You can hardly find the village of Bélmez de la Moraleda for all the olive groves it's hidden among. Driving through the foothills in this part of southern Spain, you see olives, olives, and more olives. But turn up the slope and you'll discover its white stucco buildings drenched in sunlight, its 2,000 residents hard at work keeping it spotless and neatly trimmed. But not everything in this pastoral hamlet is quite so cheery: For more than 30 years, one house in town enclosed a frightening portent. The image of a face once appeared on its concrete floor. Its owners tried to remove it, but it persisted. And soon it was joined by others. And others. Soon, ghastly, ghostly countenances were everywhere on the floor, sometimes even overlapping. Small faces, big faces, some benevolent, some shrieking in horror. They became known as the Faces of Bélmez.
Now I'm going to spare you ten minutes of discussion and investigation into a case as cut and dried as this one. My point today is not to "debunk" the Faces of Bélmez, but rather to look at its significance in a broader context. So I'm just going to give you a quick and dirty reveal: The faces were shown to have been painted on the concrete floor, the first with paint and later with acid, and the woman living in the house found to be perpetrating a hoax on the public for financial gain. In 1971, María Gómez Cámara announced the appearance of the first face on the kitchen floor, and psychic believers called it a case of "thoughtography", claiming that Cámara's thoughts had a telekinetic effect and projected images from her mind onto the floor. When she and her family began charging admission for tourists to see the faces, the mayor had a sample removed for testing. The hoax was easily revealed, and the city banned any further tourist business from being conducted at the residence. However that did not stop them, and the faces continued to appear for more than 30 years until Cámara's death in 2004.
When I give a public lecture, one of the first questions I'm often asked is why do people believe this stuff? And though it would be nice to have "a" reason, the truth is that there are probably as many different reasons as there are people. But there are some common themes. When we look at the Faces of Bélmez, you and I see something that's an obvious hoax, that it seems you'd have to be unrealistically ignorant to believe in. Ignorance probably plays a role for some people, but for most of the pilgrims who traveled to see the faces, cultural context was probably a bigger factor. We're not surprised to learn about Native American spiritualism (for example), and neither should we be surprised to learn of European traditions. The Andalusian region of Spain places deep emphasis on the Virgin Mary, and the lower classes in particular bear the influence of eastern European gypsies, called Romani gitanos. Even the gitanos' style of dress shows obvious gypsy cues. Among gypsy traditions are a deeply rooted belief in psychic powers, faith healing, and communication with the dead. Thus we have a population molded by a blending of Catholic miracles with psychic powers; and to many of these people, the Faces of Bélmez are a practically inevitable confirmation of Santa María.
In a larger context, the prospect of finding meaning within everyday things is compelling to most people. We want the things we do and see to have a deeper dimension that suggests the existence of a power greater than what we can observe. We want to be able to have that power too. When we see that Cámara can turn her thoughts into tangible reality, we strongly want it to be true, in part because of how attractive is the prospect of being able to do that ourselves; but also because it's spiritually comforting to know that such powers are out there watching over us.
Perhaps a simpler question is why would someone perpetrate such a hoax on a trusting public? In this case, the city government found that it was as simple as financial gain. But in my experience, people like Cámara are rarely simply hustlers. If she was like most career psychics, she probably believed her powers were real. And even as she and her family took paint brushes in hand and deliberately faked the faces on the floor, cognitive dissonance allowed her to still believe that what she was doing was real. She could have honestly believed that she'd been divinely inspired through psychic abilities to paint the faces, and it could be as simple as that. She could well have believed that the psychic advice she dispensed throughout the village was just as inspired. There are so many possibilities, both including and excluding conscious fraud, that it's premature to make any determinations about her character or motivations.
And so, even giving the benefit of the doubt and assuming only the best of motivations for Cámara and others like her, are any ethical implications nullified? I argue that they're not. Until psychic abilities can pass any kind of controlled test and be shown to exist, it's safe to say that Cámara's psychic advice is no better than what you might get from a cat, or the flip of a coin. Knowingly or not, Cámara violated any kind of ethical code you might choose to apply to what she did. At a minimum, she allowed the belief to persist that the faces appeared spontaneously. She could easily have painted them on canvas or anywhere else and offered the story that they were the result of psychic abilities, but she didn't. She stuck to what she knew was a lie, she derived profit from it, and she knew that people took her advice in part because of the bolstering provided by the lie.
The same can be said of anyone who dispenses a product or service who has good reason to doubt the value of such a product. Every psychic, homeopath, and acupuncturist is well aware that controversy exists regarding the validity of their product. Even though they may have thoroughly convinced themselves that their products work, they know that not everyone agrees, and they know that the overwhelming body of empirical evidence is against them. Every ethical practitioner should refuse to accept another penny until they can establish that their service is indeed of real value to the customer. When doctors learn that a certain drug is found to be worthless, they should stop prescribing it, regardless of their personal feelings about it. Psychics should have no less of an ethical obligation.
Perhaps more important than the ethical implications of tricks like this are its intellectual ramifications. Believing tourists who come to Bélmez to see the faces are transformed from innocent believers who take the story on faith, into experienced witnesses who have evaluated the evidence firsthand and no longer need the faith. What was merely a superstitious belief is now authoritative knowledge of how the universe works. And, it's wrong. When you validate someone's superstitious belief, you teach them that other superstitions are likely true as well. Someone who witnesses the proof of a magical claim firsthand is much more likely (perhaps even certain) to fully embrace any other claims coming from the same source or similar sources.
Consider the possibility of a child from one of these villages getting an infection or diarrhea. Left untreated, or ineffectually treated, these can be fatal; when a simple trip to any doctor could easily cure them. The Faces of Bélmez teaches villagers to put their faith instead into a traditional treatment left over from the days when these conditions were virtual death sentences.
But of course, it's relatively rare that someone's superstitious beliefs actually put their life in danger. What's much more common is the reliance on psychic information to guide decisions in business or personal relationships. By all accounts, María Gómez Cámara was among the most influential people in Bélmez. People brought her questions every day, seeking what they believed was guidance divinely inspired by Santa María. The city council's determination that her painted faces were fraudulent apparently had no effect on the public's perception of her abilities. From what we know, it appears that nearly every day in Bélmez during Cámara's lifetime, some significant decision was made based on information of totally unknown value. I found no record indicating whether the advice she dispensed turned out to be right or wrong, so there's no foundation to assert that her advice was not divinely inspired or was not of faultless quality. We have only the one data point: The faces she and her family painted on the floor, and then fraudulently presented as evidence of her divinely inspired psychic abilities. Is it possible that her abilities were otherwise truly psychic? Certainly. Is it likely? Judge for yourself.
I argue that the promotion of bogus phenomena like the Faces of Bélmez instills a harmful lesson into people that damages their ability to be successful in many facets of life. A more valuable lesson would be the critical thinking skills that allow them to properly analyze such claims, and discriminate true information from false. I often hear the question put forward, is it important to "debunk" stories like this, even if people draw comfort and hope from them? Based on the point I just made, yes, without question; but mere "debunking" is of no practical value if left there. What you need to do is teach people the critical thinking skills that will help them avoid such pitfalls in the future. That's what's important.
So, the Faces of Bélmez: A harmless little folk tale? Perhaps, but only if taken out of context and considered by itself. But within the context of the lives of the believers who come to see it, it is unambiguously a harmful influence, contributing to the erosion of their ability to make sound decisions governing their lives.