Why Strange New Mexico

Perhaps the most distrusted name in news today, the Weekly World Newsis a black-and-white supermarket tabloid featuring entertaining and untrue stories, with headlines that vary from the impossible to the deranged. 

“10,000 Babies Smuggled into U.S. Inside Watermelons!” read one headline. 

“Now They’ve Invented a Shoe Horn for Pants!” read another. 

“Satan’s Skull Found in New Mexico!” read the front page of the August 17, 1993 issue. “Bible Experts Call it the Find of the Century!” 

The story that week claimed that Dr. Ervin Veres, a Hungarian archaeologist, had discovered a horned skull in the foothills of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just northeast of Santa Fe. The skull pictured on the paper’s cover was unique in that it had two distinct horns protruding from both sides of its upper forehead, all its teeth held in place by what appeared to be petrified gums, and a solid bone goatee jutting from its chin. 

“Aside from the odd revelation that Satan’s goatee is not a cluster of hair, but rather an actual bony extrusion of his lower jaw, the interesting thing about this headline is the idea that, if his skull has been dug up, then Satan must be dead!” read Brother-Sister, a satirical blog. 

According to the Weekly World News, After Veres and his six assistants found the unusual skull, Veres drew the natural conclusion that probably any thinking person would have: that in the same way that many Christian denominations believe that God once became a man and came to Earth as Jesus Christ, Satan obviously did the same sort of thing around the same time, over 2,000 years ago, before dying, and leaving his skull. 

As strange as it may seem, humans do sometimes grow horns. In June of 2004, World Journal of Surgical Oncology reported that “Cutaneous horns (cornu cutaneum) are uncommon lesions consisting of keratotic material resembling that of an animal horn.” These horns often occur in people with a history of skin cancer, usually cover cancerous areas, and are made of compacted keratin, the same stuff that forms fingernails. 

Mysteries of the Unexplainedby Reader’s Digest, alleged that a group of seven-foot-tall horned skeletons was found in a burial mound in Sayre, Pennsylvania sometime in the 1880s and subsequently dated to A.D. 1200. Medical records still exist for a horned Welsh woman who was exhibited for money in 1588. George Gordon Byron, the nineteenth century English poet more commonly known as Lord Byron, was alleged by the January 7, 1870 issue of The Michigan Argus to have been born with a miniscule tail, no toes, and a pair of small horns which he hid in his curly hair. And Robert Ripley, of “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” owned a 1930 photo of “Wang,” a Chinese farmer with a fourteen-inch-long horn rising from the back of his head. 

The idea of a Satanic presence in New Mexico isn’t unheard of either. For as long as people have been around New Mexico, so have tales of supernatural evil — from stories of demonically corrupted Navajo medicine men, to early-Spanish accusations of witchcraft against New Mexico’s Pueblo Indians, to more modern rumors of sadistic teenagers sacrificing dogs and cats along the road once known as Route 666, between Gallup and Farmington. 

These facts and notions aside, research suggests that everything and everyone in the entire Weekly World News article is little more than the goofy invention of a tired writer, and since that paper reported on September 14, 1993 that the skull had been mysteriously stolen, there’s no way for its writers to provide physical proof. 

Still, there’s something significant about its author’s decision to have the skull discovered here, in New Mexico. What is it about the Land of Enchantment that seems to suggest itself so readily as the most plausible setting for every wild story from Brave New World to The Man Who Fell to Earth? Wyoming has fewer people. Alaska has more unsettled space. Arizona has similar terrain. And yet, the Weekly World News picked us. Why? 

“Why New Mexico?” said William deBuys, a New Mexico writer and conservationist. “Why not? It’s less well known than Philadelphia and has more room for hiding things.” 

Durwood Ball, head editor of the New Mexico Historical Review brought up that, “[In New Mexico] you have places like Chaco Canyon that are amazing archeological wonders, but at the same time they’re also powerfully sacred to people. …Then you have places like the Quarai ruins which have histories filled with violence, but which also just drip Spanish Catholic religiosity.” 

Stephen Ausherman, a New Mexico-based novelist and travel writer, partially credits the state’s reputation for strange occurrences. “New Mexico and weirdness are synonymous in the American psyche,” he said. “I think it started with Trinity or Roswell, and then snowballed from there. …In all likelihood, our state has been featured more often on ‘The X-Files’ than [on] CNN, MTV and ESPN combined. The paranormal is the meat of our pop culture. We are the Land of Enchantment which suggests a state spellbound in ancient ritual. We have Carlsbad Caverns, which resemble the classic underworld a la Dante. We have dinosaur bones turning up in strange deserts populated with hoodoos and rattlesnakes. And we have a strong Catholic demographic. Where else would you expect to find Satan’s skull?” 

Bob Julyan — chairman of the state’s Geographic Names Committee, as well the author of The Place Names of New Mexico — theorized that the state’s mystique stems first from its landscape, and second from the romantic notions it evokes. “Why does New Mexico attract all the weirdness that it does?” he asked . “…[It’s] the landscape. The configuration of the land here is stark, dramatic, sometimes surreal, suggesting mysteries and hidden secrets. And right from the first European presence here, which began with a failed treasure hunt (Coronado), the state has attracted people with a romantic turn of mind, whether treasure-seeking conquistadors, prospectors grubbing for a fabulous mother lode, archeologists looking for ancient ruins, or New Agers and visionaries seeking non-traditional revelations. All of these — the landscape, the dramatic history, the archeology, the people of romantic imagination — intertwine to create a state in which it just seems natural to find Satan’s skull here.  …I personally think New Mexico’s weirdness quotient is one of its greatest resources.” 

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