In 1958 Jack Harris and Irvine Millgate introduced the world to a soon-to-be iconic Steve McQueen and a squishy alien known as “The Blob.” This gooey fiend oozed its way across silver screens scaring the pants off a generation of teens in theaters and drive-ins nationwide, but while this B-movie beast has become an icon in its own right, there are few who realize that the Blob’s creator was inspired by a real life run-in with a gelatinous, allegedly extraterrestrial life-form that was encountered by four Philadelphia police officers in the autumn of 1950.
In the September 27, 1950 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer readers were treated to a bizarre headline which read: "Flying 'Saucer' Just Dissolves." The article told the tale of Joe Keenan and John Collins, two veteran Philadelphia police officers who spied a strange “object” plunging through the night sky less than 24-hourst before, resulting in an encounter that neither man would ever forget.
As the two policemen rounded the corner they noticed a large, glittering "mass" drifting toward an open field approximately half a block distant.
The bewildered Keenan and Collins wasted no time in racing toward the unidentified falling object that was sparking under their headlights’ glare. Once their patrol car squealed to a halt, the officers swiftly retrieved their flashlights and rushed toward the quivering, domed mound of what they described as “purple jelly.”
The perplexed policemen observed the strangely pulsating heap, which they claimed glistened beneath their flashlights. The officers estimated that the circular mass was approximately 6-feet in diameter and nearly a foot thick at the center.
The edges sloped down from the peaked top of this “glob” -- as Frank Edwards dubbed it in his tome “Strange World” in a chapter titled “Police and the Purple Glob” -- tapering to a lip that was just a couple of inches thick. When they turned off their flashlights, the men discovered that the “thing” emitted a faint purplish, perhaps bioluminescent, glow that illuminated the darkened field.
The most disturbing thing about this odd object, according to the officers, was the fact that this iridescent, gelatinous substance seemed to vibrate of its own accord. There’s even one report that claimed the entity was “oozing” up a nearby telephone pole. Regardless of the limits of its mobility, the fact that this thing moved at all seemed to indicate to the officers in question that this blob-like entity was almost certainly a living organism.
At this point the two cops, fearing no one would believe their story, sagely radioed for backup and within minutes Patrolman James Cooper and Sergeant Joe Cook arrived at the scene of this extraordinary close encounter. After a perfunctory investigation, Cook speculated that object appeared to be solid enough to actually lift, so he entreated his cohorts to help him have a go at it.
The four officers evenly (and hesitantly, one must assume) spaced themselves around the glob. Collins was the first to screw up the courage to actually touch the substance and found, to his surprise, that this seemingly solid object instantly broke apart in his hands. Tiny pieces of the glob remained attached to his hands and fingers, but within seconds they evaporated leaving nothing but a residue of “odorless scum” on his skin.
The officers -- apparently unable or unwilling to retrieve a sample -- simply watched with astonishment as the purple goo evaporated before their eyes. Less than half an hour after the arrival of officers Cooper and Cook, the object had completely disappeared, leaving nothing behind but four mystified Philadelphia patrolmen. The following day when the police officers addressed a group of newsman regarding their bizarre encounter, the men made it abundantly clear that they believed that the glob was a living creature.
Some seven years after this event the head of visual aids for the Boy Scouts of America, a man named Irvine H. Millgate, would be tasked by his friend -- movie producer Jack H. Harris -- to come up with a marketable concept to turn into a feature film. In the late 1950s science fiction was all the rage and coming up with a unique creature to impress fans (and distributors) of this already over saturated genre was no easy task, but Millgate was eager to tackle the problem posed by Harris. In Harris’ own words:
“It’s gotta be a monster movie. It’s gotta be in color instead of black and white. It can’t be a cheapy creepie, it’s gotta have some substance to it. It’s gotta have characters you can believe in. And there’s gotta be a unique monster -- never been done before. And the method of killing the monster would have to be something that grandma could have cooked up on her stove.”
Bearing these restrictions in mind, Millgate would recall this strange tale of the four officers and the purple glob that descended from the heavens, which he had read about years before. Of course, for dramatic purposes, Millgate would take the virtually inert, possibly alien, substance that landed on Philadelphia and transform it into an alien blob hellbent on devouring all life on Earth… or at least the citizens of the small Pennsylvania town in which the movie was set.
