Halloween Special: Joe Nickell on the Paranormal’s Origin Story

October 31, 2016

Joe Nickell is perhaps the world’s foremost investigator of the paranormal, as well as a magician and author, and he joins us for this special Halloween episode to discuss his recent feature article in Skeptical Inquirer, “Creators of The Paranormal.”

According to Nickell, the term “paranormal” refers to things that lie beyond the normal range of human experience and scientific explanation. Nickell’s paranormal investigations have covered everything from spirits and psychic phenomena to less spectral phenomena such as UFOs and cryptozoology. Questions about the paranormal have haunted humans since ancient times, but much of our modern conceptions about the paranormal date back only as far as the 19th century. Nickell attributes the advent of modern day spiritualism and the proliferation of the paranormal to a handful of distinct individuals who, for better or worse, popularized paranormal beliefs that are still championed by believers to this day.

This is point of inquiry. 

Welcome to point of inquiry and production of the Center for Inquiry. I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is paranormal investigator Joe Nichol. He’s here to talk to us today about his skeptical Inquirer article, Creators of the Paranormal. Joe, welcome to the program. 

Thanks for having me. I love a point of inquiry. 

That’s great to hear. I really enjoyed your article on the creators of the paranormal. Can we start by defining the scope of the term paranormal? 

Sure. The term paranormal really applies to those things beyond the normal range of science and human endeavor. It would include everything that we would call supernatural, but it would also include such things as Bigfoot, which if Bigfoot existed, and he is of course, very, very endangered, if he existed at all, might be perfectly natural, not supernatural at all. But we use the term paranormal, meaning science can’t really find them, at least yet. 

And it’s a it’s a broad term. It would include UFOs and remuda triangle and many of the things that I dealt with in the article. 

And this kind of grab bag concepts that come into the paranormal seems to have congealed in the late eighteen hundreds. What was it about that time and place that made people so fascinated with these otherworldly happenings? 

Well, there were just a number of things that were happening. 

One of them was, of course, was that in the middle of the century, modern spiritualism came to the fore and it was flourishing at the latter part of the 19th century. It was all over the world. And you had such big figures as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle working on trying to prove the existence of spirits and the ability of mediums to communicate with them. And on our side, we had Harry Houdini, of course, who was sort of following behind Sir Arthur and discrediting the debunking and some cases getting arrested, mediums who were were fakes. 

And, of course, that was just one of many things. There also, of course, a big rise in science fiction. People like Jules Verne and others. 

So we were looking not only around our planet to see if there were things still there that needed to be looked at. 

You know, sea monsters and the like. But we’re beginning to sort of look beyond the planet in a serious way. And so there were ideas of extraterrestrials on other worlds. And eventually these creators of the paranormal good would bring some of this stuff kind of to life. 

It wasn’t a real life, but they brought the illusion into everyone’s home. 

What’s involved in the process of creating the paranormal that you talk about, starting with one input and ending with this other output? Can you describe what happened to make the imaginary more real? 

Well, a good figure is Charles Fort, because much of this is what’s called 14 phenomena. 

Now, after after Charles Ford. And he was a as a sort of talented, immature. His wife had a lot of money. So he didn’t have to work and he could spend his time at the archives. Papers like The New York Times or the London papers. And he was interested in these fringe science things, you know? And it’s OK to be interested and curious about anything. But he would look at things like stones falling from the sky or reports of ghosts or lights in the sky that couldn’t be explained, or cases where people apparently spontaneously combusted and that sort of thing and would challenge science. Why can’t you explain these things? And the trouble with with Ford was I mean, he was sort of on something that was very, very interesting. But he was not a critical thinker. He did not himself, for example, do any actual investigations. 

He would just sort of report the clippings from these old news stories, many of which were made up on a you know, on a boring day. 

And he was challenging science, taking the sort of anti science attitude. And he was making a few mistakes that are made today with the paranormal. He was basically saying, using what’s called an argument from ignorance in logic, saying, well, we don’t know what those bright lights in the sky were. 

So it must have been extraterrestrial craft. And and we don’t know what those noises in the old house were. So, of course, that’s evidence of ghosts. In other words, they they never had the paranormal promoters, never had any real solid evidence. Know they hadn’t captured a big foot, for example. What they had was they had, we don’t know, all over the place. 

We don’t know. We don’t know. And you cannot say. We don’t know. Therefore, we do know. 

It’s just illogical on the face of it. And so that’s what they were doing. But they were they would catch people up in these stories of. 

