Today we’re going to travel up the Hudson River Valley in New York, and back in time to the summers of 1983 and 1984. On many occasions, on clear summer nights, something terrifying and unexpected appeared in the sky. It was a gigantic craft, black as the sky, rimmed with bright lights in white, red, or green. It would drift over towns with a steady hum, witnessed by many. Police phone lines lit up every time it appeared, and the newspapers were choked with reports. It’s called the Hudson Valley UFO, and it’s one of the mainstays of evidence for those who believe we are not alone.
My friend Joe Miale is the director of the sci-fi movie Revolt (2017), and as it happened, the Hudson Valley UFO played as a big a role in his growth as all of my books on Bigfoots and ghosts did in mine. I asked Joe to tell his story:
I am ten years old, standing in my pajamas on the front lawn, with both of my parents and my elder brother. The neighbors were outside too. It’s a warm summer night in the suburbs of New York, and all of us are looking up at the sky where there is a triangular craft with colored lights moving slowly over our houses with a distinctive hum. The most remarkable thing for me at the time was actually the reaction of all these adults. They all seemed so alarmed and confused and they were swearing and shouting. My mother tried to take a picture, and when the flash went off, the lights on the craft went dark. Everyone reacted again. She called the police, and they said they were inundated with calls. In the coming days, the sighting was all over the local news. Traffic had pulled over on major roadways to watch the craft go by. The government called it a prank. I always thought it might be something military, but it certainly was an unusual aircraft. Something that would get such reactions from so many different people. As a kid, it was a true moment of wonder. I was already a fan of science fiction, and this sighting sealed the deal.
The case became legend, driven primarily by the 1987 book Night Siege: The Hudson Valley UFO Sightings by UFOlogists Philip J. Imbrogno and Bob Pratt, with credit also given to UFOlogy legend J. Allen Hynek who died before the book was finished. A number of other books were published about it too. Even a 1992 episode of the TV show Unsolved Mysteries dramatized the case and interviewed many of the people who were there, including a number of police officers who witnessed the object.
Some say they are tools by which demons can influence us; others regard them as mechanisms for communicating with the deceased; still others dismiss them as toys that can be used to fool your friends. But however we regard them, Ouija boards have left an indelible mark on our culture. But of most interest is the question they raise: Can they indeed be used to reveal information unknown to any of the participants whose hands rest on the pointer? Today we’re going to find out what the science has revealed about Ouija boards.
Historically, these are called talking boards, and they’ve been around in spiritualism almost as long as spiritualists. They all involve a planchette, which is the pointer that seance participants all place their hands on, which then moves. How does it move? Well, that’s the fun if it’s a game, and it’s the spirit if it’s a seance. The planchette can either point to letters, numbers, or symbols written on the playing surface; or it can hold a writing implement that moves over paper to produce so-called spirit writing, or automatic writing.
The Ouija board is the name of the most successful talking board that’s been manufactured commercially, first by the Charles Kennard Novelty Company in 1890, then by Parker Brothers since 1966, and by Hasbro since 1991.
It’s true that name Ouija is the French and German words for yes, oui and ja. That’s officially what the game’s publisher will tell you it means, and that comes all the way down from one of the original bosses of the company, William Fuld. But Fuld wasn’t the first, and before he came along, the founders had their own explanation for the name.
The story goes — and it is just a story, there’s really no record telling us how much truth there may or may not be to it — that two of the four founders, Charles Kennard and Elijah Bond, were hanging out at the boarding house where Bond’s sister-in-law lived, Helen Peters, and they were, of course, playing with their new invention.
Beware! Pop culture tells us that the big pharmaceutical companies know all about the simple, natural cures for everything — cancer included — but are jealously covering them up. Should you be unfortunate enough to contract some terminal illness, the best the doctors are going to give you is some synthetic, patented drug that can be sold to you at a high profit. It won’t work as well as that natural treatment would, but that’s OK, because it means they get to sell it to you over and over again, until you finally die. Guess what? You’ve just been victimized by the Big Pharma Conspiracy, one of the most popularly believed conspiracy theories.
How could it be that I’ve been doing Skeptoid for almost 11 years and never covered the Big Pharma Conspiracy? Oh well. It be.
The basic Big Pharma Conspiracy says that pharmaceutical companies suppress natural cures on the principle that they are not patentable and thus not profitable to sell; so they instead distribute only patented, expensive, and less effective drugs. This allows them to keep profits up, and since the drugs are less effective, it keeps the patients sick enough to require more and more of the expensive products. Most familiar is the claim that a perfect cure for all cancers exists, but Big Pharma suppresses it because if everyone was cancer-free it would kill their profitable cancer business. A corollary takes it a step further, asserting that the drug companies actually create some of the diseases that make their products necessary.
Who exactly is Big Pharma? Author Robert Blaskiewicz describes them as:
…An abstract entity comprised of corporations, regulators, NGOs, politicians, and often physicians, all with a finger in the trillion-dollar prescription pharmaceutical pie.
This definition is important, because it allows the conspiracy theorist to vastly simplify what is, in reality, a complicated industry filled with conflicting roles and interests. Lumping them all together into a single entity turns them into a proverbial “they” at whom it is easy to point an accusing finger.
A quick and easy way to hear the Big Pharma Conspiracy elucidated in detail by someone in your neighborhood today is to talk with any alternative medicine practitioner whose diploma is unaccredited, like a naturopath or a chiropractor.
Hollywood celebrities have a reputation for espousing a sort of prepackaged, fast-food version of politically correct “liberal” issues, as if they buy a kit of personal convictions off the shelf at Whole Foods. It includes environmental concerns, usually exaggerated and often wrong; rejection of “all things corporate” including pharmaceuticals and biotech, with a corresponding embrace of alternative medicine, organic agriculture, and “empowered individual” philosophies like home birth. Then there are the outliers who go the other way toward full alt-right with an imagined superior insight into world affairs. They tend to reject history and science in favor of conspiracy mongering and alternative science, be it the young Earth, the flat Earth, or calling us all sheeple for believing in the standard model of the universe.
Interestingly, anti-vaccination is found in both camps. Left-leaning antivaxxers tend to reject it because it’s not a natural healing method, and right-leaning antivaxxers think it’s an evil government program of enforced mercury poisoning. It increasingly seems that a rational, level-headed, science-literate Hollywood celebrity is as rare as a truly good movie.
