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Treatise on Invisible Beings

Article

Joe Nickell and James McGaha

Volume 37.2, March/April 2013

Allegedly invisible entities—popular belief notwithstanding—are indistinguishable from imaginary beings.

invisible being

Popular belief aside, the best scientific evidence indicates that entities that are reputedly capable of invisibility1—ghosts and other spirits, for example, as well as some extraterrestrials, angels, fairies, and many others—are indistinguishable from imaginary beings.

Natural Invisibility?

Invisible, in this context, does not mean transparent2 (like a jellyfish), nor camouflaged3 (such as a chameleon), nor obscured (as with a magician’s rabbit), nor microscopic (like a bacterium) but instead truly invisible: that is, when the entity is in the invisible mode it is incapable of being seen by human vision in the visual spectrum. It neither reflects, refracts, absorbs, scatters, nor radiates light.4

camouflaged moth

No physical entity—that is, a being composed of ordinary matter5—can exist in an invisible state, short of being dematerialized, in which case it would not exist as matter. The very substance of such a matter-centric being—a person or other living (or even nonliving) thing of the natural world—necessarily renders it visible and at the same time incapable of invisibility. But if this is true, then what of an invisible girl exhibited at Paris in the eighteenth century?

Supposedly a prodigy born in one of the provinces, she was kept, presumably for her own safety, in a small casket. This had glass panels on the top, front, and back so spectators could see through the box, which was suspended from the ceiling by four chains. Thus there was nowhere for anyone to hide. Yet a horn attached to one end of the casket allowed people to address questions to the invisible girl and to hear her voice in reply! Theories that it was a ventriloquial trick were soon discredited. As to the theory that a tiny dwarf hid behind the trumpet, that notion was likewise rejected because—had such a miniature mortal existed—it would have been more sensible to exhibit it than to fake an “invisible girl.”

As it happened, there really was no invisible girl but rather a real one hidden in the adjacent room. She addressed spectators through a speaking tube—with its end that emerged from the wall being concealed by the large mouth of the trumpet. A picture on the wall had a secret peephole through which the hidden girl could observe objects held up to the casket and so describe them in detail (Gibson 1967, 44–45).

Advanced Technology?

Of course, one may assert that some technological advance may make invisibility possible, but this is merely a science-fiction notion. It was advanced as early as 1897 in a novella by H.G. Wells. Titled The Invisible Man, it tells of a scientist named Griffin whose optics research enables him to alter a body’s refractive index to that of air; thus it neither absorbs nor reflects light and so becomes invisible. (Griffin succeeds in making himself invisible but—unable to reverse the effect—embarks on a rampage that culminates in his own killing by a mob. As he dies, his body slowly returns to visibility.) Another science fiction story is the humorous Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951). (Mistakenly accused of murder, a man injects himself with a secret formula that renders him invisible so he can elude authorities and trap the real killer—with the help of a couple of wacky private eyes.)

invisible man

Fiction notwithstanding, in 1943—according to a later book, The Phila­delphia Experiment (Moore and Berlitz 1979)—invisibility supposedly became a reality. Allegedly, the United States Navy conducted an experiment with “electronic force fields” at the Phila­delphia Navy Yard that succeeded in rendering a battleship and its entire crew invisible! Reportedly, however, the experiment had such traumatic effects on the personnel that the research was abandoned, the project classified above top secret, and the entire incident publicly denied—another great government conspiracy.

In fact, the “experiment” was nothing but an outrageous hoax, perpetrated on credulous researchers by one Carl M. Allen, who also called himself Carlos Allende. Born in 1925, Allende was considered brilliant but lazy and given to practical jokes. He later (1969) admitted the invisibility claims were “false . . . the crazyest [sic] pack of lies I ever wrote.” Still later he retracted the confession, and the subsequent book and a 1984 movie helped keep the hoax alive (Stein 1993, 176–77).

