Meet the investigator who’s disproving the paranormal

  • Joe Nickell, 72, is a longtime skeptic and paranormal investigator who’s been dubbed the real-life Agent Scully
  • Nickell believes paranormal mysteries shouldn’t be dismissed but carefully investigated with a view toward solving them
  • He uses his experiences as a stage magician and private detective to expose paranormal forgeries and hoaxes    
  • Since 1995, he’s worked with the Center for Inquiry in Buffalo, New York, making him perhaps the world’s only full-time salaried paranormal investigator 

Joe Nickell is ‘terrible’ at sighting ghosts and has a ‘pitiful record’ of catching extra-terrestrials.

It’s as if they’re not real, he says.

Nickell is perhaps the world’s only full-time salaried paranormal investigator. He travels around the world conducting field research on everything from monsters and ghosts to psychics and religious phenomena.

People call him a debunker but Nickell is unapologetic about trying to find the truth. He’s been investigating hauntings since attending his first séance in 1969 and says he has never come across any evidence that would prove the existence of ghosts.

The Loch Ness monster? It’s an otter, he says. Bigfoot? Oh, that’s just a bear.

It is, after all, his job to explain away the paranormal.

For more than two decades Joe Nickell (pictured with some unusual drinking buddies) - a former stage magician and detective - has traveled around the world challenging paranormal claims with the Center for Skeptical Inquiry in Buffalo, New York. He's pictured here at a 'Martian' bar in New York City for a 1999 BBC-produced series

For more than two decades Joe Nickell (pictured with some unusual drinking buddies) – a former stage magician and detective – has traveled around the world challenging paranormal claims with the Center for Skeptical Inquiry in Buffalo, New York. He’s pictured here at a ‘Martian’ bar in New York City for a 1999 BBC-produced series

Nickell (pictured) is perhaps the world's only full-time paranormal investigator. He began to consider himself a skeptic of paranormal claims in 1969 when he attended his first séance as part of a CBC radio special, Houdini in Canada. He's held his own séance since 1996

Nickell (pictured) is perhaps the world’s only full-time paranormal investigator. He began to consider himself a skeptic of paranormal claims in 1969 when he attended his first séance as part of a CBC radio special, Houdini in Canada. He’s held his own séance since 1996

Bigfoot is just one of the myths Nickell disproves for a living. Here he's on an expedition at Bluff Creek in California, the site of an infamous Bigfoot 'sighting'

Bigfoot is just one of the myths Nickell disproves for a living. Here he’s on an expedition at Bluff Creek in California, the site of an infamous Bigfoot ‘sighting’

Nickell points toward scientifically explainable reasons for why people may think they’ve seen the supernatural. A ghost could be the result of sleep paralysis, the traumatic grief of losing a loved one and the power of suggestion. He has a theory, though, about why people remain fascinated with the paranormal.

‘People do have very human needs. They want to believe in wonderful things. When they’re in grief, they have trouble coping with that,’ said Nickell, who’s authored numerous books on the paranormal and served as a character consultant on the 2007 horror movie The Reaping.

His lack of specific credentials – he has a PhD in English from the University of Kentucky – is offset by experience and a broad area of knowledge.

He is frequently asked to comment on paranormal subjects, usually as the ‘token skeptic’. He’s worked on popular cases like the events that inspired the hit movie The Haunting in Connecticut, which he thinks was made up for media exploitation.

The causes for other ‘haunted’ houses may not be so nefarious. One person may influence or spread an idea to another, said Nickell, that’s why as a hotel or a house becomes thought of as haunted more ghostly encounters are reported.

This was the case for the Mackenzie House in Toronto, where footfalls were heard on the stairs for decades until, in the early 1970s, he investigated and found that they were coming from a late-night cleaning crew in the building next door.