So here my list of top 10 celebrities, 2017 edition, who contribute to the Endarkenment by abusing their notoriety to spread misinformation far and wide:
#10 – Shaq and the NBA Flat Earthers
Former player Shaquille O’Neal and current NBA basketball players Kyrie Irving, Wilson Chandler, and Draymond Green have all expressed their belief that the Earth is flat, but I put them all the way down at #10 because it’s not clear that all four literally believe this. They may just be trolling. But whether they are or not, they do genuinely influence a huge number of young people, including some demographics where education is not necessarily a life priority. Guys, if you want to inspire kids to achieve and succeed, you’re doing it wrong.
#9 – Michael Phelps
I include him as a representative of the many athletes and celebrities who loudly and proudly promote cupping, the overtly pseudoscientific technique of suctioning great round hickeys into the skin by rupturing capillaries. A lot of trainers sell this because it costs nothing to administer, requires no training, and they can charge whatever they want for it; and since it’s unregulated, they make a vast array of claims for whatever workout benefits they say it confers. Usually, it just happens to solve whatever that athlete’s complaint of the day is. Phelps proudly shows off these ugly bruises, as do many other athletes and celebrities, and has even posted pictures of himself getting it done on his Instagram. Sellers have even come up with a sciencey-sounding name for it to impress the scientifically illiterate: “myofascial decompression”.
Do you have precognition? If you’ve ever thought you might, you’re not alone. We all have experiences, at least every once in a long while, where it seems we’ve anticipated something a little too precisely for it to be random chance. Sometimes we anticipate things that are so specific, and so far outside the normal events we expect, that it seems there can be no explanation other than precognitive psychic powers. Might there be some undiscovered energy or force that makes such a thing possible? Today we’re going to look at your precognitive experiences, and see if there might be some other explanation.
First, it’s important to lay the groundwork for the conventional science-based explanation for apparent episodes of precognition. It comes from the law of large numbers. If we assume that something (anything) happens about once a second in your waking life, then statistically, you’re going to have a one-in-million experience about every month. Let’s take a look at the classic case as one example:
Hi Brian. At first, thank you for giving me the reasons and rationalities behind urban myths and superstition. I live in New Zealand and in 2015, my husband was on a business trip to Tokyo. On a Friday night, I dreamed about his funeral, no idea why, because he was a very healthy and happy man. The Saturday evening, my son called me that the police had come to tell him that they had found his father slumped next to his desk in his Tokyo hotel room. He had died the Friday night of a sudden heart attack. Due to the time difference between New Zealand and Japan, I must have had this dream at the same moment he died. I am not superstitious, but I hope you can give a reasonable explanation for my experience. Thank you, and keep up the good work.
Obviously this is an incomprehensible personal tragedy. Of course this listener has all our sympathies, but today we’re looking only at the statistical probability of what happened. I call this the classic case because it’s one of the most commonly reported cases that come to be described as psychic precognition: You dream of someone and then find out they died at that same time. But can it happen without psychic powers? Let’s calculate the probability of that.
We’ve all heard a lot of really weird conspiracy theories about the world — the Flat Earth, the Hollow Earth, and the world’s governments all conspire to cover up the truth, for some reason. Some of these are so bizarre that they can only be jokes. None more so than the claim that Finland doesn’t exist. The idea here is that where we all think Finland is is actually just ocean, and that Japan and Russia conspired to persuade the world there’s a country there, to cover up the fact that Japan does unlimited fishing and whaling there with no international oversight. Today we’re going to study why a tale so trivially disproven as that can actually survive to become passionately believed by a small but vocal group of conspiracy theorists.
On any map, Finland borders Russia to its east, and its south and west borders are in the Baltic Sea. To its north, Finland connects to Sweden and Norway. Believers in the conspiracy theory have drawn a new map in which most of Finland is simply erased, extending the Baltic Sea all the way to the Russian border; and the northern third of Finland is simply renamed as more of Sweden, thus extending Sweden’s territory significantly. And thus is the Baltic Sea greatly expanded as well, giving those Japanese fishing boats plenty of space to do what they do, unpestered by fishing regulators.
How would such a thing come to be? According to the conspiracy theory, after World War II, Russia found itself short of food (and this is quite true). Japan was facing a related problem, in that they found they’d been overfishing and needed new waters. So they approached Russia with the idea of granting them secret fishing rights in the Baltic; and to hide it from the rest of the world, they’d mutually agree to tell everyone that much of the Baltic Sea was actually a landmass called Finland so there’s no need for anyone to try and regulate fishing there. Russia agreed, and together they built the Trans-Siberian Railway to facilitate the endeavour, and as a quid pro quo, Japan donated much of its catch to Russia.
Comparing the actual evidence to the Canadian claim of best evidence for alien visitation.
They call it “Canada’s Roswell”, supposedly the strongest evidence of extraterrestrial visitation ever in Canada. It happened at Shag Harbour, a small fishing port near the extreme southern tip of Nova Scotia. On the clear night of Wednesday, October 4, 1967, shortly before midnight, a number of witnesses observed a row of lights, said to be on a craft about 60 feet long, descend with a bomb-like whistling sound, hover above the water for a moment, and then submerge. Emergency crews responded to what they thought was a plane crash. Divers spent a few days scouring the harbor bottom, but found nothing. But then, a quarter of a century later, the story exploded into something the like of which we’d never seen. The Shag Harbour UFO became one of the best cases ever for proof of alien visitation… supposedly.
On the night the incident was reported, Coast Guard and civilian boats swarmed Shag Harbour looking for what they hoped would be plane crash survivors. All that was found was a patch of foam, described by the fishing boat captain who saw it as “At least 80 feet wide”, and that in the darkness he thought it was “yellowish in color.” Divers spent three days combing the bottom of the bay in the area where everyone thought the crash had happened, but they found nothing at all.
Often cited as the reason that Shag Harbour should be considered Canada’s best evidence for alien visitation is the number and reliability of the witnesses. The lights descending into the water were reported by about a dozen people, including a Mountie. Two more Mounties and a few other people called to the scene reported seeing one light bobbing in the water for a short time.
Another reason it’s cited as an important case is that a few other UFO reports were made in the weeks before and after this one in various parts of the province. But in fact, rather than strengthening the case, it dilutes and complicates it.
The unexpected facts behind this famous ghost story from the 1970s
It was one of the great ghost stories of the 1970s. One of the world’s newest and flashiest airliners, a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, was making one of its first flights for Eastern Air Lines on December 29, 1972. It infamously crashed in Florida’s Everglades swamp just before midnight, killing 101 of the 176 people on board. The story goes that parts from it were salvaged and installed in other L-1011s, and almost immediately, the ghost stories began. Air crews reported seeing apparitions of their dead coworkers on board the planes that had Flight 401’s spare parts. Books and TV movies frightened audiences, and this ghost story that had it all became a permanent fixture in great American tales of the paranormal. Surely, pilots and air crew would never make up such stories, would they? To all who shivered at night in fear of this creepy story, it seemed that it must have been true as reported.
