Sep 302022

During a recent visit to Las Vegas, Nevada, a few friends and I got the chance to visit the Zak Bagans Haunted Museum, said to house some of the most powerful and dangerous objects in the world, curated by the ghost-hunting star of several popular series including Ghost Adventures on the Travel Channel. We had several noted skeptics including Ian Harris, Susan Gerbic, and Kenny Biddle with us. Photographs were strictly forbidden during the tour itself, though we were allowed to take pictures outside and in the entrance room.

While waiting outside I took some photos and was later stunned to discover a strange haze or mist that seemed to envelop Kenny. It looked similar to many ghost photos that Kenny and I had investigated (and debunked).

Disguised Kenny Biddle surrounded by a mysterious mist outside the Haunted Museum

Sometimes those images can be accidentally created by cigarette or vaping smoke—yet no one in our group or nearby was smoking. In other cases, a person’s breath on a cold day can mimic the smoky haze—but it was warm and midday. Adding to the mystery, Kenny reported that he felt a chill in the air, as if the otherworldly ectoplasmic mist was somehow drawing energy from around him in order to manifest—and potentially harm him or someone else.

Before we could investigate, we were ushered into the museum—and right past Zak himself, who (thanks to our clever disguises and pseudonyms) didn’t recognize either of us, or anyone else in our party. We then filled out a bunch of releases and embarked on a nearly two-hour tour.

Unsuspecting Canadian tourists Coral Pollock and Matt Harakal upon reading the “No Refunds” sign at the Haunted Museum

There are too many exhibits to enumerate, and Kenny Biddle has done an excellent job of investigating some of the most prominent “haunted” objects on display there, including a haunted guitar, a supposedly haunted mirror once belonging to Bela Lugosi, and perhaps most prominently, the infamous dybbuk box which may or may not be among the most powerful evil objects in the universe.

There were some items that I was familiar with, including the famous Crying Boy prints that folklorist David Clarke expertly explained and investigated years ago (for more on this check out his appearance on the Squaring the Strange podcast). The write-up on the haunted item, of course, made no mention of any skeptical or scientific explanations.

Another item on display which I’d researched was the “James Dean Death Car” involving the transaxle from James Dean’s 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder (nicknamed “Little Bastard”), allegedly the same vehicle that Dean was driving when he was killed in a car crash on September 30, 1955. Bagans claims to have spent $382,000 on the piece, which is one of the car parts that has supposedly injured or killed several people who owned them or used them in their vehicles.

Writer Jason Colavito poured cold water on the James Dean exhibit. Writing on February 12, 2022, he noted that

Given that Bagans promised that the exhibit would celebrate Dean’s life, not just linger on his death, the grotesque fixation on his demise is a disappointment. As we look around the “exhibit”—rather, the transaxle assembly, a terrible bust, and a collage—we note the life-sized photo of the crashed Porsche, but also the lack of any obvious narrative or context. It’s just a picture of car crash and a chunk of wreckage, mounted like some type of automotive crucifix. The adjacent wall is still worse. It contains what at first glance seem to be news clippings about Dean’s death. But on closer inspection, they are not. The New York Times front page with the banner headline about Dean’s death is a fake. The real Times ran a spall interior piece on the actor’s death the day after. Another clipping is the cover of W. Scott Poole’s book on Maila Nurmi, TV’s Vampira, which has only a tangential connection to Dean. A bit of the 1956 tabloid story alleging Vampira had witchy powers she used to curse Dean appears, as does an alleged newspaper story claiming that Little Bastard killed “more” people. Since the car’s parts allegedly killed just two others besides Dean, it’s not clear who the “more” are. The text appearing in the article on the wall is word-for-word copied from a blog post last updated in 2020. Bagans’s unconvincing mockup is an obvious fake.

It’s a grotesque collage, both promoting a sexist bit of 1950s rumormongering and all but celebrating Dean’s death. As a supernatural exhibition, it lacks imagination. Many supernatural stories have been told about James Dean, so why choose the most obviously fake one, except that it’s the first thing Bagans found in a Google search? A richer exhibit might have presented a range of supernatural stories about Dean, from alleged posthumous psychic contact to, ghostly apparitions, to, yes, supposedly haunted car parts, and asked a serious question about why so many people—thousands, by one count—think they have had supernatural experiences with the dead star. The only real competition is the rash of 1980s sightings of Elvis in 7-Elevens.

Lee Raskin, author of James Dean On the Road to Salinas, notes that most of the stories about the curse originated with a car customizer known for telling tall tales; indeed as one article put it, “Raskin is convinced that most of his stories were fabrications, and several are demonstrably false.” Nevertheless, the truth never stands in the way of a good story (or a quick buck) and Bagans was happy to buy and present it.

