Sep 202022
 

Squaring the Strange features the JACKALOPE EPISODE! Yes, a favorite kitchy cryptid / hoax / souvenir / tall tale from the American West. Professor Michael Branch discusses his new book and brings us so many jackalope facts you may have to listen twice. Check it out!

 

Sep 102022
 

Interesting article in Psychology Today by my colleague and co-author Bob Bartholomew, about the strange case of a phantom cat killer in New Zealand…

 

One feature of human psychology is that people tend to see what they expect to see. As meaning-oriented beings, we are wired to interpret information patterns that reflect our expectations and beliefs. A prominent example is a face on Mars–which turned out to be a mound of shifting soil.

Another illustration is the curious case of Maria Rubio of Port Arthur, New Mexico, who, in 1977, became convinced she saw the face of Jesus in her tortilla. This process also aids in the creation of moral panics–exaggerated threats to the social order by a malevolent actor. Moral panics are heavy on rumors and hearsay and light on facts.

Take the case of New Zealand’s Raglan Cat Killer. For a decade, citizens have read stories and watched TV reports of a serial cat killer on the loose in the rural town of Raglan. A group, Stop the Cat Killer, was even formed, and a blog was created under the heading The Raglan Ripper. In 2014 near the height of the panic, residents began flying flags with a cat and crossbones symbol and the words “Stop Raglan Cat Killer” (Harry, 2014). A conspicuous aspect of this case has stood out over the years: no culprit has ever been identified despite living in an age of phone cameras and surveillance video. Furthermore, police have found no evidence of a cat killer…

 

You can read the rest HERE.

Aug 252022
 

In the wake of the July verdict in the dueling defamation lawsuits between actors Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, there was of course much punditry, commentary, and crystal gazing. It was seen not merely as an outcome of one trial between two often-toxic celebrities but a harbinger of social trends to come.

New York Times staff editor Spencer Bokat-Lindell wrote a piece titled “Is the #MeToo Movement Dying?” in which he noted that the trial “has been read as a low-water mark for the movement: After and even before the jury found last week that each had defamed the other, awarding $2 million in damages to Heard and $10 million to Depp, commentators were declaring ‘the death’ and ‘the end’ of #MeToo.” Rolling Stone magazine added: “’This is basically the end of MeToo,’ Dr. Jessica Taylor, a psychologist, forensic psychology Ph.D., and author of two books on misogyny and abuse, tells Rolling Stone. ‘It’s the death of the whole movement.’”

Conservative news media also joined in the chorus; as Media Matters noted, “After the verdict was announced, Fox News gleefully celebrated the supposed end of the #MeToo movement. In the minutes after the news broke, anchor Martha MacCallum declared, ‘This puts a bit of a stake in the heart of the notion that you believe all women.’ On The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld sniped that Heard had ‘used the #MeToo movement and now she’s betrayed the #MeToo movement. You can’t believe all women, is basically what this case is saying.’”

However, it seems that pundits on both sides of the issue got it wrong—as they often do.

The verdict was about the claims and evidence in that case specifically, and there’s little evidence suggesting that it would (or will) be a death knell for the movement. I described this phenomenon as the Ubiquitous Referenda in my new book, America the Fearful: Media and the Marketing of National Panics:

It seems that these days most news national and world events are treated as important bellwethers or referenda about the state of our country and the state of the world. This is partly why activists on all sides feel the need to characterize events as a clear step toward social destruction. For example in early 2016 predictions were made that if Trump was elected his sexism and misogyny would influence a generation of young American men and lead to increases of sexual harassment and assault.

Every politically or socially charged news event is framed as a decisive moment where the misguided must be corrected, others must be shown the error of their ways. We jump from week to week, hearing about mistreated airline passengers or people saying mean things about celebrities. The barbarians are at the gates again today, everything is outrageous, everything is crucial, and all dutiful Americans should once again gather along the virtual parapets to loudly remind ourselves (and those misguided souls on the other side) that we publicly denounce them.

There are several problems with this approach. First, it seems to assume, without evidence, that American culture itself is fragile and hinges on some event, that if these incidents are not strongly and widely denounced then American society will self-evidently come to see these things (sexism, racism, sexual assault) as socially sanctioned and acceptable or “normal.” A popular headline for op-eds is, indeed, “This Is Not Normal,” as well-intentioned critics remind readers about some abnormal aspect of their lives against which they should remain vigilant. The fact is that people are not nearly as easily influenced as widely believed (and especially as advertisers would have us believe, as described later); we should know how hard it is to convince people of anything—even when we have facts and science on our side.

The idea that America is on a powderkeg, on a razor’s edge and about to explode into riots and wars based on gender, politics, or race. Ironically, it’s often fringe right-wingers—those who obsess over and interpret each real or perceived racial injustice through some blinkered prism—who are most likely to believe that America is a small step from cultural revolution.

When a Ku Klux Klan rally was scheduled for downtown Dayton, Ohio, in May 2019, Rabbi Ari Ballaban, director of Dayton’s Jewish Community Relations Council, was quoted in local news media warning of unrest and violence, stating that “Courthouse Square will be a powder keg.” Those expecting blood in the streets and race riots need not have feared; a grand total of nine people showed up for the racist rally. They were dwarfed by the estimated 500 to 600 counter-protesters of all races and colors, many shouting slogans and holding signs such as “You Are Not Welcome Here,” “Refugees Welcome, Racists Go Home,” and “Injustice Anywhere Is a Threat to Justice Everywhere.” Local businesses displayed signs such as “Get your hatin’ out of Dayton” and “fucKKK off.” There are many other examples, but for a country as deeply racist as America is said to be, the vast majority of Americans seem to be doing their best to denounce racism and intolerance at every turn. The rabbi, like many others, had overestimated the support that the Klan had locally.

It’s very difficult to get individual people to change their behaviors, even when they are given explicit information on what to do and how to do it. There’s no mystery about how to lose weight or quit smoking, but few people do. People, like ships, have difficulty changing direction; inertia and routine (physical as well as mental) keep us doing the same things, even when we know we shouldn’t. Countries, that is, collectives of hundreds of millions of people, change even more slowly. Institutional reforms take years or decades, not weeks or months—a point often missed by those who demand immediate social and justice reforms. 

For some reason people who are comfortably stuck in their own ways and worldviews assume that other people—They of the third-person effect—are on the precipice of changing their minds (for the worse, of course) should they be exposed to “wrong” ideas. They are in danger of adopting sexist behavior because of Game of Thrones or the optional female voices available for Siri and Alexa, or going down the rabbit hole of violence because of violent video games or movies.  

There’s also outrage fatigue to consider; when everything is a crisis, nothing is a crisis. When people spend their days looking for (real or imagined) things to be outraged about, it muddies the waters and makes it hard to distinguish real problems from manufactured ones, serious issues with a high potential for real harm from others with a much lower potential for some inchoate, potential harm. Just as atmospheric smog takes a toll on the health of both people and societies, fear smog takes a collective toll on psychological and social health.

Part of this is the fear that the unwashed masses, the semi-fictional “They” who aren’t as enlightened as you and I, will be easily swayed and misunderstand the situation: If we don’t make it clear that Trump’s sexism is unacceptable, They (high school kids? young men?) will think it’s okay and America will have a generation of rapists and misogynists. If we don’t make it clear that racist marchers are unacceptable, They (non-racists or those on the fence about whether to be racist?) will think it’s okay and America will sow a generation of Nazis.

The good news is there’s little or no good evidence for this assumption. Most of these are testable claims: either sexual assaults go up in the months and years following Trump’s election, or they don’t (they didn’t). Critics might argue an essentially unfalsifiable claim, that their protests prevented or minimized the harm (i.e., if Trump hadn’t been universally condemned for his remarks about grabbing women, he would have had more influence, or if the Virginia and Ohio racists hadn’t been drowned out by counter-protestors and a deluge of mockery and bad press, they would have gotten more recruits). It’s possible, though doubtful—and of course we will never know, precisely because all these things have been widely condemned by most Americans.

This rationalization is reminiscent of doomsday cults, who, when confronted with the fact that the world did not end as they had predicted, claim that their dire prophecy, along with the resulting awareness campaigns and vigilant prayers, had saved the day. The doomsday cultists then pat themselves on the backs, because, after all, they just saved the world—and no one can prove otherwise. As Trump’s presidency ended we have not seen a jump in Americans who think sexually assaulting women is acceptable. Nor was there a surge in membership to white nationalist organizations after people saw the Charlottesville rally and said, “Wow, those guys are right and make sense!” Instead, virtually all the news coverage about it has been negative—as it always is.

Are there exceptions? Of course. Out of hundreds of millions of Americans, a few will see some Klan rally, ignore the overwhelming social criticism of it, and join up. Similarly it’s possible (though unlikely) that a few women may in fact be deterred from reporting their assaults because it took so long for Bill Cosby to be convicted, and that some trolling dudebro will cite Trump when he’s arrested for grabbing his date’s crotch. These are the rare exceptions, not the rule, and the amount of energy directed to these specific events (as opposed to the larger issues—sexism, racism, etc., which are valid and real but hardly represented by these events) is wildly disproportionate to the threat.

