Thursday, September 13, 2012

Foxy Ladies: The Weird, Kinda Sad Story of Fox Sisters

One of the things I find embarrassing to admit to myself is the fact that, well, I was not always the staunch skeptic that I am today. For some reason this bothers me way more than the fact that I liked New Kids On The Block, desperately wanted a spiral perm, and had an altogether humiliating childhood.

When I was in 4th or 5th grade, my mom bought me a Parker Brother's Ouija Board from Child World or Toys R Us or something and told me that one could use it to contact ghosts at slumber parties. At that time, I don't think I'd really decided one way or another if there was a life after death at that point- I was young so it seemed like it might be a thing. At the very least, I was way into ghost stories and Greek Mythology. My mom did the "Let's talk about ALL of the religions, and when you are an adult, you can pick one or none and that is your choice" thing. Which, you know, is exactly how you raise an atheist.

So, one night, my sister and I were playing with the Ouija Board in my bedroom, and we did the whole "IS THERE A SPIRIT HERE WHO WOULD LIKE TO TALK TO US" thing, and the pointy thing pointed to yes... and, oh, fuck it, long story short, my sister is a jerk who was moving it the whole time and completely, 100%  convinced me that I was definitely being contacted by the spirit of Fanny Brice. Which was very exciting, given that I watched "Funny Girl" practically every day after school.

I was so thrilled you would not even believe it. I told EVERYONE. Obviously this meant I was destined to totally take over vaudeville and dazzle the pants off of Flo Ziegfeld. My sister, however, did not tell me she was moving it the whole time until like, years later when I had pretty much forgotten about the whole incident and also given up on headlining the Orpheum Circuit.

This is pretty much a normal thing that young girls do, because we're horrible people. I mean, do you really think that kids would still be playing "Light as a feather, Stiff as a Board" if there weren't shit tons of 12 year old girls lying about the fact that it TOTALLY WORKED at the last slumber party they attended? Probably not. Teenage girls are way into both fucking with people and pretending they have magical powers. The Fox Sisters were kind of like that.

Kate and Margaret Fox were raised in a small town that no longer exists in what is now Arcadia, NY, not too far from my hometown of Rochester- in Wayne County, where I could never go without getting lost because there are like, zero landmarks of any kind other than farm things which all look alike to me. Kate and Margaret, being 11 and 15, respectively, were, I guess, bored one day and decided to mess with their mom by dropping apples tied to strings on the stairs to sound like ghostly footsteps. Their trick worked, and their mother became convinced that the house was indeed haunted. Some time after that, the girls realized that they had the ability to crack their toes, the idea of which makes me feel gross all over. They convinced their mother that they were in contact with "the spirit" and decided that they would attempt to contact him some night after dinner. The plan was to do it and then tell their mother it was all a joke... but Mrs. Fox was super excited and, I don't know, maybe they didn't want to disappoint her. So she was like "OMG, spirit (which by that time was revealed to be a peddler who had 5 kids and had been dead for 2 years and was buried in their basement...), would you talk to us in front of our neighbors???" And the girls cracked their toes in agreement, not wanting to let the old bat down.

Soon, everyone in town was coming to the Fox house every night after dinner to hear some toe cracking and talk to some imaginary dead people. The girls became minor celebrities in town, prompting a prominent local attorney to write a pamphlet about the whole sitch. Crazily enough, one of the people this pamphlet reached was their older sister Leah, a 33 year old divorcee living in Rochester (HEY-O). Leah was amazed to find that this whole thing was going on back at the old homestead, especially since she had just read a book about how the dead were TOTALLY in contact with the living, and soon, an era would come where we were just all talking to the dead all of the time and the wall between this world and the spirit world would come a tumblin' down. Thus, she convinced her parents to let her take the girls back to Rochester with her.

So, Leah was all "Ok, ladies, how exactly are you making this happen?" And the girls showed her how they cracked their toes. She tried to do it herself, but to no avail. Thus, Leah became the official "interpreter" of the cracking noises. And, like, the Mama Rose/Svengali of Spiritualism. The weird thing is, even though she was aware of what the girls were doing, she still totally believed in it. Cognitive dissonance was big back then. In fact, she convinced 12 year old Katy that it was real as well. Margaret, on the other hand, felt pretty gross about it and tried to run away a few times. The sisters started hosting seances at Leah's house, and, predictably, they become a sensation.

