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Introducing Italy’s Version of Harry Houdini

Generation sXeptic

Matt Nisbet

August 31, 2000

Most ten-year-olds growing up in Italy dream of feats of national heroism on the soccer field, with visions of professional soccer stardom dancing in their heads. But as a young boy Massimo Polidoro dreamed of magic. It all started when Polidoro saw the 1953 Tony Curtis classic Houdini. A romanticized version of the life and times of the legendary escape artist and debunker, the film chronicles Harry Houdini’s early beginnings in show business as a dime museum performer to his ultimate, and inaccurate, death on stage in the Chinese Water Torture Cell. Amazed by the story of Houdini, young Polidoro developed a fascination with the paranormal. He tried bending metals like popular 1970’s television personality Uri Gellar, and delved into books about telepathy and spiritualism.

Fantasy turned to skepticism at the age of 15 when Polidoro came across the book Journey Into the Paranormal World by well-known Italian journalist Piero Angela. The book introduced Polidoro to the adventures of American magician James “The Amazing” Randi. The teenage Polidoro wrote to both Angela and Randi, with Randi responding by sending books to Polidoro on skepticism and the paranormal. A short time later when Randi visited Italy on a lecture tour, Polidoro met with the magician and Angela. Randi recruited Polidoro to serve for the next year as his “sorcerer’s apprentice,” traveling the globe testing psychics and dowsers, and working in front of television cameras to unmask mystery and trickery for global audiences.

Massimo Polidoro

Today, at the young age of 31, life is no less exciting for Polidoro as he has built an international profile as an author, journalist, lecturer, and professional skeptic. He is co-founder and Executive Director of the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CICAP - Comitato Italiano per il Controllo delle Affermazioni sul Paranomale), has published more than a half dozen books, and draws standing room only crowds at public appearances across the globe. In mid-August, I traveled to Amherst, N.Y., to meet and interview Polidoro, who spent the month on a speaking tour of the United States. His first stop was at the Center for Inquiry-International, headquarters for the Committee for the Scientific Investigations of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), and Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

About two inches short of six feet tall, slender with a well-groomed Don Quixote goatee, Polidoro speaks fluent English, looks younger than his years, and unlike many international celebrities, lacks the slightest trace of hubris or arrogance. Polidoro and I sat down for about an hour before his evening lecture to discuss his career and insights on the world of the paranormal.

After spending a year abroad with James Randi, Polidoro returned to Italy in 1989, and began to shop around to Italian publishers the manuscript for his first book Viaggio tra gli spiriti (Journey into the Spirit World). Polidoro encountered difficulty in convincing publishers that a book skeptical of the paranormal would interest readers, but Viaggio tra gli spiriti finally made it into print in 1995, and experienced strong sales. Polidoro was then able to follow with a series of books, all in Italian, that included Misteri (1996), Dizionario del paranormale (1997), Sei un sensitivo? (1997), La maledizione del Titanic (1998), I segreti dei fachiri (1998), L'illusione del paranormale (1998) and e Il sesto senso (2000). His first book in English, devoted to the strange friendship between Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is scheduled to be published by Prometheus Books in the Spring of 2001.

In 1989, Polidoro also teamed with Italian scientist Luigi Garlaschelli to found CICAP, and, in the first years, the duo worked tirelessly to recruit members and subscribers to the CICAP newsletter. The newsletter soon grew into the glossy bound magazine Scienza & Paranormale, reached bi-monthly status in 1998, and today boasts about 2,000 readers. Since 1989, Polidoro has contributed over 200 articles and papers, not only to Scienza & Paranormale but also to the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, Skeptical Inquirer, Skeptic, and Swift. As a chief spokesperson for CICAP, Polidoro delivers about four lectures a month to crowds as large as several thousand. Polidoro earned a degree in psychology from the University of Padua in 1996 with his thesis devoted to the study of the reliability of eyewitnesses’s reports of unusual events.

Polidoro views his work with the Italian media as possibly his most important achievement. “Before CICAP, the Italian media were absolutely pro-paranormal, and rarely critical, but now CICAP has grown into a friendship with many journalists,” Polidoro said. He and CICAP have tried to adopt a media-relations approach that fosters a partnership with the Italian media, and makes covering paranormal claims from a critical view easy. CICAP maintains a media e-mail list and a state-of-the-art organizational Web site. “There are skeptical journalists and they are certainly supportive of our cause, “ Polidoro said. “But most are looking for a nice story. So if we find a way to present ourselves in a more interesting light, it can be very important."

Polidoro names alternative medicine (especially homeopathy), UFOs (specifically the ancient astronaut claims of Robert Hancock), and various miracle claims as the most frequent paranormal topics he encounters among the Italian media and public. On the miracle front, Polidoro believes that the canonization by the Catholic Church of stigmatic Padre Pio has helped re-ignite widespread belief in miracles. “In Italy, almost every actor or celebrity claims to have been healed at some time by Padre Pio,” Polidoro said. “I think the Catholic Church might be following the New Age and coming up with more miraculous events."

Polidoro envisions CICAP’s main role as “letting people have all the facts, so they can make up their mind. We are not trying to convert people. Often people are asking questions about cases that have already been solved. We are trying to give information to people.” Current efforts by CICAP include increased involvement with schools, initiating programs with teachers to teach critical thinking and science via paranormal topics, and to provide books and tapes as educational resources. CICAP is also expanding its Web resources, building a Skeptic’s Web dictionary in Italian, and offering the sale of books and other materials through the CICAP site. CICAP sponsors 11 regional Italian skeptic organizations, and has held a national conference every two years that features international leaders in science and skepticism. Late this fall, CICAP will unveil in the city of Padua its new national headquarters. Occupying two floors of an office building, CICAP will employ three full-time staff members, several part-time staff, and dozens of volunteers. The organization bases its operations on a growing annual budget of $150,000 raised mostly through subscriptions and donations.

I asked Polidoro if living a life inspired by Harry Houdini ever struck friends his age as a bit strange or eccentric. He claims it doesn't cause any problems. “Though my work is a very important part of my life, I have other interests. I play the piano and the guitar, and I am a big fan of the Beatles. Very rarely do I talk about paranormal subjects with my friends. Sometimes they see me on television, and they say they didn’t know I do these things."

I also asked him about women his age. Did he have any thoughts on the notion that women might be more prone to belief or fascination with the paranormal? “It is possible,” he answered carefully, remarking that his girlfriend might have something to say about his answer. “Maybe women are less likely to be attacking, and are not as cynical. Maybe men are interested as well but don’t manifest their belief in the same way.” Hmmm... stated like a true escape artist.

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Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.