Monday, 26 October 2015

Going Viral.... How A Paranormal Story Develops On Social Media.

I've been crazy busy over the last week, hence no blog posts. To compensate for this I thought I'd reproduce a piece I wrote for another site. A look at how a paranormal story develops on social media. Originally published 06/04/15.  

Is it me or has the "DERP" level reached maximum in the paranormal world this week? 

There's that Baby video that is just spreading like a virus. Which no one with HALF a brain could describe as paranormal in any way shape or form. Now there's a "skeptical" theory circulating about it that the baby was pulled by fishing line!

That's almost as unnecessary a mechanism to add to the story as a ghost is! If there is one thing worse than no skepticism, its bad skepticism!A hell of a lot of this stupidity is down to social media how its used, and what kind of stories and opinions gain traction.

On Friday 27/02/15 I posted this photo on several paranormal pages on Facebook. The reason I chose this picture is, initially it seems very spooky, but it only takes a moment of close examination to see that this is a camera strap hanging in front of the lens of the camera. The big clues are reflection of the flash from the metal clasp of the strap and the fact the its immediately in the foreground of the picture.

I gave additional clues as to the identity of object by describing the time period in which the photos were taken. 

So what was my reason for doing this? Was I just basically trolling the paranormal community on Facebook?

My intention was to see how a "paranormal" thread develops from the outside, what happens to commentators that hit on a rational explanation early on in the thread? Why do the threads continue after a rational explanation is offered? Does the rational explanation have a major baring on the rest of the thread?

The bigger question being would any of this tell me why a community filled with intelligent reasonable human beings, spreads rubbish like the recent "Baby falls over" post  and the creepy but easily explained Hampton Court Grey Lady, after a rational explanation had been offered?

Before I go any further I would like to thank anyone that commented, whatever their opinion happened to be. I hope no one feels to "tricked" by this, and understands why I couldn't be totally honest about the post. I have to say the results were pretty impressive. On the majority of pages there was an immediate skeptical response, many of the commenters knew exactly what the image in the picture was, and some went into great detail expressing this. 

These were just a few of the impressive skeptical responses early on, in various groups. There were many more.

I admit I was a little disappointed. I thought my photo had been debunked immediately, and that was that. Then an all too familiar thing started to happen. The paranormal explanations for the photo started to pile up.

The early skeptical responses were buried in the threads, simply by the weight of numbers of the paranormal responses, and by the very nature of how social media threads work. Very few people have the patience to read a whole thread before commenting. Some took note of the skeptical explanations and simply poured scorn on them.

My favourite example of this was the chap above who insisted camera straps didn't exist in the 90's!

 Then of course there were the commenters who claimed special abilities that allowed them to "know" that the photo was paranormal in nature:

This highlights an issue that skeptics have when they debate believers, especially believers claiming special skills or powers which have yet to be proven in any way shape or form.

The skeptic knows that she cannot claim anything with utter certainty. She is bound by likelihoods and probabilities. Certainly she can reach for Occam's Razor and select the most parsimonious explanation, but this still doesn't constitute certainty. The best we can offer is "beyond reasonable doubt". Even with the most open and shut cases.

Add to this the fact that skeptical explanations often require linking to additional sources, a scientific paper perhaps. If the person, or more often than not, the people you are debating aren't prepared to go and look at this, the skeptic's point goes unmade.

Now, if your opponent is claiming preternatural abilities they can dispense with this. Their abilities allow them to cite absolute certainty. This can be especially frustrating when the concept of the burden of proof is misunderstood or misapplied.

"Prove that this ISN'T a ghost" is a cry that I'm all to familiar with. To many the reasonable response "I can't. But I don't NEED to." sounds like a cop out, and i've often met with the smug "See! They admit they can't prove its not a ghost."

The skeptic is almost always hamstrung in the court of public opinion.

Take for example the moron who decided to respond to a well produced experimental paper regarding the validity of the Ghost Box by Nyack Paranormal, with a YOUTUBE VIDEO! A "debating" tactic straight out of creationist playbook. Now while the response is moronic, no one can argue that its far easier to digest. Reading that well-produced paper takes time and effort that watching a Youtube diatribe just doesn't. That's why creationist do it. It plays directly to their spoon-fed lazy audience.

Again note here, this chap making the rebuttal claims special abilities so he KNOWS the ghost box is a valid method of communicating with the dead. 