SORT OF. They had their detractors too- some who thought they were frauds, some who thought they were witches. So, for some reason, they decided to "prove" their abilities to the whole city and rented out a concert hall where they performed their whole schtick. Despite the fact that the people were unable to figure out exactly how they were being tricked, they were still pretty sure something was off, and at some someone even came equipped with a bucket of tar, because apparently tarring and feathering was still kind of a thing back then.

The girls then took their act on the road around the rest of NY state and eventually to New York City. As word of their "abilities" spread, a whole religious movement rose up around them. The Spiritualist Movement! Which is still a thing that exists. People started magazines, and mediums started popping up everywhere. The movement attracted a lot of women and radical Quakers in particular. Due to their belief that all "spirits" were equal, the Spiritualists were especially active in the abolition and women's rights movements, which I suppose is the best thing you can say about any of them. Also, pretending to be a medium was a pretty sweet gig for a lady looking to strike out on her own.

Lots of fancy schmancy people actually joined up. Sarah Helen Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe's fiancee whom he wrote "To Helen" about, claimed to write poems whilst in a trance. Probably the most hardcore convert, however, was mystery writer and noted believer in fairies, Arthur Conan Doyle. As in Rochester, however, they had their detractors as well- most notoriously Harry Houdini, who was not about to have any of their shit and devoted half his life to debunking Spiritualists and other charlatans.

As Spiritualism became more popular, lots of mediums tried for fancier effects and ended up getting caught. The Fox Sisters got themselves some rich husbands as demand for their services started to dwindle. Kate and Margaret developed drinking problems (because Behind The Music, duh), and Leah got a bunch of other mediums together and tried to have Kate's kids taken away.

THUS.... Kate and Margaret were like, fuck this shit, and they went to New York City and announced that they were total frauds. For $1500, Margaret demonstrated how they made the rapping noises by cracking her toes, and also wrote a missive denouncing Spiritualism as a massive hoax. Kate then pretended that none of that happened and still tried to be a medium for a while. After a few years, when she ran out of money, Margaret tried to follow suit, but to no avail. Both later denounced Spiritualism again, and then they died penniless and buried in pauper's graves.

Despite the fact that they literally confessed to being frauds and even showed the world their toe cracking talents, people STILL believed they had magic powers. Arthur Conan Doyle was convinced that they just lied for the money- but of course, he was also convinced that Harry Houdini really did have magical powers and was just saying it was trickery to fuck with Arthur Conan Doyle's head.

Oh, and Spiritualism is STILL TOTALLY A THING. Dan Aykroyd considers himself one, I've heard. Not to mention hideous frauds like Sylvia Browne and Jonathan Edwards running around claiming they can talk to the dead. In fact, there's a whole "Spiritualist Community" town over by where the girls lived in Rochester called "Lilydale" and pretty much everyone who lives there thinks they can talk to dead people. I think most of them accept that the sisters were frauds, but they still think that they, personally, can totally talk to dead people.

So that's the not so magical story of the Fox Sisters. They were pretty weird ladies and you can talk about them at cocktail parties.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Brief Analysis of Hybristophilia (You Know, For Valentine's Day)

My very first reaction to this list of insanely abhorrent reactions to Chris Brown at The Grammys was a curmudgeonly assessment that my mother is right, and women today are getting way the hell dumber about shit like this. I thought "This is like, the next logical step in the minds of women who insist they hate feminism in order to get some kind of dude approval gold star." Slippery slopes!

But then, then I remembered the Sweet Pea Girl. In 1895, a woman named Rosalind Bowers became something of a media sensation when, during the trial of Theodore "Demon of The Belfry" Durrant- the brother of actress, dancer and all around bad ass lady, Maud Allen. She brought the serial rapist and murderer a bouquet of sweet pea flowers every day and regularly attempted to see him in his cell.

This is nothing new at all. 

