I’m into mysteries.
The Bermuda Triangle, lost colonies, that sort of thing. My interest is scientific. Click-hungry YouTube channels assume that every strange occurrence is the result of extra-terrestrial CIA skinwalkers but I’m far more curious about the actual explanation.
My particular obsession is missing person cases, especially where people disappear in baffling circumstances. Many occur in national parks while others occur during people’s everyday activities.
People love finding stupid patterns to these cases: they often go missing near boulders, which must be Bigfoot hunting grounds! The people who go missing are often highly educated, which obviously means that aliens are kidnapping the elite of our species in order to . . . something.
You can see why sensible people roll their eyes at mysteries in general and focus on weightier matters.
But having read so much about these cases, and listened to so many podcasts, I’ve begun noticing some patterns myself. Together with cases in which people were found safe, it is possible to piece together what often happens when people go missing.
Not always – some victims really are taken by people smugglers or are knocked off by someone who doesn’t like them. However, in many cases, if you make a couple of assumptions then everything else falls into place. It’s yet another one of my arguments to the best explanation.
Missing from public places
People sometimes go missing in the most everyday of situations: driving to work, sitting at home watching TV, going to the shops. There are many such cases in which the missing person is never seen again.
In a few cases, people have shown up, dead or alive. If they are found dead in an odd place with no obvious injuries then we are none the wiser as to what may have happened to them. In cases where they turn up alive, we have clues.
There was a case where a young American woman went missing in a big city. Weirdly, there were several sightings of her, including one by an old classmate who met her in an Apple store checking her email and told her that the whole world was looking for her. The missing girl said she had the wrong person.
Eventually she was found floating face down in water but still alive. She’d taken a kayak out to sea for some reason, then abandoned it for some also unknown reason and was very lucky to have been found just before it was too late.
When she came around, she had no memory of what she’d been doing. Because it happened in an urban area, police were able to reconstruct her whereabouts during the time she was missing. She’d been wandering around, somehow showering in a gym where she had no membership, and finally was attracted to the water and ended up there.
Psychologists told her she had a rare disorder which could, at any moment, make her lose all sense of identity while still being able to carry out some normal activities. If you saw her walking down the street in this state you wouldn’t notice anything wrong with her. You might even have a normal conversation.
She tried to get on with her life but disappeared two more times (also involving water) and on the final occasion she was never found. As it was on a small island she was presumed lost at sea.
Another case like this was a skier who went missing on his final ski run. He was found a year later on the other side of the country and could not remember where he’d been or how he’d supported himself, the bus tickets in his pockets being the only clue.
In a third case, a young man went missing even though he’d just gained entry to his dream university course, was very popular and had no reason at all to disappear. His family were forced to assume foul play and that he had died because nothing else made sense.
Once again, about a year later he turned up at his home with no money and no belongings. He had no memory of where he’d been or what he’d done.
There are other cases like this.
Perhaps in some situations, people try to disappear then get cold feet and come crawling back with amnesia as a lame excuse. However, in the majority of cases I’ve heard of, it seems fairly likely that the missing person did have some sort of mental break or dissociative episode. Keeping up such a charade for a long time would be very difficult.
We must not point to all unsolved missing person cases and declare, ‘Amnesia!’ There are many cases, however, where some sort of mental health problem with an extremely sudden onset would completely explain the situation. Case studies show that it is possible.
Consider Lars Mittank, a German tourist who disappeared from an airport in Bulgara. His story is famous because there is security footage of him running out of the airport without warning, jumping a fence and disappearing without a trace. There a several suggestions that he may have had a nascent mental health problem leading up to this: he’d been in a scuffle and bumped his head, he appeared paranoid about his safety in his hotel and he dropped into a medical clinic at the airport. When an airport worker in uniform wandered in he panicked and dashed off without his belongings. All these indications seem to add up.
It is possible for a person in such a state to act like they are completely normal and go about their lives without noticing their loss of identity. In other cases they may become crazy homeless people who do not remember than they have a home to return to.
In a similar case, a woman was supposed to be boarding a flight but instead wandered off and eventually her drowned body was found on a beach. She thought that someone was pursuing her and seemed paranoid just before these strange events.
If you ask yourself, ‘Could this person have lost their marbles all of a sudden?’ then some missing person cases seem much less mysterious.
It’s frightening to think that we might one day forget who we are, where we come from, and wander off into all sorts of dangerous situations.
Even more frightening are cases of people lost hiking because I’ve lost my way in the bush more times than I can count.
Missing in the wilderness
Some cases of people going missing while hiking are unremarkable, though tragic. They take a wrong turn or run into inclement weather. Their bodies are found later, huddled some way off the track, and it is fairly easy to reconstruct what went wrong.
In other cases there are circumstances that make little sense: people going missing off a very clearly marked trail and into thick, almost inpenetrable bush; people’s bags with essential gear being found abandoned, clothes left neatly folded on a rock, boots and socks removed and placed at the base of a tree.
