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Adventures in Paranormal Investigation

Adventures in Paranormal Investigation

Joe Nickell
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 320
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    Adventures in Paranormal Investigation
    Book Description:

    Tales of alien abductions, miraculous relics, and haunted castles have attracted believers and skeptics across the globe for centuries. Paranormal investigator Joe Nickell tackles the world's most seemingly inexplicable myths inAdventures in Paranormal Investigation.

    With four decades of experience in the field, Nickell employs skepticism and scientific analysis to pull truth from the mires of false evidence and trickery that surround both old and new legends and mysteries. Unlike authors who engage in hype and sensationalism in order to foster or debunk myths, Nickell approaches each case with a rational and scientific approach intended to find the truth. Occam's Razor -- all things being equal, the simplest solution is the best one -- is a principal instrument in his investigative toolbox, as well as the belief that it is the claimant's responsibility to provide the extraordinary proof required in such extraordinary cases.

    Adventures in Paranormal Investigationfeatures Nickell's on-site explorations in unusual phenomena. Among the forty unique cases, Nickell examines mysteries ranging from snake charmers who purport to hold influence over the reptiles, to the Holocaust victims who reportedly haunt a gas chamber in Dachau, to Lake Simcoe's resident lake monster Igopogo in Canada. In addition to the case studies, Nickell analyzes how the propensity to fantasize can affect human perceptions of and belief in paranormal activity and how his personal experience with the paranormal was altered when intuition led to the discovery of a daughter he didn't know existed.

    More than just another myth-busting text,Adventures in Paranormal Investigationbrings together reason and scientific analyses to explain both the phenomena and the role of human perception therein, establishing Nickell as the foremost paranormal investigator of our time.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4651-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)

    I am now in my fourth decade as a paranormal investigator—apparently, the only full-time professional one in the world. Ironically, I recall one of my childhood heroes, Sherlock Holmes, explaining to his new friend Dr. Watson (inA Study in Scarlet): “Well, I have a trade of my own. I suppose I am the only one in the world. I’m a consulting detective.” I followed Holmes in shaping my career around my interests and abilities. I began as a stage magician and “mentalist” (1969–1973), became a private investigator for a world-famous detective agency (1973–1975), and (many roles...

    (pp. 1-10)

    How would you like to spend the night — alone — in the most haunted house in America? That was the question posed to me by the producers of a documentary for the Discovery Channel. I readily agreed and was on location on August 14-15, 2001. Also there to investigate (although they did not spend the night) were Jeff Reynolds and a colleague, Krista Mattson, from Ghost Tracker Investigations (a branch of North Florida Paranormal Research, Inc.), who carried in lots of impressive ghost-hunting equipment.

    The site was the Myrtles Plantation Bed and Breakfast in St. Francisville, Louisiana, northwest of Baton Rouge...

    (pp. 11-17)

    Controversy over the phenomenon of crop circles—typified by swirled, circular depressions in wheat and other cereal crops—has flourished since it first captured media attention in England in the late 1970s. The controversy soon spread to North America, where it continues. Two cases—one in southwestern Ontario, Canada, and the other in Solano County, California—directly involved my office. The cases are instructive in illustrating how misinformation about the paranormal is created, packaged, and sold.

    In its early years, “circlemania” attracted a number of self-styled researchers called “cereologists” (after Ceres, the Roman goddess of grains or agriculture). Also dubbed...

    (pp. 18-26)

    People arrive in droves to view them: holy images that appear—many believe miraculously—in the most unlikely places. They include the figure of the Virgin Mary formed by a stain on the bathroom floor of a store, the face of Jesus in a giant forkful of spaghetti illustrated on a billboard, and the likeness of Mother Teresa on a cinnamon bun served in a coffee shop (Nickell 1997, 1998). Such images are commonly reported, and if the depictions are of religious figures, they may be popularly termed “apparitions” or “religious visions” (e g., Virgin Mary 2003). However, they are...