I had several reactions to the museum, chief among them that it contained a lot of material that was at best tangential to anything spooky or ghostly. It’s packed with random stuff, including clowns, dolls, guns, sideshow freaks (such as some two-headed animals), old stuff, and so on. There is a lot on circuses, including a diorama, which is okay but has nothing really to do with evil spirits or ghosts. In several places they had surveillance videos of people passing out while on the tour, and of course this was attributed to evil spirits instead of the fact that it was hot and stuffy throughout most of the tour, with no place to sit or rest.

Personal injury lawyers get a good laugh from this sign.

It’s 60% random “weird” or “creepy” stuff, about 30% murderabilia, and about 10% of the museum are objects that—assuming they are authentic, which is not at all likely—may have some genuine interesting story. As Susan Gerbic noted in a conversation afterward, there is, arguably, legitimate historical interest in some of the objects on display. Whether personal effects (allegedly) belonging to serial killers and mass murderers such as John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson are important or relevant is up for debate, though the van that Jack Kevorkian used in carrying out his assisted suicides is also on display. Was the cauldron on display really owned by serial killer Ed Gein? (Maybe?) Did it ever have any of his victims’ bodies in it? (Maybe?) For more on the experience, check out our recent episode of Squaring the Strange.

Exploiting the Dead

The sensational and exploitive nature of some of the exhibits was, while not unexpected, distasteful. I have encountered this several times over the years. In my investigation of the haunted KiMo theater in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I was contacted by a relative of the boy, Bobby Darnall, who died there. Stories of his ghost have haunted the Darnall family for decades. His sister and brother feel exploited by the story and do not appreciate the fictional claims that their beloved brother is a resident poltergeist ruining performances at the theater.

In my investigation into Jamaica’s Rose Hall Plantation (the subject of Chapter 12 in my book Scientific Paranormal Investigation and the 2015 season premiere episode of the Travel Channel show The Dead Files) I revealed that the evil woman widely claimed to haunt the mansion—Annie Palmer, the so-called White Witch—was in fact based on an innocent historical person. I asked readers to consider the feelings of others: “Imagine if, a century from now, due to some strange mix of myth and circumstance, people describe you as a cruel, perverted, sadistic serial killer. Psychics and ghost hunters claim to contact your spirit, and relay your sensational confessions to the public.” How would you feel to have your good name ruined by sensational, ill-informed ghost hunters who claim to contact your spirit and perhaps elicit a “confession” to murder, sexual abuse, or worse?

Bagans released music that he claims includes the voice of a television actor’s ghost. According to a press release issued on behalf of Bagans and reposted on several Web sites, “In 1999, actor David Strickland, best known for his role on the NBC sitcom Suddenly Susan, committed suicide in room 20 of the Oasis Motel in Las Vegas. More than a decade later, Zak Bagans, the host and lead investigator for the hit TV series Ghost Adventures, spent hours in that very room attempting to establish communication with Strickland’s departed soul. The results of that investigation can be heard on the track Room 20 from NecroFusion, the album from Bagans and musical partner, The Lords of Acid’s Praga Khan.” I found that CD on sale in the gift shop.

According to Bagans he went to the motel and “after hours of recording sessions… I began communication with mind-blowing responses. One of the responses I got was when I said ‘hello’ to David, and a male voice who I believe was his, replied ‘Hi, Zak.’ I asked if he could hear me and he said ‘yea.’… I asked him if he knew where he was, and told me the name of the hotel… Oasis. This was one of the most powerful spirit communication sessions I have ever conducted.”

Bagans offered no scientific evidence for his claim. But assuming for a moment that Bagans did in fact contact a ghost, how does he know it was actor David Strickland? Several other people are known to have died violently in that Las Vegas hotel, including murderer Theodore Sean Widdowes in 1996 and professional poker player Stu Ungar in 1998. In fact given the sketchy area of Las Vegas where the Oasis is located, there might be dozens of people who died nearby by murder, accident, or suicide over the years— any or all of whom could presumably haunt the motel. Yet Bagans somehow positively identified a few short, muffled, ambiguous bits of words (what he hears as, “yea,” “Hi Zak,” “Oasis,” etc.) as spoken by Strickland’s ghost.

If what Bagans claims is true, he may have a unique opportunity to prove skeptics and scientists wrong, and show once and for all that EVP really are ghost voices instead of an auditory illusion. If the sounds that Bagans recorded are indeed the voice of deceased actor David Strickland, it should be easy enough for an audio expert to compare the EVP to voice samples taken from Suddenly Susan or any other of Strickland’s television appearances. Either the sounds that Bagans recorded match Strickland’s voice or they don’t. Strangely, despite being “one of the most powerful spirit communications” Bagans has encountered, such a basic analysis was apparently never done. It’s unclear how David Strickland’s family felt about his tragic suicide (fueled by the actor’s drug addiction and mental illness) being exploited as entertainment by Zak Bagans.