The actual crash was, in fact, true as reported; and there’s never been any real doubt over what the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) investigators determined. Pilot Bob Loft, copilot Bert Stockstill, and flight engineer Don Repo were bringing the plane in to land at Miami International Airport. They got a warning light on the landing gear. Loft told Stockstill to put the plane on autopilot while Repo went below to the avionics bay (called the “hell hole”) to manually check the landing gear. Loft accidentally nudged the control yoke, perhaps with his knee, while turning around to speak to Repo, and the autopilot mode was one which followed whatever pitch the pilot set with the yoke. None of them realized in the dark that they were gradually descending, as their attention was on debugging the landing gear indicator. Stockstill began a turn to follow the airport’s approach pattern, and immediately noticed their altitude — but it was too late. The plane crashed into the swamp; fortunately, it was a relatively gentle angle into a soft surface, and that’s what allowed so many to survive. All three of Loft, Stockstill, and Repo were among the unlucky majority who perished.
The stories began four years later . . .
Also See: Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 (Wikipedia)
Some claim that certain common false memories are evidence for alternate realities.
Ever have one of those moments where you watch an old movie or pick up an old book, and hear a quote or see something that stands in stark contrast to what you thought you remembered? We all have. But what about a special case, where the exact same broken memory is shared by a large number of people? At first glance, it seems like this must be something different. It’s no surprise that any of us individually might remember something wrong; but for a whole group to share an identical false memory seems to suggest that there might be a new phenomenon at work. It’s been called the Mandela Effect.
The Mandela Effect is named for one of its most famous examples, that of Nelson Mandela, whose funeral some people remembered after he supposedly died in prison. Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life in prison in South Africa, but he survived it and was released in 1990. He was President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, and some of those same people said “Wait, he died in prison, I watched the funeral on TV.” He didn’t actually die until 2013; and every time his name came up, these same people said “Wait a minute, I thought he was dead.”
Now, this group who erroneously remembered that Mandela had died did not include me, but I’m sure some people thought he had. One who did was psychic ghost hunter Fiona Broome, who writes that she discovered that some people she knew also thought that Mandela had died. Seeking an explanation for what she described as an “emerging phenomenon”, she turned not to social science, but to some nebulous concept of alternate realities. In her own words:
The “Mandela Effect” is what happens when someone has a clear memory of something that never happened in this reality. Many of us — mostly total strangers — remember the exact same events with the exact same details. However, our memories are different from what’s in history books, newspaper archives, and so on. This isn’t a conspiracy, and we’re not talking about “false memories.” Many of us speculate that parallel realities exist, and we’ve been “sliding” between them without realizing it. (Others favor the idea that we’re each enjoying holodeck experiences, possibly with some programming glitches. In my opinion, these aren’t mutually exclusive.)
Is a lot of people remembering something wrong evidence for alternate realities? Not really.
Deconstructing a wild tale about a Nazi military base deep inside Antarctica.
It’s a story that reads like a Captain America comic book: American firepower going after the Nazi super-villain in a remote fortress. Despite World War II having ended, Third Reich scientists were still soldiering on at their hidden lair, planning the doom of civilization. New Berchtesgaden was said to be a Nazi base in Antarctica, established in 1939. Then during World War II, the British launched at least one assault against it. In 1946 the Americans tried the same thing. It wasn’t until 1958 that three nuclear bombs finally destroyed New Berchtesgaden, putting a final end to the Nazi regime. It’s a story so wild that you can scarcely believe you haven’t heard of it before. But believe it you must; because as bizarre as it sounds, parts of this insane tale are actually true.
The story goes that in 1938, the Nazis sent a ship called the Schwabenland to Antarctica to set up a military base, on the orders of Admiral Dönitz. It landed at that sector of Antarctica called Queen Maud Land, and they named their area New Schwabia, after their ship. Deep in the interior of the continent, they established a permanent base and named it New Berchtesgaden, after the Bavarian town overlooked by the Kehlsteinhaus “Eagle’s Nest” retreat.
Nazi surveyors discovered a vast network of underground tunnels including a warm geothermal lake, and some say alien technology was found there. The Nazis used this resource to construct a large underground city, variously called New Berlin or Base 211.
On July 12, 2016, the FBI finally closed the files on one of its most famous unsolved cases. They called it the NORJAK case — short for Northwest Hijacking — but you probably know it by the name given to the hijacker,
D. B. Cooper. Most people are familiar with the basic facts: that in 1971, a man hijacked an airliner, demanded and received cash and a parachute, and jumped out the plane’s back door over the Pacific Northwest and was never caught or identified. Whether he got away clean, or was killed in the attempt, could never be determined. Even though the D. B. Cooper case continues to capture the public’s imagination, there is a lot of fact and fiction unknown to many fans.
On the afternoon of November 24, 1971, a man who looked mid-40ish, wearing a business suit, walked up to the counter of Northwest Airlines in Portland, Oregon. Using the name Dan Cooper, he bought a $20 one-way ticket to Seattle, Washington. He was the second-to-last person to board the plane, and while waiting for takeoff, he ordered and drank a bourbon and soda — unfortunately spilling half of it. Once airborne, he handed flight attendant Florence Schaffner a note, which said something to the effect of “I have a bomb which I will use if necessary, this is a hijacking, please sit next to me.” She showed it to fellow flight attendant Tina Mucklow and to the pilots. Cooper then asked for the note back, which is why its exact wording is not known.
Schaffner took the empty seat next to him as ordered and he opened a briefcase, and showed her what she described as red sticks with a battery and wires. He then dictated to her the following demands:
Take this down. I want $200,000 by 5:00 PM in cash. Put it in a knapsack. I want two back parachutes and two front parachutes. When we land, I want a fuel truck ready to refuel. No funny stuff, or I’ll do the job.
Schaffner conveyed this information to the pilot. Almost nobody on the plane knew anything unusual was happening; the whole episode was handled discreetly. Cooper added that if these instructions were followed, he would safely release everyone on the plane, except for the flight crew.
