Finally living up to my promise. It’s almost too easy. I almost feel bad. Almost. I think I’m going to have to do this in several parts, because there’s just too much here to address in one go. So here’s a brief introduction and the first topic.
This book was written by the prolific Brad Steiger in 1991. Not that I want to give traffic to his site (all 6 of you), but it does give a good context for what you’re about to experience. I had no idea that this guy was actually someone. I love these books. Maybe some nobody is hired by a company or publisher to edit together a mess of shit. Who knows. But it’s often a name I’ve never heard before and will likely will never hear from again. But not this time. This is what he does and he is a perfect example against the argument that because someone has written a lot of articles, they are right.
I guess I’ll start with Chapter 1: The Eerie Enigma of Ghost Ships. This chapter contains several stories of alleged ghost ships — that is, ships that have disappeared under mysterious conditions, ships that are reportedly sighted after they have sunk, ships that were found with the whole crew mysteriously dead, ships that are cursed, etc. All of these stories are discussed with the assumption that they are true wow KABLAMMO without any explanatory language that suggests that this is merely one interpretation and a regurgitation of pretty much every ghost ship story known to humankind (and possibly a few that are made up and/or really unpopular because I couldn’t find them on the internets, even on the sites prone to such beliefs).
The following analysis is not proof that there are no ghost ships. I only intend to illustrate that these stories are questionable, though they are typical examples of stories I hear every day. If it’s not ghost ships, it’s ghost something else…or orbs. I will also discuss the irresponsible assumptions that are made about the scientific method in stories like these.
The first ship under discussion is the Ourang Medan. According to legend, in 1948 the entire crew of this ship was found dead with grotesque looks on their faces and no sign of disease or injury after a distress call was answered by…someone. The story doesn’t say. The ship then exploded and sank. To this day sightings are reported off the coasts of Malaysia and Sumatra.
Unfortunately, there’s no record of such a ship ever existing. Records from this time weren’t exactly awesome, but if the best you can do is “here is a sketchy incident that has never been explained” that is possibly entirely made up, do you really have an engaging ghost story worth writing a book about as if this is actually real? It’s not like this is told in the context of a fictional story. This is presented as fact. So, either the laws of the universe as we understand them are wrong and the story is correct, or 1) people in 1948 answering a rescue ship were not qualified to determine cause of death, 2) the ship never existed, or 3) the ship did exist, something unfortunate happened, and the cause can never be verified because it blew up and sank. And maybe some other possibility that didn’t occur to me.
Reports from sailors (who may be prone to such superstition) sighting the ship are not sufficient evidence of the existence of ghost ships without any supporting documentation — unaltered photos, etc. (Extraordinary claims and all that.) Otherwise, there is no evidence that this ship is a ghost ship or that it even existed. So I am not inclined yet to throw out all science to date on the basis of this story.
Consider this. What if I told you that there was a car in 1948 found on a highway (by…someone) and all the passengers inside were dead with no apparent cause of injury? You might ask some basic questions such as: Who found them? Were they qualified to determine cause of death? Would they have been able to follow up on cause of death before telling other people about the event? What was their emotional state when finding the car (i.e, reports of “gruesome looks” on the passengers faces)? Is there record of someone owning the car? How much purple monkey dishwasher (for non Simpsons fans, this means “exaggeration/addition of details over many retellings”) has invaded this story over the years? Considering the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning in a car for various reasons, what are the odds that even if this car existed there was nothing mysterious about their deaths at all and the cause was actually relatively mundane (however interesting in terms of safety and general curiosity about unusual events)?
The exact same story, fancied up with the fantastical awe of the ghost ship mythos, gets passed down for years and finally ends up in this book. There is no supporting evidence, there may not even have been a ship at all, and people died at sea all the time. Bottom line: this is a really boring story. I mean think about it. Ship sailed, people died for some reason, ship found. The only interesting part comes with the speculation involved with “for some reason”. Speculation, in this case, that is entirely without any rational basis. Unfortunately this same boring story is repeated several times throughout the chapter, only with the name of the ship and the year changed.
