Double, Double, Toil and Trouble – The Story of the Scottish Play Curse

By Trent Cash

Among members of the theatre community, there is a long-standing superstition that uttering the name “Macbeth” within the confines of a theater will curse both you and the entire production that is currently being performed (Sherman, 2015). But fear not, the curse can be reversed by walking out of the theater, spinning around three times, cursing, and spitting (French, 2016). This curse, often referred to as the Scottish Play Curse, originated in early 17th century England, though the exact date is unknown (Royal Shakespeare Company [RSC], 2019). What is known, however, is that the belief came into existence because Shakespeare’s contemporaries in the 17th century, including King John I of England, believed in the existence of witches, and feared that the witches who chant “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” at the beginning of Macbeth were real witches attempting to curse the show for eternity (RSC, 2019). While genuine adherence to this belief has faded as the witch’s place in popular culture has diminished, many actors across the western hemisphere still refuse to say the name “Macbeth” in theaters – though the purpose of this superstition has transitioned from genuine fear to little more than tradition (RSC, 2019). While the Scottish Play Curse is no longer genuinely believed in the way it once was, many similar superstitions still exist today. As such, understanding the mechanisms behind these kinds of beliefs is important to developing knowledge of where superstitions come from, how they are propagated, and how they can impact the day-to-day behaviors of individuals from all walks of life. Furthermore, the Scottish Play Curse is clearly an extraordinary belief because science tells us that witchcraft is most definitely not real, so a curse of this sort – which, importantly, has no viable mechanism for occurrence – would truly undermine our understanding of many fields of science. Despite its status as an extraordinary belief, the Scottish Play Curse is so ingrained in theatrical culture that resources explaining its history and sharing stories about its manifestations are plentiful, with sources ranging from actors’ experiences and dramaturgical histories to podcasts and YouTube videos.

When it comes down to evidence for the Scottish Play Curse, pretty much every argument in favor of the curse’s existence is anecdotal or coincidental – a trend that has been true since the curse’s inception. The notion of the Scottish Play Curse began around 1606, when the first production of Macbeth was plagued by a series of accidents, including the death of the actor (not actress) playing Lady Macbeth (RSC, 2019). Critics, however, are quick to point out that we don’t even know when Macbeth was first performed, as record-keeping wasn’t exactly stellar back then. In fact, the first record we have of Macbeth being performed comes from the journal of astrologer Simon Forman, who notes that he saw it in 1611 (Sherman, 2015). While the death of the actor playing Lady Macbeth in the original production cannot be confirmed, many confirmed tragedies associated with productions of Macbeth have occurred since, keeping belief in the curse alive.

One of the most-frequently cited examples of the Scottish Play Curse is 1849’s Astor Place Riot, a New York City riot instigated by a competition between two Shakespearean actors, Edwin Forrest and William Macready, who, at the time of the riot that killed between 22 and 31 people, were both performing – you guessed it – Macbeth (Apmann, 2016). Following the Astor Place Riot, the next mainstream example of tragedy associated with Macbeth occurred in 1937 when superstar actor Laurence Olivier was almost crushed by a stage weight while playing the titular character (The Shakespeare Company, 2017). In the same vein as these historical examples of tragedies associated with Macbeth, many accounts of the Scottish Play Curse have crossed into the media as recently as last year (Faires, 2018). With stories that include actor suicides, characters sleep-walking of stage, stage daggers being replaced with real daggers, and so much more, who could resist the allure of the Scottish Play Curse (RSC, 2019)? Well, apparently the skeptics can, because there are plenty of theatre-community folks who are quick to debunk the Scottish Play Curse. While the primary argument made by skeptics is that witchcraft isn’t real, but rather a manmade notion used to explain the unexplainable (Sherman, 2015), other critics explain that the dark themes and dim lighting used in productions of Macbeth simply put the actors on edge and make the production more accident-prone (Olivero, 2018). Furthermore, Dr. Paul Menzer, a professor at Mary Baldwin College, asserts that many of the accidents associated with Macbeth are simply the result of poor technical design, and that because Macbeth is performed so frequently, accidents are bound to happen every once in a while (Witmore, 2016).

In line with the assertions made by Dr. Menzer, I think a host of cognitive distortions are at the root of the Scottish Play Curse. First and foremost, I believe that the curse arose from a misunderstanding of base rates and probabilities. For example, approximately 50 professional productions of Macbeth were put on from 2011-2016, and that doesn’t include the thousands of non-professional productions performed by school, local, and regional theatres (Kopf, 2016). Probabilistically speaking, with that many productions with many performances each, something is bound to go wrong eventually. The true problem, however, is that people only notice the handful of times that something does go wrong because it “proves” the curse, meanwhile they ignore all of the examples of when nothing goes wrong – a phenomenon associated with the confirmation bias (Heshmat, 2015). Beyond the probabilistic factors, I would argue that performers use the curse as an excuse for mistakes. For example, if an actor forgets his lines, it’s a lot easier to blame it on the curse than it is to blame himself – but if he does well, it’s because he’s a great actor. This tendency to blame external failures for bad outcomes, but attribute successes to internal factors, is an example of the self-serving bias (Fournier, 2018). Furthermore, blaming the curse can help reduce the cognitive dissonance an actor feels when he makes a mistake, but knows he’s a good actor. By blaming the curse, he can adjust the cognition from “I made a mistake” to “the curse messed me up,” a belief that is more consonant with his knowledge of his own skill (Mcleod, 2018). Finally, many actors report having adhered to the tradition of the curse simply because it’s better to be safe than sorry (French, 2016), an attitude that is common with superstitions, particularly when the cost of engaging in the curse-preventing behavior is low (Van Zandt, 2019).

