How People Come to Believe
they Were Kidnapped by Aliens
Dr. Susan Clancy
Sunday, November 20, 2pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech, Pasadena, CA
(The Skeptics Distinguished Lecture Series at Caltech)
There is no evidence that aliens have been visiting Earth and abducting humans. So how could anyone believe he or she was abducted by aliens? To answer this question, Harvard post-doc psychologist Susan Clancy interviewed and evaluated “abductees,” listening closely to their stories — how they struggled to explain something strange in their remembered experience, how abduction seemed plausible, and how, having suspected abduction, they began to recollect it, aided by suggestion and hypnosis. Clancy argues that abductees are sane and intelligent people who have unwittingly created vivid false memories from a toxic mix of nightmares, culturally available texts (abduction reports began only after stories of extraterrestrials appeared in films and on TV), and a powerful drive for meaning that science is unable to satisfy. For them, otherworldly terror can become a transforming, even inspiring experience.
Bill Nye the Science Guy books
added to Shop Skeptic
In this week’s eSkeptic, Calvin Campbell shares his lively and strange personal experience with psychic “thoughtographer” Ted Serios.
Going to Meet the Man
With the Camera Brain:
The Curious Case of Ted Serios
by Calvin Campbell
While I didn’t exactly soar effortlessly through my teens and twenties, seizing the day and welcoming every sunrise and whatnot, life still unraveled mysteriously and with a charming lack of purpose. And then, at thirty, I wandered into a spiritual wilderness. Where a certain spontaneity had once been a fun if sometimes fickle guide, gray reason now usurped my ideals, and I became mired in a state of solipsistic glumness that was like teenage sorrow without the redeeming passion. With mortality now an increasingly real if distant reality, many in similar straits turn to religion, raising a family, or other similar time-honored sources of succor. That is, people grow up. But for some of us, there lingers a spark of hope that we have not been entirely abandoned by that more innocent, childish age. And so we enter into a race with that old devil Time — a frenzied determination to find something to believe in again before the clock runs out.
In the early 1960s, in Denver Colorado, psychiatrist Jule Eisenbud was wrestling similar demons. A firm believer in the untapped potential of the human mind, Eisenbud’s frequent forays into the paranormal had nevertheless produced nothing in the way of concrete results. As long as empirical evidence was lacking, he said, no amount of anecdotal evidence could ever budge the stubborn fact that parapsychology would forever remain “the stepchild of science.” Shortly after reaching this gloomy conclusion, he got wind of Ted Serios, an ex-bellhop from Chicago who claimed to possess the remarkable ability to imprint his thoughts onto Polaroid film using only the powers of his mind. The doctor and the psychic met one evening in room 1320-W at Chicago’s ritzy Palmer House hotel. Between double-orders of Scotch (“for my cold,” said Serios), the impish psychic clutched a Polaroid Land type 100 camera, pointed the lens directly into his own face, clicked the shutter and restored the doctor’s faith. Ted’s thoughts seemed to bleed miraculously onto the film. Photograph after photograph slowly came to uncanny life, rendering the impossible in black and white: the Chicago Water Tower, a hotel that had burned down years before, haunting suggestions of other unknown structures. Eisenbud emerged from the meeting convinced that Serios could somehow seize a fleeting thought and materialize it for all to see.
Now it was the late 1990s, and for my old friend Dennis and I, merely contemplating the existence of a character like Serios was a salve for our shared spiritual dread. A self-described bum whose humble goals consisted of drinking, womanizing, and (without forsaking the first two goals) obtaining the occasional psychic photograph, Serios was the embodiment of hedonistic surrender. And yet, whether through some fluke of fate or a strange sense of duty, he was also man enough to take on the very laws of nature. And as far as we knew, no one in the thirty-odd years since he first made his mark had anyone successfully debunked his claims. Was Ted Serios living proof that one could stagger through life, stumble on a great discovery, and find fame, all without losing one’s seat at the bar? Was Serios the guardian of a metaphysical miracle that would turn science on its head? With fingers crossed — and possibly while inebriated — we decided to contact Dr. Eisenbud.
