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Explain the Unexplainable in Real-Life X-Files

The truth is in here.

eerie photo of unexplained phenomenon at night

If you’re a fan of all things unexplained, from UFO sightings to cryptids, then you’re probably familiar with the iconic 90s TV series The X-Files. In the show, FBI agents Mulder and Scully investigate bizarre and unusual cases that usually have a supernatural bent to them. In Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal, former private investigator and forensic writer Joe Nickell takes on those cases himself.

Featuring over 40 cases of paranormal phenomena, Real-Life X-Files is a series of true investigations. Using his skills, Nickell sets out to solve these mysteries once and for all. If you’re wondering if he’s coming at this as more of a skeptic or a believer, it’s neither. In all of his examinations, Nickell strives to be objective. He’s just looking at the facts. 

What makes Real-Life X-Files such an interesting read is how in-depth Nickell’s investigations are. He doesn’t just recount the legend, he visits the sites of the phenomena—where he often recreates whatever happened. Before he turns to the supernatural, he exhausts every explanation that is of this world. Scully would certainly be proud. 

Related: 10 Creepy X-Files Episodes That Were Based on Real Stories

Within the book's pages, Nickell investigates many unexplained cases—from the famous UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico, to miraculous religious phenomena. In the excerpt below, he takes on the case of the Devil’s Footprints, a series of tracks discovered in the snow on a winter morning in 1855. Terrified witnesses in South Devon, England reported that the tracks bore a disconcerting resemblance to the Devil’s cloven hooves. 

So did Satan take a winter stroll through Devon? Check out Nickell’s answer in the excerpt below! Then pick up your own copy of the book for more paranormal investigative fun.

Read an excerpt from Real-Life X-Files by Joe Nickell and then purchase the book!




Real-Life X-Files

By Joe Nickell

The case of "The Devil's Footprints" is a classic of the "unsolved" genre, having been featured in Rupert T. Gould's Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts (1928, 1964); Frank Edwards's Stranger than Science (1959); c.B.

Colby's Strangely Enough (1971); Rupert Furneaux's The World's Most Intriguing True Mysteries (1977); Martin Ebon's The World's Greatest Unsolved Mysteries (1981); and many other anthologies and compendia of the unexplained. The fullest account, complete with the original source material, is given by Mike Dash in Fortean Studies (1994).

Colby tells the story in concise form:

“There was no denying the footprints in the snow on the morning of February 9, 1855. The odd tracks appeared in several towns in South Devon, England. Residents of Lympstone, Exmouth, Topsham, Dawlish, and Teignmouth all reported the same thing. During the night some weird and uncanny creature had raced in a straight line through these towns, covering a hundred miles and more and leaving behind the tracks nobody could identify.

“Each track, about 4 inches in length and 23/4 in width, was exactly 8 inches apart. They were roughly shaped like a hoofprint and were promptly christened "The Devil's Footprints" by all who saw them. Even the conservative London Times printed a report of the footprints in the snow ....

“Going straight across country, the tracks never swerved. They were found upon the top of 14-foot walls and they crossed the roofs of barns and houses, went up and over snow-covered piles of hay and even appeared on the tops of wagons which had been left out all night.

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“It was as if the creature had leaped up or down, for the tracks showed no apparent change of pace or speed. In many places it was reported that the snow had been "branded" away or melted from the ground where the "feet" had touched ....

“Over the hundred -mile course, the distance between the tracks never varied from the regular 8 inches, yet how could anyone or anything travel that far in a single night without varying its stride?

“Too many people saw the tracks for it to have been a joke or a local phenomenon. In some instances the prints vanished at the edge of unfrozen ponds or rivers, and appeared again exactly in line on the opposite side, to race away in that straight and mysterious flight across the sleeping countryside. And in all that distance, no one saw it, no one heard it. Only the tracks remained as evidence of the creature's passing. [See figure 2.1.]”

The Devil's Footprints
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  • The Devil's Footprints as they appeared in an edition of The Illustrated London News.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Some sources, like Edwards (1959), incorrectly give the date as February 7, 1855, the confusion resulting from early reports mentioning the night of the eighth. By the seventeenth, the story had reached the national newspapers, which published correspondents' accounts through mid-March. Experts from the Zoological Gardens in Regent's Park and from the British Museum were silent, but others offered theories that postulated everything from an escaped kangaroo to birds, rats, cats, foxes, and other creatures. No kangaroo was on the loose, but the naturalist Sir Richard Owen (1855) claimed the solution to the mystery was a badger, based on his interpretation of published drawings and descriptions of some of the tracks. But like those of others, Owen's solution failed to account for all of the reported factors. As one writer noted, a badger could not have "jumped a fourteen-foot wall or squeezed through a six-inch drain pipe, let alone have left clear marks on the sill of a second-storey window!" (Brown 1982)

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So what is the solution? It begins with the acknowledgment that "no one explanation will cover all the reported factors" (Brown 1982). But that statement is meant to imply some further, unknown source-perhaps, as many of the mid-nineteenth-century rural South Devon folk thought, the Devil himself. Suppose, however, we postulate that the various reports are manifestations of what psychologists call contagion- a term I like to define by an example: in 1978, in Holland, a media alert regarding a small panda that had escaped from a zoo in Rotterdam resulted in some one hundred panda sightings made all over the country; yet as it turned out, the panda had been killed by a train a few yards from the zoo and obviously no one had seen the rare animal (Van Kampen 1979). How do we explain the many sightings? The answer is contagionan idea or concept that is spread by suggestion, somewhat analogous to a contagious disease. In other words, people's anticipations can lead them to misinterpret what they have actually seen. One person perceives out of the corner of his or her eye a dark shape crossing a yard; thus, a dog becomes a "panda." Someone driving in the countryside sees a rustling in some bushes, and so what is actually a native wild animal triggers another "panda" sighting. Soon, hoaxers will get in on the act and phone in bogus reports. Not surprisingly, contagion is easily recognizable in many paranormal events such as certain UFO and monster "flaps" (Nickell 1995 ).

