By Joseph Laycock
Last month, Jose Maldonado of Guadalajara Mexico claimed he found and captured a fairy. The 22 year-old unemployed bricklayer was picking guavas when he spied a twinkling object that he at first thought was a firefly. The object allegedly turned out to be a tiny humanoid creature (apparently female) with gossamer insect like wings. Maldonado explained, “I knew that it was a fairy godmother.” The creature died not long after its discovery (disturbingly, it is not clear how the fairy died after it was captured) and its discoverer put it in a jar of formaldehyde. Word of Maldonado’s fairy in a jar spread throughout his neighborhood of Lornas Verdes, one of the poorest and most dangerous regions of Guadalajara. Soon, thousands of people were arriving, standing in line for up to an hour to see the fairy. Being unemployed, Maldonado asks for a donation to see his discovery. His neighbors have also capitalized on the situation by selling photographs and key rings with the image of the fairy for 20 pesos ($1.60) as well as food and beverages to those waiting in line.
Skeptics are quick to point out that the creature in Maldonado’s jar looks remarkably like a plastic toy that can be purchased in shops throughout Mexico. It resembles a super-hero more than a fairy, wearing a red and yellow costume with thigh-high boots and gloves. Its right arm is extended in a commanding pose. It seems difficult to imagine that anyone would mistake this object for organic matter, let alone a fairy. However, some visitors were quite convinced of the fairy’s authenticity, even weeping for news cameras as they emerged from Maldonado’s home.
In March 2006, a similar case occurred near Mobile, Alabama, where residents reported seeing a leprechaun in a tree. The leprechaun appeared in Crichton, a predominately black neighborhood. Soon the Internet was abuzz with clips of Crichton residents making remarks such as “Where da gold at?” and “Could be a crack head that got hold to the wrong stuff and it told him to get up in the tree and play a leprechaun!” These portrayals of African-Americans led conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly to remark that news coverage of the Crichton leprechaun was racist. The strangest figure to emerge from the leprechaun flap was a man interviewed wearing a camouflage t-shirt under what appeared to be a bulletproof vest. He explained that his armor could ward off spells. He also brandished “a special leprechaun flute” that had allegedly been in his family for thousands of years. (The flute looked suspiciously like a section of sprinkler pipe). This leprechaun warrior had apparently come to Cricthon “just to help out.”
One of the most interesting things about these incidents is that ethnic communities––Mexican Latinos and African Americans––claimed to see supernatural creatures from the folklore of the British Isles. This appears to be a testament to the power of mass culture. Maldonado most likely learned the concept of a “fairy godmother” from Cinderella—an ancient folktale that has been thoroughly appropriated by Disney studios. In this sense, Maldonado’s fairy represents what sociologist Alan Byrman calls “Disneyization,” a process in which a corporate behemoth effectively “colonizes” the imagination and “emotional labor” of America and the world. Similarly, the residents of Crichton are probably familiar with leprechaun lore through the endless array of faux Irish products and ads that our consumer culture rolls out every March for Saint Patrick’s Day. And at least a few Crichton residents were likely familiar with the horror film “Leprechaun in the Hood” (2000), in which one of the little people seeks vengeance on Ice T, who has stolen his magic flute and used it to become a gangsta rap star. (After watching this film, the man in Crichton with his bulletproof vest and leprechaun flute is suddenly put into context).
But fairy panics are not just for poor communities or the culturally colonized. The first such incident of the twentieth century occurred in Cottingley, England, in 1917, when 17 year-old Elsie Wright and her cousin, Frances Griffiths, produced a series of photographs of themselves surrounded by dancing fairies. Much like the Maldonado fairy, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could have believed these pictures to be authentic. In the previous century, “spirit photography” had amazed the world by using double exposures to produce translucent images of ghosts. Wright and Griffiths, however, did not bother to doctor the film—they simply drew faeries onto cardboard cutouts and posed next to them. Nevertheless, a number of Spiritualist and Theosophical groups endorsed the photos. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became the greatest advocate of the Cottingley fairies and continued to argue for the authenticity of the images for the rest of his life. In his book The Coming of the Fairies (1922), he suggests that the world may soon come out of its secular worldview as scientific evidence emerges for the existence of fairies and other supernatural beings. He writes:
It is hard for the mind to grasp what the ultimate results may be if we have actually proved the existence upon the surface of this planet of a population which may be as numerous as the human race, which pursues its own strange life in its own strange way, and which is only separated from ourselves by some difference of vibrations.
It has been nearly a century since Max Weber declared that the world has become “disenchanted.” How then can we account for the continued fairy panics?
It would be a mistake to assume that the crowds forming to see a dead fairy godmother or to catch a glimpse of a leprechaun firmly believe in supernatural beings. For most, this is a form of entertainment. Media scholar Annette Hill suggests that “paranormal media” such as ghost-hunting shows invite audiences to go through a “revolving door of skepticism and belief.” In evaluating claims of the supernatural, we are actually engaging in a process of self-discovery by defining ourselves on a continuum from skeptic to believers. Hill also suggests that we enjoy putting our assumptions about reality to the test. Paying to see a fairy in a jar is not unlike purchasing a lottery ticket: the consumer gets to experience the brief possibility––inspecting the fairy or scratching the ticket––that his or her life could change dramatically. Doyle had already begun to contemplate a world where fairies are a scientific fact, much as someone scratching a lottery ticket already has a plan for how they will spend the jackpot.
The fairy panics in Guadalajara and Crichton are also collective events with social significance. The social upheaval they bring about resembles anthropologist Victor Turner’s notion of a “liminal situation” in which the structure and roles of ordinary society are suspended and anything becomes possible. This explains why fairies appear to poor communities that have been neglected by the larger society. The question, “Where da gold at?,” now the name of a website that capitalized on the Crichton leprechaun, expresses the wish of a poor community for a reversal of status. To some extent the fairy magic works and the situations that arise during a fairy panic lead to actual Cinderella-like transformations: an unemployed bricklayer becomes a celebrity and a man with a sprinkler pipe becomes a magical leprechaun warrior. Doyle too, hoped for such a transformation. To him, the Cottingley fairies offered the hope of an epistemological reversal wherein the dominant worldview of scientific-rationalism would yield to a Romantic world inhabited by fairies.
The lesson of the fairies seems to be that many of the realities we take for granted are in fact vulnerable to sudden and dramatic change. Today, the forces of scientific-rationalism and a global marketplace appear to be unassailable facts of reality. But these structures can be disrupted with a few cardboard props or a rubber toy in a jar. Turner argued that liminal situations are inherently unstable and so far every fairy panic has died down. Inevitably, the crowds disperse and people return to work. However, it is also from these moments of collective effervescence that more permanent social changes arise. The Tennis Court Oath that cemented the French Revolution and the gathering at Tahrir Square last January both began as liminal situations. While a fairy panic is far cry from a revolution, it provides a glimpse of an alternative order––one that could potentially become a reality. Even in the most stable of social orders, “the coming of the fairies” remains an inherent possibility.
Joseph Laycock holds an MTS from Harvard Divinity School and is currently a doctoral candidate at Boston University. He has taught at a variety of high schools as well as Boston University, Tufts University, and Piedmont Virginia Community College. He has published numerous articles on issues of American religious history, new religious movements, and religion and popular culture. His first book is Vampires Today: The Truth About Modern Vampirism (Praeger, 2009).