Since the late ’70s, a mild-mannered engineering technician named Mike Frizzell has run Baltimore’s answer to The X-Files. The paranormal investigatory group is called The Enigma Project. Through it, he and a loose network of cohorts endeavor to bring scientific rigor to investigations of unexplained phenomena. Neither strict believers nor intractable skeptics, they want to believe, but they need proof first, like Mulder and Scully rolled into one.
Baltimore profiled Mike Frizzell in October 1985, but we thought we’d check in with him 31 years later to see what weirdness has transpired in the interim. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
What is your scientific background?
Back in the ’70s, I started working for W.R. Grace as a lab technician, chemical technician, and went through a progression of various technical positions. Actually, I am a college dropout, never got my degree. I was more concerned with making a living than with doing coursework, so I became very lucky in that I ended up acquiring a variety of technical jobs without having the college degree behind me. Ultimately, I in 1989, I came to UMBC as an engineering technician. So I’ve just been working a whole variety of very, very technically oriented jobs for decades.
Give us a thumbnail sketch of how The Enigma Project began.
The Enigma Project started with a bunch of young guys working for a variety of technologically based companies—W.R. Grace, Western Electric. A number of us got together and decided that other groups weren’t giving unexplained phenomena the scientific attention or the technical expertise that it deserved. And for some strange reason, we felt that we had that.
What kinds of unexplained phenomena do The Enigma Project study?
We concentrated on geologic anomalies, cryptozoology, and to some degree, unidentified flying objects. But there were so many other groups out there that could handle that subject matter much better. So we usually left that to them. And with parapsychology—ghosts and things of that nature. We’d get involved with that to a point. Also things that are referred to as Fortean events, like ice falls and out of place objects, odd things that fall out of the sky that clearly shouldn’t. We also studied mysterious lights, which are things described in literature that are often given other, more colloquial names like will-o’-the-wisp and corpse candles.
If you were going to describe The Enigma Project, is it sort of like The X-Files but you guys are like Mulder and Scully all at once?
[Laughs] To a point. With a higher level of geekiness.
I don’t know. They were pretty geeky.
Yeah. But unlike Mulder and Scully, where it was mostly just them applying their investigative expertise to the situation, in our case, we’d investigate it with all kinds of devices that will expand the capabilities of the five physical senses. We had a whole barrage of devices—electrometers, magnetometers, all kinds of cameras, infrared viewers. The list goes on and on.
Were you ever disappointed when things turned out to have rather ordinary explanations?
I mean, in some cases, I guess. When we were much younger, I guess it would be a disappointment of sorts when the explanation turned out to be very prosaic.
I’ll give you a fine example: ice falls. There’s a long history of chunks of ice, sometimes huge chunks of ice falling out of a clear, cloudless, sunny sky, wreaking all kinds of havoc when it hits the ground. We were involved in one such case in the ’90s in West Virginia. This 50-pound chunk of ice came soaring out of the clear sky, hit a man’s yard, created a crater, and littered the whole area with chunks of cloudy white ice. Well, we were fortunate enough to get there in time to get a sample, and we actually had it analyzed by a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. At the time, there was a book that had just come on the scene—I think it was called The Big Splash—that was saying that ice falls could probably be explained as ice from comets that gets pulled into earthly orbit. Eventually that orbit decays, and this ice comes plummeting down. Comets are said to be dirty snowballs, so it seemed to be a good fit. So we were operating on a hypothesis that this makes sense.
Okay, if the ice had been from a comet, it would have had a very specific oxygen-isotope ratio, in other words, if it were outer space ice, its ratio of oxygen isotope would be very specific. If it’s terrestrial ice, it would fall in another zone. So I mean, there’s no gray area. It either is or it isn’t. So after the analysis was done, it showed that the oxygen-isotope ratios in this ice were most similar to water found in tropical regions of Earth.
So it did have kind of a prosaic explanation, but if this was most like water found in tropical regions of Earth, how did this 50-pound chunk of ice come falling out of the sky in West Virginia? So it might be a little bit of a letdown, but on the other hand, it’s still very peculiar.
Right. Science itself can be amazing and strange and sometimes raises more questions than it answers.
