Hoaxes and deception continue to prey on the public's weaknesses and will to believe. Some of the most enduring hoaxes in paranormal claims include the Roswell incident regarding a flying saucer crashing in New Mexico, the Cottingley Fairies, which involved two schoolgirls passing off fairy cutouts for real fairies, and the Amityville Horror, where a house in New York was reported as haunted. Other paranormal hoaxes whose endurance spanned decades include spiritualism, the Shroud of Turin, crop circles, the Piltdown 'Missing Link,' psychic surgery, and King Tut's curse.
The word hoax is thought to be a shortening of "hocus-pocus" - a synonym for trickery. Essentially a hoax is an imposition on the victims credulity. It may range from harmless mischief, such as that associated with April Fool's Day, or it may have a more cruel or sinister aspect.
Superstition and paranormal belief have always been a part of human nature. Trickery and deception have often played upon the public's weaknesses and will to believe. Although hoaxes and intentional deception are rampant in paranormal claims, Joe Nickell and Matt Nisbett of CSICOP have picked the top ten enduring paranormal hoaxes.
1. Roswell Incident
In 1947 a "flying disc" crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. A rancher described the debris as foil paper, sticks, string, and tape consistent with a radar reflector, once thought part of a weather balloon but now identified as a government spy balloon. Over time the story has prompted many hoaxes, including forged papers which supposedly proved presidential involvement in a cover-up, tales of aliens stored at secret installations, and an "alien autopsy" featuring a rubbery humanoid. (See SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Winter 1990 and Nov/Dec 1995)
Modern spiritualism began in 1848 when two girls apparently received messages from a ghost who responded to their questions by knocking a certain number of times to signal simple answers. Soon assisted by an older sister, the girls traveled all over the United States to promote their "Spiritualist" society. Four decades later, however, the sisters revealed to a theater audience how they had secretly produced the rapping sounds. (SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Winter 1983-1984 and Fall 1985)
3. Psychic Phone Networks
Science has failed to validate psychic ability; yet by using shrewd methods and aggressive marketing pitches, modern phone psychics are able to appear clairvoyant. Ironically, the billion-dollar industry's pioneer network, Psychic Friends, recently filed for bankruptcy - an event that 2000 psychics employed by the network failed to foresee. (SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Sept/Oct 1995)
4. Shroud of Turin
Perhaps the world's most notorious religious hoax is the purported Holy Shroud of Jesus, which bears the imprints of an apparently crucified man. Modern forensic tests, however, show the image was done in tempera paint, and radio carbon testing yielded a date between 1260 and 1390 CE. This is consistent with a bishop's report that an artist confessed he had "cunningly painted" the image. (SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Spring 1982 and Spring 1989)
5. Cottingley Fairies
In 1917 two English schoolgirls launched a deception that fooled many people over the following years, including the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The girls took close-up photographs of winged fairies dancing in Cottingley Glen. Photo experts said the images were not double exposures nor had the negatives been altered. In fact, it was the scene that was faked: the girls had simply posed with fairy cutouts. (SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Summer 1983)
6. Crop Circles
Since the late 1970s, mysterious swirled patterns have been appearing in southern English grain fields. Some thought the depressions were caused by "wind vortexes," while others offered a mystical or extraterrestrial explanation. However, in 1991 two men demonstrated how they had made the first circles, which others copied and elaborated. (SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Winter 1992)
7. Amityville Horror
America's most famous haunted house is located in Amityville, New York, where in 1974 a man murdered his parents and siblings. A year later the house was bought by a couple who soon claimed they were driven out by spooky events. But investigation showed the events never transpired, and the murderer's lawyer confessed how, for money, he and the couple had "created this horror story over many bottles of wine." (SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Winter 1979-1980)
8. Piltdown "Missing Link"
In December 1912, the long-sought-after "missing link" between man and his prehistoric ancestors was reportedly recovered near Piltdown Common in England by an amateur fossil collector. To world-wide acclaim, the bones were soon enshrined in the British Museum. In 1953, however, the find was revealed to be a combination of ordinary human cranial pieces and the jawbone of an orangutan. (SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Spring 1980)
9. Psychic Surgery
Among the most outrageous - and dangerous-hoaxes is a phony healing procedure in which a practitioner appears to reach into a patient's body, without benefit of scalpel or anesthesia, to remove "tumors" and other diseased tissue. Common to Brazil and the Philippines, psychic surgery is actually produced by sleight of hand with animal tissue and blood being used to give a realistic appearance. (SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Spring 1980)
10. King Tut's Curse
The "boy king" Tutankhamen ruled Egypt from the age of nine until his death at eighteen, during the twelfth century B.C. His tomb was discovered in 1922, but a curse written over the entrance began to take its toll, resulting in the death over the years of many associated with the excavation. Or so it was claimed. In 1980 the tomb's former security officer admitted the story of the curse had been circulated to frighten away thieves. (SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, Summer 1982)
Unfortunately, with the exception of the Piltdown case, people worldwide continue to be fooled by these hoaxes. Too often the explanations or criticisms of these fabricated claims go unheard in the international media, while movie makers, television producers and book publishers draw on these hoaxes to weave top-grossing fiction that is often treated as real. Until the media provide more critical presentations of the paranormal, a word of warning is the only known antidote.
Joe Nickell is investigative columnist for SKEPTICAL INQUIRER. Matt Nisbet is Public Relations Director for CSICOP.