Protesting can bring about change, and that’s valuable. But over-protesting undermines its effectiveness, and saturating our airwaves (or social media feeds) with the worst elements of society as if they are representative of America insults those who have worked so hard to bring about the progress we should celebrate and emulate. There’s also an element of virtue signaling and pageantry in today’s clever protest march signs and hashtag activism, of course. The point is not that people shouldn’t protest things they find offensive or wrong (do whatever you want), but instead that there are dangers and pitfalls in how people are approaching it. There are real, legitimate watershed moments in American history (Roe v. Wade and its overturning, Obama’s election, George Floyd’s death, etc.) but we lose our ability to spot these moments if we are feeding ourselves a daily diet of outrage.

Whether the Heard/Depp verdict truly is the nail in the #MeToo coffin—as both progressives and conservatives have claimed—remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely. For years, polls and survey have found that the American public overwhelmingly does believe women when they come forward with claims of abuse. Whether Americans supported Heard, Depp, or were indifferent, the verdict is likely to have little effect on real victims coming forward.

For more on this, see my book America the Fearful, and check out my recent lecture for Skeptical Inquirer Presents.

Aug 202022
 

Word around the campfire is that there’s a new episode of Squaring the Strange! This week we dug up some strange ways people have sent off their deceased loved ones. As a medieval person, how would you keep Aunt Edna from coming back as a vampire or a bitey undead plague-spreader? Or in the Victorian era, how would you make sure you weren’t accidentally buried alive? From deviant burial practices to waiting morgues with bells and strings to the practicality of sky burials, we’ve got some interesting facts and folklore. Check it out!

Jul 252022
 

For the recent episode of Squaring the Strange we are joined by Professor Michael Branch, who has just released his new book On the Trail of the Jackalope. What began as an idea for a taxidermy correspondence course 90 years ago has blossomed into a cultural phenomenon. Michael Branch shares his appreciation for the Western tall tale, the whimsy and skill that went into original Wyoming jackalopes, and what sets a hoax apart from a scam or a con. We discuss tall tale postcards and other “jackalopiana” and uncover the surprising role jackalopes have played in the history of medicine and public health.

 

Check it out HERE!

Jul 172022
 

New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! This week we dug up some strange ways people have sent off their deceased loved ones. As a medieval person, how would you keep Aunt Edna from coming back as a vampire or a bitey undead plague-spreader? Or in the Victorian era, how would you make sure you weren’t accidentally buried alive? From deviant burial practices to waiting morgues with bells and strings to the practicality of sky burials, we’ve got some interesting facts and folklore. Check it out HERE! 

 

May 062022
 

New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! This time the devil’s not in the details, he’s in the music! From violinists centuries ago to hard rock and even country music, the devil shows up quite a lot. Pascual takes us on a diabolical tour of musical folklore involving Mr. Scratch… Check it out!

 

Apr 182022
 

I’m delighted to have contributed a chapter in this new book on the folklore of monsters! I haven’t read it yet but many of the other authors are brilliant friends and colleagues, and I’m looking forward to it.

Mining a mountain of folklore publications, North American Monsters unearths decades of notable monster research. Nineteen folkloristic case studies from the last half-century examine legendary monsters in their native habitats, focusing on ostensibly living creatures bound to specific geographic locales.

A diverse cast of scholars contemplate these alluring creatures, feared and beloved by the communities that host them—the Jersey Devil gliding over the Pine Barrens, Lieby wriggling through Lake Lieberman, Char-Man stalking the Ojai Valley, and many, many more. Embracing local stories, beliefs, and traditions while neither promoting nor debunking, North American Monsters aspires to revive scholarly interest in local legendary monsters and creatures and to encourage folkloristic monster legend sleuthing.

 

More info HERE!

Mar 182022
 

I’m delighted to have contributed a chapter in this new book on the folklore of monsters! I haven’t read it yet but many of the other authors are brilliant friends and colleagues, and I’m looking forward to it. I also did the cover art!

Check it out HERE!

Mar 162022
 

New episode of Squaring the Strange is now out! After a brief discussion on the recent jailbreak (rock break?) of a Japanese nine-tailed fox demon and some thoughts on war rumors we talk about people who think they can talk to animals. Or people who think their animal can talk to them — psychically, of course.

Yes, it’s Pet Psychics and Psychic Pets time… check it out!

 

Mar 102022
 

Did you miss out recent show on Sex Urban Legends? First, all the way from New York City Skeptics, Russ Dobler drops in to tell us about AIPT Comic’s skepticism month — and we also chat about Joe Rogan and Ivermectin. Then our main topic is sex urban legends, a field so fertile it’s a veritable cornucopia of naughty, forbidden, lurid, or merely humiliating tales that someone swears happened to a friend’s cousin’s boss’s uncle. From Lemmiwinks the gerbil to the poor woman impregnated by a Civil War bullet, we dive into stories old and new about a topic people never seem to tire of.

 

Check it out HERE!

Feb 282022
 

Not the most compelling cover art, but I’m quoted in this new book from the Belgrade Institute for Literature and Arts. The subject, of all things, is my research into the Pokemon seizure panic of 1997.

 

Check it out HERE! 

 

Feb 202022
 

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! This week we discuss an old Satanic Panic dog learning some new tricks. Televangelist Bob Larson has turned to giving remote exorcisms via Skype and Zoom these past few years, and we speak with two people who have endured such events, as both participant and audience. JD Sword wrote a recent article about his strange (and underwhelming) experience with Larson exorcising a doll (or not), and Alisa Yang has turned her exorcism into a short-form documentary called “Sleeping with the Devil,” available on Vimeo now.

Check it out! 

 

Feb 152022
 

If—like most people—you’ve ever searched Wikipedia for skeptical topics, or looked there for topic covered by organized skepticism, chances are you’ve probably read some of Susan Gerbic’s work. She’s a (very) active member of the Center for Inquiry and the Independent Investigations Group. She’s also one of the driving forces behind trying to bring skepticism, balance, and critical thinking to the world’s most-used reference. In 2011 she responded to e-mailed questions from a secret bunker somewhere in California; this interview revisits that time, with a few updates. You can hear more from Susan on the podcast I co-host, Squaring the Strange, as well as YouTube. Susan and her colleagues have also garnered significant attention from the mainstream news media, including WiredMediumThe New York Times magazine, and other places.

BR: What’s your background?

SG: Born and raised in Salinas, California, the youngest child of a youngest child. Professional portrait photographer for three decades, I specialize in people who do not want their portrait taken—which means the very young and the old and cranky. 

I was four classes away from a Masters degree in American History when I quit college in 2004, it was either the Graduate degree or a long-distance relationship with skeptic Mark Edward (author of Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium) who lived 6 hours away.  I have two grown sons, Caspian, and my younger son Stirling who attends all the skeptical functions with me.

Raised Southern Baptist, I never heard the word atheist until I was in my late teens, once I found out there were other people who felt like I did, I read everything I could on the subject.  Discovered skepticism as a community in 2000 while looking for a topic for a college paper.  Attended a small gathering in San Jose, met Carol and Ben Baumgartner, Dr. Wallace Sampson, Dr. Jere Lipps and was hooked.  Went to the Skeptic Toolbox in Eugene, Oregon that August and felt like I found my people! I’m officially a skeptical junkie, just waiting for the paperwork to prove it [I’ve been promised by those at CFI that it’s on its way and should be there soon–BR].

I’m the co-founder of Monterey County Skeptics which is a social group that hang out together.  Being in the L.A. Area so much with Mark we both got involved with the Independent Investigations Group (IIG) for a while, but I’ve been busy with more since then.

BR: Do you think Wikipedia is really one of the main battlegrounds for skepticism?

SG: Yes I do, and I think I can prove it with numbers—skeptics like numbers. Podcasts, lectures, blogs etc. are all wonderful and needed as it builds a stronger skeptical community.  They also introduce us to more and more outlets that we can explore. But with a few exceptions we are still preaching to the choir.  

We still have to have investigations and video media to release to the public.  It is like an ecosystem all the different parts working together.  Wikipedia is where it all comes together.  We know how many people are accessing Wikipedia pages, we can compare those numbers to the amount of hits an article on the same topic is generating when it comes from a personal website or blog.  The numbers are staggering and varied, but generally Wiki hits outnumber articles every time. 

Look, we also know that people rarely change their mind when someone is yelling at them telling them how stupid they are.  Most of us skeptics have been believers on some level, we should know better.  What people need is reasoned discussions and the ability to do their own research.  They are going to go to a neutral site to do so, and Wikipedia is waiting for them.  When they have looked over the page and hyperlinked to all the pages linked, they are better able to change their mind. 

 

BR: What about projects like SkeptiWiki, which is devoted solely to skeptical content? Do you think that’s useful?

SG: I don’t think I have ever used that site, and almost never heard it referred to. We need neutral sites. The public is trying to understand a topic and they can tell from the name that it is one-sided.  All that talent would be better used editing in a place that the public are already going to. I have no idea what the numbers would be comparing them, but I can image that there is little use trying to fight something as successful and powerful as Wikipedia. Why not use it to our advantage?