At various haunted inns, many apparitions have turned out to be due to the person experiencing a common 'waking dream'. Nickell 'caught' the 'ghost' of Mackenzie House (pictured) in Toronto during the early 1970s when his investigation discovered the haunted footfalls on the staircase were being caused by nothing more than a late-night cleaning crew in the building next door 

At various haunted inns, many apparitions have turned out to be due to the person experiencing a common ‘waking dream’. Nickell ‘caught’ the ‘ghost’ of Mackenzie House (pictured) in Toronto during the early 1970s when his investigation discovered the haunted footfalls on the staircase were being caused by nothing more than a late-night cleaning crew in the building next door

Even with this explanation, the Mackenzie House is still considered to be the most haunted house in Toronto.

‘Anyone could be fooled by some iillusion,’ Nickell said. 

Questioning the supernatural is important, he said. This maxim speaks to his lifelong obsession with unraveling secrets.

Growing up in the Appalachian town of West Liberty, Kentucky, Nickell was a curious child whose parents indulged his obsessions. When Nickell became interested in magic, his father, a postmaster and amateur magician, taught him some of the tricks that he knew. He became an amateur sleuth at the age of eight when his parents bought him a professional fingerprinting kit and he turned a room in his house into a crime lab.

As a child, Nickell dreamed of becoming a magician, later an investigator. He dreamed of becoming a lot of things and, at 72, has become most of them. He still counts his heroes as Harry Houdini and other magicians who used their magic talents to expose trickery.

On moving to Toronto in 1968, Nickell (above in an undated photo) renewed his childhood interest in magic and began his career as a magic pitchman in a carnival. His father was an amateur magician and taught him some of the tricks that he knew

On moving to Toronto in 1968, Nickell (above in an undated photo) renewed his childhood interest in magic and began his career as a magic pitchman in a carnival. His father was an amateur magician and taught him some of the tricks that he knew

Nickell (pictured) often performed magic tricks and sold magic kits in toy stores

Nickell (pictured) performed his last shows as a professional stage magician in 1973 because he began work as a private investigator

Nickell often performed magic tricks and sold magic kits in toy stores, as seen in these undated photos at Simpson’s department store in Toronto. He did his last shows as a professional stage magician in 1973 because he began work as a private investigator

Nickell’s first séance was in 1969 in Toronto for a CBC documentary called Houdini in Canada. Despite the medium’s pronouncement, he said Houdini was a no-show. He’s conducted his own séances every Halloween since 1996 at the Center for Inquiry, where he works.

A former detective with the world-renowned Pinkerton agency, Nickell has gone undercover for his paranormal investigations. He has shaved his moustache, walked with a cane and done a number of things to fool his suspects, who know his usual persona all too well.

Nickell went undercover at Camp Chesterfield, dubbed the ‘Coney Island of spiritualism’, to show that a medium’s pronouncements weren’t the work of the divine but a magic trick. He called himself Jim Collins and limped with a cane around the Indiana site for a few days, telling anyone who would listen about his ‘mother’s death’.

Nickell is pictured in this undated photo posing as 'Jim Collins', a man bereft at his mother's death, at the spiritualist village, Camp Chesterfield, in Indiana

The Garden of Prayer and Sentinel Angel (pictured) is a site for spiritual meditation at Camp Chesterfield, dubbed the ‘Coney Island of spiritualism’. Nickell has gone undercover here to show that a medium’s pronouncements weren’t the work of the divine but a magic trick

Nickell has used disguises several times in his work as a paranormal investigator appearing undercover, for example, as a séance attendee (left) at the spiritualist village, Camp Chesterfield, in Indiana

He participated in a psychic reading at a church on the grounds where he was instructed to write down the names of loved ones who had died and a question. The medium read his message and told him his ‘mother wants you to know she’ll always be there for you’.

‘It was very moving, in this situation it was very, very moving,’ said Nickell. ‘I was nearly on the verge of tears until I remembered that at that time my mother was still alive and wasn’t named Mrs Collins. And I felt so much better because I’d just caught another trickster.’

Nickell typically uses evidence collection bags, swabs, camera and a magnifier in an effort to eliminate bias from his work

In a field that’s commonly divided into ‘believers’ and ‘debunkers’ – people whose minds have been made up prior to inquiry – Nickell has gained international attention for being a ‘fair-minded investigator’.

Nickell’s explanations for the paranormal are often quite mundane.

