Sometimes, people disappear. There is something uniquely terrifying and captivating about the prospect of vanishing, or having someone you care about vanish. Even when there is a likely answer, the lack of absolute certainty regarding the fate of the missing can produce mysteries that puzzle us for decades or even centuries. From the Roanoke colonists, to the passengers of the Mary Celeste, to the works of Ambrose Bierce, and Joan Lindsay’s classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, our fascination with and fear of unexplained disappearances can be strong enough to encourage the confusion of fact with fiction.
“Kidnapping of Carlina White.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Apr. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kidnapping_of_Carlina_White.
“Kidnapping of Kamiyah Mobley.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Apr. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kidnapping_of_Kamiyah_Mobley.
Finding MH370: New Breakthrough Could … – Youtube.com. 60 Minutes Australia, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jq-d4Kl8Xh4.
The opening theme for Healthy Fears: “Dark Game Background Loop” by Claudiu D. Moga, licensed through Envato.
The closing theme for Healthy Fears: “Hitchcock Thriller” by JBlanks, licensed through Envato.
Other music for this episode: “Down the Mines” by Tenacious Orchestra. licensed through Shutterstock.
“You are never seen again.”
Out of all the memorably macabre, murderous and menacing bad endings to be found in Choose Your Own Adventure Books, no others affected me quite as much as those that ended with some variation of you are never seen or heard from again.
The first time I read those words, specifically “You are never heard from again,” was when I made a bad decision while reading Space and Beyond. Within the first few pages, you as reader and protagonist are faced with a choice that’s a result of an earlier decision you can make to forego training and just rush off into outer space. Now you’re caught in the gravitational pull of a black hole, and can either try to put up repulsion shields, or give your ship full power. Neither move will help you escape, but the former at least makes your venture into the sci-fi black hole survivable. The latter, which I picked, takes you to a page that shows your vessel flying into darkness, accompanied only by the sentence saying you’re never heard from again, followed by the words “The End,” which at that point are a bit redundant.
This kind of ending is also waiting for you to make a wrong turn in the books Escape!, Ghost Train, and Grand Canyon Odyssey, as well as a few Choose Your Own Adventure clones, like Prison Escape from the short-lived series, You Choose if You Live or Die.
There is something about the idea of someone never learning your fate that can be particularly haunting to many of us. Death, of course, can be frightening as well, and in many cases of famous disappearances, real or fictional, death seems the likely outcome. After enough time passes, one way or another, it’s the inevitable, eventual outcome. Nonetheless, in the intervening years and even after the disappeared person must be long dead, the mystery of where they vanished to, what exactly happened to them, how long they may have lived after going missing, and more, can dominate our curiosity and imagination. For those more directly connected to the missing party, it can be much worse. It can prove torturous.
A major part of what makes a disappearance so sinister–contrasted with a known murder or even death as result of accident or misadventure–is the possibility, however remote or faint, that the disappeared may someday return. The lingering, scant hope that family and friends are left with. Unexpectedly, in relatively recent years, the potential damage of general, longshot hope has been showcased in a couple of blockbuster superhero films. First, in The Dark Knight Rises, where a brutal, subterranean prison is outfitted with a treacherous, long climb to an above-ground exit specifically to give the prisoners just enough hope for their dreams of freedom to be crushed on a more regular basis. A few years later, in what is presently the biggest film of all time–not adjusted for inflation–Avengers: Endgame, a broken-hearted hero who has lost his family famously tells another character, “Don’t give me hope,” when presented with an unlikely but still possible opportunity to bring his family back into existence. Death is regularly painful, but it can also provide finality. Hope can keep a door ajar that can allow a different, constant, needling pain to seep in, that might even disguise itself as something other than what it is. Determination that’s really obsession. Optimism that’s really desperation and naivete. In some cases, arguably, it’s a worse kind of pain, because like fear, pain has a practical function. It’s there to let us know we are in danger of injury, or have already been injured, and to warn us to stop what what’s causing the pain if it’s within our power to do so. Or to otherwise take action to address the pain as much as we can, again, if it’s within our power. If you don’t recognize the pain for what it is, it’s possible to just injure yourself more, in increasingly irreparable ways.
What makes this even possible is the fact that people who have gone missing have come back, sometimes years or even decades after most reasonable people would have considered it likely. It’s quite rare, but there is precedent for such a thing.
