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Creators of the Paranormal


Joe Nickell

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 40.3, May/June 2016

Much of what is called “the paranormal” today has intrigued mankind since the most ancient times. The term refers to those things that are supposedly beyond the normal range of science and human experience—ghosts, strange lights in the sky, psychic phenomena, and the like. It includes the supernatural but also things such as monsters that—if they exist—might be quite natural.

With the advent of modern spiritualism in 1848, launched by the Fox Sisters’ hoaxed messages from the ghost of a murdered peddler (Nickell 2004, 31–32), the paranormal began to proliferate and to attract advocacy groups such as the British Society for Psychical Research. Founded in London in 1882, it was concerned with alleged psychic phenomena and the supposed survival of consciousness following bodily death (Guiley 2000, 304).

The paranormal grew increasingly throughout the twentieth century with various “new” (either substantially new or newly refocused-on) topics being expanded by individual gurus and groups of enthusiasts, and many cross-correspondences developing (say, between UFOs and Bigfoot). This article is a discussion of the “creation” of the paranormal by a series of major figures, each of whom took a concept—some fantasy, myth, or speculation—and transformed it into “reality” (Keel 2001b). (I have, of course, excluded a long list of topics—from astrology to zombies—whose origins are ancient.)

Charles Fort: Prophet of the Unexplained

In the early twentieth century, Charles Fort (1874–1932) began the work that led one biographer to call him the “Prophet of the Unexplained” (Knight 1970). Having come into an inheritance that permitted him to engage in armchair endeavors, Fort spent his last twenty-six years scouring old periodicals for reports of alleged occurrences that science was supposedly unable to explain: UFOs (before there was such a term), archaeological oddities, mystery creatures, ghosts, rains of fish, and other anomalies—what would come to be called “fortean phenomena.” Fort was not himself an investigator, and his anecdotal evidence left much to be desired (Nickell 2004, 335–337).

Nevertheless, Fort was a major innovator. In an excellent biography of him, Jim Steinmeyer (2008, xv) states, “What Fort invented was our modern view of the paranormal.” Others had pointed out strange occurrences and asked why they happened, but Charles Fort championed their significance and accused science of being too conventional to care. Many of today’s paranormal claims can be traced to Fort’s writings.

Supposed communication with spirits of the dead is at least as old as the Biblical “Witch of Endor” who, at the behest of King Saul, allegedly conjured up the ghost of Samuel (I Samuel 28). From the first century ce came a prototypical chain-rattling ghost at a house in Athens investigated by one Athenodorus who allegedly observed the specter and laid it to rest (Nickell 2012a, 17–18). This is an early example of what folklorists call a “legend trip”: a visit to a site to test a legend there (Brunvand 1996, 437–440). As spiritualism developed in the mid-nineteenth century, photography was soon adopted to make “spirit photos”—first faked by William Mumler in Boston in 1862 (Nickell 2012a, 298–300).

Harry Price: The Original Ghost Hunter

The instigator of today’s ghost-hunting craze was England’s Harry Price (1881–1948), who was among the first to use “modern technology” to detect spirits of the dead and for that purpose famously had a “ghost-hunting” kit (see Price 1936, photo facing p. 32). He employed such devices as a camera with infrared filter and film (for photographing in the dark), “an electronic signaling instrument” (for detecting an object’s movement from anywhere in a house), and “a sensitive transmitting thermograph” (to measure temperature variations). Along with a notebook, flashlight, and other utility items, he included a flask of brandy in case anyone fainted (Price 1940, 107).

Having married an heiress, Price could indulge his interests in psychical research beginning in the 1920s. Although he was a member of the Society for Psychical Research, the organization’s skepticism of much physical phenomena led him to found his own lab. He combined the use of gadgetry with mediums and séances but was never able to prove the reality of ghosts. Worse, he remains suspected of trickery in some of his own investigations, including that of the Borley Rectory, the subject of his The Most Haunted House in England (1940). Although he posed as a scientist, Price was a school dropout whose use of scientific methods was an act, and he sought only to prove his ideas—not rigorously test them (Morris 2006, xv; Guiley 2000, 299; Nickell 2012a, 261–263).