BR: How is Wikipedia structured and administered?

SG: All volunteers working towards creating a living, breathing encyclopedia, that’s pretty awesome I think.  They have their own rules and language that take time getting used to.  I’m totally self taught, I’ve tried reading the instructions on how to edit and it’s like reading a tech manual.  I ask people for help, and look at well authored pages, copy what I like and paste into the page I’m editing.  Change it to reflect the person/topic I’m working on, and I’m done.

BR: How is the Wikipedia content judged?

SG: Mainly peer reviewed.  Some editors are considered higher level than others, but for the most part I’ve had little problem with the edits they have reverted.  You can’t take it personally, we are creating a better encyclopedia which must be the main goal.  If you are having problems with an editor then step back and try to see what is really the problem, usually you can work through it.  There is a process for peer-arbitration which I’ve threatened someone with but never used.  Once you get a bunch of edits under your belt you can start editing with confidence.  Be bold, cite everything and usually people leave you alone.

BR: What have been some of the main challenges to injecting skepticism into Wikipedia?

SG: Probably only time.  There is so much to be done, and people are always telling me “good job!” which is nice to hear, but what I badly need is help editing. Kudos are nice, but help is better. The project is that important.  The tips and ideas I give on my blog are from copy/paste/save types of edits, to fixing grammar, to rewording blurbs to more advanced items. 

BR: Obviously some skeptical content will upset people, such as psychics who rely on the general public not knowing about their track record of failure. What sort of opposition have you seen? Can you give a few examples?

SG: I have had almost no contact with anyone upset about my edits.  I do see some frustrated comments people have left in the discussion area of pages—almost all from believers upset that their favorite psychic’s page is not balanced.  Wikipedia is not balanced, you will never see a citation about the earth being flat on the “Earth” Wiki page.  Nor will you see anything about a moon landing hoax on NASA’s page.  Just cited fact after cited fact. 

[Convicted felon] Sylvia Browne’s page is a great example that I discuss in my blog, believers do not always understand that you can’t post opinions and stories, it has to be cited, and neutral.  Over and over people complain that there isn’t anything about how Browne “helps people” and is “a wonderful person”.  They say that the only thing that the editors ever show is Browne’s failures.  I love it when I read the editors respond that if they will find her successes in print (not her book) that can be substantiated then we will gladly post it on her page.  Usually we never hear from that believer again, one man said he would find the evidence, but it would mean long months in the library, but he will eventually find proof for us.  We are still waiting, the exchange can be read on Sylvia’s discussion page.  Great reading, BTW. 

Psychics themselves have rarely if ever commented or edited their own page. It’s a losing battle, they have to show proof of their claims and that isn’t likely to hold up to review.  Personally I think they would rather the believers not go to Wikipedia to see what is there.  I’m sure they downplay the site if it is mentioned to them. 

BR: What topics have you tackled?

SG: All have been in some way associated with the skeptic movement.  Tim Farley (who started me on this project) believes that an editor should not stick to one topic all the time, he suggests editing your home town page and other places so you don’t get a reputation amongst editors for having a “cause.”  I’m all over the place so much that there is no pattern to see unless the editor looks closely at my edits—which I doubt they will do. 

My “hit list” is pretty long but needs to be a lot longer.  I’ve done UFO’s, Power Balance, ghost hunting sites, most of the psychics and anything else that attracts my attention. I’m very interested in beefing up all the pages of our skeptical spokespeople.  This is a sub-project of Guerrilla Skepticism that I call “We Got Your Wiki Back!”.  The main idea is to remember we are not improving Wikipedia for the skeptical choir, our audience is the public.  When they access our spokespeople’s pages they should find well-written, well sourced information.  How can we expect others to respect our spokespeople if we don’t respect them enough to maintain their Wikipedia pages? 

BR: What mysterious or paranormal topics get the most controversy?

SG: Usually it comes in waves.  When a page is vandalized over and over, there is a protection put on the page that anonymous editors cannot edit.  The Scientologist page is the first one that comes to mind, I believe that many of the positive edits happening there were traced to Scientology headquarters, and there was a stop to that (plus some bad publicity for them).  The astrology page is really getting hit lately, believers just can’t allow the already determined consistence wording to remain.  They keep fussing with the definition, then editors have to change it back and tell them not to change it again.  Along comes another believer who changes it again…and on and on. 

BR: Many people use Wikipedia but don’t feel tech savvy enough to become editors or contributors. What is the actual process to edit pages? Can you give a short introduction to show people the basics?

SG: Start by opening a Wikipedia account.  Read my blog for ideas and tips, or go to pages and click around.  In time you will get comfortable finding misspelled words and bad grammar.  You fix things by clicking on the “edit” page.  Make simple changes and at the bottom of the edit page you will see the tabs for “preview page” “save” “watch this page” and an area to comment.  First “preview” your change, if it looks okay then write in the comment area what you just did “corrected spelling” or “added a period”, click “watch this page” so that you will be notified on your “watch list” if there is a change to the page.  Then when you are sure you have done all this correctly, click save. 

You will know when you are ready to try more difficult changes.  I learned to go to a well-written page, click edit, copy the area that I know I wanted to duplicate elsewhere.  If you want to write a blurb about a SI article you just read, start by opening a word document somewhere so you can just play with what you are doing.  Write your two or three sentences you think will neutrally reflect the article.  Copy a <ref> citation from some other page that you know was done correctly.  Paste that into the word document you are using.  Change the citation that you know does not apply to your new citation.  For example the date the article was published, as well as the name of the article will need to be changed in the new edit.  Once you are completely happy with the blurb and reference, paste it into the Wiki page.  Follow the directions in the paragraph above. 

I would love to mentor anyone interested in learning how to edit. If anyone wants to watch me edit and learn that way, please contact me! You can find GSoW on Twitter.

 

A different version of this interview appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

 

 

Jan 182022
 

Our last Squaring the Strange episode of 2021 is out, and unlike other podcasts, we are giving you fresh episodes… even a BONUS episode like this one, well ahead of our usual biweekly schedule. Our final episode of the moral panic series deals with panics surrounding literature and comics. From the big boss battle between Bill Gaines and Fredric Wertham to the murders attributed to Catcher in the Rye, we go through some historical examples… as well as the philosophy behind worries our forefathers had about how literature might affect “weaker minds.” Get your fainting couches and/or swear jars out and enjoy, you can listen HERE.

 

Jan 152022
 

So this is cool: I’m quoted in Rolling Stone encouraging people to, quote, “Stop Falling for Made-Up TikTok Moral Panics!”

Check it out HERE! 

 

Also, don’t forget to check out my podcast, Squaring the Strange! 

 

Jan 112022
 

I’m quoted in a news article in the Spanish-language newspaper Clarin on the social and cultural drivers of witchcraft, including at Salem: “Más allá del mito: Las Brujas de Salem, la verdad de la ciencia a 330 años.”

¡Léelo ahora!

 

 

Dec 152021
 

One of the pleasures of my job (along with random stranger hate mail) is seeing where my research is referenced. I’m mentioned in a new book, “Encountering the Sovereign Other: Indigenous Science Fiction.” I haven’t read it yet but it definitely looks interesting…

 

Nov 282021
 

I recently presented a talk, “Folklore and Public Health: Partners in Mitigating Medical Misinformation,” for a webinar on Contemporary Legends and Pandemic Lore, put on by the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research in association with Mahatma Gandhi University in India. Nice to be able to apply critical thinking and skepticism to public health issues!

Nov 252021
 

Hey there! I’m pleased to announce that my most recent book, Big-If True: Adventures in Oddity is a Finalist in not one but two categories at the 2021 New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards, for General Nonfiction and Cover Design.😁

You can of course buy the book at your local bookstore or Amazon.com. 

Nov 182021
 

The new horror film Antlers is set in a decaying Oregon town, where a single father, Frank, is seen with his young son Aiden outside a mine. What at first seems like an innocent father-son bonding moment turns dark, literally and figuratively, as we see that Frank is involved in a meth lab, and promptly attacked by, well, something terrifying with the titular antlers.

This situation comes to the attention of a teacher, Julia (Keri Russell), who lives with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the local sheriff. Julia becomes concerned when she sees disturbing (horror film cliché) drawings of scary monsters from withdrawn outcast Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), presumably depicting his troubled family life. Julia eventually realizes that Frank is/was Lucas’s father, and Aiden his brother, and that something sinister and supernatural is going on.

The film, adapted from Nick Antosca’s short story “The Quiet Boy,” was completed in 2019 and its opening delayed several times due to covid. The plot is based on legends of the wendigo (spelled various ways), and the filmmakers hired a professor of Indigenous Nations Studies to serve as its advisor on Native American folklore. It’s an intriguing premise, but one area where the plot falters is in explaining the origin of the menace. We’re told, in an Ojibwe opening verse, of an evil spirit with a ravenous appetite that possesses humans and causes them to kill and eat others. The wendigo is typically associated with winter, famine, need, and scarcity. This is Screenwriting 101: a hero (or heroine in this case) saves the day using important knowledge gleaned from a wise, often reluctant, source in the second act. In this case the wisdom is imparted from Native American actor Graham Greene, best known for his turns in Dances With Wolves and Wind River. Armed with a Cliff’s Notes-inspired, Wikipedia-summarized understanding of the wendigo, plucky Julia goes above and beyond her contractual teacher obligations to face the fearsome foe as mangled bodies pile up.