In the case of lake monsters, for instance, a few otters swimming in a line can create the illusion of one large creature, he said. Otters exist everywhere in the world except Australia, which could explain the variations on the monster, he added.

In the case of the Loch Ness monster, Nickell suggested it’s a large otter based on its ‘undulating locomotion, relative size and fast speed’. He was at Loch Ness in 2012 and didn’t find the fabled creature.

Then there’s Big Foot, the tall, hairy bipedal creature that’s thought to stalk forests. Well, it’s probably a black or brown bear standing on its hind legs, Nickell said. Not every Big Foot sighting can be explained away by bears, he admitted, but it’s an example of how people’s perceptions can be fooled.

As described in Nickell’s book Tracking the Man-Beasts, he’s searched for the North American Bigfoot, as well as its international counterparts, for years and has found no fossil evidence or specimen. Throughout his research he did, however, befriend costume maker Phillip Morris, who claimed he made the gorilla suit for the infamous 1967 Bigfoot film.

Nickell has gone on numerous lake-monster expeditions, often for a television documentary or series. He’s investigated Scotland’s Loch Ness monster and is shown in this undated photo on a sonar-equipped boat on New York’s Lake Champlain in search of the creature Champ. At none of the lakes has he found convincing evidence for a monster

Fraudsters use similar tricks, whether they’re faking Bigfoot or Jesus, Nickell said.

‘I treat religious claims the same as any other,’ he said. ‘Early on in skepticism, a lot of skeptics would say, “We don’t get into religion. Let’s not get into that. That’s a whole can of worms. Let’s just stick to Bigfoot and ghosts and flying saucers and so forth”.

‘And I came along and said, “No, the Shroud of Turin, the weeping icons, the faith healing miracles – those are important to look at and they deserve to be criticized and examined in the same way that any other claim but you do it with respect.”‘

The Shroud of Turin (above) is a linen cloth believed so seriously by some Christians to bear the image of Christ that Pope Francis has visited the icon at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, where it's stored in a vault. Nickell has investigated the case since 1977 and believes it to be the work of a 13th or 14th century artist

The Shroud of Turin (above) is a linen cloth believed so seriously by some Christians to bear the image of Christ that Pope Francis has visited the icon at the Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Turin, Italy, where it’s stored in a vault. Nickell has investigated the case since 1977 and believes it to be the work of a 13th or 14th century artist

The Shroud of Turin, for example, is a linen cloth believed so seriously many Christians as the burial cloth of Jesus that even Vatican historians vouch for its authenticity but Nickell claims it’s no more than a medieval forgery. Tests have shown the ‘bloodstains’ on the cloth are paint and carbon dating has placed its manufacture at 1260 and 1390 AD, he said. To illustrate this claim, he created a Shroud of Bing Crosby using powdered pigments and a bas-relief sculpture.

Wanting to believe can cloud a person’s judgement, said Nickell, especially when they’re looking for a miracle.

In 1991, Nickell and members of the New York Area Skeptics group went to a small Greek Orthodox Church in Queens, New York, to examine the icon of St Irene, patron saint of the sick and of peace, when it supposedly began to cry. They found that the icon’s glistening varnish and surface irregularities created a play of light that produced the appearance of weeping.

Nickell also examines religious claims, such as the 1990 case of the 'weeping' St Irene icon at a small Greek Orthodox Church in Queens, New York (pictured). The icon attracted thousands of pilgrims over the few days it was reputed to be 'weeping'

Nickell also examines religious claims, such as the 1990 case of the ‘weeping’ St Irene icon at a small Greek Orthodox Church in Queens, New York (pictured). The icon attracted thousands of pilgrims over the few days it was reputed to be ‘weeping’

In 1997, Nickell investigated another 'weeping' icon at a Toronto church at the request of an attorney for the Greek Orthodox Church of North America. There he took samples of the 'tears', which proved to be a non-drying oil, deliberately placed on the icon by someone

In 1997, Nickell investigated another ‘weeping’ icon at a Toronto church at the request of an attorney for the Greek Orthodox Church of North America. There he took samples of the ‘tears’, which proved to be a non-drying oil, deliberately placed on the icon by someone

The Greek Orthodox Church later pronounced the 'weeping' icon, being held by Nickell in this 1997 photo, to be a hoax

The Greek Orthodox Church later pronounced the ‘weeping’ icon, being held by Nickell in this 1997 photo, to be a hoax

His paranormal hypotheses have been proven right before. For decades, visitors to the Van Horn Mansion in the small community of Burt, New York, reported seeing a ghostly figure dressed in white. It turns out this ‘ghost’ was a mannequin in the window, he said.