Beyond the cognitive distortions associated with the Scottish Play Curse, there are, without a doubt, a variety of social factors at work. First and foremost, I think it’s important to realize that belief in the curse, because it is held by such a specific group of people (theatre people), can serve as a group identifier or status symbol. As with many things in life, this helps the performers to create an in-group vs. out-group scenario in which believing in the curse is an indicator that someone belongs in the in-group. This is a powerful factor because new members may start to believe in the curse (or at least say they do) so that they fit in better with the group because they want to be accepted by their peers and superiors (Whitbourne, 2010). Furthermore, I think it’s important to realize that, particularly at the highest level, the theatre industry is very competitive, and under the high levels of pressure, having an excuse for a bad performance could become even more essential than it is in lower-pressure environments (Mbe, 2016). As such, the curse could easily become a handy crutch for performers who constantly fear losing their careers. Finally, many actors claim that the key to getting into character is to allow the character to permeate all aspects of their life, and since the story of Macbeth is dependent on a belief in witchcraft, developing a belief in the veracity of the Scottish Play Curse could simply be a technique for developing the highest-quality performance (Ohikuare, 2014). As this technique is passed down from actor to actor, it could easily create a social environment that is more-open to extraordinary beliefs than most.

Ultimately, I believe that the Scottish Play Curse, despite the terrible tragedies with which it has been associated, is a rather light-hearted extraordinary belief that, over the course of time, has turned from a genuine fear into little more than an inside joke for actors across the western world. While many of these actors may still have that nagging voice inside their head telling them to avoid saying the name Macbeth, I believe that very few would tell you that they truly believe in the Scottish Play Curse or any other form of witchcraft. That said, many actors are perfectly open to using the curse as a tool to mitigate the impact of a mistake, but instead of depicting it as a genuine curse as they might have in the 17th century, today they use it to turn their mistake into something to laugh at – and having that knowledge of the curse helps them to become more ingrained in their theatre community. All things considered, I don’t think the Scottish Play Curse is much different than any other superstition. Have you ever knocked on wood, thrown salt over your shoulder, or worn a lucky pair of underwear for too many days just to be safe? These behaviors, in my humble opinion, are no different than the way that actors view the Scottish Play Curse – a charming antiquity that can’t hurt, but can most definitely make you feel attached to the people around you because they do it too.

References

Apmann, S. B. (2016, August 25). The Astor Place Riot. Retrieved from https://gvshp.org/blog/2016/08/25/the-astor-place-riot/

Faires, R. (2018, November 2). Macbeth’s Myriad of Misfortunes. The Austin Chronicle. Retrieved from https://www.austinchronicle.com/daily/arts/2018-11-02/macbeths-myriad-of-misfortunes/

Fournier, G. (2018, October 08). Self-Serving Bias. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/encyclopedia/self-serving-bias/

French, E. (2016, October 18). How to counteract the curse of Macbeth (er… The Scottish Play). Retrieved from https://shakespeareandbeyond.folger.edu/2016/10/18/macbeth-curse-scottish-play/

Heshmat, S. (2015, April 23). What Is Confirmation Bias? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201504/what-is-confirmation-bias

Kopf, D. (2016, September 22). What Is Shakespeare’s Most Popular Play? Retrieved from https://priceonomics.com/what-is-shakespeares-most-popular-play/

Mbe, V. S. (2016, May 25). Theatre, Performance and Society. Retrieved from https://thoughteconomics.com/theatre-performance-and-society/

Mcleod, S. (2018, February 05). Cognitive Dissonance. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/cognitive-dissonance.html

Ohikuare, J. (2014, March 10). How Actors Create Emotions: A Problematic Psychology. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/03/how-actors-create-emotions-a-problematic-psychology/284291/

Olivero, T. (2018, August 22). Macbeth: But, like, how cursed is it, really? Retrieved from https://www.shakespeare-machine.org/news/2018/8/4/but-like-how-cursed-is-it-really

Royal Shakespeare Company. (2019). The Curse of the Scottish Play | Macbeth. Retrieved from https://www.rsc.org.uk/macbeth/about-the-play/the-scottish-play

The Shakespeare Company. (2017, May 25). The Macbeth Curse: A History. Retrieved from https://www.shakespearecompany.com/about-us/blog/the-macbeth-curse-a-history/

Sherman, M. (2015, July 31). The Macbeth Curse: Myth or Reality? Retrieved from https://www.santacruzshakespeare.org/the-macbeth-curse-myth-or-reality/

Van Zandt, T. (2019, February 7). Learning and Superstition [Powerpoint slides]. Retrieved from https://osu.instructure.com/courses/50663/pages/superstition

Whitbourne, S. K. (2010, December 7). In-groups, out-groups, and the psychology of crowds. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201012/in-groups-out-groups-and-the-psychology-crowds

Witmore, M. (2016, September 20). Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 57 [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.folger.edu/shakespeare-unlimited/actor-anecdotes?_ga=2.178261092.1186305577.1550295116-565614297.1550295116

The Greatest Lie Ever Told: How Australia is Fake

One fascinating extraordinary belief that I have just recently come to know is the idea
that the country of Australia doesn’t exist. The theory holds that Australia is just an elaborate
cover up by the British government for a mass murder. People believe that when Australia was
founded as a penal colony that the prisoners were killed instead of sent to the nonexistent island,
but England couldn’t admit that outright. Now these people would argue that it has simply been
too long, so the British government maintains the conspiracy so as not to be viewed as lying and
monstrous. The main people that believe this are people who believe in the flat Earth theory,
thinking that to execute these prisoners they sailed them over the edge of the world. This belief
has found a recent resurgence in notability though its height of popularity was back somewhere
around 2006. This belief is important and extraordinary because it shows the depths to which
people may believe the most insane things, and how one extraordinary belief may stem from, or
feed off, another extraordinary belief.

Obviously, there are many things that one would think proves the existence of Australia,
but believers have ways to refute each. There isn’t much of any proof that Australia is fake, but if
they can show that the things that are used for the counterargument may be wrong, then the only
explanation for that is that there is some interest in keeping Australia, despite the lack of
evidence. One arguing that Australia does exist might point to its inclusion on maps as evidence.
One believing that it doesn’t exist would say that the British government has forced
cartographers to include it as part of the cover up. One might point to it’s being in satellite
imaging such as GPS, but again, that is just because of the meddling of the British government.
Surely meeting a person of seeing an animal native to Australia would prove its existence, but
maybe the people are just actors and the animals are from somewhere else in the world.
Ultimately, one can visit this place, which might indubitably
believers would respond that it is just a cover up, that if one attempts to travel there, they are just
taken to parts of South America or islands near the area of Australia. In this way, if one buys the
possibility of the cover up, then at least this would call into question the existence of Australia. It
is easier for people to believe in this to try to disprove the other side instead of proving their
own.