Wendigo Lore

Writing in The Journal of Religion and Popular CultureBrady DeSanti (2015) notes “Many contemporary Ojibwe communities accept the windigo as a real entity that exists alongside countless manitous (spiritual beings) of varying degrees of power and disposition that permeate their experience of the world. Understood to be a giant monster with an insatiable appetite for human flesh, the windigo possesses hideous features and immense physical and spiritual power. The windigo can also be understood as a representation of the freezing temperatures of the northeastern and Great Lakes regions and the resource scarcity that occasionally ensues during harsh winters. And while the Ojibwe never practised cannibalism, the windigo’s appearance can in part be seen as a symbolic projection of the absolute horror at the prospect of, and, at times, instances of, famine cannibalism that took place as a result of food shortages… In most accounts, the windigo possesses a heart of ice and appears emaciated regardless of how much it consumes. The creature’s appetite increases in proportion to how much flesh it eats, ensuring it is never satiated,” even as it seeks more victims to possess and consume.

DeSanti notes that despite its native origins the wendigo “continues to appear in a variety of horror films, television series, novels, comic books, and cartoons. As an example of how expansive the windigo’s reach is throughout the entertainment industry, the cannibalistic entity made a brief appearance in a cartoon episode of My Little Pony in 2011… The windigo is a relatively new and popular option for the entertainment industry, but despite this popularity, it is mostly used by entertainment outlets as just another stock monster comparable to many other notable fiendish creatures, such as werewolves, vampires, zombies, and demons. Unlike these other monsters, however, the windigo remains a viable component of the religious beliefs of many North American tribal nations. In other words, windigo beliefs have not been severed from their original cultural contexts as the monsters of urban lore and cinema have.” In this regard, the wendigo is similar to the Hispanic infanticidal ghost La Llorona in its pop culture depictions.

Wendigo Psychosis

There is a fair amount of literature on the wendigo. Psychologists and anthropologists have identified a disorder called Wendigo Psychosis, which “has long been regarded as a disorder specific to the people of the northern tribes of Algonkian-speaking Indians. This disorder is marked by the desire to eat human flesh—a desire to do something which is ordinarily extremely repugnant and horrifying to these people—but a desire which was gratified by more than half of the individuals whose cases have been reported,” according to Thomas Hay’s 1971 article in American Anthropologist

A deeper look at cannibalism is beyond the scope here, but it’s notable that Hay recognizes that eating the remains of the dead is more common than might be assumed: “Ritual consumption of the body of the deceased by his nearest relatives occurs in Australia, New Guinea, and the Pacific, and is relatively frequent among South American Indians. Participation in such socially controlled, ritual cannibalism is not generally regarded asevidence of psychopathology.” And it’s not just native peoples; indeed, “The belief in the efficacy of cannibalism for restoring a relationship with the dead in Western Civilization is evidenced by the symbolic cannibalism in the Communion ritual of the various Christian churches.”

In 1970 anthropologist Vivian J. Rorhl suggested that the genesis of the psychosis might be due in part to starvation experienced by the afflicted individuals, and therefore that eating animal fat would be considered part of the cure, a way to “exorcise” the spirit from the body. Others, however, including researcher Jennifer Brown the following year noted that employing Occam’s Razor it’s just as likely that better nutrition was instead given to address the body’s (obvious) starvation instead of the mind’s (presumed) wendigo possession. In other words giving the patient calories was part of a behavioral, not psychological, cure.

More recent research (e.g., Kolan et al. 2019) suggests that wendigo psychosis is rare, with 70 cases being reported in the 1960s, though firm data is elusive and much of it anecdotal. “The hunter Plains Cree from Alberta, known as Swift Runner, is held as a classical case of Wendigo psychosis. During the winter season in 1878 a series of tragic events took place. Due to the permanent hunger, the oldest descendant of the trapper from Alberta died. The next day a mother and five children, being close to a food repository in Hudson’s Bay, were suddenly attacked. The culprit was a father and a husband, Swift Runner. The murder was committed for the cannibalistic purpose. Because of the murder’s background, which was a short distance to the food supply and losing all members of the family, the man was diagnosed with Wendigo psychosis. He was sentenced to death in Fort Saskatchewan.”

The diagnosis of wendigo psychosis as a culture-bound condition has fallen out of favor as an explanation, and at any rate the decline of its incidence isn’t surprising. Various factors play a role: with modern food distribution, starvation is less common than in decades past, and even on chronically underfunded Native American and First Nations reservations, psychosis diagnosis and treatment has improved. 

Antlers and Wendigo

As for the wendigo in Antlers, it’s all well and good to use a creature as a metaphor for social ills; it’s been done before, for example the consumerism-satirizing zombies in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). But translating folklore into cinema is a tricky task because once a menace is fixed in film it’s crystallized. The wendigo can be seen as a symbol of social and moral decay, in this case drug addiction, child abuse, poverty, environmental degradation, and so on. A folklorist or storyteller can evocatively describe what a monster “means” to the cultures that tell its stories. A filmmaker—and especially a visual effects supervisor—will reply, “Yeah, yeah, that’s great and all—but how do I show it on the screen? I can’t sculpt or animate an idea or metaphor. What, exactly, am I designing? What are audiences going to see and hear?” In the end, Antlers is a monster movie, and the monster is terrifying indeed, with effective special effects.

Working from the premise of the wendigo, as audiences are required to do in suspending disbelief, the question naturally come up: why now, in the context of the story? There’s nothing new about economic hardship or drug abuse, especially in small rural towns. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if that’s all it takes to create a wendigo, then why aren’t they commonplace? Why isn’t the community’s response a jaded “Oh, another one?” instead of “I’ve never seen anything like this before”?

Questions like these become even more relevant when the film concludes and the conflict is (seemingly) resolved; if the wendigo is indeed possessing people more or less at will then all is lost because it will never be destroyed. You can keep killing its hapless hosts, but that’s not really going to solve the fundamental problem as long as there’s still someone alive to possess. This leads to a bit of a contradiction (or plot hole, depending on your point of view) at the end. There’s also a bit of a red herring involving native American medicine bags, which are key to the plot because they make the connection between Frank’s death and the wendigo, but whose presence are never explained…

I strongly suspect that important material was cut for a leaner runtime of 99 minutes—a common occurrence in films. Around the sixth or tenth edit, and with pressure from theaters and distributors for films to be shorter to allow more screening per day, editors and directors often second-guess their decisions: Do we really need to have this dialogue in the film, or does another scene serve the same narrative function? How many scenes that have the same theme do we need to drive the point home? There’s no right or wrong answer—and finished films are inevitably the result of hundreds (or even thousands) of decisions and compromises made along the way—but it may explain the mediocrity of Antlers. I suspect that a longer director’s cut, if one is ever released, will offer a more satisfying storyline.

The considerable narrative power and potential is squandered a bit in the last act, which abandons its folkloric and social themes in favor of routine horror film cliches. There are a few bits of clumsy expositional screenwriting, such as when dialogue explains things the characters already know (early in the film Frank tells his son Aiden that they’re going to pick up “your brother Lucas,” in case Aiden wasn’t sure what his brother’s name was, or which of several Lucases they’d be picking up).

But it’s a low-budget horror film so let’s not get too pedantic because there’s a lot to be said for Antlers, starting with the cinematography and setting. You can feel the grey dampness of rural Oregon creep off the screen. The fog mirrors the gloomy bleakness of the town, shrouded with decay and secrets (a teacher grimly tells Julia that many children in the small community don’t attend school because their parents make methamphetamine and don’t want their kids to smell of it in class, thus triggering a mandatory police check). It’s an ideal setting for a gothic horror film, and it’s not surprising that that writer/director Guillermo del Toro is a producer on the film, as his cinematic sensibilities are (thankfully) everywhere onscreen. The special effects are impressive, in all their gory glory. The acting is effective, especially from the lead characters including newcomer Jeremy T. Thomas; unfortunately most of the other characters are underdeveloped. 

Like many horror films that end with a climactic battle with some supernatural presence (usually at night, for dramatic effect) and then a short coda or epilogue taking place the next day, I always have to wonder how everything that happened (homicides, monster carcasses, etc.) was satisfactorily explained to authorities. It’s one thing for outsiders to be skeptical of whatever astonishing claims the heroes are reporting until the climax, but the aftermath would typically leave mountains of incontrovertible proof that would raise more questions than answers. Antlers is a middling monster movie with missed potential, worth a watch on a dark night but wait for a director’s cut if you can.

 
A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI blog; you can find it HERE. 

