The world-wide appetite for paranormal stories is a magnet for hoaxes. Some hoaxes are simply light-hearted fun but others have more serious consequences such as contaminating genuine research, wasting public money and destroying careers. Love them or hate them, here is our pick of the top ten paranormal hoaxes of all time […] …
# 10 • King Tut’s Curse
When Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered early in the 20th Century, a curse was found inscribed over the entrance: “Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the king”. Before long, stories were being told about unnatural deaths of workers on the site. “King Tut’s Curse” eventually found its way into popular culture and set the stage for a whole sub-genre of horror stories and movies.
In 1980 the security officer for the original excavation site admitted that stories had been circulated to scare away thieves. Historical records show that most excavation workers went on to lead long and healthy lives.
# 9 • The Cottingley Fairies
In 1917 and 1920, young English cousins Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith produced a series of photographs depicting themselves interacting with fairies. In modern times it is hard to imagine how anyone could be fooled by these obvious fakes, but in the early 20th Century they were convincing enough to attract a huge following and dupe such notables as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
It was not until 1981 that Wright and Griffith admitted the hoax, although they continued to claim that they had indeed seen fairies and that one of the photos was genuine.
More info: The Cottingley Fairies
# 8 • The Cardiff Giant
In 1869, workers digging a well in Cardiff, New York, uncovered what appeared to be the petrified remains of a giant 3-metre (10-foot) man. Archaeologists declared the body to be fake but the public reaction was more accepting, especially among those who considered it evidence in support of biblical history. The body became a business asset as crowds paid for a glimpse. Showman P.T. Barnum tried to acquire the body but eventually made his own replica, causing additional controversy over which was the genuine giant.
In December 1869, tobacconist George Hull confessed to the hoax. The body was sculpted from concrete and buried a year prior to the well-digging.
# 7 • Uri Geller’s Spoon-Bending
During the 1970s Uri Geller enjoyed huge success with his mentalism acts, based largely on his alleged ability to bend spoons with his mind. Geller staunchly defended his claim to supernatural powers until hard evidence finally caught up with him. A 1982 book by James Randi exposed Geller’s tricks, and Geller was caught numerous times on camera manipulating stage props (e.g. pre-bending spoons). He has since earned a reputation for frivolous litigation after a series of failed lawsuits—mostly against people who publish unflattering material about him.
Despite never officially “outing” himself, Geller has tacitly confessed to the hoax. In 2007 he expressed the following change of heart: “I’ll no longer say that I have supernatural powers. I am an entertainer….My entire character has changed.”
More info: Uri Geller
#6 • The Amityville Horror
In 1974 Ronald DeFeo Jr shot and killed six members of his family in Amityville, New York. A year later the Lutz family moved in, only to move out 28 days later claiming they had been terrorized by ghostly presences. Their story became a best-selling book by Jay Anson and the basis of a series of films. The franchise has been highly successful, banking on the claim of being a true, verifiable story.
On closer investigation, however, it seems that not much if any of the story can be verified. Police and other records contradict the book’s account and many holes have been found in the story. In 1979, lawyer William Weber claimed: “I know this book is a hoax. We created this horror story over many bottles of wine.”
Can people move or alter physical objects simply by using a hidden power of the mind called psychokinesis? I have encountered many claims of such powers in the course of my work (since 1969) as a paranormal investigator. And I have pretended to have such ability myself—both as a professional stage magician and mentalist (a magician specializing in apparent psychic feats). In the fall of 2012, I attended a workshop that enabled me to investigate the latest popular expression of psychokinetic metal bending.
The term psychokinesis (formerly telekinesis), or PK, derives from the Greek words for “mind” and “motion.” Together with extrasensory perception (ESP), it constitutes what parapsychologists refer to as “psi” to describe the two seemingly closely related phenomena. However, the existence of psi has never been proven and, indeed, according to a sympathetic source: “Despite decades of research, psi continues to elude physical and quasi-physical theories of how it functions; it operates outside the bounds of time and space” (Guiley 1991, 468).