Unfortunately that's about all he knows. He is clearly unaware of the power of suggestion, and that telling people what they hear on the recording is what leads their brain to interpret the random audio in that way. Interesting that he did this and I still didn't hear much of what he claimed was there.

Of course, often where a skeptical explanation is offered its met with anger, accusations and name calling. I actually had to pull the thread on one group, because of the aggression that ensued. 

So what did I conclude from this. The paranormal community has good strong skeptical voices, and in that I am including many "believers" too. But these voices are too easily overcome. Its a case of empty cans rattling the loudest, unfortunately. The very nature of social media is simply more conducive to the loudest and most often heard voices, and in the paranormal community, this relates to the hard-core, unquestioning believer, who simply accepts anything posted to their group as paranormal.

That's what click-baiters like Before its News, the Paranormal Examiner, The Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror are, quite literally, banking on. They know its these people that will facilitate the sharing of their utter garbage. That fact that these stories have often been resolutely debunked won't matter as long as there are those prepared to ignore the debunkings and continue to share.As I write this several groups and sites are going potty over seance photos released by the "Vivaldi Psychic Circle" displaying tricks debunked almost a hundred years ago! The cheesecloth is just a bit glowy now that's all.

Nothing ever happens. A sprit "manifesting" in a seance now....

..... and then. 

I have little to no doubt that if these Vivaldi group images continue to spread, they will be picked up by a UK tabloid, which to some may lend the air of credibility to them.

That is what happens with these types of stories now, they circulate on social media until they are picked up by a news site turned into an article, which is dumped back on social media to circulate again, this time generating money for the organisation in question.

And the paranormal community, skeptics and believers and all shades between, will get to look like laughing stocks all over again. 

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Impossible Box? Or Just Box? A Review of the claims surrounding the IB-1 ITC Device.

I don't know if you've noticed, but there's a pretty penny to be made from paranormal enthusiasts, and there are plenty of vendors lining up to collect that cash.

Probably the most commonly used piece of kit in the paranormal investigators arsenal, apart from the humble camera, is the digital recorder, used for recording so called Electronic Voice Phenomena. This availability of the equipment and a lack of understanding of the psychological and physical factors underlying the phenomena means that EVP has replaced "Orb photography" as the main source of "evidence" for amateur investigators. Like orbs, parapsychologists and more serious (sensible?) investigators pretty much dismiss EVP as unconvincing.

Here's a description of EVP from the paranormal Network, for tape recorder you also substitute digital recorder :

“Briefly, electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) is the process of capturing messages from the spirit world, including our loved ones in Heaven, by using an ordinary tape recorder. Yes, someone in your family or your special friend who has passed on, can record or imprint their voice onto your tape....” []

Whilst believers maintain that EVP are the disembodied voices of the dead, skeptics have long maintained that there are a number of quite rational explanations for the phenomena, mainly audio pareidolia arising from the recording of white noise.

But EVP is only one form of so-called Instrumental Transcommunication (ITC), the other being "direct radio voice", the most famous of which is the Ghost Box ( alternately Frank's Box or the Spirit box).

Here Farnk Sumpton, the ghost box's inventor describes it in his own words how the :
".... In the box, the raw audio is created by sweeping the tuning of a radio electronically across it’s band, or tuning range, the resulting bits of speech music and noise are the raw audio. Radio is simply a convenient source of raw audio. However, that’s only a guess as to how the box works, there does seem be an RF component, or at times an actual signal received, or some other method of getting an external voice into the radio in the ―the box. Some of the manipulation of the raw audio seems to take place inside the electronics, again, presumably ―they can manipulate the electrical signals. I don’t have the equipment, or know how to be able to test these ideas."
So the audio output comes from scanning radio, which the box manipulates.... it seems like even the inventor of the box didn't quite understand how it works... or perhaps he understood all to well.

So what you have here is random snippets of audio grabbed as the device scans through radio stations, effectively analogous to the white noise of the EVP method, and again we have the same audio pariedolia leading believers to convince them they are hearing the voices of the dead.

When faced with these objections from skeptics, Ghost box supporters allude to the fact the resulting audio cannot be random as the voices answer directed questions. Psychology has an answer for this too, know it alls!

Subjective Validation tells us: there is a cognitive bias by which a person will consider a statement or another piece of information to be correct if it has any personal meaning or significance to them. Obviously this is also an incredibly important psychological phenomena in many areas of the paranormal, physics, for example use it to a tee in getting the gullible to accept cold-reading as genuine information.

