Parapedia - Unexplained disappearances

Unexplained disappearance (or paranormal vanishing) is a term describing the disappearance of objects, animals or people without apparent reason or cause. Often such disappearances are assumed, by some, to have supernatural or paranormal explanations.

In some cases, people are reported to have disappeared into thin air in full view of witnesses, while in others, witnesses have reported finding evidence related to a missing person, such as a trail of footprints that suddenly ends inexplicably.


There are numerous hypotheses surrounding unexplained disappearances, ranging from the mundane, such as a simple hoax, to the extraordinary.

Mundane explanations

American paranormal researcher and ufologist Jerome Clark notes that many accounts of mysterious vanishings contain a similar narrative, and a similar lack of evidence that those involved ever existed, and can in many cases be dismissed as new versions of older hoaxes or variations on fictional accounts. Clark also notes that some areas, such as the Bermuda Triangle, which have a reputation as sites of frequent vanishings, do not in fact have significantly more instances than other areas with similar geographic, tidal or meteorological conditions.

Paranormal explanations

Writer John Keel theorized that many alleged paranormal disappearances might be the result of tears in the fabric of reality, with people or objects somehow passing through a hole out of our known set of dimensions and into another, causing them to become out of step with our world in terms of time or space, and thus causing them to appear to vanish. Keel's perspective is shared by Hungarian writer Nandor Fodor, who related the phenomena to alleged incidents of teleportation, and loosely described the process as "falling into the fourth dimension".

In his book Paradox Nicholas R. Nelson proposes that there are certain locations around the globe that are linked to magnetic vortexes, or where the boundaries between our set of dimensions and unknown dimensions are thin enough for people to pass through given the right conditions, accounting for disappearances and other alleged paranormal events. Nelson named the Oregon Vortex and the Bermuda Triangle as two such locations.


The existence of the phenomena of paranormal vanishing is debatable and many cases have been shown to be spurious. Other incidents are open to interpretation, such as the case of the Mary Celeste.

Benjamin Bathurst

Benjamin Bathurst (born 1784), was a British diplomatic envoy who disappeared in Germany during the Napoleonic Wars on the night of November 25, 1809 in the town of Perleberg, while traveling to Hamburg from Berlin. Initially, Bathurst considered staying the night in Perleberg, but eventually decided to continue on to Hamburg. After ordering fresh horses for their coach at a post house, he and his German courier, a Herr Krause, had dinner at the White Swan Inn. Several hours later when the coach and fresh horses were ready, Bathurst left the inn, followed shortly after by Herr Krause. When Krause reached the coach he was surprised to find Bathurst was not in the vehicle and indeed was nowhere to be found. Initially, it was thought that he had walked back inside the inn for some reason before entering the coach, but no trace of him was ever found, despite a thorough search of the immediate area and the town and an extensive investigation. A reward of ₤1,000 was offered by the British government (a vast sum of money in those days) for information leading to his return and was doubled by Bathurst's family and even contributed to by Prince Frederick of Prussia who had taken a great interest in the case, to no avail. Given that his disappearance took place during the Napoleonic wars, it was thought that he may have been murdered by French espionage agents in the area who were monitoring his activity, and Bathurst's family even went so far as to approach the Emperor Napoleon himself about the disappearance, who swore on his honour that he knew nothing more about it than what he had read in the newspapers of the day. The town of Perleberg was also known to have a strong criminal element at the time and another theory was that he was snatched away and murdered, given that he was a man of obvious wealth.

On April 15, 1852, forty-one years after Bathurst's disappearance, a house that was approximately three-hundred meters from the White Swan inn was demolished, and a male human skeleton was found in the rubble. The cause of death was determined to be a fractured skull. Bathurst's sister traveled to Perleberg in an attempt to identify the remains, but the identity could not be confirmed.

This disappearance is referenced in several works of science fiction and the paranormal most of which describe him falling into a portal leading to some other place, time, or alternate timeline.

David Lang and Oliver Larch

Two commonly cited mysterious disappearances are those of David Lang of Gallatin, Tennessee, and Oliver Larch from Indiana.