In some cases, bodies are found in areas that have already been thoroughly searched. In other cases, people have turned up in places that didn’t make sense – experienced hikers’ remains being found on the top of a mountain when they should have known to go down in order to avoid the cold; toddlers found much further away than seems possible for them to have travelled on their own, sometimes having covered thirty kilometers across rugged terrain in a day.
Here, too, cases of people being found alive help to indicate how this can occur. In one case, an extremely experienced outdoorsman was found by his family wandering aimlessly and had abandoned all his stuff nearby. He had started to remove some of his clothing, folding it neatly and leaving it behind him in various places. At first he didn’t recognize his own daughter and tried to flee. Once he got warmed up and fed, he had no recollection of what went wrong.
In other cases, very young children have been recovered alive but cannot explain how they got so far, how they survived the elements or why they removed their shoes, which is very common.
Sometimes people are taken by wild animals. This is rare in Australia where there are no large carnivores except crocodiles which live in the remote north. You might get bitten by a deadly snake but unless you’re in Kakadu or thereabouts, you won’t get eaten.
In some other continents, animal attacks are more common.
People often jump to conclusions when a hiker goes missing. They think, if it wasn’t a serial killer it must have been a bear or mountain lion. If a small child, it may even have been an eagle. It’s a tempting conclusion because it’s both horrific and easy.
However, an animal attack usually leaves a ‘scatter’ – blood on the ground, probably other objects here and there. Biting a jugular will make a mess. In those cases where people have gone missing very close to other people and the immediate area has been well searched, the absence of scatter is a strong indication that a predator was not involved.
Little Nik Lost
My own, first-hand experiences add further information. When you realize you’re lost, you can feel the panic rising. The questions begin: what if I can’t get back? Will I survive the night in this wet gear? What will become of my blog?
In one case I went for a short hike in the highlands of Korea, at about 3,000m. elevation. It was very foggy and visibility was about 20m. I was trying to get to an alpine lake but after a while decided it was too far and began heading back.
After walking for quite a long time, I realized I was passing things that didn’t seem familiar. Or were they? The creepy, cloud-hidden bamboo grass and ghostly mountain pines all looked the same.
I thought, I should get a move on so that if I’m on the wrong path I’ll be sure of it sooner. I started running. At this point my brain had stopped working and I no longer had a plan. I was also very cold, which is relevant and we’ll come back to it. My boots and socks were wet through and my thick, down jacket was becoming waterlogged in the endless drizzle despite my raincoat.
It was late afternoon. If I couldn’t find my way back by nightfall I would probably freeze to death. I considered randomly running down the hillside off the track in order to reach the road, but a tiny part of my brain still working cautioned that if I went down the wrong side of the mountain then I’d be well and truly lost. This was a very remote area; go too far off the trail and they might not find you until the spring, if ever.
Finally I reached an old Japanese water pump. That I had certainly not seen on the way to the lake.
I screamed at myself internally, STOP.
In that moment, my brain started working again. If you run, you automatically panic as your brain senses it’s fight-or-flight time. If you ever feel like you might be losing control, the first thing you need to do is stop and think.
My newfound brain realized that I must have made a wrong turn somewhere.
Go back, I thought. Walk, don’t run. Carefully look for tracks crossing this one. When I say ‘track’, these were only small trails through the bamboo grass, not paved or cleared to a width of more than 30cm. Very easy to miss.
I walked back at a moderate pace, hoping I would find something, thinking what would happen if I didn’t, but not panicking.
Finally I found a track crossing mine and realized I’d vagued out at this point and gone off the right path here. I got back on the correct path, soon saw a few familiar landmarks and knew I’d live to blog another day.
I hope this diversion has made its intended point: if people panic, they can do things that don’t make sense even though they know better. They might start running in the wrong direction, running off the marked trail, or any other silly thing. Searchers who assume the missing person will act rationally may look in the wrong places.
Sometimes people in the wilderness who are not lost nevertheless panic because they think something or someone is chasing them. This causes them to run in an irrational direction, often abandoning vital gear that they think is slowing them down. There was a case of a female hiker on the Pacific Crest Trail who thought she saw someone lurking in the trees when she got up one morning so she quickly packed and set off, but kept thinking the man was behind her. She ended up running off the marked track and through the forest for more than a week before someone found her. She thought the man had been pursuing her the whole time and had heard him pacing around her tent every night. Presumably this was untrue because, why would he get so close and then do nothing? Seems like a lot of effort to no end.
By the time someone found the woman, she’d jettisoned her backpack and would not have lasted much longer. She was initially terrified of her rescuer, thinking he might be out to get her, and it took a while for her to calm down and be coaxed back to safety.
