Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Show "The Dead Files" and the Problem with TV Psychic Mediums

In my previous post, I discussed a potential paranormal entity caught on video by the Ghost Stalkers tv team, which is led by paranormal investigator John E. L. Tenney. It occurred to me that these ghost hunting shows are lumped together when there are actually stark differences, which led me to examine another variety of paranormal inquiry; the highly entertaining (but dubious, as we shall see) show, The Dead Files.

The show has an an interesting duo, and they are definitely entertaining together: You have Steve DiSchiavi, a retired New York City police detective who went on to an acting career, appearing in a short film "Stake Out" before being cast in The Dead Files. His job is to interview the people involved and do background research on the location. He is joined by Amy Allan, who now bills herself as a psychic medium (except on a page on the Travel Channel web site, where she is called a physical medium. Really? Physical mediums are known for moving objects, remotely playing trumpets, stuff like that).[see footnote 2] Although scrubbed from her ImDB database, a little Google research tells me that she had previously appeared in episodes of the fictionalized ghost hunting TV show, A Haunting, in at least one of those she played a scientific paranormal investigator doing research on locations rather than using psychic powers. The episode everyone can a see is  "A Haunting in Georgia" - you can Google that. Other blog posts on other sites mention additional roles she's had. But before that she was in Season 1, Episode 4, Cursed. I have the DVD set.[see footnotes] So she's basically an actress. I don't know anything more about her. Here's a sample of her work from the episode we will review in this post:

The set-up of the show is Amy does a walk-through of the haunted location, accompanied by her husband (or former husband, depending on what database you believe) and camera man, Matthew Anderson.

At the end, Amy the psychic and  Steve the detective get together with the people involved in the haunted location, where they present their findings. It's very dramatic. Steve always has some tale to tell and Amy has some dramatic hits (and some misses) to present. Everyone is amazed.

The Evidence
For the purposes of this discussion, I will confine myself to the episode filmed at The Barbee Hotel in Warsaw, Indiana. The air date was November 15, 2014.  The clip I posted above is from that episode, and you can find more at http://www.travelchannel.com/shows/the-dead-files/episodes/intolerance

The only paranormal things that one might look at are the impressions that Amy gets as a psychic medium. We see those in the filming of her walk-through, where she throws out a bunch of stuff. It's very cut-up and we can't even tell what she's trying to describe, half the time. Obviously, not everything makes it into the final cut, but it's fair to say she has misses and hits - maybe (as the show portrays) more hits than misses. "Hits" are combined with her pronouncements about the presence or evil entities, and such - which aren't really "hits' because they can't be verified by anyone. And this is the first problem we have: There is no way to judge her accuracy from what is presented on television. She looks good, but you'd expect the producers to make her look good, otherwise they'd have no show. So the one and only thing that could be analyzed for possible paranormal activity, really can't be analyzed at all.  We can only say she looks good on the show, and that's it.

The Problem with TV Psychic Mediums
This brings us to a critical point when dealing with shows that feature psychic mediums: Even if they have a huge number of hits, where did that information come from? Is it from a paranormal power, such as psychic mediumship, or are the hits coming from something much more ordinary and unexciting?

The show's premise is that Amy's psychic walk-through and Steve's mundane plowing through library files and old newspaper clippings happen separately, without any contact between the two. This is obviously necessary, since if Amy were told what Steve found, her "impressions" would be ...well, quite UNimpressive!

So the premise is that they don't communicate. Okay, let's buy into that for a moment. Does that mean her impressions must be obtained by paranormal means? No. It could be that they are - that's what they're selling. But one thing I noticed about this episode: ALL of Amy's "hits" - the stuff everyone oohs and ahhs about at the end, can be found on the first page of Google by just typing in "Barbee Hotel Warsaw Haunted."

Did Amy do that before her walk-through? I'm sure she'd say no - so then we have to consider her personal credibility..

Amy Allan - like all psychic mediums - has a reputation built solely on her ability to obtain "hits" - that is, accurately describing a situation or thing without having apparent direct knowledge of it. Her "credibility," then, stems not from her personal integrity but from her performance.
With that in mind, we can readily see that Amy Allan has every incentive in the world to hit that Google search button before she does her walk-through, and basically no incentive not to (other than the incentive to not get caught). There's just no upside to Amy being honest in this situation, and no down side to her cheating.

That doesn't prove that she cheats, of course, it just shows that she has no reason in the world to not cheat. And when you add that to the fact that her hits can be found online without any real effort, there is strong reason to doubt her. I would add too that this is only "cheating" in the sense that the show's premise is that she has no information about the location.

