My Favorite Things
Today I want to do something a little different. One thing that's neat about Skeptoid episodes is that each one is about a single subject. It's a whole lot of little things, and whenever I'm on a radio show or some interview, I almost always get asked which of all these subjects are my favorites. It's always hard to answer on the spot, because I've done so many that I can't think of a tenth of them on the spur of the moment. So I started to write down a list of some of my favorite moments from the series, then decided what the heck, why not make that into an episode too. So here it is.
The more years that I've put into Skeptoid, the more clearly I've recognized what truly excites my passion. Producing Skeptoid is not just fun, it's outrageously fun. It's a grind because I have to stay on schedule and there's a lot of busy work involved, but the research part is like Disneyland on steroids. Who wouldn't love a legitimate excuse to spend part of their day learning about new wild and crazy stuff? I certainly do, and what excites me the most is making a connection that no previous researcher has. It's the difference between opening a treasure chest that nobody's ever seen before, compared to one that a hundred people have already plundered. I've struck such gold a number of times, and the thirst for more has me in a kind of gold fever every time I sit down at my desk. This passion for discovery is what drives me and what makes me spring out of bed at 5:30 every morning with honest excitement. I truly do love it.
Now I don't know for sure that no previous researcher has made these connections, probably somebody has in many of the cases; but I didn't find them and made the discoveries on my own. It's a kind of natural high that I hope everyone can experience, and that I hope will inspire others to want to learn more. Don't stop at the pop-culture supernatural explanations, those are boring. What's fresh and new is the often surprising fact of what's really going on.
The example that I've probably cited the most comes from Borley Rectory, said to be the most haunted house in all of history. Its most notable haunted feature was the automatic writing that appeared on the walls, often while people watched, scrawled words begging for help. This claim appears in print in every modern book written about Borley Rectory, in every documentary film, and it's all over the Internet. My connection came when I read the oldest accounts I could find from a pair of mediums who came to the house to perform seances using a planchette, which is a kind of Ouija board with a pencil. The mediums placed their hands on the planchette, and as it moved around on the table, the pencil would write. The old accounts said that the mediums used rolls of wallpaper laid out on the table, probably because they were the only large rolls of paper that were handy. These primary accounts never made any mention of writing appearing on the walls. It turns out that whole part of the story was nothing more than a modern misinterpretation from reading how writing appeared on the wallpaper while people watched. A completely understandable mistake, and it's become one of pop culture's most often cited examples of paranormal activity. For me, this was a Eureka moment that solved a question that had bugged me since I first read about it as a tiny kid.
There have been at least two cases where something strange has entered the popular mythology, and I discovered that what happened was driven by obscure cultural influences unknown to the Western reporters. One of these was the Faces of Belmez, a case in Spain where a woman was found to have been painting faces on the cement floor of her house for decades, and all the locals believed it was a psychic manifestation. What puzzled me was that it's a profoundly Catholic population: Why would such staunch Catholics be so quick to believe in psychic powers? To me, that was the real mystery, and the answer lay in cultural anthropology. Many of the lower classes in the Andalusian region of Spain are called Romani gitanos, who are ethnically descended from Eastern European gypsies. Even today, gypsies are hugely into psychic powers, faith healing, and communication with the dead. Blend that with the ubiquitous Catholicism throughout Spain, and suddenly a psychic manifestation becomes a practically inevitable confirmation of Santa Maria. The cultural influence spoke louder than the conventional clues.
I made a similar discovery investigating the case of Hambo Lama Itigelov, a Buddhist monk from eastern Russia near the Mongolian border, who died in 1927 and whose body is on display at his monastery where it was exhumed and found to be miraculously incorrupt. They do exaggerate how fresh he looks, but he is remarkably well preserved. To nearly all modern reporters, the discovery of his incorrupt state was a surprise and an inexplicable miracle. But upon reading that Itigelov had given instructions that he be exhumed, I wondered if it might not have been such a surprise after all, so I looked into the traditions of Buddhist monks. And I found one, one that would have especially appealed to Itigelov, who was a pharmacologist and had written a Buddhist encyclopedia on the subject. As the Hambo Lama he would have been thoroughly learned in all the ancient traditions, including one handed down from the Buddhist monks in Japan, called sokushinbutsu, or self mummification. I put the pieces together and discovered he'd given instructions that he be buried packed in salt, and that he'd spent his final months in secrecy and his body was found to be saturated with preserving bromine salts. There was no mystery and no surprise, there was merely the practice of an obscure ancient tradition. You get no help from previous writers with this stuff; I had to find all of this on my own, and when everything fell into place, it was so rewarding.
Many times, previous writers aren't merely unhelpful, they actually steer you wrong. One thing I've discovered time and time again is that flagrant plagiarism is endemic among those who write about the paranormal on the Internet. Articles are often unapologetically wholesale copy-and-pasted from one site to another. It's because these authors are so thoughtful and put so much research into their work. One such case was my episode on the Brown Mountain Lights in North Carolina. Every article I found about them, Wikipedia included, contained a snippet of text purported to be from a researcher named de Brahm back in 1771, who wrote that the lights were caused by gases escaping from the mountains and igniting. The problem was that this author's books are all online and searchable, and I couldn't find that sentence in anything he'd ever written. I put the question out to the Skeptoid Research email list to see if anyone could track it down, and sure enough, several people did. Turns out I couldn't find the text because he'd been subtly misquoted, and furthermore, when read in context, he was expressing his prescientific thoughts on why lightning occurs. It didn't have anything whatsoever to do with the Brown Mountain Lights. Just about every book and article ever written about the Lights cites this sentence as a primary source and is the only evidence that the Lights existed prior to the arrival of the train and the automobile, and they're all wrong.
This happened again when I researched the Bell Witch, widely considered the most authentic and dramatic case of witchcraft in U.S. history. This required deep historical research — not into the events, but into the printed sources. When I followed the primary sources cited by all the contemporary accounts, they all led back to one original book written and published 75 years after the hauntings. This author, a writer and publisher named Ingram, claimed that his primary source was a diary from one of the Bell children that dubiously fell into his possession. He never produced the diary, gave any evidence of its existence, or gave a believable account of how he obtained it. He also falsified at least one other primary source, gave quotes and stories only from people who were already deceased, and made up historical events (like a visit from Andrew Jackson) that contradict known history. I discovered that the entire Bell Witch incident was almost entirely, if not entirely, a hoax from an imaginative author, just like the Amityville Horror.
People sometimes ask me if I'm not disappointed when I find out that these urban legends aren't true. Hardly. For me it's never been about disproving things or showing that the world is less interesting than we hope. For me it's about new discoveries, and every one of them gives me a rush. Many of these stories are so deeply ingrained into our culture that everyone who's heard about them believes them, and every book you can pick up reinforces that. Making a new discovery, and overturning the current state of our knowledge, is what every researcher and scientist longs for. It's where the fun is. It's the gold at the end of the rainbow.
Paranormal stories are square pegs in round holes. They simply don't fit our understanding of how the universe works. When a lazy researcher concludes that a paranormal explanation must be the true one, they know that red buzzer is going off telling them they probably haven't found the right answer yet; they just choose to ignore it for whatever reason. Maybe to them, being different is more important than actually solving the puzzle. I like to have everything fit. I like seeing the pegs drop into the holes. I'm excited to see what the solved puzzle looks like. I know that's not everyone's cup of tea, but for me, picking up a Rubik's Cube and getting it right is where the real magic is.
Every story out there that depends on some supernatural element is an unsolved puzzle. I look at all of these puzzles and I feel like a kid in a toy store. And that, I think, is the best way to explain why I love making Skeptoid.
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