Hybristophiliacs are people who are sexually aroused by criminals- particularly especially violent criminals like serial killers. For every one serial killer out there, there are 100 women sending in fan mail by the bushel. I've written about the serial killer groupie phenomenon before in my post about Sondra London, but in light of recent events, I figure it's worth it to examine some other instances of women who love violent men.

I think, on some level, most people have a fascination with people who commit abhorrent acts. We all love a good horror movie. Hell, I freely admit to voraciously reading and watching nearly everything I can on serial killers, cannibals, cults and other disturbing phenomena. For me, I think it's like throwing spilled salt over my shoulder- it's a way of preventing something like that from ever happening to me. Like somehow, if I know everything about Ted Bundy, I can avoid a Ted Bundy- which, cognitively, I know is not true. Even if I avoid having long hair with a center part. I do not, however, want to bang Ted Bundy... but there were a lot of ladies who did.

In fact, Bundy got upwards of 200 "fan letters" a day during his trial, and he married his college girlfriend, Carole Anne Boone in the court room in the middle of the trial. He even had a kid with her. 

At Richard Ramirez's trial, ladies lined up around the block in funereal garb, clamoring for his attention. Even one of the jurors, Cindy Haden, claimed to have "fallen in love" with him during his trial and sent him a cupcake that said "I love you" on it. Although in the end, she reluctantly voted guilty along with the rest of the jury- which she later said she deeply regretted. She believed he was innocent on account of the fact that he was possessed by SATAN at the time. Amongst his many fangirls was 41 year old professed virgin, Doreen Lioy. Lioy was a freelance magazine editor with a B.A. in English Lit (just like YOU, probably.), and she claimed that she fell madly in love with Ramirez the very moment she saw his picture in the paper. She wrote him gads of letters and went to his trial every day and constantly told anyone who would listen how totally unfair the whole thing was. She even bought the clothes he wore. However, Ramirez had a ton of other admirers, including Haden, that wanted to marry him, and Doreen was crazy jealous of all of them. However, in the end, she won out and got to marry, um, a serial killer. And stay a virgin. Yay?

Veronica Compton (pictured above) was so smitten with Kenneth Bianchi (one of The Hillside Stranglers... who was actually from Rochester and I knew a woman who danced with him at a wedding one time. Her name was Peggy and she worked for my dad. Also, some of my friends claim that his mom was their lunch lady.)- that he successfully convinced her to try to commit a murder in the style of the stranglers in order to convince the cops that he and Angelo Buono were still innocent. He gave her a vial of his semen to plant on the woman, since, as Bianchi was a non-secreter, they would not be able to match the blood type to him from the semen (this was before DNA). She actually did attack a girl but ended up not being able to kill her, and he dumped her right after that, and went on to marry another lady named Shirlee Book. She went to jail and soon found herself being seduced by yet another serial killer. This time, it was Douglas Clark, one of the people responsible for the Sunset Strip Slayings. After he realized that Compton was in jail with his ex-girlfriend and former partner in crime, Carol Bundy (no relation to Ted), he set out to seduce her with flowery love letters... and valentines featuring drawings of a beheaded woman. The two passionately discussed their future plans to open a mortuary together in order to have access to dead bodies to bang, and he convinced her to testify in his trial that Carol had confessed to having done all the killings herself. Once again, Veronica totally failed under pressure and ended up pleading the 5th. 

Here is a letter sent to Veronica from Doug after things went sour. If there's one thing we can all learn from this, it is that "Thanks for the sex" is a great closer. 

She later escaped from prison at some point, but ended up going back and marrying an elderly professor who taught at the prison. Apparently she's out now and they have kids and she's a born-again. Shocking, I know.

There are a few things I remember knowing for sure growing up. One of them was that Phil Spector, while a genius who invented The Wall of Sound, was a very bad man who screwed over my idol Darlene Love and abused the hell out of Ronnie Spector. Another was that Mike Love was a douche, but let's save that one for another time. I first read Ronnie Spector's biography, "Be My Baby" when I was around ten years old, and thus have always been sort of haunted by the idea of the monster who kept one of my favorite singers locked in his creepy mansion for years. Apparently, this is not a lesson Rachelle Short learned.

