The Joe Nickell Files: Inquest on the Mind of a Skeptic

What could be more fascinating than UFOs, psychics and spontaneous human combustion? The people who investigate such things! Okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but there’s no denying that skeptical investigator Joe Nickell is an interesting person. Our first conversation with Joe is designed to get inside his head and find out what makes him tick. It takes a special kind of person to spend a lifetime poking around haunted houses, visiting psychics and traveling to remote places searching for clues to the world’s great mysteries…

Q: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Joe.

Joe Nickell: My pleasure.

Q: Let’s kick it off by having you explain to us exactly what it is you do for a living. How do you describe your job?

JN: Well, my job title is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal—a name which is apparently too long, and I realize we’ve just used up most of our time! We abbreviate it CSICOP (the acronym) and we are the publishers of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. I guess a more generic title is that I’m a “paranormal investigator,” which maybe gives new meaning to the term “P.I.”

Q: And how would you distinguish a paranormal investigator with what people commonly call a “debunker”, or even a “skeptical researcher”? 

JN: Well, there’s a pretty big difference, I guess, although I certainly do skeptical research. I think we have to approach the paranormal rationally and intelligently, and what we need not do is approach it with our minds made up. The field of paranormal investigation might be roughly divided up into two hostile camps: the true believers on the one hand and the nay-saying debunkers on the other, and the trouble with both of those positions is they start with “the answer.” And what science does, rather than start with the answer and then work backward to the evidence, picking and choosing that which fits your position only… science starts with the evidence. Science is empirical. Science is inquisitive. Science starts with the evidence and lets that lead to an answer. And that’s what I think we do when we’re at our best, and that’s certainly what I try to do; that is, I may have a notion—certainly, I’ve investigated now for nearly 30 years—that I’m probably not going to find a ghost in the next haunted house I go to, but that’s not an absolute conviction, and it’s certainly not one that would be very productive, if I simply said, “Well, I’ve never found any ghosts, I’m obviously not going to find any ghosts, no need for me to even go to the next haunted house.” First of all, I wouldn’t have any fun with that attitude, and secondly, I would miss all the very important things we’ve learned by actual hands-on investigation. For example, we learn about particular hoaxes, we learn about optical and auditory illusions, we learn about such interesting psychological states as waking dreams, and other things, but certainly these things have changed my view of various topics of the paranormal, and have enriched my thinking because when we learn real data, we learn ultimately about ourselves.

Q: So, a lot of your research is serendipitous in nature; that is to say, you may begin researching something about ghosts or UFOs, but you end up exploring something as equally fascinating as the way the human mind operates!

JN: Absolutely. One example that comes to mind is my Alien Timeline. In my research of UFOs and extraterrestrial visitations and alleged alien abductions, I became interested in what’s called the “iconography” of the typical alien. When you walk into Spencer Gifts or some toy store, you see the familiar big-eyed, big-headed small-bodied humanoid. I began to wonder “Where did that come from?” So, I’ve traced it back and I have this interesting pictorial chart that shows the evolution of that figure through eyewitness accounts and, of course, media coverage. I’ve also looked at the psychology of alien abductions. I’ve also looked at the whole UFO and alien phenomenon from the viewpoint that it’s a rich mythology that’s actually developing before our eyes. Apart from whether or not UFOs are visiting the planet Earth (and I see no evidence to date that’s convincing) nevertheless, the phenomenon has important and it’s worth our time to look at.

Q: I’m guessing you didn’t grow up with the notion that you’d become a paranormal investigator, and you certainly don’t get a college degree in that. When did you first decide that this is what you’re going to do with your life, and what path led you to it?

JN: You’re right, as a kid, being a paranormal investigator was not on my short list of things to be. I don’t think I was aware that there was such a thing (laughs), although I guess that’s not entirely true. As a kid I was a very curious fellow, and I was interested in all kinds of things and wanted to be this or that when I grew up. I can remember as a kid having a magic kit and performing in Grandmother’s parlor and having a little mustache glued on with spirit gum, thinking then that when I grew up I could grow a real mustache and then I would be, of course, a real magician. Things are very simple when you’re a child. I also wanted to be a detective, and I had a fingerprint kit and a chemistry set and microscope crime lab, and I wanted to be a museum curator, and I had a collection of fossils and antiques and things and so forth. The only connection with the paranormal at that point would have been that, as someone who was well aware of Houdini, I knew at a pretty early stage, I guess, about Houdini’s crusade against phony spiritualists and his investigation of spiritualistic phenomenon. Beyond that I probably wasn’t very knowledgeable or didn’t think very much about the paranormal per se.

And then I did grow up and I grew a real mustache and I proceeded then in what, as I look back on it, is a rather interesting way to live your life. I began to live out the things I had wanted to do as a kid, and to do some new things. I began to collect what I call “playing roles.” By the time I finished college, I began to think of myself as a writer, and of course what writers do is soak up life experiences and write about them, so it seemed perfectly natural to me that I would go and actually be a magician. I was a magic pitchman in a carnival. I worked mostly on a school circuit, and I was a magician at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame for three years. Mostly I was in Toronto and Niagara Falls.

