To berry farmer Mark Tromp, it was an ordeal. But "strange" was the word most people chose to describe Tromp’s now-notorious technology-free road trip with his wife, Jacoba, and adult children Riana, Mitchell and Ella.
Police and neighbours called the early September chain of events strange. Journalists called it bizarre: a tale “cloaked in mystery”. And social media users repeated how strange it all was as they shared news stories about the Tromps.
It’s revealing that Mitch Tromp described his parents’ slowly mounting stress and paranoia as being “like a movie”. Indeed, as I’ve argued on Twitter, what struck me most about this case was that plenty of people didn’t just want to read news coverage about the Tromps’ strange journey. They also refracted this story through other media genres that deal in strangeness.
My own mind flew to sci-fi road movies such as Midnight Special, while some people likened the story to TV dramas including The X-Files and the Netflix series Stranger Things. Listeners of the popular true-crime podcast Serial wished they could follow intrepid investigator Sarah Koenig as she unravelled the Tromp mystery. Other readers wanted author Helen Garner to devote her next incisively observant work of narrative nonfiction to the Tromps.
Still, as academic Claire Birchall observes in her 2006 book Knowledge Goes Pop, news reporting plays a key role in discovering, promoting and even legitimising strangeness. There’s a subgenre of "weird crime" films based on long-form journalism, such as Bernie, The Bling Ring, Pain and Gain and War Dogs. And many of the "Australian gothic" films to which the Tromps’ road trip has been compared, such as Wolf Creek and Picnic at Hanging Rock, draw part of their power from a perceived closeness to news events.
[Investigative journalism is dead! Long live the pop-culture quest!]
As the Tromps’ road dust settled and they began the not especially newsworthy (but nonetheless closely observed) process of recovering their former equilibrium, some journalists reflected on their own culpability in shaping strange events into a "mystery" narrative for curious audiences.
“In the end were we looking for a more digestible, more sensational drama that wasn’t actually there?” wondered Chris Johnston and Tammy Mills, two of the Age team covering the story as it unfolded. The reason we inserted our favourite genre fantasies into the Tromp story, Johnston and Mills suggest, “appears to be that as a society we still can’t truly be sympathetic or at least understanding of mental health issues.”
But the ease with which many in the media leapt to "diagnose" the Tromps with shared psychotic disorder -- a so-called “folie en famille” -- troubled Saturday Paper reporter Martin McKenzie-Murray. Unlike most of the blanket Tromp coverage, his feature sought to erase strangeness from the family, instead focusing on the recognisable ordinariness of their everyday lives in Silvan.
“Our curiosity turns people into puzzles to be solved, and people like me assume the role of solving that puzzle for readers’ entertainment,” McKenzie-Murray concludes. “We can sell it as something more important, as a story that tells us about ourselves, about our humanity, but rarely do these things add up to more than what they are.”
It certainly is simplistic and ethically wrong to turn real, suffering people into characters in imagined pageants of media strangeness. But what if media audiences are tired of the ritualistic reporting cycles through which journalists seek to tame and explain strange events? Perhaps we crave stories of "strangeness" not because we yearn to solve puzzles, but rather because it’s refreshing to dwell in uncertainty.
Sully is a new film, directed by Clint Eastwood, that follows US Airways captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) in the aftermath of the emergency water landing on the Hudson River he coolly pulled off in 2009, saving all 155 people on board his aircraft when a bird strike destroyed both the plane’s engines soon after take-off.
Like a low-flying aircraft, Eastwood loops around the consummate professionals whose skills save innocent civilians, and the mealy-mouthed (but never truly malicious) aviation bureaucrats who ultimately come to respect the pilots’ quick thinking. Sully finds heroism in calm, modest and humane crisis management: a system working exactly as it should. So why did it feel so flat to me, so bland and padded out? Perhaps because it wasn’t strange. Everything about it added up.
[Who are you wearing? The racism and appropriation inherent in fash-speak]
In 1969, astronomer and UFO researcher Josef Allen Hynek sought to measure strangeness as the difficulty a scientist faces in assigning a physical explanation to a reported activity. When an activity resists explanation to the point where it appears terrifying or absurd, this is "high strangeness".
But an older, literary tradition -- epitomised by horror author H.P. Lovecraft, self-directed researcher Charles Fort and cartoonist Robert "Believe It Or Not!" Ripley -- treats strangeness more ambivalently. Wired journalist Clive Thompson has observed that Lovecraft’s stories chart “the collapse of language in the face of an emotionally unhinging reality”. Or, as people say online: “I can’t even.”
Regarding the Tromp case, Johnston and Mills write: “The truth about what happened to these people, good people who mean well and work hard, was not black and white but mired in a kind of grey area that most of us can’t deal with thinking about.”
What if we’re sick of dealing with thinking? What if we enjoy being unable to even? To call the Tromp case a "mystery" isn’t quite accurate, because mysteries offer the cosy promise of resolution. Instead, the Tromp affair provoked in media audiences an uneasy, uncanny fascination, because nobody could explain it -- least of all the Tromps.
In a widely shared blog post last March, Steve Coast argued that major disasters are becoming increasingly eccentric because global safety systems have anticipated and prevented most common contingencies. Mental illness, natural events and ideological violence are less predictable and hence less explicable. “Ultimately, this is why the world is getting weirder, and will continue to do so,” wrote Coast. “Now with global media you get to hear about it all.”
Similarly, the media’s impulse to create narratives that explain just about everything has provoked an eruption of online memes: shareable concepts that take on meaning in their sharing. Writing at The Atlantic, Venkatesh Rao compares Sully to the strangest meme of 2016: Harambe.
In May, Cincinnati Zoo keepers controversially shot and killed a 17-year-old lowland gorilla named Harambe to protect a small child who’d climbed into the enclosure. Harambe became the most free-floating of memes, Rao argues, because his death resisted coherence and closure. It wasn’t "about" animal rights, negligent parenting or zoo procedures. Rather, Harambe has become strange: more than what it was.
Sully’s "Miracle on the Hudson" was one of the defining moments of live-tweeted news because it was an eruption of strangeness -- a plane landing on an inner-city river. But while Twitter stayed weird, Sully was quickly recuperated into familiar media narratives of heroism.
“It is perhaps Clint Eastwood movies that are out of place in this world, in that they offer no acknowledgement or accommodation of the great weirding that defines our times -- only escapist fantasies set in worlds of moral meaning and emotional closure,” argues Rao. “In a world defined by Harambe, Sully is emotional science fiction.”
We crave strangeness not just in spite of a media environment dominated by the certainties of "hot takes" and "explainer" articles, but because of it. The most alluring media stories are those most at home in genre fiction and the Fortean terrain of pop-psychology and conspiracy theory. Where Sully stayed safely grounded, Mark Tromp and his family took flight. And no matter what "really" happened to them, they took our imaginations along for the ride.