    (pp. 27-31)

    Britain’sManchester Evening Newstermed it a hoax that “fooled the world” (Salford 2006), but that is not exactly true:Skeptical Inquirermagazine was on to the “alien autopsy” film from the outset. In fact, my article on the case (Nickell 1995) inaugurated my “Investigative Files” column. Now, however, the reputed creator of the fake extraterrestrial corpse used for the “autopsy” has publicly confessed.

    The film—purporting to depict the postmortem examination of an extraterrestrial who died in a UFO crash at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947—was part of a “documentary” that aired on the Fox television network (figure...

    (pp. 32-38)

    From the snake-charming “miracle men” of the East to their Western counterparts who “take up serpents” in certain Christian rituals or perform in sideshows, many have demonstrated their supposed power over the feared reptiles.

    Figure 8 is a sketch I made in the Medina in Marrakech, Morocco, in 1971. I was drawn to the scene by the peculiar flute music. The performer was putting on a snake show while his assistant used his tambourine as a collection tray. As shown in the soft-pencil rendering, one of the charmer’s stunts was to approach a cobra in a squatting position, one hand...

    (pp. 39-47)

    Although purported communication with the dead is ancient, modern spiritualism began in 1848 at Hydesville, New York, when two schoolgirls, Maggie and Katie Fox, pretended to communicate with a ghost who identified himself as a murdered peddler. Four decades later the sisters confessed their trickery and even publicly demonstrated how they had faked the “spirit rappings.” In the meantime, however, spiritualism had spread across the United States and beyond. Magicians such as Harry Houdini (1874 – 1926) were instrumental in exposing phony mediums who produced so-called materializations, spirit writing and photography, and other bogus phenomena (Nickell 1988; 2001, 195, 259 – 60)....

    (pp. 48-58)

    I am not an archaeologist, but as something of a jack-of-all-trades, I have participated in some archaeological investigations and digs, including a forensic one that unearthed hidden skeletal remains and a bullet (Renovation 1981). In short, I know enough to appreciate what a boon psychic power would be to the field—if such power actually existed.

    Certainly, there are many who believe in psychic archaeology—the supposed “application of clairvoyance and other psychic skills to the field of archaeology, especially in the location of dig sites and the identification of artifacts.” It may involve psychometry (in which an object is...

    (pp. 59-66)

    Canadian Lilian Bernas claims to exhibit—“in a supernatural state”— the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion. On March 1,2002, I observed one of her bleedings (figure 17). It was the eleventh such event that “the Lord allows me to experience on the first Friday of the month,” she told the audience, “with one more to come” (Bernas 2002a). But was the event really supernatural, or was it only a magic show?

    Popularly associated with saintliness, stigmata are marks resembling the wounds of the crucified Jesus that supposedly appear spontaneously on the body. Following the death of Jesus, in about AD 29...

    (pp. 67-73)

    Here and there around the world, mysterious artifacts are found: crystal skulls that many New Age enthusiasts believe possess mystical powers. Now new claims—and new reviews of the evidence—have sparked further controversy. What is the truth about these remarkable objects?

    Perhaps the most famous of these artifacts—dubbed “the weirdest gem in the world” (Welfare and Fairley 1980, 51) and “the granddaddy of all crystal balls” (Garvin 1973, 6)—is the one commonly known as the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull. It is also referred to as the “Skull of Doom” by those who believe that it holds the power...

    (pp. 74-82)

    Labeled “unquestionably the most popular and widespread ghostly legend in the United States” (Cohen 1984, 291), the “vanishing hitchhiker” is a spine-tingling tale that is told in other countries as well, from Italy to Pakistan (Goss 1984,12). Having come across two roadside phantom cases myself—one reported by an alleged eyewitness—I wondered whether there was more to the phenomenon than meets the eye.

    In its basic form, the vanishing hitchhiker is an urban legend about a young woman who asks for a ride but then disappears from the closed automobile without the driver’s knowledge. When he reaches her destination,...

    (pp. 83-86)

    It was Monday, March 24, 2003, when the voice of CSI executive director Barry Karr came over my intercom: “How would you like to travel to Wyoming County to examine an ‘alien hand’?” (Barry knew that I was familiar with the area from my investigation of the fabled Silver Lake serpent a few years earlier [Nickell 1999].) Barry put me in touch with Jane Monaghan, an assistant county attorney, who described the unusual object to me. Whatever it was, she assured me, it was not from an animal. It had pea-green “skin” over what looked like bone. I then contacted...