For this belief, people who believe it are severely misinformed, not only about
geography, but also about how arguments work. They leave it to people that would disagree with
them to prove them wrong. If they have a belief then the burden of proof for whether the belief is
true or not, lies with them, not with the other side. They seem to believe that simple doubt about
something’s existence is equivalent to that thing not existing, but if you look at that logic it
doesn’t really track well. They do not present anything that would work to force the conclusion
that Australia doesn’t exist. At very least most other conspiracies of this sort have proof, however
flimsy, that it really did happen that way. This one, however, just tries to ignore history,
geography, and a whole other culture. It would be quite an elaborate lie for the British
government to invent the Australian culture we know today, as well as the Aborigines that were
there before. Ultimately it seems like the believers in this theory are belligerently ignorant of
many facets of the world.

This belief is one that would theoretically fall out of favor quickly and completely, but
because there is a tight knit group of people that will believe any conspiracy, they can find solace
and support. It almost seems like there might exist some upping the ante in that conspiracy nuts
feed off one another, so even if they don’t believe in the same conspiracy they feel like they have
fellow “truth” seekers with which they can feel safe and can take their ideas to whatever end they
may desire. They see already established, outlandish theories, and so they feel like they can put
their whole heart into their own belief in their own way, trying to examine the most well hid
“truths” of society. It also helps to maintain this belief that there exist other such beliefs with
people positing that there are places that don’t exist such as Finland. Especially now, with the
prevalence of the internet it is so easy to connect with the small amount of people out there that
hold their extraordinary belief and so feel no embarrassment of saying anything they think when
most people would say they are crazy, or some other synonym.

In terms of psychology there are many logical fallacies and biases at work here. First,
there is circular reasoning evident in their argument. The logic seems to go that Australia doesn’t
exist, therefore the proof of those who say it does is just some conspiracy, therefore Australia
doesn’t exist. These people already hold an extraordinary belief in the flat earth theory, and then
they go even more extreme to claim that a large land mass doesn’t exist. These people seem to try
to set themselves apart, believing they are smarter than everyone else in knowing the earth is flat,
but that isn’t enough. They also want to set themselves apart from the other believers by
assuming another extraordinary belief. These are people who likely are very distrusting of
government; people who would question every piece of information pertaining to government
action. This almost seems like a belief that may have started as a joke or something of the sort
that wasn’t to be taken seriously, but then somehow gained traction in an already misinformed
demographic. These people in a way also take confirmation bias to the extreme so that they view
any proof as vague enough to interpret in their own way, finding ways to discount plain facts.
They also seem to engage in post hoc explanations by taking any piece of information and giving
a reason for it after the fact to show it false.

Further information can be found through a quick Google search or by checking out some
of these reports:
• https://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=12043583
• https://theculturetrip.com/pacific/australia/articles/some-people-think-australia-doesntexist-heres-why/
• https://www.express.co.uk/news/weird/953382/Flat-Earth-theory-Australia-not-realconspiracy/amp
• https://amp.theguardian.com/technology/shortcuts/2018/apr/15/australia-doesnt-existand-other-bizarre-geographic-conspiracies-that-wont-go-away

Behind the Belief: Lizard People

According to the lizard people theory, bloodthirsty reptilian aliens first arrived on earth in ancient times. Since then, these beings have been merging with humans through the manipulation of DNA, as well as interbreeding with the human population. The goal of this process was to gain control of the world by obtaining positions of power and influence: royalty, politicians, popular entertainers, etc. Approximately 4% of Americans believe in the lizard people theory, one of the most notable theorists being David Icke. Icke has written several books in which he provides evidence and further explanation. This theory seems to have been most popular in the early 2000s with a steady number of believers remaining to this day. If this theory were true, then the human race is being manipulated by an elite group of shapeshifting reptiles. Although fascinating, this claim seems rather impossible.

A simple way to prove the existence of lizard people is by recognizing the ones among us. Philip Bump’s article, “How to Spot the Reptilians Running the U.S. Government.”, provides a helpful summary of common characteristics: low blood pressure, random scars, a great love for space and science, an eye color of green, hazel, or blue (which may change at any time), and more. Further evidence exists in the form of video: slowing down or pausing can sometimes reveal a glimpse of individuals shapeshifting. However, the staff members of Inverse point out that this “shapeshifting” is really a glitch, or “compression artifact”: a common occurrence when using VHS tapes. Nonetheless, other evidence exists to support the theory. For example, the TopTenz channel discusses Icke’s findings of lizard people references within Bible passages: a serpent tricking Eve into eating the apple, the Nephilim interbreeding with humans, Satan’s characterization as a serpent or dragon-like being.

Icke’s interpretations of passages in the Bible seem to play a large role in this belief system. Given these phrases were rather ambiguous in the first place, it would be easy for Icke to connect them to his theory. With confirmation bias taking place in this form, it could be said that this is a misinterpretation of evidence. Therefore, followers of the theory who are exposed to this “evidence” are misinformed. Another example of a misinterpretation is the aforementioned video glitch that makes people look like they are “shapeshifting”.

This belief system is mainly supported by average Americans. Since they have no considerable control over the economy or government, it is easy to direct mistrust to those in power. This is especially true when individuals in charge make mistakes, or if the believers personally dislike them. Little opposition from society also encourages believers.  Given the popularity of conspiracy theories in general, it may feel acceptable for people to participate in the lizard people theory as well.

The lizard people theory is heavily reinforced by confirmation bias; Icke has been able to mold evidence in favor of his hypothesis. Furthermore, those who have become attached to Icke’s point of view have also developed the ability to interpret supporting information from vague sources. This belief system may also be connected to a desire for structure out of randomness. It is easier to explain how our world leaders managed to gain such positions of power by linking them to a specific group. This process possibly provides a sense of comfort to the believers; they can imagine having power over the leaders by “knowing” their true identities. It should be noted that the lizard people theory is not popular by comparison to other theories. Therefore, a number of Icke’s followers are likely motivated by a desire to feel unique. With these factors in mind, it is no wonder why many are captivated by the lizard people theory.