The following diagram, from a CSI article on EVP by James Alcock shows the process of rationalisation that the believer undergoes when assessing EVP or other ITC samples:

Alcock states in his conclusion: 
"Remember — we process information in two different ways through two more or less separate parts of our brain and nervous system. On the one hand, part of our brain works on a very intuitive / emotional / automatic level, and on the other hand, another part of our brain works according to the logic and rationality that we develop over our lifetimes. These two systems often produce contrary results, and this is especially so where paranormal phenomena are involved. The “believer” removes the contradiction by bringing the intellect into line with the intuitive interpretation, that is, by coming to accept the paranormal — in this case, the voices — as reality, and thereby reshaping the intellectual understanding of the world so that belief in such phenomena appears to be rational. Over time, an impregnable belief system develops which is supported by a very substantial base of personal experience (interpreted in such a way as to support the paranormal belief), as well as anecdotal evidence provided by others." Alcock (2014)
Anyway that's some rational explanations for EVP and ITC phenomena onto The Impossible Box, a revolution in the field apparently. 

This is the 21st Century meaning that the Ghost box has now developed into a downloadable app for computers and tablets.

I recently came across some rather bold claims recently about a device called the Impossible Box marketed by Ghost hunter apps and Steve Huff of Huff Paranormal. I wrote about some rather revolting escapades of Huff's here. In addition to this, Hayley Stevens wrote here of some of Huff's other rather tasteless exploits involving another recently deceased celebrity.

As for Ghost Hunter apps, forgive me but taking a look at some of their other products, I can't help but shake the idea that they are more into making money than serious investigation.

Ghost radar anyone? Its uses "advanced paranormal technology"... what that is, is anyone's guess.

The most interesting thing about the radar app is how the hell would you even know that it worked? There's no other method of verifying the presence of a "ghost". How do we know it doesn't just ping at random? That's how other, cheaper, ghost radar apps work. It supposedly detects "energy signatures" but as no one has ever measured a ghost's energy signature, or established that ghosts HAVE energy signatures... OR EXIST AT ALL, its bloody useless in other words.

Anyway back to Huff and hisclaims about the Impossible box or IB-1 which he's clearly very excited about.

So apart from being a bit ghoulish, Huff's other passion is ITC, Here's what he claims about the downloadable Impossible Box.

His claims about it…
Followed by my responses....
Spirits control the app and you will hear them speak when they want to speak. No more constant chatter (unless they want it that way)
Ah! So it works how we tell you it works... unless it doesn't then that's because "ghosts". This seems like special pleading to separate the impossible box from other ghosts boxes, even when its operating just like them. Cake and eat it much?

Huff claims that spirits control the IB-1 via a Q3 meter which can be found on Amazon sold by Huff's partners Ghost Hunter apps, but the only information I can find as to how this works is though "signal disruption". Why conclude that signal disruption is due to spirits? Again, as spirits have never been shown to exist, one simply can't draw that conclusion, signals are disrupted frequently and for perfectly natural, identifiable reasons,

A non-English if you get English replies using this mode, it would be IMPOSSIBLE. (or is it)?

Unless your mind is using cognitive and selective bias to interpret the snatches of audio as English.... which it will if you're an English speaker! The fact that it scans non-English stations isn't relevant, as the device doesn't grab whole words but units of sound or phonemes from internet radio then assembles them for the listener to make sense of.  Phonemes are common amongst languages, and unique ones often have similar sounds to others that exist in the English language. Human vocal cords are only capable of producing so many sounds after all.


Huff puts so much stock in this claim that he states its the whole reason for the prefix "impossible", meaning that when its taken apart by anyone with any common sense, the product goes from "Impossible Box" to "box" doesn't it?

NO AUDIO BANK. This is all random live streaming internet radio (like the SCD-1) but with the Impossible Box we do not always have a constant stream. In fact, in some of my testing I have had up to 4 minutes of silence during a session. The spirits speak when they want, and they activate the scan.

Again the Impossible Box operates the way we say it will, unless "ghosts". Plus there's something here that's blatantly misleading: the SCD-1, an earlier model essentially, as mentioned above, draws units of sound or phonemes from internet radio then assembles them for the listener to make sense of. As that's the case a lack of an audio bank isn't really relevant.

