Now You See It, Now You Don't: Joe Nickell And The Supernatural Realm

By Tom Waters
March 1st, 2010

Buffalo resident Joe Nickell is the only full-time paranormal investigator in the world. In a modern society fascinated with basic cable ghost-hunters, wannabe Egons and clairvoyant talk show hosts who are more snake oil salesmen than genuine article, Nickell has turned a curiosity for separating fact from myth into a paying passion. Dubbed as a 'modern day Sherlock Holmes', Nickell's web site ( features information on the other 100 careers or 'personas' Joe has dabbled in during a life less ordinary. He is also the author of 29 books with themes that explore real-life ghost stories, magicians, UFO's, psychics, miracles, sideshows, and surprisingly enough, the history of the mint julep.

Nickell's credentials include (but are far from limited to) Resident Magician at the Houdini Hall of Fame, frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer magazine, private investigator, and an English PHD. Like the mysteries and phenomena Joe researches, though, there is a lot more to his career than what you see on the surface. With his well-researched opinion and status in parapsychology, he has appeared on Larry King Live, Oprah Winfrey, Art Bell, The Learning Channel, Discovery Channel and yes, even Jerry Springer. Mr. Nickell was kind enough to speak with me at his three-room paranormal lab and curio study at the Center For Inquiry recently.

How would you describe your position as a full time paranormal investigator?

JN: I apply science and reason to all areas of human endeavor as opposed to magical thinking and superstition. Science cannot find a supernatural realm, so all these appeals from ghosts and psychics that are supposedly supernatural have no real scientific basis although they always want to claim that they've got science. Some of the ghost hunters now claim to use 'scientific' tools to investigate and it's a fools errand. It's thigh-slappingly hilarious to take instruments and gadgets that aren't meant to detect ghosts from people who don't know what they're doing with no training in science on an assumption.

What is your main argument against popular 'investigators' and cable ghost hunters?

JN: Most of it comes from what I call an argument from ignorance. We don't know what the mysterious, blurry shape is in the photograph, therefore it's a ghost. We don't know what the strange light in the sky was, therefore it's a flying saucer. We don't know why this person's cancer went into remission; therefore it must be a miracle from the holy virgin Mary. They're jumping from 'I don't know.' to 'therefore'.

There was a hypothesis in the '90s postulating that most mystical experiences could be attributed to the right temporal lobe of the brain. What's your opinion on this theory?

JN: With ghost phenomena, someone wakes up at night and sees a ghostly figure standing beside the bed. What's happening is that the person is not fully awakened. They experience what's popularly called a waking dream. In that condition, people will see ghosts (particularly if they're in a haunted house) and if they've recently read a book on extraterrestrial abduction, they'll see aliens. The physiology of it has to do with brain function. This is an altered state. A hallucination. The context of it is cultural and psychological.

After a lifetime of investigating the supernatural with little to no proof of ghosts, UFOs, or the afterlife, are you disheartened with your findings?

JN: No, not at all. The poet in me understands the great romantic notion of ghosts. It's a wonderful idea and an expression of human hope. These are powerful feelings about survival. However, my turn of mind is that I want to know what's true, whatever it is, and believe that as opposed to starting with a belief and trying to find evidence that supports it. With the paranormal, most people decide what they would like to believe and the paranormal promises great things.

What have you uncovered from case files where groups have been exposed to a phenomenon, sighting or supposed miracle?

JN: Many individuals have powerful hopes and fears, which are based on emotions. They end up thinking about things viscerally, or with their hearts. They aren't using their organ above the neck. As a thinking, feeling human being as well as an analytical thinker, I appreciate those emotions, but you shouldn't think with them. You should think and then get your emotions in line with that.

Tell me about your work verifying historical forgeries and articles in your lab:

JN: People often ask 'Don't you wish this was the lost copy of Lincoln's Ghettysburg address?' and I say no, no I don't. It wouldn't serve me well to have a big desire to authenticate something whether or not it's genuine. It would bias my thinking! I'm just as happy to discredit a falsehood as I would be to find something wonderful. The only time I'm uncomfortable is when I can't decide, when I don't have enough facts or when I'm not permitted close examination. Usually I can resolve something by getting better evidence or getting a better expert, though.

How did your work as a magician and mentalist inform your current career?

JN: I did an act in Toronto as part of an educational program and I'd go and fool the socks off of people, but at the end of the act I'd confess that I was a magician and that I'd come to fool them. Not as a put down, but as a way to say 'Be forewarned, because this is what happens in the world of the paranormal.' There are out and out tricksters, hucksters, and unsuspected illusions.

How about UFO sightings?

JN: There is no big, all purpose answer to UFO sightings. Not all UFOs are weather balloons. Some are secret United States government test aircrafts. There are also atmospheric and celestial phenomena. Everything from meteors to hoaxes, of which there are many in UFO-logy.

What have you uncovered from Loch Ness Monsters experiences?

JN: People frequently describe a long-necked, humped creature swimming up and down like a giant serpent slithering through the water. There isn't any creature that’s 30-70 feet long that could be in a lake and fit these reports. For the sightings that fit those particulars, we have a possible explanation: a real creature called Lontra Canadensis. The Northern River Otter. It's a different otter in Loch Ness, but in North America, that's it. They go fish hunting in lakes and they swim sometimes in a line. If your mind is programmed to think of a creature, when you see something that looks approximately like that undulating in unison, it looks just like that. It's an astonishing illusion.

What have you uncovered as far as psychological backgrounds with haunting subjects, psychic readers and abductees?

JN: There's a type of person psychologists have begun to identify called the Fantasy Prone person. They're perfectly sane and within the normal range. They're not psychotic or mentally ill. They are a type of person who is highly imaginative. Poets and artists also have several of these traits. The Fantasy Prone person, though, is over at one end of the spectrum. They represent about 4% of the public. These are the people who tend to have visions of the Virgin Mary, go into a trance and talk to their spirit guides or get messages from the dead. Historically, Whitley Streiber, Edgar Cayce and Sylvia Brown have been shown to be Fantasy Prone. Some of these people are also charlatans, some are absolutely sincere, and some people are both. They honestly believe in all of these things but when they need to cheat a little, they will.



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