Weekend of the living dead

24SEVEN Vampires exist, Christianity's a sham, and the Moon's an intergalactic motorway service station. Welcome to the Unconvention.
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It is not just the Day of the Dead (see page 4, Section Two) but also the Weekend of the Living Dead that is upon us. Few people at Unconvention 96 will be snatched away by aliens, de-blooded by vampires or seduced by mermaids. But these are some of the subjects to be pondered at the third and largest Unconvention organised in Bloomsbury by the ever hair- raising "Journal of Strange Phenomena", Fortean Times. Previous Unconventions have chewed over such tasty enigmas as the "Surrey Puma", showers of falling fish and folk who spontaneously catch fire like human matches."Cosmic clerks" is how editors Bob Rickard and Paul Sieveking see themselves. "We're consummate fence-sitters," states Rickard. "Fortean Times's open- mindedness is a defence mechanism against crankiness, as is our sense of humour." If something is a complete mystery, he points out, the evidence for it must be insufficient: otherwise it wouldn't count as "unexplained".

Vampires, which swoop to the top of any list of unexplained phenomena, kick off the "Weekend of the Wondrous" conference. Speakers wrestle with the undead in myth, in cinema, in film and in decomposing corpses which might have given rise to the whole belief in the first place. Then there were those drained animal corpses in Highgate Cemetery - and what was that mysterious dark figure lurking behind a gravestone?

Conspiracy theories make up the other big theme of the conference and Robin Ramsay, editor of Lobster, the magazine of fishy goings-on, will be presenting the pick of the bunch. Other speakers will be be peering through the clouds that prevent us from learning about unidentified flying objects. Is there an official conspiracy of silence about flying saucers? Or just a complete absence of spacecraft from across the galaxy? Unless abducted by aliens or civil servants before his lecture, former Ministry of Defence UFO investigator, Nick Pope, will flick through his X files.

One of the most convincing - or possibly unconvincing - pieces of evidence is the film sequence of the so-called "Roswell Incident". This purports to show an autopsy on the body of an alien from a pranged UFO (or, alternatively, a clumsy forgery taken from a deservedly forgotten B-movie). The organisers claim that the complete footage will be shown tomorrow for the first time. Will it, though, include the rumoured "Harry Truman" clip, in which the US President wanders into the frame, thus bringing an air of reality to the reel? Even more puzzling is the lecture that will allege an official cover-up over the Apollo Moon landings. These certainly took place, but there was, apparently, censorship over the pictures shown to the world. What we didn't see in 1969 was the evidence of non-human spacemen who had used the Moon as an intergalactic motorway service station. Photographs proving this simple theory are held in US government files but for some reason researchers can never quite get their hands on them.

The next talk brings us down to earth, to the French village of Rennes- le-Chateau. What part did the discovery of a mysterious parchment play in the sudden wealth of the local priest? Was it a straightforward case of buried treasure - or was it, perhaps, documentary proof that Christianity is based on a complete fraud? Was he blackmailing the Vatican and being paid to keep his priestly trap shut? Stranger things have happened.

The "Owlman" who flapped around the West Country in the Seventies, for example. Faith in this feathery humanoid flopped but it recently made a comeback and will feature in a lecture on "cryptozoology", that is, the study of creatures who for one reason or another shouldn't exist. Mermaids are good value, too, whatever their actual reality.

Then there's life beyond the grave. Reincarnation, or a belief in it, enjoys a respectable place in world religion. But what of the seance that will take place twice a day at the Unconvention? Is this a total fraud? Psychology Professor Richard Wiseman claims he is not holding this in order to contact the dead, but to show the living exactly how Victorian mediums used to fool their gullible clients.

While the lecturers have their own views on their raw material - both for and against - the listeners are more likely to be completely open- minded. The Unconventional delegates are on the young side, but are not, for the most part, crankish.

"I would say a good proportion of people coming along are disenchanted with science and cynical," says Sieveking. "Paranormalists, as well as scientists, have failed to make a better world. In general, the attenders are a fairly reasonable sort of a people, interested in mysteries in general."

During the first morning session of the first Unconvention, I found a 32-year-old computer expert who had slipped out of the lecture hall for a quick go on the "Tales from the Crypt" pinball machine. He said that 99 per cent of the phenomena in the conference were probably rubbish: "But," he added, "I'm looking for that one per cent."