Thousands of SCD-1 have been sold. This takes the SCD-1 to the next level with its direct replies and spirit control. Also, it cuts WAY down on evidence review as we no longer have to filter through constant scan and chatter like a traditional ghost box or even the SCD-1
This amounts to.... "Look lots of mugs fell for our last scam... you should fall for this!" And sorry "relies on spirit control" how was this tested? It sounds to me that the operation is quite random and Huff is excusing this.

This is the simplest but probably the most powerful spirit box ever created. Yet it is the cheapest ever created (for a REAL ITC tool, and not a toy app).

Nice reasoning there: those cheaper apps are just toys! How cheap is this app exactly? Why its a snip at $49.99.... seriously that's a pretty hefty price for an app that essentially has the same effect has turning a tuning dial on an old fashioned radio! Also its a blatant lie as Huff's own SCD-1 retails at $49.99 also! Is he suggesting that this predecessor was only a toy? Doesn't inspire much confidence in his latest effort does it?

I will only put MY NAME to an app or product that works for REAL ITC. The Impossible Box and SCD-1 were both my vision, and the uber talented Anthony Sanchez made them reality. BOTH of these products are for true, serious and real ITC (spirit communication) work. Period.

Yes because you can trust the integrity of a man who constantly exploits the deaths of prominent people to hawk overpriced apps! Talk about wilfully manipulating people by using your para-celebrity! EXCLAMATION.

Great, I'll take twelve!

Lets move on to Huff's evidence video. 

First of all ever wonder why EVP and ITC evidence is presented as videos more often than just audio? After all its just voices we're listening to. Surely an audio file would suffice?  The answer is it gives the producer of the video opportunity to provide captions alongside the audio, thus leading the viewing into hearing what they are told to here. The suggestion is made and the viewers brain fills in the gaps. Want to test how powerful this test is try the easy demonstration at end of the post.

Anyway... the video gives us three examples. The first is suspiciously clear. The second, the typical garbled nonsense one would expect from a ghost box scanning radio stations. The third...  its only bloody Anton Marconi, who must have been a Mario impersonator, he seems to be speaking in the most faux Italian accent ever! Without the captions the last would be pretty indistinct.

Looking at further video evidence that Huff provides, its clear that the Impossible Box puts particular effects on any sound coming through it, all the messages sound the same.

In the following video Huff claims, laughably, that ITC has been PROVEN to be direct communication with supernatural entities. Really! Wouldn't that require first proving such entities actually exist?

Collect you Nobel Prize Mr Huff...

Or is this just a case of circular reasoning: this device proves that ghosts exist. because we've proven that the output is produced by ghosts!

He also claims that skeptics have failed to debunk the SCD-1. This is a load of tosh. Skeptics, and even many believers have been all over ITC for decades. The SCD-1 specifically has been ripped apart multiple times on this thread for example. 

Check out at 7.04 in the video when Huff mistakenly calls the IB-1 a "traditional spirit box" then quickly corrects himself. There is no difference really... so its scanning internet radio,,, so what. Its just a dressed up Frank's box.

"Spirits hate white noise..." Yep, That movie sucked.

Huff claims the white noise has been eliminated but the truth is in many of the audio snatches there is plenty of white noise... I guess he'd say that's because the ghosts want to include it... why if they hate it Huff?

Watching the further demonstrations of the IB-1 by Huff in the video above, it becomes quite laughable, the eerie otherworldly nature of the "voices" seems more and more a factor of the reverb placed on them in mode 2. When the reverb is removed the audio is a bit laughable. The source of the noise and the nature of the audio is quite evident- snatches of music frequently play for example, and those remarkable undeniable voices that seem so clear completely disappear when you listen to the audio alone minus Huff's captioning.

You can test this for yourself below.

An informal demonstration you can try yourself:

Click on the following links, but don't actually watch the video, just listen to the audio. Write down what you hear without being led by Huff's captioning. Then rewatch the video and see how well your impressions match up to his.You should also find that with the captioning now availiable the voices are much clearer.


Click on them then come back to this tab, or turn your phone face down!


Let me know how your guesses measured up here: The Rational Paranormal

Hopefully you determined as I have that not only is the whole EVP, ITC scene a load of bunk, but Huff frankly is making money from a piece of old tutt. Its a modern take on a thoroughly debunked method.

Save your $49.99 and more importantly, don't get conned.

Here's a list of a few sources I found useful and maybe helpful to you if you want to learn more about ITC.

This page from OCPRS was massively informative, probably the best source I looked at, examines a variety of ITC devices.