 

Sources

Bump, Philip. “How to Spot the Reptilians Running the U.S. Government.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 4 Oct. 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/10/how-spot-reptilians-runing-us-government/354496.

Staff, Inverse. “The Bizarre ‘Lizard People’ Conspiracy Theory, Killed by HD Video.” Inverse, Inverse, www.inverse.com/article/45526-lizard-people-theory-debunked-by.

TopTenz. Top 10 Things You Should Know About the Reptilian Conspiracy Theory, YouTube, 27 Dec. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=awMdxKB5s1Y.

An Extraordinary Belief, An Extraordinary Monster: Nessie

The Loch Ness Monster, Nessie, is a mythical aquatic creature believed to live in the freshwater lake, Loch Ness, near inverness Scotland (1). The belief is commonly held in Scotland as part of Scottish Folklore. Information on the Loch Ness Monster can be found through History.com, the BBC, National Geographic, PBS, etc.…There is even an “Official Loch Ness Monster Site” with up to date information and sightings of Nessie. The belief reached its peak popularity in 1933 and is still popular to this day (1). People have traveled from all of the world to Loch Ness in hopes of sighting Nessie. No conclusive evidence has been able to prove Nessie’s existence and yet all the way up until 2017, sightings of Nessie have still taken place (3). The belief is extraordinary because the idea of a pre-historic water creature living in Loch Ness would contradict everything we know about the world. No animal can live over 1500 years.
The strongest evidence to suggest that Nessie exists came from a photo by a well-respected London Physician R. Kenneth Wilson. The picture looked like animal with a long neck rising from the surface (2). Very few people believed the doctor would try to deceive them which affirmed the belief that Nessie is real. Later, however, it came out that the photo had been falsified. The remaining evidence of Nessie comes from primarily anecdotal reports or eye-witness accounts. In an attempt to discover the Loch Ness Monster, there were expeditions launched by the BBC, Oxford, Cambridge, and University of Birmingham to explore the underwater domain, using sonar, in an attempt to find evidence of Nessie. No conclusive evidence was found (1). This was in 1953 and since then there is no empirical evidence to prove the Loch Ness monster was real.
The belief of the Loch Ness Monster is widely held popular belief rooted in the Scottish culture. Due to the convictions about the Loch Ness Monster being real, any disconfirming/disrupting evidence will likely cause cognitive dissonance and internal discomfort (2). People would become more likely to rationalize with ideas such as: “Nessie doesn’t want to be found” or “just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s real.” On the other hand, any so-called sightings or ambiguous evidence of Nessie will be seen as confirmation that their belief in the Loch Ness Monster is correct.
Since the Loch Ness monster is so rooted in Scottish folklore, it is a legend passed down from generation to generation. A four-year-old girl I babysat for told me the story about the Loch Ness monster the other day. She said her grandma, who was born and raised in Scotland, tells her the story at bed time. I asked her if she believed it and she said yes. I then talked to her grandma and asked if she thought it was real. She said she grew up all her life being told the story of Nessie and that is was real. She even agreed that there is no evidence proving the Loch Ness Monster is real, but she still held the belief the monster was real and said she, herself, would never go for a dive in Lake Loch Ness. The popularity of the belief along with the tradition of telling the story of the Loch Ness Monster, could be the reason the belief has been sustained for so long. It is a story significant to the culture of the Scottish Highlands.
Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, is an extraordinary belief held even in the face of disconfirming evidence. Scientists, expeditions, historians, have all failed to prove the existence of Nessie. With no scientific evidence to prove Nessie’s existence, it is a belief still carried around the world. It is engrained into the Scottish Highland culture and a legend that’s continued to pass itself down for over fifteen hundred years.

Sources:

The Legend of Loch Ness – https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/legend-loch-ness/
Loch Ness Monster – https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/article/legend-loch-ness/
2017 has been a ‘record year’ for sightings of the Loch Ness monster – http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/41997932/2017-has-been-a-record-year-for-sightings-of-the-loch-ness-monster

Who Ya Gonna Call? A Look at Ghosts and the Facts Around Them

Belief in the paranormal is one that has been argued for literal centuries, most specifically
belief in spectral beings. A ghost is defined in the dictionary as “an apparition of a dead person
which is believed to appear or become manifest to the living, typically as a nebulous image”.
Pliny, a Roman author in the first century A.D., is credited with documenting the first spectral
haunting. Writing that an elderly man was haunting his home. In 856 A.D. the first poltergeist
was reported in Germany. Reportedly the poltergeist threw rocks and ignited fires in an attempt
to harm the German family (History of Ghost Stories, History Network). These are two of the
earliest recordings of ghost encounters. The belief in ghosts is not an archaic one however, USA
Today reported on a YouGov poll of 1,000 people that found that 45% of polled individuals held
the belief that ghosts exist and can come back from the dead in certain situations (Ashley May,
USA Today).

Evidently, believing in ghosts is still a rather prevalent belief in the United States that is
most definitely extraordinary due to the fact that if ghosts were proven to be real the existence of
an afterlife would be confirmed. This proof would then move to reaffirm or deflate religious,
moral, and scientific arguments made around existence and death. It is important to note that
there is research arguing that religious and paranormal beliefs are different and that there is no
correlation between the two (Langston, Fehrman, Anderson, D’Archangel & Hubbard, 2018) and
that people, religious or not, hold the same affinity to believe in ghosts and paranormal activity.
Certain groups are noted as popularizing the investigation of ghosts, the most famous being The
Atlantic Paranormal Society, otherwise known as T. A. P. S. from the hit show Ghost Hunters.
They claimed to apply the scientific method to ghost hunting and it seemingly took hold in the
early 2000s. Even with the show very rarely finding a location haunted and often debunking
stories, the investigators continued to believe in what they were searching for. The question
becomes, why do people believe in ghosts?

The facts within the belief is extensive, which is expected given the span of time the
belief has been held. The website Ghosts and Gravestones describes the five most common types
of ghosts. First are the most commonly known type of ghost the “Interactive Personality”. This
type is often a deceased family member or historical person and are supposed to retain the
personality traits they had in life. The second type of ghost is the Ectoplasm, which is often seen
as mist or fog within pictures or photographs. The third type being orbs, another entity seen often
in photographs and videos. Funnel ghosts are the fourth and are associated with “cold spots” and
show themselves as a wisp of light in photographs. Finally, the most popular type, the poltergeist
is often referred to as the “noisy” ghost due to the tendency of the spirit to knock things over,
interact with the environment and generally getting our attention by making a ruckus. The point
can be raised, what evidence is there to support this type of thinking.

