those consensual hallucinations – though perhaps more democratic.
  • to pejoratively minimise the lived experience is also a claim that we, the Monkey Man non-believers, inhabit a “truer” world. My claim is that these manifestations are universal (and one of their attributes is we deny their semi-actual status when we’re the ones doing the manifesting).

For me, the clue is found in these facts: The Monkey Man attacked at night and caused fear; the Monkey Man was scared of water.

Back to that summary:

  • A rumour spread that the Monkey Man could be destroyed if you doused it in liquid.
  • Another theory was that residents were so frustrated with the frequent night-time power outages that they were phoning in fake Monkey Man reports, knowing the authorities would turn the electricity back on before setting out to hunt the beast.

So there we have it – in a period of electricity outages (and, I remember reading, water shortages), and knowing that the Monkey Man would create unrests, communities found a way to force authorities to turn on the lights and prioritise running water. It’s almost like a magic spell.

Does that make the Monkey Man any less real? I don’t think so. Reading the news articles, it seems like many people weren’t in on the joke… especially not the people who got beaten up. (Or maybe a fake “mistaken identity” was a good excuse for something that would have happened anyway…)

I don’t have my notes to hand, but I seem to remember a similar Goat Man appearing in Mexico City (late 20th century) and, in 19th century London, there was Spring-heeled Jack who sounds and acts very like the Monkey Man.

  • I wonder what was the community “purpose” of these collective manifestations? What did the belief in Spring-heeled Jack achieve for Londoners?
  • I wonder if there are “nodal points” in the group imagination, images that societies will independently alight upon – red eyes, leaping and slashing, etc? Perhaps these memes are shaped to be the most contagious?

I was thinking of the Monkey Man when I read this fantastic long read in The Guardian about the Gatwick drone: A drone sighting caused the airport to close for two days in 2018, but despite a lengthy police investigation, no culprit was ever found. So what exactly did people see in the Sussex sky?

115 sightings. 222 witness statements. 1,000 flights cancelled. 140,000 passenger affected, just before Christmas.

No such drone existed.

The Gatwick incident was the first time a major airport was shut down by drones, and it distilled deep cultural anxieties - from the threat of terrorism and unconventional attacks by hostile states, to our fear of new technology.

The article cites some other urban legends (the Croydon cat killer is a recent one, local to me), but they aren’t quite the same. The Gatwick drone resulted in something: collective misgivings about flying, airport expansion, vulnerability to terrorism, etc, manifested in a physical drone – which closed down the airport, relieving the fears.

To me this is an infant Monkey Man. Had the drone proven only a touch more effective, let’s say by reducing the number of planes landing into airports where drones were “sighted,” I suspect there would have been many, many Gatwick Drones, all over the world.

The Monkey Man and the Gatwick Drone are massively multiplayer Ouija boards.

We all have our fingers on the pointer. Maybe we can feel it pulling towards the letters; maybe we’re doing the pushing. Maybe the messages are deliberate; maybe they’re a form of dowsing the collective unconscious - some kind of Jungian Hadron Collider - or maybe it’s direct from the spirit world. We don’t know and we can’t know, and that’s the point.

The point is that these manifestations sit halfway between fact and fiction. It doesn’t matter who believes and who’s faking it – what matters is that nobody needs to say what the goals are out loud, and yet it is efficacious none-the-less. The power comes back! The planes stop!

And maybe this is a decent way of understanding other collective “hysterias” such as Qanon: not by looking at what they do, that’s not relevant, but by looking at what they force the rest of us to do as an apparent side-effect. How do we bend in response? Now let’s interpret that response, not as a side-effect but as intended.

One last connection. What I’m talking about are hauntings and my favourite haunting in fiction is in Hamlet. For me, Hamlet is an astounding feat because it is utterly, utterly true to life. Every character, every feeling, every consequence: so believable, so human. Yet it opens with a ghost! The supernatural. One way to understand the ghost is that it is a psychic manifestation of a community under great pressure: everyone at Elsinore knows of the murder of the old King yet, because of the status hierarchy, they are unable to voice the truth to Prince Hamlet. Between the unstoppable force and the immovable object is forged the ghost, a psychic diamond the actualisation of unspeakable need.

(I’ve posted about Hamlet before.)


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