‘It’s not my job to explain that there’s no ghosts,’ said Nickell. ‘I don’t feel like I have to wrestle someone to the ground and beat on them the scientific knowledge.’

Armed with a series of kits packed into plastic bins, Nickell typically uses evidence collection bags, swabs, camera and a magnifier in an effort to eliminate bias from his work.

‘Chasing’ ghosts and ‘hunting’ monsters: Paranormal investigator Joe Nickell reveals the truth behind famous myths and legends

Vampires unearthed: Epidemics were invariably behind vampire scares, Nickell says. A stricken person’s lethargy, pale appearance, coughing of blood and contagiousness, although actually due to consumption, were attributed to vampires. Blood found at the mouth of a suspected vampire’s corpse that had been exhumed was considered evidence of vampiric feeding, even though that’s part of the natural human decomposition process. 

Getting ghosted: Nickell has never come across any evidence that would prove the existence of ghosts in his almost 50-year career as a paranormal investigator. Instead, he points toward scientifically explainable reasons for why people may think they’ve seen the paranormal. Ghosts are often the result of pranks, environmental phenomenon and physiological conditions like sleep paralysis and sleep deprivation, Nickell says. Ghostly sightings may also be brought on by drug use or carbon monoxide poisoning. 

Testing the water: There’s numerous reasons against the existence of lake monsters, Nickell says. One reason he gives is that dead animals usually float to the surface and a monster specimen has yet to be found. Another possible explanation he provides is that large reptiles need to breathe, which means they would need to surface frequently. Lake monsters may be an illusion caused by a group of otters swimming in a line, floating objects, singular large waves or plain ole hoaxes, he says. 

This still from the infamous 1967 film by Roger Patterson appears to show a clear image of a female Bigfoot, later nicknamed Patty, striding along a riverbank. Skeptics, including Nickell, insist the creature is simply a person in an ape suit

This still from the infamous 1967 film by Roger Patterson appears to show a clear image of a female Bigfoot, later nicknamed Patty, striding along a riverbank. Skeptics, including Nickell, insist the creature is simply a person in an ape suit

The hairy truth about Bigfoot: The majority of Bigfoot evidence consists of eyewitness accounts. Yet, as psychologists and juries know such accounts can be inaccurate, Nickell says. While these anecdotes shouldn’t be dismissed, he says, they can’t replace physical evidence of Bigfoot. A Bigfoot carcass has never been found and there’s no fossil record fitting the monster’s description, he says. A plausable explanation for Bigfoot, Nickell says, is a brown or black bear standing on its hind legs.

What the howl? The werewolf may be the oldest myth in folklore and likely grew out of a misconception of medical conditions like hypertrichosis, where excessive hair grows all over the body. French sailors and settlers brought the werewolf myth to America, Nickell says.

Since 1995, he’s received a small endowment for his work as a full-time paranormal investigator under the auspices of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. The organization, located on the outskirts of Buffalo, New York, promotes ‘scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.’ But Nickell is adamant that he’s not the ‘heartless debunker’ who dismisses paranormal believers as gullible fools.

‘I’m confident that if I can explain a mystery then the debunking will take care of itself,’ said Nickell. ‘So, where the debunker might say, “Oh, those people were probably drinking. So, not a ghost,” what I’m gonna do is say, “I went there. Those people were very sincere and they had actually had an experience, so no one should accuse them of anything nefarious.’

Nickell said he’s also interviewed numerous people who claim to have been abducted by aliens and found them to be decent, sane people. UFOs are real in the sense that there is really something unidentified flying in the sky that’s been caught on camera, he said, it’s just not being flown by extraterrestrials.

