The Doubtful Witness: You don’t really know what you saw

How often have you heard someone say “I know what I saw”. Observations and remembrances of events are deeply flawed but we still rely on our memory to give us a true account and we believe reports of eyewitnesses. These accounts are the primary evidence put forward in support of paranormal reality. Those who believe in the reality of UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts, or anomalous phenomena are heavily influenced by seemingly legitimate and truthful tellings of strange events people say happened to them. They also contend that there are so many accounts that “there must be something to it” and “all these witnesses aren’t lying”. Investigators collect these reports and then derive ideas, theories, and conclusions from them. But if the reports are not accurate, the data is unreliable and misleading – garbage in, garbage out. Here is the second example of why we need to qualify eyewitness accounts as data. (See the first here.) Continue reading

The Doubtful Witness: Masefield’s Montrose ghost story

The primary evidence put forward in support of paranormal reality are accounts of witnesses. Those who believe in the reality of UFOs, Bigfoot, or ghosts are heavily influenced by seemingly legitimate and truthful tellings of strange events people say happened to them. They also contend that there are so many accounts that “there must be something to it” and “all these witnesses aren’t lying”. Investigators collect these reports and then derive ideas, theories, and conclusions from them. Astounding accounts show up in the media, sometimes repeatedly, and those who hear paranormal-themed stories from TV and popular written accounts tend to accept that they are accurate. This is a deeply flawed assumption to make. I recently came across two sources that exemplify why we need to qualify eyewitness accounts as data. Here is the first.  Continue reading

Can you make a good paranormal-themed TV show?

A recent discussion with a person who pitches ideas for TV shows got me thinking about what a solid, informative, program about the paranormal would look like. The bottom line… it would be really difficult and producers are likely not willing to take a risk on it. Continue reading

UFO reports declining: Several social factors involved

An article in Gizmodo today focused on the question of why UFO sightings (reported to NUFORC and MUFON – the major U.S. organizations who record these claims) are in decline since 2012 – a 30 to 40 percent drop from 2012 to 2017. When Jennings Brown, the journalist, contacted me Friday to talk about it, a few things came to mind. In contrast to the opinion of one leader in the UFO community quoted in the piece, I refuse to cop out with an untested, unsupported sci-fi-inspired answer to this trend. I suspect the real answer is social and far more complicated than we can easily tease out.

Continue reading

Big Picture Science: Being sciencey

The latest episode of Big Picture Science radio show/podcast is called “Flat Earth” and features several interview segments about how amateurs are questioning scientific authority and attempting to sound sciencey all the while. Why do they do this? It’s complicated. The rise in flat earth belief is a good framework for this episode. This new conspiratorial claim is clearly not about science ignorance and lack of education – we all were taught at least this basic earth fact – but it is about the rejection of authority. They are refusing that established narrative and substituting their own personal ones. Evidence is seen through their own two-dimensional lenses. Continue reading

Let this one be a Devil’s biography (Book Review)

The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster
Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito
Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 2018

Only in very recent years, thanks to Bill Sprouse and Brian Regal, has the connection to Daniel Leeds been made to the Leeds Devil which later became the Jersey Devil – the official demon of New Jersey. The story about Leeds’ alliances, his nasty break with his Quaker neighbors, the production of a controversial almanac, and his family’s feud with Benjamin Franklin has been colorfully described primarily by Regal, a science historian. The premise of this volume is that the Jersey Devil is a beast spawned not from a demon seed but from freethinking, politics, a hoax, and the media.

I’m sold on the idea that the legend of this devil was formed from these threads that reached far back to pre-USA times. But it’s not the story most people have heard. There was no Mother Leeds, no devil child, no cryptid lurking in the Pine Barrens. But there was a notable and chastised family, probably some monstrous births, some Native folklore, and a climate of susceptibility that nurtured the myth we have today.

Continue reading

Reading list for paranormal investigation and research

In a recent discussion with a paranormal investigation group, I found myself referencing recommending books to check out for the latest on interesting facets of the field. I decided to share this annotated list. Continue reading

Paranormal stories and the TV shows list – the end

Two updates:

Today I received some emails from people who wanted to tell me their paranormal stories. I have to say, no, I don’t want to hear any more stories. There are a MILLION stories; I can’t do anything with stories. They are, in practicality, worthless to me. Decades, even centuries, of stories about hauntings, monsters, and weird observations are available, yet they get us no closer to establishing reliable information. However, if you are in the PA/MD/NJ area and need help with an actual investigation, please contact Anomalies Research Society and we’ll see what we can do to help. Or, if you have very good original information that you know will be useful to me in terms of science and the paranormal and know my previous work, then feel free to pass it on. Also, if you propose a worthwhile project related to investigating these type of observations, then I’m listening. Otherwise, I’m sorry, I’m not going to answer positively to hear your personal story. Paranormal investigation through personal anecdotes is not worthwhile for me but there are PLENTY of other people who are interested. Contact them instead.

