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In the Media: 2010 Report

Joe Nickell

January 20, 2011

Chronicling another busy year for CSI's Senior Research Fellow, Joe Nickell.

As CSI’s Senior Research Fellow—a position that appears to make him the world’s only full-time professional paranormal investigator—Joe Nickell had a very busy year, utilizing his background as a stage magician, private detective, forensic-science writer, historical document consultant, and university scholar. He traveled widely as always—this time as far as Asia—conducting investigation, lecturing, and appearing in various media venues.

He investigated “miraculous” oil-streaming effigies at a home near San Francisco, and went on an expedition in search of the legendary Jersey Devil in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. He busted ghosts across the country—from Philadelphia to St. Louis to Alcatraz Island—as well as attending séances at a spiritualist village, where he also visited a psychomanteum (a chamber where one sits and by candlelight looks for spirits in a mirror). He posed as desk clerk at a “haunted” hotel to conduct an experiment regarding expectation, and also carried out other experiments in perception (for the History Channel’s popular Monster Quest series). He investigated a Fortean phenomenon (pink snow) in Buffalo, two famous “monster” cases in West Virginia, and Underground Railroad myths in New York state and Canada’s Ontario province, among many others.

In Hungary, he visited a site where a mysterious energy supposedly emanates and heals the sick. He commissioned a gypsy fortuneteller/spiritualist to do a reading on a subject who accompanied Nickell and who, unknown to the gypsy, was there under false pretenses as a test. Nickell participated as a test subject himself (unofficially) at a parapsychological laboratory, scoring high (1) in a Ganzfeld experiment, and he visited a psychic telephone network to observe and discuss their operations. He also accompanied a scholar to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences library to examine the Rohonc Codex, a book written in a mysterious, indecipherable language that Nickell made several important observations regarding.

In China, where for three weeks he was CFI’s 2010 Visiting Scholar (in an exchange program with China Research Institute for Science Popularization [CRISP]), he investigated Chinese traditional medicine, including acupuncture and cupping (undergoing both treatments at a clinic. He also investigated China’s “ape men”—both real, such as Peking Man (visiting cave fossil sites at Zhoukoudian), and legendary, such as the Yeren (China’s version of Bigfoot).

Nickell lectured at numerous conferences, including The 14th European Skeptics Congress (Budapest), James Randi’s Amaz!ng Meeting (Las Vegas), Skepticon (Springfield, Mo.), Dragon*Con (Atlanta), and the CFI Institute (Amherst, N.Y.). He lectured to several skeptic and freethought groups around the country. (In Martin, Tennessee, the UTM Freethinkers Society presented him with a “Skeptical Medal of Valor.”) He lectured on illusions of the paranormal at Beijing Normal University and at CRISP headquarters (Beijing). He also taught in an arson-investigation training program (lecturing on “Debunking Spontaneous Human Combustion”) at the New York State Academy of Fire Science. For children and young adults he performed at such venues as an elementary school (Durham, N.C., where he also performed magic) and a Science Exploration Day (University at Buffalo).

Among Nickell’s numerous filmings were several shows for Animal Planet (Lost Tapes series), the History Channel (Monster Quest), and the Oprah Winfrey Network (the new Miracle Detectives series). As a prototype online video (produced by Adam Isaak, CFI), he hosted Joe Nickell Investigates: Alcatraz (posted on YouTube). And he spent a week on location with a professional film crew producing the pilot for a possible TV series that Nickell is hoping to develop and host. In one of his most unusual appearances ever, he played a zombie in a movie The Final Night and Day (due on DVD in March), as part of his research into monsters in popular culture.

Nickell was also a guest on radio shows such as one at Portland, Oregon (where he appeared to discuss friggatriskaideckaphobia on Friday the thirteenth) and at Calgary, Canada, (on “psychic” Sylvia Browne’s appearance there), as well as on Kate Valentine’s Atlantic Coast UFOs. And he was interviewed on several podcasts, including Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Radio Freethinker, For Good Reason, Monster Talk, and others. With CFI Libraries Director Timothy Binga as his guest, he conducted CFI’s Annual Houdini Séance (posted on the CSICOP website), where once again Houdini was a no-show.

He was a subject of various print-media features, including an interview and profile in HVG magazine in Hungary. He made a photo appearance in Filmfax: The Magazine of Unusual Film, Television, & Retro Pop Culture (regarding Bigfoot). He was also quoted in numerous newspapers on such subjects as ghost hunting (USA Today and The Buffalo News), Toledo Blade (a weeping statue), The Salt Lake Tribune (the Shroud of Turin), Maryland Daily Record (fortunetelling law), and London’s Times Standard (Pet Psychics). As well, he appeared on such online sources as MSNBC, Huffington Post, AOL News, and E! Online.

Nickell’s book Real or Fake, published in 2009, continued to get great reviews, notably from Manuscripts (Fall 2010), and he produced a new book, Tracking the Man-Beasts: Sasquatch, Vampires, Zombies, and More (forthcoming from Prometheus Books, March 2011), as well as working on other books and contributing to books of others.

“In addition to his “Investigative Files” columns, feature articles, reviews, and other contributions to Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptical Briefs, Nickell continued to write weekly blogs titled “Investigative Briefs” (on a wide assortment of topics and numerous diverse formats), as well as having a Facebook fan page and a personal website (www.joenickell.com).

In other miscellaneous adventures, he was honored with a coveted tour of David Copperfield’s astonishing—private—museum of magic; continued his forensic studies (he is co-author of a forensic textbook) by undergoing fire-investigation training at an arson in-service training program (sponsored by the State of New York Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services Office of Fire Prevention and Control); and learned to break boards karate style (under the tutelage of physics teacher and skeptic Matt Lowrey). Beyond work he found time to go on a fossil hunt, participate in an archaeological dig, take lessons in blacksmithing and hand-press printing, write numerous poems (which he read at various venues) and songs, and so on and on. He seldom slept.

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 joenickell.com.