But can we really be certain that no technology in this or another universe can ever be devised to cause invisibility? Well, we certainly can imagine such. “However,” according to Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained, “although there are many theoretical suggestions as to how invisibility might be achieved, for the time being ‘real’ invisibility or perfect transparency . . . remains firmly within the realm of science fiction” (McGovern 2007, 347). (To all those who would, from their armchairs, opine, say, about theoretical physics, we would only ask them to wait until they have accomplished invisibility and then get back to us.)

Extra-Dimensional Realms?

But suppose invisibility already exists. One may hypothesize means by which an entity supposedly appears and disappears, such as a “parallel universe” (Sachs 1980, 84) or “another dimension or space-time continuum” (Sachs 1980, 239). However, these concepts also are unproven, and cases supposedly proving them typically do not withstand scrutiny.

abstract green lines and white light

Consider, for instance, the case of Oliver Larch, whose disappearance on Christmas Eve 1889 is one for the annals of the incredible. Leaving the Larch family farmhouse on the outskirts of South Bend, Indiana, to fetch water, the eleven-year-old boy was soon heard crying out in alarm. His parents and neighbors, who had gathered to sing to Mrs. Larch’s organ music, rushed outside. By lantern light the group followed Oliver’s footsteps in the snow until, about halfway to the well, they abruptly ended! “Because it defied logical explanation,” writes Frank Edwards (1962, 103), “the disappearance of this boy was quietly filed away and forgotten.”

Unfortunately, this story succumbed to investigation. Like another disappearance narrative—that of Tennessee farmer David Lang, who in 1880 vanished in full view of witnesses but whose voice could be heard faintly at the site over subsequent years—the Larch story turns out to have been plagiarized from a trilogy of Ambrose Bierce short stories. The Larch tale bears obvious similarities to Bierce’s “Charles Ashmore’s Trail,” just as the Lang yarn does to his “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field” (Nickell 1980; 1988, 61–73). At the end of his “Mysterious Disappearances” trilogy is a postscript in which he relates the theories of an obvious crackpot who postulates, says Bierce, that “in the visible world there are void places” likened to the “cells in a Swiss cheese,” that somehow explain disappearances (Bierce 1893).

Alien Domains

At some point, such thinking crosses over into the paranormal. Take extra­terrestrials, for example. Alien beings are sometimes said to have the power of invisibility—not unlike fairies and other magical beings (to be discussed later). According to many witnesses, an extraterrestrial may suddenly come into view, or vanish in an instant, while others report similar behavior of UFOs. Some think the disappearing craft simply “returns to its original dimension” (Sachs 1980, 84), while there is also the implication that, before and after it was perceived, it was invisible.

typical-looking aliens

A major proponent of invisible UFOs was Trevor James Constable—a man with strange ideas indeed. Consta­ble stated in his book Sky Creatures (1978, 7–8) that “the main direction in which UFO phenomena lead human inquiry” is “into the invisible.” Constable postulated that UFOs were “invisible” beings in an “invisible [infrared] realm.” They “occasionally emerge into the visible portion of the spectrum,” being sustained and propelled by “orgone energy” (1978, 12, 18).

Imagined by a crank named Wilhelm Reich (1897–1957), orgone energy is said to be “life energy.” It supposedly causes stars to twinkle, produces lightning and other static electric phenomena, and animates dowsing rods—among many other functions. In the human body it purportedly recharges red blood cells through breathing and provides sexual energy (Gardner 1957, 250–262). Constable notwithstanding, Reich’s orgone proved to be imaginary and, after Reich ignored an injunction against selling his allegedly curative but worthless Orgone Accumulator boxes, he was tried, fined, and sentenced to two years in prison, where he died (Randi 1995, 222).

Constable proposed that there were two main types of UFOs: 1) actual living “critters” that inhabit Etheria, an invisible world of the atmosphere (just as fish live in the sea), and 2) inanimate craft piloted by Etherean intelligences—both propelled of course by orgone energy (Constable 1978; Sachs 1980, 71). He claimed to have captured both types on infrared film, but his work seems doubtful in the extreme, has never been conducted or reported in any responsible scientific manner, and has not been replicated by mainstream science. Not surprisingly, he rants against “official science” for “evading its responsibilities” to investigate UFOs rather than engage in “organized obscurantism and ridicule” (Constable 1978, 15–17). However, to the extent scientists have engaged in ridicule of UFOs, cranks like Trevor James Constable have mostly themselves—and their runaway imaginations—to blame.