According to the stories surrounding him, on September 23, 1880, Lang was walking across the grounds of his farm to meet Judge August Peck who was approaching his farm in a horse and buggy, when Lang vanished mid-step and in full view of the judge, his wife Chanel and his two children, and the judge's brother-in-law. The ground around where Lang had been walking was searched in case he had fallen into a concealed hole, but no trace was found. The story further states that Lang's children later called out to him, and heard a disembodied voice calling as if from a great distance.

The story of David Lang was published in Fate magazine by journalist Stuart Palmer, who claimed that he had been told the story by Lang's daughter. However, no trace of David Lang nor his family (including his apparent daughter) was ever found in any records of that period, and the entire article was later determined to be a hoax likely inspired by the short story "The Difficulties of Crossing a Field" by Ambrose Bierce (1909), collected in his book Can Such Things Be?. In 1999, the modern composer David Lang based an opera on Bierce's story. (The story has also become a popular urban legend).

The story of Oliver Larch (Sometime known as Lerch or Thomas) follows a similar pattern to that of David Lang. According to the narrative, Larch was on his way to collect water from a well one winter when he vanished, leaving nothing behind but a trail of footprints in the snow which terminated abruptly, and a series of terrible cries for help such as "Help, they've got me!" that appeared to come from above. Larch's story was later found to be a variation on Charles Ashmore's Trail, published in 1893 by Ambrose Bierce. In some versions, Larch's story is set in late 19th century Indiana, in others, it is set in North Wales. One particular recurring variation was an Oliver Thomas of Rhayader, Radnorshire, mid-Wales with the date given as 1909.

The Norfolk Regiment

The story of soldiers disappearing into a strange cloud during the battle of Gallipoli in 1915 is another tale of spurious origin. According to the story, three observers from the New Zealand Army claimed that on an almost cloudless, breezy day, a loaf-shaped cloud stayed stationary over Hill 60, partly obscuring it. They watched the unit (usually said to be the "1/4th Norfolk Regiment" , but actually the 1/5th battalion of the Norfolk Regiment) march into the cloud. The observers waited for almost an hour, and then the mist seemed to rise, almost vertically, and joined the rest of the clouds in the sky. The soldiers who entered were gone, leaving no trace of their presence.

However, the truth is more prosaic. The unit that took Hill 60 did not vanish into a cloud, but went on from Hill 60 to attack Turkish positions, and was killed out behind Turkish lines. Their fate was not ascertained until 1919, when the Graves Registration Unit searched the battle site. The remains of 115 men of the battalion were found and buried in Azmak Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery.

Additionally, there are no official mentions of any kind of strange cloud during the battle; the New Zealand observers, if they were even there, were over four miles from the area; the wrong battalion is named, and called a regiment; the date is given as 21 August instead of the true date nine days earlier; and the story is not even told until 50 years after the war.

The story probably has its origin in a paragraph from The Final Report of the Dardanelles Commission:

Quote: By some freak of nature Suvla Bay and Plain were wrapped in a strange mist on the afternoon of 21 August. This was sheer bad luck as we had reckoned on the enemy's gunners being blinded by the declining sun and upon the Turk's trenches being shown up by the evening sun with singular clearness. Actually, we could hardly see the enemy lines this afternoon, whereas to the westward targets stood out in strong relief against the luminous light.

The "Vanished Battalion" of the Norfolks (including men from Sandringham, the royal estate near King's Lynn) suffered heavy losses but did not entirely disappear when it was cut off and surrounded during an unsuccessful British attack on 12 August 1915. In 1999 a BBC feature-length drama All the King's Men was based on the story of the Sandringham Company. Russian heavy metal band Aria composed a song "Farewell Norfolk", based on this story, for Krov za Krov album.

The Flannan Isles lighthouse keepers

Not all cases of vanishing have been proven to be hoaxes. One such case is the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers in December 1900, who vanished from their duty stations, leaving behind equipment important to surviving the hostile conditions at that location and time of year. However, the official explanation for the disappearances was mundane, concluding that the men were swept out to sea by a freak wave.

Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842 - 1914?) was an American editorialist, journalist, short-story writer and satirist. Today, he is best known for his short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and his satirical dictionary, The Devil's Dictionary.

In October 1913, the septuagenarian Bierce departed Washington, D.C., for a tour of his old Civil War battlefields. By December he had proceeded on through Louisiana and Texas, crossing by way of El Paso into Mexico, which was in the throes of revolution. In Ciudad Juárez he joined Pancho Villa's army as an observer, and in that role participated in the battle of Tierra Blanca.

Bierce is known to have accompanied Villa's army as far as the city of Chihuahua. After a last letter to a close friend, sent from there December 26, 1913, he vanished without a trace, becoming one of the most famous disappearances in American literary history. Several writers have speculated that he headed north to the Grand Canyon, found a remote spot there and shot himself, though no evidence exists to support this view. All investigations into his fate have proved fruitless, and despite an abundance of theories his end remains shrouded in mystery. The date of his death is generally cited as "1914?".

In one of his last letters, Bierce wrote the following to his niece, Lora:

Quote: "Good-bye - if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico-ah, that is euthanasia!"

Unexplained disappearances in fiction

The idea of paranormal vanishing is a popular trope, and many examples of it can be found in folklore and fiction.

Unexplained disappearances in folklore

Fairy kidnapping

There are several tales of people vanishing at the hands of fairies, pixies and other supernatural folk. An example is the tale of Jan Coo, who was said to have vanished after being called away from his Dartmoor home by a mysterious voice. This story would appear to be a warning against wandering away from safety on the dangerous moor, woven into a tale involving the little people to make a better story.

Typical tales of fairy kidnapping are told by William Butler Yeats in his book, Mythologies. Yeats describes how many stories of fairy kidnappings involve newborn babies or newlyweds being carried off by the fairies. In one such story, a young newly-wed man met a band of fairies who had stolen his wife for their chief to marry. The fairies appeared at first to be mortal men, but the young man realized the truth when he saw them carry his wife away.


There are also many tales of sailors and fishermen being seduced or abducted by mermaids which are said to lure men away from land by singing. The mermaid of legend perhaps dates back to Classical times (c.f. Aphrodite rising from the sea), and the comb and mirror are stated in Anna Franklin's The Encyclopedia of Fairies (Paper Tiger, 2004) to signify the vulva. Thus the sexual nature of the mermaid seems a long-running theme, perhaps linked to the possibilities of temptation while at sea.

A very similar scenario is noted in the modern Egyptian folklore tale Al Naddaha.

Celtic legends exist of the Kelpie. This is a horse which, once harnessed or mounted, leaps into the nearest body of water, taking its human captor with it - never to be seen again. Similar stories appear in Scandinavia.

    # Clark, Jerome (1993). Unexplained! 347 Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Physical Phenomena. Detroit: Visible Ink Press. ISBN 0-8103-9436-7.
    # Keel, John (1971). Our Haunted Planet. Fawcett Crest. ISBN B000EIKKJY.
    # Fodor, Nandor (1962). Mind Over Space. The Citadel Press. ISBN B0007E1Y1I.
    # Nelson, Nicholas R (1980). Paradox a Round Trip Through the Bermuda Triangle. New Horizon Printing. ISBN 0-8059-2707-7.
    # Wilkins, Harold T. (1958). Strange Mysteries of Time and Space.
    # Edwards, Frank (1959). Stranger Than Science.
    # Palmer, Stuart (July 1953). "How Lost Was My Father?". Fate Magazine.
    # Eric Valliere, "The Difficulty of Crossing a Field" Andante Magazine
    # Strange Disappearances website
    # World War 1
    # Vanished Battalion Sandringham 1/5th Norfolk
    # Paul Begg: "Lost, Believed Kidnapped" in Out of this World ISBN 0-356-17959-1
    # Yeats, William (2003). Mythologies. Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing. pp. 70-76. ISBN 0-7661-4500-X.