Yeah, why can’t what is what are those close minded scientists not realizing? What anyone can see is that there are these these creatures in our lakes that are, you know, obviously ancient monsters. Well, why won’t science do something about this? Why are they in deep denial and so forth? And so they were kind of populist promoters of fanciful things. And I think even today, people are one of my most ask questions is why do we care about these fringe things? And the answer is the paranormal makes big, big promises. I mean, if there are really extraterrestrial craft that we are not alone in the universe and Ghost would have a profound message that we don’t really die. 

And you can even go down the list. 

A few of the paranormal things are not something we really would wish for, but they tap it not into our hopes then, but our fears. And we’re afraid of them. 

We like to get ahead of some of the monsters and so forth, which say it’s fair to say that Ford originated the critique of science. Being close minded in the face of paranormal phenomena I think is as much as anyone. 

You know, it really is hard to say that such a you know, on Tuesday such and such a day to the year, whatever, this person first raised this voice and said a bit. 

But the report was certainly the promoter, the person who did that. Other people had maybe done it here and there. But he rounded stuff up and began to crank out these big books and people began to follow him. He became almost a cult leader. And the fortin’s, you know, exists to this day. There’s in England, there’s 40 in Times magazine. They were kind enough to invite me to a conference once. 

And my position on all of it is that, sure, let’s let’s look into these things right there. 

There are mysteries. By all means, let’s look into them. But we should investigate them with a with the view not to be mystery mongers like Ford or dismissals, debunkers out of hand like some we could look at. 

But actually, let’s just carefully investigate and see what happens. And of course, when we do that, we find the natural world is still alive and well and no parent natural needs to apply. 

Can you talk a bit about Harry Price? The great granddaddy of the ghost hunters and his ghost finding Harry Price was a piece of work. 

He was another guy. I mean, yes. Do you see a pattern? 

Here is another guy who had a wife who had money and he didn’t have to be gainfully employed. 

And Harry loved. 

And this was sort of a take off spiritualism being being all all the rage. 

He began to focus on houses where spirits might dwell and he became sort of the premier ghost hunter of the type that we have today. Of course, there were always ghost stories. Occasionally people would go to a place to see what what they could see. But Harry tried to make it look like a scientific endeavor. He was not a scientist. He was a school dropout. But he adopted sort of scientific jargon. He put together a very famously, an investigative kit with scientific gadgets to detect temperature changes and so forth, as if this were what was going to detect ghosts. And. I always like the idea that he included a flask of brandy. This is so British case could be one thing. 

And this could be prepared. But I mean, I guess he was as medically backward as he, right? Yeah. You know, Isaac exactly back. 

I have ghostwriting equipment. I’ve never thought of the flask of brandy other than to maybe have one at the end of a of a successful case to celebrate that a little different approach. 

But he was good at stirring up the haunting of Bawley Rectory and other cases that were the sensations. 

And, you know, people thought he was really investigating. So he would you know, he would be very credible. And he had these things that couldn’t be explained. 

And unfortunately, he was suspected of having maybe faked some of his stuff. 

What leads you to think that he was a fake as opposed to a sincerely deluded individual? 

Well, it’s just that that a lot of what he did was suspicious. 

There were people who saw him doing things that looked like he was faking stuff. He was he was using scientific sounding jargon and giving pretenses that he had, you know, that he was a scientist. And we just know that that’s not true. 

It was not a scientist in any sense of the word. So he gets a bad reputation. 

I think much of it deserved. And like so many of these purveyors of the paranormal, I’m with them as far as up to the point at which, you know, they’ve said, look, here’s something going on. What what what is that? And I’m perfectly willing to say, well, I don’t know. You’re right. It’s interesting. 

Let’s have a look. If you’re going to investigate a purportedly haunted house for real. What what would be in your heart if you go and do it? 

Well, I don’t take any scientific equipment with the view that a Geiger counter or an electromagnetic field meter or whatever is going to detect ghosts. 


What my approach is and my kid is mostly going to have a notebook and a camera to record whatever is needed to add an evidence kit, because I’ve had, you know, poltergeist blood and other things. 

And I may occasionally need to take forensic samples and so forth. And again, the flask, Brenda here. So I’m not objecting. So let’s all have a flask of brandy. 

But my job is to really let me just caricature the difference between the ghost hunters and me. 