    (pp. 87-94)

    On-air séances are nothing new. In 1969 I arranged one in a dimly lit radio studio in Toronto for a CBC documentaryHoudini in Canada.(Despite the spiritualist’s pronouncements, Houdini was a no-show—as far as I could discern.) However, theLarry King Livepresentation of alleged psychic medium James Van Praagh on February 26, 1999 (one of several such appearances, before and since), was a study in crassness. The purpose of Van Praagh’s appearance was to pitch the sequel to his best sellerTalking to Heaven.TitledReaching to Heaven,it elaborates on his professed belief that, as he...

    (pp. 95-103)

    In case you had not heard, God is still talking to Peter Popoff. But Mrs. Popoff is no longer the one secretly broadcasting the “word of knowledge” whispered into the TV evangelist’s ear. I wondered what the good reverend had been doing since his 1986 exposure as a fraud, so when he brought his act to Toronto on Sunday, June 2, 2002, I was there, posing as a working man afflicted with a bad back.

    Peter Popoff is the director of a religious empire based in Upland, California. It once raked in an estimated 10 million to 20 million tax-free...

    (pp. 104-107)

    Although it closed more than half a century ago, the name Dachau still evokes horror. After Adolf Hitler and his National Socialists seized control of Germany on January 30, 1933, they began to inflict their Nazi ideology of racism and state supremacy on targeted groups: especially Jews, but also Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill, dissenting clergymen, and many others. These people began to fill Dachau, the first concentration camp, which was established March 20. The camp also became the site of horrific medical experiments and executions. So many prisoners died or were killed there that a crematorium was built to...

    (pp. 108-116)

    Although mainstream science has never validated any psychic ability, self-styled clairvoyants, diviners, spirit mediums, and soothsayers continue to sell their fantasies—and, in some cases, to shrewdly purvey their cons—to a credulous public. Particularly disturbing is a resurgence of alleged psychic crime solving. In fact, the media—especially Court TV’sPsychic Detectives,NBC’sMedium,and various segments ofLarry King Live—have shamelessly touted several self-claimed psychic shamuses as if they could actually identify murderers and kidnappers or locate missing persons. Here is an investigative look at five such claimants. (Another, Phil Jordan, is featured in a later chapter.)...

    (pp. 117-126)

    In October 2004, after participating in the Fifth World Skeptics Congress in Abano Terme, Italy—near Padua, where Galileo discovered Jupiter’s moons (Frazier 2005)—I remained in the beautiful country for some investigative work. Here are some of my findings.

    I visited a number of churches containing alleged relics—objects associated with a saint or martyr. These may consist of all or part of a holy person’s body (in Catholicism, a first-class relic) or some item associated with him or her, such as an article of clothing (a second-class relic). Venerated since the first century AD, relics were thought to...

    (pp. 127-130)

    The northernmost country of Latin America, Estados Unidos Mexicanos (United States of Mexico) is rich in prehistoric and historic culture; it is a land of legend, lore, and struggle. Home to various indigenous peoples since around 2600 BC, Mexico was seized by the Spanish in 1519–1521, when Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec empire. The population was subsequently decimated by Old World diseases. Spanish Catholic culture was established, and the country was exploited for its natural resources. Following a struggle for independence that began in 1810, Spanish rule ceased in 1821. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a series...

    (pp. 131-140)

    The gruesome murders by Jack the Ripper—history’s most notorious serial slasher—continue to inspire horror. And the question of his identity continues to attract theorists, most recently popular crime novelist Patricia Cornwell (2002). But is she really justified in pronouncing the mystery solved (figure 32)? Did her touted $6 million, thirteen-month search actually lead her along a trail of evidence that finally uncovered the maniacal culprit? Or did she begin with an improbable suspect and work backward through myriad, often conflicting details, picking and choosing those that incriminated him? To answer these questions, some background is in order.


