Investigating Mini-Mysteries: Your Turn!
Hello there! Welcome to the last of my ten-part introduction to the basics of scientific paranormal investigation, adapted from my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries, and the workshop I give of the same title. It’s intended to give the layperson a taste of how a science-based paranormal investigator goes about solving mysteries.
Below are the two mini-mysteries I gave you in the previous part, followed by a series of hints to guide you along the way. The solutions to the mysteries are then presented.
Mystery 1: The Haunted Door
This is one of my favorite cases, because it happened to me in my own home. In July 2007 I moved into a three-bedroom home near Albuquerque, New Mexico. The house is located near a corner in a residential area at the top of a hill, with a small, grassy park kitty-corner to me which serves as a bus stop for local school kids. The front yard is mostly gravel (due to the desert climate) and the house is about thirty years old. The wood-frame, single-story house is well insulated, with a metal front door and double-paned windows. The city of Albuquerque lies to the southeast, across the Rio Grande river, flanked by the Sandia mountains. There are no known deaths or tragedies associated with the home. (Not relevant, but someone always asks!).
On several occasions early in the mornings I heard a knocking on the front door. The knocking was not very loud, but noticeable and enough to roust me from my bedroom, which is on the opposite side of the house (facing the back yard). I’d walk across the tile floors, open the front door, but no one was there. I might see a car driving by, or the high school kids waiting by the corner, but no one was near the house. (I thought about being that cranky old man on the corner, yelling out my front door, “You damn kids!” and shaking my bony fist at them. But I’m neither cranky nor old, and my fist is not particularly bony.) The knocking happened sporadically over the course of several weeks, between about 7 and 7:30 AM. There would be a few knocks or taps, maybe three or four, but then they would stop. I even managed to capture the knocking with a tape recorder placed near the door.
It was very strange. The main suspects were pranking school kids gathered across the street at the corner. But none of them seemed to pay attention to me, and they’d have to be very fast runners to get from my doorstep to the bus stop in the ten seconds or so it took me to get to my front door. I thought it might be the house settling, as they often do, with ordinary creaks and taps. But this seemed very regular, and only heard at that time of day. Another option was of course ghosts.
Hints and Clues
1) Always note the circumstances of the event. In this case, I did notice that the knocking seemed to get slightly later as the days went on. One day I heard it at 7:15, for example, and a few days later it appeared at 7:30. It might have been a good idea to keep a notebook and watch handy to record the exact times.
2) When interviewing eyewitnesses, it’s often helpful to establish their characterizations of what they saw or heard. For example, two people might hear the same noise, and one of them will describe it as “tapping” while the other might say “knocking” or “snapping,” or even “creaking.” Don’t get hung up on the exact words, since the descriptions of the sounds will be subjective anyway. You might ask the person to recreate the sound with some ordinary objects. In this case, I grilled the eyewitness mercilessly, asking myself, “Okay, Radford. Was it knocking, or could it have been something else?” Under this withering cross-examination, I put down my coffee cup and sheepishly admitted it could be tapping, or a low clicking sound.
The solution (which I admit it took me about a week to figure out) is that the “knocking” was created not by a ghost, gremlin, or invisible guest, but instead by the metal front door itself. Since (as you can tell from Figure 1), the house faces east, the sun rises over the mountains each morning.
The hot New Mexico sun heats up the outside, which is painted dark red (see Figure 3), and that expands against the much cooler inside panel of the door (Figure 2).
The warm outside part of the door expands slightly against the cooler part at the door’s joints and seams, making popping noises. Those pops sound very much like knocks—especially because the door is hollow, and therefore the sounds are amplified throughout the door and across the house. I later confirmed this hypothesis by measuring the temperature difference between the inner and outer sides of the door, and tracing the source of the sound to the edges of the door.
Mystery 2: The Mysterious Music of Rosemary Brown
Rosemary Brown was a London housewife who created new musical compositions that she claimed were in fact written by the channeled spirits of gifted—yet demonstrably deceased—composers such as Beethoven, Chopin, and Bach. Brown, who had long believed she had psychic powers, wrote in her autobiography Unfinished Symphonies that when she was seven years old, the ghost of composer Franz Liszt appeared and told her that he would work with her in the future.
Decades later he did just that, she claimed, and Brown achieved a height of popularity in the 1970s. After Liszt’s visit, a parade of famous, dead musicians supposedly visited Brown, creating new works through her (curiously, all the composers learned to speak English after their deaths, thus allowing Brown to understand their musical direction and dictation).
