From the Syfy network that inflicted us with Ghost Hunters, Mary Knows Best, Destination Truth and other unreality reality television, comes Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files.
Billed as the “Mythbusters of the Paranormal,” a title coveted but undeserved by every paranormal show in existence, Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files supposedly “revolutionizes paranormal programming by investigating the evidence witnesses post on the Internet every day. Have you ever seen a photo or video online and wondered, 'Is this real?' This is the show that will answer that question.”1
But does the show answer that question correctly, and truthfully? And is the very question honest?
The show examines paranormal claims found online, to determine whether the phenomenon captured is, well, “fact or faked.” As we will see, it seems the producers are the ones doing the faking.
The investigative team is comprised of amateur “experts.” There is Ben, the former FBI agent; Jael, the journalist; Larry, the special effects guy; Austin, the stuntman; Chi-Lin, the photography expert; and Bill, the “scientist.” All boast a background in paranormal research.
However, the team’s research methods are questionable. Quite rightly, their approach is to recreate anomalous phenomena, but they often recreate the phenomena badly, or recreate phenomena that are irrelevant. They mistake scientific tools for the scientific method. They aren’t familiar with basic principles of skepticism, such as Ockham’s razor. In their conclusions, the unexplained becomes the “inexplicable” and the team often appeal to supernatural explanations over natural ones.
But determining whether footage is “fact or faked” still doesn’t determine whether it’s paranormal or not. Even if the phenomenon and filming is legitimate and not staged, that doesn’t presuppose that it is paranormal.
For example, in one episode, the team visits Fishers, Indiana, to investigate a “Cemetery Phantom”. The evidence featured footage of a bright light, and increased EMF activity near the tombstone of a Civil War soldier. To examine the case the team devises some experiments to reproduce the effects, and collect some examples of Electronic Voice Phenomena (recordings of alleged spirits). They theorize that the original video is evidence of paranormal phenomena, and conclude that the film had captured either the “ghost of a civil war soldier” or a “ghost train” because the cemetery is located near a former railroad crossing.
What it takes them 30 minutes to falsely prove, it takes one scientific paranormal investigator 3 minutes to disprove. Doctor Atlantis aka Blake Smith of the Monster Talk podcast examined the footage and the theories and produced his own skeptical analysis.2 For all of the team’s elaborate tests and elaborate theories, they never once review the clip in slow motion. In doing so, Smith revealed that the unearthly “train” was an earthly spider on a web. “Oh what a tangled web we weave…when we run around in the dark with video cameras,” he concludes.
Even on the show’s online forums hundreds of viewers deduced that the footage revealed a spider, and overall they criticize the show’s research methods and conclusions.
But this article discusses an episode that never even made it to air.
On You Tube there is a viral video called Ouija Board: Planchette moves on its own! 3 This footage has enjoyed over 85,000 views. In this clip, two people are playing with a homemade Ouija board, when the planchette spells out the name “Lisa.” Suddenly, the planchette moves across the board, seemingly of its own accord, to rest on the letter “X.” The participants appear scared and jerk their hands off the planchette. They attempt the reading one last time, again the planchette moves by itself, and the frightened participants end the session promptly. They gently accuse each other of “pushing” the planchette, as does a third, unseen camera person in the background, but they all staunchly deny any trickery was involved. To demonstrate that there are no magnets or wires involved the camera person films below and above the Ouija board. Fact or faked?
The video was actually created by skeptics. Produced by the Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society (RMPRS), the video was part of a promotional gimmick for a TV project called Colorado X. This is the significance of the planchette moving back to the “X”. But the planchette wasn’t moved by spirits, demons or even the ideomotor effect. It was moved by string.
To achieve the movement, fishing wire was fed through a hole in the center of the “X” on the board, and attached to the front leg of the planchette. A fourth unseen participant was sitting to the right side of the board, holding the string. At the appropriate time, the string was tugged and the planchette darts across the board, landing on the “X” as though this were a message from beyond.
In the viewer comments section, one may read a range of theories to explain the phenomenon, with very few skeptical explanations.
Along came John Maas, producer of Fact or Faked. Scouting for paranormal footage online, Maas and his staff discovered the video and thought it perfect “evidence” for an episode of the show. But the footage wasn’t fantastic enough. Without ever asking if the footage was fact or faked, Maas asked the group to re-film the scene to emphasize that no string or magnets were used, but… to also show the planchette moving more dramatically across the board. The producer of Fact or Faked was asking the group to fake the video.
The RMPRS immediately contacted both D.J. Grothe and I, and we advised they continue the interaction to monitor the producers. The group shared all future correspondence with the JREF.
In an email to RMPRS member Matt Baxter, Maas gave directions for the re-film.
What the Supervising Producer is looking for:
1) Ask them if they can lift up the planchette at end to show there is no magnet...
2) Could the planchette move a little bit more dramatically?
Maas was asking the group to show that there was no trickery involved, but also asking them to reshoot the video ostensibly to trick the team, and the audience, into believing that this is, or could be, real paranormal activity. He was asking them to fix the footage, and this would bias the results and the research.
The group complied and reshot the scene, submitting it to Maas. However, it still wasn’t sensationalist enough. Maas replied:
Great! I'll show the supervising producer - really good, though I'm sure she's going to ask to see the planchette move a bit more towards the end...hate to ask you again when you went back and got all that footage, but let me know if there is a shot of the planchette really zooming around...(don't even need all those dudes there again, just a really dramatic planchette zoom)
Maas contacted his supervising producer and sure enough, she wanted a more dramatic movement of the planchette. The planchette darting across the board at the end of the scene is the paranormal money shot, and it was worth it to the producers to sweeten the deal with a bribe.
Hello! It's Jon Maas - so the Supervising Producer wants the clip, but a little bit different. If the footage is good enough for a case and it comes in 48 hours, we can pay a license fee of $1500...
Don't need necessarily everyone like the first video - ie you don't need to round up the posse but...the story of the place is good enough.
The supervising producer has requested the clip be:
* Less staged (more like the first video)
* A bit more freakout like the first video
* Planchette moves a bit more dramatically
* Once again show the "no magnets" thing
If it gets approved by the network, $1500 license fee. Let me know either way!
$1500 is a cruelly tempting offer to starving skeptical paranormal investigators, but this would have been a deal with the devil. It would have been interesting to follow through with the project and then expose the producers, but then the group would have to become involved in the episode. They would lose the rights to the video, and lose their rights to the way in which they were portrayed. A one-off fee would damage their reputation for all time.
What would have happened if groups without ethics, or with a desire for fifteen-minutes of fame, had been contacted instead? Perhaps this accounts for the other episodes of Fact or Faked…
Fact or Faked is the paranormal equivalent of wrestling shows. Their “evidence” isn’t proof of the paranormal, but proof that some shows are fixed. The fact is that Fact or Faked wanted to fake the video, to falsify the evidence and results. There is no proof that the producers intended to present the footage as factual, or as paranormal evidence, but they did warn that they would present the footage and portray the group in any way they liked. The producers never once asked if the footage was faked, but they did ask that the footage be altered; it is tacit that they knew the film was faked.
The requests to move the planchette more dramatically reveals the dishonesty of the producers, and the inauthenticity of the show.
In this instance, Fact or Faked would have been faked, in an inside job.
1. SYFY – Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files - http://www.syfy.com/factorfaked/about.php
2. You Tube – Doctor Atlantis – Fact or Faked: Cemetery Phantom Analysis http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dl2WQyFHTHY&sns=tw
3. You Tube - Ouija Board: Planchette Moves on its own! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzJ_9ji73MU