When Phil Spector was arrested for the murder of Lana Clarkson, I was full of "I Told You So's". Rachelle Short, however, had stars in her eyes. She met Spector at a restaurant soon after he was arrested for the murder. During the three years he was out on bail, the two enjoyed a storybook romance as can only be had by a 28 year old "aspiring singer" and a 70 year old pop music icon/murderer/wife beater. They were soon married. He even produced her album, the hilariously titled "Out of My Chelle"- which he claims is far superior to anything he ever did with Tina Turner or The Beatles. I will let you be the judge of that.

HUH. So, you know, in case you were not totally sure that Phil Spector had lost his goddamned mind... 

Rachelle apparently insists that Spector is innocent, and believes that he will soon be released. She plans on releasing her own version of "A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector" in the near future, because that seems like a good idea. People will want to listen to that, I'm sure.

And these ladies are not alone. Both Menendez brothers were married while incarcerated, as were Manson Family members Tex Watson (also a born again now) and Susan Atkins. Apparently, Joren Van Der Sloot, who murdered Natalee Holloway has an astounding amount of admirers, including a radiologist who describes him as a beautiful person and even wrote him a song called "I Will Rescue You".

BUT WHY? Now, Veronica Compton was obviously batshit herself. And Rachelle was most likely trying to be a professional singer- but what about all the other ladies who so eagerly throw themselves at America's most notorious criminals? I mean, there are tons of websites dedicated to personal ads from prisoners, and hell, they are way more popular than you'd imagine

While in some cases, it may have something to do with the fact that someone who's locked in a prison is probably not going to be able to cheat on you, or an urge to nurture a "bad boy" (something we've all been through at some point or another), or just an urge to be famous yourself, I think there are other factors at work.

The thing that immediately comes to mind is the urge to be special. Like, if you were the one that was able to find the good in a terrible person, or to be the one, special, unique snowflake that was able to to "change" them, you'd feel pretty important, I suppose. This is probably the same deal with men who love women in prison.

The other thing though, and this is what I see most of in the case of "Team Breezy"- is that I think there's an evolutionary basis for this. 

See, violence is generally considered a masculine trait. Guns are phallic as hell and most wars are started by men. In a study done on orangutans, scientists discovered that when the male   orangutans had been in a fight, the winner of that fight was immediately besieged by lady orangutan admirers. Biologically speaking, women are supposed to have some instinct about super masculine men being able to have sperm that will most likely produce successful offspring capable of surviving. For the most part, our culture has moved beyond this. However, it is highly likely that women who grow up with an abusive father will enter into an abusive relationship themselves, simply because they associate violence with masculinity and virility.

I also think there is a biological reason for women being interested in artists. I mean, how many of us have thrown our arms up in the air insisting that we will never again fall for another musician, poet, painter, writer, etc. only to drop our panties in a hurry for the next wannabe rockstar we meet at a late night bar? On some level, I think it has to do with the very human urge for immortality. The idea that they could create something about you that could live forever. 

You put these two urges together and you get Team Breezy. I'm not making excuses for women who would gladly announce to the world that they'd let an idiot like Chris Brown punch them in the face, but I am interested in finding a reason.

Then again, like I said, I have always been fascinated by people who commit abhorrent acts. So, that's some stuff about killer groupies. You can talk about them at cocktail parties- over fava beans and a nice chianti.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Carole King is Famous

Today is Carole King's 70th birthday and I am going to tell you some things about her! Because she's just truly one of my all time favorite people ever. If anything, her music has a strong sedative-like effect on me- which is probably because, like Randy Newman and Cat Stevens and Laura Nyro and James Taylor and all the old Motown and Stax, it's what my mom listened to when I was a kid. I totally have a soft spot for Mom Music. One of the things I was most excited about at The March for Women's Lives several years ago was getting to see her live for the first and only time. I actually cried, which felt both appropriate and insanely dorky at the same time. I'm from New England. I have a hard time with feelings.