In 1987, a newborn baby was abducted from a hospital in Harlem, leaving the child’s parents, Joy White and Carl Tyson, understandably grief-stricken and heartbroken. Years later, a young lady being raised as “Nejdra Nance” was growing suspicious of the woman claiming to be her mother. This woman could not provide Nejdra with critical identity documents she needed as she got older, such as her birth certificate. Nejdra had also noticed that she and her alleged mother didn’t much resemble one another. After doing some investigating of her own online, “Nejdra” discovered that she was actually Carlina Renae White, daughter of Joy and Carl. Improbable though it must have seemed, 23 years after her abduction, not only had their daughter returned, she had effectively solved the case of her own disappearance.
Even in this circumstance, however, the reunion didn’t result in a completely clean and happy ending. All of the injured parties in such a situation–the parents of the missing, and of course the abductee–have to navigate the damage done by the disappearance. In the case of Carlina White, without diving into a victimized family’s turmoil, these difficulties appear to have been resolved, eventually. The extremely similar case of the kidnapped Kamiyah Mobley, still sees the victims–biological mother and daughter–dealing with the fallout of her disappearance, and all that transpired in the intervening years.
The unique capacity for cruelty in a forced disappearance–along with the option of deniability it proffers, no matter how implausible–might account, in part, for why it has been weaponized by various nefarious governments in the modern era. The act of abducting opponents and imprisoning or even killing them in secret has a much longer history than the term “forced disappearance,” and was no less vile then than now, but from roughly the early 20th Century onward, with advances in communication and global reach, the idea of just completely losing contact forever with a relative or loved one has become more abnormal. While I can’t imagine it was ever desirable, once upon a distant time it wasn’t exactly uncommon to lose contact entirely with someone you were once close to, and have no real way of ever finding them or finding out what happened to them if they went off to war, or set sail across the sea, or even just moved away to another town that didn’t have to be all that far away. Nowadays it would be more surprising for the average person if you couldn’t track down somebody you haven’t seen since grade school, as long as you have their full name and a general location.
Our incredulity and grim fascination with someone or something going completely missing is exemplified by the international obsession that was–and still is–the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. The tragic incident in 2014 has, over time, overshadowed another horrific, even deadlier aviation incident that happened in the same year–just a few months later–to the same airline. The second plane, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, was shot down in an international incident related to the conflict between Ukraine and Russia that, obviously, has only escalated as of the time of this writing. Now, obviously, this isn’t some kind of grim and hideous contest in which we’re just weighing numbers of lives lost and nations involved to determine which tragedy deserves more attention. I don’t find it disrespectful, however, to point out that the mystery aspect of flight 370’s disappearance is what has kept it closer to the forefront of the public consciousness. YouTube videos from this year about possible breakthroughs in the investigation, or new theories about what happened to the flight, or even just recaps of what was already established several years ago, still receive millions of views.
The lack of answers can produce a lack of finality even long after we can be sure that things have been finalized for the unfortunate missing person or persons. No one thinks Amelia Earhart is still alive out there somewhere, and it’s very easy to surmise that her plane crashed and sank somewhere along her route in the vast Pacific, but that doesn’t stop people from wondering and searching for where she ended up.
Indeed, with regard to our oceans and seas, neither the Graveyard of the Pacific nor the Graveyard of the Atlantic–hazardous areas where vessels are known to sink–are nearly as famous as the Bermuda Triangle, an area where vessels are more so reputed to “disappear.” Shipwrecks and other perfectly explainable and tragic maritime disasters certainly garner considerable interest–I, like many, happen to be a bit captivated by the subject–but accounts of ships, planes, or even just passengers vanishing “without a trace” tend to survive in the public consciousness in a different and often more lasting way, especially–with due respect to the disappeared–when accounting for how notable the incident would be if the ship merely sunk and its resting place was found.
Possibly the most famous example of this is the story of the Mary Celeste, a “ghost ship,” in the sense of a vessel found afloat with none of its passengers or crew aboard. Not all such ghost ships have a mystery surrounding them. The SS Baychimo, for example, was somewhat inadvertently abandoned in pack ice near Alaska in 1931, by a crew that was later discovered and able to explain the circumstances that led to the ship’s abandonment. The ship would then go on to patrol the area, unmanned, for almost forty years, perhaps longer, though its last official sighting came in 1969. Despite its uncanny perseverance on the seas, Baychimo isn’t nearly as well-known as the Mary Celeste.