PK describes the alleged power of mind over matter, including such “micro-PK” acts as subtly influencing how thrown dice will land, or “macro-PK” feats like levitating a table or producing so-called “poltergeist” effects (actually, typically the tricks of children1). Psychokinetic metal bending is another alleged macro-PK phenomenon.
Geller the PK Marvel
It appears that the first major performer of apparent PK metal bending (PK-MB) was Israeli-born former fashion model and nightclub magician, Uri Geller (b. 1946) (Figure 1). Claiming to be guided by super beings from a distant planet, Geller appeared to read minds, bend keys and cutlery with PK, see while blindfolded, and perform other feats—all of which skilled magicians easily duplicate. (I, for example, have driven a car while blindfolded [Nickell with Fischer 1992, 77].) He typically refused to perform when magicians were observing but, nevertheless, was occasionally caught cheating.
Renowned American magician and psychic investigator James “The Amazing” Randi once observed Geller up close. Posing as an editor when Geller performed in the offices of Time magazine, Randi saw the simple tricks behind Geller’s wonderworking. For example, while Geller pretended to cover his eyes as a secretary made a simple drawing, he actually peeked, thus enabling him to appear to read her mind and reproduce the drawing. Again, while supposedly bending a key “by concentration,” Geller had instead bent it against a table when he thought he was unobserved. (For more on Geller’s methods, see Randi 1982.)
Geller was soon imitated by other “psychics” who discovered that they, too, could bend keys and spoons. One was Judy Knowles, who impressed London physics professor and parapsychologist John Hasted with her apparent ability. Hasted invited James Randi to observe tests of Knowles in a lab at Bath. Randi arrived with colleagues and his checkbook, offering Ms. Knowles $10,000 if she successfully passed the test, which was designed by Harry Collins of the University of Bath. Collins had tested other spoon benders, but none had been successful, and some children had been caught cheating.
Briefly, the test involved Knowles holding the spoon in a . . .
By Jamy Iam Swiss via randi.org
The secret is out: professional storefront psychics are mostly comprised of fakes, frauds, cheats, and con artists. Step into a psychic storefront – especially in New York City or Southern Florida where organized criminal elements of the Romani (gypsy) culture is a significant presence – at your own extreme risk.
Well, maybe that doesn’t seem like a secret to many skeptics, but the fact is that since the inception of the modern skeptic movement, skeptics have pursued and possessed specialized knowledge in the realm of paranormal claims such as psychic phenomena. Of course, skeptics are interested in a vast panoply of pseudoscience – a glance down the list of subjects at the Skeptic’s Dictionary [skepdic.com] will produce an alphabetical list of nonsense, from the doofus to the deadly, “From Abracadabra to Zombies,” as it says on the home page.
But the paranormal is a special area of interest and expertise, partly because of the so-called science of parapsychology, which for more than a century-and-a-half has attempted to establish the existence of psychic phenomena in the laboratory. Unfortunately, this science has yet to produce so much as a single replicable, paradigmatic experiment (as compared with even a “soft science” like psychology which has hundreds of such examples that can be readily replicated by new students and scientists alike).
Another reason for this interest is the role of magicians in the skeptic movement, who themselves possess specialized knowledge not only of deception and illusion in general but also in particular of the methods of psychics, which often encompass techniques that magicians and particularly “mentalists” routinely use in their own work. Thus the magician has been a key player in parapsychology investigation since the first committee on psychical research was organized by “Scientific American” magazine, with Harry Houdini as a member.
And finally – surely far from least – there is the terrible predation and damage that professional psychics do. Whether it is a television talk-to-the-dead medium who entraps people in their grief rather than helping them to return eventually, as they must, to the normal living of their own lives, despite the loss of their loved ones – or professional storefront fortunetellers-and-takers who use their traditional finely honed psychological weaponry to rob people of their dignity and self-respect, their self-control, and often their life savings.
In 1993, the “Nova” television series devoted an entire program, entitled “Secrets of the Psychics,” to James Randi and his work as a psychic investigator and consumer protection advocate. Although this episode of the famous science documentary series has been available in various recorded forms, including in segments on YouTube, the program has just been posted in its entirety [here (illuminutti.com) and] here.
