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Thursday, 9 July 2009

The Thunderbird photo and False Memory Syndrome

Yesterday I was chatting with a fellow writer about a book she's writing on legendary beasts. One of my favorites is the Thunderbird, a giant dinosaur-like winged creature that haunts the American Southwest, and the conversation turned to the strange role I've played in the story of this mysterious creature.
Let me say at the outset that I don't think the Thunderbird is real. With all the aviation, birdwatchers, and development in the United States in the past century, no giant flying monster could have remained undetected. My skepticism, however, makes this story all the more interesting.

The Thunderbird is part of Native American religious belief, but that creature is like a giant bird with feathers. The more modern Thunderbird is always described as reptilian, which makes some cryptozoologoists (people who study unknown animals) think it's a pterosaur. Supposedly there was an article in the 26 April 1890 edition of the Tombstone, Arizona, Epitaph, about two cowboys shooting a creature with leathery wings like a bat and a head like an alligator. They dragged it back to town and nailed it up to a barn, its wingspan covering the barn's entire length. I haven't seen this article myself, but I know that frontier journalism often played with the truth. Mark Twain got started on fiction while working on his brother's newspaper in the Nevada Territory!

Some photos have turned up over the years. The most famous one shows a giant Thunderbird nailed to a barn with some cowboys standing nearby. I can't show it to you because it doesn't seem to exist, at least not anymore. Many investigators claim to have seen it or even owned a copy, but nobody has one now.
This is where it gets weird. I remember seeing that photo. My memory is of a fairly clear black and white image of a Thunderbird nailed to the roof of a barn, its wingspan almost equal to the barn's length. Men in old western costume are lined up on the roof and in front of the barn. I remember it looked like a rather poor cut-and-paste job. It was common for frontier people to pose next to and on a barn after a barn raising, so perhaps someone added the Thunderbird to a real photo. I even remember where I saw it, in a paranormal magazine at Bookman's, a used bookstore I used to work at in Tucson, Arizona. For some reason I didn't buy the magazine.

This must be a false memory. If the picture existed in a paranormal magazine, it would have been located by dedicated cryptozoologists by now. My experience is just like other people's, in that I have a very clear memory of the event and I no longer have the photo. Some people claim to have seen it in the possession of someone else. Others had a copy and lost it. In my case, I saw it in a magazine I didn't buy. I have unwittingly become part of an urban legend.

Weird, huh? What's going on here? Paranormal investigator Jerome Clark theorizes that the idea of the image is evocative enough to implant a false memory. Perhaps I read about the photo and created the memory? I wonder if ten years from now my writer friend will be writing another book on monsters and will be pulling her hair out trying to find that image of the Thunderbird she remembers seeing.

Oh, and not all memories of this photo are alike. This article includes the memory of a different image of the Thunderbird, and other reports say the creature was nailed to the wall of the barn, not the roof.
While I'm careful to use only public domain photos in this blog, I'm not sure these are. If they are really as old as they appear to be, than they are in the public domain. They could simply be old fakes. If they are modern fakes, then I'm in breach of copyright, but the only way the creator could sue me is if they admitted faking the photo! I'll take that chance. :-)


Anonymous said...

This is no joke. September 12 I saw one. I am looking for a place to document the experience.

Sean McLachlan said...

Tell us more! As for documenting your experience, find a cryptozoologist. A Google search should produce several.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely retarded. There's no such thing as false memory syndrome. This photo existed prior to the 1990's, as it was in a 1980's Mysteries of the Unexplained I read constantly. Sometimes, things get lost.

Sean McLachlan said...

Hmmmm. . .no proper citing of sources, no proof of the claim that there's no such thing as False memory Syndrome, and not even a mention to which photo of the three I published and one I didn't you're actually referring to.
No wonder you didn't sign your name!

Anonymous said...

This is really weird, because I too remember the photo (I remember the Thunderbird nailed to the wall/side of the barn though), and before tonight when I stumbled across a forum, I had no idea there was any contention over the photo or that it's apparently gone. I know ("know"?) I saw it in one of the many, many cryptozoology books I was obsessed with borrowing from the library as a kid. Unless reading about the photo ~10 years ago put an extremely clear idea of it in my mind that's stuck with me all these years, before tonight I would've told you that yeah, it's for sure there in some big cryptozoology book.

Maybe I saw an illustration of what the photo was supposed to look like? I don't know about that, though, I'm pretty certain it WAS a photo and not a drawing.