SAPS: Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society
This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 20 - June 2007.
Alison Smith is the founder of the group SAPS, Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society. The group focuses on debunking, recreating and exploring paranormal phenomena in an honest experiment to find out what's really there. Here, she writes about why she founded the group, and what they do. To see their work, check out their website at www.skepticalanalysis.com.
I remember being very young and flipping through the pages of what I considered to be the greatest work of literature known to man. I would like to pretend that, at this young age, I was fascinated by the quest of Captain Ahab, or the adventures of Oliver Twist. Unfortunately, and in all honesty, I was held rapt not by a great classic but by a series of short fiction known as "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark." Within the pages of these fine books, I discovered horrifying sentences that could keep me up for, quite possibly, the rest of my life. And on each page was an equally terrifying drawing of whatever beast crept out of the story to wreak its evil havoc upon the world. At some point, however, I realized that though the cover of these books said in large print that each story had a basis in truth, there was no way they could. I couldn't understand it, because, even as a child, I realized that if many of the stories were true, it would mean that no one was left to relate them to anyone else - all the characters had died! How could the stories exist if everyone who had been present to witness them had died in terror of the ghost they had offended? It made no sense.
As I grew older, I read more "true" ghost stories, and came upon an interesting fact. I do not use the quotes here around the word "true" to imply that I believe they are false. That is how the word appeared on the covers of the books. If they were true, then why put the word in quotes? Why use the word at all if they were not?
Already, I know, I sound something like a bookworm, and yet my reading all had one particular slant - I wanted to know about the impossible. I wanted to hear of phenomena that would shock me if ever I were to witness it. I decided that I wasn't particularly interested in seeing it myself - ghosts are, after all, frightening. But the very idea that such things existed had a grip on me that I couldn't easily explain. I came to realize that the stories I was reading were "true" in the sense that they had been told for a long time, as pieces of folklore, and originally when spoken were stated as truth. It wasn't a very satisfying conclusion.
I avidly watched Unsolved Mysteries and The the X-Files, and read the basis for each. I still have, on my bookshelf, all the books I studied so closely in my childhood seeking answers.
When I was twenty, a friend of mine who listened religiously to Art Bell convinced me to go on a "ghost hunt" in search of Electronic Voice Phenomena. I had high hopes for the venture. I'd walked through "haunted" places before, wondering at the truth, and yet hoping not to see it if it meant ghosts. And sometimes spooky things happened. Yet, afterward, when I would run through the evidence, I was never quite satisfied. There always seemed to be some nagging feeling that this wasn't the only explanation, and to say it was would be to disregard my own thought process. I was throwing out parts of what had happened to force-fit the situation into a typical haunting. I wasn't examining the evidence.
So I went along on the EVP hunt, to a haunted park in Arlington, Texas known as Veterans' Park. We did not wander around for long, as the park is not in the best possible neighborhood and it was quite late. Afterward, when we climbed into the car, we listened to the tape. We had recorded a laugh. It was unmistakable, and didn't sound like either of us. Of course, we gasped and laughed and had a grand old time with our "proof." It never felt like proof. Why was I so convinced it wasn't just one of us? The answer came to me in a flash, and it was so simple I could not believe I had never thought of it before - I quite simply wanted to believe it wasn't.
I couldn't believe the ghost stories I'd read because they sounded made up, and yet I didn't want to believe the alternative - that none of it was real. I expanded my reading to include writings about a man named James Randi, and then more about a wonderful organization called CSICOP. I couldn't believe there were other people out there as interested in the paranormal as I was, and who were looking at it so rationally. For years, my Christmas list had "subscription to Skeptical Inquirer" on it. I never got the subscription, but I always wondered what secrets were revealed within its pages.
Nearly a year ago, I discovered a television program called Ghost Hunters, which chronicled the travels and adventures of a group called The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) through haunted locations. They had tons of equipment, and would wander through darkened passageways reading off the information that poured out of these supposed ghost-readers.
My skepticism slipped a little when I watched the show. I thought to myself that either this group had the most convincing evidence of ghosts the world had ever seen, or they were charlatans. And I was all for leaning toward the convincing side.
I bought a season of the show, and I ran through it within a week. Every time a good piece of evidence was shown, I would stop, rewind, and watch again. Because I watched it in this way, I soon began to notice inconsistencies. Sometimes the group's members would say things that were patently false - like that fishing line could not have been used to move a chair (which a ghost had apparently pushed across an empty room) because fishing line would show up on a camera that had nightshot. It nagged at me, because I was fairly certain that it wouldn't show up. And even if it would, thread wouldn't. Magicians are extremely fond of "Invisible Thread," and that doesn't even show up if you're looking directly at it from six inches away. To say that it had to be a ghost because one thing (which probably wasn't even impossible) couldn't be the explanation was ridiculous.
I e-mailed the group's members, asking questions about the footage. I posted on their message board. None of it was rude. I wanted to be convinced they were right. And yet, as soon as I began to post skepticism, I was banned from the forum. My e-mails were never answered. And I realized the truth - if these people were really showing proof of the paranormal, they wouldn't mind questions. But, clearly, they did.
A small group of friends and I went out the next week and bought similar ghost-hunting equipment. We began to test it. Not on the presence of ghosts, but merely to see if it was effective and could be used in the way it was shown on the program. It wasn't, and it couldn't be. Together, we created a site to tell about our experiences. Because TAPS had inspired us all, our acronym is quite similar. We are SAPS (Skeptical Analysis of the Paranormal Society) not only because of the similarity, but also because for a moment we blindly believed.
Within only a few weeks, we had published our first article regarding TAPS. We began to branch out, seeking psychics and mediums to record, analyze, and test validity. We never found any proof of any paranormal phenomena. That doesn't mean, necessarily, that it doesn't exist, but as more time goes by, I am inclined to believe it doesn't.
As the organization grew, we gained the support of a great number of skeptics and paranormal societies across the world. Magicians, scientists, statisticians, forensic analysts, journalists, and many more have contacted the group wanting to contribute, vent their frustrations, or tell us we're all going to hell. And yet, even though we have said many things that have caused hate mail in volumes so large the inbox couldn't be accessed for a month, even though we've been threatened with death and legal action and any number of other things that should force us away from the site and possibly into hiding in the closet, we still continue.
In the past year, we have published five articles outside our own site, given three radio interviews, consulted as "experts" in the realm of ghost hunting, and reviewed evidence for other skeptical organizations. We have traveled to Las Vegas for the James Randi Educational Foundation's Amazing Meeting, to the Los Angeles Center for Inquiry, to GhoStock in Savannah, and are prepared for summer visits to haunted locations in Scotland and France.
It has been an amazing journey, and the thing that holds the group together and makes it all possible is a desire for the truth no matter form it takes. Every review of the evidence is another moment where the possibility for everything to change takes shape. We take it all quite seriously, perhaps on some level because we all still want to believe, or perhaps simply because belief is such a fascinating process. When you want to believe, the evidence is easily twisted into the shape you most desire.
At SAPS, we most desire the truth. The shape of what we see is its own.
This article originally appeared in the SSA eMpirical No. 20 - June 2007.