Spirit Realm

Some claim that a person does not really die at death but instead becomes a ghost or spirit, supposedly formed of energy, and lives on, invisibly, in that state. As with aliens, some speak of an “invisible realm” for spirits (Guiley 2000, 356). Proof, however, is lacking. Moreover, we know from the science of neurology that when the brain dies, brain function ceases; any energy given off by the body necessarily dissipates. Nevertheless, “ghost hunters” purport to detect such energy using gadgetry—electromagnetic-field meters, thermal imaging cameras, and so on—but that approach is just so much pseudoscience (Nickell 2006).

shadowy spirit in front of window

Some claim the invisible entity may be viewed psychically. That is to say, a spirit of the dead, for instance, may be seen by a “medium”; or an angel, deity, or the like may be perceived by a “visionary.” Invariably, however, such seers are revealed to have fantasy-prone personalities (Wilson and Barber 1983; Nickell 1995, 40–42, 157, 162, 167, 176, 211–14), or they appear to be hallucinating (Nickell 2007, 80, 245–55, 260–62) or both—assuming they are not outright charlatans. There is no convincing scientific evidence that anyone has psychic powers of any kind—hence James Randi’s longstanding offer of a substantial reward to anyone who can prove he or she has such abilities under scientifically controlled conditions (Randi 1991, 151–53).

Consider Mary Ann Winkowski, for example. The real-life model for the central character in the fantasy TV series Ghost Whisperer, Winkowski claims to see and talk to earthbound spirits (not those who have supposedly “crossed over” to the Other Side). Since she was a child of four, she says, she has been able to “see” the dead at funerals even though they are invisible to others. She maintains that the spirits “smoke, comb their hair, change their clothes—all those things we always do too. Only I’ve never been able to figure out where they get the stuff from” (Winkowski 2000, 150).

As a child, Winkowski had what seem to have been imaginary playmates, although she insists they were not imaginary. As an adult she claims to receive special messages from paranormal entities and frequently encounters apparitions—as well as exhibiting numerous other traits consistent with being a classic fantasizer. There is a distinct lack of objective evidence for her claims that spirit entities exist (for instance, an anomaly in a client’s photo, supposedly depicting spirit energy, was actually caused by the flash rebounding from the camera’s wrist strap).

The evidence strongly suggests in­stead that Winkowski is simply participating in encounters of her own imagination (Nickell 2010). Therefore, the source of the “stuff” that puzzles her—the inanimate objects that are seen in the possession of apparitions that supposedly represent life energy—is clear. As Tyrrell (1973) noted, apparitions of visibly rendered invisible people invariably wear clothes and are accompanied by objects—just as they are in dreams—because the items are necessary to the apparitional drama. In other words, the inanimate objects, like the entities themselves, are imaginary.

Visionary Experiences?

As to the perceptions of reputed visionaries, similar problems present themselves. Take Joseph Smith, for instance, the Mormon founder who claimed to receive instructions from an entity, an angel of God named Moroni. He appeared at Smith’s bedside and told him how to find a holy account, written on gold plates and now known as the Book of Mormon. Regarded by many as a veritable confidence man, and certainly a person with an extraordinary propensity to fantasize (Wilson and Barber 1983), Smith appears to have experienced common “waking dreams” (hypnagogic hallucinations) that occur in the twilight between sleeping and waking (Nickell 2004, 296–303).