    (pp. 141-150)

    Today, the ghost town of Bodie, California, is one of the most authentic abandoned gold-mining towns of the Old West (figure 33). It is also reputed to be a “ghost” town in another sense: according to a TV documentary, some claim that Bodie is inhabited by ghosts who guard the town against pilferers (Beyond2000). Supposedly, a visitor who dares to remove any artifact will be plagued by the dreaded “curse of Bodie.”

    The 1849 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in the western Sierra foothills lured men and women to California from across the United States and elsewhere. Prospectors...

    (pp. 151-158)

    It has been called many things: a giant drawing board, an astronomical calendar, a landing pad for extraterrestrials, and the eighth wonder of the world. “It” is a thirty-mile section of desert near Perus southern coast covered with giant drawings, designs, and crisscrossing lines etched into the gravel-covered pampa.

    The Nasca (formerly Nazca) geoglyphs achieved worldwide prominence when they were featured in Erich von Dänikens pseudoscientific classicChariots of the Gods?—a book that consistently underestimates the abilities of ancient “primitive” peoples and assigns many of their works to extraterrestrial visitors. Von Däniken (1970) envisions flying saucers hovering above the...

    (pp. 159-161)

    The mystery mongers, paranormal hustlers, conspiracy theorists, and UFO hoaxers showed just how far they were willing to go in their quest for publicity when they rushed to promote a man-killed-by-aliens tale. The story unfolded in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. At about 5:00 A.M. on Sunday, August 4, 2002, thirty-nine-year-old Todd Sees—father of two and a Little League coach—went deer hunting. He rode off on his all-terrain vehicle to scout an area of his eighty-acre tract. When he failed to return, family members searched for him and then alerted authorities. Tracking dogs were soon deployed, followed within hours by...

    (pp. 162-165)

    Located in the heart of Europe, Germany has had a more profound impact on the history of the continent than any other country. According to one source: “From Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire to Otto von Bismarck’s German Reich, Nazism and the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, no other nation has molded Europe the way Germany has— for better or for worse” (Schulte-Peevers et al. 2002, 17). Today, freed of its own post-World War II division, Germany leads the effort to unite Europe.

    In October 2002 I made my second visit to Germany, this time to speak...

    (pp. 166-171)

    In the fall of 2003, my life was transformed by the news that I was the father of a beautiful, thirty-six-year-old daughter. Based on “intuition,” she had confronted her mother with the notion that the man who had helped raise her was not her actual father. As was soon proved by DNA testing, we discovered that she wasmychild. As one who had long been skeptical of much that is labeled intuition, I had to admit thatsomethinghad just happened—something both wonderful and mysterious. With the approval and assistance of my daughter, Cherette, I decided to investigate....

    (pp. 172-177)

    An enigmatic painting is exhibited at the Church of San Francisco de Asis (St. Francis of Assisi) at Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico (figure 41). It depicts a barefoot Jesus standing by the Sea of Galilee; however, when the lights are extinguished, the background luminesces as if the sky and sea were shining in moonlight, the figure becomes silhouetted, a cross appears at the left shoulder, and a halo is visible over the head (figure 42) (Michell 1979, 94; Colombo 1999, 70–72). Other mysterious effects are sometimes reported as well.

    Known asThe Shadow of the Cross,the life-size...

    (pp. 178-188)

    Ghosts and ships seem to go together in the popular imagination, combining the romance of the sea with the spine-tingling lure of hauntings. (See, for example, Horace Beck’sFolklore and the Sea[1999] and Richard Winer’s mystery-mongeringGhost Ships[2000].)

    There are numerous beguiling reports of phantom vessels, most of them linked to shipwrecks and other disasters. In folklore, such ghostly craft are widespread, often as a motif called the Ship of the Dead—a vessel that transports spirits to the afterworld (Guiley 2000, 283–84, 343).

    The most famous of the spectral ships is theFlying Dutchman.In a...

    (pp. 189-191)

    In Ciudad Juárez in 2003, I was able to have my fortune told by a canary! The birds partner was a sidewalk vendor who wore a shirt emblazoned with tarot cards. To prognosticate, he picked up a pinch of birdseed and let his charge out of its cage, whereupon it plucked two folded paper slips from a rack. The little bird waited to receive its reward and then dutifully hopped back into its cage. Then I paid up: five pesos for each fortune slip, and $5 for the privilege of taking a photograph.

