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U-Haul Moves into the Paranormal

Ben Radford

Volume 11.4, December 2001

We’ve all seen U-Haul trucks and trailers zooming along our nation’s road and highways. Up until about ten years ago, the trucks were pretty boring, just the logo and the signature red stripe. But in 1988, the company decided it was time for a makeover and launched a campaign titled “America’s Moving Adventure.” The program featured nearly 200 different images from across the United States (with a similar campaign in Canada), each depicting individual states, provinces, and cities. The images featured large, striking colors and artwork on the sides of trucks and trailers.

In 1997, U-Haul unveiled a new campaign, this one titled “Venture Across America,” and its theme changed from monuments and history to monsters and mystery. As the Web site explains, “These SuperGraphics deal with subject matter that is less well known nationally and internationally, yet plays a huge role in the local area where it is based. . . . By working through published reports and communicating directly with the leading scientists in each field, the U-Haul SuperGraphics Team cements together information about each subject in order to create the graphic, as well as a detailed educational examination of the subject matter itself.”

Thus the campaign subtly turned from an advertising and public relations endeavor into an educational program: “Education is the key element in the Venture Across America series. Teachers and students alike have been using our SuperGraphics for years to help them make geography lessons fun. . . .

U-Haul has heard from many students who used the Web site as an aid to help them complete school reports.”

By claiming to be an educational program, the U-Haul SuperGraphics holds itself to a standard above mere advertising (though it does plenty of that as well). If U-Haul is encouraging students and teachers to use their (commercial) Web site as a source of reliable scientific information, U-Haul obligates themselves to ensure accuracy.

U-Haul recognizes this, proclaiming that “Scientists are impressed by the lengths our team goes to in order to ensure that we are accurate in our depiction and in our Web presentation.”

“Evaluate for yourself,” the Web site claims, echoing a popular refrain from mystery-mongering television shows. Usually the readers or viewers are invited to decide for themselves after receiving information from a heavily pro-paranormal slant and short-shrifting the skeptical point of view. This is hardly an unbiased basis upon which to “decide for yourself.”

The SuperGraphics Topics

To be sure, most of the states’ topics are interesting, educational, and at least somewhat scientific (so far, anyway; as of October 2001, twenty-seven states have been completed, each state graphic emblazoned on 600 trucks). For example, Oklahoma features the Center for Weather Research, Forecasting, and Education, with information and links on meteorology and forecasting; the Colorado graphic shows the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, with information on astronomy and our solar system; and Pennsylvania details the Lewis and Clark expedition down the Ohio river.

Nonetheless, the “mysterious” and paranormal angles are undeniably hyped. The text for Florida reads, “What ghosts inhabit the Fakahatchee Strand?” (the answer turns out to be ghost orchids); Michigan’s text begins, “Something humongous dwells in the forests . . .” (beware the giant mushrooms!); and “Why do the rocks in a New Jersey mining district emit an eerie glow?” (you figure that one out). And then there are the “true” aliens and monsters: Champ, the monster lurking in Vermont’s Lake Champlain; the Roswell, New Mexico aliens; and Nevada’s mysterious UFO-related Area 51. Each has its own area on the U-Haul Web site, to correspond with the giant image on the sides of trucks.

Vermont: “Champ” Lake Champlain’s Mystery

Vermont’s Lake Champlain (near the New York border) has been the area of many monster sightings. Said to be similar to the Loch Ness monster, locals call the beast “Champ.” In a faux news story the "U-Haul news staff” begins by discussing the most famous 1977 photo of Champ, the Mansi photograph taken of an object in the water. They do briefly bring up the possibility that the photo may be a hoax or misidentification (quickly followed up with, “But even if the photo were proven not to be a photo of Champ, how about the hundreds of reported sightings through the years from eyewitnesses?”). But they omit some important details about the credibility of the photo, such as that the Mansis later could not recall where along the lake the photo was taken (which would help judge the size of the object in the water); the Mansis could not produce the negative of the film for inspection, claiming it was lost; and that the Mansis waited four years before offering it to Time magazine for $25,000 (Kurtz 1981).

No mention is made at all about the reliability of eyewitness testimony, nor that years of searching the lake with infrared cameras, scuba divers, side-scan sonar, and remotely operated cameras have turned up no convincing evidence of huge lake monsters. The possibility that some Champ sightings are due to a seiche-a standing wave moving back and forth between two shores, dredging up logs and vegetation from the bottom-is never even mentioned, despite the fact that Lake Champlain is known to have a huge internal seiche (Hunkins et al. 1998).