Or consider the famed Catholic visionary, Lucia Santos, who at age ten was one of three shepherd children who encountered the Virgin Mary at Fatima, Portugal, in 1910. She and her seven-year-old cousin Jacinta Marto saw the dazzling apparition, radiant in white light, and Lucia convinced Jacinta’s brother Francisco to eventually “see” her too. Only Lucia ever talked to the Virgin, who supposedly appeared on the same day during each of several months, yet remained invisible to the onlookers. As it happened, Lucia was a precocious, imaginative, and charismatic child who had earlier apparitional experiences. Clearly a fantasizer who manipulated the other children (Nickell 2009), she was, her mother said, “nothing but a fake who is leading half the world astray” (qtd. in Zimdars–Swartz 1991, 86).

Magick?

During the witch craze of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, it was sometimes reported that devils called incubuses were either “visible or invisible.” Supposedly they would copulate with “witches,” whereupon, although the female was said to be in the throes of ecstasy, the incubus was not visible, yet at other times “a blacke vapor of the length and bignesse of a man” was allegedly seen to depart from her. Reginald Scot repeats such tales in his Discoverie of Witchcraft ([1584] 1972, 43–44), albeit with profound skepticism.

hooded person with face hidden in shadow

According to other legends, witches are themselves said to have the power of invisibility—as well as of flying, shape-shifting, astral projection, clairvoyance, and other supernatural powers (Guiley 1991, 647–50). Then again, according to gypsy lore, a man could become invisible to witches by doing as follows: “He must rise before the sun, turn all his clothes inside out and then put them on. Then he must cut a green turf and place it on his head. Thus he becomes invisible, for the witches believe he is under the earth, being themselves apparently bewitched by this” (Leland 1995, 148).

Occasionally, invisibility magic even purports to make someone invisible from himself. Usually, however, the intent is to prevent others from seeing him. One such fourteenth-century charm involves reciting Genesis 19:11: “And they smote the men that were at the door of the house with blindness. . . .” This is predicated on the belief that holy writ will cast a spell of blindness over others—though that is not really the same, even if it did work, as actually becoming invisible (Cavendish 1970, 11:1453).

Yet a medieval grimoire offered a talisman promising to “make you invisible, even to spirits.” Reputedly, “You will be able to traverse the bosom of the seas, the bowels of the earth. Likewise you will be able to sweep through the air, nor will any human act be hidden from you.” One needed to “say only: Benatir, Caracrau, Dedos, Etinarmi” (Wedeck 1961, 47).

Among the magical items reputed to make their bearer invisible are various cloaks, amulets, rings, and potions. These may be found in folktales and legends (McGovern 2007, 347). Ac­cord­ing to one folklore authority (Leach 1984, 526–27), “Some beings, gods and ghosts and angels, need no such paraphernalia to appear and disappear, but dwarfs and men must have some talisman to do the trick.”

Behind all such claims and practices is the belief in magic—the attempt to use spells, offerings, invocations, or the like to supplant natural processes. Whereas the latter constitute the domain of science, magical thinking—the opposite of science (Randi 1995, 193)—is rooted in superstition.

Interestingly, throughout folklore certain entities that supposedly have the power of shapeshifting (the ability to alter their shape) also typically have the power of invisibility. Such reputed shapeshifters include ghosts, spiritual entities, monsters, witches, and others (Leach 1984, 1004–1005). A good example is the vampire, which may transform itself into a bat, feline, hound, insect, etc., as well as have the power of invisibility—in addition to being unseen in a mirror (Bunson 1993, 42, 70, 100, 176–77). Another example is the fairy (see Thompson [1955] 1989, 41–44). Shapeshifting’s link with invisibility emphasizes the latter’s magical/fantasy nature.

Deistic Power?

Various demigods and deities throughout history have been attributed power over visibility. In Greek mythology, Perseus, for instance, son of Zeus and Danaë, wore a helmet that conferred invisibility. This helped him become victorious over the snake-haired monster Medusa whom he decapitated (McGovern 2007, 347).

statue of Perseous

Some gods, like those of early Hin­du literature, were not only invisible but “could assume any visible form at will to favoured worshippers” (Hastings 1914, 7:405). This was also true of the god of the Bible. It was in order to be seen that he appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush (Exodus 3:2–4). In New Testament passages are references to “the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and to “the invisible things of him” (Romans 1:20).

