copyright 2008 by Gary L. Pullman
In “Alternative Explanations, Part II: Clairvoyants,” we considered ways by which skeptics seek to debunk alleged clairvoyance. In Part III, we will take a look at how the skeptical character in your horror story may seek to dismiss or provide a natural explanation for alleged telekinetic characters such as Stephen King’s Carrie White and levitating characters such as Regan MacNeil.
Telekinesis refers to the alleged power of some individuals to move or affect material objects with nothing more than the power of their minds. Uri Geller is one such individual. He claims to be able to bend spoons and to perform other feats involving material objects (keys and stopwatches are favorites) by exercising his mind alone.
Scientists have a simple explanation for apparent telekinetic feats in relation, at least, to such objects as pencils and other lightweight things: the supposedly telekinetic person surreptitiously blows on the object that he or she seeks to move.
According to The Skeptic’s Dictionary, Uri Geller met his match when he appeared on The Tonight Show. The host, Johnny Carson, was a former professional magician, and he switched the stock of spoons that Geller had brought to the show to bend with a supply of Carson’s own. Geller decided that he was not up to snuff that night and refused to try to bend the unfamiliar spoons. Carson and a fellow professional magician, the famous debunker James Randi, suspected that Geller had “softened” his spoons before bringing them onto the show, which prompted Carson to make the switch.
Randi got into a protracted and controversial public argument with Geller that included a series of lawsuits filed by each party against the other and a chapter in Randi’s book on hoaxes and frauds, Flim-Flam, or The Truth About Geller. In addition to the blowing-of-lightweight-objects explanation that some scientists have advanced to discredit apparent telekinesis, your horror story’s skeptical character may wish to employ some of Randi’s debunking arguments, among which is that Geller, in handling the spoons, surreptitiously bends them.
Another who has exposed Geller’s apparent trickery is Massimo Polidoro, a founder of the Italian Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CICAP), who discovered a videotape that shows Geller, who appeared on an Italian television program to demonstrate his telekinesis by bending a key and stopping a watch with nothing more than an exercise of his mental powers, apparently cheating at one of the tasks: “Geller can be seen taking out the stem of the watch to move its hands, maybe thinking that the move went unnoticed.”
Surreptitious blowing, bending, and using sleight-of-hand tricks seem to explain the inexplicable powers of Uri Geller, but what about those who claim to be able to rise into thin air and float or hover without benefit of any mechanical devices--in other words, to levitate themselves through the application of telekinesis? What might your horror story’s skeptical character say about this alleged paranormal ability? The Skeptic’s Dictionary attributes levitation to the use of “’invisible’ string, magnets, and other trickery.”
One of the most chilling levitation scenes occurs in The Exorcist, in which Regan MacNeil levitates out of her bed and hovers within a foot of the ceiling, shocking the priests who have been called to her house to exorcize the demon--or legion of demons--who are inhabiting her body. In her case, according to the film, at least, the devil made her do it, but how else can people levitate--or pretend to levitate themselves, others, or objects?
Saints are alleged to have levitated themselves, as have Indian fakirs. Likewise, witches claim to be able to make their bodies--or objects--float off the ground and soar through the air. (When witches levitate, it’s known as transvection.)
In one levitation trick, a magician used a steel beam to support his assistant, whom he was claiming to levitate. After she was horizontal above the stage floor, he passed a hula hoop around her body, from her head to her feet. The section of the hoop that he held between his hands had been removed so that the resulting gap could be passed “through” the beam, creating the illusion that there was no obstruction to impede the passage of the hoop. The result was to make it appear that the woman really was floating unsupported in midair, or levitating. The effect was quite amazing--until the magician revealed how he’d accomplished the trick. In a videotape on The Skeptic’s Dictionary website, famed magician Chris Angel demonstrates another method of levitating.
Your horror story’s skeptical character could challenge a levitating character by suggesting that the trick is accomplished in one of these ways or by the use of another technique. Magicians have worked out several variations by which to make themselves, other persons, and even inanimate objects “float” in, through, and around in thin air--or seem to do so.
Sources Cited and Further Reading:
In Part IV of “Alternative Explanations,” we’ll consider how your horror story’s skeptical character might debunk claims that such creatures as vampires, werewolves, and zombies exist.