Wanted/Needed/Loved#7: Benji Hughes’s Pareidolia

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There’s this bar called Snug Harbor. It’s a pirate bar—only it’s in Charlotte so it’s completely landlocked. Late one night, a few years ago, I was there with some friends of mine. It was closing time, and we were just kind of hanging out, talking and whatever, and I looked over at the bar and there was this crystal—a big golden rock.

I guess someone had just left it behind. It was there, so I walked over and started moving it around, and taking pictures of it on a phone just to see how it would look when it was interacting with the light from the flash. From some angles it looked pretty wild, but nothing out of this world. Rock in a flash.

Then, a few days later, I was looking at the pictures, and in one of the shots I saw an image reflected in the very top of the right hand corner: it was the outline of a face. It isn’t very detailed, but I could see it clearly and there’s no easy accounting for how it could be there—I didn’t see it when I took the photos.

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At this point, I’d like to tell you I’m a guy who’s into crystals and other spiritual stuff—maybe that setup would make for a more fun story. But, no, I’m not a hippie kind of cat. Sure, I have the hair and the beard. And I’m an open-minded person. But I think it’s like what Stevie says, “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer. Superstition ain’t the way.”

Am I superstitious? Well, I do knock on wood, but for me, it’s a way of being mindful that there are experiences that can’t be explained, that we can’t put a harness on, or really even begin to understand. Notice that Stevie doesn’t say you suffer when you believe in things that aren’t real. It comes from thinking you can know for sure.

Without telling folks what I see in the photo, I’ve shown it to a lot of people. Some take a quick look and don’t see anything. Others, including some who are pretty learned, zone right in on the face. Scientists have a name for seeing stuff that may or may not be there: “pareidolia.” It’s stuff like the Loch Ness Monster, the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast, and the man in the moon. For scientists, these perceptions tend to be false illusions. Maybe they are, but the question remains open. The possibility is fascinating to me.

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Other weird things have happened to me over the years. For example, and, oh boy, I know I’m opening myself up here, I saw a UFO one night.

It was in the summertime, and I was playing with my band at the Ocean Grill and Tiki Bar in Wilmington. It was the prettiest gig, way out on a pier. The breeze was blowing, and there was nothing but ocean behind us. There were hundreds of people out there with us having a fun time. Eventually it got dark, and I noticed that everyone started looking right past me. And like any guy who’s out there singing, I’m wondering why they aren’t looking at me!

So I turned around and that’s when I saw the thing. It looked like a squished lampshade, emanating pure rays of light. At then a second later, poof, it was gone. I always wanted to see a UFO, but I never thought I actually would. And I was so glad so many people were there to share the experience with me. Afterwards I talked about it with at least fifty people.

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I still can’t tell you for sure what that thing was, but people make stuff all the time and don’t announce it. Odds are it was a technology developed right here on Earth. I don’t immediately assume the UFO came from this or another galaxy or associate it with aliens. Aliens are really fun, and cool conceptually, and they’re a great form of entertainment. I don’t have a belief system that has to involve extra-terrestrials. I do have a belief system that acknowledges there are unexplained possibilities in the universe.

Of those possibilities the most far out of all is probably love. Does it exist? And if it does exist, would you recognize it if it was right in front of your face? Or would you say, what the heck was that, and talk yourself out of it?

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For love to even possibly be real, you have to open yourself up. You have to accept that you have no idea when love will happen, where it will happen, or who it’s going to happen with. It’s not something that can be known beyond perception.

If you’re not feeling it, you can’t talk yourself into it. On the other hand, if you’re crazy about somebody, you can find out all kinds of stuff about him or her that tells you to run for the hills, but it still doesn’t matter. Even if you decide to make a run for it, you’re going to be thinking about that person for a long, long time. They’ll stay with you across time… and maybe even space. Love is irrational and it’s supernatural. It’s also probably what we want/need most.

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Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.

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North Carolina-based musician Benji Hughes played his first solo show at the age of sixteen, and quickly rose to prominence on Charlotte’s indie scene fronting the Captain Beefheart-esque band Muscadine. Since then Hughes has written commercial jingles including “Got a Little Captain in You?” for Captain Morgan rum, and he’s made music for film and television shows such as Walk Hard and Eastbound & Down. In 2008, Hughes released A Love Extreme, an acclaimed 25-track double-LP debut record, and after signing with Merge, he’s just released the album Songs in the Key of Animals. Critics including Chuck Klosterman, Ken Tucker, and Jon Pareles have praised Hughes’s musicianship, often comparing him to the likes of Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, and Warren Zevon.


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, The Brooklyn Rail and others. Esme Blegvad is originally from London but is now Brooklyn-based. Her work has also appeared at Rookie and VICE. More from this author →