The murder of Debbie Constantino & the distasteful reaction of the “Paranormal Community”

debbie

News broke yesterday that Mark and Debbie Constantino and a third unidentified man are dead after Mark Constantino killed Debby, her male roommate, and then himself. The Constantinos were known within the US ghost hunting community and were advocates of Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) which is the incorrect belief that voices of the dead can be captured on recording devices.

This domestic violence murder-suicide has sparked an interesting reaction in some parts of the wider online paranormal community and I was extremely disappointed to learn that Steve Huff (who has featured on this blog before) was already declaring the fact that he intended to try and communicate with Debbie Constantino through EVP and Ghostbox because he claims that the best time for communicating with the dead is within 24 hours after death. His claim has made some people quite angry and the ‘Exposing Paranormal Posers’ Facebook page posted the below image with this message:

‘…To publicly exclaim he is going to try to capitalize the murder of Debbie Constantino, when her body has not even been cold, to say he is going to try to “capture” her “EVP” is ghoulish. Huff, you are exposed, and should be run out on a rail out of the paranormal community. You are a total piece of shit. And we at EPP have been getting reports on this pile of feces, and now we should have something soon. Share this far and wide. Steve Huff is a joke, and he must be run out of the paranormal field.’

Steve Huff graphic

Nobody is in a position from which they can dictate who is and is not part of a community, or who can and cannot participate in paranormal research no matter how far-fetched, irrational, or “ghoulish” the claims being made are. However, I have an idea, and it may be a radical one… but if we are going to start kicking people out of the so-called community perhaps we can first start by rejecting from it the men who would murder a woman and a man because said woman might be romantically involved with someone who isn’t him? Or perhaps we could start by rejecting men who send lewd, unsolicited messages to women they do not know? Perhaps we could take a stand against men in the community who harass women they do not agree with because being debated is an affront to their masculinity?

Just throwing it out there.

1 in 4 women (24.3%) and 1 in 7 men (13.8%) aged 18 and older[1] in the United States- where this murder-suicide took place -have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and the majority of female victims of intimate partner violence were previously victimized by the same offender. [2] We know that Debbie fits this bracket because in in August Mark Constantino was charged with kidnapping, domestic battery by strangulation, and domestic battery against Debbie.[3]

So, the question is… do we care more about our own sensitivities than we do the fact that people within the paranormal “community” are suffering the same? Debbie Constantino and her roommate should be (and are) more than just statistics, they should be a catalyst that makes us say “this is not acceptable within our community or outside of our community.”

Or we could just spend our time getting angry at people we think are being distasteful and making memes for Facebook clicks…

[1] http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/nisvs_report2010-a.pdf
[2] http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ipv9310.pdf
[3] http://deadline.com/2015/09/ghost-adventures-guest-stars-dead-1201547175/

The Jersey Devil and the Big Problem with Paranormal Authors

jersey devil

jersey devil

Let’s start with North America’s Pine Barrens and its most infamous son—the Jersey Devil. This hybrid monster was supposedly an unwanted 13th child, cast to Satan by its witch mother and lurking amidst the trees ever since.

Over the summer, I began researching this story to assess whether I would want to include it in a new book. It’s a fascinating tale but I was soon reminded of the frustrations that often face those that delve into these old tales: plagiarism, embellishment and blind acceptance. These problems seem to affect this genre more than others but, puzzlingly, they are rarely written about.

To illustrate this, let’s look at the two most famous historical sightings of the Jersey Devil. The first tells that, in the early 1800s, a dashing naval hero by the name of Commodore Stephen Decatur spied the Devil “flying across the sky”. Luckily, at the time, Decatur was testing cannons at a range and he was able to fire a shot at the creature. Some stories say that he even managed to hit it, though with no discernible effect—proof surely that the Devil has supernatural powers for what mortal creature could shrug off a cannonball? Stephen Decatur was indeed a dynamic and much-loved naval officer and it’s not unlikely that he was in that area testing cannon and shot because this was the sort of thing he was involved in at various stages of his career. However, it is demonstrably unlikely that even a man as distinguished as Decatur could have hit a flying object with any cannon of the day. When you consider that these were not accurate firearms and all but the smallest were cumbersome, hitting a flying target at any range would be almost impossible. Also, the date of this event varies wildly with some sources stating it took place before Decatur was even born. Presented with such unconvincing elements, one naturally tries to find the earliest source (it eluded my brief hunt) but none of the modern writers allude to it whatsoever, they all just state with varying degrees of elaboration that Decatur shot a cannon at the Jersey Devil.