The easy answer is that there is no undeniable evidence in favor for the existence of
ghosts. Most believers point to personal experiences (Live Science) and anecdotal evidence.
These are most often situations where the individual is unable to confirm the happening was due
to a ghost, but they also are unable to dismiss. A scientific concept used to justify a belief in
ghosts is the First Law of Thermodynamics, which conceptually states that energy is not created
nor is it destroyed but rather it is transformed. Believers using this logic assert that energy from
our bodies will become a spirit when we die. The immediate rebuttal to this argument, as
articulated in a Live Science piece, is that our energy is dispersed to the organisms in the soil and
not through so supernatural energy. The existence of ghosts also relies on photographic evidence,
debatably the most convincing for skeptics on the fence. Photos have been taken for well over a
century that depict a ghostly presence. That may be through picture blurring, orbs (a common
form of ghost), or even full body apparitions. No matter the circumstance, most photos have been
debunked as either being staged, altered, or simply coincidence (BBC). Personal experiences are
also presented as objective evidence and, to be fair, the instances can never be entirely debunked
due to the personal nature of these events. Psychology can try to explain why we continue to
believe these extraordinary beliefs, despite the presence of skepticism.

David Robson of the BBC reported in an article titled Psychology: The Truth About the
Paranormal that there are clear psychological explanations as to why individuals continue to
claim interactions with ghosts are real. The first being that illusions and perceptions of “shadow
people” or ghosts is tied to damage of the right-hemisphere which results in the perception of
beings that are not there (BBC). A less neurological explanation is that the belief in ghosts is not
falsifiable to many believers. While images, videos, experiences, and locations have been
debunked numerous times they belief still holds with the “yeah, but…” mentality. The
experience is inherently personal and anecdotal which lends itself perfectly to confirmation bias,
by simply seeking information that agrees with the mentality exhibited. Ghost stories are a
defining part of urban folklore, the stories are designed to seem plausible no matter the case, and
therefore they contribute greatly to the anecdotal telling and perception of extraordinary events.
It also makes sense because believing is also more comforting for people because that would
affirm that there is in fact an afterlife and therefore eliminates some uncertainty in life.

Ghost stories began with Pliny, moved to Shakespeare (with Macbeth), and still haunt us
through the “based on a true story” films like The Conjuring, The Exorcist, and Paranormal
Activity. Overall, believing in ghosts seems to be harmless with very little interpersonal
ramification. Around half of polled individuals believe in ghosts and that seems to make sense.
There is as much evidence to “prove” they do exist as there is convincing evidence that they do
not exist. This dichotomy is achieved through a non-falsifiable nature of argumentation which
will result in a never-ending cycle of skepticism. Personally, I think believing in ghosts is fun
and I also think attempting to debunk ghosts is fun. The potential for the existence is exciting and
I would be tempted to say that those “hunting” ghosts want them to be real as much as they want
them to not be.

Sources:
Editors, History.com. “History of Ghost Stories.” History.com, A&E Television
Networks, 29 Oct. 2009, www.history.com/topics/halloween/historical-ghoststories

May, Ashley. “How Many People Believe in Ghosts or Dead Spirits?” USA Today,
Gannett Satellite Information Network, 25 Oct. 2017,
www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/10/25/how-many-peoplebelieve-ghosts-dead-spirits/794215001/

Ghosts & Gravestones. “Types Of Ghosts and Spirits.” Ghosts & Gravestones,
www.ghostsandgravestones.com/types-of-ghosts

Radford, Benjamin. “Are Ghosts Real? – Evidence Has Not Materialized.” LiveScience, Purch, 17 May 2017, www.livescience.com/26697-are-ghosts-real.html

Timberlake, Howard. “Future – The Intriguing History of Ghost Photography.” BBC
News, BBC, 30 June 2015, www.bbc.com/future/story/20150629-the-intriguinghistory-of-ghost-photography.

Suedeld, P. & Mocellin, J. S. P. (1987) The “sensed presence” in unusual environments.
Environment and Behavior. 19 (1); 33-52.

Langston, W., Fehrman, C., Anderson, K., & D’Archangel, M. (2018) Comparing
religious and paranormal believers. Peace and Conflict Journal of Peace
Psychology. 24(2): 236-239

Mothman: A West Virginia Folklore

Starting on November 15, 1966, the people of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, an otherwise quiet town along the Ohio River, began seeing something strange in there community. That night was the first widely reported sighting of a creature known as the Mothman, described as “flying man with 10 foot wings” and “seven feet tall with large eyes” (“Monster Bird”). In the sighting that started the town’s belief in the creature, two young couples were out for a drive late at night when they saw the creature. Terrified, they left the scene and reportedly were chased by it at speeds of “about 100 miles an hour” (“Couples See”). From here, many in the town began to report sightings of the Mothman, as well as other extraordinary phenomena, such as UFOs and even the men in black (Posey 2017). The belief in the Mothman became important to these people, as they began to blame bad happenings from disappearing dogs (“Eight People”) all the way up to the collapse of the Silver Bridge in 1967 on the creature. However, like Bigfoot and other cryptids, belief in the Mothman defies any animal we have ever documented, and the presence of some other precognitive and psionic abilities brings the creature even further from the reality we know.

To start, Roger and Linda Scarberry and Steve and Mary Mallette had their encounter on November 15, 1966. They reported their sighting immediately and even said that they wouldn’t report it alone, “ but there were four of us who saw it” (“Couple See”). From here, all evidence for the existence in mothman remains anecdotal and circumstantial, such as weird footprints or clouds of dust, though these sightings remained widespread in the community until the supposed sightings at the collapse of the Silver Bridge on December 15, 1967. Arguments against the belief typically state that the creature was actually simply a large bird, such as an owl, heron or even a sandhill crane. The sandhill crane is a bird that “stands almost as high as a man and has a wingspan of more than seven feet,” and even has “large circles of bare reddish flesh around the crane’s eyes” (“Monster Bird”), possibly explaining both the creatures stature and the red eyes, although the crane was not typically seen in the area during the time period of the sightings. Additionally, both couples reported that the eyes only glowed red “only when their lights shined on it,” (“Couples See”) a fact that strongly suggests the red eyes were simply a result of the “red eye effect” that is so common to flash photography.