About a year ago, I had this really strange week where I met one person who didn't know who she was. And then, being so appalled, I repeated this atrocity to another person, who also didn't know who she was. And it repeated, and repeated and repeated. This completely blew my mind and I had to call my mother just to be reassured that Carole King was in fact as famous as I thought she was, because I felt all of a sudden that I was living in an alternate universe. It really, really bothered me. I honestly don't know how anyone would go through their entire life without having heard of her- and I don't mean this in a pretentious, hipstery "Oh my god, you haven't heard of this totally obscure band? What a loser you are!" kind of way. I just genuinely don't know how that could happen. She's pretty famous. She wrote ALL OF THE SONGS for crying out loud! Pretty much! I don't understand the kind of life someone can lead where they've managed to never hear of freaking Carole King! It's just bizarre. If for some strange reason you are a giant freak of nature and are too are not familiar with her, I will take care of that right now.

She had her first #1 hit as a songwriter at the age of 18, with "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" as recorded by the Shirelles (which was also the first major song for a Girl Group). Which is entirely mind blowing when you think about it, because what were you doing at age 18? What are you doing now? Whatever it is, it is not as awesome as writing this:

She also wrote Up on The Roof, Natural Woman, One Fine Day, Take Good Care of My Baby, and the theme song from the Monkee's movie "Head", which no one has actually seen.

So anyway, Carole worked at this place called The Brill Building with her songwriting partner and husband at the time, Gerry Goffin. It was basically like a songwriting factory, where all your Phil Spectory hits were made and processed like so many toaster ovens. Also headquarted there were Neil Sedaka (with whom she went to college), Laura Nyro, Paul Simon, Ellie Greenwich (whom we will get into another time), Burt Bacharach and a ton of other  famous songwriters. Prior to this, The Brill Building was home to the big band sound, so it's kind of an important place.

Ok, so now the interesting stuff, or at least, some of the things I feel are super interesting.

Neil Sedaka had some kind of a crush on Carole, and he wrote this song about her- which was also his first number one hit:

Carole, however, being the kind of lady I would like to hang out with, responded with this little ditty of her own. Answer songs were a big thing back in the day, and they also happen to be some of my favorite things ever (most particularly this one and the Ginger and The Snaps song "I'm No Runaround"), so perhaps I will explore that at another time. But for now, here is Carole's delightfully snarky response:

Don't you totally want to be her best friend now? I know I do!

One of King's most controversial (to this day!) songs is most definitely "He Hit Me, And It Felt Like a Kiss".  The first time I heard it, I was like, 8 years old and it was on the "Best of The Crystals" album that my aunt had gotten me for Christmas that year. It freaked me out so much that, after that first hearing, I'd skip over it every time. I couldn't listen to it because it made me feel sick to my stomach. It wasn't just me. When the song came out, it was definitely not a hit. Like me, people took it to be some kind of horrid and disturbing justification for domestic violence. Despite this, it's been covered now by pretty much everyone, including Grizzly Bear, The Motels, Amy Winehouse, and Hole, which is my favorite version:

SO. You're wondering! Carole King was a big feminist, right? Why the hell would she write a song that seemed to condone abuse! BUT HERE'S THE THING. It didn't.

Allow me to explain. The genesis for this song was an incident involving Little Eva, who had been discovered by King and Goffin when she babysat for their children. They wrote the song "The Locomotion" based on her unique dance moves, and asked her to record a demo of it. The song was originally intended for Dee Dee Sharp (of Mashed Potato fame), but they were so impressed with her version that they had her record it instead, and now we all have to awkwardly dance to it at every family function and Father-Daughter dance ever. Anyway, King and Goffin discovered that Little Eva was in a seriously abusive relationship with her boyfriend at the time, and when they confronted her about it, she said he did it because he loved her so much. Which, duh, was fucking disturbing as HELL. The song was *meant* to be a condemnation of domestic violence, was meant to explore what was going on inside the head of a victim. Which was actually rather brave for it's time. You get a sense of this when you hear how sparse and haunting the original version is, in comparison to most other Crystal's songs. Barbara Alston just sings it so earnestly, but the accompaniment provides the commentary, and it's just a very interesting dichotomy going on.