Skeptic's Dictionary as always was massively useful

This article from CSI by James Alcock provides an excellent overview of the history of ITC and the psychological phenomena of the assessment of such samples

Hayley Stevens blog features a ton of well informed posts regarding EVP and ITC.

Huff's youtube channel is here if you want to conduct a few more ITC tests

Check out this one where he accidentally contacts hell... hate it when that happens

Friday, 16 October 2015

The Farce is Strong. Examining a Paranormal Faker.

Perhaps the greatest irony there as ever been in the paranormal field is that the proliferation of cameras and video cameras has not led to a shred of compelling of evidence of ghosts or bigfoot or anything else. You'd think with almost everyone and their mother carrying a camera around with them 24/7 attached to their camera, with the videos immediately shareable that at least some convincing evidence would emerge.

Yet nothing.

What has increased is the amount of out and paranormal fakes. The producers of these fakes and videos are often prolific, and in the case of the individuals I'm focusing on today, often they become more  adept and crafty as time goes on.

The persons I'm focusing on aren't major para-celebs, I don't think they are making much money from their fakery. They are however lying to people. They are also quite agitated about "skeptics", and attempt to disprove many of the sillier claims put to them whilst publicly ignoring others and using them to remove signs of fakery from future efforts.

What follows is simply a look at things to look for in fake "ghost" videos in order to start to debunk them. The suggestions I make are by no means conclusive.

I first came across Sam posting on an FB page, her Youtube channel is here. Her first effort, below was unimpressive and frankly amateurish. Watch it and see what you think:

Notice Sam is quick to state the location of her boyfriend, not home, but during the activity she laughably turns away from the toy Darth Vader. Magicians call this misdirection, few do it as ham-fisted as this.

Clearly Sam does this to give her boyfriend time to move the toy. But where is he? The small bedroom doesn't seem to offer to many hiding places, under the bed being the most obvious.

When Sam gives us a brief tour of the room the area she focuses on least is under the bed. Check out the position of what looks like cardboard, and training shoe here from a brief glimpse:

After the toy is moved Sam engages in more misdirection, this time touring her home from other objects the "entity" could have moved, This allows her boyfriend time to get out from under the bed, dismantle the toy (don't panick its a Masher, they are meant to come apart like that), and get to the front door.

Evidence for this? Let's look at the positions of the two objects that were under the bed before the first bout of activity, where are they when Sam and BF return to discover Darth Vader has gone to pieces.

The heel of shoe is now is facing the door, its moved off the cardboard and further down the bed, also the cardboard has slid much further out of the bed. Almost as if someone slid out, and didn't have time to adjust the items he disturbed. Again Sam realises she is shooting the base of the bed and sharply raises the camera.

I suspect the main criticism of this video was that Sam is careful to ensure no activity occurs on camera.

She rectifies this in the next two videos.

As you can see this one is far more ambitious. Sam has, I believe, used stop-motion to achieve this one. There are three quite clear indicators.

1. The lighting conditions can be seen to change if you observe the couch rather than the head movement.

2. The focus adjusts rapidly if only slightly.

3. The lightsaber also moves but in a jumpy, sporadic way, not as with the smoother head motion. 

To see this clearly, watch on 0.25 speed and full screen.

Onto the next video. This time we see Vader's head fly off at speed. What is worth remembering here is that with "Mashers" the head is extremely easy to remove. In fact that is the point of the figure, you can remove the parts and swap them with others in the range.

 This one offers the clearest evidence of fakery. Watch it yourself on full screen, as Sam's partner handles the head at around 1.18 switch to 0.25 speed again. You should be able to see evidence of a fine line wagging above Vader's head:

Here are some stills in case you didn't manage to catch the wire or thread yourself:

And again, sadly as unclear:

At this point I confronted Sam on the facebook page with my conclusions. She was extremely dismissive initially, but checking her recent video she seems to have picked up on the criticisms I levelled:

Notice the new video cuts after the head is yanked off now, presumably this is so the pair can ensure any wires or lines are removed. Sam's partner also addresses claims by skeptics that Vader's head is spring loaded. Not sure who has made this claim, but by focusing on it the pair neatly avoid addressing the claims that skeptics have made about their videos that are actually true.

One thing I can't speculate on here is why Sam, or anyone else, would fake a paranormal video, Perhaps seeking attention, or fame or validation even.