The show covers the gamut of psychic claims, and Randi’s investigations and insights. He looks at Russian psychics who claim to be able to gain special knowledge about a person just from examining a photograph. He tries to test specially psychically altered water, which seems to (rather hilariously) possess the special quality of being untestable. He looks at claims of the alleged psychic power to alter people’s blood pressure and brain waves. The program provides a synopsis of Randi’s legendary investigation of the faith healer Peter Popoff, and also provides a useful overview of Randi’s debunkings of Uri Geller during Geller’s metal-bending heydays.
Oh, and a young long-haired magician with a waxed moustache offers a brief original demonstration of psychokinesis in the first three minutes of the show. Go take a look!
The show is twenty years old but its principles and subjects are as fresh as today’s headlines, and literally so.
- (Psychic) Staring Effect (illuminutti.com)
- Whatever Happened to Parapsychology? (illuminutti.com)
- Mediums, Psychics – Snakeoil Salesmen (illuminutti.com)
- Psychic Secrets (randi.org)
- A History of Parapsychology and Psychical Research by George Hansen (disclose.tv)
- James Randi exposes Uri Geller and Peter Popoff (ritholtz.com)
This program is not to be confused with a later UK documentary Secrets of the Psychics, which was transmitted under this title as well as Secrets of the Super Psychics.
- Psychics and Alternative Medicine Practitioners: Who is worse? (illuminutti.com)
- Whatever Happened to Parapsychology? (illuminutti.com)
- James Randi exposes Uri Geller and Peter Popoff (ritholtz.com)
- Psychic Sally? (paranormalee.wordpress.com)
- Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns, and Other Delusions read online (iydifusu.wordpress.com)
- Newsweek Features James Randi and The Amazing Meeting in Latest Issue (patheos.com)
- James Randi (renjiveda.wordpress.com)
- What magicians can teach scientists about skepticism – NewsWorks (richarddawkins.net)
- James Randi, The Amazing Meeting, and the Bullshit Police – Newsweek and The Daily Beast (richarddawkins.net)
Last week, the British newspaper, “The Daily Mail,” acquiesced in the face of a lawsuit filed by Sally Morgan, aka “Psychic Sally,” a talk-to-the dead medium and self-styled professional psychic. The paper agreed to pay £125,000 in libel damages and issued a full apology for running a story written by the British magician, Paul Zenon, which alleged that Ms. Morgan had relied upon concealed electronics in order to gain information used in a public performance of psychic readings and mediumship.
Obviously this is a tremendous disappointment to skeptics everywhere, because many in the general public will take the judgment as some kind of evidence that Morgan is genuinely psychic. Of course there is no basis in the judgment for such an interpretation because the case was purely about whether the paper could prove that Morgan had used the alleged radio devices and hidden earpieces to gain information about her subjects. The case began when two women who were at the show in question later called into a local radio talk show and claimed they heard Morgan repeating information that they overheard in transmissions from the production crew’s headsets. Morgan immediately denied the charges and the venue eventually announced that the crew in question was a local house crew that was not on Morgan’s payroll.
Given what we know of the British libel system, albeit very recently reformed and legally improved, we might speculate that the paper decided that it was less costly to settle now rather than pursue the case in the courts, with an uncertain outcome. Then again, with the theater confirming that the crew in question was not in Morgan’s employ, it does seem quite conceivable that the assumptions made by the women callers were in error. It is simply sad to see someone who makes their living on the dubious claims of Ms. Morgan ends up being further rewarded beyond the already grotesque sums she makes portraying herself as a communicator with the dead relatives of grieving supplicants.
But I think there are also lessons to be had for skeptics in these events, beyond thoughts about the British libel system.