They go in and say, okay, ma’am, just step aside there. And we’re not interested in any of your impressions or you just just show us show us the way into the house. We’ll bring in our equipment and we’ll find out if there’s a ghost. 

You’re not that mine is the opposite. 

I have no equipment to bring in. I have no special effects. 

And I’m going to just ask the good lady or the good gentleman, sit down here and tell me why you think there is a ghost here. 

What exactly are your experiences? 

And when the person says, well, as they did in my first big case, I hear footsteps on the stairs late at night and there’s no no one in the house now. So it’s like, well, I, I search. 

And I found in that case that there was a parallel iron staircase in the building next door and a late night cleanup crew, or they’ll say, oh, I woke up at night and I saw a ghost standing by my bed. And I’ll say, well, tell me a little more about that. 

And pretty soon I, Mabel and Lindsey, your father would have known a great deal about this, this situation known as a waking dream, this hypnagogic experience. We would recognize that what’s happening is the person is waking up into a state between being asleep and awake and is basically dreaming while awake. 

And an state is responsible for a great many goes so so that you give you some idea of the kinds of things that I do have caught. 

A few Ghost Redhanded, a few ghosts fake. Exactly. 

I’ve got him red handed and and for you, I’m doing it for various motives. But what so what I’m trying to do is. Explain what they are claiming. 

I’m listening to them not just going in. Step aside. Let me use my equipment. No, no, I’m I’m specifically listening to my witnesses. Why do you think there is a ghost? And then using my various techniques and, you know, evidence based science to try to explain what’s going on. 

And you know, that I’m against sort of a heavily or debunking attitude just to put down a dismissive attitude. I’m confident that if I can investigate and and explain something in a needed debunking, we’ll just take care of it. So it’ll just get right there. 

What’s the most flagrant example of someone that you’ve caught red handed faking activity, most flagrant? 

Well, a couple of ones come to mind. One was that the old mining town of Fairplay, Colorado. And I was I had taken a teacher and her her high school students for a sleepover in a haunted hotel. 

And we were or teaching critical thinking. And we were all gathered in the in the lobby, which had, you know, a moose head and the chandelier and all this is great ambiance. 

And all of a sudden, the chandelier lights began to flicker mysteriously and and the students would who, you know, and looked nervously around and like, what’s causing this? 

And I just happened to be looking over the direction of the desk clerk and saw him surreptitiously flicking the light switch. And the teacher saw him, too. And, you know, I think there he was probably just trying to keep the ghost alive, you know, and maybe have a little fun with the kids. 

But I mean, he was absolutely intending to fool people. And one other case was the Golden Lamb Hotel in Ohio. 

And there was a ghost room where there were objects on wood would move about, particularly things hung on the walls. The pictures would be turned us all askew and fairly moved and quite mysteriously. And everybody was straightened everything up in the room. And the next day there might be alternative skew again. 

And I arranged to spend the night between lectures at the hotel and late at night. 

I talked to the desk clerk and she had no idea who she was talking to or she would not have told me all that she knew. But I I mentioned the ghost and showed some interest. And she said, you know, our housekeeping staff is just so superstitious. 

She said, you know, I can’t help but mess with their minds. 

So I take my passkey at night and slip upstairs and I turn everything this way in that way and locked the door back. 

And she says, just a superstitious cleaning ladies and they just go bonkers is so much fun to watch. 

That’s so mean. 

Well, I thought it was was not not too nice. But, you know, these these are the kinds of things that real people do. I can tell you many other stories, but you get the idea that sometimes you can catch a ghost Red-Handed. 

In the article, you talk about some famous hucksterism orld who, you know, really enjoyed sort of reaping the chaos that they could set up. Could you elaborate on that a bit? 

Well, some people more than others. 

Ray Palmer, the man who invented UFOs, certainly was willing to capitalize on UFO stories. He would take no tales that people would tell of extraterrestrial encounters. 

And I’m not saying that that he always, you know, totally and fraudulently made stories up completely, but he certainly willing to pass on anything of, you know, even if he knew it was pretty, pretty doubtful. And, you know, he had published Amazing Stories magazine and just filled it with this fanciful stuff, much of it fiction or or the like. And he was an unusual fellow. He was a very small because of a childhood accident. He was a very diminutive hunchback. And he was just a live wire, though, with trying to promote these ideas and sell magazines and books. And was just there were other people involved in UFOs. But he more than perhaps anyone. He was the man who invented the whole UFO thing. And a friend of mine before Palmer died and before my friend died, they had a conversation. And Palmer turned to him and said, What if I told you the whole there was just a joke. And is that revealing? 