As for me: the number one thing I've learnt from looking at these videos for a number of years. Never just look at what you are supposed to look at. Always examine the edges, the times after and before the "occurrence".

If you notice any tell tale signs about Sam's video, or any others you come across, come to The Rational Paranormal FB page and post your thoughts. 

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Black Eyed? Please!

The UK's Daily Star reports toady that paranormal investigator Tom Buckmaster has caught video evidence of the Black Eyed Children where else but in the woods of Carnock Chase! I've wrote about this location before as it has become the UK home for various pop-culture spooks such as the aforementioned black-eyed kids and the Slenderman. Surprisingly this report isn't brought to us by paranormal tabloid staple Lee Brickley.

You're slipping Lee!

Anyway onto this evidence. The Star leads the story with image.

Pretty striking! Is this taken from the video evidence that Buckmaster has caught? If so it would be pretty compelling, obviously not beyond faking.

Unfortunately the actual video shot by Buckmaster is far less compelling. In fact its laughable. Take a look.


The footage was shot during filming for Haunted Finders youtube channel, they claim its extraordinary because it "holds its own light". It appears to me, whatever the object is, its just slightly better at reflecting the camera's light back.

Here's what Tom said about his video:

"The full-time ghostbuster said: "It looks like a child dressed in white – you can see the legs moving as it walks.

"I didn’t even know I had captured the ghost until I went over the footage and thought, 'What the hell was that?'"

So how exactly did Tom go from "what the hell was that?" To "That was a black eyed child of Carnock chase... I'd better immediately report this to the daily Star and collect my check."

Why a black-eyed child? Why not a ghost? An alien? A Smurf?

Less earning power perhaps. Its been ages since the Star bought Smurf footage.

The Star then has the nerve to state that alteration of the image (below) makes the image even more striking. Erm... not so much. 

What we have here is another case of blatant paranormal click bait by a British tabloid. The staff of the Star must of knew that the video was less than impressive or they wouldn't have led the article with a striking stock-image of a "black-eyed child". There's cynicism on the part of Buckmaster and Haunted Finders (or whatever they are called, I can't even be bothered to scroll up to check I have their name right I have that little respect for them), they have labelled this a Black-eyed child knowing that it will garner more attention and more likely to land in a crappy tabloid.

Perhaps the saddest element of the story appears in the Mirror version of the story. Tom states:

"This is the best visual evidence we have EVER caught."
Oh dear..

A black eye for the groups carrying out legitimate research.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Sufferers of abuse and mental illness aren't Horror movie bad guys...

The BBC today report that child abuse due to exorcism and witchcraft is on the rise in Great Britain. In the article Terry Sharpe, from the Project Violet team, a project devoted to investigating child abuse due to faith and religion, comments on the increase in such abuse, he also states:
"You'll get the actual physical abuse and injuries taking place, and, in the worst-case scenario, we've had some homicides as well," he said.
"We've had a case within the last year where a nine-year-old boy had been called a devil child and thrown out of his address by his parents and was found by social services standing in his bare feet."
In another case a child was attacked by his mother, who bit him on the face and tried to smother him, because she believed he was a "witch possessed by evil spirits".
But is religion the only causal factor here. I don't doubt its the major factor, but does the entertainment industry also play a part?

Lets play a game of odd one out. Look at the above pictures and tell me which one doesn't fit with the rest. I'll give you a clue. Three of the above pictured individuals are fictional movie monsters. The other is a young woman, suffering from diagnosed medical conditions who was tortured and eventually murdered by the people she trusted the most. Her killers were motivated by ignorance and backwards 18th century religious thinking.

I'm sure you have got the point. Not only that but I'm sure that you are familiar with the case of Anneliese Michel, who died of malnutrition and dehydration at 23, during an attempted exorcism by her priests and her parents, you've probably also seen at least one of the two movies based on her death.

The film The Exorcism Of Emily Rose did fairly well at the box office and on home release, as of 2012 its made $144,216,468 worldwide for the studio that produced it. That's a pretty profit made from the death of a young girl.

Of course Exorcism of Emily Rose is hardly the first exorcism film. Hollywood has generated them at a pretty steady rate since the Exorcist was released to much hype and acclaim in 1973. And unfortunately Anneliese is hardly the first person to be harmed and killed by others acting on the belief that demons can inhabit the minds of the living. And judging from today's report she is unlikely to be the last. What's the harm lists over 300,000 individuals killed and a similar number injured by exorcisms.

