On July 16, at the age of 51, Mark Chorvinsky succumbed to cancer, leaving behind wife Laurel Chiat, son David Chorvinsky, and 23 issues of Strange Magazine, a literary cabinet of wonders, hoaxes, and monsters. Open an issue and you might find a summary of all known facts regarding Prince George’s County’s very own Goatman. Or zoological evaluations of a previously unknown hoofed mammal discovered in the mountains of Laos. Or credible documentation of a recent incident in which frogs in a pond in Germany began to spontaneously explode.
Flip back to the inside of the front cover and you’ll see a photograph of Chorvinsky himself, a round-faced man with thick glasses and a mass of curly black hair. Leaning toward the camera, he confidently rests his large hands on the wings of a gargoyle.
As disciples of Charles Fort, a pioneering early-20th-century student of the incongruous, Strange’s small consortium of local editors and international correspondents adapted the scientific method to scientifically delinquent topics such as ufology, parapsychology, and cryptozoology. Looking for facts in admittedly improbable places, Chorvinsky’s magazine aspired to what it termed “open-minded skepticism.” “Strange Magazine has many purposes,” he wrote in the introduction to Issue 15, “but convincing its readers to believe in anything is not one of them.”
Given Chorvinsky’s professional background in illusion, that might come as a surprise. Once the youngest member in the International Brotherhood of Magicians, he launched his career in stage magic at the age of 11, when his mother (and agent) placed an ad in the local PennySaver for him. He performed professionally for the next 15 years, and in 1978 he founded Dream Wizards, a Rockville magic, costume, film, and gaming store. Later, with a crew largely assembled from contacts he’d made at Dream Wizards, he opened Chorvinsky Studios, a Kensington special-effects workshop that produced horror-flick gore and Chorvinsky’s own film, 1983’s Strange Tangents.
“Mark was well-versed in the ways of creating photographic illusions,” says Greg Snook, Strange’s D.C.-based art director. “That proved to be very helpful when dealing with bogus sea monsters.”
But though the magazine’s research projects frequently turned into debunkings, slaying monsters was never its goal. Strange was an investigative journal, and nearly every bizarre topic merited further inquiry. “Some people wouldn’t necessarily put UFOs into the same category as two-headed cows,” Snook says. “But it’s all a continuum. [Chorvinsky] was very much interested in surrealism. I think that’s important to keep in mind.”
Chiat is blunter about her husband’s interests. “Look,” she says, “if you want to understand Mark, you’re going to have to see his library.” Located in the basement of his family’s Rockville home, Chorvinsky’s study is crammed with works on magic, philosophy, zoology, film, and parenting. Books by Breton, Duchamp, and Buñuel dominate one case; in others, Shakespeare shares space with ghost stories and outdated scientific texts such as Charles Frederick Holder’s 1885 Marvels of Animal Life. A chunk of pyrite rests on a shelf in front of Christopher L. Murphy’s Meet the Sasquatch.
Strange investigators filled out case forms as sober as any police report, complete with case numbers, witness contact information, and “Next actions to be taken.” These were then filed away under such headings as “The Wango Cat,” “Silver Run Mine Creature,” “MD Weasel Attack of 1892,” “Monkey With Burning Coal Eyes,” and “Puffin Pig Dolphin.” There are hundreds of these files filling drawers in Chorvinsky’s desk and overflowing into boxes, the raw material for bizarre nightmares or future issues of Strange.
Chorvinsky often spent years investigating a particular phenomenon—most notably the infamous Thunderbird Photo, a 19th-century shot of a group of cowboys standing by a downed pterodactyl that many Fortean researchers claim to have seen but no one can locate. After years of scouring obscure archives for reports of such a beast—and enlisting his approximately 3,000 readers to do the same—Chorvinsky decided that “the Thunderbird Photo is not an isolated case but rather part of a continuing story of huge reptilian flying creatures in the American West.”
But that didn’t mean he believed that the picture—or its subject—existed. Chorvinsky traced the Thunderbird legend to an 1890 article in the Tombstone, Ariz., Epitaph describing how an immense dragon had been tracked and killed in the nearby desert. No picture ran with the story, so Chorvinsky continued his investigation, calling into question both the veracity of the original account and a host of photographs that had circulated among Thunderbird enthusiasts for years. In a lengthy discussion of the prankster mentality of 19th-century American newspaper editors, he revealed hints within the Epitaph’s own wording that the story was a joke.
“As of the date of this article, there is not a single bit of photographic evidence for the existence of a ‘Thunderbird Photograph,’” Chorvinsky concluded after a three-issue, 14,000-word series on the subject. But even then the case was left open: He was at work on Part 4 when he passed away.
The rigor of Strange’s analysis made the magazine an odd beast in the field of paranormal research, a field dominated by armchair detectives primarily interested in proving to the world that their elusive quarry actually exists. But the magazine was no more at home in the mainstream. “Mark thought the Current Affair people were pretty obnoxious,” Chiat recalls of Chorvinsky’s early-’90s experience on a Halloween edition of the show, during which his research was treated as if it were somehow less serious than the tabloid’s normal fare.
In 1998, contributing editor Mark Opsasnick concluded a yearlong investigation of the claim that William Peter Blatty’s novel-cum-horror-movie-classic The Exorcist was based on the true story of a Mount Rainier boy’s possession by dark forces. Opsasnick not only disproved some of the story’s basic facts but also obtained testimony from the boy’s friends stating that, though the kid was a jerk, he wasn’t evil incarnate.
