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, October 31, 2019

A tale of a bizarre cocktail party

Today is Halloween, and in honor of that spookiest day of the year, I'm going to tell you a story.

It's a story about something that happened to me about thirty-five years ago, when I lived in Olympia, Washington, and it's definitely in the top five creepiest things I've ever experienced.  I still don't have a particularly good explanation for it, and it still makes me shudder to remember.

I was about twenty-five at the time, working a stupid desk job I hated, and to lighten the daily drudgery I decided on a lark to take an art class at Evergreen State College.  Now, I'll say up front that I'm not much of an artist.  My attempt in my biology classes to draw an animal on the whiteboard led to its being christened by students as the "All-Purpose Quadruped" because no one could figure out if it was a cow, a dog, an armadillo, or whatever.  But even considering my lack of talent, I thought an art class could be fun, so I went for it.

One of the students in the class was Laura L______.  Laura was between thirty-five and forty, at a guess, and in very short order she kind of attached herself to me.  There was nothing remotely sexual about it; I never got the impression she was coming on to me, or anything.  It was more that she hung on my every word as if I was the smartest, most interesting person she'd ever met.  We discovered a mutual interest in languages -- and it was off to the races.

Now, I hasten to state that at twenty-five, I simply wasn't that interesting.  I was a young, naive guy who had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, and at that point was just kind of flailing around trying to make enough money to pay for rent and groceries.  So as flattering as it was, even then I recognized that there was something weird and over-the-top about Laura's attentions.  Still, it was a sop to my ego, and I didn't do anything to discourage her.

About three weeks into the art course, I wrote a letter to a college friend of mine (remember, this is in the days before email and texting), and along with the usual newsy stuff, I mentioned the art class and "this weird woman named Laura."  "Next time we talk, I have to tell you more about her," I wrote.  Nothing more in detail than that -- a passing couple of sentences that didn't capture how peculiar she was, nor even in what way she was peculiar.

Around that time, Laura asked if my wife and I wanted to come over to her house, that she and her husband were throwing a party for a few friends, and that she'd love it if we came.  I said okay -- again, with a mild feeling of trepidation, but not enough to say "oh, hell no" -- and she seemed really excited that I'd agreed, and was bringing along my wife.

Saturday came, and we showed up at Laura's house.  And... Laura's husband, and the other guests, were all the same kind of way-too-bright-eyed intellectual that she was.  The topics were all over the place -- science, linguistics, art, history, philosophy, you name it.  And just like conversations with Laura, everything I said was met with "that's fascinating!" and "wow, that is so cool!"  Looking at it from the outside, you'd have sworn that I was Stephen Hawking or something.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons David Shankbone creator QS:P170,Q12899557, House party in Denver Colorado, CC BY 3.0]

After about forty-five minutes of this, both my wife and I got freaked out enough that we decided to leave.  We invented some kind of excuse -- I forget exactly what -- and told Laura we had to go.

"Oh, I'm so sorry you can't stay," she said, her forehead creasing with dismay.  "Are you sure?"

I said I was sure, was "so sorry, too," and told her I'd see her next class.  She didn't argue more, but definitely looked disappointed.  My wife and I talked all the way home about how bizarre the evening had been, and how relieved we both were to leave -- even though nothing happened.

Two postscripts are what make this story even creepier.

About three or four days after the party, I got a letter from my college friend.  Best I can recall, the relevant passage went something like this:
I know you'll probably think this is ridiculous, but I felt like I had to say something.  When I read what you said in your letter about your classmate Laura, I got a real premonition of evil.  There was immediately a feeling that she meant you harm.  I know how skeptical you are about this sort of thing, so you'll probably laugh and then throw this letter in the trash, but I felt like I couldn't simply not tell you.
The second thing is that Laura never came back to the art class.

The first time she missed, I just figured she was sick or something (and was actually a little relieved, because I didn't want to get into it with her about why we'd left her party).  But then another class came, and another, and she never showed up.

I never saw her again.

My wife said, "Maybe she realized that she'd missed her chance to get you, and you weren't going to trust her enough to give her another opportunity."

I actually thought, several times, about driving past her house, just to see what I could see (I had no inclination to knock on her door).  But each time, the idea that she might see my car driving past gave me such a chill up my backbone that I didn't do it.  Where she lived wasn't on my way to work or anything, it was quite a bit out of the way, so I never did go back.

To this day, I don't have a good explanation for this.  Were they just weird, over-enthusiastic intellectual types, and it was all just innocent overcompensation for social awkwardness?  Was it a cult?  Were they planning on drugging our drinks or something?  If we'd stayed longer, were they going to drag out a display of Amway products?

I honestly have no idea.  But even though nothing happened -- "strange, extremely happy smart people freak out young couple," is really about the extent of it -- I still can't think of this incident without shuddering.  I've many times considered turning it into a short story or novel, but I have never been able to come up with a convincing ending.

And on that note, I'll end by wishing you a spooky, scary, and fun-filled Halloween.  Just be careful about befriending odd middle-aged women in your art classes.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a really cool one: Andrew H. Knoll's Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth.

Knoll starts out with an objection to the fact that most books on prehistoric life focus on the big, flashy, charismatic megafauna popular in children's books -- dinosaurs such as Brachiosaurus, Allosaurus, and Quetzalcoatlus, and impressive mammals like Baluchitherium and Brontops.  As fascinating as those are, Knoll points out that this approach misses a huge part of evolutionary history -- so he set out to chronicle the parts that are often overlooked or relegated to a few quick sentences.  His entire book looks at the Pre-Cambrian Period, which encompasses 7/8 of Earth's history, and ends with the Cambrian Explosion, the event that generated nearly all the animal body plans we currently have, and which is still (very) incompletely understood.

Knoll's book is fun reading, requires no particular scientific background, and will be eye-opening for almost everyone who reads it.  So prepare yourself to dive into a time period that's gone largely ignored since such matters were considered -- the first three billion years.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

1 comment:

  1. If it costs $20 for a large pepperoni pizza up there, you should move down here. They're more like $16. haha...

    Freaky story. I bet most of us have one similar, though we never talk about it.

    Always love to read your stuff, Gordon. It makes a person think.