The airline agreed and contacted the FBI for assistance making the exchange safely. The FBI collected the money from the Seattle First National Bank. Some FBI records say they used a Recordak high-speed microfilm machine to image the serial numbers of all the bills; other records say the bank had the money on hand with its serial numbers already recorded. The airline got on the phone and collected the four parachutes from local contacts. Two hours later, the exchange had been successful, and the plane taxied for takeoff, fully refueled.
Cooper instructed that the plane was to fly a specific route, from Seattle to Portland, to Medford, to Red Bluff, and then to Reno, all while staying below 10,000 feet and keeping the flaps and landing gear down. The plane was a Boeing 727, featuring the nifty “Airstair” rear access stairway under the tail. Cooper had released two of the flight attendants along with the passengers, but had kept Mucklow on board so she could show him how to operate the Airstair.
Frustrated that the money had not been delivered in a knapsack as he’d requested, Cooper began cannibalizing one of the parachute’s cords to do what Mucklow thought was tying the bundles of money to himself. About a half hour after takeoff, Cooper ordered Mucklow up to the cockpit with the pilots and closed the door, ordering them not to open it. At 8:13pm, over southern Washington, the pilots got a number of warning lights. The Airstair had been lowered, cabin pressure had dropped, and the cabin temperature fell sharply — it was -7ºF outside. Not knowing whether Cooper had jumped or not, they continued on to Reno as ordered and landed, causing a nice display of sparks (but no damage) as the Airstair briefly scraped the runway. After receiving no response from Cooper over the intercom, they chanced to open the door, and found him gone; all that remained were his clip-on tie, and a ton of cigarette butts. Nobody would ever see him again.
Pop culture tells us that some people have photographic memories. What’s the real story?
Remember when you were a kid and there was always someone in your class who claimed to have a photographic memory? If you believed it, as many children tend to do, you were probably both impressed and jealous. Then by the time you got older, you’d heard of people with savantism, and champions in memory contests, and people who could remember every day of their lives; and you probably wished that you too could have a photographic or eidetic memory. Well how would you feel if I told you that there might not be any such thing as those abilities?
That’s not to say that nobody has extraordinary or unusual memory prowess. Some do, and we’ll talk about those; but what we want to focus on today is the idea that some people have the pop-culture version of a “photographic memory” that we’ve all heard about, which sounds a bit like a superpower. They can, at will, call to mind the page of a book they’ve read, a license plate they saw, a long string of numbers, what have you; and simply read it off that image in their mind’s eye as if they’re seeing it live. What makes this such a great thing is that it doesn’t seem to come with any cost. They are not otherwise developmentally disabled, and haven’t had to trade other cognitive or behavioral functioning. This is the version of “photographic memory” that so many of us grew up believing in: the superpower version.
The Life and Times of the Moon Hoax Conspiracy
Yes, it’s a 3-part Skeptoid episode, the first one ever, and it took more than 500 episodes to get me to finally address the moon landing hoax conspiracy. To those who follow science, the claims that we never went to the moon are the most tiresome and foolish of the conspiracy theories; but to those who believe them, they are absolute religion, and the ultimate token of their conviction that anything coming from official sources is a lie. Today we’re going to begin our in-depth analysis of the Moon Landing Conspiracy, of those who believe in it, and a survey of the facts and figures of the basic narrative.
Today we’re going to talk about the history and cultural impact of the claim; next week we’ll go into the most popular evidentiary claims said to prove that we never went to the moon (hopefully including some you haven’t heard before); and in the final installment, we’ll look at the hard physical proof that we did go.
The basic narrative of the Moon Truth conspiracy theory, as you probably know, is that NASA faked the Apollo missions and nobody ever actually went to the moon. As with most conspiracy theories, there are all sorts of variations on the claims of what actually did happen, while the only thing they have in common is that no men actually landed on the moon. Some believe the Apollo missions orbited the moon but did not land; some believe they never went farther than Earth orbit; some believe the Apollo spacecraft flew but were unmanned; some believe they never launched anything at all. The astronauts performed their moonwalks on a movie set, and fake transmissions were provided to the TV networks for broadcast. The reasons given for why the government would have gone to all this trouble range from simply distracting Americans’ attention from the unpopular war in Vietnam, to fooling the Soviets into thinking they lost the Cold War, to protecting NASA’s budget by appearing to spend it on something supremely impressive.
A big question we have to answer is what’s the point of even talking about this? The people who believe it have already heard the science-based responses to their claims a hundred times, and rejected them a hundred times. Their minds are riveted shut to anything but their preferred narrative. We’ll not be changing any of their minds today. And the rest of us aren’t in denial, and aren’t asking these made-up, shoehorned questions that try to raise doubt where none exists. So who is this episode for, nobody?
Well, maybe for somebody. Polling data has, for decades, consistently shown that some 6-7% of Americans believe the moon landings were faked; and even scarier, about four times as many Europeans agree with them. That’s a lot more people than the hardcore YouTube-obsessed serial conspiracists; it includes tens of millions of ordinary folks who are otherwise as rational as you or I. It seems there must be something deeply compelling about this odd belief.
From all around the world come reports of strange blasts of sound from the heavens. Some rumble like distant explosions or thunder, some blare like amplified tubas, some shimmer like reverberating wind chimes. YouTube has a full measure of videos taken from iPhones searching the sky while Sky Trumpets blast their portentous refrains. Commenters warn of the End of Days, or of aliens vainly trumpeting their misunderstood greetings, or of Mother Earth releasing great energies. But whatever the theory, the recordings of Sky Trumpets are sure to send a shiver up your vibrating spine. Must they all be either supernatural or hoaxes, or might science be able to sweep away the mystery?
Of course, the first thing we have to do is listen to some samples. While these play, keep in mind how easy it is to fake videos such as these today. Sounds can be taken from the Internet from any source, and it requires no more than journeyman computer skills to add a sound to a video and apply any manner of reverb or background noise to it. But regardless of their origin, these are the types of sounds that characterize the Sky Trumpets phenomenon; so if there is something to explain, this is what they sound like.
Here’s one from Beijing, China:
And here’s one from Indonesia:
And from Saskatchewan:
And from Oklahoma:
So far, all of these Sky Trumpet recordings were posted to the Internet after 2011. Here is what amateur researchers have determined is the earliest of these videos and certainly the most popular with over 4 million views, and it was uploaded to YouTube in August of 2011, from Kiev in Ukraine, by someone calling herself “Russian Kristina”:
Since this video went live, there have been any number of copycat hoax videos posted using the exact same audio file; including one that got a bit of press, by a girl who did the whole thing in five minutes to show her friends how easy it was to make a hoax Sky Trumpets video.