Other so-called “ghost ships” mentioned in this Chapter are:
- the curse of the Ostwind (a.k.a. “Hitler’s yacht” – a bunch of bad things supposedly associated with the ship, not a ghost ship),
- the Tricouleur sighted in 1936 (a ship that sank and allegedly appeared later),
- the Francesco in 1989 (an allegedly haunted ship — so not a ghost ship, technically),
- the fire ship of Bay Chaleur (a specter),
- the Seabird in 1850 (allegedly navigating without a crew that somehow [his emphasis] left — because apparently gently running aground instead of smashing into the shore is mysterious…um…ooooh? — so also not a ghost ship),
- the Marlborough found in 1913 [sic] (found to have been floating around with “mummified bodies” for over 20 years, also not a ghost ship),
- the yacht J. C. Cousins in 1894 [sic] (a schooner deserted in 1883 with the 4 — he doesn’t say how many people and the context of other large ships implies a lot of people — crewmen never found, so once again not a ghost ship),
- the Marine Sulphur Queen in 1963 and the Witchcraft in 1967 (both disappeared without a trace, oh sorry, were snatched out of existence by the Bermuda triangle — either way, not ghost ships), and
- the Lady Luvibund [sic] in 1748 (and every 50 years hence).
It basically goes like this: something weird happened, ooooooohhhh, it hasn’t been explained, ooooooohhhhh. The most common theme is to ask questions that may or may not have answers and conclude that something spooky is going on. The author also raises the possibility of underwater UFOs. I didn’t know things could fly underwater…but I digress. Typically, “scientists are baffled” and the “mystery remains unsolved”. Finally, I’ll note that 7 of the 11 ships above are not even ghost ships. They are just ships where something weird may or may not have happened or ships that disappeared. In the ocean. Imagine. Calling them ghost ships to add bulk to an otherwise lean chapter is disingenuous at best.
What’s really kind of annoying is that there may actually be really cool explanations for these events. In the case of the first ship – was it a plague of some kind? Can we find out some how? Is this something that could happen again? Is there wreckage that we can examine? Unfortunately with most of these stories, the details are so few and vague that nobody can follow up with a thorough investigation. Or they have happened so long ago that witnesses and evidence are lost or destroyed.
It’s really easy, and lazy, to tell a story all “oooh aaaaah ghooooosts” and not bother to research what available details we do have and draw a scientific conclusion. In some cases “we don’t know” is the conclusion, but to pass that off as “scientists are baffled” is disingenuous. First, the ghosties don’t know either or they’d bother to try to explain it in more satisfying detail then stopping at “it’s ghosts”. How is it ghosts? How are they interacting with us? Why are they picking on ships?
Scientists (or anyone) can’t explain any event for which there is no supporting evidence other than to speculate with what is likely within generalities or to responsibly say “I don’t know”. That is not the same as being baffled at the mystery. Saying scientists are unable to explain something like this gives the false impression that they have all the evidence in hand and are either too obtuse to put it together or are too”closed minded” to come to the conclusion to which ghost believers want them to come.
This is an irresponsible representation of the actual hard work that goes into investigating various phenomena scientifically and how difficult it can be to come to a responsible conclusion, which may be admitting that we simply don’t have enough evidence to draw a conclusion at all. Have you ever watched Maury when the lie detector says that the results were “inconclusive” and the audience acts like that is the same thing as the person being guilty? I feel like this is a similar response when the evidence is sketchy. Scientists say “I don’t know” and believers jump to the conclusion that their own explanation is correct whereas the scientists are “baffled” or refuse to accept the obvious explanation (i.e., the believer’s explanation).
And invoking “underwater UFOs” (click at your own risk)? When you’re already dealing with something that’s on shady (at best) ground to begin with, it’s best not to completely bury yourself in unexplained phenomenon within the same story. Adding such a bizarre detail only leads to more unverifiable questions and reckless speculation — all wrapped up in a book that’s meant to be read by youth. Great.
Up next: In part 2 we’ll look at Chapter 2 “Here there be sea and lake monsters!“, the only chapter that earned an exclamation point from the author, Chapter 3 (about giant things), and Chapter 11 (fairies etc).