People who are skeptical of the paranormal, cryptozoology, alternative medicine, etc. are often asked, “What’s the harm?” Who cares if someone believes a weird thing? Trouble is, beliefs have consequences. That’s pretty clear when you look at people (like Steve Jobs) who seek untested or proven false alternative medical practices, possibly delaying real treatment or actively hurting themselves even more.
A deceptively complex season 10 episode of Bob’s Burgers, “Three Girls and a Little Wharfy,” shows the damage even a silly belief can do — and maybe one of its benefits, too?
Louise, the youngest of the Belchers’ three children, isn’t great at making friends. And she certainly isn’t interested in “Spirit Week” at school, with its “fun” days of wearing pajamas or having “zany” hair. Her lack of participation earns her a job making spirit banners, where she’s joined by two other cynical students, Jessica and Megan. Megan’s packing a satchel full of fried dough to feed to “Wharfy.”
“You mean the pretend sea monster they used to try to sell t-shirts of at Wonder Wharf?” Louise asks. “She’s not pretend, she’s real,” Megan says, whipping out a photograph. “I assume she’s a she … Don’t those look like boobs?” Plenty of sea serpents and lake monsters are indeed reported to have humps, which sounds a lot like a group of otters to many.
Louise isn’t convinced either, pointing out that Megan believes a whole lotta strange things. “You thought the new lunch lady was Cathy Bates dressed in disguise, studying for a role,” Louise says. “And you thought #2 pencils were made out of real #2’s.” In reality, it’s true that people who believe in one conspiracy theory are likely to believe in a bunch, and there may even be personality traits that make certain people more susceptible (though none of us is immune).
Somewhat begrudgingly, Louise agrees to go with Megan and Jessica to the pier after school, to drop the fried dough into the water and see if it’s eaten by something, which Megan says happened the last time she tried this experiment. This is actually some pretty good skepticism, because a lot of self-described skeptics are content to dismiss reports of strange phenomena with halfhearted explanations that use the word “probably” a lot, without actually doing the work of finding out. Investigation is key to solving a mystery! The trio drops the dough, and sure enough, something sucks it right up.
The investigation continues, as Louise and company track down April Buzzby, who took the fabled best photograph of Wharfy. She owns a soap shop now, after struggling through therapy to abate her Wharfy obsession. Before that she quit her job and bought a boat to continue the hunt. When a person reaches this level of commitment, a belief can become part of their identity. It might be incredibly difficult to give up, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, without feeling like you’re changing yourself.
Buzzby’s quick to tell the girls that she’s not the first to see Wharfy, rattling off reported encounters from 1942 and 1965. Louise rightly points out that these are just stories, and Buzzby’s is the only photograph. “And we’re supposed to believe it’s Wharfy and not just a piece of driftwood or something?” she says.
This is remarkably similar to the story of Champ, America’s most well-known lake monster, said to inhabit Lake Champlain, which straddles the border between New York and Vermont. Champ enthusiasts often point to a story that the lake’s namesake, French cartographer Samuel de Champlain, spotted the monster in 1609 (although a quote that surfaced in 1970 is fake, de Champlain did write about large fish, which are pretty clearly gar).
And there is one great photo of Champ, taken by Sandra Mansi in 1977. You’ve probably seen it; it’s the one that looks like a curving (brown?) neck extending out of the water. Mansi claims to not remember exactly where the photo was taken, but given her description, Joe Nickell and Benjamin Radford investigated probable areas for their 2006 book Lake Monster Mysteries, and found that as far as 150 feet from shore, the water was still only about 15 feet deep. Not much room for a big animal to maneuver. One alternate explanation for the photo is a floating tree stump.
The Mansi photo, and a model of a floating tree stump.
“We’re gonna find her and my life is finally gonna be vindicated,” Buzzby exclaims as the group meets at the wharf with a makeshift trap, later on. Louise still doesn’t expect much, so she’s pretty surprised when the dough-baited trap starts to shake, and Buzzby ends up in a tug of war with … something. The trap breaks, and the crew sees the silhouette of a very large fish swimming away. Sturgeon, a spiky, prehistoric-looking fish found in Lake Champlain that can live for 150 years and weigh over 300 pounds, are another possible candidate for some Champ sightings.
But despite the disappointment of not finding a monster, Louise had fun, and wants to go out with her new cohorts and try again. A lot of people don’t realize it, but real-life skeptics often feel the same way. We’re fascinated by this stuff, even if don’t always believe in it, and we love thinking about it and investigating it with similarly-minded folks.
So maybe the real monsters are the friends we make along the way. Or something. You know what I mean.
Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’re highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture.
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