Q: And you’re also something of an artist, is that correct?

JN: I have a strong background in art. As a teenager I had my own sign-painting business, and I’ve drawn on that to do various things, including the drawings for my Alien Timeline. And my art background helped with some of my work on the Shroud of Turin image, and some other recreations and projects. Anyway, I went on and became a detective. I’m not allowed to say the name of the agency for publicity purposes, but let’s say a world-famous private detective agency.

Q: Starts with a “P” [Pinkerton’s]?

JN: Sometimes I’m asked that and I have no comment. I’ve also been at one time or another an advertising writer, I’ve been a blackjack dealer, I’ve been a riverboat manager, a newspaper stringer…

Q: And you were also a university professor! [Note: As fate would have it, many years ago Joe was my technical writing professor at the University of Kentucky.]

JN: Well, you remember me as a college instructor and teacher of technical writing, so it’s really a long list. I did a lot of undercover work as a detective, and got to play a lot of other roles, like forklift driver, tavern waiter, steel worker, and so forth.

Q: How did you get involved with CSICOP?

JN: Well, I began working at the Houdini Hall of Fame, began to renew my knowledge of Houdini and his very interesting work in the paranormal with the spiritualists; also, some others like the Spaniard with X-Ray Eyes and so forth, and I began to be more interested in the paranormal. Obviously, working in a magic museum, you will run into mentalists and psychics and all sorts, and you’ll wonder what to make of those people, and if you know some magic tricks, you’ll know that some are phony and so forth. Probably around the very early 1970s I met the Amazing Randi (the magician and paranormal investigator who’s world-famous), who was at Houdini’s as a consultant. (I’m sure I must have been quite a nuisance. I’m sure I asked him every question about every topic, and he was very patient. I’ve tried to be since then, when I’ve had young people ask me myriad questions about these things.)

I determined that paranormal investigation sounded like something interesting and fun, and I went on from there to be a detective, and somewhere in the meantime did my first investigation of a haunted house. At that point think I just thought of it as an interesting thing to do. Again, no idea that this would be more than an occasional thing or a hobby or something, but I investigated the McKenzie House haunting in Toronto, and believe solved that case, maybe too easily.  I’ve done it since 1972, at first as an avocation and then more and more seriously. When I was teaching at the University of Kentucky, my paranormal work was really almost interfering with my job, and I was having to work my schedule so that I could go out and investigate or go appear on Oprah or The Jerry Springer Show or something, and eventually came here to Buffalo in 1995 as a fulltime paranormal investigator.  \I may be the only one in the world who actually has a salaried position and has that job. Randi, of course, would be another one, but I don’t know that he would consider himself a fulltime investigator now that he’s operating his educational foundation, but we needn’t quarrel over it. There certainly are lots and lots of paranormal investigators, but most of them are at universities or whatever as an avocation, and I’m lucky enough to be able to do that fulltime.

Q: We know that you have solved a number of cases, and exposed a number of hoaxes (at least to your own satisfaction). But does it ever frustrate you that what you investigate almost always turns out to have some rational explanation; that is to say, you probably have a gut feeling that when you go into an alien abduction investigation that you’re not going to discover that someone was actually abducted by an alien. Does that ever frustrate you? Do you feel like you’re beating your head against the wall on these things?

JN: Not really. I’ve seen debunkers who were frustrated. And I think if my interest were that I had to take as my life’s mission the stamping out of foolishness, I fear I would become negative and strident and shrill and depressed and defeated, like some people that I see. As an artist (and sensitive romantic poet) I like to point out that I find resonant and fascinating such ideas as ghosts or spontaneous human combustion (which I worked on during graduate school because of Charles Dickens’ connection to that topic). I find it kind of romantic to look into them. I think it’s a romantic idea to go into a haunted house. So, by keeping an open mind (or certainly trying to) and saying “Okay, maybe I’m not going to find a ghost here, but I’m gonna see what I can find.” It’s just very, very interesting work. I try to do something like Coleridge (the poet and critic) used to say, about the willing suspension of disbelief. In other words, if you go into a theater to watch a play or a motion picture, you must suspend your disbelief, or you’ll just sit there saying “Oh, those are just actors. Those aren’t real bullets. That’s all fake.” And you won’t have any fun. What you must do is suspend your disbelief and get into the thing. And that’s when it begins to be interesting. I’ve kind of borrowed that idea a little bit for paranormal investigations, and I say “Okay, to be honest, I can’t say it’s a 50-50 proposition when we go to the haunted house that it’s going to be haunted or not.” I honestly can’t say it’s 50-50. It may be, you know, 99-to-1 or something. But whatever it is, I suspend my disbelief, and just go in and say “What is going on here?”

Q: Have you ever investigated a case where, that when it got down to it, you felt that it defied logical explanation? Have you ever had one where you really thought there was something unnatural or unexplainable about it?