The Mary Celeste was found abandoned in December of 1872. The 150th anniversary of its discovery is coming later in the year, and the mystery of what happened to the ten people who had been aboard has endured for all that time. We’re talking about a small vessel with, again, due respect to the dead, a comparatively small number of casualties by the standards of maritime disasters capable of spawning a century and a half of interest and lore. And amidst more preternatural suppositions that have been put forth over the years are a number of fairly straightforward–if still very dramatic–explanations for why its captain, along with his wife and daughter and every crewman, apparently and abruptly boarded the missing lifeboat to leave the still seaworthy and considerably safer Mary Celeste. Mutiny, piracy, or panicked and premature evacuation of the ship due to a perceived threat–an explosion or the threat of one due to the flammable cargo, for instance–are all far more direct and easily digestible explanations than, say, an alien abduction, one of the favored fringe theories regarding the fate of those aboard. Nonetheless, even without the extraterrestrial or supernatural hypotheses, the lack of a definitive answer has driven speculation, examination and theorizing to this day.
To be clear, the popularity of the Mary Celeste mystery did receive a boost from one of the most popular writers to ever live. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s inspired work of fiction set aboard a very similarly ill-fated vessel called the Marie (M-A-R-I-E) Celeste eventually proved so influential that the details of his short story–including the spelling of the ship’s name–became confused with fact. I can recall, from my younger years, almost every book or article I read that referenced the boat called it the Marie Celeste as opposed to the accurate Mary Celeste. Doyle is not the only famous author whose fictional account of a disappearance has been mistaken for something authentic. Not only that, but these short stories written by one of Doyle’s contemporaries–Ambrose Bierce–are far stranger, harder to believe, and thus more evidently make-believe. That hasn’t stopped characters from these stories from appearing on lists of “People who mysteriously disappeared” that you can presently find online, with no mention of the fact that these people and their inexplicable fates were entirely the invention of a prolific, famous author.
Perhaps the more famous of the three stories–with regard to how often it’s been mistakenly cited as legitimate–is “An Unfinished Race.” The brevity and directness of the story possibly accounts for why people think it’s real. It barely reads like a traditional prose piece, and feels a bit like a succinct newspaper article of the era, with its specific dates, complete lack of dialogue, and peculiar details that lend to its verisimilitude. It tells of an Englishman named James Burne Worson. One day in September of 1873, James made a drunken bet that he could run forty miles, from his home in Leamington to Coventry and back. During his run, he was followed by three men, one man whose name was “not remembered” by the author, and the other two being a Barham Wise and Hamerson Burns. Sober and upstanding witnesses to the uncanny event that would soon occur. Several miles into the run, James Worson fell in the middle of the road, directly in front of the three men following him in a wagon. As he fell, he “uttered a terrible cry,” which stands out as an odd and chilling detail. It’s not uncommon for someone exclaim something or another as they trip and fall. But a “terrible cry”? It insinuates something far worse than a simple fall in the street, and some part of James must have realized this, prompting his horrible scream.
James never hit the ground. He vanished in plain sight before completing his fall, and although his companions spent considerable time searching for any trace of him, he was never seen or heard from again.
Variations on this story have appeared over time, as it’s retold as though it’s an actual event. The same is true of Bierce’s earlier, longer story, “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field,” which is the first of the trilogy that I personally encountered when I was still in grade school. It tells a very similar story, this time of a man just named Mr. Williamson, who vanishes in sight of multiple witnesses, in Williamson’s case while he’s walking across a field. In some variations I’ve read of this one, sometimes Williamson is much younger–an adolescent as opposed to the family patriarch–and his voice alone lingers in the air for a time. In these respects, these variations seem to be merging “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” with Bierce’s final story of a disappearance, “Charles Ashmore’s Trail.”