While Harris and Millgate had no intentions of creating anything more than a cheap, quickie creature feature -- which might (if they were lucky) recoup its coast -- the pair unwittingly managed to give birth to one of the most recognizable and unique monsters ever to thrill movie going audiences and ignite the imaginations of young boys worldwide.
The film was so popular that it became a runaway smash hit, much to Steve McQueen's chagrin, and even spawned a humorously bent 1972 sequel "Beware The Blob," also known as "Son of Blob," directed by Larry Hagman of "Dallas" and "I Dream of Jeannie" fame.
The monster proved to be so durable that in 1988, filmmaker Chuck Russell, fresh off the success of a "Nightmare on Elm St. 3: Dream Warriors," was tapped for a graphically violent and visually lush remake of "The Blob," which, I must admit, is one of my guilty pleasures.
In 2009, it was announced that musician and director, Rob Zombie -- who had previously re-imagined John Carpenter's "Halloween" franchise -- was tackling the Blob in yet another remake, but (like so many projects) this seems to have stalled out. Nevertheless, this only confirms this monster's enduring popularity.
While, according to Hollywood legend, it was the 1950, Philadelphia "Purple Glob" event that indirectly led to the creation of the world’s favorite invertebrate monster, that year was not the first, or the last, time that so-called “purple globs” would fall from the sky.
On August 11, 1979, a woman named Sybil Christian was standing on the front lawn of her home in Frisco, Texas, watching the Perseid meteor shower. Following the celestial fireworks display, Christian noticed three purple, seemingly metal filled, blobs on her lawn, which, she claimed, radiated heat.
Christian -- displaying a foresight rarely seen in such discoveries -- assumed that they might be of scientific value and immediately contacted local authorities and asked them to recover the samples from her lawn. Before the police arrived one of the globs had already evaporated, but two remained. These samples were collected and one was preserved for analysis by NASA.
Upon inspection the NASA scientists conceded that the substance might represent an organic alien life-form, but the very next day they recanted, claiming that it was likely nothing more than industrial waste. While this is a distinct possibility, the Fox Mulder in me remains skeptical that such a definitive analysis and theoretical turnaround could have been possible in such a short time frame. NASA geochemist Doug Blanchard spoke about the case:
“The blobs were found by Mrs. Sybil Christian on the front lawn of her home in Frisco, a farming town near Dallas. She described them as looking like ‘smooth whipped cream, [only] purple.’ The blobs, which were about the size of a telephone and weighed a couple pounds apiece, were warm to the touch and contained small chunks of lead. One melted away on the lawn, but police took the remaining two to the Heard National Space Museum nearby, and eventually one ended up at NASA.”
While NASAs test result are not readily available, the assistant director of the Forth Worth Museum of Science and History, Ron DiIulio, took it upon himself to “debunk” the extraterrestrial theory. Eventually he stumbled across a battery reprocessing plant about 2-miles away from Christians’ home where he discovered that a caustic soda -- which was used to clean impurities from the lead salvaged from old batteries -- resembled a reddish blob-like substance.
DiIulio immediately declared the case closed, but that assertion seemed to have been a bit premature. When Christian was shown the industrial “blobs,” she concluded that they were not the same things that she had found on her property during the meteor shower.
Furthermore, the blobs found at the battery reprocessing plant were red and rigid as opposed to the soft, purple, pliable globs found on Christians' lawn. Finally, the test that should have proved the purple globs were caustic soda came back inconclusive.
Perhaps the most intriguing -- and certainly the most evidence rich -- encounter with meteor blobs occurred in September 28, 1969. On that day scientists collected more than 200 lbs of jelly-like material following a meteor shower over Murchison, Australia. These scientists (and later NASA) found amino acids, the chemical building blocks of DNA, within the substance. Does this confirm that life as we know it originated in the depths of the cosmos?
Of course these examples of “space globs” are just two of the many reported events that have occurred worldwide over the past century and well before.