A second high profile witness of the Devil was none other than Joseph Bonaparte—brother to Napoleon. Apparently, Joseph saw the Jersey Devil while out hunting in the Pine Barrens. Most accounts of this event stop here, giving only these sparse details, but some elucidate further and this leads us to another problem. Here’s just such a passage:

“One snowy afternoon, the ex-King of Spain was hunting alone in the woods near his house when he spotted some strange tracks on the ground. They looked like the tracks of a two-footed donkey. Bonaparte noticed that one foot was slightly larger than the other. The tracks ended abruptly as if the creature had flown away. He stared at the tracks for a long moment, trying to figure out what the strange animal might be.

“At that moment, Bonaparte heard a strange hissing noise. Turning, he found himself face to face with a large winged creature with a horse-like head and bird-like legs. Astonished and frightened, he froze and stared at the beast, forgetting that he was carrying a rifle. For a moment, neither of them moved. Then the creature hissed at him, beat its wings, and flew away.

“When he reported the incident to a friend later that day, Bonaparte was told that he had just seen the famous Jersey Devil.”

This impressively detailed story is described by the author as a retelling. While it’s reasonable to expect embellishment from a retelling, the book it is taken from is listed as non-fiction by some of the retailers I found so, vexingly, this is just the sort of thing that might end up being quoted as an actual account and further obscure what meagre truths existed in the first place. I’ve been able to dig into the Bonaparte story myself but, sadly, I haven’t found anything like an original source online. Like the Decatur story, it’s all the same words regurgitated over and over by a succession of writers and, frankly, I suspect it didn’t happen at all.

There have been many more sightings of note, however, in particular the goings-on that took place in the January of 1909. Sightings here flew thick and fast from a variety of people from all over the area. Mysterious tracks appeared in the snow, going on for miles on end through backyards and over roads, even being spotted in “inaccessible places”. A police officer fired at a weird flying creature, firemen were ‘attacked’ by something similar after they trained a hose on it, and there were myriad reports of terrifying screeches and screams heard at night. Something like thirty towns were said to be affected. Yet, despite all these sightings happening so closely to each other, the descriptions of the beast change radically, with some saying it was a “large, flying kangaroo” and others an “ostrich-like creature”. Clearly, ostriches and kangaroos share little in terms of form. Other reports called it “a white cloud”, a “winged thing”, a “jabberwocky”, a thing “three feet high…long black hair over its entire body, arms and hands like a monkey, face like a dog, split hooves, and a tail a foot long.” Not only do many of these descriptions not tally, but they miss each other by a country mile—yet most authors are more than happy to attach them all to the Jersey Devil.

Since then, more people have come forward—a handful each decade—describing what they think were their own brushes with the Devil. These include such details as cars being attacked, family dogs found slain and gnawed upon, disembodied screaming—even a creature whose face dripped with blood and another with glowing red eyes. The only thing these reports have in common is that there doesn’t seem to be any evidence presented for any of them. No body parts to send to the lab, no photographs, no videos to analyse: as far as I can tell, nothing truly passable as evidence as the Devil’s work, yet it’s all happily accepted by many writers as being fact: according to them, Decatur certainly did hit the creature with that cannon shot, Bonaparte absolutely did encounter it while hunting and the Devil did terrorise towns in 1909; and it is this blind acceptance and lack of proper research that pervades so many of our books about the paranormal. If you want a cheap scare then that’s probably fine, but what if readers want more? What if readers want some meaningful knowledge?

