Psychic Connections: Investigating in Hungary
While in Hungary from September 16–22, 2010—initially to participate in the fourteenth European Skeptics Congress (held in Budapest September 17–19)—I found time for some interesting investigations.
Massimo Polidoro and I explored the great labyrinth beneath Buda Castle, a network of caves and rock vaults created by hot water springs and used as refuge by prehistoric man; it was later linked by cellars, dungeons, and military store rooms into a complex that runs for 1,300 yards (Eyewitness 2007, 65) and is billed as “one of the seven underground wonders of the world” (“The Labyrinth” n.d.). Polidoro and I also went in search of a fabled statue of the Virgin. Legend says it was enclosed in the wall of Mátyás Church during the Turkish occupation, and when the edifice was all but destroyed in 1686, the statue miraculously appeared (Eyewitness 2007, 62). Alas, however, it would not reappear for us: it was in a part of the church undergoing renovation, and we could not beg or buy our way in.
Another investigation had me accompanying scholar Benedek Lang to the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to assist him in studying a most mysterious manuscript, the Rohonc Codex. This—like the famed Voynich Manuscript (Schmeh 2011)—is written in an unknown language. Using techniques from my book Pen, Ink, and Evidence (Nickell 1990), I provided information relating to the codex’s authenticity, date of composition, and other issues. Still another excursion took me to the purported birthplace of Harry Houdini at No. 1 Csengery Street, District 7, Budapest.
The remainder of my investigative work in Hungary—which relates more or less to the field of parapsychology—was conducted with the untiring assistance of Gabor Hrasko (who negotiated arrangements, drove, took photographs, and much more), and Veron Eles (who has a definite talent for undercover work). Here is a very brief account of each of four excursions.
Experiencing Healing Energy
Our first visit was to a site called Attila Domb (Attila Mound), part of a commercialized Kincsem Horse Park near the village of Tápiószentmárton. The site’s supposed connection with Attila the Hun is tenuous, but the name Kincsem (“My Treasure”) was that of a “wonder mare” of the nineteenth century who never lost a race. The 37.5-acre site was said to have an energy emanation that attracted horses and endowed them with better health and a greater foaling rate than elsewhere. A “seriously ill” horse was reportedly also healed there (“Attila” 2011; Olsen 2007, 128–29). From this folklore grew rumors that the site was a “healing mound” that could cure sick people.
The owner (and local mayor), Kocsi János, graciously hosted us and gave us a demonstration of the site’s supposed magical energy. He sat Eles and me down in his on-site restaurant and suggested that our hands, placed flat on a table, would mysteriously rise and a warmth or tingling or other effect would spread from our fingers throughout our bodies. Eles followed my lead as I played along, and she did so again when János took us just outside and suggested the energy could cause us to fall backward—much the same as at an American Pentecostal healing service where people supposedly “go under the power” of the Holy Spirit but actually are role-playing in response to suggestion and expectation (Nickell 2002). János played catcher as we fell backward on cue (see figure 1).
Hrasko, Eles, and I then walked to the mound, a gentle knoll where “geomancers,” or dowsers claim to detect the crossing of “a strong ley line”—leys are imagined lines of “earth energy” that supposedly connect ancient mounds, churches, legendary trees, and other alleged mystical “power” sites (Tietze 2004, 12; Olsen 2007; Guiley 1991, 329–30; Nickell 2003). This mix of superstition and pseudoscience will have no medical benefit of course, although the site can take advantage of the same factors that are behind the touted successes of faith healing: misdiagnosis, prior medical treatment, psychosomatic conditions, spontaneous remissions, the placebo effect, and so on. As always, believers emphasize any supposed successes while ignoring the numerous failures.
Across the top of the mound is a ditch where an archaeological dig took place in 1924 in a search for traces of Attila the Hun’s wooden palace. (His grave is also located at the site, according to legend.) Nothing was discovered relating to Attila, but of several unearthed objects, one, attributed to the Scythians and now reposing in Hungary’s National Museum, is descriptively called the Golden Stag. Its namesake is János’s restaurant, and the wonderful lunch to which he treated us there—beginning with palinka (an alcoholic peach drink) and including Kincsem ragout (a stew named for the famous racehorse) along with many other treats—was the most magical part of our visit.
Hanging Up on Phone Psychics
We three investigators next met with Jeno Torocsik, a Hungarian mathematician who operates a number of interactive television shows. These include game shows that, critics complain, are essentially gambling enterprises (since they depend more on chance—the winning caller being picked randomly—than skill) (“TV” 2006). Torocsik also operates several psychic telephone networks—in Spain, Romania, and the United States, as well as Hungary. (Do the psychics know who will win on the game shows? Apparently not.)
We skeptics had a debate with Torocsik over the evidence for and against psychics and psychic phenomena. He was opposed to his “psychics” being tested by famed magician and psychical investigator James Randi, whose James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) offers one million dollars to anyone who can, under scientific test conditions, demonstrate genuine psychic ability. Torocsik asserted that Randi is not impartial (when in fact JREF protocols eliminate tester bias), and he claimed that “psi” (psychical phenomena) is too elusive to be tested effectively! When I attempted to make the case for the necessity of scientific testing, pointing out that it was he who appeared not to be impartial, he became rather impatient.
Nevertheless, he did permit me to photograph an operator who handles psychic-seeking callers (figure 2). Using a computer screen, she matches callers with at-home fortunetellers who, he insisted defensively, were at least effective counselors, if not actually psychic. (In a Skeptical Inquirer exposé of telephone psychics, C. Eugene Emery, Jr.  describes how some admittedly phony psychics attempted to gently provide traditional counseling as a substitute for supernatural insights. But callers resisted. For example, one woman wondered if her husband was going to beat her but rejected the advice to call 911 or turn to available sources of assistance. Indeed, only after the “psychic” concocted a tarot-card reading to support her commonsense recommendation did the caller seem inclined to accept the advice.)