Skeptics – even skeptical magicians – can and have often been misled by their own complex theories about how phony psychics ply their trade. When Uri Geller first came on the scene, the noted magician and author Milbourne Christopher theorized that Geller was using corrosive chemicals on his hands in order to achieve his “psychic” spoon-bending. Christopher was an expert magician and a skeptic, but he was fooled by Geller, and concocted an elaborate but completely mistaken theory in order to fill the gap in his knowledge and understanding.
Similarly, the two women who thought that Sally Morgan was getting inside information relayed by her crew were doubtless sincere in their theorizing, perhaps because they did not believe that Morgan was psychic, but could not explain how she was achieving success with her readings.
- Psychic Sally Damages (In More Ways Than One) (randi.org)
- Sally Morgan Libel Suit (theness.com)
- British Psychic TV Channels Fined For Not Telling Viewers It’s All B.S. (illuminutti.com)
In a nutshell: ESP stands for extrasensory perception. If you had ESP, you could see, feel, or hear things without using your eyes, hands, or ears. There are some scientists who say they have proof of ESP, but most scientists think the proof is weak and does not support a belief in ESP.
ESP stands for extrasensory perception.
Sensory perception is seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, or tasting. Extrasensory perception is when you see or hear something that can’t be seen or heard with your eyes and ears. Such experiences happen outside the normal range of the senses and are said to be paranormal or psychic. Most scientists don’t think paranormal events actually happen or that anyone is actually psychic.
If you had ESP, you could see, feel, or hear things without using your eyes, hands, or ears. Somehow your brain would get messages and images from distant places and distant times. If your brain confused you with perceptions from the past and from places far away while you were trying to get dressed, eat breakfast, get on the school bus, pay attention in class, or do your homework, you would have a very hard time making it through the day. As far as we know, this has never happened to anybody.
mind reading or telepathy
Mind reading is a type of ESP where a person “sees” what is in another person’s mind. Mind reading is also called telepathy. The scientific study of telepathy began over one hundred twenty years ago when it was called psychical research. Today, scientists who study ESP are called parapsychologists and their science is called parapsychology. (Psychical comes from the Greek word for spirit. Many parapsychologists say the mind is a spirit.)
The first scientific test of telepathy was done in England in 1882. Scientists at the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) tested several young girls who said that they could tell what each other was thinking. The scientists put the girls in different rooms and asked those in one room about a card or name of a person that a girl in the other room was thinking of. Many tests were given over a period of six years. The scientists said there was no way the girls could have got as many right answers as they did just by guessing. The scientists also said they were sure the girls weren’t cheating. The scientists agreed that the girls were reading each other’s minds. The scientists were right about one thing. The girls couldn’t have gotten as many right answers as they did just by guessing. But the scientists were wrong about the cheating. The girls—the Creery sisters and their servant Jane Dean—admitted they cheated by using secret signals. This wasn’t the first time, and it wouldn’t be the last time, that children would fool scientists.
In 1848 two sisters, Kate Fox (age 12) and Margaretta Fox (15), said they heard strange rapping noises in their bedroom. They got people to believe that they were getting messages from spirits. Soon they went on tour with their big sister Leah who was in her mid-30s. They did séances, which became the rage in both the U.S. and Europe. In 1871, the Fox sisters fooled Sir William Crookes (1832-1919), an important scientist who attended a Fox-girls séance in London. Sir William said he tested the girls “in every way that I could devise” and was sure they were not producing the rapping noises “by trickery or mechanical means.” In 1888 the sisters confessed that they made the raps by cracking their toe-joints. They made bumping noises by fastening an apple to a string under their petticoats and bouncing it off the floor.
From 1979-1983, two teenagers tricked scientist Peter Phillips into thinking they were able to move and bend objects by their thoughts, a power known as psychokinesis. (Psychokinesis comes from two Greek words meaning mind or spirit and movement. Psychokinesis, when it involves moving an object with mental power alone, is called telekinesis, literally distant-movement.) Steve Shaw (18) and Mike Edwards (17) fooled the scientist for four years through more than 160 hours of tests. One of their favorite tricks was to pretend to bend a spoon or fork with thoughts, a trick made popular by Uri Geller. Geller, however, claimed that he had psychokinetic powers. At one time, he claimed he got his powers from the planet “Hoova” in another star system and a UFO called “IS” or “Intelligence in the Sky.”
