Hunt for the Skinwalker

Colm A. Kelleher and George Knapp. Hunt for the Skinwalker: Science Confronts the Unexplained at a Remote Ranch in Utah. Paraview Pocket Books, 2005.

The story of this book can be summarised very briefly: a new family takes over a spooky old farm in the middle of nowhere, where they claim that all sorts of Fortean and paranormal events have taken place. You know, giant invulnerable wolves, cattle mutes, invisible aliens like out of Predator, UFOs, orbs, teleported cattle, polts, dogs fried by mysterious rays, the odd bigfoot or two, and anything else you could imagine. All that seems to me missing is a lake monster in the cattle. They sell the farm to a group of 'scientists' (all but the author anonymous, what a surprise!) from a shadowy organisation called the National Institute for Discovery Science, which when this investigation concluded vanished into thin air.

Kelleher is clearly well qualified to investigate such goings on, as he has a PhD in microbiology, obviously just what you need to hunt boggarts on a remote farm. His previous claim to fame is as the author of a book claiming that there is a secret epidemic of BSE in the US, hidden as Alzheimer's disease. Some people may consider this to be scaremongering but I couldn't possibly comment.

The investigation has many of the features which seem classical in these cases, a closed group of people, active discouragement of independent critical investigation, the presence of a charismatic individual (the former farm owner kept on as farm manager) around which the strange events seem to cluster, and the investigators' own over-confidence in their own critical ability.

Despite this, and a number of odd personal experiences, the investigators have to concede that they have not been able to amass actual evidence of anything. Though photographs of alleged anomalous lights are supposed to have been taken, none are reproduced; there are no photographs or illustrations at all in this book. In fact no evidence of any kind is presented, nothing even in the witnesses' own words. Much of the book seems to be written in a novelistic fashion as if with an eye on the film rights.

Despite this, it seems unlikely that this is a simple hoax by Kelleher and Knapp. Hoaxers would surely have come up with some more positive evidence, and cut down on the wilder tales. A hoax by the anonymous owner-manager is one possibility. Rather more likely is that this represents a dramatic overselling of a variety of spooky stories which have become attached to this property.

Stories of remote properties which become foci of all sorts of strange experiences are not uncommon. British readers with long memories reading this book will recall the Ripperstone Farm affair, Warminster, even Borley Rectory. Though K and K rehearse a number of explanations, mostly of a science fictional or paranormal nature, but they only consider rather dramatic forms of psychosocial explanations involving actual mental illness, rather than the much more likely ones of the effects of expectancy, sensory restriction, suggestion etc. on perfectly normal if rather superstitious people. Careful readers will note how the investigation teams are kept to low numbers, how the ex-owner-manager calls many of the shots, how little actual real hard evidence accumulates. This is a haunted house/séance room on a rather larger scale.

It is sometimes said that psychosocial theories cannot be tested, yet a scenario like this is eminently testable. Select at random a rather run-down property in the middle of nowhere, create a script full of spooky tales for it, get a good actor or actors to act the role of the witness(es) and invite investigators in. Eliminate obvious sceptics from the team, keep the numbers low, disturb sleep patterns, make sure that one of your stooges is always on hand to suggest various things and make sure your team is rather dependent on the stooge and thus will take to his/her lead. Stand back and see what happens.

That's not to say that in real life such cases depend on actual intent to deceive; left to itself suggestion, etc. can do the trick perfectly well. Only with a lot of critical research will anyone be able to work out exactly what went on here. -- Peter Rogerson, Magonia 92, June 2006

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