I Want to Believe: Skepticism, magic, and the truth that’s out there

It was a long, hot, busy summer this year. Having the apartment to myself for a week or so, with a Netflix account at hand, and some evenings where I didn’t have the energy to do much besides sit on the couch sweating meant that I finally started watching The X-Files, only twenty years after everyone else in the world. Spoiler alert: I LOVE IT.

Mulder and Scully.

The man, the myth, the monotone, and yet another tiny hypercompetent FBI agent. I have a type.

I should have known long ago that X-Files would be up my alley. Aside from the fact that it’s had an obvious long-lasting impact on American genre TV (Supernatural springing to mind immediately, with Hannibal close behind), it’s about a subject that I’ve always loved: unexplained phenomena.

I went through an extended period as a pre-teen/early teen where I read everything I could get my hands on about ghosts, aliens, cryptozoology, urban legends, mysterious disappearances, psychic powers. Ghosts were of particular interest; the theatre community I was part of at the time loved ghost stories, and I believed every single one I was told, to the point of evangelism and even clumsily faking a haunting for a week or so. It didn’t occur to me until years and years later that I could, and probably should, fact-check the stories about “oh yeah a person died violently in this very theater back in the ’80s.” The stories mattered more, the thrill up my spine and the possibility that one day I could have an unexplainable encounter.

I was a credulous kid. Except I was also a magician.

1  Anthea Carns

Left to right: Jay Leno, card trick, tiny little twelve-year-old me.

At the same time I was plowing through books on how maybe this picture of Nessie isn’t an obvious fake and nobody knows how this psychic could know this information, I was learning how to convince people I could read minds, levitate, and manipulate matter. (Well, knots, anyway. I could totally manipulate rope. Sleight of hand was never really my wheelhouse.) I read a lot about the history of magic, starting with the historical tidbits Penn and Teller included in How to Play in Traffic and How to Play With Your Food, which was how I heard about the Amazing Randi and Harry Houdini.

P&T, James Randi, and Houdini all held or hold a very firm stance on claims of psychic abilities, ghosts, and the like: if you want to entertain people with a performance of “psychic” abilities, great. If you want to take people’s money, time, and emotional energy by claiming actual, real supernatural abilities, you’d better be ready to back that up, or they’ll joyfully expose you as a con artist. This devotion to exposing charlatans took P&T to Showtime with their show Bullshit! to examine all kinds of wild claims, prompted Randi to offer a $1,000,000 prize to anyone who could prove their supernatural abilities under carefully controlled conditions, and made Houdini the scourge of mediums and psychics in his time.

Harry and Bess Houdini. I love vintage photos like this where the couples are being kind of silly instead of stiff and formal.

What makes Houdini particularly interesting to me is that his (and his wife, Bess’) dedication to exposing frauds seemed to come from a deep desire to believe, to find real proof. In 1923 he told the New York Times:

“I am willing to believe,” he replied, “but of all I have seen I have never found anything that couldn’t be explained by human effort. My mind is open. I am a human being, and I have loved ones on the other side. I would like to get in touch with them if it were possible.”

After Harry’s untimely death on Halloween 1926, Bess attempted to contact him through various mediums and psychics for ten years. The couple had agreed on a code that they would use to communicate, to weed out fake messages. In 1929 a medium did, in fact, bring that code to Bess, and for a time she was apparently convinced that Harry had actually reached out from the other side — in spite of the fact that there was a lot of evidence that the code had been leaked. But by 1936, after ten years of Halloween seances with no results, Bess was convinced that Harry wasn’t talking, and on her deathbed she renounced any belief in Spiritualism.

Extraordinary claims, the saying goes, require extraordinary proof. Magicians more than most know that the extraordinary is more often the product of humanity’s desire to believe than it is an actual mystery. But magicians also seem to have this — let’s call it a striving spirit. Like many curmudgeons, they’re disappointed optimists, willing to be convinced, but with very high standards for “convincing.”

So even as I was reading about messages from the dead, crop circles, Mothman, and the Bermuda Triangle, I was soaking in psychic cold reading, spoon-bending, sleep paralysis, and hoax method after hoax method after hoax method. Maybe I kept reading all the unexplained phenomena stuff because I was so hopeful that in the next book, there’d be something that really couldn’t be explained: a chupacabra that wasn’t obviously a coyote with mange, an abduction that had been corroborated with medical evidence, a spontaneous combustion that wasn’t a smoker in bed.

I guess part of what I’m getting at is that I relate to Fox Mulder. We so clearly read a lot of the same books. I can’t help cracking up when Mulder goes off on an exposition-laden speech about common characteristics of alien abduction accounts and close encounters, because I recognize the stories. But then I get frustrated when he’s presented with a plausible explanation — maybe that guy who had a near-death experience suffered brain damage and psychological trauma while he was clinically dead for sixteen minutes, instead of being possessed by the spirit of the criminal he killed, Mulder — and dismisses it out of hand as less reasonable than his theories. He’s so prone to confirmation bias half the time that I just want to throw things at the TV.

Of course, he’s always right. (Except when he’s not, for plot reasons, like the amazing “Beyond the Sea” episode in season 1.) No matter what rational explanations Scully throws at him, his wacky, improbable, unprovable theories turn out to be correct — while still being unprovable. And there’s a pleasure in that, too, for this skeptic. Maybe there is something extraordinary out there; maybe the explanation is just out of sight, flickering in the corner of our eyes, gone when we look straight at it.

I keep thinking about ghosts — ocular migraines and crossed neural wires — ways of levitating chairs — footsteps in an otherwise empty theater.

Maybe I still want to believe.

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