Many of these supposedly "possessed" people are suffering from well understood, diagnosable and TREATABLE mental illness. Anneliese herself had been diagnosed with depression and likely would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia had she continued with medical help.

A 2012 study by Neuner, Pfeiffer, Schauer-Kaiser, Odenwald et al. (2012) looking belief in spiritual possession in Uganda concludes:
".. in many of the areas of the world where beliefs about spirit possession are widely held, such beliefs are a standard consequence of psychological trauma and may be a way of explaining the dissociative symptoms that often accompany intense traumatic experiences. These beliefs about spirit possession can then be used by various local agencies to manipulate the behaviour of individuals – even to the extent of coercing them into acts of extreme brutality. Explanations of mental health problems in terms of “possession” have taken many forms over the course of history, and it is a form of explanation that has meant that many who have been suffering debilitating and distressing psychological problems have been persecuted and physically abused rather than offered the support and treatment they need."

These people don't deserve to have their ordeals turned into horror films. They don't deserve to be turned into villains. Can you think of any other movie genre that would exploit abuse victims or people suffering from an illness in such a way?

As well as being exploitative the media attention of exorcism keeps it in the public eye, presented as "based on a true story" makes possession seem worthy of consideration as a phenomena that may actually occur, to those witless enough to believe that tag-line actually means anything when used in a Hollywood blurb.

This exploitation is only amplified when ACTUAL sufferers are treated as reality TV fodder, as  is about to happen on True Exorcisms, currently in development. Fingers crossed it will never happen. One TV exorcism that definitely WILL happen is that of the alleged St.Louis home of Roland Doe on October 30th, Destination America.

"Medium" Chip Coffey and the crew of the channel's Ghost Asylum, known as the Tennessee Wraith Chasers will scour the house for evidence of demonic infestation. Good luck with that.

The idea of evidence for possession is an interesting one. In all the stories we hear about possession there come elements of supernatural actions. Inhuman strength, levitation, speaking of previously unknown languages. Yet of all the hundreds of filmed exorcisms not one, that I've seen shows anything happen that isn't achievable under normal circumstances.

Sure many of these videos are quite unnerving, but is unnerving behaviour enough to justify the often brutal process of exorcism. another trait of the individuals in these exorcism videos is how closely their behaviour matches footage of seizures and psychotic episodes. This shouldn't be causing the same confusion that it was causing hundreds of years ago. Not with what we know about the brain now.

Along these lines there is much talk of Anneliese Michel displaying supernatural abilities during her exorcism, sadly the only witnesses to this were her family and priests, her killers essentially. Her superhuman strength could certainly be explained by her epilepsy. Individuals in a midst of an epileptic seizure are extremely hard to restrain. The only evidence that exist is a growling tortured voice recorded during the exorcism. This growling was enough, in one Bishop's eyes to justify starving a 23 year to death.

If you think I'm being slightly hysterical about the effect popularisation of ideas of exorcism and possession have on the public consider this: the Catholic church has confirm the number of requested exorcisms is on the rise.  From a 2014 Telegraph article:

"The rise in demonic cases is a result of more people dabbling in practices such as black magic, paganism, Satanic rites and Ouija boards, often exploring the dark arts with the help of information readily found on the internet, the Church said."
Whilst they put this down to increased frequency in experimentation with the occult and the internet, maybe there's a more straight forward cause. More people are aware of exorcism thanks to media attention. Its now part of the public consciousness. When some people see the tropes of "possession" in family members and friends they don't think "mental illness" they think "this is just like that movie!" Viewing seizure and mental illness, even Tourettes syndrome, view this pop-culture lens point to possession, when common sense allude to illness.

The only recourse for this is erasing ignorance of mental illness and perhaps Hollywood deciding that exploiting abuse victims and the mentally ill for cheap thrills is a bit of shitty thing to do.

If you want to know more about the psychology of possession and exorcism you could do worse than starting with this talk by psychologist Chris French of Goldsmiths for the Centre for Inquiry.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Ghouls and Groceries. Photographic artefact or the Hampton Court ghost on tour?

Today's Week in Weird runs the story of a hideous hag ghost in the mock grocery store of the  Texas’ Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. First off... why the hell does a science and history museum have a mock grocery store?

Secondly the image, first shared by reddit user  KRAMERisCRUNKtwo years ago, does look pretty damn creepy. Take a look.

Pretty creepy.... and pretty familiar.