 

Sep 162021
 

New episode of Squaring the Strange is out! Folklorist Daisy Ahlstone shares some facts, folklore, and even furry art celebrating the thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger, which was declared extinct in the 20th century. Ahlstone talks about the extreme commodification of the species, from hunting bounties to gaffed specimens to logos and travel packages luring tourists to Tasmania. Along the way we learn about endlings, necrofauna, and what genetic projects might produce someday. You can listen HERE! 

Sep 072021
 

My Spanish-language article on water dowsing is now out for ‘Pensar’ magazine, thanks to Alejandro Borgo for the translation!

 

Los tiempos de estrés social, dificultades e incertidumbre estimulan el interés en todo tipo de adivinación y profecía. El público va a ver videntes y adivinos con más frecuencia en tiempos de depresión económica que de prosperidad, tiempos de pérdida en lugar de amor. Son la naturaleza humana y el pensamiento mágico en sus diversas formas, incluidas la superstición y las conspiraciones, las que ayudan a las personas a lidiar con el estrés diario. La gente quiere estar segura de que las cosas buenas están a la vuelta de la esquina, que las fortunas mejorarán y los romances apasionados con proverbiales extraños guapos y altos están en las cartas.

Esto fue cierto durante la pandemia, pero hay otras tensiones ambientales, como el cambio climático, incendios generalizados y una sequía duradera que ha mantenido reseco gran parte del suroeste de los Estados Unidos durante años. No es de extrañar que la gente esté cada vez más desesperada por encontrar agua.

The New York Times informó recientemente sobre un aumento en el interés y la contratación de radiestesistas (o «brujos del agua») también llamados zahoríes o rabdomantes. Si alguna vez ha escuchado la frase «No lo harían si no funcionara», la radiestesia es una refutación perfecta. A lo largo de los siglos las personas han venerado y perpetuado prácticas a pesar de que simplemente no funcionan. La radiestesia es un ejemplo de libro de texto sobre el tema. Parte de la razón de la longevidad de la radiestesia es su versatilidad en el mundo paranormal. Se dice que la radiestesia encuentra cualquier cosa, incluidas personas desaparecidas, tuberías enterradas, depósitos de petróleo e incluso ruinas arqueológicas (ver Dowsing and Archaeology: Is There Something Underneath? Radiestesia y arqueología: ¿Hay algo debajo? en Skeptical Inquirermarzo/abril de 1999).

 

Leer mas AQUI / You can read the rest HERE!

 

 

Aug 222021
 

My new article is about the new Netflix documentary ‘Misha and the Wolves,’ which examines a famous and bizarre literary hoax: A woman claimed to have walked across Europe and been raised by a wolf pack while searching for her parents during the Holocaust. Her book became a worldwide bestseller, until troubling questions were raised about her story. The film is about history, identity, authenticity, betrayal, and why we choose to believe… 

 

The new Netflix documentary film Misha and the Wolves examines the life story of a Holliston, Massachusetts, woman named Misha Defonseca who stunned her congregation decades ago on Holocaust Remembrance Day by breaking her silence about her past: She was not only a Holocaust survivor, but as a young girl had fled her home in Belgium and walked to Germany in search of her parents, last seen in concentration camps. That was remarkable and brave enough, but she hadn’t done it alone; “She had trekked nearly 2,000 miles across Europe in the middle of winter to search for her parents, and on this journey had been saved from death by a pack of wolves who had taken her in and raised her as their cub. She recalled how, while she subsisted on a diet of wild meat and scavenged scraps, she sometimes heard terrible sounds coming from deportation trains and once had to kill a German soldier with her bare hands when her life was in danger” (Katsoulis 241).

Misha’s incredible story caught the attention of a friend who ran a small publishing house, Jane Daniel, and was soon turned into a best-selling 1997 book titled Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years. It caught the influential (if not particularly discerning) eye of Oprah Winfrey, and would later be published in several languages and optioned for films. Misha became a celebrity, touring the world telling her inspiring story of courage and overcoming adversity.

 

Eventually, however, some suspected that her story was in fact literally incredible—not credible. Misha and the Wolves expertly describes the rise and fall of Misha’s story. Even though I’d read basic outlines of the events, there were some surprising plot twists that I won’t reveal, as there are enough spoilers already. It’s not just the story of a strange story of a suspected hoax, but perhaps more importantly, it’s the story of people who joined forces to reveal the truth.

The public is of course widely—and rightly—counseled to “believe the victim” in many circumstances. That is the appropriate default position for any plausible claim, and the vast majority of the time the victim is as claimed. Most of the time people, by default, believe what others tell them (see Timothy Levine’s work on Truth Default Theory). This extends to claims of victimization as well; contrary to popular belief, women who come forward with claims of victimization (including by public figures) are generally believed, not doubted.

But in some cases it’s not clear who the victim is (or if there really is a victim at all), and the film explores the continual trepidation of those who questioned Misha’s claims: what if they were wrong? No one wanted to be in a position of casting doubt on the account of a true victim, and especially not of the Holocaust. This reluctance to question victims can of course be seen in many other contexts; see for example the 2012 documentary The Woman Who Wasn’t There, about a woman who claimed to have survived the Twin Towers collapse on 9/11/2001, and—like Misha—became a spokeswoman for the cause of remembrance and honor for the tragic events, heading a survivors group.

Misha’s deception would likely have never been revealed but for the tenacity of not only the book’s original publisher, Daniel, who was sued (and, as it turns out, wrongfully awarded millions) by Misha, but also a genealogist, a journalist, and others. The fact that Misha was invited to appear on the Oprah Winfrey show to promote the book but declined was, ironically, one of the early red flags that something wasn’t right. Oprah, it should be noted, has a long history of promoting heart-tugging memoirs that were later revealed to be largely or wholly hoaxed, along with untold numbers of other dubious and discredited topics. For another Oprah-promoted fake Holocaust story presented as tear-jerking memoir see Herman Rosenblat’s book Angel at the Fence.

 

The film builds suspense as each new piece of information is revealed. Misha and the Wolves is a story of remarkable detective work, deception, and gullibility and unfolds like a series of Russian dolls, spinning into several smaller mysteries: Is Misha’s story mostly true, like anyone’s subjective recollections and allowing for mistakes, memory lapses, and biases?

Within about twenty minutes (or sooner, if you’ve seen any coverage of the case) it’s clear that Misha’s story isn’t true—or at least isn’t entirely true. But is that significant? Authors James Frey and Joe Mortensen, among many others, eventually admitted to fabricating key parts of their bestelling memoirs, A Million Little Pieces and Three Cups of Tea, respectively. So did Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu in her book I, Rigoberta Menchu, but all of them insisted that the books were mostly true.

Or is it entirely fabricated, and if so, to what end? Was it akin to the influential 1971 young adult memoir Go Ask Alice, which was completely made up by an evangelical middle-aged Mormon woman trying to teach moral lessons? Or is she delusional, perhaps (understandably) traumatized by the war? If Misha didn’t spend her childhood living with wolves and walking through forests to find her parents, then where was she? Surely there would have to be some record, somewhere…

It is perhaps fitting that the real heroine of the film—the person who does indeed find the smoking gun (though where and of what I won’t reveal)—is herself a Belgian Holocaust survivor named Evelyne Haendel. Holocaust memorial organizations are in fact among the most skeptical of such claims, precisely because a handful of people have falsified their experiences, and accepting claims without due diligence dishonors real victims. Holocaust historian Debórah Dwork also provides insight into the complexities of truth and doubt.

Writer and director Sam Hobkinson does a masterful job of letting the participants speak for themselves, with one notable exception (revealed in a twist reminiscent of the 2019 documentary Wrinkles the Clown), revealing conflicting agendas at virtually every turn. Publishers and journalists want a good story; historians and genealogist want the truth; and documentary filmmakers want a blend of both. Misha had her own reasons for creating the story, and others had their own motivation for turning a blind eye—or not—to potential deception. Jane Daniel, it turns out, was warned by at least one expert prior to publication that Misha’s story was dubious. Nevertheless the promise of notoriety and wealth won out, until the time that it served Daniel’s interest to take a closer look at the remarkable story she’d helped launch into the world.

Misha and the Wolves is curiously reminiscent of another documentary series, also on Netflix, titled The Devil Next Door, out in 2019. That five-part series tells the true story of another elderly, otherwise unremarkable American citizen with murky (and contested) ties to the Holocaust: Ivan Demjanjuk. The retired autoworker settled in Cleveland and was later accused of being a prison guard at a Nazi concentration camp nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible” by his victims. But was he? As the series reveals, the answer is yes and no.

The ‘Wild Child’ Myth

Misha’s story was especially compelling because it drew on two popular and powerful narratives. The Holocaust survivor narrative and the wild or feral child stories. Stories and legends from around the world tell of children raised by wild animals including wolves, bears, and apes.

The feral child is common in myth and folklore, dating back at least to Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers of Roman mythology rescued from certain death and raised by a wolf. The feral child image evokes a strong romanticism for many people, and this was especially true at the turn of the last century. Rudyard Kipling made a hero of the feral child Mowgli—an Indian boy raised by wolves—in his classic and wildly popular 1894 collection of stories The Jungle BookMisha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years is an example of this. Though not a feral child story per se, Misha’s story evokes the purity and innocence of the animal world as metaphor, and contrasts it with the evil that human genocide can bring.