And here’s a thing: you can present these stories in all their macabre and terrifying glories yet still wonder about them; you can debunk them entirely without totally diminishing what macabre fascinations they offer.

I suspect the problem of poor research is due to the time it takes to conduct. Sometimes you have to spend hours upon hours making sure the facts in a single sentence are correct. Sometimes you can dedicate days to scratching a legend’s surface for no result at all. I think many paranormal authors are unwilling to go through that and that’s why so many books regurgitate what previously has been written. I’d be willing to go out on a limb and bet that many of this genre’s authors’ research is limited to reading a handful of the best-known extant ghost books. Perhaps that’s harsh but, certainly, it’s even worse when trawling online sources. Try it yourself: pick a well-known case and pop it into a search engine. The chances are that a huge amount of the ‘copy’ you find written will be suspiciously similar from website to website. This is more about paraphrasing than the paranormal.

Let’s look for a moment at London and the haunting of 50 Berkeley Square. This is an old property in a prestigious area that is said to have a mysterious and grisly supernatural past. If you read any account it is often mentioned that there’s a sign inside the building put there by the police in the 1950s warning people not to use the top-most rooms (where most of the phenomena is said to have taken place—including supernaturally-induced deaths). This detail caught my eye; surely if the police put up such a thing it must prove that something serious was going on there. Also, almost everyone talks about this sign in articles and books, some as though they had seen it in person. Well they didn’t see it in person and the sign proves nothing because it’s actually an old air raid warning left over from the Second World War—nothing to do with ghosts, poltergeists, or other spooky things at all. How do I know? I contacted the house’s current occupiers, Maggs Brothers, and asked about it.

Now, of course, it is very difficult to not get something wrong when you’re dipping a toe into the world of non-fiction, especially if you don’t have proofreaders and editors on hand and, despite pointedly trying to be rigorous in my own research, I’ve done it myself. (Of course, I’m fully expecting problems with this piece to be pointed out.) After all, we’re only human and humans make mistakes. Not only that but deadlines and budgets often simply do not allow resources that true, in-depth research demands, so I’d like to be clear here—the authors I’m aiming this at are those that don’t seem to do any real research at all. No digging, no quotes or sources, no questions asked. For instance, one well-known author is almost on their thirtieth book regarding the ghost tales from a single city—how the vast majority of the stories contained within such a series are not transposed from elsewhere, unsubstantiated or simply made up on the spot is beyond me.

Research is good, research is your friend—it adds hidden details and tantalising exposition to these already colourful and emotive stories. And even if there is no source material or you aren’t in a position to find it what’s wrong with saying you just don’t know? What’s wrong with presenting what is known and asking the readers to make their own mind up?

I suspect too that the world of the paranormal contains a large amount of writers and readers that simply want to believe no matter what contradictory truths might lurk a one-minute-Google away. For them, I think Harry Leeds—supposed modern descendant of the Jersey Devil—should have the last say, as his words about exploring the Pine Barrens provide a rather fitting allegory:

“When you’re out there, your visibility is restricted and the trees seem to go on forever. The least little disturbance gets all your adrenaline flowing and gets you imagining things.”

