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Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files

The Good Word

Karen Stollznow

June 2, 2011

Fact or Faked? Faked!

From the same network that brought us Ghost Hunters, Mary Knows Best, Destination Truth and other unreality reality television, SyFy hosts the show Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files.

Billed as the “Mythbusters of the Paranormal,” a title coveted (but undeserved) by every paranormal show, Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files supposedly “revolutionizes paranormal programming by investigating the evidence witnesses post on the Internet every day. Have you ever seen a photo or video online and wondered, ‘Is this real?’ This is the show that will answer that question.”1

But does the show answer that question correctly, and truthfully? And is the very question honest?

The show examines paranormal claims found online, to determine whether the phenomena captured are, of course, “fact or faked”. As we will see, it seems that the show’s cast and producers may be the ones doing the faking.

The “Crack Team”

The investigative team consists of “experts” who claim to have a background in paranormal research. There is Ben, the former FBI agent; Jael, the journalist; Austin, the “stunt expert”; Chi-Lin, the “photography expert”; Devin, the “tech specialist”; and Bill, the “lead scientist.”

For all of their supposed expertise, the team members’ research methods are dubious. Their initial approach is to recreate anomalous phenomena, quite correctly, but then they proceed to recreate the phenomena badly, or they recreate irrelevant phenomena. They mistake scientific tools for the scientific method. They aren’t familiar with basic principles of skepticism, such as Occam’s razor and the axiom that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In their conclusions the unexplained becomes the “inexplicable” and they appeal to supernatural explanations over natural ones.

But determining whether footage is “fact or faked” still doesn’t determine whether it’s paranormal or not. Even if the phenomenon and filming is legitimate and not staged, that doesn’t presuppose that what is captured is paranormal.

Over the course of two seasons, the team has investigated claims of a “ghost car,” a “haunted playground swing,” UFOs, lake monsters, spirit writing, an anti-gravity spot, cattle mutilation, ectoplasm, Bigfoot and an alleged chupacabra. They use a wide range of cutting-edge paranormal reality TV equipment, including pocket radar, electromagnetic (EMF) meters, bionic ears and, most important, a “scientific kit” containing:

Safety eyewear, black Sharpies, black ink pens, reclosable bags, evidence envelopes, swab boxes, polypropylene screw cap evidence collection tubes, sterile cotton tip swabs, transfer pipettes, sterile water ampule, tongue depressors, evidence slide boxes, plastic disposable tweezers, and disposable blades.2

In one episode, the team visits Fishers, Indiana, to investigate a phenomenon they’ve already decided is a “cemetery phantom.” The “evidence” features footage of a bright light they call an “orb,” examples of Electronic Voice Phenomena (recordings of alleged spirits), and increased EMF activity near the tombstone of a civil war soldier. The team devises some experiments to reproduce the effects, and because they can’t reproduce the phenomena exactly, they theorize that the original video shows evidence of paranormal activity. They conclude that the film has captured either the “ghost of a civil war soldier” or a “ghost train” because the cemetery is located near a former railroad crossing.

What takes them thirty minutes to prove incorrectly takes one scientific paranormal investigator three minutes to disprove. Doctor Atlantis, aka Blake Smith, of the Monster Talk podcast (http://www.skeptic.com/podcasts/monstertalk/) examined the footage and the theories and produced his own video analysis.3 For all of the Fact or Faked team’s elaborate tests and elaborate theories, they never once reviewed the clip in slow motion. In doing so as a first step, Smith revealed that the unearthly “train” was an earthly spider on a web. “Oh what a tangled web we weave…when we run around in the dark with video cameras,” he concludes.

On the show’s online forums hundreds of viewers deduced that the footage captured a spider.

But this article discusses an episode that never even made it to air.

A Paranormal Publicity Stunt

On YouTube there is a video called Ouija Board: Planchette moves on its own! 4 This has become a “viral video” and has enjoyed over 173,000 views. In the clip, two people are playing with a homemade Ouija board when the planchette spells out the name “Lisa.” Suddenly, the planchette darts across the board, seemingly of its own accord, to rest on the letter X. The participants jerk their hands off the planchette in fear. They attempt the reading one last time, and again the planchette moves by itself. The frightened participants end the session. They jokingly accuse each other of “pushing” the planchette, as does a third, unseen camera person in the background, but they all deny staunchly that any trickery was involved. To demonstrate that there are no magnets or wires involved the camera person films above and below the Ouija board.

This video was actually created by skeptics.

Produced by the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society http://rockymountainparanormal.com/, this was part of a promotional video for a TV project called Colorado X. This is the significance of the planchette moving back to the X symbol. But the planchette wasn’t moved by spirits, demons or even the ideomotor effect; it was moved by string.

To achieve the movement, fishing wire was fed through a hole in the center of the X on the board, and attached to the front leg of the planchette. A fourth unseen participant was sitting to the right side of the board holding the string. At the appropriate time, the string was tugged and the planchette zipped across the board, landing on the X as though this were a message from beyond.