So that one is still a bit of a mystery, but there have been other cases where you’ve been able to totally debunk the prevailing paranormal theory. Tell us about Mr. Q.
[Laughs] Oh yeah, Mr. Q. That was an interesting case. I’ll set the stage. Mr. Q had contacted us. He was near retirement age and he worked at, I believe, Bethlehem Steel. He had a girlfriend who was, maybe, 20 years his junior. And he contacted us because strange things would happen when this girl was around. Things would start flying through the air and break. Windows would come slamming down—all kinds of unusual things, spooky things. He asked us to take a look at it. So we did that. We spent several weeks losing sleep over this case. We ultimately determined that the girlfriend had a brain tumor and she also had a problem with abusing alcohol. It turned out that when she would drink, it would have some effect on this tumor, this brain lesion, and she would start to experience hallucinations. Well, Mr. Q, the poor soul, he liked this woman so much that he didn’t want to admit that she had a problem. So if she started saying, you know, ‘I was just hit by an ashtray flying across the room!’ he’d say, ‘Yes, yes, I saw that.’ We ultimately got him to admit he was agreeing to the phenomena totally based on sympathy. It took us, I think, like, six weeks to get to the bottom of it all. But finally it all came out. It was like, ‘Well, this is a lesson learned.’
Okay, moving on to another case you were able to explain. Tell us about Gravity Hill.
Gravity Hill is in Baltimore County, in the old Soldiers Delight Natural Environmental Area. It was a teenage parking spot for many, many years. When I was a little child I remember hearing about Gravity Hill. And I’m an old man now! The story was that if you drove out to this area, you could park at the bottom of this grade, this hill, and if you had your car in neutral with the emergency brake off, it would just gradually roll up this hill. So some local was kind enough to show us exactly where it was and we enlisted the aid of a surveyor to actually measure off the very specific elevations along the road where this phenomenon supposedly occurred. Well, it turns out, there was an optical illusion set up by the trees and the grade of the land that made it look like the car was rolling up, when in fact it was rolling down. It was a very interesting experience. To the unaided eye, it sure looked like it was going up, but it really wasn’t.
So there’s stuff you’ve been able to provide a scientific explanation for, but then there’s other stuff that remains unexplained. What do you know about the Hebron Light?
The Hebron Light was a pretty amazing situation in that most of the activity with that light occurred in the 1950s. Hebron is a little community that sits about six or seven miles west of Salisbury on the Eastern Shore. There were people in Hebron and they’d call the police because there would be this basketball-sized sphere of light—kind of flame-orange or yellow—that would zoom down the road. At first glance, you would think that it was a car with one headlight out or maybe a motorcycle. A lot of times, it would approach people and either dart away from them and disappear into the darkness of the woods or it would just blink out, like somebody turned off a light switch. So the Maryland State Police, Salisbury barracks, were called into this, and the officer who responded was this Officer Burkhardt, and he saw this thing multiple times. I was fortunate in the early 1980s to actually locate Officer Burkhardt after he had left the police force. He was working another job in Salisbury. I was able to get together with him and discuss the situation, and there’s not doubt in my mind that he saw something very peculiar out there. Officer Burkhardt was a very serious fellow. There was no joking, no carrying on at all. I mean, after speaking with him for 40 or 45 minutes, it became very clear to me that this man is telling it like it was. What it was? Nobody really knows. Some scientists at Hopkins at the time tried to debunk it as swamp gas, but it was quite obvious that, whatever this thing was, it maintained its integrity as it moved at pretty fast speeds up and down the road there in Hebron.
And it wasn’t just Hebron, right? There were other similar lights on the Eastern Shore, too.
Yes, there was a very similar light to the Hebron Light seen in Crisfield many, many years earlier. There was another light seen in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County about 10 miles south of Cambridge. Actually, we got to the point where we plotted these areas on a map. They’re all very closely related to each other. You’re only talking about maybe 10 miles, as the crow flies. So it occurred to us that whatever these things are, maybe they’re all one in the same. It’s just traveling at different locations. And, interestingly enough, these things aren’t seen anymore. The one they called Cal’s Light—pronounced Kahl’s Light—was the one seen in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, and I think the last time it was accurately reported was probably 35 or 40 years ago. When we got there to investigate, we were a day late and a dollar short. It was already gone. We found lots of compelling witnesses to talk to, but most of those people told us, ‘Well, it’s not really seen anymore.’