Skeptics don’t think there is good evidence that anyone has moved even a pencil across a table using only the power of thought. Psychokinesis nearly always involves trickery, though we might occasionally think we caused something to happen when it happens right after we thought about it happening. If you point to the sky during a rain storm and say “let there be lightning” and then a lightning bolt shoots across the sky, you might think you caused it. You’d probably be wrong.
Here he is exposed as a fraud by none other than James Randi:
It was soon after this appearance on That’s My Line Hydrick confessed the fraud to an investigative reporter.
Uri Geller’s Tonight Show failure (courtesy of James Randi):
Also see: Top 10 Psychic Debunkings
- Remote Viewing (illuminutti.com)
- Why the Power of Mind Over Matter is Important (secretsofthefed.com)
- Remote Viewing Pioneer Russell Targ Describes The Origins Of ESP Powers (disinfo.com)
- Uri Geller Psychic Spy? (zen-haven.com)
- Is TELEPATHY Still Considered a Fiction? (joseasanoj.wordpress.com)
- Types of Psychic Abilities (psychicwebinfo.wordpress.com)
- Proof of Psychic Ability and ESP with Physicist Dr. Russell Targ (truthfrequencyradio.com)
- Uri Geller was CIA spy, documentary says (jta.org)
There are several claimed types of psychic powers, including precognition (knowing future events before they happen); pyrokinesis (creating fire with the mind, popularized in Stephen King’s novel and film “Firestarter”); and telepathy (describing things at a remote location). Among the most dramatic of these is telekinesis (also called psychokinesis, or PK), the ability to move objects through mind power. Though many Americans believe in psychic ability (about 15 percent of us, according to a 2005 Baylor Religion Survey), scientific evidence for its existence remains elusive.
History of telekinesis
The idea of people being able to move objects through mind power alone has intrigued people for centuries, though only in the late 1800s was it seen as an ability that might be scientifically demonstrated. This occurred during the heyday of the early religion Spiritualism, when psychic mediums claimed to contact the dead during séances, and objects would suddenly and mysteriously move, float, or fly by themselves across the darkened room, seemingly untouched by human hands. Sometimes small tables would tip or levitate, disturbed either by unseen spirits or the psychic’s mind.
Though many people were convinced — including, ironically, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes — it was all a hoax. Fraudulent psychics resorted to trickery, using everything from hidden wires to black-clad accomplices to make objects appear to move untouched. Magician Harry Houdini investigated and exposed many fake mediums, and even wrote a book about it titled “Miracle Mongers and Their Methods.”
As the public slowly grew wise to the faked telekinesis, the phenomenon faded from view. It was revived again in the 1930s and 1940s, when a researcher at Duke University named J.B. Rhine became interested in the idea that people could affect the outcome of random events using their minds. Rhine began with tests of dice rolls, asking subjects to influence the outcome through the power of their minds.
Though his results were mixed and the effects were small, they were enough to convince him that there was something mysterious going on. Unfortunately for Rhine, other researchers failed to duplicate his findings, and many errors were found in his methods.
A few decades later, in the 1970s, a man named Uri Geller became the world’s best-known psychic and made millions traveling the world demonstrating his claimed psychokinetic abilities including starting broken watches and bending spoons. Though he denied using magic tricks, many skeptical researchers observed that all of Geller’s amazing feats could be — and have been — duplicated by magicians. In 1976, several children who claimed to be able to bend spoons with their minds were tested in controlled experiments at the University of Bath in England. At first the results seemed promising, and experimenters believed they might finally have found real scientific evidence of psychokinesis. However the children were caught cheating on hidden cameras, physically bending spoons with their hands when they thought no one was watching.