Nevertheless, Price was followed by huckster Hans Holzer (1920–2009), who cranked out books about his visits to supposedly haunted houses with psychics in tow—in one instance earning him a scathing assessment from the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. More recently, television’s Ghost Hunters and their countless imitators have taken mystery mongering to new lows. Besides the dubious legends and pseudoscience, it appears they are often merely detecting themselves (Nickell 2012a, 263–264, 275–280).

Raymond A. Palmer: The Man Who 'Invented' UFOs

Whether or not the label is “exaggerated,” as UFO historian Jerome Clark (1998, 2: 695) finds, many knowledgeable persons regard Ray Palmer as “the man who invented flying saucers” (Keel 2001a, 536). Certainly, the idea of airships was a much earlier one stemming from science-fiction writers, such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Expectations aroused by science fiction no doubt helped spark the “Airship Wave”—the aerial-phenomena hysteria that plagued the United States between November 1896 and May 1897, preceding the modern wave of reports that began half a century later. After World War I, Charles Fort, the previously mentioned “Prophet of the Unexplained,” included unidentified objects in the sky among his discussions of mysterious phenomena, earning him the further appellation “the world’s first UFOlogist” (Clark 1992, 21–23), by suggesting the objects indicated visits from space aliens.

Enter Raymond A. Palmer (1910–1977). Although a childhood accident left him a hunchback of short stature, Palmer’s runaway imagination and audacity—including his unrelenting self-promotion—made him “something of a giant,” says Clark (1998, 2: 695). Obsessed with science fiction, Palmer created in 1933 the Jules Verne Prize Club. In 1938, he became editor of the first science-fiction magazine, Amazing Stories (founded by Hugo Gernsback in 1926), its wild action tales prompting critics to label it “space opera.” He was cofounder of Fate in 1948 and publisher of other magazines, including Other Worlds, which evolved into Flying Saucers, during the 1950s. He also published other writers’ books on flying saucers, so-called “contactees” (those supposedly chosen to receive the wisdom of the “Space Brothers”), and other topics (Clark 1998, 2: 694–696; see also the biography of Palmer [Nadis 2013]).

Today largely forgotten, Palmer played a huge role in UFOlogy. He filled Amazing Stories with tales and articles hyping the “Shaver Mystery.” Based on one Richard S. Shaver, this featured a race of freakish creatures called “Deros” who lived in the hollow Earth. Palmer bought reams of material from Shaver, rewrote it, and added stories he penned himself under various pseudonyms. Responses poured in from readers who told of seeing strange objects in the sky and encountering alien beings (Keel 2001b). On the back cover of Amazing Stories’ August 1946 issue were depicted flying discs that, less than a year later, would launch the era of “flying saucers” (Clark 1998, 2: 695; Nickell 2014). On June 24, 1947, private pilot Kenneth Arnold saw nine objects in a five-mile-long formation moving like “a saucer skipped across water”—probably a phenomenon called “mountain-top mirages” (McGaha and Nickell 2014).

In any case, Ray Palmer latched onto the “flying saucer” witness. About a month after Arnold’s sighting, Palmer hired him to investigate another saucer case in Washington State, though unfortunately the credulous Arnold was taken in by what is now known as the Maury Island Hoax (Sachs 1980, 191–192; Clark 1998, 2: 612–614). When the premier issue of Palmer’s Fate magazine first appeared in the spring of 1948, its cover story was by Kenneth Arnold, and it gained national attention. In 1952, Arnold wrote, with Palmer, a book titled The Coming of the Saucers. By then UFOs—that is, meteors, stars and planets, balloons, various aircraft, and other mundane phenomena, sometimes seen under unusual conditions such as temperature inversions—were beginning to become “real” presumed extraterrestrial craft. While Jerome Clark (1998, 2: 695) insists, “The UFO phenomenon is the creation not of one man but of tens of thousands of UFO sightings,” this is rather like observing that the Wright Brothers did not create the aircraft industry. To the extent that one man “invented” UFOs—that is, more than any other single person transformed them from fiction to seeming reality—that man was Raymond A. Palmer. Once in 1965, my late friend James W. Moseley (himself a saucer satirist) asked Palmer what he thought about flying saucers. Palmer answered, “What would you say if I told you the whole thing was a joke?” (Sachs 1980, 238).