When you watch the various ghost hunting shows, you should keep this in mind no matter who is involved. Scientific investigators and psychic mediums with TV shows are coming at this issue from opposite directions, and they have diametrically opposed motivations driving them.

Oh, and about her sketch of the entity haunting the upstairs - and what the people involved made of that... .and GOOGLE.  On the first page of Google using the search term shown above, you get a reference to Al Capone having stayed there. That's who her sketch looked like, and she was claiming at least three entities haunt that location: The one on the main floor was the original owner, she said, and there was another more ominous man upstairs, which she had a sketch artist render for her. It's Al Capone. But the the people involved in the haunting didn't pick up on that in the big reveal; they thought the sketch looked kind of  like the original owner of the place (Steve brought a picture with him). This made Amy shift gears and change her claim: now it was all really just one entity, using different disguises on different floors. Google didn't work so well for her this time - she had hoped to get credit for finding Al Capone haunting the place - but since the people thought the sketch looked kind of like the original owner, it was declared a "HIT" anyway. So it was a win for Amy, even though her skills really failed her. Oh well. 

VERDICT: There's nothing to see, here. If Amy is using psychic abilities to obtain her information, she's doing it the hard way: Google can be utilized without any travel, any hotel reservations, or any walking around  in a haunted house. And we haven't even mentioned potential information obtained from the cast and crew. Google explains everything. Except maybe Amy's propensity for finding evil entities everywhere she goes. That is contrary to the experience of just about every other ghost hunter you'd want to give any credibility to. She is especially fond of "finding" evil men - men are just evil in Amy's world. She never finds a friendly one or even an indifferent one. Men are evil. Amy has told us so..

Since we're on the topic, I will add that I am acquainted with a psychic medium: William Becker of Paranormal Insights. Personally, I consider him to be a man of integrity, and I tend to trust his impressions. This trust comes from my assessment of his own moral compass, and his work. But he doesn't have a TV show, he isn't under the same pressure to get hits, and he isn't out to wow anyone. He also gets things wrong and there's no TV producer standing by to edit out those flops.

I'm not dismissing the field in its entirety. Psychic impressions are very hard to verify and essentially impossible to establish scientific controls for, so it's one of those things that you can either take or leave, depending on your persuasion. Just bear in mind that professionals with TV shows have nothing to lose by deceiving you. Never forget that.

Let's look at this question by examining two intellectual propositions:
1) TV production companies are driven to bring you the absolute truth. They would never lie or fake anything because truth is their highest priority, ratings be damned.  Or...
2) TV production companies only care about ratings, because that is how they make their money. They want the show to have maximum ratings and the longest possible lifespan. If the truth gets them that, that's great. If they have to lie, cheat and fabricate, oh well... see the first sentence of this proposition.

As a logical, rational and intellectually honest viewer, which proposition seems most likely correct to you?

If Amy Alan wants to sit down with me for a reading, and she comes up with something you couldn't find through Google or cold reading techniques, then I will tell you that. Mega bonus points if she comes up with something even I don't know, but can verify through research. I'm totally open to the idea that Amy or someone else out there might be the real deal - and it if ever happens I will definitely tell you. Otherwise, it's just an act. Sorry.

1. IMDB discussion of Amy Allan's appearance on Season 1, Episode 4 of A Haunting - this episode is titled Cursed. Amy plays a "researcher" and in this episode she actually demonstrates how she researches a location (a private home) before she goes there. This episode will answer any questions one might have about Amy's ability to research private homes and develop a profile of them so she knows what to talk about when she goes there.

First Aired: November 18, 2005 - is about a private home in  Tucson, Arizona. In this episode, Amy the researcher shows you how thoroughly she researches a private home without actually going there. It's probably why they scrubbed this and all other previous acting credits from her IMDB.

Doesn't this make you wonder about why they might have scrubbed Amy Allan's previous acting credits from her IMDB and Travel Channel profile? Is it just that they don't want you to know that Amy Allan is an actor? Or is it that her appearance here reveals too much about her real technique?

2. Strangely, some fans have decided to argue with the definition of physical medium! Amy has tried to create a niche for herself by changing the meaning of a term that has been around for over 100 years, Well, it doesn't work like that, Sorry, Amy (and fans) you're just wrong and making stuff up doesn't help your credibility at all.
 "Physical mediumship is defined as manipulation of energies and energy systems by spirits. This type of mediumship is claimed to involve perceptible manifestations, such as loud raps and noises, voices, materialized objects, apports, materialized spirit bodies, or body parts such as hands, legs and feet. The medium is used as a source of power for such spirit manifestations. By some accounts, this was achieved by using the energy or ectoplasm released by a medium, see Spirit photography.[24][25] The last physical medium to be tested by a committee from Scientific American was Mina Crandon in 1924.