So you think he might just have realized that this was how he was going to cash in and make it in a tough world? I think so. The I am the finance writer. 

That’s right. I think he he loves science fiction and he loved stirring things up. He loved being the center of attention and he loved being provocation, mischievous and so on. 

And pretty much at one point, I think confessed it to my friend, the crop circle guy I spoke with, what was their motivation? 

And he talked about them in the article. 

Yeah. Doug Bower and Dave Chorley. 

You know, when you look at the crop circle phenomenon, it started out with just basically some some plain swirled circles that had a kind of swirling motion down. 

The wheat was flattened. 

And they were thought of as flying saucer landing spots. 

In other words, a spinning flying saucer, if it came down into a wheat field, would would make this world flat area. 

And it made a kind of sense. And there’d been a few cases in Australia and elsewhere over the years and now it was happening and in southern England. But there were some clues as to what was happening as this phenomenon spread. I noticed that they had this geographic peculiarity. Why is it just southern England? Why? 

Why not elsewhere? Why season after season, southern England and not elsewhere. 

And you could see as we began to look at this, that these were proliferating as the media carried more stories of crop circles. There you could predict there would be more crop circles. 

They were becoming increasingly complex. So there would be rings around the circles or rings with satellites or double or double ring phenomena. 

Double double circles. Elaborate pictograms. 

Each year they were just getting more and bigger and stranger and so forth. 

And then there was what we call the shinies effect. The crop circles didn’t like to be seen while they were being made sort of like graffiti and they would just mysteriously pop up. 

That’s right. 

And so eventually, these two old guys, senior citizens, artists, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, came forward and confessed that they had started this. 

But they didn’t, of course, make all of these. I mean, very quickly, people said, oh, they didn’t make all these. Well, of course they didn’t. Just as a one or two people don’t make all graffiti, it becomes a copycat phenomenon. 

So if you wanted to go out and make a crop circle just for the halibut, how would you go about doing it? Well, I’ve done that. 

The only difference is that I went to a farm that was adjacent to the one for a for a movie about crop circles. And in that case, I went to the farmer and said, look, can I damage a big section of your crop? I’ll pay you for it. He said, Oh, sure, why not? And so I made mine in the day time. 

But you know, anything that you can draw on a sheet of paper with a drawing compass and a straight edge, you know, and you can make geometric figures and so forth if you can draw that on a sheet of paper. 

I with a rope and a couple of helpers can make that as big as you want. And we’d feel the same thing just a little harder work. And you can do it at night because people are not aware that your eyes get accustomed to the dark because usually some moonlight, you can have flashlights and you’re in and out of the way place. And so people would just make these at night. There’s they’re not as I mean, some of them, of course, require quite a bit of work because they are large works of art. And that’s part of the now the mystique in crop circles is to make, you know, really elaborate, breathtakingly intricate designs. But again, they’re they’re just made the same way human beings make everything. 

So it’s there a fraternity of crop circle creators now that are doing this all over the place? Apparently so. 

A guy named Jim Schnozzle kind of infiltrated them years ago. 

And and I’ve been to some of the places where they would hang out and and so forth. 

I’ve been to the crop circles in England and the like. And of course, some of them are a little more open about what they’re doing. Some are not because they love the idea of going out at night. 

I mean, it’s almost like trick or treating, isn’t it? Hugh Cohabitant. Right. And secretly, it’s kind of exciting. And you’re hoping not to be caught and the farmers not going to like this, but and you make this beautiful big design and the next day what happens? Wow. 

Planes are flying over photographing it. People are trekking from all over to see it. And of course, the farmer I mean, I saw one of these personally was pretty, pretty annoyed. 

But it but it’s it’s great fun. And so they’re like having having fun doing something that’s a little taboo, like like, again, like graffiti artists. 

It’s very, very analogous. If you’ve seen graffiti art and you think, well, somebody had to hang upside down from courage to paint that along the edge of the bridge. I mean, look at that, right? Yeah, well done. That and. Well, that’s the thing. That’s what they won. 

It’s ah. It’s rural tagging. 

Yeah. Yeah. It’s just people or, you know, people are funny, but Bauer and Chorley were, you know, great at creating these crop circles. 

And then in one case, they the media hired them to go make one for them. And then they brought in these serious minded sari ologists. Who were the guys that studied. 