On January 21, 1803, a “shooting star” was seen hurtling toward Earth in the central European region of Silesia, which is primarily located in Poland. The meteor’s trajectory was low and witnesses -- in a very B-movie moment -- claimed to have heard a “whizzing” sound as it sizzled above them. The local citizenry formed a posse and followed the trail of flames until they found the “burning” meteorite. Eventually the clamor died down and the posse went home, but when the good folks of Silesia returned the next morning the meteorite was gone and had apparently been replaced with a mass of glutinous material.
On the evening of November 11, 1846, observers claimed that an incandescent object crashed to the earth at Loweville, New York. Eyewitnesses rushed to the scene and discovered what they described as “a heap of foul smelling luminous jelly,” which was estimated to be about 4-feet in diameter. Not surprisingly, this “jelly” evaporated within minutes.
In more modern times, December of 1983 to be exact, a grayish, oily gelatin fell on North Reading, Massachusetts. Thomas Grinley reported finding it on his lawn, the streets and sidewalks.
On November 28, 2001, there was an alleged incident that occurred in Manchester, England, wherein researchers were called in to investigate reports of “lights” falling from the sky. What investigators found at the scene was not a meteor or the friction illuminated debris from a plummeting satellite, but -- you guessed it -- gooey blobs.
Even more disturbing was the weird, viscous “rain” that battered the tiny town of Oakville, Washington in August of 1994. This event -- like the 1979 Frisco incident -- occurred during the annual Perseid meteor shower. Scientists revealed that this enigmatic goo contained enterobacter cloaque and pseudomonas fluorescens, bacteria which are capable of causing severe illness.
Biologist Tim Davis also analyzed the Oakville substance and found what he believed to be a complex cell with a nucleus known as a eukaryiotic cell in the material. Could this herald the potential for a horrific extraterrestrial plague like the one depicted in the sci-fi classic “The Andromeda Strain?” Let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope that's not the case.
So now that we know about the basics of this phenomenon let’s get into some of the more legitimate (and outlandish) theories regarding the origins of these space globs. The primary hypothesis is that this substance might be...
Star jelly -- also known as astral jelly, astromyxin and “pwdr sêr,” which is Welsh for "rot from the stars" -- was, according to legend, a viscous substance that was believed to be brought to Earth via meteorites. There are some who have speculated that all life on Earth emanated from a combination of the primordial soup that once coated the planet and the genetic “seeds” carried within the star jelly.
Reports of star jelly go back for at least 700 years. In the 14th Century, priest and physician, John of Gaddesden, mentions stella terrae -- Latin for “Earth-star” -- in his medical writings. He described the material as "a certain mucilaginous substance lying upon the earth" and even went so far as to suggest that it might be used to treat abscesses.
Another 14th Century Latin medical glossary has an entry for “uligo.” This material was described as "a certain fatty substance emitted from the Earth that is commonly called 'a star which has fallen.'" An English-Latin dictionary from 1440 has an entry for “sterre slyme,” which is a Medieval Latin term for a “shooting' star.”
While the debate rages on there are many skeptics who doubt that star jelly even exists. In fact one of the more popular, not to mention bizarre, theories is that these space globs are nothing more than...
In 1824, Volume 64 of the “Philosophical magazine” -- complied by Richard Taylor and Alexander Tilloch -- published an article titled the "Natural History of the Toad.” In it, Tilloch and Taylor ascribed the genesis of star jelly to the decomposing carcasses of frogs, which they refer to as “reptiles,” a habit which lends little credibility to their scientific stature:
"The substance known by the name of star-jelly or star-shot (Tremella Nostoc), found on marshy ground, is the decomposed bodies of toads or frogs, but more particularly the latter, the writer having frequently found the exuviae of the reptile connected with it, and he has also seen the lacerated body of a frog lying on the margin of a lake one day, and the next seen it converted into this substance, the atmosphere at the time being very humid and the weather wet, which appear to be necessary adjuncts to the formation of star-jelly. It may be objected that this substance is sometimes found in places inaccessible to frogs and toads, as the tops of thatched barns, hay-ricks. This is easily accounted for; these reptiles are the food of various birds of prey, and by them carried to those situations to be devoured at their leisure; and if scared in the act, the lacerated 'toad or frog is left behind, and if the state of the weather and air is favourable to this mode of decomposition, star-jelly is formed. If the weather is hot and dry, they are converted into a hard leathery substance. Frogs in particular are rarely decomposed by the usual process of animal putrefaction."