Everyone likes a good story, and ghost hunters especially love a creepy and compelling ghost story. Truth is often stranger than fiction, but ghost hunters must be sensitive to the people (with lives, loves, and families) behind their stories. Real people and reputations can be harmed—and the dead dishonored—by careless investigation. Ghost hunters have an obligation, to both the living and the dead, to act ethically and responsibly.

On the tour we also saw a strange replica of the Titanic, in the same room as a display about Natalie Wood; if you’re thinking the connection between the two is tenuous, you’re right. Toward the end of the tour a huge painting of P.T. Barnum is on display. Bagans is said to idolize Barnum, which makes sense, and it’s clear that Bagans’s career is built largely on lessons learned from the consummate showman. Barnum was not an investigator but an oddity collector, and proud fast-talker who freely mixed the real and the fake together as long as he could make a buck and promote the brand; as Barnum surely believed—though may not have actually said—there’s a sucker born every minute.  

Knowing that Zak Bagans was caught in a recent plagiarism scandal by Kenny, I innocently asked the gift shop employees where his book Ghost Hunting for Dummies was. The woman said she didn’t know, but they just had what was there on the table. I thought about informing her that the reason they didn’t have the book was that the publisher was forced to recall the book and credit the real authors that Bagans—and or his ghostwriter, Troy Taylor—had somehow omitted.

The guides were well-prepared and well-rehearsed, important because there are cameras everywhere and Zak is said to sometimes listen in on tours and berate guides through earpieces if they flub something. In the end, though the museum itself was mostly a boring bust, we were still baffled by the strange misty form that appeared in the photo of Kenny just outside the museum. We may never know what, exactly it was—or whose tortured spirit may have been reaching out to him from beyond the grave at what’s widely described as the most haunted place in the United States, or even the world. We may send it to Zak and ask him to investigate.



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!


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!

Aug 022022

For those who didn’t see it: I was a recent guest on ‘New Mexico Living’, talking about my new book ‘America the Fearful: Media and the Marketing of National Panics.’ You can watch the short interview HERE!


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 232022

In the wake of the recent 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.

May 152022

The new issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine features my investigation into the amazing crop circle that appeared near Stonehenge in 1996. It’s unique in its complexity and that it’s said to have been created in under an hour during daytime. I offer a different explanation… If you’re not a subscriber you can sign up here! 


May 082022

The long-awaited documentary SCIENCE FRICTION, which is pretty good despite my involvement, is now available on Prime Video! It’s about how scientists are deceptively edited on TV, and available now on Amazon Prime and Tubi, find it at, Add to Watchlist or buy or rent it, then you can see it on your Prime TV app.

Check it out!

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!

Apr 152022

In case you missed our recent Squaring the Strange, 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… Listen HERE!


Apr 042022

The UK Skeptics have a fun piece I wrote about investigating Cressie, a lake monster in Newfoundland. Check it out, and for more on this see my book “Lake Monster Mysteries,” co-written with Joe Nickell! An excerpt is below, and you can read the rest HERE!



Crescent lake is a picturesque body of water in northeastern Newfoundland, Canada, near the small town of Robert’s Arm. Settlement of the area dates back to the 1870s, though other native peoples, including the Beothuk Indians, were early visitors. Robert’s Arm (formerly Rabbit’s Arm) has a population of about a thousand. The scenery is gorgeous, with walking trails snaking over lush green hills and around the placid lake. Though the region’s natural beauty is the main attraction, it is the huge, dragon-like creature with fearsome teeth by the side of the road that draws visitors’ stares. Next to it a sign welcomes visitors to “The ‘Loch Ness’ of Newfoundland!” Crescent Lake, deep and cold, is allegedly home to a local lake monster affectionately known as Cressie.

Along with colleague Joe Nickell, I’ve previously investigated other Canadian lakes in search of the reputed denizens in their depths (Radford & Nickell, 2006). Ontario beasties Champ (of Lake Champlain; Nickell, 2003; Radford, 2003), Igopogo (of Lake Simcoe), and Quebec’s Memphre (of Lac Memphremagog) were no-shows despite our best efforts. I arrived at the lake on a crisp spring day last year hoping that Newfoundland’s famous hospitality extended to their local monster.

