We are the Monsters

all monsters are human

We all consider ourselves to be rational, ethical people, and we wouldn’t dream that we were potentially harming others with our behaviour. As a previous blog post showed, ghost hunters who do unethical things do not always realise that they’re being unethical.

How then do we ensure that we don’t make the same mistake? I pointed out in that blog post that it’s important to work to a code of ethics – either one that you’ve written up yourself, that an investigator/team you’re working with has written, or perhaps one a venue has in place.

It’s easy to think that irrational people are unethical investigators and that rational people are ethical investigators but this is false. Nobody fits those pigeon holes so perfectly.

A code of ethics covers your back, but it primarily works for the people you come into contact with. It protects them from you doing harm to them through your actions, it guarantees complete confidentiality and it enables them to stop the investigation at any time. No questions asked.

I don’t speak for other paranormal researchers but I am terrified that I am going to do the wrong thing when I deal with somebody who has asked for my help and so I’m glad that I have a safety net that limits the harm I can do.

I have today made public my code of ethics [PDF] in the hope that it will inspire others to actually use a code of ethics that exists outside of their head*. Skeptics (myself included) talk often about the harm they want to protect others from but if we’re not careful we can become the monsters that we’re trying to chase away.

*please contact me before replicating, redistributing, or using my code of ethics as your own.

 

I Want To Believe: Will The X-Files Reboot Turn People Into Believers?

TV box

There have been lots of X-Files-related posts across my social media accounts recently as the relaunch fast approaches (with Greg and Dana of Planet Weird accounting for at least 70% of the Mulder and Scully stuff appearing on my Facebook feed.) Mixed in with these have been concerns from my more sceptically-inclined friends about what the return of Mulder and Scully will mean for the paranormal belief and susceptibility of the general public.

When talking about people who believe in paranormal ideas skeptics (myself included) will often be quick to point out that the media can have an influence upon which ideas we humans perceive to be realistic and possible. However many people will not be able to provide any reference for this claim – it is often parroted as a way to dismiss paranormal beliefs or to warn of the danger of paranormal television shows.

What we do know is that watching a television show isn’t likely to turn you from a non-believer to a believer. It’s all rather more complicated than that.

Glenn Sparks et al. conducted several experiments with groups of students who were surveyed about their paranormal beliefs and then exposed to certain forms of paranormal media. After watching shows about paranormal subjects presented in different manners they were surveyed about their beliefs again to see if there were shifts in their attitudes.

In one study the researchers had one group watch a program without any introductory disclaimer and another group with a disclaimer that mimicked those used on paranormal television shows. Another two groups watched the program with different disclaimers – one which said the program was only for entertainment and was fictitious and the second asserted that the depicted events violated the known laws of nature and that nothing like them had ever occurred.

The post-viewing survey found that the groups who saw the disclaimers tended to express more doubt in the existence of paranormal phenomena but the group who saw no disclaimer tended to express more confidence in the existence of these phenomena.

They also studied what happened when people with high or low mental imagery watched UFO-related television shows. One of which was shown as it had been broadcast, and the second which was edited to remove all special effects and alien imagery originally added by the producers.

‘One major finding that emerged from the study was that viewers who watched either of the two segments of the UFO reports increased their UFO beliefs significantly when compared to the control group. Like the results in the first study, this finding supports the notion that media depictions of the paranormal do indeed affect viewers’ beliefs.’ – Sparks

Other experiments were conducted about how a scientific authority can play a significant role in whether people consuming paranormal-related media are more likely to accept paranormal ideas presented as being valid or not. You can read an overview of the studies here. 

The important thing to consider here though is that The X-Files does not present itself as a factual programme as shows like Unsolved Mysteries, Beyond Reality, Strange But True and others. It’s a fictional show that fits into various different genres – paranormal, horror, science-fiction. The X-Files takes common paranormal themes and often adds another layer of weirdness to them.

The shift in attitudes that Sparks et al. noted also relied upon a pre-existing belief in paranormal ideas. There was no indication that watching these shows in their original format or an edited format could convert somebody from non-believer to believer.

In 2003 Christopher H. Whittle conducted a study that explored how people learn scientific information from television programming. Using an online questionnaire he asked viewers of ER and The X-Files to agree or disagree with a series of questions based upon the science (or pseudoscience) presented in the two shows.

He discovered that entertainment television viewers can learn facts and concepts from the shows that they watch, but he also discovered that there was no significant difference in the level of pseudoscientific or paranormal belief between viewers of ER and The X-Files.

The weird thing about this was the fact that Whittle wasn’t asking ‘do you believe in astral projection?’ but in fact questions that focussed on ideas created by the writers of The X-Files in their episodes, such as ‘Do you believe during astral projection a person could commit a murder?”

demon fetal harvest

‘ER viewers were just as likely to acknowledge belief in that paraparanormal (a concept beyond the traditional paranormal) belief as were viewers of The X-Files!’ Whittle wrote in Skeptical Inquirer in 2004. ‘The media may provide fodder for pseudoscientific beliefs and create new monsters and demons for us to believe in, but each individual’s culture is responsible for laying the groundwork for pseudoscientific and paranormal belief to take root.’