Once the belief began, many cognitive errors could have come into play to reinforce it. While investigating the sighting, Deputy Millard Halstead found a cloud of dust the “could have been caused by the bird,” as well as finding strange footprints (“Couples See”). These would be examples of post hoc reasonings since they attribute the observed phenomena to a wholly cause that they hadn’t even directly observed. Confirmation bias may be present in the sandhill crane theory as well. The crane is likely the most plausible cause, but many would dismiss it since it wasn’t native to the region. They cherrypick that detail to dismiss the theory, and since no other good explanation exists, this dismissal strengthens their own belief in the creature. Third, because the sighting was so memorable and widely reported, the availability heuristic would come into play. People would began to just associate any “strange” occurences to the creature because it was much easier for them to remember. Additionally, many signs of a pseudoscientific belief are present here, such as the retreat to the supernatural, the abundance of anecdotal evidence, and even the appeal to authority caused by police actively investigating the sightings.

Of course, the society of Point Pleasant would lend itself to a folktale like this. Even today, Point Pleasant only has a population of slightly over 4,000 people, according to the 2010 census. It was a small city, and such an event was huge for the community at the time. Everyone knew the Scarburrys and Mallettes, so they would be more likely to believe them, and when weird things happened to others, the Mothman became an easy scapegoat. Jan Harold Brunvand noted that recountings state at least 100 people saw the Mothman, with many unreported sightings occurring as well. Basically, the size of the community allowed for everyone to either have a story or know someone with one, further reinforcing the belief the town had. This social support for the belief was probably what really drove the Mothman stories to become so famous.

Regardless of the social aspect, the dismissal of plausible explanations, the presence of supernatural abilities and even the little mental mistakes that made believing easier, the Mothman remains important to West Virginia folklore.

 

Works Cited

“Couples See Man-Sized Bird…Creature…Something.” Point Pleasant Register, 16 Nov. 1966.

Cryptid. “Mothman Sightings and the Point Pleasant Silver Bridge Collapse.” Exemplore, Exemplore, 2 Nov. 2018, exemplore.com/paranormal/Mothman-Sightings-and-the-Silver-Bridge-Collapse.

“Eight People Say They Saw the Creature.” Williamson Daily News, 18 Nov. 1966.

“Monster Bird with Red Eyes May Be Crane.” Gettysburg Times, 1 Dec. 1966.

“Mothman.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mothman.

“Mothman Museum.” Mothmanmuseum.com, www.mothmanmuseum.com/mothman-museum.html.

Posey, Aaron. “50 Years Later: Point Pleasant, Silver Bridge Collapse and the Mothman.” 1428 Elm, FanSided, 28 Dec. 2017, 1428elm.com/2017/12/28/point-pleasant-silver-bridge-collapse-and-the-mothman-50-years-later/.

“Scarberry and Mallette’s Mothman Sighting.” TheMothMan Wikia, themothman.wikia.com/wiki/Scarberry_and_Mallette’s_Mothman_Sighting.

 

David Icke: Love and Lizard People

David Icke: Love and Lizard People

David Icke has been an icon of conspiratorial movements since he first declared himself the son of God in the early 1990s. His laying out of the foundations of the idea of a New World Order is what has maintained his popularity. Central to this belief is the concept of reptilian-human hybrids (otherwise known as “lizard people”) descended from a cross-breeding with interdimensional reptilian beings (known as Archons) that control Earth and its political machinations through manipulation (Icke). The Archons wish to manipulate humans because, by keeping them in a constant state of fear and hate, the Archons are able to feed off of negative energy that is given off. In fact, Icke believes that the entire universe is made up of vibrational energy and the manipulation of humans is what keeps them from realizing this (Icke). All of the components of this complicated system are contained in Icke’s books and lectures, with much of his direct linking between lizard people and important political figures in The Biggest Secret (1999). His beliefs are constantly evolving in popularity, and he is able to tour theaters across the world to lecture on his beliefs.

As Icke presents, the most significant evidence for his theory of lizard people and the Archons is his linking of the “reptilian bloodline” to a large number of U.S. presidents, celebrities, and other global figures (Barkun). He also cites political events such as the destabilization of the Middle East by Western powers as an intentional move to create fear and violence and social media as an experiment in surveillance and supplement to artificial intelligence (Oksman).  This is where many of Icke’s beliefs start to make sense in some capacity – there is objective accuracy to the initial aspects of many of his claims. Western governments have indeed destabilized Middle Eastern ones through the supply of arms and monetary support, and it is common knowledge that governments around the world use social media activity and pinging as part of their surveillance activities. He has also been “correct” about some very broad predictions about sociopolitical events, yet so were many pundits who made claims about military or political actions without an attached reptilian belief system. There is significantly less credible, fact-based evidence for his ensuing connections to the Archons and the reptilian bloodline. There are false links in the family trees that he has drawn, along with very clear inconsistencies in his more specific predictions (such as the world ending in earthquakes and flooding in the early 1990s).

Although Icke’s followers have sub-beliefs as broad as his own (for example, there are Facebook groups that seek to “reconcile” Icke’s reptilian ideas with the flat-earth movement), all of the beliefs, Icke’s included, seem to stem from a misinterpretation of evidence. They begin with widely-accepted events and their outcomes, but then justify those events post-hoc with the complexities of Icke’s reptilian beliefs. Because there is an initial element of truth, it could be that Icke and his followers are both informed and misinformed at the same time – a combination that contributes to their insistence on their belief systems.