But it was not to be. I scanned the horizon and quickly determined that Cressie was not on hand to greet me, so I headed a short distance into Robert’s Arm and inquired about it at the town hall. I got a few curious looks from the pleasant, raven-haired woman behind the desk. Finally her face lit up and she said, “Oh, you need to talk to Fred Parsons, he’s your monster man.”

I’d been traveling in Newfoundland for less than a week and hadn’t quite acclimated to the local accents and cadence. Because of that, I sort of missed the first name and just made a mental note to ask for a man named Parsons; in a town as small as Robert’s Arm, I thought, surely there’s only one. Little did I know that half the town was named Parsons.

I finally did find Fred, a former teacher (and “Citizen of the Year”) with an easy smile and warm handshake. We sat on the town hall steps while he told me about his Cressie sighting: On July 9, 1991, Fred and his wife left Robert’s Arm at around noon for a doctor’s appointment in Corner Brook. As he drove along the lake, he saw something in the water perhaps 100 yards out. “What I saw was like a long, snake-like creature on the water,” he told me. “It was about fifteen or twenty feet long and a dark brownish colour – It was a long, sleek body without any significantly large head, basically right on the water.” He glimpsed it only briefly, and by the time he realized he might have seen Cressie he had passed it by. In the years following his sighting, Fred became the area’s resident collector of lake monster reports, clipping local newspaper items and interviewing witnesses…

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 032022

My buddy Jim Underdown asks some pointed questions about recent news that a priest’s wrong spoken word during baptisms jeopardized souls: “Fr. Andres Arango has jeopardized the everlasting souls of (presumably) hundreds of parishioners who were baptized by him — and potentially sent them hell bound. If your church is telling you that a random error by someone else is putting your eternity in jeopardy, then they’re out of their minds and it’s time to move on. Enough is enough.”


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 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 222022

I recently gave a talk for the National Capital Area Skeptics on some of my investigations into strange topics, from ghosts to curses and monsters, featured in my new book Big–If True. It was livestreamed on YouTube, you can watch it 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 242021

In 2016, before COVID and amid the encroaching commercialization of Christmas, Black Friday sales, and annual social media grumblings about the manufactured controversy over whether “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is appropriate, an ugly episode of racial hatred tainted the beginning of the holiday season.


It began when the Mall of America hired a jolly bearded man named Larry Jefferson as one of its Santas. Jefferson, a retired Army veteran, is black–a fact that most kids and their parents neither noticed nor cared about. The crucial issue for kids was whether a Playstation might be on its way or some Plants vs. Zombies merchandise was in the cards given the particular child’s status on Santa’s naughty-or-nice list. The important thing for parents was whether their kids were delighted by the Santa, and all evidence suggests that the answer was an enthusiastic Yes. “What [the children] see most of the time is this red suit and candy,” Jefferson said in an interview. “[Santa represents] a good spirit. I’m just a messenger to bring hope, love, and peace to girls and boys.”

The fact that Santa could be African-American seemed self-evident (and either an encouraging sign or a non-issue) for all who encountered him. Few if any people at the Mall of America made any negative or racist comments. It was, after all, a self-selected group; any parents who might harbor reservations about Jefferson simply wouldn’t wait in line with their kids to see him and instead go somewhere else or wait for another Santa. Like anything that involves personal choice, people who don’t like something (a news outlet, brand of coffee, or anything else) will simply go somewhere else–not erupt in protest that it’s available to those who want it.

However a black Santa was a first for that particular mall, and understandably made the news. On December 1 the local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, carried a story by Liz Sawyer titled “Mall of America Welcomes Its First Black Santa.

Scott Gillespie, the editorial page editor for the Tribune, tweeted later that night (at 9:47 PM): “Looks like we had to turn comments off on story about Mall of America’s first black Santa. Merry Christmas everyone!” The tweet’s meaning seemed both clear and disappointing: On a story that the Star Tribune posted about an African-American Santa, the racial hostility got so pervasive in the comments section that they had to put an end to it, out of respect for Jefferson and/or Star Tribune readers. He ended with a sad and sarcastic, “Merry Christmas” and sent the tweet into cyberspace.

Overnight and the next morning his tweet went viral and served as the basis for countless news stories with titles such as “Paper Forced to Close Comments On Mall Of America’s First Black Santa Thanks to Racism” (Jezebel); “Santa is WHITE. BOYCOTT Mall of America’: Online Racists Are Having a Meltdown over Mall’s Black Santa” (RawStory); “Racists Freak Out Over Black Santa At Mall Of America” (Huffington Post); “Mall of America Hires Its First Black Santa, Racists of the Internet Lose It” (, and so on. If you spend any time on social media you get the idea. It was just another confirmation of America’s abysmal race relations.


There’s only one problem: It didn’t happen.