JN: No, I have not. Now, that’s not to say that there’s not something that remains unexplained. That happens a lot. I’ve usually been able to, on reflection, figure out what it was. One time I saw a disk of white light zip across the sky, and got out of my car, amazed at what I’d just seen, and then it came back and back and back. You could time it! It was a searchlight playing on a low cloud layer. You know, if I’d seen it only once I would have said “I don’t know what that is.”

Q: Certainly, an untrained observer wouldn’t know quite what to make of it.

JN: Absolutely. So, we have to make a distinction between that which is unexplained and that which is unexplainable. A lot of times somebody will tell us a story, and they’ll describe, let’s say a UFO, or some event like that. And they’ll say, “Okay, Mr. Skeptic, I defy you to explain that.” And you have to say, “Well, I wasn’t there, and it was long ago, and your memory may have colored the events, and it’s not very investigatable now.” You might have an idea or two as to what it could possibly be, without necessarily knowing for sure what it is. Just as a lot of crimes remain unsolved. Just because we don’t have a solution to a famous murder doesn’t mean that is the work of the Homicide Gremlin, or some other supernatural entity. It just means that we don’t know the answer, but we’re confident that it’s explainable, and in that sense, I’ve not seen anything that I thought warranted invoking the paranormal or supernatural.

Q: Why do you think people believe seemingly crazy things?

JN: Well, I have had a chance to reflect on this for many, many years. I believe that the fascination with such things as the paranormal stems from our own hopes and fears; that we are hopeful, for example, that ghosts exist, because that means we live after we die. Or we’re hopeful because maybe we can communicate with our dead loved ones. Those are powerful emotions. On the other hand, we may be fearful as we walk by a cemetery late at night, maybe fearful of the unknown or specters of the dead, you know. We may get spine-tinglingly afraid of horror movies that we’ve seen. 

Another good example would be aliens. If aliens exist, that’s a hopeful sign; could be hopeful because we are not alone in the universe. On the other hand, if the aliens are coming here, they may mean us no good. They may be conducting evil, sinister experiments on us.

Q: Sometimes people assume the worst.

JN: That’s right. So, I think our hopes and our fears, our aspirations and our paranoia, has a lot to do with these topics. Some topics, like angels, are mostly hopeful. Some, like spontaneous human combustion or monsters, are mostly fearful. Nevertheless, hopes and fears, I think, explains it. If I’m right on this, the source of hope and fear is not so much what I call “the organ above the neck”. It’s not so much the “rational us” as is it the “emotional us”. When we hope for something or when we’re afraid of something, that’s our emotions talking. By sort of bypassing the rational and going right to the emotions, that’s why these paranormal ideas take such emotional hold on people. And that’s why it’s difficult for people like me who want to be rational, and want to seriously investigate and look at the facts, often have very little effect in convincing other people. There’s an old saying that if someone arrives at an idea emotionally it’s difficult to talk them out of it rationally.

Q: People can be very fanatical when it comes to these sorts of things, especially the things you investigate. Have you ever found yourself in a dangerous situation, or ever been threatened by anyone who thought that you were digging around where you shouldn’t be digging?

JN: Well, I’ve certainly had people be rather nasty. I’ve done some jobs where I was undercover or incognito, such as at a Virgin Mary sighting. And I was actually recognized at one, where I was with the Learning Channel, and for a moment we thought there might be a mob scene, where the lion was being thrown to the Christians. I’ve had some people be nasty to me and so forth, but not much. I get some hate mail. Maybe I don’t get as much fan mail as I would like. 

Recently I was up in Nova Scotia’s Mahone Bay, where I wanted to go to the famous Oak Island, scene of the Money Pit mystery. There’s a causeway from the shore just several yards over to the island. But it’s blocked off: a sign says “No Trespassing: Danger.” I was told that the guy on the island might shoot me, that he’d pulled a gun on somebody once before, and so forth. But I talked to a couple of local fishermen and they said, “The guy won’t shoot you… he’ll turn you back though, but hey, go for it.” So, I grabbed my camera and climbed over the barricade and walked over. And the guy’s dog came down, barking and snarling. But in a little bit I was petting the dog and the guy walked up, and he had heard of me, which made it even worse. But I convinced him that being a skeptic didn’t mean I’d come there to make fun of him, and I was a serious inquirer and so forth. And the next thing I knew I was invited to his home for the evening. So, I think a lot of situations are what we make of them. More than once, I’ve turned a bad situation into a good one by just being as honest as I can be.

Q: What are your current projects? Do you have any new books coming out, or anything like that?

JN: Well, I try not to talk about current investigations much, not because I’m superstitious about it. I like to keep my cards close to my chest, as they say, and not tip everybody off where my inquiries may lead. Once or twice, I made the mistake of talking about cases I was working on, only to find that people who heard decided to show up and interfere and so forth, so I’ve learned not to do that. But I am trying to put together a new book. 

Q: Thanks again for your time!

JN: My pleasure!

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