In 1848, author and naturalist, Samuel Griswold Goodrich, in his book “Tales about the sun, moon, and stars” described star jelly as:
"A gelatinous substance is occasionally found on the grass, and even sometimes on the branches of trees, the origin of which the modern learned do not ascribe either to stars or to meteors… [but] the animalists, though differing from each other in subordinate respects, agree in affirming it to be the altered remains of dead frogs. ‘The quantity of jelly,’ says one of these, ‘produced from one single frog, is almost beyond belief; even to five or six times its bulk when in a natural state;’ that is, when the frog is in a living state."
While the dead frog theory seems to have gone out of favor, there was also the ever popular speculation that space globs and star jelly were very likely...
This rather unappealing supposition was put forth by esteemed Welsh geologist and Woodwardian Professor of Geology at Cambridge University, Thomas McKenny Hughes, who seems to have wryly written about pwdr sêr in “Nature” back in 1910:
"On the other hand, he says that he saw a wounded gull disgorge a heap of half-digested earth-worms much resembling star-jelly, and that Sir William Craven saw a bittern do the same in similar circumstances."
Author Mark Pilkington in his 2005 article for the Guardian titled "The blobs" further elaborated on this repugnant theme with a healthy dose of skepticism:
"Since at least the early 18th century, the most common earthbound explanation for the mystery goo has been that it is something vomited up by birds or animals; the Welsh naturalist Thomas Pennant, writing later that century, considered this the answer. Currently popular is the idea that the grey gloop is frog spawn barfed up by amphibian-eating creatures, though no frogs' eggs have ever actually been identified within it, and most finds are a good deal larger than your average frog. A recent refinement of the concept is that if a frog is swallowed prior to ovulation, its regurgitated egg duct -- which swells dramatically when wet."
Let’s move on from this dubious, and frankly disagreeable, hypothesis into territory I’m much more comfortable with… monsters. Although the evidence supporting this theory is admittedly scant, my favorite explanation of the origin of space globs is that they are the remains of dead or dying...
Atmospheric monsters -- which I wrote about in my last article for Mysterious Universe: “Atmospheric Monsters Attack!” -- are bizarre airborne animals which are said to live amongst the clouds. Descriptions of these outlandish creatures range from vaporous, cloud-like beings to floating jellyfish to multi-winged “rods” to colossal ovoid beasts, which have been mistakenly branded as flying saucers.
Debates rage on as to whether or not these beasts hail from Earth or the depths of space and even more contention exists between those who believe that these creatures are sentient beings and those who insist that they are nothing more than animals that live their sky-bound lives reliant on mere instinct.
Paranormal author, Ivan T. Sanderson, speculated that numerous UFO accounts might actually represent “extremely low density animals native to the clouds,” and celebrated cosmologist, Carl Sagan, theorized that lighter than air astrobiological beasts might be soaring through the skies of massive gas giants such as Jupiter.
There is the possibility that the gelatinous “star jelly” so often found following meteor showers may well be the decaying remains of these ostensibly invertebrate beasts. Perhaps falling stars strike these creatures in mid-flight, tearing them apart with the force of their impact and sending them hurtling earthward in as yet unidentifiable hunks of purplish iridescent jelly that usually evaporates within minutes of their unceremonious arrival.
It has been speculated that star jelly is everything from slime mold to pond scum caught in a mini-cyclone to industrial pollutants to the detrimental residue created by crazed government scientists’ top-secret attempts to manipulate the weather. It has even been suggested that they are biological weapons launched against the Earth by a technologically advanced alien species.
Perhaps star jelly is nothing more than mold, algae, dead critters, regurgitation or manufacturing waste, but what of the pulsating purple glob that may or may not have been oozing its way up a telephone pole before it was “busted” by those Philadelphia cops back in September of 1950? While the temptation has always been -- for me included -- to lump it in with the star jelly phenomena, that fact remains that this relatively large, self illuminated, quivering mass may actually represent a completely different type of potentially alien organism.
Whatever it may or may not have been, there can be little doubt that the glittering, iridescent violet mound that fell from the sky that long ago autumn eve not only managed to inspire one of the most beloved monsters in pop culture history, but, to this day, remains one of the great biological mysteries of the 20th Century.