 

Misha in Context

When questioned, Misha doubled down and dismissed skeptics for years, daring them to debunk her narrative. When the deception was definitively revealed, Defonseca “apologized unreservedly to the readers who had bought her book in good faith, and in the now familiar terms of a hoaxer pleading an alternative truth as a reason for their deception, went on to say, ‘There are times when I find it difficult to differentiate between reality and my inner world. The story in my book is mine. It is not the actual reality—it was my reality, my way of surviving’” (Katsoulis 246).

In a March 9, 2008, New York Times opinion piece, Daniel Mendelsohn notes that Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years is “a fraud far more reprehensible than Mr. [James] Frey’s self-dramatizing enhancements [in A Million Little Pieces]. The first is a plagiarism of other people’s trauma. Both were written not, as they claim to be, by members of oppressed classes (the Jews during World War II), but by members of relatively safe or privileged classes. Ms. De Wael [writing as Misha] was a Christian Belgian who was raised by close relatives after her parents, Resistance members, were taken away… a comparatively privileged person has appropriated the real traumas suffered by real people for her own benefit—a boon to the career and the bank account, but more interestingly, judging from the authors’ comments, a kind of psychological gratification, too…. Ms. De Wael has similarly referred to a longing to be part of the group to which she did not, emphatically, belong: ‘I felt different. It’s true that, since forever, I felt Jewish and later in life could come to terms with myself by being welcomed by part of this community.’ (‘Felt Jewish’ is repellent: real Jewish children were being murdered however they may have felt.)”

The post-truth defense rang hollow to others as well. Adopting a cultural studies approach, Anne Rothe states that “Defonseca’s fabrication is revealing because it indicates the extent to which readers are willing to suspend their disbelief and to accept in a supposed Holocaust memoir that a young girl could walk across Europe in the midst of the Second World War and even that she was adopted by wolves… It is also illuminating because the ensuing legal battle…constitutes the clearest indication to date of the vast commercial potential of representing the Holocaust as an ahistorical, kitsch-sentimental horror fantasy of trauma and redemption in contemporary Western culture” (142). For more on this fascinating case see Telling Tales: A History of Literary Hoaxes, by Melissa Katsoulis, and Popular Trauma Culture: Selling the Pain of Others in Mass Media, by Anne Rothe (full disclosure: I’m referenced in the latter book). Also check out Squaring the Strangeepisode 112, on literary hoaxes.

Misha and the Wolves is rife with lessons on critical thinking, skepticism, and confirmation bias. The film also highlights the dictum about how it takes exponentially more effort to debunk falsehoods than it does to create them—and how the burden of proof is often tacitly shifted from claimant to investigator. This is excellent documentary filmmaking, and about much more than one woman’s audacious hoax or delusion; it’s about history, identity, authenticity, betrayal, and why we choose to believe.

 

A longer version of this piece appeared on my Center for Inquiry blog; you can read it HERE

Aug 102021
 

Times of social stress, hardship, and uncertainty spur interest in all kinds of divination and prophecy. The public goes to see psychics and fortunetellers more often in times of economic depression than prosperity, times of loss rather than love. It’s human nature, and magical thinking in its various forms—including superstition and conspiracies—helps people cope with daily stresses. People want to be reassured that good things are just around the corner, that fortunes will improve and whirlwind romances with proverbial tall handsome strangers are in the cards. People want an edge against random chance.

This was true during the pandemic, but there are other stresses—environmental ones such as climate change, widespread fires, and an enduring drought that’s kept much of the Southwestern United States parched for years. It’s no surprise that people are getting more desperate to find water.

The New York Times recently reported a jump in interest in, and hiring of, dowsers (or “water witches”), such as Rob Thompson, who “claims that he can locate streams of water in the fractures in the earth’s bedrock, using two L-shaped rods that together resemble an old-fashioned television antenna. Amid California’s extreme drought, just a two-hour drive north of the nation’s technology capital of Silicon Valley, the water-seeking services of a man relying on two three-foot rods and a hunch are in demand. ‘This is my busiest I think I’ve ever been in my life,’ said Mr. Thompson, a third-generation water hunter with silvering hair and the lumbering gait of a bear… His busy schedule is a sign of the desperation of ranchers, vineyard owners and land managers as California reels from a crippling drought that has depleted aquifers, shrunken crops and forced some farmers to sell off their water rights.”

If you’ve ever heard the phrase “They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work,” dowsing is a perfect rebuttal. People through the centuries have revered and perpetuated practices despite the fact that they simply do not work. Dowsing is a textbook example of this. Part of the reason for dowsing’s longevity is its versatility in the paranormal world. If we conceive of the paranormal as a tasty (but ultimately nourishment-free) meal, dowsing is a sort of all-purpose side dish. It can stand alone as a New Age endeavor when searching for water or missing jewelry, or it goes equally well with a variety of pseudoscientific main dishes, including crop circles and fortune-telling. Dowsing is said to find anything and everything, including missing persons, buried pipes, oil deposits, and even archaeological ruins (see “Dowsing and Archaeology: Is There Something Underneath?,” in Skeptical Inquirer, March/April 1999).

I most often encounter dowsers during ghost investigations. Many amateur ghost hunters use dowsing rods to search for ghosts, believing that ghosts can be detected by (or communicate through) dowsing rods. In 2007, I demonstrated dowsing for the National Geographic Channel’s Is It Real? TV series on “Ghost Ships” in response to a woman who used dowsing rods on ghost hunts.

 

Ghost hunter using dowsing rods in Ontario, Canada. Photo by Benjamin Radford.

The dowsing with which most people are familiar is water dowsing (also known as water witching or rhabdomancy), in which a person holds a Y-shaped branch or two L-shaped wire rods and walks around until he or she feels a pull on the branch or the wire rods cross, which allegedly indicates that there is water below. Often a pendulum is used, sometimes held over a map.

According to proponents, dowsing has a robust history, and its success has been known for centuries. For example, in her book Divining the Future: Prognostication From Astrology to Zoomancy, Eva Shaw writes, “In 1556, De Re Metallica, a book on metallurgy and mining written by George [sic] Agricola, discussed dowsing as an acceptable method of locating rich mineral sources.” This widely cited reference is a rather transparent example of a logical fallacy called the appeal to tradition (“It must work because people have done it for centuries”).

Woodcut from ‘De Re Metallica’

 

However it seems that the dowsing advocates didn’t actually read the book because it says exactly the opposite: Instead of endorsing dowsing, Agricola states that those seeking minerals “should not make use of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him.” So even 465 years ago, dowsing was recognized as worthless.

How Dowsing ‘Works’

If you assume that dowsing works—and that is of course a huge unproven assumption— how does it work? The proposed mechanisms are as varied as the dowsers themselves. One source states that “Dowsing is possible … through the strong psychic energy radiated by the object and picked up by the [dowser]”; another confidently states that “dowsing is not weird or spooky … it is as natural as memory. In fact, some scientists believe it may well be one of memory’s forms … a vestigial memory of a survival method of searching, using senses other than the five obvious ones.” The Amazing Randi in his Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, notes that dowsers often cannot agree on even the basics of their profession: “Some instructions tell learners never to try dowsing with rubber footwear, while others insist that it helps immeasurably. Some practitioners say that when rods cross, that specifically indicates water; others say that water makes the rods diverge to 180 degrees.”

I don’t believe dowsing per se is fraudulent—that is, for the most part it’s not a scam, hoax, or intentional deception. Instead it’s a form of self-deception that often convinces others. There’s no intent to deceive, it’s more of a mistake or misunderstanding. I’ve met many dowsers over the years and without exception they have been credible, down-to-earth people. They seem sincere because they are sincere: they really believe they have this power, and have convinced themselves over and over with their results. In this way they often convince other people—especially those who haven’t researched skeptical or science-based explanations. Sometimes the dowsing rods cross or the forked twig does seem to dip—but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s water below. The cause is what in psychology is known as the ideomotor effect: unconscious movements that make the dowser think that some other mysterious force is at play. If the dowsing devices were moving independently of the dowser then this should be easily demonstrated, but it doesn’t happen.

Testing Dowsing

Dowsers have been subjected to many tests over the years and have performed no better than chance under controlled conditions. There are various ways to scientifically test dowsing abilities. I have done it several times myself, and read studies done by others. The easiest is to get 20 identical 5-gallon opaque plastic buckets and (with the dowser out of sight or at another location) place a sealed gallon jug of water under one of the buckets (being careful of course not to leave any traces that might reveal where it is). The buckets should be placed 2-3 meters apart (or at whatever interval the dowser claims they can discriminate water from non-water). Have the dowser come out to the field or lot and find the water. You can do a similar experiment hiding valuables on sandy beaches in grids as well. For more on this see CFI’s Jim Underdown of the Independent Investigations Group demonstrating dowsing testing for NBC News.

Jim Underdown demonstrating how dowsing rods “work.”

