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Joe Nickell on the Paranormal’s (Very Recent) Origin Story, in Skeptical Inquirer

April 4, 2016

Tales of psychic powers, mythical creatures, and hauntings seem like they have been with humanity since the dawn of time. But as world-renowned investigator Joe Nickell shows us in the latest Skeptical Inquirer, what we think of today as the paranormal can almost always be traced directly to the claims and creations of particular personalities of the twentieth century.

Nickell, who may be the world’s foremost authority on claims of the paranormal, introduces us to a colorful array of characters who took concepts steeped in myth and speculation and spun them into claims that to millions began to resemble reality, creating an explosion of paranormal claims throughout the previous century and through today.

These include Harry Price, “the original ghost hunter,” who in the 1930s first employed an arsenal of electronic gadgetry to detect the presence of spirits. At around the same time was Dr. J.B. Rhine, who tested subjects using a deck of cards to evaluate their extra-sensory perception, a term he coined. In the 1960s, Erich Von Däniken released The Chariot of the Gods, introducing the concept of “ancient aliens” responsible for humankind’s earliest wonders. And of course more recent extraterrestrials have been busy making crop circles, which first arrived via Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, who themselves admitted their hoax and yet still inspired countless copycats.

We also meet the men responsible for concepts such as “cryptids” (such as Bigfoot, the Yeti, and the Loch Ness monster), the Bermuda Triangle, and even an original purveyor of UFO myths, science fiction author Raymond A. Palmer, who once asked an interviewer, “What would you say if I told you the whole thing was a joke?” Surveying this history, Nickell concludes: “The paranormal has proved largely a chimera—that fire-breathing, lion-headed, goat-bodied, serpent-tailed monster of ancient mythology.”

Also in this issue: Massimo Polidoro shows how “Long Island Medium” Theresa Caputo uses the abundant information available on social media “to astound her public”; Matthew Nisbet sees a silver lining in the food industry’s capitulation to anti-GMO zealots; three U.S. Air Force scientists explode the nonsensical claimed health benefits of titanium necklaces; and much more.

The May/June 2016 edition of Skeptical Inquirer is available on newsstands, in the Apple App Store, or on Pocketmags for Android, Amazon, and other platforms. For more information, visit http://www.csicop.org/si.