Rosemary Brown’s supporters claimed that her music was too complex to have been created by the musically untrained Brown alone, and that her music displayed an uncanny understanding of the nuances in famous composers’ works. One of Brown’s defenders, British composer Richard Rodney Bennett, noted, “if she is a fake… she must have had years of training.” While some experts were impressed, others concluded that the works were merely hack imitations done in the style of the old masters, or variations on extant compositions. Her New York Times obituary noted the “tidal waves of more or less good-natured ridicule from most of the music establishment.” Rodger Anderson, in his book Psychics, Sensitives, and Somnambulists, notes that Brown “later began receiving material from dead artists, writers, scientists, and philosophers, to which critical reaction was similarly mixed.” Brown refused to ask the spirits any verifiable, falsifiable information that would help prove that the dead did indeed speak through her.
Various theories were proposed to explain her ability. Brown maintained that she had never had any musical training aside from a few piano lessons, and Brown’s musical skill was such that she was unable to play many of the pieces she claimed had been dictated to her by the ghosts. It was suggested that she may have had advanced musical training but then forgotten it in a bad case of amnesia. This suggestion was described as “preposterous” by the Browns’ family doctor.
Rosemary was investigated by both musicians and psychologists. None could find any way in which she could be cheating. One idea was that the composers had left behind them unknown, written music and that Rosemary was able to read these sheets, unwittingly using a form of telepathy. Another suggestion was that she picked up music from people around her by telepathy. How did she do it?
Hints and Clues
1) Brown did not achieve her fame and fortune because no one else alive could have created the compositions. Instead, Brown was notable because her compositions were supposedly from the dead—strongly supported by the claim that she had little or no musical ability or training.
2) “…if she is a fake… she must have had years of training.” Could she have had years of training? That assumption that needs to be more closely investigated.
3) Rosemary Brown’s supporters claimed that her music displayed an uncanny understanding of the nuances in famous composers’ works. Yet such observations are quite subjective, and may be a case of people seeing what they wish or expect to see (or, in this case, hearing what they wish to hear). Art students are often taught how to create by imitating well-known works of art. While most adept students’ compositions would never be mistaken for the master’s original, occasionally a gifted student produces a work that duplicates the original in style and content. In fact, over the years, many pieces of art that were once universally credited to a famous artist have been found to be done by gifted students or even forgers.
4) Brown refused to ask the spirits any verifiable, falsifiable information that would help prove that the dead did indeed speak through her. Why?
5) Many aspects of Brown’s early life are vague (including her musical education and even her birthdate, which was probably 1916 but cited by various sources cite as 1917 or 1938). Brown’s claims would have been far more believable had she begun producing the dead composers’ work as a teenager. Instead, Brown had nearly fifty years to study and practice before “suddenly” channeling decomposing composers.
6) Note the outlandish “skeptical” explanations of amnesia and telepathy.
7) Brown seems to have told several different stories about just how much musical training she had. Some sources, such as Jon Klimo’s 1987 book Channeling, claim that Brown “had no musical education.” Brown’s Wikipedia entry claims that she had taken one year of piano lessons, while the New York Times noted “three years of piano lessons.”
8) The fact that the music establishment largely ignored her is interesting, and we’d want to know much more about the depth and breadth of the investigations into her abilities.
Using the principle of Occam’s Razor, the most likely explanation is simply that Brown exaggerated her musical ineptitude. It seems that this crucial issue was never fully investigated, and it’s possible Brown had many years of training and practice that she declined to reveal. According to a piece in the September 2005 issue of the Investigator (Australia), Brown eventually “admitted to belonging to a musical household and being a competent musician and pianist.” The mystery vanishes; she was a talented musician who hid or downplayed her abilities. No need to invoke any supernatural abilities.
How did you do? One or both of these may be easy for some people, and hard for others. It just depends on how closely you read the clues and followed some of the methods I discussed.
This concludes my ten-part introductory series on scientific paranormal investigation; I hope you enjoyed it, and learned something along the way. This is really only the tip of the iceberg; there’s much more to learn about everything from analyzing folklore to forensics, eyewitness testimony, and ghostly phenomenon.
If you’d like to learn more about this fun and fascinating field, you can pick up my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. If you are interested in cryptozoology (the search for monsters), there’s also my two books Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World’s Most Elusive Creatures, and Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore (which was a Finalist for the 2011 New Mexico Book Awards). I also give workshops on investigation as well. You can find more about my books and investigations at www.BenjaminRadford.com.