Joe Nickell (check out his interviews on the Point of Inquiry podcast) is the leading paranormal investigator. The Reaping‘s (2007 thriller film) main character was based on Nickell. Here’s an interview about some of his investigations:
Joe Nickell has spent considerable time investigating haunted places, looking for logical explanations to the seemingly illogical. We spoke to Joe recently about some of his most notable cases.
scifidimensions: Joe, how are you?
Joe Nickell: Fine!
sfd: This time we’re talking about hauntings, and I understand you started your career in skeptical inquiry by investigating a haunted house?
JN: That’s true. I had done a few smaller investigations; I’d been involved before in the broad area of the paranormal. I’d investigated a couple of small things, like a “devil baby mummy” (laughs) – a story best left to be told at another time. But in 1972 I was able to investigate, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the famous McKenzie House haunting.
sfd: What was the allegation on the McKenzie House?
JN: Prior to the time I was there, various ghostly shenanigans had gone on for, say, a decade. They included such things as the caretaker family waking up at night hearing footsteps on the stairs when there was clearly no one else in the house and the house was locked; hearing an old printing press (which was locked in the basement) rumbling and clattering. (I should mention that William Lyon McKenzie was a Canadian rebel statesman, and this was his historic printing press locked in the basement.) One night a caretaker’s wife woke up and saw a man in a frock coat, standing beside the bed. And other phenomenon – including ghostly photos. Quite an interesting assortment of phenomena, and this had gone on for some years, and two sets of caretakers had been more or less driven out of McKenzie House.
sfd: How did it come to your attention?
JN: I was aware of it as anyone living in the Toronto at the time (as I was) would have been, because it was the subject of many of the obligatory Halloween activities. It was a local landmark, and well-known as a “haunted place” in Toronto. And at that time, in 1972, I was a magician and then I was a private investigator, and I’d visited the McKenzie House several times and had been interested in it.
sfd: So at some point you decided to investigate it more thoroughly?
JN: Right. I paid a visit there and made a rather concerted study of the place, first just going through on a tour and then exploring some of the possibilities. I got a tip-off pretty early on from a tour guide I was questioning who said that she had heard the footsteps on the stairs, she thought, once during the daytime. Now, it’s noisier in the day, or course, because of city traffic, the hustle and bustle of the day, so you might not hear something as well then, as at night when all is quiet and you’re lying in bed listening intently. Nevertheless, she thought she had heard footsteps, and she had gotten to the staircase, and not only was there not anyone on the staircase at the time, she was convinced that there very well might be a staircase next door. And as soon as I had heard about the sound of the printing press, I was intrigued by the fact that the building next door was McMillan Publishing Company. I notice you laughing knowingly, and that was also my initial response, and when I’ve told this story with slide illustrations at various talks over the years, I always mention this, and I always get a knowing laugh. Then I tell them “Ahhh…I’ve just gotten you to jump to a conclusion!” and people sheepishly admit “Well, yes, you did.” And I tell them that it’s okay, since it’s not unusual for an investigator to jump to a hypothesis – because then you can test it. I went next door and quickly learned that there were in fact no printing presses in the building, because it was only an office and warehouse. However, although I might have arrived for the wrong reason, I was at the right place!
As it turns out, the staircase at McKenzie House is against the wall nearest McMillan and McMillan has a staircase against the wall nearest McKenzie House (laughs) – and these are about 40 inches apart. The staircase in McMillan was an iron staircase, so it would make noisy reverberations as one tromped up and down it. So that was, I think the source of the “footsteps”.
I found a caretaker next door who had asked me in a cagey fashion did I believe in ghosts, did I want to see a ghost, and if I’d come back that evening he would personally show me the ghosts – his eyes twinkling. When I went back that evening, he showed me the staircase and told me about late-night clean-up crews, or family members going up and down the stairs – which, in his opinion, was almost certainly the source of the ghostly footfalls. If you were in the far bedroom in the McKenzie House, indeed you would hear “way over there” footsteps on the stairs, and in fact they were mere inches away from the stairs you had in mind. Then he took me to the basement and showed me how, at night, they would load up these carts with large iron wheels with metal garbage cans and drag them across the rough concrete floor, and they would rumble and clatter and sound not unlike a printing press. As it turns out, McKenzie’s actual hand press could not have made the sounds that were reported, because a hand press would only make a sort of sliding sound – it would not make a rumbling, clattering sound like a rotary press would have.