Tapping My Telepathic Powers
I was much intrigued by our visit to Budapest’s Esoteric University and its Psi Lab, where researcher Paulinyi Tamás gave us an overview of the experiments he and his colleagues are conducting. They gave a demonstration (not an actual experiment of record) using me as a test subject for a ganzfeld experiment. This involves parapsychologists creating an environment of sensory deprivation to supposedly stimulate the subject’s receptivity of ESP (Guiley 1991, 225–26). This particular laboratory has claimed quite significant results, in contrast to others that have reportedly gotten only average or low scores.
For the experiment, a random number generator was used to select one of a set of four pictures. I was then subjected to mild sensory deprivation (involving diffuse light and white noise) in a soundproofed test room (figure 3) where Tamás joined me. Unknown to me, Eles was chosen as “sender”—that is, one tasked with looking at the target picture and attempting to convey it to me telepathically.
On request, I made verbal descriptions and later a sketch of what I had envisioned in my mind’s eye, then was shown the four pictures and asked to pick the one best matching my impressions. As it happened, my selection was the one Eles had “sent.” This was only a one-in-four guess, but everyone was amused—both at the outcome and at my pretense of having discovered I was actually telepathic.
Joking aside, I had some criticisms to share, and the parapsychologists listened earnestly. I thought the person who monitors the experiment by sitting in the room and interacting with the test subject should not have seen (or actually been familiar with) all of the two hundred or so photos used in the series of ganzfeld experiments. And I wondered why the researchers did not attempt to further test those subjects who scored consistently well (or poorly, for that matter), to see if their results might represent only a statistical fluke or could have some other explanation.
(This entire subject is complicated and deserves a more detailed description and analysis than I am able to provide here. Those who are further interested should read the critiques of ganzfeld and other psi experiments by CSI’s Ray Hyman [1996; 2008], who is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Oregon and an expert in cognition, the psychology of deception, and the evidence for paranormal claims, including parapsychological ones.)
Wondering at the Gypsy’s Trance
The most sensational of our investigative adventures was surely our encounter with a “gypsy” (Roma) fortuneteller and medium at her apartment in Budapest. She wore a colorful scarf and treated us to music from Radio C, the local Roma channel, while I idly looked at her well-worn deck of fortune-telling cards. For an unstated fee (more about that later) she offered to enter into a trance in order to get some important advice that Eles was seeking from the spirit of her deceased twin.
Eles had invented the dead twin in a conversation with me on the way to the medium’s apartment. Her original imaginary creation was female; however, when the Roma woman (who does soothsaying weekly on Radio C) began to fish for information and asked if the twin had been male, Eles decided to go with that. She also agreed with other gleanings by the medium that culminated in the tale of the brother having died in a car accident caused by his own drunkenness. Eles played her role admirably, and the medium swallowed the bait, hook and all.
As the medium prepared to communicate with the alleged twin, she warned us not to be afraid if she should fail to emerge from her trance state but simply try to revive her by calling her name and having some water ready. I took the warning as an indication that the woman was going to put on a good show, and I was not disappointed. She knelt to pray, then sat in a chair where she embarked on her voyage to the Other Side (figure 4).
Suitably “entranced,” she was soon spinning a “message” from the nonexistent twin to Eles, who seemed obviously moved by the heartfelt outpourings. At length, the alleged communication over, Eles dutifully attempted to revive the medium, who appeared to be immersed in her role, eventually coming to with great histrionics, including a bout of sobbing. After she had finally calmed down, I asked her about her gifts, and she told us that her maternal grandmother had also been clairvoyant. We were not quite prepared for what would soon be the most elaborate act of all: her attempt to wrest from us a whopping fee.
She apparently thought—wrongly again—that we were wealthy gorgios (non-gypsies) who would cough up a lot of cash. Not a speaker of Hungarian, I left it to Hrasko and Eles to conduct the negotiations, which I could see were filled with reasoned if angry discourse from our side and more anger, bluster, and histrionics from the Roma woman. I had thought at one point we might throw down some cash and walk out, but I did not know that—surreptitiously following our entry into her apartment—she had locked us in! What a gal! Still, I will not use the term “attempted extortion.” Maybe she just did not want us to be disturbed. In time, for a fee of about fifty U.S. dollars—excessive, considering the mediumistic communication was at best a work of imagination—we were on our way, and the Roma woman was all smiles. We were smiling too, from our different perspective.
Attila Hill. 2011. Available online at www.caboodle.hu; accessed February 24.
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Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. 1991. Encyclopedia of the Strange, Mystical, and Unexplained. New York: Gramercy Books.
Hyman, Ray. 1996. The evidence for psychic functioning. Skeptical Inquirer 20(2) (March/April): 24–26.
———. 2008. Anomalous cognition. Skeptical Inquirer 32(4) (July/August): 40–43.
The Labyrinth of Buda Castle. N.d. Advertising card, obtained September 17, 2010.
Nickell, Joe. 1990. Pen, Ink, and Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective. Reprinted New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 2000.
———. 2002. Benny Hinn: Healer or hypnotist? Skeptical Inquirer 26(3) (May/June): 14–17.
———. 2003. Dowsing mysterious sites. Skeptical Inquirer 27(3) (May/June): 14–17.
Olsen, Brad. 2007. Sacred Places—Europe—108 Destinations. San Francisco, California: Consortium of Collective Consciousness, 128–32.
Randi, James. 1991. James Randi: Psychic Investigator. London: Boxtree.
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A TV show makes millions with a call-in quiz that critics consider gambling. 2006. International Herald Tribune (November 20).