"Most physical mediumship is presented in a darkened or dimly lit room. Most physical mediums make use of a traditional array of tools and appurtenances, including spirit trumpets, spirit cabinets, and levitation tables." (Wikipedia)

I could add multiple references to this but those not satisfied should just try doing their own research. If you enjoy the show, that's great, enjoy the show! But let's stop trying to re-write history in order to make the show more believable, okay?
DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this post or blog is meant to suggest that the supernatural or paranormal does not exist. I believe that there is something there, but I cannot prove it. All I can do is look at the evidence to see if it stands up to the test of very simple scrutiny. If it passes, yay. If it fails, oh well... there's always next time. Investigators are human. I'm human. We all make mistakes. My pointing out the mistakes that others make should not be taken to imply that they are wrong in general, or that the things they investigate are fictional. I named this blog "U Debunked It" to be cute, but I actually hate the debunking mindset. One should go into every investigation with an open mind. It's the only way to find out what is really there. That is what I do.

Friday, November 14, 2014

TV Show "Ghost Stalkers" Full Body Apparition Video Analysis

(Updated 19 November with new information)
(Updated 20 Feb 2015 with new revelation from John E. L. Tenney, conclusions in BOLD - old analysis remains as strike-through text to keep the record straight)
The clip from "Ghost Stalkers" - Or you can go to the Destination Discovery page here: http://www.destinationamerica.com/tv-shows/ghost-stalkers/ghost-stalkers-video/ghost-apparition-caught-on-camera.htm

Enhance & Zoom
I did my usual analysis of the video. It took awhile to get just a clip of the figure, which I enhanced at maximum brightness to help us understand what is going on here:

NOTE: Use the little square-ish box at the lower right of the video to make it full screen. The clip is very short! You'll have to watch it multiple times to get a sense of what is going on here.

When we watched the show, it was pretty dark and hard to see. This enhanced excerpt, however, gives us a definite figure. Unlike my previous analysis of a claimed ghost caught on video by an Oregon paranormal team - but which disappeared in the frame by frame analysis, there is a figure here: You can see moving legs, arms, etc. The shape, although lacking detail, seems clearly human. What was it?

There are three possibilities:
1. They faked it.
2. It's a person
3. It's an apparition/spirit/paranormal event captured on video.

Did they fake it? It's a TV show, after all - but if they ever got caught doing that it would be the end of them. It's important to know that John E.L. Tenney, the star of Ghost Stalkers, is a legit paranormal investigator whose whole life work hinges on his credibility. It's extremely unlikely that he would be a knowing party to a hoax - to the point where this explanation is not believable. (Turns out that while it may not have been a hoax, John Tenney confessed in an interview on a skeptic podcast that he thought it was a homeless guy, despite the fact that he sold it on the show as a possible paranormal entity - LINK TO JOHN's OWN WORDS AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE). If there was any hoaxing going on, my vote would be for it being perpetrated by a bored crew member: They would be the only people who would know enough about the positions of the static cameras to be able to get in and out without detection. Or there is also Chad. He was my prime suspect from the beginning. Sorry, Chad, if it wasn't you.

Is it a person? Well, it has all the characteristics of a living being. If it's a person, then it might be someone who sneaked into the building to perpetrate a hoax. And if that were true, they also did a shitty job of it. This tiny clip is all there is to show for their "work." Really, who would do that? But that only speaks to a person who is not part of the show perpetrating a hoax. A crew person is another possibility but I'm told the crew people aren't even there at night; they just set up the equipment and leave. After my conversation with John, this seems unlikely. But again, it could be a person who was accidentally caught on camera, in which case John should know better than to suggest a paranormal cause. I can only go by his word at this point.

Is it an apparition? It has a very solid form and even though it's as gray as the back wall, you can see moving arms and legs. Watch it about 10 times. Or more. It looks more like a solid thing - a human being, than a spirit - but I can't draw a firm conclusion about this. (UPDATE: My inability to draw a conclusion was based entirely on John. E. L. Tenney's equivocations on the subject. His words led me to think there might be something here. My apologies to all!) What would a ghost look like? I would expect something a little  less solid but that's only an expectation.We'll have to have additional information. With what we have, a person seems the slightly more likely explanation (except for a detail or two). However, a captured apparition is a definite possibility!