“As far as your interviewing Ted, he’s never cared for interviews.” Jule Eisenbud’s ancient voice crackled over the line. He relinquished Ted’s phone number, but balked at surrendering his location. “He doesn’t want to be disclosed. He has a bad police record.” A new layer of intrigue arose. For a man on the lam, Ted was recklessly eager to jump back into the spotlight. In a series of lengthy, often rambling telephone conversations, he reassured us that his powers, dormant for nearly thirty years, could erupt again at any time. And he wanted us to bear witness. With an old Polaroid camera and as much film as we could afford, we hit the highway, determined to resurrect the reputation of the man whom science had so cruelly neglected.
In 1967, Eisenbud published the results of his extensive experiments with Serios in a book entitled The World of Ted Serios: ‘Thoughtographic’ Studies of an Extraordinary Mind. It is wonderfully written, full of humor, thoughtful analysis, and provocative ideas. It is also an unequivocal endorsement of Ted Serios’s wondrous thoughtographic brain. The book attracted legions of both believers and skeptics, and the little man who likely would have languished as an intriguing barfly and sodden supernatural footnote suddenly expanded his circle of influence beyond the local tavern. Soon, the world of Ted Serios counted scores of scientists, skeptics, and other respectable folk among its inhabitants. Thirty years later, that world was little more than a ghost town. Serios’s proponents had been driven underground. The skeptics had long since dismissed the phenomenon. Why?
In the beginning there was the gismo. Perhaps never before has such a fuss been made about something so crude and seemingly innocuous. Perhaps never before has humanity’s understanding of the natural world been challenged by a small roll of cardboard. Ted’s apartment, when we at last met him on a sizzling summer day in 1997, is littered with them. When obtaining a thoughtograph, Ted holds the gismo up to the camera lens to help him focus his psychic energy. I’d always thought of the gismo as a sort of bridge between the supernatural aether and the mundane reality of Ted’s gray matter, but the skeptics were never so broad-minded. They seized upon the gismo as evidence of legerdemain — a simple optical device that permitted any light-fingered charlatan to duplicate Ted’s “psychic photographs.” It was their smoking gun, the undeniable proof that Serios was nothing more than a very talented con artist who had either duped or been in cahoots with the good doctor. In their unyielding leeriness, they saw the gismo as a bridge between wild claims and harsh reality.
Ted turns out to be an amiable host. We’re all a bit awkward. Pleasantries are dutifully exchanged, and the meeting starts out like a visit to the psychic grandfather I never had. And then Ted spots our Polaroid camera. His affected smile transforms into a lusty grin. His eyes flash, and he begins stroking the camera. “This thing brings back a lot of memories,” he says wistfully.
Back in Ted’s heyday — when, as he says longingly, “there was no shortage of booze, women, nothin’” — he made scores of converts by capturing thoughtographic representations of images that were tightly sealed from his sight: abstract paintings, famous buildings, historical figures. When Ted got one of these “targets,” another affidavit attesting to his authenticity was as good as signed. He’s happy to hear that we’ve brought along our own targets. “When I want to get a target, I make love to that camera,” he explains, his hands still exploring the old Polaroid. “That’s all there is to it. If I talk nice to the damn thing like I talk to a woman, the thing will give in, you see?” Where Eisenbud got downright esoteric in his analysis of Ted’s abilities, the thoughtographer himself clearly isn’t much for theorizing. Indeed, shortly into our interview, it becomes painfully obvious that peppering Ted with our carefully prepared questions — “How do you explain the slight variations between the target and the image that appear in some of your thoughtographs? Do you feel that you have finally gained the acceptance by the scientific community that you desired?” — isn’t going to get us anywhere. He stares blankly or deflects each question, spinning it into a tale of his bawdy youthful adventures.
Fair enough, I think. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that Ted is something of a holy fool — remarkably gifted and simultaneously oblivious to the profound effects that his abilities will have on our understanding of ourselves and the world. We’re here as guests, not disinterested scientific observers, so it only makes sense that Ted should call the shots. After numerous attempts to capture our targets result only in blurry pictures of Ted’s grunting face, frozen in various unflattering expressions of mental exertion, the weary thoughtographer announces that he’ll need some beer to grease the psychic gears. “I work the best when we sorta make a party out of it,” he confesses. “Everybody is having a good time. Then it seems like it comes real easy. Otherwise, it’s a grind. It really is, and that’s all there is to it.” As I get up to head off to the liquor store, Ted jams the camera against the back of my head and takes a picture. This strikes me as a pretty crude way to photograph someone’s thoughts. It’s also irritating as hell. Dr. Eisenbud once told us, “I was actually fond of Ted, but at other times, believe me, I could have taken a swing at him or broken his neck. He was just a pain in the ass.” I understand.