Of course, I can't talk about Carole King without telling you that you should really own a copy of Tapestry. It's probably one of my favorite albums ever, and if you asked nicely I'm sure your mom would at least lend you a copy. Tapestry and Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now are probably two of my most favorite "hysterical sobbing over a dude" albums. Don't judge me. I have feelings! Sometimes! Especially when it comes to this-

So, I wish a very happy 70th birthday to Carole King, without whom I would have been lost in times of dickishness. She is awesome, and you can talk about her at cocktail parties. With your mom.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Can We Talk About the Sign At The Bus Stop By My Apartment?

Normally, with this blog, I talk about facts. I had another, more general blog which I more or less abandoned several years ago due to a super creepy stalking incident. HOWEVER, we need to talk about the sign that is at the bus stop by my apartment.

Do you understand the vast significance of this? That someone would place a sign that says "Don't Panic" right by my apartment? Obviously, my first thought was SOMEONE NEEDS TO CARRY A TOWEL. Because how could you possibly think anything else? A large sign? Outside my apartment? That says "Don't Panic"? You would be a fool to think anything else. Second, I don't understand what is coming out of that baby's stomach. It's like a broccoli stem. Why is there a broccoli stem coming out of a baby's bellybutton? Is that a thing? Does it mean something? Or is that what an umbilical cord looks like? I honestly do not know.

Third! Ok. I have to ask. Are dumpster babies actually so much of a thing that these signs are necessary? Because I feel like, really, only someone who was mentally ill would actually HAVE a baby and then put it in a dumpster. I would assume it's kind of a rarity. Then again, I cannot imagine anything more terrible than giving birth. I really can't. The fact that dumpster babies are enough of an epidemic to warrant an entire sign outside of my apartment is beyond disturbing. Do people need to be reminded that like, randomly leaving a baby in a dumpster or another unsafe place is not in fact a good idea? Also, I am curious as to how would they even know if the baby was under 30 days old. Because I am quite sure I would not be able to make the distinction. I don't even think I would be able to tell if it was a boy or a girl just by looking at the thing were it dressed in a gender neutral ensemble. Also, can't you pretty much give your kid up for adoption at any time anyway? That's what my Mom told me at least...

This, darlings, is a decent reason why abortions should be free on demand. Free abortions for everyone= no dumpster babies with broccoli stems coming out of their belly buttons, probably. Unless you're, you know, like, one of those ladies on "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant" or something. I have to wonder what the pro-life stance on this would be. My guess is that they'd prefer dumpster babies to abortions, given that by and large, I gather that they are not super into human beings once they're not fetuses anymore.

Anyway. DON'T PANIC. Carry a towel. And don't put your baby in a dumpster.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Fuck Candy, I Want CARGO

SO. What are you doing this February 15th? Will you be mourning the fact that no one gave you any flowers or candy and that you are probably going to die alone in a house filled with cats and piled up newspapers and then the cats are going to get hungry and eat you because no one will know you've been dead for like, a week at least?

OR. Or. Will you be celebrating John Frum Day?

Personally, I always have a way better time celebrating the crap out of random holidays. This all started in 8th grade when my friend Jessica and I decided to celebrate ANZAC DAY. Because it was on the calendar and sounded weird and we had no idea what it was. Wikipedia was not a thing that existed back then. So we invented all these "traditional and holy customs" to celebrate it, one of which for some reason involved a giant canister of Planter's Cheez Balls my mom got from BJ's Wholesale Club.

Later on, what with the advent of the interwebs, I discovered that Anzac day was actually some kind of Australian holiday meant to celebrate dead soldiers. Which is sad, and also does not involve, in any way, the giant canister of Planter's Cheez Balls my mom got from BJ's Wholesale Club. 

My friend Jenn and I also have a special method for celebrating Groundhog's Day, but all I can tell you about this is that it involves a sacred and holy unsuccessful pinata. Make of that what you will.

This year, I would like to start celebrating JOHN FRUM DAY. Which, in case you do not know, is the day when John Frum will come back to the island of Tanna and bring us all CARGO.

