City Paper is not for tourists
“Well, have you heard of the reptilian city below Los Angeles?”
That one was a long shot. They’d already brought up multiple famous UFO sightings—Lights Over Washington (1952), the Belgian Wave (1989-90), the Phoenix Lights (1997)—and had struck out with no nods of recognition. As members of the Alexandria Cryptozoology and Paranormal Society (ACAPS), it’s to be expected that they know more about seemingly crazy legends than others. But no, I had never heard of the lizard people who thousands of years ago had supposedly inhabited underground caves beneath L.A.
It’s important to note that no one in ACAPS—or at least none of the three co-founders holed up at the bar this October afternoon—really believes there was once a reptilian city below L.A. “No,” says group co-founder Chad Umbach. “The reptoids are fake.”
But that’s not to say that they didn’t give the story thoughtful consideration at one time. “The universe is vast,” says co-founder Scott Fallon. “It goes on and on. Maybe we’re not as smart as we think we are.”
ACAPS takes a skeptical approach to many of the stories and sightings they come across. “We believe and we’re skeptical,” Fallon says. “A lot of these things can be explained scientifically.” Perhaps that UFO in the sky is just a satellite or the planet Venus, and maybe that ghostly light beyond the trees is methane gas from decaying swamp vegetation. But if there’s an overriding philosophy to ACAPS, it’s that humans don’t know everything there is to know about our world. Not everything can be blamed on Venus or swamp gas.
The three of them—Fallon, Umbach, and Dr. Marc Black, the group’s resident scientist and skeptic-in-chief—meet here, at Bilbo Baggins in Old Town Alexandria, just about every weekend. Despite its name, the bar is not really Lord of the Rings–themed (though there is a map of Middle Earth on one wall that seems strangely out of place). They’re regulars here—they know the owners, make fun of the menu (“Mango chutney on everything!”), and host ACAPS-branded tap takeovers, like an upcoming Stone Brewing event on Nov. 4. It’s also where Umbach and Fallon first met about four years ago and discovered their shared interest in the paranormal.
From that initial meeting (and from countless beer-fueled conversations about Bigfoot and aliens) came ACAPS. Fallon’s not sure how many members they have, because no one is sure what constitutes membership. At the time of writing, their Facebook page had 742 followers, and Fallon estimates that there are about 20 or so people who have helped or assisted the group in some way, whether it’s handing out stickers at a show, helping build their new website, or showing up regularly at their Bilbo Baggins screenings of the TV show Finding Bigfoot.
They don’t have regular meetings, unless you count these weekend bar summits. And they don’t have equipment for conducting any sophisticated investigations in the vein of the Syfy network show Ghosthunters. They do have stickers they hand out generously—one with a silhouette of Bigfoot from the famous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin footage, one with an alien (a “grey”) giving a peace sign. Umbach sheepishly admits to having plastered one on the side of the King Street trolley.
It’s an informal society, but everyone recognizes that Fallon, with his unlimited enthusiasm, is the driving force behind ACAPS. “It suits him,” says Black. “He brings people together. He’s a force of nature.”
“I need to be busy all the time,” Fallon says. “I work 50 to 60 hours a week at my full-time job, then I play guitar four or five nights a week, then I do the cryptozoology stuff.”
His day job is recruiting for an accounting firm. It sometimes requires him to travel, and he uses those trips as opportunities to seek out haunted bed and breakfasts. He’s a self-described Deadhead, and his music hobby often overlaps with his penchant for the paranormal. He’ll bring a giant cardboard cutout of Bigfoot on stage with him, or set up an ACAPS merchandise table at a show and announce with mock seriousness that “all proceeds go to Bigfoot research.” In July, he and Black attended FloydFest, a music festival in Virginia, and sat behind a table with an ACAPS sign. And as principal organizer of Alexandria Live Music Week, which took place the first week of October, he’s an Alexandria fixture.
“Scott is immediately likeable,” says Nola Gruneisen, an ACAPS member who met Fallon through her fiancé. “He isn’t the oddball ghost-hunter you see on the silly cable network programs.”
Fallon’s main interest is in cryptozoology, which has taken him to events like Creature Weekend in Cambridge, Ohio, and, he hopes, to the Virginia Bigfoot Conference. In fact, he’s a certified cryptozoologist, a distinction he earned through a 16-part online series from Universal Class. “You can find anything online,” he says. He wound up doing a lot of his own independent research before turning in papers. “I don’t think the people there knew what the hell they were getting.”
“He asks the right questions,” says Gary Dizon, an ACAPS co-organizer who lives in Florida. Dizon and Fallon have known one another since high school, when Dizon gave a presentation on Bigfoot, Fallon’s favorite subject.