Huh. Does the fact that it stopped suggest that it was a hoax?
Well, I mean, if somebody was perpetrating a hoax, they were being very creative—and very energetic at that. If you’ve got an armed state trooper on the road and you’re fooling around like that, it’s not out of the question that you could be arrested or possibly even shot. So, if it was someone perpetrating a hoax, they were very clever about it and able to do it not only in Hebron, but in Crisfield years earlier and in the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. And I might also add that sightings of these specific lights in these specific areas of the Eastern Shore occurred over a great span of time. I mean, we’re talking about, easily, a 100-year span. So, not only a clever hoaxster, but a long-lived one at that.
Well then, let’s continue with Chessie, which is supposed to be the Chesapeake Bay’s answer to the Loch Ness Monster. There’s video, right? Yes. Robert Frew and his family lived on Kent Island. They had a home right on the bay. In 1982, while they were having a Memorial Day get together, someone spotted this thing in the water off the bulkhead of the property. It looked like a snake, but it was gigantic. I mean, possibly up to 40 or 50 feet in length and maybe 8 to 10 inches in diameter. It was uniformly dark, like a dark green or a dark brown and it seemed to swim in a way that, at times, you could see the full length of it on the water. Frew’s entire family saw this—his wife and his two kids and then the neighbors that were celebrating with them that day, too. Frew, as luck would have it, he had a video camera, probably one of the few people at the time that had one. And he ran out to the edge of the property and started videotaping it. You can hear all the comments and the Ooo’s and Ahhh’s while they’re videotaping. Frew’s video ultimately landed in front of an audience of scientists at the Smithsonian that included Dr. George Zug, who is a herpetologist by degree. They were never able to pin a label on it, but it certainly left them a lot of questions. There have been many, many sightings of it over the years. There was even a compelling sighting that predated the Frew videotape by almost 20 years.
Have there been recent sightings?
Very few. I was contacted by a fellow maybe three or four years ago. I believe he was visiting his parents around Queenstown, on Kent Island. And he actually saw something that looked like a log moving through the water. He said it was definitely an animal and it was a serpentine shape. I think it was twilight or nearly dark but he could see this thing and see the peculiar wake it was leaving in the water. Until I got his sighting, I hadn’t heard of a sighting in probably 15 years. So it was running very hot and heavy through the '80s, and then it just stopped. Very interesting.
Are there any other local cases that you never were able to investigate to your satisfaction?
There were a couple Bigfoot cases that we were never able to thoroughly investigate for various reasons, either timing or the witnesses were cooperative in the beginning and then decided that they didn’t want to risk ridicule in case something leaked out. It’s a very delicate situation when people encounter unexplained phenomena and it falls outside of their frame of reference. They become very fragile at times, rightfully so. If you’re out walking one night and you’re alone and you’re in an open meadow and you see this huge metallic disc land in the meadow, I mean, that’s going to have a very unusual impact on you, whether its really from another planet or not. It’s a gift when witnesses are actually brave enough to discuss these things and lend you their trust.
That brings up a good question. How do people contact you?
Prior to 1995, nobody really had internet or email. So we were either called on the phone or we still maintain a P.O. Box. We would get letters of inquiry and phone calls. Now, of course, I might get one letter a year in the P.O. Box, but possibly dozens of emails and virtually no phone calls.
How do you decide which cases to take?
Frankly, the last 10 years or so, we’ve kind of been in a semi-retirement mode. We really haven’t done a whole lot. A case has to be very compelling at this point for us to get together. I mean, 40 years ago, we were all much younger! [Laughs] And unfortunately, we’re not all local anymore. Years ago, we were all living in the Baltimore metro area. Now, one of us is in Georgia, another was in New Jersey. That’s not to say we wouldn’t be very willing to take a good, active, hard look at something that’s really compelling.
What would that case look like? For instance, what subject matter most interests you?
I always found mysterious lights interesting and various avenues of cryptozoology. Like when people would say, ‘I just saw a giant, harry hominid running through my backyard and it cut itself on the barbed wire. You’ve got to come out here!’ You know, that kind of thing. [Laughs]