At 1:25 PM the following day Gillespie, after seeing the stories about the scope and nature of the racist backlash the Tribune faced, reversed himself in a follow-up tweet. Instead of “we had to turn off comments,” Gillespie stated that the commenting was never opened for that article in the first place: “Comments were not allowed based on past practice w/stories w/racial elements. Great comments on FB & Instagram, though.”

This raised some questions for me: If the comments had never been opened on the story, then how could there have been a flood of racist comments? Where did that information come from? How many racist comments did the paper actually get? Fewer than a dozen? Hundreds? Thousands? Something didn’t add up about the story, and as a media literacy educator and journalist I felt it was important to understand the genesis of this story.

It can serve as an object lesson and help the public understand the role of confirmation bias, unwarranted assumptions, and failure to apply skepticism. In this era of attacks on “fake news” it’s important to distinguish intentional misinformation from what might be simply a series of mistakes and assumptions.

While I have no doubt that the Tribune story on Jefferson would likely have been the target of some racist comments at some point, the fact remains that the main point of Gillespie’s tweet was false: the Tribune had not in fact been forced to shut down the comments on its piece about the Mall of America’s black Santa because of a deluge of racist comments. That false information was the centerpiece of the subsequent stories about the incident.

The idea that some might be upset about the topic is plausible; after all, the question of a black Santa had come up a few times in the news and social media (perhaps most notably Fox News’s Megyn Kelly’s infamous incredulity at the notion three years earlier–which she later described as an offhand jest). Racist, sexist, and otherwise obnoxious comments are common in the comments section of many articles online on any number of subjects, and are not generally newsworthy. There were of course some racists and trolls commenting on the secondary stories about the Star Tribune‘s shutting down its comment section due to racist outrage (RawStory collected about a dozen drawn from social media), but fact remains that the incident at the center of the controversy that spawned outrage across social media simply did not happen.

A few journalists added clarifications and corrections to the story after reading Gillespie’s second tweet or being contacted by him. The Huffington Post, for example, added at the bottom of its story: “CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect that the Minneapolis Star Tribune‘s comment section was turned off when the story was published, not in response to negative comments.” But most journalists didn’t, and as of this writing nearly two million news articles still give a misleading take on the incident.

The secondary news reports could not, of course, quote from the original non-existent rage-filled comments section in the Star Tribune, so they began quoting from their own comments sections and those of other news media. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein the worst comments from hundreds of blogs and websites were then selected and quoted, generating another round of comments. Many people saw racist comments about the story and assumed that they had been taken from the Star Tribune page at the center of the story, and couldn’t be sure if they were responding to the original outrage or the secondary outrage generated by the first outrage. As with those drawn to see and celebrate Jefferson as the mall’s first black Santa, this was also a self-selected group of people–namely those who were attracted to a racially charged headline and had some emotional stake in the controversy, enough to read about it and comment on it.

Unpacking the Reporting

I contacted Gillespie and he kindly clarified what happened and how his tweet inadvertently caused some of the world’s most prominent news organizations to report on an ugly racial incident that never occurred.

Gillespie–whose beat is the opinion and editorial page–was at home on the evening of December 1 and decided to peruse his newspaper’s website. He saw the story about Larry Jefferson and clicked on it to see if the black Santa story was getting any comments. He noticed that there were no comments at all and assumed that the Star Tribune‘s web moderators had shut them off due to inflammatory posts, as had happened occasionally on previous stories.

Understandably irritated and dismayed, he tweeted about it and went to bed, thinking no more of it. The next day he went into work and a colleague noticed that his tweet had been widely shared (his most shared post on social media ever) and asked him about it. Gillespie then spoke with the newspaper’s web moderators, who informed him that the comments had never been turned on for that particular post–a practice at the newspaper for articles on potentially sensitive subjects such as race and politics, but also applied to many other topics that a moderator for whatever reason thinks might generate comments that may be counterproductive.

“I didn’t know why the comments were off,” he told me. “In this case I assumed we followed past practices” about removing inflammatory comments. It was a not-unreasonable assumption that in this case just happened to be wrong. Gillespie noted during our conversation that a then-breaking Star Tribune story about the death of a 2-year-old girl at a St. Paul foster home also had its commenting section disabled–presumably not in anticipation of a deluge of racist or hateful comments.

“People thought–and I can see why, since I have the title of editorial page editor–that I must know what I’m talking about [in terms of web moderation],” Gillespie said. He was commenting on a topic about his newspaper but outside his purview, and to many his tweet was interpreted as an official statement and explanation of why comments did not appear on the black Santa story.