The problem is that dowsers fail to demonstrate their ability in scientifically controlled experiments and tests. It also depends on what you’re looking for and where. In fact it can be difficult to disprove a dowser’s claim for the same reason: if they claim water will be found in a spot at a certain depth, they can always insist that the water is there—just that they were a bit off on the depth: It’s 50 meters, not 20 meters like they thought. In order to prove or disprove that, of course, you’d need to dig another 30 meters (possibly a difficult and expensive proposition).

And if they find water, does that mean that dowsing works? Not necessarily. In most places on Earth there’s water somewhere below the surface—maybe a few inches, maybe a few meters or more. So any dowser who says “If you dig here you’ll find water” is statistically very likely to be correct—and would be just as correct if he or she chose a spot 10 meters away in any direction, or 10 miles away. There’s also the issue of what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” also known as “remembering the hits and forgetting the misses.” People generally tend to better remember their successes than their failures, or they rationalize away their failures (“I was having an off day,” or “The sun was too hot,” etc.). Unless dowsers keep careful track of all their claims—both correct and wrong— it can be easy to misremember their success rate.

Of course when dowsers are wrong they simply point out that no one is 100% accurate all the time—doctors, mechanics, scientists, and others make mistakes, and this is of course true. But the problem with that comparison is that doctors and mechanics can reliably prove their skills most of the time; this is not true with dowsers, and in fact there is no known scientific mechanism by which a forked branch, pendulum, or two L-shaped rods could possibly “detect” water. Keep in mind that dowsers claim to be able to find a great many “hidden” objects, including missing keys, water, oil, gold, and even ghosts! This raises the interesting question of how dowsers could know what the rods are reacting to: Is it a vein of gold 20 meters below the earth, a reservoir of water 100 meters below the earth, oil shale 200 meters down, or the dead spirit of someone who died at that spot in 1973? There’s no way to know. British Petroleum and other multinational oil companies spend billions of dollars trying to locate offshore oil fields through expensive, difficult, and time-consuming sampling, computer models, and so on.

In fact in September 2015 the Royal Dutch Shell Corporation abandoned its drilling in the Alaskan waters after spending $7 billion searching fruitlessly for oil. Why would they do that if all they need is to have a dowser on hand to point them directly where to drill? Any dowser who could reliably and successfully do what they claim could easily become a multi-millionaire consulting agent. Why doesn’t it happen?

There is no science behind dowsing, and though the main harm is wasted time and effort, it can also cost lives: in 2010, modified dowsing-rod devices claimed to detect bombs were sold by a man named James McCormick to the Iraqi military. As Slate noted, “McCormick’s company was selling these fraudulent magic wands at great expense to the Iraqi government, which spent $16,500 to $60,000 each for these things, devices which might as well have been crayon boxes full of rocks. They were useless. Or, as it turns out, far worse than useless. The Iraqis were using them at military checkpoints. On Oct. 25, 2009, terrorists carrying two tons of explosives got right past the magic bomb sniffer and detonated their cargo, killing 155 people. Two months later, it happened again, with 127 people killed. Not long after, McCormick was arrested under suspicion of fraud.” In April 2013 McCormick was convicted.

The consequences of water dowsing is less dire but no less real: wasted time and effort. Still, as long as there are desperate people who need increasingly scarce resources, water witches will not be far behind.

 

A longer version of this piece appeared on my CFI blog; you can read it here

 

 

Jun 302021
 

Our recent episode of Squaring the Strange had as our guest historian Jay Smith, who joins us to talk about the murderous 18th century French monster known as the Beast of Gévaudan, thought by some to be a werewolf, a hyena, or perhaps even some Frankenstein-inspired hybrid! Dozens of peasants were left dead, while Paris and the rest of the world were enthralled by the story–but what was really behind it all? Check it out HERE! 

 

Jun 142021
 

Tuesday night the 15th at 5:30 MT / 7:30 ET, I will be giving a live Zoom talk for the Rio Rancho Public Library discussing my research into the famous Hispanic vampire el chupacabra and my book “Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore.” The talk is free but you need to register, so sign up if you’re interested! Register here:

https://zoom.us/meeting/register/tJAsceuhrT4sE9IJh6bd8Xp9vXqNT-Ib57_T?fbclid=IwAR0q13HN-t7ZASmsQLredgeIf5RJ4XHbTddJWCuKknsJON0PXa-uITi_w14

 

Jun 052021
 

Twenty years ago last month the capital of India was gripped in a panic. Early reports claimed that some mysterious monkey-like creature attacked many residents in New Delhi, leaving fear, scars, and ultimately even dead bodies in its wake. The Monkey Man, as it came to be known, made international news as police and news media struggled to make sense of the mysterious menace.

Sociologist Robert Bartholomew and I wrote briefly about this episode in our book Hoaxes Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking, but overall there has been relatively little written about it from scholarly and skeptical perspectives. On this twentieth anniversary of the panic, it seemed like a good time to revisit this case in more depth.

Descriptions of the Monkey Man varied widely, and details were often ambiguous because most of the sightings occurred at night outside in the night sky, with the creature leaping away into the darkness before anyone could get a good look at it—much less a photograph. Some people described an ape-like figure with a dark hairy body and glowing red eyes. Others described the figure as between three and six feet tall, with arms ending in sharp claws or even metal gloves, like Freddy Krueger. Some said instead that it wore a motorcycle helmet, leather jacket, and dark glasses. Most people, however, just reported seeing a shadow of something; overall, there were few first-hand sightings; instead many people described what they heard other people saying they saw.

Police report sketch

Police and the Press

Indian news media picked up on the story and ran with it, sensationalizing reports in the process. The most lurid and dramatic descriptions, of course, got the most attention—which in turn triggered demands from the public to be protected. Local law enforcement officials, understandably, were not sure how to handle the bizarre situation. They were used to dealing with accidents, homicides, and neighborhood disputes—not mysterious and menacing half-monkeys armed with steel claws. Inundated with panicked calls but no suspects or leads, the police soon set up special hotlines and offered a large 50,000 rupee ($1,000) reward for information leading to the capture of this monster. Though meant to generate useful leads, this financial incentive had the effect of increasing the number of crank calls and false alarms. Indeed, as news of the Monkey Man spread, there was a snowball effect; more coverage spurred more sightings, but also more attention-seeking pranks and hoaxes. Many people got in on the action, offering ever-wilder (and evidence-free) stories to an eager news media.

As days turned into a week and the panic increased with no arrests being made, citizens took the law into their own hands. Vigilante mobs took to patrolling the streets at night, armed with clubs, poles, and machetes. The rolling blackouts which often plague the city only added to the sense of fear and foreboding. As in other monster panics I’ve investigated including the chupacabra (in Puerto Rico) and the popobawa (in Zanzibar); there were overnight vigils and stakeouts, where armed men took turns at sentry while the others slept. Predictably and tragically, in some cases mob justice ensued and several people were attacked. The Washington Post reported that “a van driver was chased by a mob that believed him to be the Monkey Man, dragged out of his vehicle, and severely beaten. He was hospitalized with multiple fractures.”

 

Monkey Man Spotted

 

Injuries and Deaths

One of the most puzzling things about the case was that there was no real evidence of this phantom attacker. With no photographs or footprints the main forensic evidence offered in support of the attacker(s)—and implicitly refuting growing skepticism that it was all a hoax or hallucination—were injuries said to have been caused by encounters with the Monkey Man.

Indeed, evidence was offered of encounters, much of it ambiguous. Monkey Man victims showed off a variety of minor injuries and wounds—most of which were indistinguishable from bites from rats or dogs—along with rashes, scratches, and the like. To many people who saw photos and video of the injuries (widely shared in news media) it was compelling. Though it was surely true that not every Monkey Man sighting or report was accurate, for many people these disparate reports offered evidence corroboration: Unless the dozens of ostensible strangers offering (superficially) similar stories and injuries had all somehow conspired together to fake the incidents, surely there must be something to it, many people thought.

However a closer look at the injuries revealed a different story. Some people had faked injuries for medical and media attention; others reframed existing, unrelated injuries as having been due to encounters with the Monkey Man. There is not much in the published literature about this incident, though I did find one journal article in the August 2003 Indian Journal of Medical Sciences. S.K. Verma and D.K. Srivastava examined sociodemographic patterns and injuries among alleged Monkey Man victims. They found that between May 10 and 25, 397 people made calls to the police claiming to have been attacked. Of those, fifty-one cases were detailed enough for medical examination.

Two-thirds of the victims were male, and most were between twenty and thirty years old. The vast majority (94%) were from the poorest sections of the city, East Delhi and nearby, and 89% were of low socioeconomic status. Two-thirds of the victims reported that incident occurred between midnight and 6 AM. As to the nature of the wounds, about 95% of the individuals showed abrasions they attributed to the Monkey Man. As the researchers noted, “One of the most striking features observed in the injuries among these individuals was they were possible either by a blunt or a pointed object only.” About 88% had multiple linear abrasions and 11% displayed lacerations.