So sure, The X-FIles might make UFOs seem a bit cooler than ghosts for a bit (depending on what the focus of the series will be, that is) and many of us will rekindle old crushes, but it’s probably not going to make people believe in things they weren’t likely to believe in before.

Besides, Dana Scully is a kick-ass skeptic investigator who knows what’s up. We’re in pretty safe hands.

scully

Is This The Halloween Generation Of Ghost Research?

black eyed kids

TScience, you're doing it wronghe traditional approach to ghost research is long dead and here to replace it is the Halloween Generation; They’re always on the look out for the next opportunity to both indulgence their sense of being at one with themselves and their addiction to hedonistic thrill seeking. Overnight stays at haunted “mental asylums” and the plethora of the “Most haunted” places in the land, piles of ghost photos that show nothing of importance, gruesome looking puppets that it’s claimed are haunted by demons, theatrical claims of being attacked by demonic entities, endless lists of modern technology that both seek and disprove the existence of spooks while actually accomplishing neither, mirror scrying (with both regular and black mirrors), seances, working with psychics and spirit mediums, dowsin- wait. No. Those are traditional methods that can be traced right back to our Victorian and Edwardian ancestors. So what has changed?

In his delightful book A Natural History of Ghosts Roger Clarke writes that ‘watching a TV show like TAPS, with its extraordinary emphasis on detecting and surveillance technology, modern American ghost-belief is a mixture of Dan Aykroyd’s Ghostbusters, English Jacobean Protestant theology and a Halloween whizz or Irish Catholic and pagan tradition.’ 

Quite.

It’s tempting to look about today (both in America, the UK or elsewhere) and complain that the modern world of ghost research has lost the plot, that those seeking fame and fortune dominate the field, that dodgy methodologies and personalities claim all of the headlines and attention, and that people are being stupid with their ill-supported conclusions. In the next breath many then point out that they wish they could travel back in time to a world where ghost research was honourable, decent, respected… but that’s a world that did not exist.

We ghost researchers of today are all cut from the same cloth of our predecessors and their predecessors, and the future generations of ghost researchers will also be cut of this cloth, and those that follow them and so on and so forth. Our influenced as far reaching and muddled and sometimes hard to distinguish.

If recent surveys are to be believed more and more people believe in ghosts, but did society ever stop believing? I find it hard to believe that there was a sudden dip in ghost believers between the end of World War 2 and today. That seems odd. I would posit that we’ve always been a national of believers in ghosts and in a world that seems to be becoming less and less religious ghosts have become less taboo, and so has believing in them.

And although it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the ghost stories from our ancestors would be thought of as dull and boring by today’s standards they’re actually as popular as ever, not to forget that the BBC have long breathed life into the ghosts that were born from the mind of M R James (more recently with the help of Mark Gatiss.) The adult generations of today grew up with stories of friendly ghosts – Casper, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Rent-a-Ghost, Nearly Headless Nick… is it any wonder that ghosts are as popular as ever? Is it any surprise that the traditional and modern seen to entwine to create the modern idea of what ghosts are and do?

The only thing that has really changed is the way that we live now. Gone are the crossroads ghosts wailing a warning to passengers on the road and here to replace them are the Road Traffic Collision hot-spot apparitions. It isn’t often one hears of sightings of ghostly horse drawn carriages, but stories of people hitting people with their cars who had seconds before appeared from nowhere in the road are plentiful. An otherworldly reminder to be careful. 

It isn’t the ghosts that change, it isn’t the ghost researchers that change and it isn’t the ghost eye-witness who changes… it’s society.

Today we can talk to people from all around the world in real-time. We can share with them our experiences and our thoughts and, much like our societies, our ghost cultures have become multicultural. I’ve written before about Asian ghosts who seen on countryside tracks, creatures with fictional-internet origin that seen in the Midlands, beings with American folkloric roots haunting British families in their homes as they sleep.

If our ancestors had the internet their ghost stories would have been much the same as ours. If they had live television I think they’d watch a “live Exorcism” being broadcast (as you can this halloween), I think Harry Price would have been on This Morning with Holly and Phil on a regular basis…

‘…but today you have estate agents cashing in on haunted houses‘ you might argue, ‘so many places claim to be haunted to draw in customers‘ you might complain, and you’re right, but this isn’t new either and isn’t going to away any time soon. The “most haunted” brag pre-dates Yvette Fielding and her television crew, it pre-dates Harry Price and his “Most Haunted House” and it will continue to exist because ghosts are a human by-product and humans are going to be around for a very long time. Our frustrations with the modern world of ghost research are not new problems, the Halloween Generation has always existed, it’s never going away… it just has Twitter now.

#GhostsArentJustForHalloween #ISeeDeadPeople

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

Humanist Ghost Busting: A Clarification

graves

A short while ago I wrote how I am a Humanist ghost buster and this confused a few people who seemed to think that I was mistaking humanism with humanitarianism. While I understand that suggestion I can assure you that I am not mistaken when I talk about my discovery of humanism shaping the way in which I conduct my paranormal research.

A Humanitarian approach is certainly a large part of being humanist but humanism is the reason for our humanitarian involvements. Being good for the sake of being good and not for post-death reward is what sets humanists apart from those who would undertake humanitarian work through other inspirations.

Instead of writing a long post about this I thought I’d share this video instead which I feel sums this up in a more concise manner.