Icke’s followers come from all sorts of social classes and, because he is the only prophet and arbiter of his beliefs, it is hard to pin down exactly who most often agrees with him. However, there is a not-insignificant overlap of Icke supporters and anti-Semites. This stems from Icke’s mentioning of a handful of famous, Jewish families as key members of the reptilian-human hybrids. As such, it does not seem uncommon to see members of the David Icke Facebook groups post anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and tropes. It should be noted that Icke himself insists he is not anti-Semitic (because of his belief that hate feeds the Archons) and that ultimate love is the only way to overcome the reptilian beings (VICE). As alluded to earlier, Icke’s beliefs are often used to complement other extraordinary beliefs, so perhaps people who believe in other, less broad beliefs run into Icke through their initial beliefs in things like the faking of the moon landing. Having online communities helps people sustain these beliefs, along with the fact that Icke maintains his own website with near-daily articles and updates. He is often the subject of documentaries, news specials, and regularly goes on tour to spread his beliefs, as well. All of this activity helps keep his supporters engaged in the beliefs.

In all, I think that the biggest contribution to Icke’s reptilian overlord belief system is his system’s intricacy and his own personal charisma. By adding on additional explanations as conflicting information arises (in a post-hoc fashion), Icke is able to “adapt” to challenges. He and his supporters can then scour the globe to find happenings that “prove” them correct (much like the justification of predictions from Nostradamus). The latter is a strong example of confirmation bias. Not only that, but the fact that so many of Icke’s ideas are founded on an initial understanding of global events may contribute to the resilience of he and his practitioners’ beliefs: they believe that, because they have that initial information threshold, they are “too smart to be fooled”. This goes hand-in-hand with the often seemingly-rational methods of explanation that Icke employs in his live talks. That is, there is an appearance of scientific reasoning and logic even though virtually no aspects of the scientific method have been employed. Perhaps most of all, Icke and his extraordinary beliefs are more easily accepted because the ultimate takeaway is largely positive: be kind to one another (Ward). His message that universal love of mankind is the only solution can certainly be appealing to many, and the lack of a violent call to action may be a boon to his cause.

 

References

“Culture of Conspiracy Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America.” Culture of Conspiracy Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, by Michael Barkun, University of California Press, 2014, pp. 101–110.

Icke, David. The Biggest Secret. Bridge of Love Publications USA, 2001.

Oksman, Olga. “Conspiracy Craze: Why 12 Million Americans Believe Alien Lizards Rule Us.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 7 Apr. 2016, www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/apr/07/conspiracy-theory-paranoia-aliens-illuminati-beyonce-vaccines-cliven-bundy-jfk.

VICE, director. Magic Bullet: David Icke and the Lizard Apocalypse. Magic Bullet: David Icke and the Lizard Apocalypse, VICE, 2012, video.vice.com/en_us/video/magic-bullet-david-icke-and-the-lizard-apocalypse-vice-specials/57640f3191a3e54d645b90b1.

Ward, James. “Mocked Prophet: What Is David Icke’s Appeal?” New Humanist, 10 Dec. 2014.

Superstition: Bad luck #13

The extraordinary belief I am interested in involves superstition called “Bad Luck”, especially the number 13 and conspiracy behind it. It is considered one of the more common superstitious beliefs that are found around the world and known as a synonym for “Bad Luck”. Research shows that 1 out of four people consider themselves superstitious. The interesting aspect about “Bad luck” is that it is so universal and anywhere you go you discover a new/different sign of bad luck. It is common to see people avoid the number 13 in and around elevators, hotels, airlines, etc.

There is a lot of controversy around the statistical proof to support this superstition. While some researchers state that, “No data exists, and will never exist, to confirm that the number 13 is an unlucky number”, there should not be a reason to think that any number is more unlucky than another. However, others published findings that indicates otherwise. As an example, they analyzed traffic flow and car accidents on a motorway during 5 months that the 13th fell on a friday during a 2 year long period. Comparing these data to data collected on other dates it showed that transport accidents “increased by as much as 52% percent”.

A cognitive contribution to this belief could be religious, which I will expand on later, but also the term called triskaidekaphobia, which is an irrational fear of  the number 13. Another reason the belief exist can be due to confirmation bias and self fulfilling prophecies. Confirmation bias is the tendency to ignore evidence that would disconfirm your belief and only focus on evidence that would ‘confirm’ their existing beliefs. Self fulfilling prophecy can be another factor while superstitious belief exists. It is a belief that tend to become true, because we already belief in it, which shapes our way of acting towards it and reinforces the belief to become true.

This extraordinary belief  about the unlucky number 13 can be traced back to biblical times.  Over time, there have been various reasons why people consider it an unlucky number, tracing back to Christianity. “Some believe this is unlucky because one of those thirteen, Judas Iscariot, was the betrayer of Jesus Christ. From the 1890s, a number of English language sources relate the “unluckythirteen to an idea that at the Last Supper, Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus, was the 13th to sit at the table.” It is likely that many Christians hold this extraordinary belief.

After reviewing the entire concepts and history of the extraordinary belief of number #13, it mostly seems that Heuristics such as Confirmation Bias and self-fulfilling prophecies play a role. It seems that many groups of people take an example from history where the number 13 may have been unlucky and use it to justify the belief as a whole.  

 

Cited work:

 

https://theconversation.com/the-science-of-superstition-and-why-people-believe-in-the-unbelievable-97043

https://www.livescience.com/14147-number-13-bad-luck.html

http://www.triskaidekaphobia.info

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/psychology-writers/201210/using-self-fulfilling-prophecies-your-advantage

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/13_(number)

 

The Bermuda Triangle

The Bermuda Triangle by Affie Siddiqui

A history of speculation surrounds the area west of Florida, south of Puerto Rico, and north of Bermuda called the Bermuda Triangle. The Bermuda Triangle is the area that over 50 ships and dozens of planes have disappeared. Multiple theories have formulated to explain this phenomenon, the first being the “Methane Gas Theory.” Some scientists have claimed the reason ships and planes disappear is that of the methane gas and oil deposits found at the bottom of the sea. The mass of the gas and oil can cause large eruptions that burst through the surface. Another theory claims the disappearances are due to no more than “rogue waves”. Oceanographer Simon Boxall of University of Southampton claimed the reason there are no traces of the missing ships and planes because “there are storms to the south and north which come together and additional ones that come from Florida.” In addition to the “Rogue Wave Theory,” there is the “Sargasso Sea Theory.” The Sargasso Sea is the area within the Bermuda Triangle where ocean currents meet to bind the certain spot and could trap ships that pass through as it causes them to stop moving. As there are many more theories ranging from practical to supernatural, there are contrasting theories that use more rationale to explain the Bermuda Triangle disappearances. Karl Kruszelnicki, an Australian scientist who performed research on the Bermuda Triangle, declared that the missing vessels and planes are nothing but “human error, bad weather, heavy air, and sea traffic.” The unconvinced scientists insisted the high rate of ships and planes that went missing was nothing supernatural, just unfortunate circumstances. The US Coastguard was asked to reflect on the disappearances to which they concluded, “The number that go missing in the Bermuda Triangle is about the same as everywhere else in the world.” There are logical explanations for the boats and planes to go missing as well as theories regarding alien abduction. Although there are reasonable explanations, many are skeptical about the declarations of Kruszelnicki and the US Coastguard regarding the Bermuda Triangle.