This one deviates from the other two in that there are no witnesses to the disappearance of Charles Ashmore. In the story, the young Charles went out by himself on the evening of November 9th, 1878, to gather water from the nearby spring. All that he left behind for his father and sister to find were his footprints in the snow, which stopped as though he was snatched out of existence mid-stride. Days later, his mother would hear his disembodied voice while she was getting water from the spring. Charles Ashmore’s voice would be heard from time to time by others who came to the spot where he disappeared, though no one could ever identify what he was saying. So it could be said that he was at least heard from again, for a time, but he never reappeared.
At the end of this, Bierce adds a pseudoscientific coda, in which a fictional Dr. Hern posits that there are effectively “holes” of absolute nothing in what we know to be reality that someone can occasionally fall into if they’re at the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time. A small void of unreality where someone: “…could neither see nor be seen; neither feel nor be felt; neither live nor die.”
Those familiar with Ambrose Bierce likely know that he–in real life–would someday disappear, his ultimate fate presumable, but uncertain. In October 1913 Bierce traveled to Mexico to observe the Mexican Revolution. He was permitted to follow Pancho Villa, and in a December letter to his friend, journalist Blanche Partington, he wrote, “I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” After that, as far as the historical record is concerned, he was never seen or heard from again.
In an earlier letter Bierce stated that one of the potential violent fates he might have met while witnessing the Revolution–being executed by a firing squad–would be preferable to dying of “old age, disease, or falling down the stairs.” Of course, any of those things might actually be what happened to him in Mexico, as opposed to being shot. We have no idea how he would have felt about his fate remaining unknown, his name appearing on lists of people who disappeared, like New York heiress Dorothy Arnold, or the three keepers of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse, or the lost colonists of Roanoke Island. Or even someone like famous explorer Henry Hudson, whose fate is almost a certainty–as he was marooned by mutinous members of his crew in the eventual Hudson Bay–but is still officially listed as a disappearance.
Decades after Doyle and Bierce, another author to crafted a famous story of a disappearance that has been mistaken as factual. In 1967, an Australian author, Joan Lindsay, wrote a novel that would become a captivating classic, brought to an even wider audience by a worthy 1975 film adaptation. Beyond the memorable writing on the page, and the mesmerizing production on the screen, what has given the story lasting appeal is that no one knows exactly what happened to the girls who went missing in Picnic at Hanging Rock.
“‘Come back, all of you! Don’t go up there – come back!’ She felt herself choking and tore at her frilled lace collar. ‘Miranda!’ The strangled cry came out as a whisper. To her horror all three girls were fast moving out of sight behind the monolith. ‘Miranda! Come back!’ She took a few unsteady steps towards the rise and saw the last of a white sleeve parting the bushes ahead.”
The young lady witnessing her friends disappear before her in the wilderness is Edith, a talkative student of a boarding school called Appleyard College. She along with three of her peers, Irma, Marion, and Miranda, are part of a group of 20 girls visiting the large volcanic uprising, Hanging Rock. The four of them, however, are the only students to investigate Hanging Rock’s monolith.
In the presence of the monolith, the girls immediately fall into such a deep sleep that they don’t notice when lizards and beetles crawl over them, and, conversely, these creatures aren’t afraid to get so close and comfortable with people it might otherwise be safer to avoid. In contrast, much later in the book, another character comes to the same spot and sees a spider. Before she can kill it, she’s driven over the literal edge of the rock by the sight–or hallucination–of a ghost with a rotted face. The spider never comes near her, and instead flees for safety as the woman falls to her death.
Back to our original group; when they awaken, Edith is the only one not under the influence of whatever spell the Hanging Rock monolith has seemingly cast. As previously referenced, her cries for them all to come back–and then specifically for Miranda, the most loved and loving student, and de facto leader–are ignored. She runs, screaming and hysterical, back for the remaining students and teachers out on their picnic.
The eccentric math teacher, Greta McCraw, who trailed the girls up to the monolith, has also disappeared. She, Miranda and Marion never return. Irma is found later, having no memory of what happened and no clue of where she went, and where the others might be. All she offers, by her presence alone, is that desperate, dangerous hope that the others who are missing might also reappear one day. But that is not to be.
As much as the disappearance itself devastates everyone associated with the school, the local area, and eventually even becomes the concern of the nation, it is the talk of, belief in, and conjecture about the worst possible outcomes that mentally terrorizes those closest to the situation. The impact of the disappeared on those left behind proves more than psychological, as well.