    From another prescient canary in Tijuana I...

    (pp. 192-199)

    In various cultures, water has been touted for its curative power—attributed to its mineral properties, thermal effects, and even supposed supernatural qualities. Here I look at ancient baths and more recent spas; in the next chapter I discuss legendary “fountains of youth” and reputed miraculous healing shrines such as that at Lourdes, France.

    Hydrotherapy—the internal or external use of water to treat disease—is among the earliest “healing” practices. Indeed, drinking or bathing in springs, streams, or pools for therapeutic purposes predates recorded history.

    There is archaeological evidence of mineral springs in Asia during the Bronze Age (circa...

    (pp. 200-205)

    As discussed in the previous chapter, spas offer supposed physiological benefits—along with obvious psychological gains—to those who suffer from a wide variety of ailments. However, as one advocate of spa therapy notes (Swanner 1988, 21), whereas the touted effects are now explained “on a scientific basis,” in early times, mysticism prevailed. Here I investigate so-called fountains of youth and “miraculous” healing springs like that at Lourdes, France.

    The legend of a fountain of youth may have originated in northern India. By the seventh century, the tale had arrived in Europe, where it was widely discussed during the Middle...

    (pp. 206-210)

    Flying saucers buzzing Buffalo? The “rock jocks” from Buffalo radio station WEDG’s popular morning show “Shredd & Ragan” challenged us in July 2003 to explain several UFO’s that a listener had caught on video. We accepted.

    I confess that I was not eager to accept this pig-in-a-poke deal, being hopelessly overextended already and always leery of frivolous claims. (One can spend a huge amount of time trying to explain some anomaly that is of interest to one puzzled person—or even an attention-seeking hoaxer.) However, Center for Inquiry communications director Kevin Christopher twisted my overworked arm, noting that the case...

    (pp. 211-218)

    Natasha Demkina claims a special ability: she can supposedly peer inside people’s bodies, observe their organs, and diagnose malfunctions and diseases (Girl 2004; Baty 2004). For a Discovery Channel documentary,The Girl with X-ray Eyes,CSICOP (now CSI) was asked to test the seventeen-year-old Russian girls alleged visionary abilities.

    Natasha’s alleged ability falls under the heading of clairvoyance (“clear seeing”), also known as second sight. This is the purported perception of objects, people, or events other than by the normal senses—that is, a form of extrasensory perception (ESP). Mystics claim that there are various states of clairvoyance, including two...

    (pp. 219-221)

    The phenomenon of lake monsters deserves book-length treatment, which my colleague Benjamin Radford and I provided inLake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World’s Most Elusive Creatures(2006). Although the famous alleged monster habitats, such as Scotland’s Loch Ness and North America’s Lake Champlain, tend to get the most attention, there are numerous less well-known domains.

    One of these is Canada’s Lake Simcoe, some forty miles north of Toronto. It supposedly holds a monster known as Igopogo (after its more famous relative Ogopogo in Lake Okanagan, British Columbia), among other appellations. Residents of Beaverton, on the eastern shore, call it Beaverton...

    (pp. 222-230)

    For a live, prime-time television program, I was asked to evaluate claims that a statue in Sacramento streamed tears of blood. The case prompted me to take a retrospective look at a wide variety of related phenomena, ranging from weeping icons to perambulating statues, many of which I personally investigated over the years.

    Belief that an effigy is in some way animated (fromanima,“breath”) not only challenges science’s natural-world view but also crosses a theological line. It moves from veneration (reverence toward an image) to idolatry (image worship), in which the image is regarded as the “tenement or vehicle...

    (pp. 231-235)

    Despite the lack of scientific confirmation of their alleged powers, psychics continue to gain popularity in a credulous society. Some have undergone makeovers, transforming themselves from ordinary psychics to psychic sleuths and beyond—communicants with the great beyond, in fact. One such purveyor is Phil Jordan, whose flagging career has been given new impetus by popular TV mediums who purport to communicate with the dead. Jordan has climbed aboard that spiritualist bandwagon, so I donned a disguise to get close to him and check out his alleged powers.