 

Work Cited

Bhattacharya, Raj. “Bermuda Triangle Theories That Will Stun You.” Bermuda Attractions, www.bermuda-attractions.com/bermuda2_000061.htm.

Dennis, Felix. “Bermuda Triangle: Five Theories on the Mysterious Disappearances.” The Week UK, The Week UK, 3 Aug. 2018, www.theweek.co.uk/95557/bermuda-triangle-five-theories-on-the-mysterious-disappearances.

Ferreira, Becky. “Atlantis, Aliens, and Time Warps: The Enduring Mystery of the Bermuda Triangle.” Motherboard, VICE, 13 Aug. 2018, motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/ev8kam/the-enduring-mystery-of-the-bermuda-triangle-and-its-many-scientific-explanations.

Lusher, Adam. “Scientist ‘Solves’ Mystery of the Bermuda Triangle – by Claiming There Was No Mystery in the First Place.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 27 July 2017, www.independent.co.uk/news/science/bermuda-triangle-mystery-solved-latest-theories-dr-karl-kruszelnicki-debunked-unexplained-a7861731.html.

Radford, Benjamin. “Bermuda Triangle: Where Facts Disappear.” LiveScience, Purch, 25 Sept. 2012, www.livescience.com/23435-bermuda-triangle.html.

 

 

 

What’s the Big Deal About Bigfoot?

The sasquatch, or wood ape, commonly known as bigfoot due to its enormous foot prints, resembles a mix between a gorilla and a human. Bigfoot is covered in reddish-brown hair similar to that of an orangutan and walks on two legs. There have been claims of bigfoot sightings all over north America, Canada, and even some in the Himalayan mountains. Sightings of the beast-like human occur mainly in dense forests, far from human population, but it has been known to cross over busy streets and through people’s wooded backyards. Today, there are many organizations, such as NAWAC and NABS, tv shows, such as Finding Bigfootand Mountain Monsters and even websites from multiple states, which are dedicated to finding and sharing evidence on the historical creature. Those who have claimed to see bigfoot have a strong belief in its existence and wish to spread awareness about the mysterious beast, due to the lack of factual evidence on it. The existence of bigfoot could mean there are other creatures in the world that have yet to be discovered and it could also contribute to the theory of evolution.

Sightings of the sasquatch in North America began as early as the 1830s. Evidence of bigfoot has been found in multiple forms, including video footage, eye witness accounts, foot tracks, voice recordings and body samples, such as hair and blood. Most of the evidence comes from that of eyewitnesses, but because a negative cannot be proven, this type of evidence is not dependable. There have been hundreds of thousands of accounts supporting the existence of bigfoot, but the majority have been proven to be a hoax. For example, human reenactments of bigfoot footage show it is highly possible that a man or woman could have put on a costume to portray themselves as bigfoot, in order to convince people of its existence. People have also been known to walk through wooded areas with handmade shoes to create bigfoot tracks in order to fool bigfoot believers. Of all the evidence, real or fake, one thing is for sure, those who believe in the extraordinary bigfoot will likely never stop.

People who believe in extraordinary things are often mistaken due to confirmation bias. They look for any information that has the potential to support their belief. For example, bigfoot hunters travel to the wilderness where multiple sightings of the beast have occurred. Their hope is to capture evidence for the scientific world to prove that the sasquatch in fact exists. With the mindset that the skeptical beast is real, these people often will hear a simple coyote howl or bear grunt and automatically think it’s the animal they have been searching for. Believers also misinterpret evidence due to practical jokers who disguise themselves as a sasquatch and deceivingly have someone record them while they act with strange mannerisms that do not correspond to that of a human. With the support of others who believe in the wood ape, the believers have a hard time changing their views.

Bigfoot believers, also known as bigfooters, come from all over the world, but they are mainly people who have had personal experiences with the beast, whether that be seeing it for themselves, or hearing accounts of friends or family who witnessed the wood ape. Such people usually dwell close to forests or mountains where civilization is dispersed scarcely throughout. These small knit communities often have town meetings to discuss personal accounts of bigfoot sightings with those whom are interested. These town meetings often contribute to the confirmation bias of those who view the sasquatch as real.

People who believe in this fictitious creature likely sustain their belief due to the phenomena of confirmation bias as well as the support of others who are also firm believers in the extraordinary bigfoot. The belief likely provides a sense of curiosity because other creatures may be out in the world that have yet to be discovered. Although it can be comforting to think that new species are still being discovered, it can also blind one from reality. A majority of sasquatch evidence that has been studied, has been proven to be fraud, and the rest very much has the potential to be a hoax. So, is bigfoot really out there?

Sources:

Benjamin Radford. “Bigfoot: Man-Monster or Myth.” Live Science, 6 Nov. 2012,

https://www.livescience.com/24598-bigfoot.html. Accessed 7 Feb. 2019

Benjamin Radford. “Bigfiit at 50 Evaluating a Half-Century of Bigfoot Evidence.” CSI, Volume 26.2, April 2002,

https://www.csicop.org/SI/show/bigfoot_at_50_evaluating_a_half%20century_of_bigfoot_evidence. Acessed 10 Feb.2019

Tom Harris. “How Bigfoot Works.” How Stuff Works, 2019 https://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-

myth/strange-creatures/bigfoot2.htm. Accessed 8 Feb. 2019