Secondly, over the past two years, I’ve noticed a surge in paranormal programming that goes straight to YouTube, Amazon Prime video, or Netflix streaming, bypassing network broadcasting. Often these get renamed or repackaged for other countries or are amateur ventures. Though they are very popular (these outlets can’t seem to get enough of them), I realized I can no longer accurately keep track of them. Originally, I set up the Paranormal TV list to track the escalating trend in these shows that occurred in the 2000s and to see what stations carried that ball. I used other internet sources who kept tabs on the new shows coming out. But the rules have changed and I no longer need the list so I have ceased updating it as of this year. I am pleased to say the list was used not only for my work but by Dr. Christopher Bader in the 2nd edition of Paranormal America as well as thousands of people who clicked on the list to find their favorite show in the mix or muse on just how many there were.

A rarity: An impressive and useful ghost guide (Book Review)

Steve Parsons appears to be on the same page as me about the poor understanding of ghost investigations by amateur investigators. He wrote a detailed and very readable book with the aim to show that this kind of sensationalized paranormal inquiry should not be confused with parapsychology or science: Ghostology: The Art of the Ghost Hunter (Steven T. Parsons, 2015,
White Crow Books, UK).

Continue reading

Observing Paranormal Investigators: An ongoing research project at SFU

A recent piece published in University Affairs magazine (Canada) entitled “Making sense of the paranormal” was about the rise of academic interest in paranormal culture and the people who participate in it. Of course, this caught my attention, particularly, the work of Dr. Paul Kingsbury of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C. which was described as follows:

Dr. Kingsbury is nearing completion of a four-year study funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant to observe paranormal investigators. He’s gone on a dozen ghost investigations, attended numerous UFO and sasquatch conferences, and driven around rural England to visit crop circles. He’s looking broadly at who gets involved, what motivates them and how they share their data.

I emailed Dr. Kingsbury to make sure he was aware of my newly-published results in this area. He was. He pointed me to a talk he gave in March 2017 on his preliminary results. I recommend having a watch of this worthwhile discussion. Dr. Kingsbury, a geographer, used the framework of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s “university discourse” which is one of four discourses or social links he proposed. I need to read more on this. Essentially, it means that there is a social bond founded in language. Kingsbury is researching the ghost-, Bigfoot- and UFO investigation groups (which I called ARIGs) at a more personal level than I did by conducting interviews and directly participating in the events. Where my intent was to examine how these groups use science and then portray that to the public, Dr. Kingsbury is digging into why people get involved in paranormal investigation, who they are, and how the groups and conferences represent their work. So, it’s obvious there is considerable overlap, but each of our projects is complementary to the other in forming a larger social picture of 21st-century paranormal culture in North America (and Western Europe, we can safely extrapolate). Continue reading

Ghosts as modern history (Book review)

Lisa Morton presents another version of the history of ghosts in Ghosts: A Haunted History (Reaktion Books, London, 2015). In this case, it is an international popular history of ghosts in philosophy, literature, movies, television and pop culture. It is general and short, but good. The glossy pages are full of illustrations. The theme of this, and other contemporary books on paranormal culture, is “ghosts are everywhere”. They certainly are ubiquitous in western pop culture. You can’t watch TV, go to the movies, or visit a historic city without bumping up against them! Continue reading

Occulture and re-enchantment ties directly to the rise in amateur paranormal investigation

A theme that fits in incredibly well with Scientifical Americans and the modern popularity of paranormal topics are the ideas of occulture and re-enchantment put forward by Christopher Partridge. I came across a YouTube lecture by Dr. Partridge that points out some of the well-established factors in the growth of esotericism that can also be applied to the swell of people who, prompted by TV shows and internet forums, got up and went out to have their own experiences in a search for meaning. Continue reading

Errors in investigating: What you see is all there is

I received a personal message from a paranormal investigator who thought it was a shame I didn’t believe in the validity of spirit communication. He pointed me to a video he made that he said was the clearest responses he’s ever received in an EVP recording. I’m always looking to either be impressed or spot an obvious hoax so I checked it out. Upon noticing that he had included subtitles in the video, I quickly put my hand up to cover the lower portion of the screen while watching so I wouldn’t be primed to “hear” what (he interpreted) the spirit voice had said. I did hear the first sound he interpreted, a very rapid “What?” in response to his opening inquiry because I saw the subtitle signalling it. It was so soon after his question, it felt out of place and I think I would not have noticed it had he not pointed it out. For the rest of the video, without the priming, I could not hear any anomalous voice, just background noise of insects or wind outside the structure. When I told him I was not impressed, he seemed stunned. To him, these voices were crystal clear.

I would not have thought much about this exchange again except it served as a great real life example of the concepts put forward in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. As I was reading it today, the well-tested observations of human perception and thinking habits he explained applied directly to paranormalists and their methods of reinforcing their paranormal worldview. Here are some examples.