But hoaxes aside, it’s a virtual certainty that at least some of these videos are genuine, and represent real sounds heard by real people who recorded them and posted them online in good faith. Given that, is it then proven that Sky Trumpets are a real — and unknown to science — phenomenon?
Today we’re going to follow up on an older Skeptoid episode from a few years ago, the Flat Earth Theory. In that episode we looked at the history of belief in a flat Earth, which was mainly driven by 19th and 20th century Christian fundamentalism driving clumsy efforts to prove the literal truth of the Bible. That era ended when the last of the well known proponents, an elderly couple who called themselves the Covenant People’s Church, died after their house burned down in 1996, taking with it the archives of their International Flat Earth Research Society of America. And where their story ended, today’s story begins, with a new, reinvented version of the Flat Earth theory.
The Biblical literalists have moved from the center of Flat Earth belief to its fringe, and their place has been taken by believers in conspiracy theories and alternate science. 21st century Flat Earthers are less likely to recite Bible verses and more likely to oppose vaccination, to charge that 9/11 was an inside job, and to claim the government is drugging the population with chemtrails sprayed from airliners. Flat Earthing is now entwined with perpetual motion machines, with a belief that Nikola Tesla held the secrets to free energy now suppressed by the global elite, cold fusion and zero point energy, and declare that it’s all part of the grandest coverup of all: that the Earth is actually a flat disk and not a globe.
An excellent resource for tracking the popularity of ideas is Google Trends, which tells us that Internet searches for the term “Flat Earth” began a sharp increase at the beginning of 2015. The popularity of this search term is still rising, and is presently at its greatest over the course of Google’s entire tracking history. This is with the exception of January 2016 which saw a tremendous spike. By then a pair of fringy C-list celebrities had been trumpeting the Flat Earth and declaring their rejection of the Earth as a sphere loudly and proudly, though it’s never been clear whether they actually believed this or were just bucking for attention. One of these was a rapper named B.o.B, who had been among the most vocal; and to the delight of the Internet, astronomer and beloved science personality Neil deGrasse Tyson began correcting him over Twitter. Within a short time it developed into a rap battle, with Tyson’s nephew providing the rhythm. The other was celebrated salacious person Tila Tequila, for whose Twitter feed the Flat Earth tweets constituted the most intelligent and weighty content.
If the new Flat Earthers were limited to these two “celebrities” and the handful of remaining Christian Flat Earth fundamentalists, that would be one thing. But they are not. Google Trends proves that B.o.B and Tila Tequila were only riding a wave that had been building for the better part of a year. Where was it building? YouTube provides another indicator. Search YouTube for “Flat Earth” and you’ll find countless videos, mainly amateurish explainers full of gross misunderstandings and misinformation, yet many with tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of views. Most of these were posted throughout 2015 and 2016. What triggered the sudden renewal of interest?
There are some events in history so profound and personal that they govern the courses of lives even generations later. History tells us that a tenth of the 60 million human beings killed in World War II were Jewish civilians who were murdered for no reaon other than being Jewish. Decades later, some promote an alternative view, a “revisioning” as they call it; a view that claims these people did not die, but that it is a myth created by the Jewish people themselves in order to win unearned sympathy. Today we’re going to take a look at Holocaust denial.
Let’s say an intelligent person decides to sit down at the computer and spend a few hours making an honest and thorough assessment of the evidence, to decide whether the Holocaust happened, and if it did, whether it was really as big as 6 million. I’ll tell you right now: by no means is that person necessarily more likely to conclude the Holocaust was real. For every piece of evidence one can find, thorough and well-reasoned counter arguments exist to contradict it, and are often easier to find. Complicating things further is that any given single piece of information, supporting either argument, can be fairly described as an out-of-context cherrypick. It’s dangerous to assume that the Internet provides a consensus perspective.
I quickly grew conscious of this as I was planning how to frame this episode. My initial idea was to lay out what we know, and how we know it. Pretty basic. However, I have plenty of experience with anti-Semitism, having done episodes on the Rothschild banking family, the Zionist conspiracy, and other topics sure to attract the bigots, so I’m well aware of how the comments are likely to go on this episode. If I were to merely describe the evidence, the comments would be overloaded with contradicting claims so specific and diverse that it’s virtually impossible to respond. So we will take a quick skim over some of that evidence, but my experience is that the more useful strategy in discussing this topic is to prepare the honest researcher for the broader task of being prepared for the incoming onslaught of pseudohistory, and be ready to recognize it for what it is.
How much truth is there to the conspiracy theories that the FBI deliberately killed the Branch Davidians?
Today we’re going to delve into the deepest, ugliest corner of urban legendry: conspiracy theories claiming that the US government deliberately attacks and kills its own citizens. In this case it’s the infamous 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian religious sect near Waco, Texas resulting in the deaths of some 75 people inside. The accepted narrative is that the Davidians, intent on apocalyptic death according to their prophecies, committed mass suicide as the federal agents entered the compound with armored vehicles; while the conspiracy theory holds that it was the federal agents who set the fires in a successful effort to murder the entire population inside. Today we’re going to examine the claim, and find out how we know what we know.
The Branch Davidian sect, originally an offshoot of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, had been on its land outside Waco for nearly 60 years when young Vernon Howell took it over in the aftermath of a 1987 armed raid. He luckily escaped conviction, changed his name to David Koresh (telling his followers that Koresh meant “death”), and assumed the role of prophet. A few years later, a confrontation with federal authorities led to a six week siege that ended with the complete destruction by fire of the compound as tanks rolled in with tear gas, killing Koresh and 75 other Branch Davidians inside.
The conspiracy theories came thick and fast. The most prominent were popularized by a pair of independent filmmakers, Linda Thompson (who was a full-throttle conspiracy theorist best known for her film Waco: The Big Lie) and Mike McNulty (who was more measured, and received an Academy Award nomination for Waco: The Rules of Engagement). We’ll take a look at the two most commonly repeated claims:
This ancient order of knights, cloaked in mystery and intrigue, find their way into more of today’s movies and novels than just about any other famous characters. For a fair summary of the degree to which made-up Knights Templar mythology has permeated pop culture, one need look no further than the History Channel, the world’s central warehouse of sensationalized pseudohistory. They’ve cast the Templars in some shadowy overlord capacity in just about every phase of human history. They’ve involved them in the Oak Island Money Pit, a sinkhole discovered in Nova Scotia in 1795; inexplicably entangled them with various alleged pirate treasures; with ciphers pretended to exist on the tomb of Jesus; with modern day Freemasons, separated by four centuries; and granted them fantastic treasures that they discovered buried beneath the Temple of Solomon and have kept secretly hidden ever since — and various described as either the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, the Shroud of Turin, or even all three.