In addition to the mob attacks mentioned earlier, there were also dozens of serious accidental injuries caused by mobs of people trying to escape from the monster. There were fatalities as well; one man died falling off a rooftop fleeing from what he thought was the Monkey Man, and a pregnant woman fell down stairs and died panicking as well. A third man also fell off a rooftop, running in fear when he heard another man nearby panicking, shrieking in the darkness that something had pulled on his sheets as he tried to sleep. Eventually the local power company agreed to temporarily suspend rolling blackouts in some of the poorer parts of New Delhi, allowing people to sleep inside in the safety of their apartments under electric fans.

In the end the injuries offered merely the illusion of corroboration. It’s a common theme among paranormal believers, who use the (often presumed) similarities of different, disparate eyewitnesses and experiencers to argue that there must be something to it.

 

India Journal Snippet

 

Social, Cultural, and Environmental Factors

Social panics do not occur in a vacuum. In the climate of fear that swept New Delhi, people interpreted anything as a threat: Any sound in darkness or cry in the night could be interpreted as an imminent attack. It’s also important to remember the physical environment: crowded, poorly-lit sweltering rooftops during rolling blackouts. In a city of 14 million people during a heat wave of over 110 degrees Fahrenheit, the situation was ripe for misperceptions.

There was also the socioeconomic factors of illiteracy and poor education. In a situation reminiscent of the panic and fears surrounding the chupacabra in 1996-1998 Puerto Rico, most of the rumors spread among poor. New Delhi’s wealthiest residents were not sweating and exposed on dark, crowded rooftops but were at home under air conditioning—using portable generators during the blackouts. The religious aspect may also be relevant; the fact that the creature was said to be half (or more) monkey—and not some other wild animal—may be significant. Many people noted that the Monkey Man was reminiscent of Hanuman, a Hindu warrior god depicted as a monkey (or half-monkey) that leads an army…of monkeys. There are also many monkeys in and around the city, so the creature would be a familiar one to New Delhi residents.

Some took the descriptions at face value and thought it was some sort of actual half-human creature, though other explanations included an evil spirit, a robot, “a computerized creature who someone is operating with remote control”; and a terrorist who was using the panic, confusion, and police reaction as a cover for some assassination—possibly by the Pakistani intelligence services, India’s neighbor and arch-enemy.

Monkey Man and Mass Sociogenic Illness

In the final analysis the Monkey Man panic has all the hallmarks of mass sociogenic illness (MSI), or mass hysteria. Mass hysteria is often misunderstood as being an illness that sufferers are making up. In fact the symptoms are verifiable and not imaginary. The issue is instead what is causing the symptoms—whether some external environmental contaminant or instead a form of suggestion-driven social contagion.

Social contagion can easily spread from person to person in tight quarters, and especially during times of high stress and anxiety. Cases of MSI can vary widely in context and manifestation, but typically include the sudden onset of dramatic (yet clinically minor) symptoms. There are underlying psychological and/or environmental stressors, ranging from workplace discipline to boredom (in this case a heat wave). There is usually some trigger, such as an ambiguous smell, sight, or sound. A hallmark is that the phenomenon is socially contagious—that is, it is spread from person to person like a virus, usually people with whom the victim has come in close contact, such as a friend, family member, co-worker, or classmate. Mass hysterias often affect people who have a real or perceived lack of social support, such as those in poverty or subjected to regimented routine and authority (such as in schools, factories, and so on). Many cases of MSI are recognized only after the fact (and sometimes not even then), with victims often vigorously rejecting the diagnosis, assuming incorrectly that it implied that they were mentally ill or making it all up.

For as bizarre as the Monkey Man incident is, he (or it) is not alone; indeed the phenomenon is best understood as part of a larger social phenomenon known as phantom attackers. These are mysterious figures, usually male and dressed in some distinctive way, and who are seen and reported as menacing ordinary citizens in public. Examples include Spring-Heeled Jack, the mysterious dark-cloaked figure reported threatening and scaring people (mostly women and children) in London from the 1830s through the 1870s; the Phantom Slasher of Taiwan, who was reported stalking the streets of Taipei in 1956 trying to slash people (again, mostly women and children) with a razor; and the phantom clowns, reported to lurk near schools trying—thankfully in vain—to abduct children (for more see chapter 12 in my book Bad Clowns).

Though the details and descriptions vary in these cases, they have much in common, including that they all had sincere eyewitnesses who reported their encounters to police and other public safety officials; the cases were reported in the local news and residents took action to protect the public from further attempted “attacks”; the reports appeared in a given community suddenly but soon faded away with no arrest or resolution. In the end all these phantom attackers—like the Monkey Man—were thoroughly investigated and eventually determined not to have existed.

The Decline and Fall of the Monkey Man

Throughout the panic police reacted as best they could, increasing patrols and thinking that enough arrests would stop it—not because they assumed they were going to actually arrest the Monkey Man (who would likely demand a simian public defender)—but because hoaxers would finally be deterred. It was semi-successful. Police were getting hundreds of hoaxed calls, and when people were threatened with jail and fines for spreading false rumors, it did indeed curb the appeal of pranksters and copycats. Even those who were sincere in their reports had second thoughts about contacting the police without real proof or evidence. This, coupled with a strong media-influence copycat effect, became a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy when the news media started to lose interest and reported that fewer people were seeing it—which in turn led to fewer people seeing it. A few things led to the Monkey Man being less reported and by about May 20 the reports had slowed to a trickle; the whole incident lasted about two weeks, from May 10 to May 25 or so. The pattern was entirely expected to psychologists and sociologists who recognized the cause. Most cases of mass hysterias tend to be self-limiting; there’s a clear and predictable bell-shaped rise and fall in reports, usually a steep increase and an equally quick fall.

Skeptics on the Scene

Amid the chaos and panic, skeptical investigators from the Indian Rationalists Association, led by Sanal Edamaruku, tried to explain the situation and calm public fears. Though the news media were more interested sensationalism than skepticism, the organization was quoted, however briefly, in The New York Times and The Washington Post press coverage.

In the Rationalist International Bulletin Edamaruku wrote a first-hand contemporaneous account of his organization’s efforts to investigate the mystery and calm public fears: “India’s capital is looking back on two weeks of mass delusion and panic, sometimes dangerously turning into mass hysteria. The shadow of the ‘monkey man’ is still looming large over suburbs and urban villages.” Edamaruku’s actions serve as a model for on-the-ground skeptical investigation and activism: “We started to collect all information so far available and went to the affected areas to talk to people. I personally questioned at least forty persons who claimed to have seen something and hundreds who were terrified by what they had heard. We evaluated all recorded material and got some important clues.” With no photos of the creature, nor footprints, or anything else tangible, Edamaruku also assessed what little physical evidence there appeared to be: wounds allegedly made by the creature: “We went out to have a close look at the victims’ injuries, which had become something like the last bastion of the spook. We succeeded in tracing most of the known causes and were ‘disappointed’: There was not a single serious wound, only little scratches, cuts, and rubbings [rashes] which under normal circumstances would not get any attention…Interestingly there was no uniformity in them, though they were claimed to come from the same source… With every new case we were more convinced that all these injuries were self-inflicted, either deliberately or unknowingly.”

In the end Edamaruku notes that “Our lonely initiative and intervention to deflate the giant balloon of the monkey man mania has opened many eyes and minds. They have reminded the authorities of their duties and responsibilities and encouraged many scientists to play their part in educating the public. This is in my opinion one of the classical roles rationalist organizations can play, and have to play, in society.”

This is a crucial point because skeptical and rationalist organizations, investigators, and activists (and, I might add, folklorists and psychologists) fill this important—and often overlooked—niche. Many of these panics are not recognized as such at the time, and journalists play a key role in disseminating information, both good and bad, to the public. It’s vital that skeptics and their organizations such as the Indian Rationalists and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (and their many counterparts) make informed skeptical commentary and analysis available to journalists and the public.

Two decades after the Monkey Man appeared, and then disappeared just as quickly, the case remains one of the strangest examples of mass hysteria panics in modern times. With sober analysis we can hopefully learn from it and be better prepared for the next mass sociogenic panic.

 

A longer version of this piece appeared on the Center for Inquiry website; you can read it HERE!

 
 
May 122021
 

I’m interviewed in a ‘Superstitious Times’ piece on the inability (or unwillingness) of investigators to call out fraud and hoaxing in their own fields: “What’s happened, Radford added, was the democratization of paranormal investigators, in particular those who pursue ghosts. “My genuine concern, whether they recognize it or not, is that the enormous amount of time and effort that is being wasted on not doing good work. My point has always been, just do good research; just improve the quality of work.”

Check it out HERE! 

 

May 082021
 

In a recent episode of Squaring the Strange we have everything: Lil Nas X’s Satanic Shoes, a sketchy alkaline water CEO, and geologist Sharon Hill educating us about spooky geology like bottomless pits, the mysterious “Mel’s Hole,” quicksand, and hollow earth theories! Check it out HERE! 

 

Apr 252021
 

I’m quoted in a recent Rolling Stone article about abduction rumors going viral on TikTok. It’s an interesting social media twist on an old urban legend… you can read it HERE

You can also check out the Squaring the Strange shows we did on faked abductions and on viral abduction rumors!