Sources

  1. American Myths and Legends, Charles Skinner, 1903. J.B. Lippincott.
  2. Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries of the Ancient World, Robert E. Krebs, 2003. Greenwood.
  3. Phantom of the Pines: More Tales of the Jersey Devil, James F. McCloy and Ray Miller Jr, 1998. Middle Atlantic Press.
  4. Real Monsters, Gruesome Critters, and Beasts from the Darkside, Brad Steiger, 2010. Visible Ink Press.
  5. Eerie Britain, MB Forde, 2011. Amazon KDP.
  6. South Jersey Towns: History and Legend, William McMahon, 1973. Rutgers University Press.
  7. The Ultimate Urban Legends, 2008. Pinkmint Publications.
  8. Spooky New Jersey, S.E. Schlosser, 2006. Globe Pequot Press.
  9. Atlantic Monthly, In the Pines F. Mayer, May 1859.
  10. The Folk and Folklife of New Jersey, David Steven Cohen, 1983. Rutgers University Press.
  11. Tales of the Jersey Devil, Geoffrey Girard, 2004. Middle Atlantic Press.
  12. http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/wild/the-monster-project/articles/jersey-devil-facts/
  13. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/04/26/nyregion/jerseyana-once-upon-a-time-the-new-jersey-devil-meant-more-than-hockey.html
  14. http://www.academia.edu/9627222/DEBORAH_SMITH_LEEDS_Mother_of_the_Jersey_Devil_
  15. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jersey_Devil
  16. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jersey_Devil#mediaviewer/File:Jersey_Devil_Philadelphia_Post_1909.jpg
  17. http://theshadowlands.net/jd.htm
  18. http://www.livescience.com/28167-jersey-devil.html
  19. http://www.unexplained-mysteries.com/forum/index.php?app=blog&blogid=3158&showentry=28275
  20. http://www.underworldtales.com/jersey.htm
  21. http://www.pinelandsalliance.org/ecology/wildlife/
  22. http://www.conspiracyclub.co/2015/05/27/the-jersey-devil-truth-or-legend/
  23. http://blog.nj.com/njv_guest_blog/2013/08/the_forgotten_political_feud_t.html
  24. http://www.capitalcentury.com/1909.html
  25. http://www.phact.org/data/phactums/Phactum%202008-05.pdf
  26. http://www.epa.gov/greatlakes/ecopage/oak-savanna-conference-1994/proceedings/Hereford.html
  27. http://superstitiondictionary.com/story-of-the-jersey-devil-nj-folklore/
  28. http://weirdnj.com/stories/jersey-devil/
  29. http://www.e90post.com/forums/showthread.php?t=1109136
  30. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9803E6D81338E233A2575AC1A9609C94679ED7CF
  31. http://www.thinkaboutitdocs.com/1901-1909-reports/
  32. http://www.nytimes.com/1982/06/30/sports/scouting-jersey-devils-wins-name-poll.html
  33. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9803E6D81338E233A2575AC1A9609C94679ED7CF
  34. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jersey_Devil#/media/File:Jersey_Devil_Philadelphia_Post_1909.jpg

A Psychic Died

fry

When Colin Fry died there was a huge rise in traffic to my blog because of a post I had written in the past criticising him for seeming to take advantage of the misfortune of a man who had fallen victim to a psychic mail scam. I got a number of messages telling me that what I had written was disrespectful as Fry had just died despite the fact that the piece is both informed and was written prior to his death or his cancer diagnosis. This led me to update the post to explain this and yet people continued to send their disapproval my way.

It’s sad that Colin Fry died aged 53 of terminal cancer. Cancer sucks, as does nicotine addiction and 53 is far too young to die but this doesn’t detract from the fact that Fry made dubious claims about having supernatural abilities and was once caught cheating at a seance – behaviour that justified skepticism of his claims. That stuff happened so why should we pretend it didn’t?

I wrote something similar when Fred Phelps popped his clogs in a post titled De mortuis nihil nisi bonumIf to respect the dead you have to ignore or censor whole parts of their existence then quite frankly you’re not being very respectful, are you? Fry, of course, was nothing like Phelps and I’m not suggesting he was… in fact Fry was gay and was critical of Sally Morgan’s husband when his homophobic behaviour was caught on camera.

‘I deplore all forms of prejudice, and of course I have personal reasons for particularly detesting any form of homophobia. Every one is welcome to attend my shows of any race, gender , religion or sexual orientation, even skeptics!’ – Colin Fry

I may be misguided but I always thought of Fry as the last of the old-school spiritualist mediums because he still worked with the Spiritualists National Union (SNU) and was even an SNU registered minister whereas the SNU tend to view other high-profile stage psychics in an unfavourable light. This, of course, doesn’t detract from the fact that there were claims made and behaviours observed that brought doubt to the validity of what Colin Fry was claiming.