These, and many more veins of Templar mythology, all extend from the mother lode: the 1982 book Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, best known today as Dan Brown’s main inspiration for The Da Vinci Code, in which he cast the Templars as guardians of the secret that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife. But although Holy Blood, Holy Grail is clearly the main influence of today’s Templar mythology to which The History Channel owes so much of its programming, it was not the first to employ them in fiction. Sir Walter Scott used Templars for a number of characters in his 1820 novel Ivanhoe, which is set when the Templars existed, but heavily fictionalizes who they were and what they did. A number of French authors picked up this theme, most notably Maurice Druon, whose series of seven novels have been cited by modern author George R. R. Martin as his original inspiration for his series A Song of Ice and Fire and the HBO series Game of Thrones. Yes, the Templars, willingly or not, have had a massive impact on modern popular mythology.
So for now, that’s enough of asserting that everything we’ve heard about the Knights Templar is fiction, and it’s time to now look at their true history.
Also See: Knights Templar (wikipedia)
Russian test subjects are said to have done unspeakably horrible things when sleep deprived.
It has become a permanent fixture in the fabric of Internet lore: the Russian Sleep Experiment, an account of a horrific experiment said to have been conducted in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. The subjects were five political prisoners, placed into a sealed chamber and exposed to a gas which prevented them from sleeping. After fifteen days the researchers entered the chamber, and found the men — sleep deprived beyond any human experience — had committed horrors that could scarcely be conceived. Today we’re going to look into the story, and into the facts of sleep deprivation. Might something as grotesque as the Russian Sleep Experiment truly be within the scope of human possibility?
According to the story, the researchers cleared the gas from the chamber and entered, finding one of the five men dead:
The food rations past day 5 had not been so much as touched. There were chunks of meat from the dead test subject’s thighs and chest stuffed into the drain in the center of the chamber… All four ‘surviving’ test subjects also had large portions of muscle and skin torn away from their bodies. The destruction of flesh and exposed bone on their finger tips indicated that the wounds were inflicted by hand…
The abdominal organs below the ribcage of all four test subjects had been removed. While the heart, lungs and diaphragm remained in place, the skin and most of the muscles attached to the ribs had been ripped off, exposing the lungs through the ribcage. All the blood vessels and organs remained intact, they had just been taken out and laid on the floor, fanning out around the eviscerated but still living bodies of the subjects. The digestive tract of all four could be seen to be working, digesting food. It quickly became apparent that what they were digesting was their own flesh that they had ripped off and eaten over the course of days.
Those questioning whether or not this was a true story didn’t have to do very much work. It’s a widely published fact that the Russian Sleep Experiment was a piece of fiction, posted anonymously in 2010 to Creepy Pasta, a web site that showcases scary fictional tales. Despite this, there are always conspiracy minded people insistent that the story is true, or was leaked from some secret government lab; but no matter how strong their desire that this be the case, nobody has ever turned up anything like that. Sometimes a creepy story is just a creepy story.
Questioning whether this new spa treatment provides all the medical benefits it claims.
One of our most abundant renewable resources is bogus medical therapies. About every day, someone thinks up a new one: sometimes invented from whole cloth, sometimes extrapolated from a real therapy, sometimes tweaked from an old tradition. Today we’re going to look closely at one such spin-the-wheel-and-create-an-alternate-therapy: cryotherapy.
Don’t confuse this with medical cryotherapy, the freezing off of tissue, usually called cryoablation. Alternative cryotherapy is a hijack of an actual medical term repurposed to refer to the use of what they call a cryosauna, the opposite of a regular sauna. Rather than applying ice to a specific body part, a cryosauna is used for what they call Whole Body Cryotherapy. It’s a small room for one or more people, cooled by liquid nitrogen to extreme temperatures, usually about -125°C/-200°F but sometimes advertised as low as -170°C/-275°F. You have to wear special slippers to protect your feet since you can’t touch anything in there, and you have to wear a mask to avoid frostbite to your pulmonary system. You stay in for no more than three minutes.
What is the medical claim? Unfortunately, as it is with so many alternative therapies, cryosaunas are claimed to cure just about anything the proprietor says, and they all have different spiels. Most all of them say it treats inflammation, skin conditions, and aids in workout recovery. There are several spas, plus chiropractors and other alternative practitioners near me who offer cryotherapy, according to Yelp.
Almost all of the customer reviews are raving. Here are some samples:
“My inflammation almost immediately decreased and I felt a huge wave of euphoria similar to a runner’s high.”
“Felt great afterwards. Will try again to see if I have any lasting effects.”
“I feel euphorically energized after each session and I have noticed that my tendinitis has gotten better after 2 sessions.”
“I feel so good afterwards. I can tell this cryotherapy is helping to heal my body!”
Why do these people feel so good unless there’s something to cryosauna therapy? Is it possible their reaction comes from something other than genuine treatment of some medical condition? The evidence shows that it probably is.
Biblical prophecy watchers, apocalypse predictors, rapture preachers, and doomsday preppers are buzzing about an upcoming day that might finally usher in the End of the World As We Know It: September 23, 2015. This is supposedly the day that a confluence of events, both political and scientific, is going to herald the destruction of humanity.
It’s clear that in prophecy circles, this is a big deal. A search for “September 23 2015 apocalypse” brings up 11 million hits. References to the “events of September, 2015” are all over major conspiracy websites, talking about everything from rapture to asteroids to aliens to Biblical blood moons. YouTube is brimming with videos showing “the signs” of what’s about to happen. Even Isaac Newton is said to have prophesied the end of the world for this date.
So what’s going to happen that day? What are the sources of these prophecies? And most importantly, should you be worried?
Let’s start with what’s being predicted for September 23, 2015 – and for September 2015 in general. According to various conspiracy, prophecy, and prepping websites, the following things will happen on the date itself:
- Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
- President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with Pope Francis at the White House. Of note is that Francis is the 266th Pope, September 23 is the 266th day of the year, and the average length of human gestation is 266 days.
- The Autumnal Equinox.
- The First day of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, also known as “the Feast of the Sacrifice.”
If you add in days either just before or just after 9/23/15, you also get a number of apocalyptic events:
- A range of dates that Comet 67P is scheduled to make an extremely close passage of Earth, September 15-28.
- The September restart of the CERN Large Hadron Collider will open a portal to another dimension.
- The end of Jade Helm 15 on September 15.