Continue reading

Sometimes, an alien artifact is just a rock

Paranormal investigators often lament the lack of scientific interest in anomalous or paranormal claims. Many have stated they want to contribute to a shift in thinking about these anomalies, to “prove to science” (or scientists) that “the paranormal” exists. Some want to “change the science”. None of this makes any sense, though, since science is not a monolithic thing, it’s a body of knowledge, a process to obtain that knowledge, and a network that collects, analyses and distributes that knowledge. A few arrogant people can’t overturn centuries of accumulated knowledge and an established process by their collected anecdotes and bits of questionable evidence.

It’s also a mistake to say that science hasn’t paid any attention to such claims. As I describe in my book Scientifical Americans, the most reputable scientists diligently examined and argued the reality and explanation for encounters with ghosts, UFOs, sea serpents, and Bigfoot. They found nothing worth pursuing.

Continue reading

It’s all very fuzzy: Dogman, Bigfoot, and the scent of paranormalia at CryptidCon

Werewolves have staked out new territory within the field of cryptozoology. What does this mean for cryptid-credibility? I explore the ideas and patterns spotted at a recent cryptozoology convention and discover that the paranormal is alive and well in monster research.

September 9-10, 2017 was CryptidCon in Frankfort, Kentucky. I drove 8.5 hours for two days and two nights of listening to those who believe cryptids exist and seeing how these mysterious monsters are represented in our popular culture. And I was glad to do it. I met up with Dr. Jeb Card (academic archaeologist and spooky enthusiast) and Blake Smith (skeptical paranormal researcher and host of Monster Talk podcast). The three of us wanted to see firsthand the current state of cryptozoology. What topics would be covered? How would they be presented? What was the evidence provided in support of these incredible claims? What was new? Continue reading

Confessions about Confessions of Ghost Hunters

There are three books that are explicitly titled “Confessions of a Ghost Hunter” – from 1928, 1936 and 2002.

There is also one called “Confessions of a Reluctant Ghost Hunter” by Von Braschler (2014) that I confess I didn’t read. A defunct Facebook page and website also of the same name appears to be related. Several other media also nab this title in some form or another to the point where it’s getting stale, like just another ghost reality TV show. But I’m here to compare the three books.

I read them in order of popularity today: Price’s first which is also the most substantial and the superior of the lot. Then Taylor’s, who was (maybe still is) popular with the modern amateur ghost hunting community. Finally, O’Donnells, which is nearly forgotten or even unknown by today’s paranormal researchers. Continue reading

The manufactured, badly-behaved Ouija demon: Zozo (Book Review)

In the classic book Psychology of Superstition, Gustav Jahoda writes that beliefs are not just in our heads, they affect our behavior, and that self-fulfilling prophecy is not uncommon in human affairs (p. 8). Many events seem trivial and unspectacular, but when placed into a paranormal context, they take on a new and enhanced meaning. We want explanations for the bad things that happen to us and we retroactively look to assign blame to anything but ourselves. There is satisfaction in seeking and establishing patterns that later seem obvious, even though they are concocted and baseless. This is my opinion of what happens when people think they have summoned bad spirits from an Ouija board. Superstition is at the core of this book, The Zozo Phenomenon by Darren Evans and Rosemary Ellen Guiley. Continue reading

The “Stone Tape Theory” of hauntings: A geological perspective

As with many cultural products, inspirations and influence for a widely-known idea originated from a variety of places and in alternative flavors. It’s unpredictable what bits and pieces will glom on to the original idea or which paths the notion (good or bad) will take that results in propelling it into mainstream popularity. Then, the idea can take on a life of its own whereby many people who later adopt it don’t know of its long history. This convoluted evolution of an idea applies to the “Stone Tape Theory” of hauntings often invoked by amateur paranormal investigators or mentioned on ghost hunting TV shows.

Continue reading

Arrogant and confused, ghost and ghoul (Book Review)

I’m still doing research on the Stone Tape idea, as a paranormally-curious geologist does. I was interested in obtaining a book by T.C. Lethbridge because his name comes up repeatedly as a promoter of the concept. It’s been a tricky thing to trace the origin without having easy access to the literature in print. I’ll keep looking. Meanwhile, I was able to secure a copy of Ghost and Ghoul (1961) via intra-library loan from my local county library (to whom I donate financially every month because they are awesome). I’m glad I didn’t purchase it. It’s was absolutely worse than I anticipated. And, it had essentially no mention of the physical recording of ghosts. In fact, Lethbridge promotes the idea that ghosts and ghouls (not visible but “felt” usually as coldness and oppression) are mental manifestations. Back to that idea by and by. First, some additional information about Lethbridge gleaned from this volume. I’m sure there is far more about Lethbridge since he was apparently notable in his time and warranted references and biographies. But after this introduction, you may not wish to bother.

Continue reading

An inconsistent history of paranormal in America – Book Review

Supernatural America: A Cultural History by L.R. Samuel (2011)

Supernatural America is one of a few books that aim to take the reader on a tour of the country’s paranormal history to end up where we are today. I’ve not read many good ones. (Paranormal Nation by Fitch was possible the WORST. Steer clear of that stinker!) I compare such a project to Brian Inglis’ two volumes (that are not focused on America but on the history of supernatural and paranormal thought) that some think are too pro-paranormal but certainly far more thorough. Continue reading