The one student who did not attend the picnic was Sara, who was kept at the school due to her refusal to recite a poem, initially stated in text as “The Wreck of the Hesperus” but later suggested through conversation to be the poem “Casabianca.” Either way, it’s a narrative poem about a child who dies violently and needlessly on a boat, in part because their recently deceased father’s plans went awry, and to Sara, an orphan who is even more attached to Miranda than anyone else at the school, these classic poems are “silly” and don’t make sense. There’s considerable density in the novel related to this, among many other things, too much to explore here, but for this episode I think it’s worth highlighting how thoroughly unequipped Sara is to deal with the senseless death of her only friend. This is reflected in her clear disdain for whichever of these poems she was supposed to read. The mental toll of Miranda’s mysterious and needless disappearance gradually becomes a physical toll, as she grows sickly and weak and will not eat. This is all compounded by her hopeless rivalry with the school’s headmistress and eponym, Mrs. Appleyard.
Appleyard is the character, aforementioned, who has a vision of the very recently deceased Sara’s face just before running off the precipice of Hanging Rock. By the time she climbs the rock, the school she founded is foundering. Parents have pulled most of the kids from the school, which isn’t unexpected in the aftermath of the school having effectively lost two of its charges plus a teacher on what should have been a routine outing. The headmistress’s mental state erodes in the wake of the disappearances, and in absence of being able to control anything else, she fixates on trying to control Sara, which only worsens the girl’s previously stated condition. And these two might not be the only indirect fatalities potentially linked to the vanishing at Hanging Rock.
One of the teachers who incurs the wrath of Mrs. Appleyard by daring to want to leave the school in the aftermath of the vanishings, soon dies in a hotel fire, along with her brother who came to retrieve her. A newspaper article in the book’s last chapter tells us that Edith dies before she could have turned 30, although how she died is left off the page. Irma survives, but has changed her name. Though she hasn’t completely run away from her past, she has in some way taken on a new identity. A minor transformation, but maybe enough to spare her, if indeed there is a bizarre curse afflicting certain people involved with the school, and the disappearances.
There is a bit of an answer to what happened in Picnic at Hanging Rock. Joan Lindsay originally wrote a final chapter that alluded to the metaphysical elements that stole the girls away from our world as we know it. She and her editor decided, wisely, to drop this chapter and let the story be as mysterious as possible. It greatly enhances the uneasiness and eeriness of the story, and better captures what can be so frightening about the prospect of disappearing.
It’s not just about what happens to you–which is scary enough–but what happens to the people you care about and are connected to. How long are they left to wonder what exactly happened to you? Whether you’re alive or dead? How long do they search for you? Knowing your fate might not provide “closure,” per se, but it might help someone focus on finding whatever solace they can–help them healthily transition to a different stage of grieving–by eliminating questions.
Reality is what it is, regardless of whether we’re in position to perceive it. Sound exists even if no one is there to hear it: that tree falling in the forest is not falling silently. Light exists even if nothing is there to see it. As I write this, looking out my office window, there are clouds covering the sky. But the sun shines elsewhere upon the Earth, regardless of whether I can see it for myself, while the night has fallen over much of the rest. Again, I can’t see any of this from my extremely limited individual vantage point, but it is reality nonetheless. I say this because a missing person’s fate is factual regardless of whether the people looking for them are ever in position to observe it. If the missing has sadly died without anyone else seeing it, then any hope that they have survived is false, even if those clinging to that hope may never know this. Optimism and belief are not inherently bad things, but when misplaced they can impede healthier progression, and block someone from seeking a different, more productive path. It can also make someone more susceptible to predacious people, as discussed in the previous episode in the cases of Roger Tichborne and Nicholas Barclay. In both cases, in absence of a body and definitive proof of the fate of a lost son, desperately hopeful mothers were exploited by heartless conmen. This is the trap that a disappearance can spring, and why, even though the truth might be immensely painful, many of us, if faced with such a terrible situation, would rather know than to remain unsure. Or, if we’re the ones to be disappeared, would rather our loved ones have answers than to remain in doubt.
Picnic at Hanging Rock closes by likening the disappearance of the girls to that of the passengers of the Mary Celeste–which it refers to by its fictional name, Marie Celeste–and informs the reader that both incidents of vanishings are destined to remain forever unsolved.