Nickell has conducted hands-on examinations of such 'miraculous' phenomena as statues exhibiting heartbeats, as shown here in this undated photo at a site of reported supernatural appearances by the Virgin May in Conyers, Georgia

Nickell has conducted hands-on examinations of such ‘miraculous’ phenomena as statues exhibiting heartbeats, as shown here in this undated photo at a site of reported supernatural appearances by the Virgin May in Conyers, Georgia

For decades Nickell has studied reports of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, and addressed the subject of alien visitations in several books. He's pictured here in 2005 getting 'abducted' by 'aliens' at Kelly, Kentucky, the site of a famous 1955 UFO/alien-attack

For decades Nickell has studied reports of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs, and addressed the subject of alien visitations in several books. He’s pictured here in 2005 getting ‘abducted’ by ‘aliens’ at Kelly, Kentucky, the site of a famous 1955 UFO/alien-attack

Nickell also studies crop circles, which he admitted are mostly created by hoaxers. He's pictured here on a 1994 investigation of an English crop circle near Stonehenge

Nickell also studies crop circles, which he admitted are mostly created by hoaxers. He’s pictured here on a 1994 investigation of an English crop circle near Stonehenge

Case in point: Roswell. From the evidence, said Nickell, balloons burst near the New Mexican town in 1947. The ‘Roswell incident’ was propelled into history that year when an eager, young public information officer with the Roswell Army Air Base released an unauthorized press release. Other UFO crash stories followed, as did photographs of living and dead aliens.

Turns out not only can aliens not drive a spaceship – they can’t draw, Nickell said.

Nickell’s most high-profile case was the Nazca lines, a set of enormous drawings etched into the desert floor of Peru. The etchings, many taking the shape of animals, were relics of the country’s 1,500-year-old Nazca civilization.

In 1982, Nickell helped create a full-size duplicate of the condor using only sticks and cords such as the Nazca may have employed for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. He found no evidence that extraterrestrials were involved in the creation of the original icon

In 1982, Nickell helped create a full-size duplicate of the condor using only sticks and cords such as the Nazca may have employed for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. He found no evidence that extraterrestrials were involved in the creation of the original icon

Paranormal enthusiasts, convinced that the Nazca couldn’t have produced the symbols with simple tools, theorized that the society had help from aliens. One popular conclusion was that the lines were runways for alien spaceships.

To Nickell, this argument seemed wild. So, he and a team of University of Kentucky students employed a West Liberty landfill to use as a sketchbook to set out to prove that the Nazca could have created the artwork alone.

On August 7, 1982, Nickell and his crew successfully copied the 440-foot Nazca drawing of a condor using twine and wooden stakes to map out the icon.

Perhaps Nickell's most famous case is the famed Nazca lines in Peru. He set out to prove that the ancient Nazca people could have produced the icons without the aid of space aliens by recreating this spider for National Geographic TV's Is It Real? series

Perhaps Nickell’s most famous case is the famed Nazca lines in Peru. He set out to prove that the ancient Nazca people could have produced the icons without the aid of space aliens by recreating this spider for National Geographic TV’s Is It Real? series

Nickell’s investigations, in many cases, do little to sway paranormal believers. Alien abductees still insist they were abducted. The Shroud of Turin remains hotly contested. People who commune with ghosts of a recently departed loved one don’t want to be told that the episode was just a dream.

Paranormal believers aren’t weighing the evidence, said Nickell. They’re not using their brain but their heart, he added.

Although Nickell is a Humanist – ‘an atheist with a heart’ – the pull of belief in the paranormal is a sentiment he understands. His mother was a follower of the Disciples of Christ, and it’s because of this that he advocates for a ‘kindler, gentler scepticism’.

Based on nearly 50 years of probing, Nickell doubts he’ll ever encounter anything supernatural. But the meaning of scepticism is to always question and stay open to different possibilities, he said.

‘I don’t know what the future holds; the psychics haven’t been able to tell me,’ said Nickell. ‘But my hope is I fall dead in a haunted house or I’ll stumble over a cliff looking for Bigfoot. In other words, I want to be active until the end.’