When Gillespie realized that many (at that time dozens and, ultimately, millions) of news stories were (wrongly) reporting that the Star Tribune‘s comments section had been shut down in response to racist comments based solely on his (admittedly premature and poorly phrased) Dec. 1 tweet, he tried to get in touch with some of the journalists to correct the record (hence the Huffington Post clarification), but by that time the story had gone viral and the ship of fools had sailed. The best he could do was issue a second tweet trying to clarify the situation, which he did.

“I can see why people would jump to the conclusion they did,” he told me. Gillespie is apologetic and accepts responsibility for his role in creating the black Santa outrage story, and it seems clear that his tweet was not intended as an attempt at race-baiting for clicks.

In the spirit of Christmas maybe one lesson to take from this case is charity. Instead of assuming the worst about someone or their intentions, give them the benefit of the doubt. Assuming the worst about other people runs all through this story. Gillespie assumed that racists deluged his newspaper with racist hate, as did the public. The web moderator(s) at the Star Tribune who chose not to open the comments on the Santa story may (or may not) have assumed that they were pre-empting a deluge of racism (which may or may not have in fact followed). I myself was assumed to have unsavory and ulterior motives for even asking journalistic questions about this incident (a topic I’ll cover next week).

In the end there are no villains here (except for the relative handful of racists and trolls who predictably commented on the secondary stories). What happened was the product of a series of understandable misunderstandings and mistakes, fueled in part by confirmation bias and amplified by the digital age.

The Good News

Gillespie and I agreed that this is, when fact and fiction are separated, a good news story. As noted, Gillespie initially assumed that the newspaper’s moderators had been inundated with hostile and racist comments, and finally turned the comments off after having to wade through the flood of hateful garbage comments to find and approve the positive ones. He need not have feared, because exactly the opposite occurred: Gillespie said that the Star Tribune was instead flooded with positive comments applauding Jefferson as the Mall of America’s first black Santa (he referenced this in his Dec. 2 tweet). The tiny minority of nasty comments were drowned out by holiday cheer and goodwill toward men–of any color. He echoed Jefferson, who in a December 9 NPR interview said that the racist comments he heard were “only a small percentage” of the reaction, and he was overwhelmed by support from the community.

The fact that Jefferson was bombarded by love and support from the general public (and most whites) should offer hope and comfort. Gillespie said that he had expected people to attack and criticize the Mall of America for succumbing to political correctness, but the imagined hordes of white nationalists never appeared. A few anonymous cranks and racists complained on social media posts from the safety of their keyboards, but there was very little backlash–and certainly nothing resembling what the sensational headlines originally suggested.

The real tragedy is what was done to Larry Jefferson, whose role as the Mall of America’s first black Santa has been tainted by this social media-created controversy. Instead of being remembered for, as he said, bringing “hope, love, and peace to girls and boys,” he will forever be known for enduring a (fictional) deluge of bilious racist hatred. The true story of Jefferson’s stint as Santa is diametrically the opposite of what most people believe: He was greeted warmly and embraced by people of all colors and faiths as the Mall of America’s first black Santa.

Some may try to justify their coverage of the story by saying that even though in this particular case Jefferson was not in fact inundated with racist hate, it still symbolizes a very real problem and was therefore worthy of reporting if it raised awareness of the issue. The Trump administration adopted this tactic earlier this week when the President promoted discredited anti-Muslim videos via social media; his spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders acknowledged that at least some of the hateful videos Trump shared were bogus (and did not happen as portrayed and described), but insisted that their truth or falsity was irrelevant because they supported a “larger truth”–that Islam is a threat to the country’s security: “I’m not talking about the nature of the video,” she told reporters. “I think you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The threat is real, and that’s what the President is talking about.”

This disregard for truth has been a prominent theme in the Trump administration. Yes, some tiny minority of Muslims are terrorists; no one denies that, but that does not legitimize the sharing of bogus information as examples supposedly illustrating the problem. Similarly, yes, some tiny minority of Americans took exception to Jefferson as a black Santa, but that does not legitimize sharing false information about how a newspaper had to shut down its comments because of racist rage. There are enough real-life examples of hatred and intolerance that we need not invent new ones.

In this Grinchian and cynical ends-justifies-the-means worldview, there is no such thing as good news and the import of every event is determined by how it can be used to promote a given narrative or social agenda–truth be damned.

I understand that “Black Santa Warmly Welcomed by Virtually Everyone” isn’t a headline that any news organization is going to see as newsworthy or eagerly promote, nor would it go viral. But it’s the truth.

Merry Christmas.

Dec 222021

The new episode of Squaring the Strange is out! Part two in our four-part series on moral panics. This week we talk MUSIC, and go into the past, present, and future of (as Fresh Prince would say) parents just not understanding their kids’ music. So sit back and hear about gansta rap, Miley’s twerking, and even some far-too-jaunty Bing Crosby tunes! Check it out HERE!