Just as there were many sightings attributed to a single panda on the loose in the case in Holland, many factors must surely have been involved during that brief period of near hysteria in February of 1855 in South Devon. In fact, although Furneaux (1977) continued to treat the case as a mystery, he briefly suggested the basic explanation of the case:

“On 8 February there had been a slight thaw; more snow fell that night and a freezing wind got up at dawn, enlarging and distorting, perhaps, the prints of hundreds of badgers, otters, rats and cats.

“The prints were discovered over a wide area and they were observed by hundreds of people. No one observer tracked them all. Everyone needed to rely on the reports of others. The stories told agreed as to size and shape, because everyone tried to fit his or her observations into the general pattern."

On this last point, however, Furneaux is partially in error. Many of the early descriptions were clearly contradictory, thus helping establish that there were indeed multiple creatures involved. Some drawings showed hoofmarks that were "plainly made by a pony-shoe" (Brown 1982), while others described tracks that were "cloven." Some reported "claws" and "toes" in the tracks (Brown 1982; Furneaux 1977).

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By no means did all correspondents report tracks of exactly the same size and spacing. For example, the account published in The Times (London) of February 16, 1855, stated that the tracks varied from 1 liz to 21 h inches in width, and while their spacing was "generally" eight inches (Gould 1928, 1964), other sources represented the stride as up to twice that distance (Dash 1994). Nor were the tracks in a straight, unbroken line, as shown by various sources, including a dossier kept in a parish church by the Reverend H.T. Ellacombe, who had been vicar in 1855. Says Brown (1982): "He made careful drawings of the tracks and had found that the marks were not continuous, but appeared sporadically, e.g. suddenly in the middle of a field, with a flurry surrounding them, as though made by a large ice-laden bird struggling to take off. It was noticed in the estuary that many of the birds seeking water were liable to become frozen into the water, as has happened in some more recent frosts this century. So birds with ice on their feet seem part of the solution, but not all." Moreover, Gould dismissed as "in the last degree unlikely" that anyone person had followed the tracks continuously for the alleged one hundred or more miles.

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As for Colby's (1971) claim that "the tracks never swerved:' that is simply not true. First of all, there is The Times report: "The creature seems to have approached the doors of several houses and then to have retreated:' Indeed, Dash (1994) correctly notes: "Contemporaries reported meandering lines of prints crisscrossing gardens and churchyards," and a map of the area shows the large-scale zigzagging that is necessary to connect all the villages where the tracks were reported (Gould 1928, 1964).

The notion of the unswerving line seems to have originated from accounts that mention the tracks appearing in a straight line, with one print directly in front of the next. And various animals, such as the donkey, fox, and cat, for example, can leave trails that resemble a single line of imprints. As well, rabbits, hares, rats, and squirrels can leave hopping tracks that not only appear in a straight line, but with their four feet held together, "can form a pattern similar to a hoofmark" (Dash 1994). In any case, one newspaper reported that the tracks were "alternate of each other like the steps of a man and would be included between two parallel lines six inches apart" (Knight 1950).

Animal tracks in the snow.
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  • Photo Credit: Jonathan Kemper / Unsplash

I believe we can rule out hoaxed tracks like those Brown (1982) mentions at Woodbury, which he says "were obviously manufactured by practical jokers with a hot shoe, since they were said at the time to look like this, the shoe pressed cleanly down to the ground as if made by a hot iron." Surely an iron would not have remained hot for the production of many tracks, thus making the supposed method impractical; and the description seems consistent only with the effect of melting and refreezing that took place. However, there is ample evidence, in addition to the variety of track descriptions, that multiple creatures were involved. A number of cats, for instance, were responsible for many of the tracks in one village, as was explained in 1923 by a woman who had been a young girl there in 1855. As Furneaux (1977) relates:

“She recalled that the footprints were all over the town of Dawlish where her father was Vicar. He and his curates, she said, carefully examined the tracks which ran from the Vicarage to the vestry door, and came to the conclusion that they had been made by the paw-marks of many cats which had been partly washed away by the slight thaw, and expanded into the shape resembling hoofmarks by the early-morning frost. An explanation which, she says, was vehemently rejected by the townspeople who preferred to think they had been visited by the Devil himself. A widespread conviction which the Vicar of Lympstone, the Rev. Musgrave, also found himself unable to dislodge.”

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In the village of Torquay, a man followed a line of tracks leading from his garden to a tree stump, beneath which he discovered the putative track-maker: a large toad! Gordon Stein (1985) has made a very good case for Devonshire foxes making many of the tracks, although he conceded they would have had difficulty scaling fourteen-foot walls or walking on roofs. He suggests that swans might be responsible in the latter instances, except that their footprints do not match those reported. But can we not expect that tracks on roofs, and no doubt in many other outof- the way locations, were seen at a distance, which would have left their exact appearance to the imagination?-a collective imagination it would seem.

Clearly, as most writers on the topic agree, no one creature-not even a paranormal one-left all the reported "Devil's Footprints!' As Stein (1985) points out, "When no explanation will exactly fit, either we need an additional explanation, or else some of the ‘facts' may need to be discarded as weak." I suggest that we need both: we have seen that many of the alleged facts are indeed weak, and only the concept of contagion seems capable of explaining the overall case.

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Featured image from "The X-Files" via Fox.