Fallon is also pretty convincing. He politely expresses disbelief at enough legends—the Loch Ness monster, the story of Washington’s ghost taking a cab from Old Town to Mount Vernon (“How would George Washington know what a cab was?”)—that when he says he’s positive about something, you start to believe too.
For instance, at the mention of an alleged Sasquatch sighting in June, in Laurel, Maryland, Fallon leans back in his chair with an expression of thoughtful misgiving. “I looked at those photos,” he says. “I’ve lived in this area my entire life. I’ve hiked probably every trail in this area. I’ve seen probably every animal that’s out there. If there was something of that size, a Bigfoot, in an area so populated and crowded, and the only time we happen to see it is this? I don’t think there’s any way.”
But ask him about the possibility of Bigfoot anywhere else, and he talks in detail about evidence such as precisely bent trees, the unique stride of the animal in the Patterson-Gimlin footage, and the rarity of coming upon a pile of deer bones on a hike, let alone the bones of an elusive creature spread out over a vast area. “My personal belief is that in the Pacific Northwest, I’m certain that there’s a Bigfoot up there,” Fallon says with a sort of casual conviction, showing off his well-worn leather Bigfoot keychain. “I’m absolutely certain.”
If Fallon is the cryptozoology wing of ACAPS, Dizon talks more about the eerie experiences he’s had in old houses, or at the famously haunted Cuban Club in Ybor City, Florida, where he has worked as a stage manager. Dizon also shares Fallon’s measured belief in the existence of a “skunk ape” in the Florida swamps (so named because of its horrible smell).
Umbach, a former Marine, is very much in the “aliens exist” camp, though he says, grinning, that he’s become a bit more open to the idea of “the man with the feet in the woods” since he became friends with Fallon. As for Black, the ACAPS member with a PhD in chemical engineering and an interest in astrophysics and astronomy?
“He’s a skeptic to the umpteenth degree,” says Fallon. “He keeps us grounded.”
A conversation with Black is more likely to be an epistemological discussion about science versus belief, or to center on Fermi problems, cosmic background radiation, dark matter, and the past year’s gravitational wave detection that confirmed part of Einstein’s theory of relativity. His interests lie more in ufology (the study of UFOs), and he carefully explains why the universe is just too vast for it to be impossible that aliens have existed, exist, or will ever exist. But, he says, “the chances of us being contacted are, I believe, infinitesimally small.”
“I’m a curious fellow,” he says. “And being a scientist, it’s part of the game. It’s important that we question a lot of what’s going on. There are unique and unexplained things that happen, but there’s also a lot of people trying to make fun and make a buck.”
As Black puts it, “separating the wheat from the chaff” is ACAPS’s primary mission, if it has one, as is meeting people with similar interests. “It’s a niche community,” Umbach says. “People don’t normally bring [aliens] up in casual conversation.”
Fallon says he’s trying to get ACAPS permission to do an investigation of the nearly 300-year-old Ramsay House, the supposedly haunted location of the Alexandria Visitors Center, where his wife Melanie works.
“I’m always up for a haunted tour,” says ACAPS member Gruneisen, “because it’s mostly a local history lesson. … I hope there will be investigations in and around Alexandria. The place is brimming with haunted history.”
Fallon says he would also like to see ACAPS sponsor more events. “Our goal is to eventually get to a spot where we can have speakers here. I see that happening probably within the next year.” But he is firmly against the idea of paid membership or formal meetings. “I think if we get too structured, that might take a little of the fun out of it.”
For now, most of their wider membership participates by checking the group’s Facebook page. Umbach updates the page constantly, with lists like “10 real haunts of D.C., Maryland, and Virginia,” bizarre articles like “UFO expert found dead after ‘vomiting black liquid,’” or even just videos of local wildlife. “I do enjoy the sillier articles,” Gruneisen says, “like the one about Harrison Ford and the Loch Ness monster. But I mostly check the site for news about ACAPS and articles about hauntings.”
At Bilbo Baggins, Fallon, Umbach, and Black are hovering around a phone, looking at a photo of a UFO posted to the Facebook page that day. It’s a terrible photo—crooked, with the flash reflecting blindingly off what look like the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with the Washington Monument visible beyond the reflecting pool. In the top left corner are six tiny pinpricks of what appear to be green lights in the sky.
Umbach leans over excitedly and zooms in until the six dots take up half the screen. “Photoshopped,” he says with confidence, stepping back. Indeed, there is a symmetrical rectangle surrounding the lights, a slightly different shade than the rest of the ink-black night sky.
Umbach looks up from the phone, set to resume his and Black’s conversation about radiological dispersal, and grins. “And you thought we were just a bunch of guys drinking beer.”