Dec 082021

For those who didn’t see it: New episode of Squaring the Strange is out, the first in our series on Moral Panics. This week we look at games: it’s not just first-person-shooters that have caused parents and social guardians to wring their hands and ask “will no one think of the children?” Your grandparents worried authorities when they turned to the vile pursuits of pinball, and their grandparents were paying with Ouija boards without a single care about demons or ghosts.

Check it out! 


Dec 032021

I was recently a guest on the Radio Wasteland show, talking about some of the cases in my new book “Big–If True: Adventures in Oddity.” We discuss psychic detectives; why police rarely prosecute psychics; the idea that the government wants to keep Americans uneducated so we’re easily controlled; the truth about subliminal advertising; chemtrails; why Halloween freaks out some Christian fundamentalists; the claimed link between EMFs and ghosts; and much more…

Check it out HERE! 

Nov 302021

This month is the anniversary of one of the highest profile—and best documented—UFO reports in modern American history, with hundreds of eyewitnesses and reasonably clear (albeit nevertheless ambiguous) video footage. Despite the (at-least-temporarily) unidentified flying object making international news, the incident has been largely forgotten and ignored by the UFO community, precisely because it was conclusively debunked. It holds no interest to them and only serves as a lesson in eyewitness misperception. There is little to gain from UFO believers revisiting the case, but it holds important lessons for skeptics and critical thinkers.

On Monday evening November 8, 2010, something flew in the skies approximately 35 miles off the California coast. Dramatic video of an (apparent) missile streaking into the sky near Los Angeles was captured by a KCBS television news helicopter cameraman and widely studied. The rocket-like contrail rose like an arced pillar in the sunset, unusually wide at base and narrow at top, seeming to rise vertically in the air. Navy and Air Force officials denied that they launched any missiles in the area at the time, and said they were investigating the incident. The Internet was soon abuzz with conspiracy theories about who might have launched it, and for what purpose.

These theories included UFOs; a secret missile launch (China was widely suggested); government testing of chemtrails; a publicity stunt for alien-themed TV show; a secret military launch from nearby San Nicolas Island, often used by the Air Force; and so on. (The “explanation” that it was a launch from a Chinese submarine raised even more questions than answers: What’s a Chinese sub doing only a few miles from California?)

CNN suggested it might be a North Korean missile, while on CBS News former Deputy Secretary of Defense, Robert Ellsworth, suggested it was a missile after all—but an American one: “It could be a test-firing of an ICBM from a submarine… to demonstrate, mainly to Asia, that we can do that.” For the conspiracy theorists who insist that the missile was some sort of secret government test, this explanation collapses under the weight of its own illogic. Why would the government launch a “secret” missile only 35 miles from Los Angeles, and that would be obvious to anyone looking in the skies?

Veteran UFO researcher and former Skeptical Inquirer columnist Robert Sheaffer was among the first to offer an explanation: “As surprising as it may sound, the object seems to have been simply an aircraft contrail, with tricks of perspective making it look like a missile flying away from you, when in fact it was an aircraft flying toward you. It depends on an effect of perspective. The aircraft’s path must be directly toward, or away from, the observer. Second, even though the contrail is five miles above the ground, as it recedes into the distance it appears to touch the ground, because of the curvature of the earth. As shown by the daytime photo of the vertical contrail on, we know that the aircraft that made it was not flying straight up like a rocket, but when seen directly straight-on, that is what it looks like. And for viewers a few miles away, getting a different perspective, all they see is an ordinary-looking slanted contrail.”

This explained many aspects of the sighting, including the fact that according to the Federal Aviation Administration, radar in the area did not reveal any fast-moving unidentified targets. Furthermore, pilots in the area did not report any unusual sightings, which would make sense, since from their perspective the jet’s contrail would not appear strange. Furthermore, Sheaffer noted, this is not the first time that a contrail has been mistaken for a missile launch; an identical missile-like jet contrail was reported south of Los Angeles on December 31, 2009.



Mick West of Metabunk was also quick on the case, and offered a detailed analysis to several journalists. To the best of my knowledge, Robert, Mick and I were the first prominent skeptics to offer a plausible explanation when I wrote about it for Discovery News (now rebranded as Seeker); Mick and I later discussed our work on the case on my podcast, Squaring the Strange.