The 26-page article that Strange published was thoroughly abused by far more “legitimate” media outlets, which, even after talking to Opsasnick, would ignore his conclusions. “The ‘it’s too good a story to spoil it by finding out the facts’ mentality that reigned when The Exorcist was first released into the popular consciousness has continued unabated everywhere but within the pages of this magazine,” Chorvinsky lamented in Issue 18.
Born in Philadelphia, Chorvinsky grew up in Silver Spring, where his father worked as a statistician and his mother as a homemaker. According to Chiat, his interest in the unexplainable stemmed not from any unaccountably bizarre experiences but from a childhood reading of Strange World, a 1964 collection by paranormal researcher Frank Edwards. Chorvinsky studied film and folklore at the University of Maryland and Temple University and wrote a column for Fate, a rival Fortean publication, before founding Strange in 1987.
Though every issue in the magazine’s 18-year run was produced in Chorvinsky’s basement, Strange was no tin-foil-hat rag. The text was free of typos, and the layout, cobbled together for years without the aid of PageMaker, rivaled many mainstream magazines’ for slickness, an aesthetic that was carried online when Chorvinsky went Web-exclusive in 2001. Yet Chorvinsky and Executive Editor Douglas Chapman never expected Strange’s subject matter to appeal to a wide audience, and the publication’s future is currently uncertain.
“We couldn’t believe it when The X Files came out,” Snook says. “[Paranormal research] was such a fringy thing beforehand.” America’s prime-time interest in the weird did little to boost Strange’s readership, however. Instead, it added to what Snook calls “the cultural pollution” surrounding Fortean studies.
“You notice this particularly in the UFO field,” he says. “Around the time Communion came out and Close Encounters came out, everyone began to see the classic aliens. But if you look into the UFO sightings of the ’50s, they were just all over the place. Before people had so much of this stuff planted in their head, it really was a lot more interesting.”
In 1901, according to Strange No. 10, a boy living near Bourneville, England, saw an alien disembark from a craft so woefully unaerodynamic that it resembled a cottage. A 1913 account of an 18-inch-tall humanoid’s landing in a field near Farmersville, Texas, concluded with the visitor’s being devoured by an observer’s dogs. A 1947 Peruvian sighting reported extraterrestrials that “looked like bananas joined together” and had a “towel-like texture.”
After bursting onto the scene at the beginning of the ’60s, the now-standard gaunt and bug-eyed “grays” drove a wealth of obscure extraterrestrials into oblivion. In response, Chorvinsky & Co. began to devote an increasing portion of their magazine to the folklorist’s task of cataloging creatures and phenomena that, in all probability, the world will never hear from again. Chorvinsky and Opsasnick authored a field guide to the monsters of Maryland, and, in a joint expedition, tracked down the swamp monster of Selbyville, Del.
His name is Fred Stevens. “To this day,” says Opsasnick, “I still see Fred a lot when I go [to the Eastern Shore]. He’s in the phone book.”
A local prankster with a flair for Halloween costumes, Stevens had been enlisted in the mid-’60s to help the editor of the Delmarva News boost circulation. Dressed in his aunt’s raccoon coat, a mask, and a pair of gray wool pants he’d dragged for several miles behind his truck, Stevens posed for pictures in the Burnt Swamp outside of town. The News’ publication of the photos, combined with a few similar “sightings,” incited a literal hunt for the monster. The threat had passed by the time Chorvinsky and Opsasnick showed up 25 years later, so Stevens donned the costume again to take the two men for a tour of his old tramping grounds.
“It just got too dangerous, you know,” Stevens recalls. “All those rednecks and all those guns—one of them was going to shoot my ass.”
One of Strange’s most popular columns, First Person, was simply a compilation of things that the magazine’s readership claimed to have seen. At one point, the staff even set up a 900 number that people could call to share their stories. The column served as a confessional of the most bizarre sort. One David Heilman wrote in to describe seeing three tiny shrouded beings while driving late at night in Killeen, Texas, taking the opportunity to confess that he “had a few bad habits” and “had just left the company of a prostitute.”
But the Strange crew’s favorite account came from a woman named Virginia Staples, who, Snook says, “called in about finding this giant shrimp in her basement behind the washing machine. Why would you even think of that?”
In his later years, Chorvinsky opened a file on the Grim Reaper, filling it with literary analyses and dozens of first-person accounts. It was a project he’d begun long before he was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, and the news certainly didn’t make him put the work aside. An attempt to turn his research into a book fizzled: The editors of one New York publishing house loved the idea, Chiat recalls, but “it scared the marketing people to death.”
So Chorvinsky continued soliciting Grim Reaper sightings in Strange, printing the results along the way. Some of those who wrote in described repeat visitations; others caught only a fleeting glimpse of Death walking down a hospital corridor. The Reaper’s physical attributes varied tremendously: In several accounts, he appears as a skeleton wearing a brown monk’s robe; in one, he is a young man with slicked-back hair in a sharp black suit. Many correspondents wrote of the Reaper as a comforting force, arriving at a person’s darkest hour simply to ask if he was ready to stop living. “It felt like I had been offered a million pounds,” wrote one Englishman who declined Death’s invitation.
“It’s an untapped phenomenon, one of those things that hasn’t been beaten to death in the popular culture,” Snook says of Chorvinsky’s Grim Reaper work. And unlike certain swamp monsters, Death is never going to be proved a hoax. The sightings fall somewhere between fact, fabrication, and folk art.
“I think he’d have liked some of this stuff to have more of a reality,” Snook says of Chorvinsky’s work. But elusiveness was always one of Strange’s charms. “Perhaps,” Snook concludes, “this sort of stuff is more of a surreality, anyway.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph courtesy Chorvinsky family.