- The September 25th launch of a new UN initiative, Agenda 2030, which signals the end stage of Agenda 21 implementation.
- The date of the last of the “Four Blood Moons” heralding the End Times, on September 28.
- The approximate date of predicted economic collapse.
- The end of a Shemitah year in the Jewish Calendar, the last year of the seven year agricultural cycle, that traditionally brings with it great tribulation.
All of these events have been prophesied to form a combination that will bring on the End Times. What are the sources of these predictions?
- The obvious confluence of the three major world religions on September 23.
- Biblical prophecy, specifically the “Four Blood Moons” prophecy.
- The End Times prophecy of Sir Isaac Newton.
- A dire warning from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who claimed on May 13, 2014 that we have “500 days to avoid climate chaos.” 500 days after May 13, 2014 is September 24, 2015.
- Prophetic dreams and visions by people attuned to such things.
- Predictive programming in Hollywood entertainment – specifically, many uses of the numbers “9” and “23” in films and TV.
If all of this is correct, September 2015 is going to be a spectacularly bad month for humanity, with climactic, scientific, economic, and godly chaos brought down upon us. So stock up on beans, guns, and guns that shoot beans, because we’re in for it.
Except skeptics don’t think like this. We don’t see omens and prophecy and rumor, grab our bug-out bags and head for the bunker. We grab our facts and head for the…facts bunker.
Let’s start with these events of September 23 itself.
Are certain, specific sonic frequencies the key to love, intuition, and spiritual order? Do the sounds we hear have a real physiological effect?
First, their claims. The idea is that certain notes found in ancient music have special uses. Pitches, or notes, are described in Hertz (abbreviated Hz), which is their frequency in cycles per second.
For example, one of the special Solfeggio frequencies is said to be 396 Hz. It sounds like this. [396 Hz] Named UT, it is supposed to be good for “liberating guilt and fear”.
Next is the one called RE, at 417 Hz. [417 Hz] This is good for “undoing situations and facilitating change”.
Impressed? Wait until you hear MI, at 528 Hz. It does “transformation and miracles”, including DNA repair. [528 Hz]
FA, at 629 Hz, is for “connecting and relationships”. [629 Hz]
SOL, at 741 Hz is for “awakening intuition”. [741 Hz]
And LA, at 852 Hz, is for “returning to spiritual order”. [852 Hz]
Now, you may have noticed a couple of patterns. One is that, just like most other woo-y, New Age modalities, the claims are all very breezy and unspecific. If they remind you a little of Deepak Chopra that’s not exactly an accident. Some of the web pages promoting Solfeggio Frequencies use his confused misinterpretations of quantum physics for support.
You may recall from Skeptoid #431 how acupuncture proponents can’t even decide how many meridians exist, nor where they are. Similarly, when we dig into Solfeggio Frequencies there are disagreements. One proponent says that the key frequency is not 417, [417 Hz] but 432 Hz. [432 Hz] Further, he claims that this “purest” of sounds is the same frequency to which both the great pyramids of Giza and the Sun itself are tuned.
Yet another proponent says 528 Hz [528 Hz] is the “love frequency” that not only repairs DNA but can “raise the vibration in our chakra system”. There’s no evidence for a chakra system, and this odd use of the word “vibration” resonates more with woo than science.
In fact, if I play the Solfeggio Frequencies as specified on most of the web sites, the scale sounds a little out of tune. [Solfeggio Mystic Hexachord]
As is typical of woo, proponents make an appeal to antiquity. What makes these notes special, you see, is that they come from a medieval Gregorian chant to John the Baptist. It’s one of those things the ancients “just understood.” But, in modern times, our music was retuned to 440 Hz  and the secret was lost. Or hidden on purpose, depending on who you read. Some even blame the change, darkly, on a Nazi plot.
Some say alien spacecraft are tested at Nevada’s legendary Area 51 site; what does history have to say?
Today we’re going to soar above the alkaline flats of the Nevada desert at speeds in excess of Mach 3, banking and weaving among the peaks, and come in for a landing at runway 32R at airport designation KXTA. We’re inside the restricted airspace of the Nevada Test and Training Range, operated from nearby Nellis Air Force Base. Commonly called Area 51 by the general public, this well-developed base on the shore of dry Groom Lake is one of the most famous mystery sites in the world, shrouded in rumor and wild claims of aliens and conspiracies.
In 2001, two friends and I took a Cessna Skyhawk from Las Vegas to Tonopah, closely skirting the border of the restricted airspace surrounding Nellis AFB. This happened to be just prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, at which time the restricted airspace was greatly expanded, and the route that we took then is no longer possible today. But at the time, flying past the radar facility atop Bald Mountain, we were able to legally look right down into Groom Lake, and took plenty of photographs and video. We were contacted by the air traffic control tower at Groom Lake, which was plainly visible from our position, and he asked us what our destination was. We told him Tonopah, and he asked if we’d like him to give us a direct vector to Tonopah. This was his way of saying “Maybe you’d like to veer away and go straight to Tonopah rather than hugging our border.” But as we weren’t doing anything wrong, we declined his offer and finished out our original flight plan. We saw a number of other landing strips scattered about inside Nellis, but none that were as well developed as Groom Lake.
Why were we able to do this, at a base that everyone believes is so top-secret? Everyone says the government denies its existence or that it doesn’t appear on maps. There is indeed one very big secret at Area 51. In the words of Joerg Arnu, founder of the Dreamland Resort web site: “The biggest secret about Area 51 is that it was never secret.”
In late 1950, the United States Atomic Energy Commission established the National Proving Grounds for the testing of nuclear devices, inside the Las Vegas Gunnery and Bombing Range. This huge area was subdivided into parcels called simply Area 1, Area 2, and so on; and only those Areas from 1 to 30 became a final part of the project. Area 51 was merely a leftover piece of land among many others.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s Project AQUATONE had resulted in the design of what would become the U-2 spy plane, but for security reasons, they wanted someplace more private than Edwards Air Force Base to develop it. In 1955, a team led by Lockheed’s chief designer, the legendary Kelly Johnson, flew around Nevada looking for an alternate site. They found one inside Area 51: the dry Groom Lake, which they described as “A perfect natural landing field… as smooth as a billiard table without anything being done to it.”
Security and confidentiality have been constant throughout Groom Lake’s history. Nobody outside the base has ever had access to whatever work was being done inside, and for a long time, everything that had ever happened there was classified. So conditions were ripe in 1989 when a guy named Bob Lazar told a Las Vegas television reporter that he’d been working there for the past year, reverse engineering alien spacecraft to learn how they worked. For years, Lazar enjoyed a good run of television guest appearances and other publicity.
