A Strain on Reality: More Examples of Everyday Impossible Problems

"Heck, my grandma used to spin yarns about a spectral locomotive that would rocket past the farm where she grew up!"
- Roy Brady, Reporter (Ghostbusters, 1984)

In late March of this year, I cobbled together the first of three (filler) posts on those so-called unrealistic, impractical and pesky "Locked Room Mysteries" and "Impossible Crimes" popping-up outside of the boundaries of the printed pages. Here are the links to parts I, II and III.

I reported on actor Wilfred Lawson, renowned for being one of the few from his trait "who could function quite well with a skinful" and "has a stockpile of thespian anecdotes second to none," counting an hilariously failed attempt at getting him sober in front of a live radio-mike. Lawson was put under supervision of a minder, who searched the actor and the dressing room before locking him in, but these trifles did not prevent Lawson from getting properly drunk inside a locked room bare of any traces of alcohol. As surprising as any plot-twist you can foresee from the get-go, I had to include my own solution to this unsolved mystery. However, there were also instances where there were answers to the impossible premises: a magician who plugs a leak of information in a tightly secured betting facility known as the "Horse Room" and the homely anecdote of a mystery writer's cat accidentally (or instinctively?) creating what could've been an entire locked house mystery – if only she hadn't been witnessed in the act.

I had run through the best stories after merely three posts and the left over material simply wasn't as tantalizing, but there's one that now gave me an excuse to add a fourth part to the series (hence the padded introduction retracing my previous posts).

Departing for the departed
The St. Louis Ghost Light (or Ghost Train) is a light phenomenon from a supposed supernatural origin seen near St. Louis, Saskatchewan, Canada and was a subject on the TV-series Unsolved Mysteries. The phenomenon involves unaccountable, varied-colored lights moving up and down along an old, abandoned railway lines and even breaking up the tracks failed to put a stop to the ghosts lights. Locals report the apparitions can still be seen almost every night. And where there are locals, you can bet there's a good campfire story to be told. There's one about a brakeman checking the tracks who was struck down and decapitated by a passing train, which he now wanders in search for his head with his lantern – causing the smaller, red lights. The bright, yellowish lights are ascribed to a spectral steam locomotive pulling its carriages. If there's something beyond this world we should do business with them, because ectoplasm-driven ghost cars and phantom planes will break our carbon footprint in several crucial places.

Unfortunately, a pair of bright Grade 12 students, Alysha and Shannon, from Northern Saskatchewan wrecked the whole epic thing with their science fair project based on proper research and field work – yielding a surprisingly natural and demonstrable explanation called diffraction. It's basically an optical illusion making light apparent from far away when it passes through a small opening and this won them a gold medal at the fair. You can read a more detailed account of the explanation here, but, interestingly, one of these self-styled miracle detectives is a believer and the other a skeptic. If you add up the story of the ghost lights/train and the nature of its solution, you're left with the perfect plot-outline for a crossover story between Thomas Carnacki and John Bell. All in all, a job well done and a deserved medal. 

By the way, the wikipedia page of the St. Louis Ghost Light (linked above) mentions the lights have been seen before cars were invented (a citation is still needed!), which should leave open the door for ghosts... if you ignore that back then there were still trains running over those lines... or assume that before cars people travelled without lanterns after dark... I'm just saying.

To pad out this filler post even further, I might as well throw in another one that didn't make the cut because it was too sketchy on the details. In a post from 2005 on a magician's forum, DrNorth tries to recalls a conversation from 20 years ago in which he was told about a fellow performer assisting the police by showing the Scooby Doo-like trickery in what appears to have been a brutal murder case. More than one person were apparently found slaughtered inside a locked warehouse with evidence abound of an occult ritual, including a burned hoof print in a cinder block, which he was able to reproduce to show how they used fear to manipulate the public and their followers. The demonstration was so convincing the officers at the scene drew their weapons when smoke began to appear from the hoof print, but I have to add that this is the only source I was able to find of the story. I want it to be true though. Or at least be given some clues to piece together a workable solution. 

Discussing locked room mysteries over a game of cards with Luci

Well, I guess my mind belongs to a period when it was possible to chase Sir Basil Zaharoff, the Mystery Man of Europe, across the continent or have been attached to some secret, Allied department of dirty tricks during the Second World War. I would've found Hitler's sense of security in his sealed, underground bunker adorable and unexpectedly polite to pose such a challenge to me. How did he know I loved locked room mysteries so much? That silly goose really was a tough nut to crack.

Enough mindless filler for one sitting and you can hopefully expect a fresh review this weekend. I feel strangely compelled to dig up some mystery novel set aboard a train or around train tracks. No idea if I have such a book on my TBR-pile.  

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