One of my earlier hypotheses, before I found the real solution, was that the nearby trolley, or perhaps the subway, was producing sounds that were being “telegraphed” through the pipes, or something like that. Although this turned out not to be the explanation, they were good, viable hypotheses I pursued as I looked around the neighborhood. Because I didn’t have just one isolated report, just one time from one person, which could be dismissed as a dream, or a mistake of some kind. Instead, I had multiple accounts by different people who lived in the house, and that persuaded me that maybe there was some actual source for the phenomena.
There had also been reported piano music; of course, that came from the caretakers’ quarters next door [at McMillan]. Anyway, the ghostly phenomena, I believe, came from the McMillan building next door. The caretaker told me that one night he heard some sounds in the back and investigated, and discovered some college boys had a listening device hooked up to the back of the house, some earphones, and they were hearing various “ghostly” noises. They let him have a listen, and after a minute or so he handed the earphones back and told them “Well, boys, I hate to tell you, but the sounds you’re hearing are caused by the automatic flush on the men’s urinal next door.”
This had been a lesson for me, because these phenomena had gone on for some ten years, and when I asked the caretaker [at McMillan] why he hadn’t come forward, because he had been chuckling to himself off and on, he told me that he had made up his mind that if anyone ever asked him outright he would – but no one ever had! I was amazed that no one – none of the ghost hunters, journalists, exorcists, nobody had ever spent the night in the house, or conducted an exorcism. Nobody. Not one. And nobody had ever bothered to go next door, to a building not 40 inches away.
I might mention the other phenomenon – the caretaker’s wife waking up at night and seeing the man in the frock coat. I believe that’s entirely consistent with a phenomenon we’ve discussed before called a “waking dream”, where you wake up and you’re conscious of being awake, but you’re in the twilight between waking and sleeping. Your body may seem to be paralyzed because it’s still in sleep mode. In this state, one may see bizarre imagery, and I believe this is the source of many ghost reports and demon reports since the Middle Ages, and in modern times reports of alien visitations.
I also mentioned the ghostly photographs – there was a photo taken by an alleged warlock that was published in a book by Suzy Smith, a ghost hunter who visited McKenzie House. It shows this warlock with his fingers over the “haunted” piano, and a sort of mist covers that area of the photograph. I had a professional photographer analyze the photograph, and it turns out that it was a flash photo (distinguished by dark shadows and bright glare). When the flash went off, it hit the white music sheets opened on the piano, and this created a sort of flash-back, or flare-back, and washed out an area of the photo and looked like a mist.
sfd: Did you ever spend the night there?
JN: I did not. Historic places like that often frown on such things, although they might occasionally allow a well-known reporter to do it. Plus they had decided to stop publicizing these phenomena, because it was beginning to attract the wrong kind of publicity.
sfd: Have you ever spent the night in any haunted house?
JN: I have, if we extend that to haunted places. I’ve stayed in many haunted inns. La Posada in Santa Fe; the Hand Hotel in Fairplay, Colorado; Brookdale Lodge near Santa Cruz, California (which I did for the Discovery Channel); and many, many others. In fact, in the new issue [September/October 2000] of Skeptical Inquirer I have an article about this called “Haunted Inns” subtitled “Tales of Spectral Guests”. Just in time for Halloween. Unlike most of the Halloween ghost articles, this one is skeptical. Again, it’s difficult to spend the night in a haunted house – if it’s a private residence, you would inconvenience the family, and most historic houses don’t allow it (maybe properly so). But an easy place to stay is a haunted inn! In fact, whenever I travel, all things being equal, I stay in cheap-but-haunted places (laughs).
One of the interesting things about haunted inns versus haunted houses is that in a house you usually only have one family at a time living there, and they may live there for many, many years, so you don’t have very many different people spending the night. On the other hand, a haunted inn has different people constantly, in great numbers, spending the night. Sooner or later – it’s almost predictable – someone will have a waking dream or some other experience, and when they do, a story gets started that there’s a ghost. Many inn managers decide it might be good for business if their place also had a ghost, and you’ll see this in their brochures and promotions. It adds a touch of romance, or a touch of mystery.
sfd: When you stay in these haunted inns, do you try to stay awake at night and observe as much as you can without being obtrusive?
