Last month, a police officer in Espanola, New Mexico got the pants scared off of him. While watching a surveillance video, he spotted what appeared to be a human apparition floating across the parking lot and through a locked chain link fence. The clip wound up online, went viral, and ultimately made it on Good Morning America as shocking evidence of life beyond the grave.
Really, just weeks before Halloween–a ghost sighting?
Enter Benjamin Radford, professional skeptic. Radford, a 44-year old New Mexican with a bald pate, wire rim specs, and mischievous grin, has made a living for the past 18 years investigating reports just like these. Lots of them. From haunted houses to crop circles, lake monsters to Sasquatches, he’s crisscrossed the globe responding to creepy reports.
A research fellow and paranormal investigator for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, based in Buffalo, NY, Radford uses journalistic reporting, critical thinking skills, and what he describes as “the scientific process.” He publishes his research in books and articles online and in Skeptical Inquirer magazine, where he serves as deputy editor.
Of the Espanola haunting, Radford wrote on Discovery News:
“A closer look at the video reveals that the ghostly blur doesn’t go through the objects in the background as claimed (such as the fence) but instead goes over them–a sign that the ‘ghost’ is close to the camera (such as on the camera lens).”
He concluded that the apparition was almost certainly a bug.
It may seem unbelievable that somebody could make a living as a Sherlock Holmes of the spirit world, but that’s exactly what Radford does. Working out of his messy home office in Rio Rancho, NM, a town of roughly 100,000 north of Albuquerque, he keeps files on everything from faith healers to werewolves.
“I get a half dozen emails or calls a month from people just contacting me out of the blue saying ‘Hey! My cousin has a ghost in his house, can you come look at it?’” says Radford. He prefers cases that have good forensic evidence, such as eyewitnesses or photos, which he can critically examine.
In 2007, for instance, in a case very similar to the Espanola haunting, a “ghost” was caught on the surveillance camera of the Santa Fe courthouse. Radford tried to see if he could re-create the “ghost” using some nearby fluff from a cottonwood tree. He couldn’t. Then he tried putting ladybugs on top of the camera. After they wandered down the lens, the “ghost” appeared in the video in exactly the same size, shape, and color, as it had previously. Mystery solved.
“It’s not rocket science,” says Radford. “You just have to put in the time and effort. Most of the time when a mystery remains unsolved it’s because people …would rather go play Xbox.”
He recently completed a five-year long investigation into the urban legend of the Chupacabra –the goat-blood sucking vampire-dog creature from Puerto Rico. Part of the case involved getting DNA testing done on alleged dead Chupacabras that had been found in Texas. They proved to be dogs and/or coyotes.
Radford is a rising star in the community of what’s known as Skeptics with a capital “S”–a decades-old movement with chapters around the world dedicated to promoting science education, and the use of reason and critical thinking skills. Skeptics have podcasts, conventions , and even cruises.
Both Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan were members of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. But to the extent the average person has heard of the Skeptics, they’ve most likely heard of James Randi, aka “The Amazing Randi.” An 86-year-old former magician-turned-paranormal investigator and grandfather of the Skeptics movement, Randi appeared regularly on The Tonight Show in the 1980s, debunking various psychics, including spoon-bender Uri Geller, who sued him unsuccessfully three times. For years, Randi has offered $1 million to anyone who can demonstrate scientific evidence of supernatural ability. So far, nobody has been able to claim it.
Radford’s first brush with the Skeptics was as a direct result of Randi, when he stumbled across an article the latter wrote critiquing the Nostradamus prophecies in a back issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
“Up until then, I’d heard people say things like ‘I don’t believe in UFOs’ or ‘I think ghosts are bogus,’ but I never knew there were people who did this for a living and made magazines!” said Radford. “It blew my mind.”
Scanning the table of contents, Radford realized the magazine’s editor lived in his home state of New Mexico, and got in touch. After graduating with his bachelor’s in psychology (he subsequently got a master’s in education), Radford published his first piece in Skeptical Inquirer in 1998. It was a psychological assessment of paranormal beliefs based on gender. The gist: Men tend to believe more in Big Foot, women in psychics.
If you look at the stats, there’s a real need for what Radford does. According to the Guardian , incidences of child abuse by people who think their kids are witches or possessed by evil spirits have recently tripled. Earlier this year, three girls in Wisconsin stabbed their best friend, because they believed so strongly in the online legend of a creature called Slender Man.
A Pew Research study from 2009 showed that one in five Americans believes in ghosts. Indeed, Cable TV is filled with SWAT teams of “paranormal investigators” like those on the show Ghost Hunters, armed with glowing gizmos and video equipment, “proving” the existence of ghosts at lighthouses and insane asylums across the globe.
“Most so-called ‘paranormal’ investigators are a joke,” writes Kendrick Frazier, the editor of Skeptical Inquirer, in an email. “They have no scientific training, they tend to believe in the strange things they want to find–and this kind of wishful thinking, and absence of any real science or their use of bogus science, sends them down endless dead-ends.”
Radford, on the other hand, plods rationally and skeptically toward the truth. His research has failed to prove a single paranormal occurrence. Not a one. He hasn’t even gotten chills down his spine during the course of a investigation.
“If you’re scared of ghosts you probably shouldn’t be doing this,” says Radford. “If you turn around and run, then that’s not an investigation. You need to go toward the man-eating lake monster or whatever the hell it is, to figure out what it is.”
What scares him is people–the conspiracy theorists and UFO believers, in particular. For some reason, says Radford, these two groups become the angriest when their beliefs are challenged. He has received several death threats over the years after publishing articles debunking their myths, such as the conspiracy that the shootings at Sandy Hook were all faked.
For now, Radford is playing it relatively safe researching a book about “bad clowns.” Topics he’s covering include an S&M clown performer from San Francisco named “Ouchy” and serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s job moonlighting as a children’s party clown named Pogo.
After 18 years of hunting ghosts and monsters, the idea of branching out was appealing.
“I don’t know that I want to be chasing Big Foot when I’m 50,” says Radford. “With all due respect to those who are.”