To pretend that is not deserving of such criticism does the man a disservice and for fans to pretend that Colin Fry was better than or above criticisms levelled at him in life and death is purely a selfish move. He acknowledged and, to a point, welcomed the skepticism people held of his claims and I think he’d welcome it after his death too.

The Police Should Use Psychics? Let’s All Freak Out!

calm down slide

The Telegraph have reported that ‘Psychic help finding missing people should not be ruled out, police officers told’

‘What in the Sam Hell is this bullshit from the UK College of Policing?’ asks Doubtful News, ‘Where do they get the foundation? Taxpayers may not be pleased.’

Firstly, shut up Doubtful News. Seriously.

This is not the College of Policing saying that psychics are real or that psychic insight is a valid form of investigation to be used in missing persons cases. They’re actually just holding a consultation about investigation practices in missing persons cases to make sure they are doing the right things with their resources. It runs until October. As a UK tax payer I am pleased that such consultations happen.

In the consultation documentation the College of Policing states ‘High-profile missing person investigations nearly always attract the interest of psychics and others, such as witches and clairvoyants, stating that they possess extrasensory perception. Any information received from psychics should be evaluated in the context of the case, and should never become a distraction to the overall investigation and search strategy unless it can be verified. These contacts usually come from well-intentioned people, but the motive of the individual should always be ascertained, especially where financial gain is included. The person’s methods should be asked for, including the circumstances in which they received the information and any accredited successes.

This is what some skeptics are getting their knickers in a twist about. The fact is though that self-proclaimed psychics have been approaching the police with tips about crimes for a very, very long time and the police, obviously, need to have a procedure in place to deal with this that doesn’t compromise the resources in the investigation but also doesn’t compromise the outcome investigation itself either positively or negatively. There have been several concerning incidents in the past where psychics have been listened to and the investigation has been derailed as a result. We’re quick to wag our fingers disapprovingly at the police for listening to psychics… but when they hold a consultation- the outcome of which will not be known until after October, by the way -about best practice in this sort of situation we wag our fingers in disapproval again.

How about, instead, taking part in the damn consultation? You can find their current information on the handling of psychics (and other practices) tips here and you can download the consultation form here to send back to them.

Be proactive and not reactive.

Ghost Geek Video Series: Ask Me Anything

Questions

It seems like it was a long time ago that a lot of lovely people (some of whom I’ve never met) supported to my campaign to fund an online video series and yet it wasn’t that long ago at all. After a bit of drama with an online retailer over a piece of equipment I had purchased I now have all of the equipment on my wish list meaning that the video production can begin.

This weekend those people who donated enough to the campaign will take part in the online How To Bust Ghosts workshop with yours truly and guests Blake Smith, Matthew Baxter and Bryan Bonner which I am really looking forward to. The idea in my mind has always been that once the workshop was completed the video series could commence. It is important to me that those who helped make the video series a reality get their rewards first.

With that in mind, if you do not live in the UK and you were supposed to get a Ghost Geek badge… well… I just found your badges in an envelope in my desk drawer with a note saying ‘don’t forget to post these’. I am sorry. They will be with you soon (unless I put them in another drawer that is.)

Myself and some of my friends are working on a special video project for the channel but this will be produced alongside regular videos and I think it makes sense for the first video of the series to be a sort of introduction video and this is where you can help. I’d really love to start with a question & answer session on video so that those who are familiar with my work can find out the answer to their questions while also helping me introduce myself to a new audience too. So, with that in mind, why not pop a question in the form below?

It can be about anything I’ve blogged about, spoken about or anything (appropriate) about me. I’ve already asked a few people for questions and I have ‘what is the scariest real life report you received?‘, ‘what is your favourite ghost story?‘ and ‘do you want ghosts to be real?‘ and I intend to answer these in the video. So, get your thinking caps on and ask away. I can’t guarentee I’ll answer all questions but I’ll try.