In other cases, people might think that a wild animal is chasing them and keep imagining that they can hear it right behind them, leading them to rush off in an unlikely direction that rescuers don’t anticipate.
In addition to panic, hypothermia is notorious for making people do all the dumb things. Once past the initial teeth-chattering stage, your ability to think deteriorates rapidly even though you may remain physically mobile – a dangerous combination
This is almost certainly why that experienced hunter hiked up to the top of a mountain when he should have known to go down.
Hypothermia often leads to ‘paradoxical undressing’. This is when the victim feels that they’re hot, not cold, and begin removing clothing. Often searchers find clothes neatly folded here and there before they find the lost person. It is very common for people to remove their shoes and socks because of a burning sensation in the feet, which further reduces their chances of survival. Often bodies are found in a state of undress which leads investigators to incorrectly presume a sexual assault has occurred.
The story I mentioned earlier about the old man found by his daughter is a textbook case – he’d been gradually removing his clothing as he went and was confused, unable to understand what she was saying and making no sense himself. Had he not been found, he would have died within a few hours.
If you put panic and hypothermia together, one can guess why some people are found dead in places searchers checked while they must have still been alive. Lost and terrified people must sometimes hide from searchers. There have been cases where children were found very close to where they went missing after rescuers have combed the area again and again, indicating that they’d found a hidey-hole and stayed there, not responding to people two metres away calling their name. One boy was found in a hollow searchers had passed several times, where he must have heard them but did not respond. This was not just naughtiness – he nearly froze overnight – it was a case of irrational behaviour that he could not explain or even recall later.
Hypothermia also explains why people sometimes go missing from well-marked trails. For example, a scout once went missing from a half-hour, well-marked path up to a lookout. There was nothing on either side but thick forest. Friends reported that he’d seemed a bit ‘off’, tired and wanted to rest even though the walk was very short, which was out of character for him. If people start acting weird, this can be a warning sign of advanced hypothermia even if they are not shivering. It doesn’t have to be extremely cold for this to occur.
Unfortunately, the twelve year old was left alone for a short time and disappeared. His body was later found far, far away at the bottom of the mountain by a river. His backpack and all its contents were found neatly arranged on a rock in the middle of the river and his remains were nearby with boots and other clothing removed. People often describe this as a particularly creepy case but once you understand how hypothermia works, it seems obvious: he got confused and on the spur of the moment marched off in the wrong direction, acting in an increasingly irrational manner as he went.
Kids can move
In addition to these considerations, we should be aware of how far and fast small children can travel.
Dragging a toddler through the supermarket, it can seem like they can hardly move at all without an adult compelling them. However, alone in the wild, kids aged 2-4 can be a lot faster than you think. They can walk a long way without getting tired, sleep in a log at night then start moving again the next day, and they can climb steep cliffs. We know this because rescuers have found children alive and unharmed very far from where they started with no evidence of adult intervention.
Searchers sometimes make the error of assuming that children won’t have got far across thickly wooded areas, swamps or forests with a ground cover of fallen, rotten trees that make movement almost impossible. Being smaller, kids can duck between trees and under bushes more easily than adults. Because they are lighter, they can dash across decomposing logs without breaking them and getting bogged down. There have been cases where an experienced outdoorsman has tried to retrace the steps of a child within the same timeframe and failed.
As an aside, there was a case in Australia where it took a very long time to find an autistic teenage boy because he went in a direction no one expected. Instead of going downhill or along an easy path, he stubbornly charged up a very steep hill through extremely thick scrub for unknown reasons. Autistic or not, people don’t always do what you’d expect.
Bodies of missing people are often never found. Aside from the fact that they may go somewhere inaccessible that no one thinks to look, in our last moments a burrowing instinct sometimes kicks in. They might try to dig a hole or get inside a log, thereby hiding their body. There are cases of this happening indoors, with people lacking heating in winter being found deceased under a bed.
In the wilderness, given time, wild animals are likely to scatter the remains and often only a few bones or scraps of clothing are ever found, or nothing at all.
Large animals die in the wilderness all the time, but how often do you see them? Before too long nature reclaims their dust.
The moral of the story is, strange disappearances that appear inexplicable become easier to understand if you keep in mind that the lost person might not have been acting rationally. He might have had a psychotic break or, while hiking, might have suffered panic and/or hypothermia and begun making catastrophic decisions. It can happen very easily. I’ve been right on the precipice more than that one time I described. One day I’ll write about my brief sojourn in Siberia.
This does not explain all disappearances. For example, four recent cases in Victoria’s high country show few indications of a mental break and much stronger suggestions of foul play. However, the propensity for humans to become irrational in certain situations does pour cold water on the idea that there is some paranormal threat stalking us or that wildlife authorities are covering up a secret predator. Once you factor in our ability to lose our senses, the rate of weird disappearances becomes understandable.
Be careful out there and if it’s a serious hike, don’t go alone no matter how experienced you are.