According to the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (Hastings 1914, 7:404):

The attribute of invisibility is one which is shared by gods, spirits, demons, the dead and the region of the dead, or the world of the gods, while the power of becoming invisible belongs to those beings as well as to certain mortals. Where invisibility was ascribed to gods or spirits, one simple reason probably was that in the case of most of them, apart from animal-gods or worshipful parts of nature, they were in fact unseen.

And that brings us back to our original point, that allegedly invisible entities—popular belief notwithstanding—are indistinguishable from imaginary beings. That is, an invisible entity necessarily means an immaterial one, one that therefore can exist only as a product of the imagination.


Notes

1. Invisible: Not seen in the visible electromagnetic spectrum (VES) (wavelength from 400nm to 690nm; frequency from 750THz to 435THz). Light is electromagnetic radiation (EMR), i.e., energy emission (oscillating transverse wave) produced when charged particles (electrons) are accelerated. The quantum of EMR is the photon.

2. Transparency: The condition of allowing some light (EMR) to pass through.

3. Camouflage: Concealment against background environment by resembling the background and disrupting patterns and edges. Certain technological claims of invisibility—using metamaterials, nanotubes, crystal prisms, and mirrors to create a two-dimensional illusion—are nothing more than static active/adaptive camouflage.

4. Again, light is EMR (see n. 1).

5. Ordinary matter: made of atoms and molecules, which are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons, composed of fermions—namely quarks and leptons.


References

Bierce, Ambrose. 1893. Can Such Things Be?; quoted in Nickell 1988, 67–68.

Bunson, Matthew. 1993. The Vampire Encyclo­pedia. New York: Grammercy.

Cavendish, Richard, ed. 1970. Man, Myth & Magic: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Super­natural. New York: Marshall Cavendish Corporation.

Constable, Trevor James. 1978. Sky Creatures. New York: Pocket Books.

Edwards, Frank. 1962. Strangest of All. New York: Signet.

Gardner, Martin. 1957. Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science. New York: Dover.

Gibson, Walter B. 1967. Secrets of Magic Ancient and Modern. New York: Grosset and Dunlap.

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. 1991. Encyclopedia of the Strange, Mystical, & Unexplained. New York: Grammercy Books.

———. 2000. The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits, 2nd ed. New York: Checkmark Books.

Hastings, James, ed. 1914. Encyclopedia of Reli­gion and Ethics. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

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Leland, Charles Godfrey. 1995. Gypsy Sorcery & Fortune Telling. Edison, NJ: Castle Books.

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———. 1988. Secrets of the Supernatural. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

———. 1995. Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings. Amherst, NY: Prome­theus Books.

———. 2004. The Mystery Chronicles. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

———. 2006. Ghost hunters. Skeptical Inquirer 30(5) (September/October): 23–26.

———. 2007. Adventures in Paranormal Investi­gation. Lexington: University Press of Ken­tucky.

———. 2009. The real secrets of Fatima. Skeptical Inquirer 33(6): 14–17.

———. 2010. The real “Ghost Whisperer.” Skeptical Inquirer 34(4): 16–17.

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———. 1995. The Supernatural A-Z. London: Brock­hampton Press.

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Wedeck, Harry E. 1961. A Treasury of Witchcraft. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press.

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Winkowski, Mary Ann. 2000. As Alive, So Dead: Investigating the Paranormal. Avon Lake, OH: Graveworm Press.

Zimdars–Swartz, Sandra L. 1991. Encountering Mary. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Joe Nickell and James McGaha

Joe Nickell is the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s senior research fellow. A former magician, private detective, and teacher, he has been investigating unsolved mysteries and fringe-science claims since 1969. His website is www.joenickell.com.

James McGaha is a scientific consultant for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. An astronomer, teacher, and retired USAF pilot, he directs the Grasslands Observatory. He has lectured around the world on science and pseudoscience and has frequently appeared as a UFO expert on national TV shows.