    Phil Jordan, psychic sleuth-cum-spiritualist, was, he says, “raised on dreams” and experienced...

    (pp. 236-238)

    Munich’s twin-towered Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), erected in 1468–1488, has a curious legend. It stems from an impression in the foyer’s pavement that is said to beDer Teufelstritt,the “devil’s step.” Supposedly, the architect, Jorg von Halspach, made a pact with Satan, who agreed to supply money for the church’s construction so long as it was built without a single window; otherwise, the builder would forfeit his soul. When the church was completed, the architect led the devil to a place where he could view the welllit nave but no windows could be seen, due to their...

    (pp. 239-241)

    According to Quackwatch (Wilson 2004)—an online source of information about doubtful medical treatments—the story of Laetrile is one of quackery, crime, and death. The drug is chemically related to amygdalin, a substance that occurs naturally in the pits of apricots and certain other fruits. Laetrile is outlawed in the United States.

    The so-called father of Laetrile, “Doctor” Ernst T. Krebs Jr., was the son of a physician who promoted various alleged cures for cancer and other serious illnesses. The younger Krebs had only a bachelor of arts degree and a “doctor of science” degree from a now-defunct Bible...

    (pp. 242-250)

    During the Middle Ages, the castle (from the Latincastellum, “small fortification”) arose as the private fortress of a monarch or a nobleman. Its central tower (like the Tower of London) is called akeep,a term also applied to a fort or other stronghold, or even a jail. Castles offer a romantic, often Gothic allure. If they are not haunted, I like to say, they ought to be. Besides supposedly being inhabited by specters, they are usually the focus of other legends as well.

    I have explored and written about many castles and keeps, including Burg Frankenstein and Plassenburg...

    (pp. 251-258)

    Since Robert A. Baker’s pioneering article appeared inSkeptical Inquirer(Baker 1987–1988), a controversy has raged over his suggestion that self-proclaimed alien abductees exhibit an array of unusual traits that indicate a fantasy-prone personality. Baker cited the “important but much neglected” work of Wilson and Barber (1983), who listed certain identifying characteristics of people who fantasize profoundly. Baker applied Wilson and Barber’s findings to the alien-abduction phenomenon and found a strong correlation. Baker explained that whereas a cursory examination by a psychologist or psychiatrist might find an “abductee” to be perfectly normal, more detailed knowledge about the persons background...

    (pp. 259-263)

    Figure 63 depicts an antique lithographed poster advertising a story slated to appear in theBoston Americannewspaper. Finding a “10-6-06” in the corner, I was able to track down a microfilm copy of the October 14, 1906, issue of that paper, which actually related four stories of people who had “come back from the dead.” I wondered how century-old narratives would compare with present-day ones describing what we now term near-death experiences.

    The main story, the one dramatized by the poster artist, told how Mrs. James A. Haskins of 82 Oak Street, Middleboro, Massachusetts,¹ had “apparently died during a...

    (pp. 264-269)

    Two women noticed it first, on about August 4, 2003: the eyes of the Virgin Mary statue on the church’s bell tower had begun to glow; so had the statue’s halo and sacred heart. Subsequently, the same features of a Jesus statue on the towers opposite side were also observed to shine mysteriously. Soon, thousands of pilgrims and curiosity seekers had flocked to the site: St. Joseph the Provider Catholic Church in Campbell, Ohio, just south of Youngstown (Horton 2003; Kubik 2003).

    I decided to take in the spectacle and conduct an investigation. Donning a suitable disguise as a pilgrim,...

    (pp. 270-274)

    It is said that every town in Franconia (the northern region of the state of Bavaria in Germany) has a legend ofDie Weisse Frau—the White Lady—a ghostly figure that walks about at night terrifying people. Perhaps it is she who is referred to in the local jokelore: As I was told by a guide during a midnight ghost tour of old Bamberg, a visitor approached a woman and asked if there were ghosts in the city. She replied, “I’ve lived here 500 years and never seen one.”

    The White Lady’s saga is most firmly attached to the...

  45. INDEX
    (pp. 275-294)