The Seventies were a boom time for paranormal wankery packaged as documented truth. The stuff was ubiquitous and inescapable, and it propagated itself across every available medium. Even respectable news venues got in on the act with bits of dodgy nonsense about UFO sightings and ESP filling the gaps between reports on more mundane manifestations of the national malaise.
This was the cultural topography of my childhood, and it left an indelible mark on my psyche. Nowadays I know it was a load of poorly sourced (or outright fabricated) hooey, but at the time I embraced with equal parts fascination and terror. I read and re-read accounts of spontaneous combustion and Loch Ness monster sightings, treated In Search Of… and Project UFO as the Gospel truth, and lived in constant dread that a poltergeist would take up residence in my family’s tiny apartment.
My mania cooled a bit by the dawn of the Eighties, nudged into more skeptical channels by my parents, teachers, and the fitful trudge towards a semblance of maturity. That last bit makes the process sound more precocious (and pretentious) than it actually was. It wasn’t some sudden embrace of scientific thinking, but an erosive demystification based upon empirical observations. In short, if there was an invisible world of cryptids and aliens and unquiet spirits, there was little evidence of it in my little corner of the suburban fringe.
Part of me still wanted to believe, despite all the evidence suggesting otherwise. So I took things into my own grubby hands and use my overactive imagination — and highly impressionable pals — to create my own paranormal mysteries.
The most “successful” of these efforts was the Ak-En-Ak, a homebrew variant of the Sasquatch who haunted the marshy forests surrounding my North Woburn neighborhood.
Though rooted in the countless “Bigfoot” narratives I’d been exposed to during the Carter Era, the Ak-En-Ak was very much a product of early eighties media damage. His appearance was directly inspired by Ookla the Mok from the Thundarr the Barbarian cartoon and his fearsome cry was lifted from the faux tribal war chant used by Adam Ant in “Prince Charming.” (Few romanticized rhapsodies about the powers of “childhood imagination” bother to mention how prominently it wears its obvious influences on its sleeve.)
I baited the hook on a summer evening while swapping scary tales in my backyard. My pal Artie was in on the scam, and tossed in his own embellishments as I described the Ak-En-Ak in frightening detail to our mutual pal Scottie and a kid named Chuckie who used to hang out with us despite our obvious dislike of him. I mentioned the creature’s long, blood-stained claws, its hunger for human flesh, and how it totally murdered two friends of my aunt’s who went drinking in the woods the previous year but the police covered it up because they didn’t want to panic the neighborhood.
“So let’s get up early tomorrow,” I concluded, “and see if we can find it.” Scottie and Chuckie were not keen about this proposal, but didn’t want to look like wimps in front of the very enthusiastic Artie.
We began the hunt as a quartet. Artie kneeled and pretended to see tracks on ground. I sniffed the air and asked the others if they smelled something strange. (As this was North Woburn in 1982, the answer was always going to be “yes.”)
We then proposed splitting into two groups, with Scottie and Chuckie following the brook and Artie and I cutting towards the swamp. We waited for them to pass out of our line of sight, at which point I smeared myself with mud and leaves, yowled out the Ak-En-Ak’s borrowed cry, and played dead.
Artie screamed. “SCOTTIE! CHUCKIE! COME QUICK! OH JEEZE! THE MONSTER ATTACKED ANDY!”
Scottie and Chuckie stumbled back into sight. Artie laid it on thick. I struggled to avoid cracking up.
“We were just walking and it came out from behind those rocks and it grabbed Andy but I hit it with a stick and it ran off and oh fuck what are we gonna do?”
Scottie kneeled over me and tried to pretend he remembered any of his Boy Scout first aid lessons.
Chuckie slowly backed his way in the direction of the road. “Guys um guys I don’t like this I’m scared guys I gotta go.” And then he was gone.
I swatted Scottie’s arm away and sat up as best I could through my gut-cramping laughter.
“Did ya see his face, Andy? Did ya? Oh god it was massive. I’m fucking dying. I think I’m gonna hurl.”
Scottie was pissed about getting pranked, but quickly realized it was wiser to join us in laughing at Chuckie than to risk getting laughed at himself. (During later re-tellings of the tale of other kids in the neighborhood, he’d claim that he was also in on the joke.)
A few days later, Artie and I spied Chuckie walking down the sidewalk by the edge of the woods. We hid in the undergrowth and yelped out the Ak-En-Ak cry as he passed, at which point he broke out into a wild run. He stopped coming around after that.
The site of my tragic mauling is now occupied by a pair of McMansions owned by folks who apparently don’t mind having a shit-reeking mire in their backyards. The last time I saw Chuckie was during junior high, when he tried to moon a schoolbus and someone (not me, I swear) threw a handful of sandy gravel at his naked pasty ass.
Recommended listening: The Creatures – So Unreal (from the Wild Things EP, 1981)
More weirdness drawn from familiar things.