A reading of the viewer comments indicates that the video has attracted a wide range of paranormal theories to explain the incident. Many believed without question and warned of the dangers of trafficking with the occult. Here are some of the remarks:

people shoudn’t mess with ouija tables it’s not safe ! lonewolf12345671

Ive seen some fake ones but IDK about this one. Normally people move it with fishing line. But this one moved to fast and stopped to suddenly for that GodsmackFTW

I don't know about fake, I just know when my roommate and I tried this in college, we both felt this eerie feeling first before it started moving on it's own, but we both let go of it right away cause it was too weird! We were like 'forget this!' lol nsgutube

They are obviously not pushing it because the thing moved on it's own really smoothly, and if they pushed it it wouldn't go in a straight way.. I beleive in this. But i want to know who created it? Donkeytricks

i have only use the weegi board ones and ever since it is real if u dont belivie it do it for yourself this is real and somtimes the spirts dont go away bellybuchelli

Only a few viewers figured out that the planchette was moved by string. Other skeptical observers hypothesized that ball bearings and magnets were used, that there was sleight of hand, or that the ideomotor effect was in play.

Could the planchette move a little bit more dramatically?

Along came John Maas, producer of Fact or Faked. Scouting for paranormal claims online, Maas and his staff discovered the Ouija board video and thought it perfect “evidence” for an episode of the show. But the footage wasn’t sensational enough. Without asking if the footage was “fact or faked,” Maas asked the group to re-film the scene to emphasize that no string or magnets were used, but to also show the planchette moving more dramatically across the board.

The producer of Fact or Faked was asking the group to modify the video.

The group decided to correspond with Maas, to investigate the show’s ethics and see if they would figure out the explanation. But it was clear they were only interested in fabricating the video further. In an email, the producer gave directions for a re-filming.

What the Supervising Producer is looking for:

1) Ask them if they can lift up the planchette at end to show there is no magnet...

2) Could the planchette move a little bit more dramatically?
5

Maas was asking the group to show that there was no trickery involved, but also asking them to alter the video to make it more sensational. He wanted them to reshoot the video ostensibly to trick the team, and the audience, into believing that this was, or could be, real paranormal activity. Maas was asking the group to fix the footage, thereby biasing the results and the research.

The group complied and reshot the scene, submitting it to Maas. However, it still wasn’t theatrical enough. Maas replied:

Great! I'll show the supervising producer - really good, though I'm sure she's going to ask to see the planchette move a bit more towards the end...hate to ask you again when you went back and got all that footage, but let me know if there is a shot of the planchette really zooming around...(don't even need all those dudes there again, just a really dramatic planchette zoom)6

Maas contacted his supervising producer and sure enough, she wanted a more dramatic movement of the planchette. The planchette zooming across the board at the end of the scene was the paranormal money shot, and it was worth it to the producers to sweeten the deal.

Hello! It's Jon Maas - so the Supervising Producer wants the clip, but a little bit different. If the footage is good enough for a case and it comes in 48 hours, we can pay a license fee of $1500...

Don't need necessarily everyone like the first video - ie you don't need to round up the posse but...the story of the place is good enough...

The supervising producer has requested the clip be:

* Less staged (more like the first video)
* A bit more freakout like the first video
* Planchette moves a bit more dramatically
* Once again show the "no magnets" thing

If it gets approved by the network, $1500 license fee. Let me know either way!
7

$1500 is a cruel offer with which to tempt starving skeptical paranormal investigators, but this would have been a pact with the devil. It would have been interesting to follow through with the project and then expose the producers, but there would be problems with that approach. Then the group would be closely involved in the filming and fabrication of the episode; they would lose the rights to the video and to the way in which they would be portrayed. A one-off fee would damage their reputation for all time.

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Fact or Faked is the paranormal equivalent of wrestling shows. The “evidence” isn’t proof of the paranormal, but proof that some shows are fixed. The fact is that Fact or Faked wanted to “enhance” the video, to falsify the evidence and the results. There is no proof that the producers intended to present the footage as factual or as paranormal evidence, but they did warn that they would use the video and portray the group in any way they liked. The producers never once asked if the footage was faked, but they did ask that the footage be altered; it is tacit that they knew the video was faked. The request to move the planchette more dramatically reveals the dishonesty and the lack of legitimacy of the show.

In this instance, Fact or Faked would have been “faked”—in an inside job.

References

1. SYFY: Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files. Accessed 05/20/2011.

http://www.syfy.com/factorfaked/about.php

2. Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files: “Backpack.” Accessed 05/22/2011.

http://www.syfy.com/factorfaked/tools/arrowhead_scientific_evidence_kit

3. Doctor Atlantis – Fact or Faked: Cemetery Phantom Analysis. YouTube, accessed

05/20/2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dl2WQyFHTHY&sns=tw

4. Ouija Board: Planchette Moves on its own! YouTube, accessed 05/20/2011.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzJ_9ji73MU

5. Personal correspondence. Email dated 08/13/2010.

6. Personal correspondence. Email dated 08/25/2010.

7. Personal correspondence. Email dated 08/25/2010.

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]centerforinquiry.net.