Dr. J.B. Rhine: The 'Discoverer' of ESP

The term extrasensory perception (ESP) refers to the alleged ability to acquire information by means other than through the known senses, and it would include telepathy (mind reading), clairvoyance (remote viewing), precognition (future knowledge), and retrocognition (paranormal knowledge of past events). Together with psychokinesis (PK, mind over matter), it constitutes what parapsychologists refer to as “psi” to describe two seemingly closely related phenomena. In fact, however, “psi” has never been proven, and, despite extensive research over many decades, there is still a lack of both scientific evidence and theory for its existence (Alcock 1996).

Although there were ancient seers and psychics, the modern interests in such phenomena paralleled rapid developments in science (such as the discoveries of X-rays and radio waves) and scientific reasoning (such as Darwin’s theory of evolution). Interest was also stimulated by the mid-nineteenth century spiritualist craze. When, in 1882, in London, a small band of scientists and spiritualists founded the Society for Psychical Research (SPR), unfortunately, their credulity, even outright gullibility, did not serve them well—and some members such as Harry Price, the ghost hunter, found the society too skeptical (Alcock 1996; Nickell 2012a, 21–22, 195–199, 261).

Despite the SPR’s work, it fell to a botanist, Dr. J.B. Rhine (1895–1980), to attempt to establish psi as a scientific reality. He and his wife, Louisa, wished to establish that the soul existed and hoped to use psychical research (soon called “parapsychology”) to link religion and science. Unfortunately, in 1929, the credulous Rhines were taken in by a “mind-reading” horse named Lady Wonder. Lady appeared to be telepathic, nudging levers to activate alphabet cards and spell out answers to queries, but she was in fact responding to subtle cues from her trainer (Nickell 2004, 279–280).

Nevertheless, Rhine’s parapsychology laboratory at Duke University—founded in 1940—pioneered in ESP research. His card tests—involving a subject’s guessing the sequence of symbols on a special deck of cards—seemed to begin to offer proof of a phenomenon for which he had coined the term Extra-Sensory Perception (as the title of a monograph in 1934). However, the tests were plagued with criticisms that subjects were allowed to handle the cards, that cheating was possible and not adequately guarded against, that the statistical analyses were flawed, and so on. Moreover, when Rhine tightened the controls, the scores went down. Rhine died having never convinced mainstream science that either ESP or psychokinesis was real (Alcock 1996; Hansel 1966).

Even so, Rhine became the most famous parapsychologist in America, his name almost synonymous with ESP. He dominated the field until his death, and even then left an indelible mark on it.

Bernard Heuvelmans: 'Father of Cryptozoology'

The term cryptozoology—the study of unknown or “hidden” creatures (i.e., cryptids)—has been found in use as early as 1941 (Loxton and Prothero 2013, 16). It applies to such purported creatures as sea serpents, the Loch Ness monster, the Yeti, Bigfoot (each discussed here in turn), and many others.

Although sea serpents are reported from ancient times, it was British hydrographer and author Rupert T. Gould (1890–1948) who presented them seriously to readers, beginning in 1930 with his book The Case for the Sea-Serpent. (This was followed by Bernard Heuvelmans’s In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents in 1968.) Gould went on to also promote river and lake creatures in articles, radio broadcasts, and his 1934 book, The Loch Ness Monster and Others (Keel 2001b). Such creatures typically prove to be the misidentification of known creatures (such as otters swimming in a line), or other mundane phenomena, or hoaxes (Nickell 1995, 238–243; 2013a).

Another cryptozoologist was Ivan T. Sanderson (1911–1973), whose important writings on the subject included There Could Be Dinosaurs (1948) and Investigating the Unexplained: A Compendium of Disquieting Mysteries of the Natural World (1972). His 1961 Abominable Snowmen: Legend Come to Life helped turn the Yeti into supposed evidence for Bigfoot. For example, a footprint many believed to be that of a Himalayan Yeti (but more likely an animal track altered and enlarged by melting snow) helped set the stage for the appearance of giant footprints in 1958 at Bluff Creek in northern California, leading to the creature being dubbed “Bigfoot.” In 2002, the tracks were revealed as a hoax by Ray Wallace (Nickell 2011, 68).

