Five Solved ‘Unexplained Mysteries’ of 2011

December 27, 2011

Each year brings new puzzles and mysteries to challenge skeptics and put our wits to the test. Sometimes mysteries take weeks, months, or even years or decades to solve, and while most of the public’s attention naturally focuses on the still-mysterious, it’s always worth reflecting on former mysteries.

This past year saw two high-profile cryptozoological (monster) mysteries finally solved, that of the Puerto Rican chupacabra and the French Beast of Gévaudan. There were also three new UFO / alien cases that made international news before eventually being solved (in Russia, Isreal, and Los Angeles). I participated in solving several of these mysteries. Here’s to a new year of fresh investigation, and hopefully 2012 will end with an even longer list of solved mysteries!

The Los Angeles UFO

In November 2010, a strange contrail was seen approximately 35 miles off the Californian coast. A news helicopter filmed the contrail rising like an arced pillar in the sunset, and the news media ran wild with the story. The government said it had no knowledge of what it was, and conspiracy theorists had a field day. These theories ranged from UFOs, to a secret missile launch, to government testing of so-called toxic “chemtrails.” Some researchers including CSI’s veteran UFO investigator Robert Sheaffer suspected that the “missile” was in fact simply an airplane contrail: “the object seems to have been simply an aircraft contrail, with tricks of perspective making it look like a missile flying away from you, when in fact it was an aircraft flying toward you. It depends on an effect of perspective.” By January of 2011 the mystery had been definitively solved. The UFO turned out to be a simple jet contrail, just as myself, Sheaffer, and other skeptics had said all along: UPS flight 902 from Hawaii to California.

The Beast of Gévaudan

Of all the monsters said to roam the earth, perhaps none was more feared than a mysterious creature that terrorized the French countryside in the 1760s. This monstrous Beast of Gévaudan, as it became known, killed peasants, farmers, and shepherds with impunity, often leaving its scores of victims a gory mess. The identity of this monster has been a source of wild speculation, especially in France, for over two centuries. Many believe it was a werewolf; others say it was some sort of supernatural demon (owing to the fact that legends said could not be stopped by bullets); still others insist it was a serial killer. Cryptozoological writers Ken Gerhart and Joe Nickell, among others, have suggested that the Beast was a hyena. However the mystery was finally solved earlier this year. Historian Jay M. Smith, in his book Monsters of the Gévaudan, convincingly showed that there actually was no singular Beast of Gévaudan responsible for the deaths, as widely assumed; in fact the killings were consistent with wolf attacks.


The Jerusalem UFO Video

Just a few weeks into 2011 a stunning UFO video circulated around the world. On Jan. 28, a mysterious glowing light hovered high above the Dome of the Rock, an ancient Islamic shrine in Jerusalem. It was touted as possibly the best video ever taken of an extraterrestrial spacecraft-made all the more apparently authentic because it was captured by at least two other people at the same time, from different angles. When the videos appeared on YouTube UFO interest was whipped into a frenzy. Skeptical analyses soon suggested that the video had been faked, but true believers insisted that the videos were legitimate. Finally in March 2011 even MUFON, an organization dedicated to proving extraterrestrial visitation, joined the skeptics in branding the whole thing a hoax.

The Chupacabra

The Beast of Gévaudan was not the only monster mystery finally solved in 2011. Since the mid-1990s, people around the world (and especially in Puerto Rico and Latin America) have reported a bizarre vampire beast which became known as the chupacabra (Spanish for “goat sucker,” since it was said to drain blood out of small animals including goats). According to the first eyewitness, the chupacabra had two legs, stood 4 to 5 feet tall, and had spikes down its back. The monster had long, thin arms and legs, and an alien-like head with red or black eyes. Later alleged chupacabras found in America (mostly Texas and New Mexico) turned out to be diseased dogs, foxes, and coyotes. Though widely believed to be a real creature, the chupacabra mystery was finally solved when the original eyewitness-whose description became the “standard” chupacabra image-was shown to have confused a monster from the 1995 horror thriller Species for something she saw in real life. More on the monster can be found in my book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore.

The Russian ET

In April a video of what appeared to be an extraterrestrial alien body recovered in Russia set off a new furor among UFO believers in the blogosphere. According to one story in The Daily Mail, “On its side with its mouth slightly agape, the slender, badly-damage body lies half-buried in snow close to Irkutsk, Russia. Video of the alien’s corpse has become a massive worldwide hit with hundreds of thousands of followers after being posted on the internet. The corpse of the badly-damaged creature which resembles ET is two feet high. Part of the right leg is missing and there are deep holes for eyes and a mouth in a skull-like head.” The video’s authenticity was fiercely debated for weeks, until finally two Russian teens confessed to the hoax; police found the “alien” hidden in one of the teen’s bedrooms.