JN: Yes, I usually stay up late, although I don’t deny myself a good night’s sleep (laughs). I stay up into the wee hours and prowl up and down the corridors and check out any places that are said to be “hot spots”. I also try to interview staff, and I’ve developed a questionnaire that I’ve used many times. I tried out my first draft of it at Brookdale Lodge about three years ago, and I’ve since perfected it a little more. Basically, it analyzes how haunted the person is, the number and intensity of sightings. A person who’s had no ghostly experiences would get a zero; someone who thought they heard something once would get a low score; someone who’s actually seen a ghost and interacted with it on multiple occasions would get a high score. The person fills out the questionnaire himself, and it’s all quantifiable and measurable. They get a score. Another part of the questionnaire measures traits associated with what psychologists call “fantasy proneness” – highly imaginative traits. I don’t yet have extensive data, but so far I’ve tried this in a number of places and have some data, but there is a clear correlation; that is, the people that have intense ghostly experiences tend to score high on fantasy proneness.
I remember talking to a bell captain at La Posada who had been there for 43 years in this haunted hotel. He’d never seen a ghost, never had any experiences, and in fact did not believe in ghosts. I would find this spectrum; everywhere I would go I would find people with no experiences who were outright skeptics. I would find a middle group who had some experiences and who were maybe uncertain. Nearly everyone, though, would say “You really need to talk to Shirley” or “You really need to talk to Charlie.” These would be people who’d had very intense experiences; multiple experiences; and as I interviewed them I’d find them to be maybe a little…different. A little more colorful, a little more dramatic. I wanted to find a way to measure that, and while the questionnaire is not, perhaps, hard science, it’s something I’m experimenting with, and something I’m finding very interesting.
sfd: In your various stays at these inns, have you personally seen or heard anything unusual?
JN: I have not, and I have to say, echoing the words of my friend and fellow ghost-buster Dr. Robert Baker (a psychologist at the University of Kentucky): “There are no haunted places, only haunted people.”
I might mention one instance where I caught a “ghost”. I was at the Hand Hotel with some Denver high school students and their teacher at an overnight stay as field research (laughs), and we were sitting in the lobby waiting to go out to dinner, and the lights from the chandelier flickered mysteriously, eliciting oohs and ahhs from the students. However…I and the teacher both saw the desk clerk surreptitiously flip the light switch, and when he saw that we had seen him, he gave us a sheepish shrug.
sfd: So it’s a far cry from the movie Poltergeist where all sorts of crazy things happen?
JN: Well, I’m glad you brought that up, because there is an interesting type of haunting called a poltergeist. In a typical poltergeist case, you have physical disturbances: objects thrown around; glasses broken. One place I investigated (although the phenomenon had long ago ceased) was the haunted Kennebunk Inn in Kennebunk, Maine. I spent a comfortable night there without any glassware being broken, or anything like that. The scuttlebutt from the current owner (who says the place is not haunted) was that a bartender told him an earlier owner had staged these claims for publicity.
In fact, in houses and other places where there are alleged poltergeists, good investigation usually reveals that the phenomenon generally centers around children or adolescents, and that usually there’s a particular child that’s present, or perhaps nearby, when something is thrown. Many of these cases have been solved using hidden cameras, dye tracer powder, fingerprinting and lie detectors (or the threat of lie detectors), and often by witnesses catching a kid throwing something – or in one case I know of by accidentally catching them on film. There’s some wonderful footage shown on one of the Arthur C. Clarke shows, showing a little girl getting up out of bed, getting an object like a vase, breaking it and scampering back to bed. These children usually are disturbed in some way. One little boy’s family had moved, and he was trying to drive the family back to where his friends were. A rather sad story. In another case, a little girl had felt neglected because her mother had been in the hospital for a long period of time. In several cases I know of, the children in question had been adopted and were having trouble adjusting. In all of the cases I know of that have been solved, the “poltergeist” is a flesh and blood child.
sfd: Thanks for talking to us!
JN: My pleasure.