Such was my reaction to a recent headline in the Pueblo Chieftain: "Two More Cows Found Mutilated."
Eastern Colorado was central to the "cattle mutilation" meme of the 1970s. I was younger and wishing that one day I would be a newspaper reporter so that I could really learn what was going on.
Later, after the furor died down, I did write for the (now defunct) Colorado Springs Sun. And at one point I assigned myself a retrospective article about "mutilation madness" that eventually spawned a feature in dear old Fate magazine.*
I write "meme" for a reason, and the Chieftain article illustrates it perfectly. The news media tend to follow these "rules" of reporting topics that are pre-judged to be non-serious.
1. Assume that these events are paranormal, inexplicable, or silly.
2. Treat anyone--such as a self-proclaimed UFO expert--as a legitimate source.
It happened in the 1970s, and it's happening now. The only part that is missing is the post-Vietnam War narrative in which crazed Huey pilots conduct crazed nighttime mutilation missions to get the adrenaline rush that they got in 'Nam. (Think Iraq and give it time.)
When I did become a journalist, I decided that the reason that editors did not take the whole cattle mutilation narrative seriously was that
- it was rural
- it did not fit into a neat box (sports, crime, politics)
- it was rural
- it was difficult to cover, and there were no official spokespeople
- it was rural
- it was non-serious, "soft," involving UFOs and what-not.
What strikes me about this newest story is the totally uncritical acceptance of the old 1970s narrative.
The mutilations are carried out with "surgical precision." Oh yeah? Did you ask any surgeons, veterinary or otherwise? Did you know that a cut in flesh, left to sit in the sun for a day or two, will swell and look smoother (more precise), even if made with canine teeth?
There is "no blood." Have you studied what happens to blood in a corpse, how it pools at the lowest point and coagulates?
And who is interviewed? Some UFO expert.
Who is not interviewed? An expert on four-footed predators. A specialist in veterinary necropsy (your local vet is not a specialist). An expert on narrative frames applied to inexplicable events, such as "satanic panics, " witch hunts, and other folklore.
The last is perhaps the most important. The woo-woo factor, you know.
A couple of days after the Chieftain article, another piece appeared in the Denver Post: "Wild Dogs Terrorize Eastern Plains."
Delivery drivers have been stranded in their vehicles, cattle stampeded and stockmen have lost sheep, goats, lambs, calves and even pet dogs, county officials say.
Do you suppose there might be a connection? There could be other explanations, equally mundane.
But once the woo-woo narrative frame is imposed, events are seen as strange and mysterious, revealing our fears about satanists, Vietnam veterans, or whatever the latest scary thing is.
* Chas S. Clifton, “Mutilation Madness,” Fate, June 1988: 60-70.