These, you know, and use dowsing rods and stuff to quote unquote, authenticate them, dousing rods. Right. And so they said, oh, this is quite remarkable. You know, human beings couldn’t do this, blah, blah, blah. And pretty soon the newspaper said, well, actually, these two old codgers here, you see, they they made this. 

And you see it sort of stunned. And then they looked at these. Oh, yes. 

Now, as we look more closely, as you can’t fool us for long, we do see these are the fake crop circles. They’re causing a lot of trouble. It’s getting harder to separate the real crop circles from the fake crop circles. 

Can you talk a bit about the origin of the Bermuda Triangle myth? 

Yes, we’re we’re indebted indebted to a man who I’ve given the name. I hope you appreciate this. The Bermuda triangulator. Well, I had to call him something didn’t. 

Sheriff Vincent Gattis and Vincent Garus was a journalist who made up and passed off fakes paranormal stories for a long time. 

And just like a lot of young writers, always all fiction for a buck, that sort of attitude. And he didn’t invent everything. 

Tough out there for freelancing. 

Yes, it is. It is the guy who really maybe first began to publicize that there was an area of the Atlantic and it bordered by Puerto Rico and and Bermuda. 

And Miami was a guy named Edward Van Winkle. I suppose after Rip Van Winkle Jones. 

A real guy. A real person. And he had begun to sort of collect mysteries in a kind of 14 and way. 

Wow. Do you know that all these ships and planes are disappearing in this area? It’s really a phenomenon. What’s causing that? 

And the answer is a road wasn’t really kind of real trying, or you can you could have made a circle, you could have made a trapezoid. 

You could change the boundaries anywhere in that whole region. 

Or you could have picked some other region. But that was as good as any. Because, of course, it was a fairly you can look at a map and you could say, well, that’s where a lot of ships and planes cross somewhere near that area. 

And of course, some of them will because of sudden squalls and human error and so forth, will creation and burn and sink in the water. 

And Gadis was one of those who capitalized on some previous articles that people wrote following Jones, and he had the foresight to come up with the name the Bermuda Triangle and even call it the Triangle of Death. 

And this was the kind of dramatic framing that the place needed to write these breathless articles and publish them. 

And then from their books and the like. 

What was the theory behind the idea that this was in any way paranormal? I mean, it seems like it could be perfectly natural that there are some parts of the ocean that are more dangerous than others. 

Well, what they would what would be done by the mystery mongers, as I call them, they’re really out to sell you a mystery. 

So take take some of these cases right off, do you know what caused them? No, you don’t. Well, see, they’re getting started. You’ll say, well, wait, wait a minute. Wait a minute. This could be could be that. 

And they will go to great lengths to try to convince you that there is something particularly mysterious here. 

The Marine sulfur queen, a giant ship, and it disappeared without a trace in the Bermuda Triangle. 

How do you explain that? 

And, you know, the the point is that many of these stories weren’t true. 

A guy named Larry Couche, one of our great skeptics, did a whole book called Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved. And he did the hard work of running these cases down. So you found out that, for example, the USS Sulfur Queen, Marine sulfur queen probably wasn’t even in the Bermuda Triangle actually when it disappeared. 

But OK, close enough, will it? 

And he he was able to show that the cargo of that ship was three hundred and seventy degree molten bubbling sulfur and that the slightest leak of seawater would blow it up. In fact, there was wreckage. It didn’t vanished without a trace. 

There were pieces of the ship. There were life preservers with the name of the ship on them. There was a piece of trail, the trail board of the ship that said a reef self. 

So clearly the board from Marine Sulfur Queen and its ends, you know, splintered and broken off. 

So what happened? Was it something happened to that ship? 

And we know now that those that those big tankers were hollowed out dangerously to make room for these big vats bubbling sulfur. 

I mean, these these were accidents waiting to happen. And in fact, we know one of them did happen. So what was different about the sulfur queen was it probably was happened over really deep water. And we just don’t have the wreckage to kind of finally answer the questions. 

But meanwhile, these guys like Vincent Gaddis were cranking out more and more of these stories. So it didn’t matter if you tried to solve them, they’d tie you up in knots and move on. This has been a story of what skeptics versus these mystery monitors continues to today. They’re going to keep trying to in every case that you could solve. They’re going to say, well, yes, but but but what about these these two and more cases? 

And what we have to decide is whether we’re going to continue to do that. And I recommend that we continue to fight the good fight. 

That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you so much for coming on the program. And Happy Halloween. Thanks, Lindsay. 

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.