A lot of people in the UFO community really wanted to believe Lazar’s story, as it so perfectly confirmed their conviction that aliens visit the Earth and that the government covers it up. But everyone who seriously fact-checked Lazar’s claims . . .
Does Agenda 21 want to save the world or take it over?
“Agenda 21.” Well it certainly sounds ominous. Someone has an agenda, and if this is the 21st, are there 20 others that we aren’t in on? And just look at Agenda 21’s goals – nothing short of a global shift in thinking that aims to put the way we live on planet Earth on a whole new footing. It does this by providing certain… plans guiding the actions of political leaders on every level, even in your neighborhood.
On its surface, Agenda 21’s goals are hard to fault. It purports to provide a framework for stewarding the environment and bettering the human condition on an enduring basis, all while protecting liberty.
Agenda 21 repeatedly affirms “freedom, dignity and personally held values,” emphasizing personal wealth, improving the health of women and children, protecting cultural and natural assets and keeping the world’s economy stable into the future. That cryptic number 21 simply refers to the 21st century. What’s not to like?
Well, with a name right out of a Robert Ludlum political thriller, Agenda 21 is also something of a conspiracy theory toolkit. It’s backed by the dreaded United Nations, proposes wealth leveling with developing countries, an array of ambitious environmental goals and loads of other changes to traditional ways of doing things, all riding in on a raft of politically charged terminology.
The 300-page document uses the word “sustainable” 647 times and “environment” more than a thousand. The word “science,” by the way, gets 64 mentions, including index entries.
The potential for rhetorical redefinition hasn’t been overlooked by today’s hyperpartisan political writers and politicos. As an unintended consequence of the document, critics have figuratively deforested Earth to create millions of books exposing Agenda 21’s hidden agenda.
Does Agenda 21 forward the framework for a new era of international cooperation and perpetual prosperity for all, or is it really a sinister trick to take away our rights, abolish private property, squash our freedoms, destroy American sovereignty and usher the world into a dark age of dystopian eco-dictatorship?
Do alien visitors really abduct and mutilate unsuspecting ungulates?
It’s three in the morning on a cattle ranch somewhere in Texas. Bessie the cow is half-asleep, mindlessly chewing cud. her ears twitching at flies as she dozes. Suddenly, she is bathed in a cold, bright light from above. She finds her hooves dangling beneath her as she’s hoisted from the ground by an unknown force. She lets out a plaintive moo as she disappears into the strange, alien craft that had been hovering above her. A week later, Rancher Bob stumbles upon the remains of poor Bessie. His prize cow has been skinned, her organs absconded with and her remains discarded in the very pasture where she once grazed.
For many, the above scenario is all too believable. They fear that extraterrestrial spaceships are kidnapping unsuspecting ungulates, conducting horrid vivisections, and then dumping the bodies. The phenomenon is called cattle mutilation, and it is a common part of the modern paranormal lore.
A typical cattle mutilation story begins when the remains of a victim animal have been discovered. Most commonly, these remains have been found in some open field by a rancher, farmer, or other unlucky individual. The animal in question is commonly reported to have been in good health just days prior to the discovery, so the death is unexpected and “natural causes” seems unlikely.
The body itself appears to have been mutilated after death. Oftentimes, external body parts are missing, such as the ears, the eyes, the sex organs, or the tongue; in some cases flesh even appears to have been stripped off of the skull. Witnesses insist that the edges of the wounds are smooth and clean, as though done with a surgeon’s scalpel. A scalpel also appears to have split open the stomach of many animals, and internal organs have been removed. A conspicuous absence of blood is another common feature. Always, the witnesses claim that there are no footprints, tire tracks, or scavenger prints leading either towards or away from the body. The death is a mystery, and foul play of some kind is assumed.
The phenomenon does happen; a simple Google Image search for “cattle mutilation” will bring up endless gruesome images of cattle, sheep, and other victim animals with their lips stripped from their teeth, their eye sockets staring out from circles of excised flesh, their bellies open. The question is, how does it happen, and who — or what — is responsible for the condition of the remains?
The history of ghost photography and its many problems as evidence.
In books promising you a glimpse of the beyond you find page after page of chilling photographic evidence that spirits of the dead walk the earth! A ghostly baby sits on a grave. A translucent figure descends a staircase. A childs face emerges from the flames of a devastating fire. Do these photographs offer real glimpses of ghosts? Or is there a more rational explanation for ghost photography? Let’s expose these mysterious images to the light of science and see what develops.
The history of ghost photography is closely tied to the history of photography itself. Early photography was much like all new technology in that enthusiasts had to become skilled with the various equipment and chemicals required for producing images. Before the invention of photographic film the photographers worked with chemically treated glass plates which could be cleaned and re-used to make new images. Early photographers were often running small businesses, using their photography to make portraits for 19th century families. Because of the bulk of their equipment, most worked in small studios rather than moving their equipment about. Sittings were arranged and paid for. The expensive glass plates were often cleaned and re-used, but if not cleaned properly the remnants of the old image could be seen in subsequent photos. This method of producing multiple exposures was certainly widely known within the field by the photographers, but was not well understood by the general public.
Before we dive into the story of the early spirit photographers, it is important to talk about the cultural stage upon which they performed. The spread of photography was happening simultaneous to the rise of a new religion or belief system called “Spiritualism.” The main ideas of spiritualism centered around the belief that the dead continue to exist as spirits and maintain their consciousness here on earth after they’ve died. Interaction with these spirits was said to be possible through the use of psychics or mediums. Spiritualism began in the 1840s and grew through the early 20th century, attracting millions of followers and adherents. In the wake of this growing movement, ideas such as parlor seances grew very popular and it was quite easy to find people who openly believed in spirits as a scientific reality.A large population of people seeking proof of life after death made it possible for a robust network of mediums to set up shop in the north east of the United States. It was in this environment that Boston photographer William Mumler introduced spirit photography to a community eager for more proof of life after death.
Mumler had been a jewelry engraver before he began his new career as a spirit photographer with a single photo which he alleged showed the image of one of his deceased relatives who had died several years before his self portrait was taken. In a time when photography was already an expensive proposition for a family looking for a portrait, Mumler was able to fetch several times the normal cost of a traditional photograph for one of his special portraits which would show a ghostly image of some alleged dead loved one along with the mundane image of the living subject.
How would he accomplish this? How did he fool people with his blurry but easy to reproduce multiple exposure photographs? It was a success for him because . . .