Ronan's Spooky Mysteries: Missing 411

If you go onto the weird part of Amazon, you'll find a large number of ostensibly non-fiction books predicated on the idea that people are disappearing in America's woods under mysterious and Certified-Spooky circumstances. My favourite example is the no-nonsense HUNTED IN THE WOODS, which features a scary clown.

By far the most famous brand in the hot-ticket People Vanishing In The Woods genre is the Missing 411 series, written and self-published by David Paulides. The books can be bought on the CanAM Missing Project website, which bills itself as "The first website dedicated to understanding the complexity and issues of searching, rescuing and investigating people missing in the wilds of north America." 

That description is sort of accurate, in the same way that a UFO research site could be billed as "dedicated to understanding the aerodynamics of various objects in flight." Paulides's basic thesis is that people are going missing in US and Canadian national parks and forests at an anomalous rate, often under unusual or mysterious circumstances, and that there's a pattern of similarity in these cases that becomes evident if you examine enough of them.

Actually buying the books was way more time and investment than I was willing to put into a single blog post, so I opted instead to watch the recently-released documentary and some of the podcast and radio interviews that are available on Youtube. I went into the movie with the expectation (reasonable, I think) that it would present the best evidence that Paulides could muster for his idea.


The movie focuses mainly on a single case, the disappearance of Deorr Kunz Jr in 2015, cutting away occasionally to five other cases from Paulides's research. Except for a few brief bits of audio from Paulides's radio interview, there's very little in the way of framing or cluing the view into what the overall point is meant to be, which makes me assume this is a project mainly aimed at pre-existing Missing 411 fans rather than a general audience; I can imagine someone watching the whole thing and not realizing it isn't just a documentary about normal missing person's cases.

A big part of the problem is that Paulides (who is mostly absent from the narration apart from the radio interviews) never actually suggests what he thinks is responsible for these mysterious vanishings. According to people who have delved more deeply into the David Paulides Extended Universe, this is par for the course; apparently he does have an idea in mind, but doesn't want to say what it is in public in case people ridicule him for it. Which is a novel approach for a paranormal investigator, I have to admit.

In fact, Paulides is often infuriatingly coy about what point he's actually trying to make, even in direct interviews. He runs--and sells his books through--a bigfoot research organization (which doesn't seem to be the overall solution to the big mystery, at least not in the majority of cases) and will sometimes teasingly emphasise the presence hair or signs of an animal attack, but without actually coming out and saying that he thinks a bigfoot was involved. The entire documentary takes this tone, so that you often have to puzzle through what it is the film is actually trying to claim.

There's a frustrating "just asking questions" aspect to the whole thing, where Paulides and his film-makers will let witnesses and people involved in the case come to the more out-there claims rather than just stating them for themselves.

And when you do parse those claims, most of them are underwhelming, as the "mysterious" aspects of the cases that are meant to point to this overarching mystery are pretty unconvincing. Early on, Paulides states in an interview that many of the disappearances he's looked into involve people with (in his words) "physical impairments or genetic deficiencies" and suggests that people with those traits are being "targeted". I can think of many reasons why people with certain disabilities would be more likely to go missing in difficult wilderness terrain, none of which involve them being snatched away by a supernatural force (or whatever Paulides thinks happened to them).

A lot of the movie is like this. The fact that search and rescue dogs sometimes tried to follow branching trails or led searchers to dead ends is treated as suspicious, even though dogs are known to not be 100% reliable. The remains of very young children are found far from their last known whereabouts and at high elevations, which is flatly stated (again, by interview subjects and not the film-makers themselves; they're just asking the questions, remember) to be completely impossible, which I'm not sure I buy. Elsewhere, remains are said to have been found in places that had already been searched multiple times. I'm really not sure how you can verify that searchers definitely looked in that one particular spot, especially in dense forest (to say nothing of the possibility of animals moving the bodies).

And then we come to Deorr Kunz Jr, the centerpiece of the documentary. The choice to make this particular case the main focus is odd, because it seems increasingly likely that Kunz's parents are responsible for his disappearance; two separate private investigators hired by them to look into the case turned on them and came to the conclusion that they were involved, and the police have named them as persons of interest. The documentary dutifully goes through the facts of the case, including all of the details that make the parents look suspicious as hell, and then at the last minute has to try and exonerate them since that's not the conclusion Paulides wants us to come to.

It's a shame, because the documentary is for the most part well-produced and professional-looking--this isn't some slapdash project that comes off like it was made by cranks to push their pet conspiracy theory--and it gives a good overview of the Deorr Kunz disappearance, a case that seems like it's going to go down in the true-crime annals once all the facts shake out and the dust settles. It would have been nice if the film-makers had waited for that to happen and then applied their obvious documentary-making chops to the subject without Paulides's "research" getting in the way, but they clearly had other priorities.