In a section titled, “Q and A with a Champ Expert,” the U-Haul staff interviewed Dennis Hall, founder of an organization called Champ Quest. Hall has pursued Champ for several years, driven on by nineteen personal sightings. He states unequivocally that between six and fifteen lake monsters inhabit Lake Champlain, most likely an ancient reptile called Tanystropheus that resembles a giant snapping turtle. The Web page has a link to Loch Ness researchers’ pages. There is little skepticism-and no skeptical experts-presented on that page, but under “Champ: The Lighter Side,” U-Haul admits that “most people in Vermont are more than a bit skeptical” about Champ. But for a supposedly neutral “educational” site, there is little evidence presented to, as they suggest, “evaluate for yourself.”

New Mexico: The Roswell Incident

Composed of several different sections, “Eyewitness Accounts,” “Officially Speaking,” “Public Opinion,” etc., the Roswell Incident starts with a SuperGraphic of a spacecraft crashing in the desert behind a glowing green alien with the typical huge eyes staring off into the night. It begins with a brief synopsis of the incident, complete with fake “blacked out” words in an obvious attempt to lend mystery and an ominous tone. Dave Thomas, CSICOP Fellow and president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, had this to say about the Web page:

The main failing is the repetition of elements of the detailed Roswell Mythology as fact. The introductory page, subtitled “Just the facts,” begins with the sentence “The evening of July 4, 1947 was dark and stormy in the high desert near Roswell, N.M. Several Roswell residents reported seeing a bright, fiery object crash in the Capitan Mountains, fifty miles west of Roswell that night.” There is just one little problem with this “fact.” The alleged storm of July 4th, 1947 never took place. It is part and parcel of the Roswell mythology, and is repeated in so many places that many, including the U-Haul writers, now accept it as fact.

Charles B. Moore, the physicist who launched the Project Mogul experiment now accepted by skeptics as the actual source of the Roswell “debris” (see Skeptical Inquirer July/August 1995, ”The Roswell Incident and Project Mogul”), obtained weather data showing that the only storm in the entire region was in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 2. That is two days too early and ninety miles too far away. (See Karl Pflock’s new book, Roswell: Inconvenient Facts and the Will to Believe, Prometheus Books, 2001, pages 54 and 65 for all the details.)

Thomas (2001) also pointed out that U-Haul repeats the myth that rancher Mac Brazel was taken into custody by Military Police Officers and a radio station interview confiscated. In reality Brazel was kept overnight by an overzealous radio station owner eager to scoop his competitors on the story. Again, U-Haul’s version of events is skewed toward the paranormal.

The “Related Resources” section provides further information, the majority of it pro-UFO. There are a few skeptical books thrown in the mix, though, with Philip J. Klass’s The Real Roswell Crashed-Saucer Cover-up and two books by Karl Pflock. Judging from the message boards, the SuperGraphics have at least some people thinking that the subjects are real. This is especially true for the Roswell alien. One poster, Sam, writes, "I never believe this sort of stuff, but there is too much evidence for me to ignore. . . .” Another writer seems to take U-Haul to task for its alien depiction, almost hinting at a conspiracy: “This one seems to have the shape of the greys but have not yet seen them green except for those with the down-turned mouths which are green. I believe that this may be purposely misleading to give them grey shape with green flesh.”

Other Mysteries

The giant squid is featured on Newfoundland’s signature graphic for Venture Across Canada, though unlike the Lake Champlain monster and the Roswell aliens, good evidence actually exists for the giant squid. It will be interesting to see if a Bigfoot (or Sasquatch, in Canada) appears for areas touting many Bigfoot sightings. When asked if a Bigfoot graphic was planned, U-Haul representative Jennifer Flachman was tight-lipped, saying that she couldn’t reveal upcoming designs. The Ohio page touts the mysterious Serpent Mound, an ancient quarter-mile earth mound in the shape of a snake. The information steers clear of paranormal explanations and offers a fairly good analysis. And though the Area 51 information for Nevada isn’t explicitly about UFOs, the graphic does show a spaceship-looking aircraft, and the caption beneath it refers to the “E.T. Highway.”

Many of the graphics are available on the Web site as computer wallpaper and print-out coloring book pages. The marketing continues, with the Web site offering T-shirts for some of the graphics (T-shirts are currently offered for only nine states, though curiously those most closely related to the paranormal happen to be among those nine-Area 51, Roswell alien, and the Lake Champlain monster). Posters, decals, and enamel pins may be added soon.

On the whole (and so far), the U-Haul program and Web site are fairly responsible in their presentations. But the fact that a company that rents trucks is capitalizing on the paranormal shows the pervasiveness of the thirst for the supernatural and mysterious.

References

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of seven books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.