Oh yes, the detail!  Or two.
1) Well, John. E. L. Tenney, the legit investigator of this show, is adamant that there was no sound as the figure walked by; no footsteps, whereas one could hear Chad walking around. Okay, that makes it interesting. I'd like an audio comparison of Chad walking in the hall versus this figure, so we could see if this is a big deal or not.
2) The figure was never seen on any of the other cameras, nor by Tenney, Chad or the crew. This is odd. Evading detection by the cameras would be tricky. One may imagine ways to get in and out of the building without being seen, but how would a person pass in one direction down that hallway - toward the room where Chad was located at the time - and never be seen coming back from that direction or anywhere else? The world wonders....

4) Finally, an actual person would be walking around in total darkness: The light you see is infrared, recorded by an infrared camera. This is John's big selling point; the thing he reminded me about in emails when I questioned his evidence. HOWEVER, on viewing several more times; to me, the figure does appear to reach out for the wall on his left, as if to feel his way along the dark hallway. In mid stride, you can see the right arm raise and appear to cross over the front of the body, and just before he exits the view area you can see his shoulders rotate left, as if reaching out. It's hard to tell for sure but if my sense of this is accurate, it lends credence to the idea that this is an actual person walking in a dark hallway. John E. L. Tenney says I'm wrong about that. (UPDATE: Yes, he said that, but he knew I was right).

On a blog one of the stars, John E.L. Tenney,  said this:
"Honestly, I don’t know what it is.

I took the footage to our head of photography for the show and had him check it out. I wanted fresh, skeptical eyes to see it. Our head of photography has worked on hundreds of paranormal reality shows and after seeing this footage and running it through all kinds of image processing software eventually told me, “This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen working on a paranormal show”

"The building was sealed off and sweeped by the crew before they left, we do this at every location to make sure no one is in the building. Since Chad and I are alone when we investigate it is a safety measure we take to make sure there isn’t anyone who might hurt us when we’re alone in the building.

"I saw the figure I saw it in real time.

"Although it’s often mind-numbing to stare at the check-in camera monitor all night long it’s necessary and in this case was worth it. I honestly didn’t even know if I saw what I saw. By that I mean the camera is a live feed I have no way to go back and look at it until the morning. So I saw the figure and then I was like, “what did I just see?” It wasn’t until the morning after Chad was done that I could go retrieve the camera and check for what I thought I saw."

The fact that one of the show's cast members isn't selling it as totally real is interesting. (UPDATE: And as it turns out, it was because he was selling it as possibly paranormal when he never actually believed that was the case). It may mean that there is a lot of room for a more natural explanation. Or maybe he's just trying to maintain a certain distance from it, in case a more prosaic explanation comes to light. That's an excellent policy,  now that I think about it.

SUGGESTION TO PRODUCERS OF THE SHOW: Invest some money in a recording FLIR heat detection camera and add it to the check-in site. Two would be even better; one to carry with whomever is in the building at the time. If this figure had no heat signature, we could rule-out an actual human messing with you. Please consider this.

VERDICT: Possibly paranormal phenomenon captured, with some caveats and subject to further revelations and information. As a matter of intellectual honesty,  we have to consider the possibility that there's a crazy naked homeless guy living in that building who only comes out at night (or a bored crew member who decided to pull an unethical stunt... or Chad, who is always pretty wired and seems like the kind of guy who might do this). If it was a homeless guy, it would be easy enough (a necessity, in fact) for him to find a never-visited crawl space/attic/duct system to hide in. On the other hand, it is strange that he wasn't caught on any of the static or perimeter cameras, so there's that. And that's the only reason I mention a crew member: John E. L. Tenney wouldn't pull anything like this, in my opinion, (UPDATE: But he has no problem with misleading his audience. In John E. L. Tenney's skeptic interview, he tells us that he doesn't believe that ghosts exist, or "any of that" - so any statements he has made in the show suggesting paranormal phenomena were disingenuous) but we know nothing of the crew people and they alone would have the information necessary to evade detection.

FINAL VERDICT: Debunked, thanks to John Tenney's candid admissions on a skeptic podcast show. If we just went by what was on television, I couldn't say that. On Ghost Stalkers, his show, Tenney referred to this image over and over as an entity and an apparition, and suggested various supernatural explanations. But when John Tenney recently spoke to skeptics, he informed them that he didn't believe that, that he doesn't believe in ghosts or anything else. He told the skeptics he thought it was a homeless guy. I don't know if that is true, but I know he never told the Ghost Stalkers audience anything like that.