In 1967, Bigfoot enthusiast Roger Patterson set out to film the creature at Bluff Creek and returned with footage showing what was more recently revealed as Patterson acquaintance Bob Heironimus wearing a gorilla suit bought from costumer Phil Morris and modified (Nickell 2011, 68–72). Meanwhile, books on the man-beast had begun to proliferate, including Patterson’s Do Abominable Snowmen of American Really Exist? (1966) and John Green’s Sasquatch: The Apes Among Us (1978). Many Bigfoot sightings are attributable to what I call the “Bigfoot Bear”—that is, any bear standing upright and even walking on its hind legs—such lookalikes typically being found in bear country and engaging in bearlike activity (Nickell 2013b).

The "Minnesota Iceman" hoax — supposedly a Sasquatch of a Neanderthal man frozen in ice.

Despite all these paranormal claims, the man usually designated the “Father of Cryptozoology” is Bernard Heuvelmans (1916–2001) (Coleman and Clark 1999, 161). Another claimant for the title would be his friend, the previously mentioned Ivan T. Sanderson; both were taken in by the “Minnesota Iceman” hoax—supposedly a Sasquatch or a Neanderthal man frozen in ice but actually the work of a Disneyland model maker (Nickell 2011, 87–90). However, it was actually Heuvelmans who did the most to create the field of cryptozoology, first with his serious 1955 book, Sur la Piste des Bêtes Ignorées (republished in English, On the Track of Unknown Animals, 1958, 1962), then with his many additional books, his founding a Center for Cryptozoology in 1975 and being elected first president of the International Society of Cryptozoology at its founding in 1982 (Coleman and Clark 1999, 105–108).

Vincent H. Gaddis: The Bermuda Triangulator

The concept of an area of the Atlantic where ships and planes mysteriously disappear can be traced to a Miami Associated Press (AP) writer, E(dward) V(an) W(inkle) Jones. His article appeared in the Miami Herald, September 17, 1950, and was accompanied by an AP map showing Bermuda, Miami, and Puerto Rico partially connected by dashed lines approximating a triangle. Jones (1950) vaguely referred to a “misty limbo of the lost.” Two years later, writing in Fate magazine, George X. Sands (1952) expanded Jones’s article (without citing him or other sources), and added the word triangle and a heavy dose of mystification.

Others also began to get onto the little bandwagon started by E.V.W. Jones, and soon there was a caravan. The flying saucer hucksters fell in behind (e.g., Morris Jessup with The Case for the UFO, 1955, and Donald Keyhoe with The Flying Saucer Conspiracy, 1957), as did writers of the “strange” genre (including Frank Edwards with Stranger Than Science, 1959) and others.

It remained for Vincent Gaddis (1913–1997)—a writer who once made up “filler” stories for Raymond Palmer as “a matter of livelihood” (Gaddis 1991, 16–17)—to get out in front and lead the burgeoning effort. His article in the February 1964 Argosy landed on major American newsstands and gave the mystery area a definitive name and ominous tone: “The Deadly Bermuda Triangle.” Gaddis followed a year later with a book on sea mysteries, Invisible Horizons (1965), in which a chapter gave an alternate, even more ominous name for the area, “The Triangle of Death.” Many joined Gaddis with books of their own. John Wallace Spencer’s 1969 self-published book borrowed its title from E.V.W. Jones but pretended otherwise, referring to an area “that I call the ‘Limbo of the Lost.’” (Spencer loaded his auto with books that he then promoted on talk shows, until Bantam Books transformed the work into a bestselling paperback in 1973 [Kusche 1996, 104].)