But some were skeptical of the skeptics. Bill Sweetman, of Aviation Week, was quoted as noting (correctly) that the plume seen in the footage was more characteristic of missile. The reporter who filmed it, Gil Leyvas, said in interviews that he’d seen countless plane contrails during his long career and insisted he’d never seen anything like it. From The New York Times: “Mr. Leyvas said that he had never seen an airplane contrail that resembled the contrails on Nov. 4 and Nov. 8. In fact, while he was recording the contrail on Nov. 8, he briefly panned the camera away when he saw a second contrail in the distance, only to discover that the second one had been caused by a jetliner. ‘There was no comparison at all’ between the two, he said, because the mysterious one was several times bigger. He added, ‘The video speaks for itself.’” Physicist Michio Kaku went on Good Morning America and refuted the idea that it was an airplane contrail (more on that shortly).

It took another day for the government to complete its investigation. When they did, Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan noted, “With all the information that we have gathered over the last day and a half about this condensation trail off the coast of southern California on Monday night, both within the Department of Defense and other U.S. government agencies, we have no evidence to suggest that this was anything other than a contrail caused by an aircraft.”

Despite these plausible explanations the “mystery missile” video was irresistible to television outlets across the country, which were playing the clip incessantly. Locally, KCBS noted in one segment that “it even looks as if there is some sort of rocket separation” shown on the tape. The mystery deepened when some people reported hearing the rumbling of a missile launch just before it was sighted.

Soon after my article was published on Discovery News piece, commenters were, of course, dismissing me as a shill trying to cover something up. My editor, Ian O’Neill, and I replied with a follow-up piece where I even more clearly laid out the evidence:

Let’s look at the evidence comparing the contrail explanation to the missile theory.

1) According to the Federal Aviation Administration, radar in the area did not reveal any fast-moving unknown targets. A missile would have been picked up on radar, while a jet would not have been flagged as unusual.

2) No trace of the alleged missile has been seen falling into the water off the coast of Los Angeles, nor has the missile or any part of it been recovered; it seems to have simply vanished into the sky. If the contrail was created by a plane, of course, no falling missile would be seen nor found.

3) The object seen in the video moves like a jet, not a rocket. As Michio Kaku, a physics professor at City University of New York noted on Good Morning America, “The trail seems to change direction. Ballistic missiles don’t do that. It doesn’t accelerate. Ballistic missiles accelerate up to 18,000 miles per hour, this is traveling at a constant velocity.” While missiles accelerate greatly during launch, aircraft typically maintain a constant cruising speed once they have reached the desired altitude—exactly as the videotape shows.

4) There is no record of any missiles being fired at the location and time of the sighting, while there are records of commercial jets in the area at the time. One blogger, Liem Bahneman, has identified the route and flight number as US Airways Flight 808 from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Phoenix, Arizona.

5) Perhaps most damaging to the missile theory, the only people who saw (and recorded) the mysterious phenomenon were in one television helicopter videotaping the sunset. None of the nearly 4 million people living in Los Angeles noticed the “missile” launch, and pilots flying in the area reported seeing nothing unusual—and certainly not a missile being launched. This is very strong evidence that the phenomenon was only unusual from one unique perspective; that is, people looking at the same thing from different distances and angles recognized what it was, or didn’t think it was strange. This supports the jet theory and discredits the missile theory.

In the end, the “mystery missile” was indeed exactly what Mick, Robert, and I said it was from the beginning: an airplane contrail (Flight 808) seen from an odd angle. The case provides an interesting case study in social contagion, the psychology of expectant attention (also known as psychological priming), and how people can misinterpret ambiguous sights and sound as confirming their expectations. The people who claimed to hear the rumbling of a distant rocket launch likely weren’t lying or hallucinating; instead they simply reinterpreted ordinary ambient sounds in light of the “missile” launch they believed they’d witnessed. The same goes for the local news analysis that claimed to see “some sort of rocket separation.” There was no rocket separation because there was no rocket; instead people saw what they were expecting to see. This is of course the same principle underlying many reports of ghosts, Bigfoot, UFOs, and other phenomenon.

In any event the conspiracies failed for another reason: there would be no reason for officials to hide or cover up the launch; missiles and satellites are routinely launched from the California coast. All the Pentagon would have to do is issue a statement telling the public that it was a planned launch, and the issue would go away. Maybe we can’t always believe the “official explanation,” but when it fits the facts, we should.

There is an understandable eagerness to opine ahead of the facts, as Michio Kaku, Robert Ellsworth, and many others did. Many took the fact that the original eyewitness who saw and filmed it, Gil Leyvas, didn’t recognize it despite having seen hundreds of contrails as evidence that it must be something else. This principle should be kept in mind when UFO believers state boldly that experienced pilots would obviously be able to recognize a plane, planet, balloon, or any other mundane thing in the sky. Possibly, but not necessarily; after all, that’s why they’re called Unidentified Flying Objects.



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!