“If Uri Geller bends spoons with divine powers, then he’s doing it the hard way.” —James Randi
“Because a good magician can do something shouldn’t make you right away jump to the conclusion that it’s a real phenomenon.” —Richard Feynman
“Geller is at his ingenious best in laboratories where he is being observed by scientists who believe he has extraordinary ESP ability and think—without justification—that they have ruled out every possibility of fraud.” —Milbourne Christopher
Uri Geller is most famous for his claim to be able to bend spoons and keys with his mind. An international star in the psychic circuit, Geller is a Hungarian/Austrian who was born in Israel and lives in England. He claims he’s had visions for many years and may get his powers from extraterrestrials. He calls himself a psychic and has sued several people for millions of dollars for saying otherwise. His psychic powers were not sufficient to reveal to him, however, that he would lose all the lawsuits against his critics. His arch critic has been James “The Amazing” Randi, who has written a book and numerous articles aimed at demonstrating that Geller is a fraud, that he has no psychic powers, and that what Geller does amounts to no more than the parlor tricks of a conjurer.
Geller has been performing for many years. The first time I saw him was in 1973 when he appeared on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show. He was supposed to demonstrate his ability to bend spoons with his thoughts and identify hidden objects, but he failed to even try. He squirmed around and said something about how his power can’t be turned on and off, and that he didn’t feel strong right then. Randi had worked with Carson’s producer to change the spoons and metal items Geller planned to use, as there was a suspicion that Geller likes to work (i.e., soften) his metals before his demonstrations, as would any careful conjurer.
View Geller’s Tonight Show lack of performance (courtesy of James Randi):
I have always been fascinated and puzzled by the attraction of Uri Geller. I suppose this is because nearly every one of our household spoons is bent and what I would like to see is someone who can straighten them, with his mind or with anything for that matter. Likewise with stopped watches. I have several of those and I would love for someone to use his powers, psychic or otherwise, to make them start running again. Of course, even I can get my stopped watches to run again for a short while by shaking or tapping them, but a permanent fix would be appreciated. There is something mysterious, however, about a person who has built a career out of breaking things.
MORE . . .
Thoughtography was made popular by psychiatrist Dr. Jule Eisenbud, who wrote a book about a Chicago bellhop named Ted Serios, who claimed he could make images appear on Polaroid film just by thinking of an image.
Since the publication of Eisenbud’s The World of Ted Serios: ‘Thoughtographic’ Studies of an Extraordinary Mind (1966), others have claimed to be able to perform this feat. Eisenbud claimed that Serios made his thoughtographs by psychokinesis and that some of them were instigated during out-of-body experiences.
Charlie Reynolds and David Eisendrath, both amateur magicians and professional photographers exposed Serios as a fraud after spending a weekend with him and Eisenbud. Serios claimed he needed a little tube in front of the camera lens to help him concentrate, but he was spotted slipping something into the tube. Most likely it was a picture of something that the camera would take an image of, but which Serios would claim came from his mind rather than his hand. The exposé appeared in the October 1967 issue of Popular Photography. Serios’ psychokinetic powers began to fade after the exposure and he has remained virtually unheard from for the past thirty years.
Many years after Serios faded from the paranormal spotlight, Uri Geller began doing a trick in which he produced thoughtographs. Geller would leave the lens cap on a 35mm camera and take pictures of his forehead. He claimed the developed film had pictures on it that came directly from his mind. There is no doubt that the images came from Geller’s mind, but perhaps they took a more circuitous route than he says. James Randi, magician and debunker of all things paranormal, claims that thoughtography is actually trickery done using a handheld optical device (Randi 1982: 222ff.; 1995: 233) or by taking photos on already exposed film. Intelligent people who are ignorant of photography are susceptible to being duped about psychic photographs and photographs of prehistoric monsters or fairies, as was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes.
- psychic photography – The Skeptic’s Dictionary
- Thoughtography – Ghost Theory
- The Art of Thoughtography: Creating Visual Impressions with the Mind – Mysterious Universe
- Nensha (Thoughtography) – Wikipedia
- Just to Set the Facts in Place… (randi.org)
- Skeptic Michael Shermer Shows You How to Bend Spoons with Your Mind (openculture.com)
- James Randi exposes Uri Geller and Peter Popoff (ritholtz.com)