In fact it looks deeply reminiscent of the below "ghost" photographed in Hampton Court earlier this year. The tabloid media went crazy over this one and I expect the same reaction to the above photo frankly.

The Hampton Court ghoul was thoroughly debunked by Mick West of Metabunk, which you can read about here.

The image was created by an artefact caused by moving images caught by the panoramic mode of the iPhone, Mick demonstrates:

Was Mick wrong? Could the Hampton Court image actually have been a tourist ghost, later caught visiting the Fort Worth Science and History Museum? Or are we just seeing the same effect repeated?

Anna Hill offers an explanation on the excellent Paranormal Dustbusters and Truthseekers facebook page.
"Lines show the same people in each photo. The arrow in the bottom pic indicates a second aisle. bottom pic happened first, top is a bit after... The person in the Shawl disappeared in the top pic into that second aisle IMO."

 As Anna points out the edges of the "ghost" could almost be the edges of a shawl or cardigan.

Looks like case closed. Expect to see this going viral over the next few days.

Thankfully there are people like Mick and Anna on hand to debunk nonsense like this,

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Paranormal fluff or harmful exploitation?

Today's Sun and  Mirror both run surprisingly lengthy pieces on paranormal enthusiast Ashley Nicole-Fine of Leeds Alabama and her collection of "haunted dolls" which left a bad taste in my mouth and the nagging question that I've headed this blog with:

"When does a paranormal tabloid piece become harmful exploitative trash?"

Perhaps when the person in focus in the piece has some pretty clear mental health issues?

Ashley, pictured opposite with one of her haunted collectables, Annabelle (original), describes some of her dolls light antics: "Unfortunately two of the dolls HATE men – and have attacked her boyfriend Phillip Baston, 25, in his sleep. She says the 'haunted' dolls which have taken against Phillip are possessed by women who were murdered by their boyfriends. Previously, the dolls were kept in her bedroom but when she started seeing Phillip he asked that they be moved. She agreed to this, concerned they might lash out at night again."

Hmmm... the insinuation that Phillip has been attacked in the night is I found quite disturbing, Ashley goes on to describe him waking up with several injuries, if I take her at her word that he has suffered these injuries, clearly not accepting that they were caused by dolls... well you see the inevitable conclusion. Further more does her concern that they might "lash out again" strike you as faintly threatening as it does me?

The article continues:
"Ashley said she had a word with two dolls - Mirabella and her friend Setha - and said they 'told her' they had been acting out because they detested men and had both been killed by their lovers."
Again this strikes me as someone who may be deeply deluded. In addition to that the attitude of Mirabelle and Setha to men, clearly a projection of their owner, leaves me with the impression of a woman who may have had a difficult history with men, and may need to talk to someone of a non-porcelain nature to address this.

The article just becomes more and more disturbing as Ashley describes listening to the dolls laugh and talk to each other, and paints a picture of a upsettingly isolated individual who has for many years found comfort in assigning personalities and histories to her dolls.
"Going into a meditative state, she said such a reading aims to communicate with the specific spirit within a doll, and is something she always does in her special dolls' room.
She said: "The dolls' room has the most energy, so I'll sit in there cross-legged on the floor with the doll up against me – either holding her like a baby, or with her hand on me – that helps with the older spirits...The younger ones don't mind being held like babies because they're little, but the older ones don't like all that kissy stuff"

The eminently sensible Mark Smith of NGI had this to say about the Mirror article:

Whilst I completely agree with the sentiment Mark expresses here I'm not sure this represents an either/or dilemma. I think its quite possible that Ashley is both attention seeking AND quite disturbed. She at least seems to believe what she is saying.

I'd argue that this makes very little difference. Ashley is unlikely to have received an earth-shatteringly large amount of money for the piece, and I don't think the money offered offsets the potential harm the article could do to Ashley and her partner.

I don't think its to much of a stretch to call these tabloids deeply irresponsible for placing Ashley in the public spotlight in this way. They expose a potentially quite vulnerable woman to ridicule and scorn whilst simultaneously pandering to a delusion which may potentially be leading her to physically harm another person and mask deep seated issues.

Now one could argue that as Ashley has been paid for sharing her story that negates the argument that she has been exploited. I am pretty that Ashley has received money for the story. A good indication of this is that the JPEGs used in the article are headed PAY.

As Mark says "stupid or exploitative"of the story. Again I'd say false dilemma. The article is stupid, exploitative and I'll raise to deeply irresponsible to boot.