UnConvention 96, Institute of Education, Bedford Way, London WC1, Sat- Sun, doors open at 10.30am but arrive early for tickets (pounds 15 per day, pounds 25 for weekend)

'Fortean Times', which has just started monthly publication, costs pounds 2.20 from newsagents. Its new Web page URL is: http://www.forteantimes.com/

TOP 10 SOCIETIES OF THE PARANORMAL

Researches into those parts of human experience which normal explanations cannot reach. Four areas: 1. Ghosts, poltergeists and other psychic events; 2. UFOs; 3. Geographical peculiarites: sacred sites, ley lines, geomagnetic anomalies; 4. Fortean phenomena.

20 Paul Street, Frome, Somerset BA11 1DX

Best established of the UFO spotters, it investigates cases, produces reports and publishes UFO Times. Monthly lecture meetings in London. Aims to have authority of total dispassionate scientific enquiry but unless you think there is more to anomalous aerial objects than weather balloons and hallucinations, you are unlikely to join. Some members more credulous than others and liable to see aliens in our midst: "Not everyone you see is human," someone remarked at a recent get-together.

1 Woodhall Drive, Natley, W Yorkshire WF17 7SW or BM BUFORA, London WC1N 3XX

Publishes Animals and Men, the world's leading "cryptozoological" magazine, which reports on the oddest of creatures, for example, the "Owlman", a real hoot which, though not found in biology textbooks, was seen flapping around in Cornwall during the Seventies. On Sunday, editor Jonathan Downes (who, incidentally, fronts a Fortean rock band known as The Amphibians from Outer Space) will be talking about this feathered friend and similar creatures that have livened up the century.

15 Holne Court, Exwick, Exeter, Devon EX4 2NA

Crop circles have gone very quiet over the last year or so, suggesting that graphic designers from spaceships have found other outlets for their talents. The Watcher, unlike rival publication The Cerealogist (see ASSAP, above, for address) which provides esoteric explanations, holds that all the geometrical shapes in corn are the handiwork of hoaxers or tornadoes. Anything else is an attempt to square the corn circle.

3 Selborne Court, Tavistock Close, Romsey, Hampshire SO51 7TY

Dates back to 1862, the dawn of spook- hunting. Carries out investigations into haunted houses. Less theoretical, more practical than Society for Psychical Research (see below), the members deny being publicity-seeking ghostbusters. Viewpoint ranges from scepticism to believers. Charles Dickens was an early member.

93 The Avenue, Muswell Hill, London N10 2QG

Studies that Fortean phenomenon, the FOAF, or "true" event which happened to a Friend Of A Friend. You know, the "Phantom Hitchhiker": driver picks up girl who mysteriously disappears from car and learns that she bears uncanny resemblance to a hitch-hiker killed in accident exactly a year ago...

c/o Paul Smith, Department of Folklore, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St John's, Newfoundland A1B 3XB, Canada

Run by "Rip" Hepple, who has been keeping an eye on the Loch and the Monster since the early Sixties. His Ness Letter contains news, views and sightings - or lack of sightings - and gossip about members staking out the watery enigma. Publishes, but does not necessarily endorse, theories about the origins of Nessie, which range from a big eel to a "tulpa" (Tibetan concept of something created entirely from the thoughts of a holy man).

7 Huntshieldford, St John's Chapel, Weardale, Co Durham DL13 1RQ

The idea of returning after death for another stab at life has appeared in many religions. More recently, hypnosis is said to have uncovered memories of old lives. Roy Stemman, Director of Reincarnation International and editor of its magazine (available at the Unconvention), will be talking on Sunday about some of the more bizarre manifestations of past lifestyles.

PO Box 26, London WC2H 9LP

Dates back to 1882, the golden age of phantom-spotting. Makes a study of hauntings, apparitions, poltergeists, extra-sensory perception, psychokinesis (mind moving matter) and out-of-the-body and near-death experiences: all non-human life is there. Members include Nobel Prize-winning physicist Brian Josephson and author Colin Wilson.

49 Marloes Road, London W8 6LA

Researches into extreme weather events: wind, rain, lightning and hurricanes. Chases tornadoes. It will be holding its own conference in Oxford on 6 June. Its magazine, Journal of Meteorology, is not the place to look for light- to-variable-sunshine but for scattered showers of frogs and fishes. Founder and Journal editor Terence Meaden will be addressing the Unconvention tomorrow on the fertility aspects of Stonehenge, Avebury and other ancient megaliths: the stones represent the womb of the Goddess Mother Earth and the rising sun entering them is the male, er, symbol.

54 Frome Road, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire BA15 1LD

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