Map of the “Bermuda Triangle” and some other such alleged regions. (Map by Joe Nickell)

In fact there was no clear “triangle,” and writers proposed greatly varying sizes and even different shapes, including a rough square called “The Hoodoo Sea” and another very large configuration, “Devil’s Trapezium” (Nickell 2007, 5). Worse, reports authority Lawrence David Kusche (1996, 102), “Many of the losses that are credited to the Bermuda Triangle actually occurred nowhere near it, but near Ireland, Newfoundland, in the Pacific Ocean!” Ivan Sanderson took things further into the ridiculous, discovering there to be not just one jinx area but a dozen, his article for the pulp Saga (October 1972) being titled “The 12 Devil’s Graveyards Around the World.” (Reprinted in Ebon 1975.) Some were over land, Sanderson opined, and he called their shapes “Lozanges” (Sanderson 1975, 15–25). Much of the information on which these “Vile Vortices” were based was false or imaginary (Kusche 1996, 114). Still other writers followed, notably Richard Winer with his The Devil’s Triangle and Charles Berlitz with his The Bermuda Triangle—both bestsellers published in 1974.

Meanwhile, the impressive investigation by Kusche—The Bermuda Triangle Mystery—Solved (1975)—used original records and detective work to take the mystery from the mystery mongers. Kusche provided prosaic explanations—severe weather, human error, and equipment failure among them—to case after misrepresented case. For example, the 1963 “disappearance” of the S.S. Marine Sulphur Queen was instead an accident caused by structural weakening due to the removal of bulkheads to accommodate vats containing tons of molten sulfur; wreckage was found, including the name board reading “ARINE SULPH” between its shattered ends (Kusche 1975, 206–216). Still, of course, the claims continued. (I have myself responded to some of them, including for an episode of National Geographic Television’s Is It Real? [2006; see also Nickell 2007]. Kusche revisited the subject in his recent Skeptical Inquirer cover article on the fortieth anniversary of his book, calling the “mystery” of the Bermuda Triangle “one of the most widespread frauds that has ever been perpetrated” (Kusche 2015, 36).

Erich Von Däniken: Charioteer of the Gods

The modern ancient-astronauts craze was sparked in 1968 with the publication of Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods?—a book that consistently underestimates the abilities of ancient peoples and assigns many of their impressive works to visiting extraterrestrials. Von Däniken (b. 1935) wrote several other books capitalizing on the worldwide success of his first—works that scholars and scientists label pseudohistory and pseudoarchaeology—and other writers followed suit.

Von Däniken did not invent the idea of ancient astronauts; it has its beginnings as far back as the nineteenth century. Also, in 1919, Charles Fort speculated in his Book of the Damned about archaeological indications for early extraterrestrial visitation. Such speculation was also common to pre–von Däniken saucer writers such as Morris K. Jessup (Clark 1998, 1: 75–86).

Nevertheless, von Däniken did create modern worldwide interest in the notion in his books. Again and again, however, he misrepresents the archaeological facts. For example, he suggests that the Egyptians could not have built the pyramids, that they lacked the means of quarrying the stones, transporting them (having neither rope nor wood for rollers), or lifting them in place (von Däniken 1971, 74–80). In fact, the quarries are still extant (one of them being the hollow area in which the Sphinx stands); the “nonexistent” rope is displayed in quantities in museums; the Egyptians left a drawing showing how they transported a colossal statue of many times greater weight than any pyramid stone using rope and a wooden sledge; and traces still exist of the great earthen ramps (progressively lengthened as necessary to lessen the steepness) that were used to raise the stones (Nickell 1995, 187–188).

Von Däniken again overstates the difficulty of making the famous Nazca lines and giant ground drawings that are etched across thirty miles of Peruvian desert. Lines and figures, he opines, could have been “built according to instructions from an aircraft” (von Däniken 1971, 17). In fact, using sticks and knotted cord, I twice recreated Nazca geoglyphs: the giant condor (in 1982 on a Kentucky landfill) and the great spider (in 2006 on a California ranch for filming by National Geographic Television). No flying saucer was required to make the figures, whose lines are believed to be used for ritual processions (Nickell 1983; 2012b, 121–125; Aveni 2000, 212–222).