BUT LET'S BACKTRACK. Ok, so way way back in the day, like every other place on earth, the Vanuatu Islands were colonized by the British and the French. And they sent MISSIONARIES to govern them. Which is of course such a good idea, right? So, the missionaries were total killjoys and wouldn't let them dance or get laid or do anything fun, or do anything at all on Sundays because they were all now going to be Christians! But the people of Tanna were pretty bad ass and instead of conforming and joining up, they ATE said missionaries. Ok, not like, all of them, but there were definitely some instances of cannibalism and the island became known as a fairly dangerous place. Like, you know how in Looney Tunes or Disney cartoons there were sometimes these weird racist looking caricatures of cannibals who would put Bugs or whomever in a giant pot of boiling water that he would think was a jaccuzzi but then realize they meant to eat him? Even though technically that wouldn't be cannibalism because he was a rabbit and not a person and some people eat rabbit normally? Well, these people were the basis for that whole thing. Except that in real life, they are super awesome, which you will know should you ever get the chance to watch the BBC series "Meet The Natives".

So, anyway, WWII comes along and, for whatever reason, the US decides it should probably set up bases on Vanuatu. The people on Tanna take to the Americans a little bit more than the British and the French because they were just mostly minding their own business and not trying to convert them to Christianity or anything (My, my! How things have changed!). They were especially fascinated by the fact that there were black servicemen. Also the Americans built roads and hospitals, which people were fond of. Now, one thing that totally fascinated the people of Tanna was that all these planes kept dropping by the island to bring the soldiers CARGO. Cargo being food and magazines and all sorts of other stuff. The islanders believed that all the paperwork and marching and other things they saw the soldiers doing were rituals which brought the precious cargo to the island- despite the fact that they also believed that the cargo had been meant as a present to them from their ancestors. The Americans, they believed, were doing all these rituals in order to intercept the delivery of said cargo.

When the American's left, the islanders, having gotten used to the luxuries provided by the cargo, they tried to replicate all of the rituals they saw the Americans performing. They made headsets from tin cans and plane ramps from trees. Still, the cargo did not come.

At some point during all of this, the islanders either met or didn't meet a man named JOHN FRUM.

John Frum was either black or white.
John Frum was either short or tall.
John Frum was an American Serviceman
John Frum was a Vanuatu Native who dressed up like an American Serviceman and made promises.
John Frum was a spirit vision induced by drinking "kava".
John Frum, along with Prince Phillip, was the son of the volcano god.
John Frum lives inside the volcano

And John Frum told them to reject all of the shit they'd been fed by the white missionaries, and to go back their traditions (called "kastom"). He brought peace to the land and promised to return some day on February 15th. The people of Tanna do not know which February 15th it will be, so every year they have a giant parade where they dress up in clothes resembling WWII uniforms, or wear jeans with USA written on their chests and march around the island and build ramps for all the planes to land on. When John Frum returns, he will rid the island of white people, bring houses and wealth and cargo and food and transportation and everyone will live forever and everything will be super great on the island of Tanna.

Personally, I think this seems like a way better time than Valentine's Day.

The interesting thing about "Cargo Cults" is that they give us a way to see, in real time, how religions and systems of belief actually develop in the first place. The fact that many of these cults sprang up entirely independent of one another- in places as varied as Vanuatu and the islands of Australia- gives us an idea of the type of circumstances that predicate systems of belief. It sort of follows along with Arthur C. Clarke's third law of prediction- that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. While the worship of John Frum, or Prince Phillip, or Tom Navy may seem patently ridiculous to an outsider, it's certainly not any stranger than the worship of Jesus or Mohammed or whomever. Like older, mainstream religions, the accounts of the "real" John Frum are varied, and it's not known for certain whether he was a real person or an amalgamation of a few different people. John Frum could have been his real name, or it could have been "John From America" or "John From Jesus Christ" (meaning John The Baptist). He may have been an islander who taught his fellow natives to revolt against the missionaries even before the Americans arrived, or he may have been an American Serviceman. The particular vagueness of his origins are exactly what allowed him to evolve into a savior type figure.

Anyway, that is the story of John Frum. You can talk about him at cocktail parties. Or have a parade in his honor.