Who was it? For what it's worth I DID tell John E. L. Tenney in an email way back when this all started that I thought it was a homeless guy - or maybe even Chad, which he assured me was wrong. Now I'm more inclined to think that I got it right from the beginning and I let Tenney mislead me into thinking he had something genuine. After his interview on the skeptic podcast (A MUST LISTEN!) it seems pretty clear that you can't really take Tenney at his word.

ONLY John E. L. Tenney's disingenuous commentary made it seem real. He never thought it was paranormal. Even when he commented on this post back in November (you can still see that comment below), he was still selling the high points of what he thought made this video paranormal... but now we know he didn't believe that. Listen to the skeptic interview of Tenney and get the inside scoop. (Link below)
FINAL THOUGHT, February 20, 2015. Well, here we are, with me doing a mea culpa. I'm all about honesty with my readers, so I have to confess that I was duped by this one. John E. L. Tenney did a good job of selling this video as paranormal evidence on the show, and in email communications to me. Even though he tempered that position in his own blog, he still left it out there as possible paranormal evidence. And I was gullible enough to buy his testimony, since I wasn't there and I misread his character. Well, that just goes to show you: Never ever trust anything on one of these shows, or any of the people on them. They will say and do anything for ratings. In the end, you'll just get burned.  

Buyer Beware!

HERE IS THE LINK to the Skeptic podcast where John E. L. Tenney confesses that HE DOES NOT BELIEVE IN GHOSTS and never found anything paranormal. According to Tenney, he acts like he believes in the paranormal so that he can get people to come to his lectures where he hopes to convert them.

HELPFUL TIME CODE GUIDE FOR THE PODCAST! Although the host of this podcast is nice as pie to Tenney (because he's talking to one of his fellow non-believers) the guy is a major dick in general and has a hugely smug sense of superiority (rather unjustified from what I've heard). So you may want to avoid the smugness oozing out of his mouth and skip to the highlights (not that John Tenney seems to have any better opinion of those who believe in the paranormal, but I can't fix that for you):
  • 19:10 The show is NOT about figuring out if a place is haunted
  • 24:10 "It shocks people when I tell them I don't believe in ghosts."
  • 30:40 "It's really funny that someone who doesn't believe in any of this snuck onto a show." (Referring to himself).
  • 42:00 John E. L. Tenney refers to himself again as a non-believer.
  • 45:50 Reiterates once again, "I don't believe in ghosts."
  • 46:20 Refers to what he is doing as somewhat manipulative. In this whole segment, (from this point on) John E. L. Tenney details how he uses the idea of being on a ghost hunting show to get people to come to his lectures so he can "rip down the fabric of what they think they believe." (John's words, again).

This John Tenney revelations reminds me of something from professional wrestling known as the heel turn. You have a guy who says he's on your side, then when your back is turned - BOOM - you get hit in the head with a chair. The "chair" in this case is that John is a nonbeliever who isn't looking for evidence of hauntings at all. In fact, you were foolish if you believed that, according to Tenney.

But who is supposed to be impressed by John's heel turn? Are his new fans now the fundamentalist materialist skeptics? I doubt it. They don't believe John is one of them, despite his insistence that he is a total skeptic and his believer fans are idiots, they aren't buying it.  And the skeptics are skeptical of John for some very good reasons. The first being that he constantly sells his "findings" as evidence of paranormal activity on the show. Tenney tells them it's just an act, but they aren't so sure.

Then, if you just plug John Tenney into a Google search, you'll come up with John declaring the Devil is real! And other such religious pronouncements.All from a guy who says he is a skeptic and doesn't believe in anything. Who is the real John Tenney? We'll probably never know.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this post or blog is meant to suggest that the supernatural or paranormal does not exist. The fact is, I don't know. All I can do is look at the evidence to see if it stands up to the test of very simple scrutiny. If it passes, yay. If it fails, oh well... there's always next time. Investigators are human. I'm human. We all make mistakes. My pointing out the mistakes that others make should not be taken to imply that they are wrong in general, or that the things they investigate are only the product of imagination.  And the number one lesson of this post: TRUST NOTHING ON A PARANORMAL TV SHOW! Assume they are lying (because they probably are).

Investigator John Tenny enters the room (same camera). John is 6'2"
           ...... photo courtesy John E. L. Tenney