As to the “chariots” in the title of von Däniken’s first book, they refer to the fiery spaceships he imagines had landed anciently, witnessed by awed primitives. He sees the large drawings as “signals” and the longer and wider lines as “landing strips” (von Däniken 1971, 17; 1972, 105). However, Maria Reiche, the German-born mathematician who mapped and studied the markings, had a ready rejoinder. Noting that the earth there is quite soft, she quipped, “I’m afraid the spacemen would have gotten stuck” (quoted in McIntyre 1975, 718).

Doug Bower and Dave Chorley: Crop Circle Makers

As early as 1978, mysterious, swirled patterns began to appear in southern English fields—most often in wheat and other cereal crops, or “corn” as the British say. They inspired countless articles and a spate of books, no fewer than three in 1989. Circles-mystery enthusiasts were now called “cereologists” (after Ceres, the Roman goddess of vegetation), and “circlemania” was in full bloom (Nickell with Fischer 1992, 177–178).

The phenomenon was essentially new. An attempt to link it with a circle that had appeared in a field of oats in Hertfordshire in 1678—then attributed to witchcraft—fails because that circle was cut, not bent down in a swirled pattern. Although reports of such circles have surfaced in modern times, such as those of reeds in Australia in 1966 and a burned circle of grass in Connecticut in 1970, few had the flattened swirl feature and few were well documented at the time. All were supposedly suggestive of flying-saucer landing spots, such as circles shown in tall grass in a Swiss village by a man claiming to be regularly visited by extraterrestrials (Nickell with Fischer 1992, 183–184).

As investigation showed, several factors pointed to hoaxing as the most likely explanation: Suspiciously, crop circles were more prevalent in southern England, had proliferated as media reports increased, were becoming more complex each season, and exhibited a “shyness” effect (that is, the mechanism avoided being seen in operation). Then two retired artists—Doug Bower and Dave Chorley—confessed they had pioneered in the making of the patterns using planks and cord. They proved their ability by fooling cereologist Pat Delgado, who had declared a pattern they had produced for a British tabloid to be genuine. Soon, others came forward to admit that they too had made circles, helping it become a copycat phenomenon (Nickell with Fischer 1992, 177–210).

“Doug and Dave,” as they became known, were not only the originators of the modern phenomenon, they kept at it and were responsible for many of the giant grain-field patterns made over the years. Although they wrote no articles or books, they demonstrated their circle-making technique for television crews—for example, for ABC-TV’s Good Morning America (September 10, 1991)—and their proclaimed hoax gained worldwide publicity.

Those who did write the articles and books—and who therefore certainly helped promote the mystery of the phenomenon—were much less the “creators” of crop circles than they were its victims. Among them were Terence Meaden (author of The Circles Effect and Its Mystery, 1989), who had postulated that the crop circles were due to wind vortexes, but, as he kept modifying his theories to fit the evidence on the ground, the patterns continuously changed to keep one step ahead. Pat Delgado and Colin Andrews (authors of Circular Evidence, 1989, and other books) were major promoters, but they were fooled by Doug and Dave and their imitators, and, as other hoaxes were revealed, they were left foolishly holding their dowsing rods. Many other circles promoters were likewise fooled, but there were die-hards such as Eltjo H. Haselhoff, PhD (2001), who were undaunted by “self-proclaimed” hoaxers and soldiered on, as the circles became ever more elaborate, morphing into mathematical formations, pictograms, and even rectilinear designs that seemed a spoof of the very term “crop circles.”

One wonders what these several “creators of the paranormal” would today think of what they had wrought. No doubt most felt their cause important. Some were credulous but principled (Bernard Heuvelmans and J.B. Rhine); some were out to make a buck (Harry Price, Vincent Gaddis, and Erich von Däniken); and still others wished to stir things up and enjoy the fray (Charles Fort, Raymond Palmer, and Doug Bower and Dave Chorley). Perhaps each was rewarded in his own way. Despite some side benefits (our learning more about such things as waking dreams, misperceptions, the will to believe, etc.) the paranormal has proved largely a chimera—that fire-breathing, lion-headed, goat-bodied, serpent-tailed monster of ancient mythology. Nevertheless, it still lurks at the common boundary of superstition and science, endlessly chasing its scorched tail.


Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at