Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Attack of the gargoyles

A couple of days ago, Skeptophilia investigated claims of a glow-in-the-dark pterodactyl in Pennsylvania.  Keeping in the same vein, today's post is about: gargoyles in Chile.

Yes, gargoyles, those scary, weird creatures that adorn many a Gothic church roof.  Bat wings, snarling, fanged muzzle, large eyes with a diabolical leer... what are they, really?

If you said "fictional," tell that to Teresa Abett de la Torre.  De la Torre tells a story (read the entire thing here) of heading from Fuerte Baquedano, the military base where her husband was stationed, to the town of Arica at the north end of the country to visit family.  De la Torre and her husband and kids piled into their car for the long, monotonous drive across the arid Pampa Acha, an especially desolate stretch of the treeless, flat Atacama Desert.  The weather, as usual, was sunny and clear, and they expected to have nothing more than bored children to cope with on the trip.

The first one to notice something odd was one of the daughters, Carmen.  In Carmen's words:
I looked out of the window, and there were two creatures floating in the sky.  I was traveling in the back seat with my brothers, talking, and suddenly everything went dark. Then I told my brother what I was seeing and he told me to keep quiet, because Mom gets nervous. Later I looked through the window and saw some things that looked like birds, with dogs’ heads and back swept wings. My father said they were like gargoyles.
If I saw two flying gargoyles, I think "nervous" would be an understatement.  But that's just me.

But Teresa eventually noticed the creatures, despite the dad and kids' efforts to keep her from getting "nervous."  She described them as "dog-faced kangaroos."  And the day was about to get a whole lot worse, because watching some gargoyles from the air is one thing; having them attack your car is another thing entirely.

According to Teresa, they were all watching the things in the sky when suddenly her husband, Carlos, swerved, and they looked over to see that he'd narrowly missed two more of them, that had "jumped in front of the car."  They avoided colliding with the creatures by a narrow margin, and the creatures gave chase, bounding after them on "strong hind legs."  Carlos, alarmed, sped up.  "Eventually," Teresa said, "we left all four of the beasts behind."

Teresa related that she and the family were terrified to make the return trip, but eventually they had to, and it was uneventful.  At that point, they decided not to tell anyone what they'd seen.  However, when a fellow officer at stationed at Fuerte Baquedano reported seeing a dinosaur on the same stretch of road, the de la Torre family decided to go public, apparently figuring that at least their story wasn't that ridiculous.

By the way, just for the record, I'm not making any of this up.

The story was broken by Scott Corrales of the Institute of Hispanic Ufology.  When it hit the public media, reporters were quick to try to explain away the sightings as bats or ostriches, because we all know how often bats leap around on the ground in front of cars, and how often ostriches fly.

To me, the most interesting part is when the "Mysterious Universe" people got a hold of the story, because then we have an interesting chain of reasoning used; because the two explanations that have been suggested thus far are obviously wrong, our only remaining option is to assume that something paranormal is going on.

We see this in reports of ghosts all the time.  "I heard the noise of footsteps upstairs," our eyewitness says.  "My parents were out for the evening, and I went and looked in my brother's room, and he was asleep in bed.  Therefore, it must have been a ghost!"

Really?  There's no other option you can think of?  We're going to think of two rational, natural explanations, rule them out, and then leap into the supernatural?  I'm reminded of King Arthur pulling the pin on the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and then counting, "One!  Two!  Five!"

But that's what they do, here.  What did the de la Torre family see?  Was it bats?  No.  Was it ostriches?  No.  Therefore, we are only left with the following possibilities:

1) A flying Chupacabra.
2) A southern relative of the Jersey Devil.

That's it?  It's not possible that they made it up?  That they were the victims of a hoax?  Because they didn't see giant airborne ostriches, we are forced to the conclusion that they were seeing the Jersey Devil?

Touchingly, the report in Mysterious Universe concludes with an ecological message: Given that there was no sighting of the gargoyles in Chile prior to 2004, it may be that human damage to the ecosystem was at fault.  "...might we surmise," the author writes, "that jungle deforestation or some other manner of likely human encroachment has forced these critters out of hiding and into the public eye?"

Because clearly the Atacama Desert was heavily forested with jungle until 2004, at which point it became as desolate as the Land of the Lorax after all of the Truffula Trees were cut down.  (Greenpeace's new motto: "Save the Gargoyles.")

Anyway, as it is probably apparent by now, I'm not sold on the story.  As I've discussed before, even if we won't go as far as to accuse the de la Torres of lying outright, eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable.  Given that there's never been a gargoyle hit by a car, no one's ever found a skull or wing bone, and no one in the de la Torre family even thought of taking a photograph of this amazing event, we'll have to file this one under "Probably Not."

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