It’s surprisingly easy to trick someone into believing they’ve seen something paranormal.
The first time Marthe Béraud was caught faking paranormal activity during a séance, she was 23 years old. She claimed she developed the ability to commune with the dead shortly after her fiancé died, five years earlier, and she began holding séances for the public. During these sessions, a “spirit” named Bien Boa, whom Béraud claimed was a 300-year-old Brahmin Hindu, materialized, sometimes moving about the room and touching people. Photographs of the séances would make Boa look an awful lot like a cardboard cutout, in some cases, and in others, like a living man draped in fabric and wearing a fake beard.
In 1906, a newspaper printed an account of an Arab man known as Areski, then working as a coachman at the villa where Béraud lived and held séances, who copped to having been hired to play the part of Bien Boa. Her hand forced, Béraud admitted to concocting the hoax. Then she changed her name to Eva Carrière (or Eva C) so nobody would know she’d been caught, traveled to Munich, and started holding hoaxed séances again, immediately. She is, without question, my favorite early-20th-century con artist, “fake psychic medium” category.
Like many other so-called spiritualists of the day, Carrière’s credibility relied heavily on her supposed production of “ectoplasm,” or a spiritual energy that oozes from orifices on the medium’s body and takes shape, allowing the medium to interact with said spirit. Peruse the image results for this one (and I cannot recommend doing so enough) and you will see a series of black and white photos of people with a white substance pouring out of their mouths, or their noses, or their ears.
Soon Carrière met a widow named Juliette Bisson, 25 years her senior, and they started both sleeping together and faking séances together. Or, as Wikipedia puts it: “Juliette Bisson and Carrière were in a sexual relationship together, and they both worked in collaboration with each other to fake the ectoplasm and eroticize their male audience.” These are two things I would not have thought simultaneously achievable! I am so impressed by this information.
Anyway, one of Carrière’s tricks was to give her ectoplasm a face, which she did by cutting faces out of newspapers, drawing on them in an attempt to mask their identities, and attaching them to the typical muslin or a similar white material. But photographs taken during her sessions caught up with Carrière, as some of the faces she used were recognized, and her fraud was again exposed, in a 1913 article in the Viennese newspaper Neue Wiener Tagblatt. Among the famous faces she’d used: actress Mona Delza, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, and Woodrow Wilson.
IT SEEMS LIKE IT should take more, in this modern day and age, to trick someone into thinking she’s seen something paranormal. In a study published in the British Journal of Psychology in 2003, a group of three semi-mischievous researchers aimed to determine what it takes. Participants (who, prior to the experiment, identified themselves as either “believers” or “disbelievers” in the paranormal) were split into groups and made to sit through faked séances in a pitch-black room. In the middle of the room was a table, upon which sat a few objects treated with luminous paint. These were made to move a few inches by researchers, who hid in the dark and prodded the objects with sticks. How they got anyone to believe they’d seen something paranormal this way is beyond me, but somehow, 16 percent of them did. Most of that group identified as believers, but not all.
More interesting still is the fact that roughly 20 percent of the participants (30 percent of believers and a surprisingly high eight percent of disbelievers) reported experiencing additional unusual phenomena during the faked séances, beyond anything that could be attributed to actions taken by the researchers. They reported feeling as though they had entered an “unusual psychological state,” feeling cold shivers running down their bodies, sensing an energetic presence, and noticing weird smells. They were thoroughly spooked, and fairly easily, at the hands of researchers who faked the entire thing.
Paranormal investigators say they look for evidence of paranormal activity. That phrase always confounded me. I don’t quite get it. What does it mean when someone says they have evidence of “paranormal activity”? And, how do you know it’s not normal activity that you just couldn’t ferret out?
There is a problem with how the word paranormal is used because it is often utilized in a way that is perhaps not consistent with the original intent.
Language evolves. Let me take a shot at unpacking some of these definitions about unexplained phenomena. See if it makes sense.
“Paranormal” and other terms for strange goings-on have changed over time. The word paranormal was coined around 1920. It means “beside, above or beyond normal.” Therefore, it’s anything that isn’t “normal” — or, more precisely, it is used as a label for any phenomenon that appears to defy scientific understanding. Ok, right there is a tripping point. Whose scientific understanding? The observer who is calling it “paranormal”? If so, that is problematic as a theoretical physicist sees things a lot differently than a dentist or a police officer. So, it appears too subjective to be precise. Each person may have their own idea of what constitutes “paranormal activity”.
The term “paranormal” used to just mean extrasensory perception and psychic power but, since the 1970s in particular — thanks to TV shows and proliferation of the subject in popular culture — the term expanded in scope to include all mysterious phenomena seemingly shunned by standard scientific study. It was a convenient way to bring many similarly peculiar topics under one heading for ease of marketing. So today, it can include everything that sounds mysterious: UFOs, hauntings, monster sightings, strange disappearances, anomalous natural phenomena, coincidences, as well as psychic powers.
Not everyone agrees that fields of study such as UFOlogy or cryptozoology (Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster and the like) should be considered paranormal but, if we think about the fact that after all this time, we have yet to document what these things actually are, that is beyond normal. Therefore, paranormal (arguably).
What appears as paranormal could essentially one day become normal. This has happened before with meteorites and still mysterious but likely explainable earthquakes lights and ball lightning. Or, we might not have developed the right technology or made the philosophical breakthrough yet to provide an explanation for some seemingly paranormal events. Perhaps we may find an instrument that can measure whatever it is that results in “hauntings” of a particular type. (Notice that I didn’t say an instrument that detects ghosts — an important distinction.)
Contrasted with paranormal is “supernatural.” To say something is supernatural is to conclude that the phenomenon operates outside the existing laws of nature. We would call such phenomena . . .
Much of what we call “paranormal” are facets or properties of the natural world that we do not yet understand. And although ball lighting is not usually considered a paranormal phenomenon – and is almost certainly a natural phenomenon – its mysterious nature has puzzled scientists and paranormal researchers alike for centuries.
There currently is no fully satisfactory or generally accepted scientific theory for ball lightning, mainly because it is so rare, and when it does occur it doesn’t stay around long enough to be studied; it generally has a lifetime of less than five seconds. According to one researcher, “ball lightning is the name given to the mobile luminous spheres which have been observed during thunderstorms. Visual sightings are often accompanied by sound, odor, and permanent material damage.” Many scientists still deny its existence, but there are so many eyewitness accounts of the phenomenon that it’s difficult to deny its reality.