With a beer in each hand and a fair amount flowing through his veins, Ted’s flagging determination is soon renewed. “I’m gonna get that damn target if it kills me,” he says, lighting up his tenth cigarette in as many minutes. He tries to read my mind, confidently announces that he’s picked up its contents, and draws a quick sketch. With a knowing chuckle, he shows me the scrap of paper on which are scribbled two stick figures and a box. It could represent anything, including my target picture, a photograph showing my friend and his wife walking down the aisle at their wedding. I’m impressed, but then Ted adds a third stick figure. He looks up from his work. “If I don’t get the target, the whole thing’s kaput. It’s a do or die thing,” he says dramatically. I feel uneasy. While I want to give Ted the benefit of the doubt here — he’s always professed to be a Catholic, and that third figure could be God, I think — I’m under the distinct impression that he’s been trying to read my facial expressions, not my thoughts. But Ted is no parlor room swindler. I think at the time that his abilities have been well-documented. He’s been subjected to batteries of tests, all of which have ruled out the possibility of fraud. Some of the brightest lights in academia have testified to his authenticity. And I myself am no sucker, I remind myself, though not without wincing.
At some point during the proceedings, a young woman of indeterminate age (though decades younger than our thoughtographer) wades through the sea of empty cans and seats herself next to Ted. He introduces “this broad” as Arlene, his girlfriend and “America’s next great country and western singer.” According to Ted, speaking now in a slurred though solemn voice, Arlene is also a Christian in good standing with the Lord. He slaps her butt and asks her to pray for him. Apparently heedless of any moral conflict in asking for God’s help in such an unholy enterprise, Arlene bows her head. Ted mumbles an oath to his earthier Lord and silently communes with two more beers. The deity intervenes, and soon Ted is churning out thoughtographs at a truly awe-inspiring rate. He produces more of them in the next hour than in the thirty years since he mysteriously lost his powers. Now that prayer — that most unscientific of variables — has entered the picture, I bid farewell to even the pretence of “controlled conditions.” Her entreaties to the Lord completed, Arlene uses her body to throw interference while Ted fiddles with the camera. For what seems like an eternity of awkwardness, we stare at Arlene’s back. Their barely audible murmuring is occasionally punctuated by Ted’s cursing. The distinctive whirr of the camera is never far behind, and Arlene dutifully hands us yet another thoughtograph.
With the help of beer, God, Arlene, and two increasingly inattentive witnesses, Ted’s thoughtographs are beginning to take on a definite form. “I think it’s Christ,” I say listlessly. Stifling a yawn, Dennis concurs. Our combined will to believe can no longer withstand such blatant chicanery. But the show must go on. The curtain won’t drop until the last beer is finished and Ted has either obtained our “goddamned targets” or forgotten that he’d promised to do so. As he lurches to his feet and launches into a tipsy version of “You Oughta Be In Pictures,” I open one of the few remaining beers and watch as Ted unwittingly lampoons my dark night of the soul. Before he descends into abject drunkenness, I ask him to reveal the secret of his remarkable gift. “You got to have an imagination,” he says. “And that is the gospel truth. If you don’t have an imagination, then you ain’t gonna see nothing!”
As we prepare to leave, Ted approaches us sheepishly, eyes downcast. He’d brushed off earlier attempts to discuss a particular dream that had plagued him for years — the dream of the giant camera — but now seems eager to get it off his chest. “It seemed like the damn thing was walking to me. I don’t know how to describe it. It waddled towards me like a human walking. It was one of those old-fashioned cameras. I’ll tell you one thing: it was as big as a house when it came at me. There’s times when I get scared of the damn thing. If that happened to you, wouldn’t you be scared a little bit?” It certainly seems like a confession — a heavy heart caused perhaps by a certain lightness of the fingers — but I’m in no position to grant absolution. I feel too much a party to the game.
For a couple of years after our meeting with Ted Serios, Dennis and I avoided talking about the incident. And if the subject did arise, we did our best to avoid eye contact. But now we can laugh about how two credulous friends believed they had discovered a psychic Messiah who might turn the natural world topsy-turvy, but who instead spent a day with a strange little man who, if he couldn’t exactly save our souls, could at least save us from the clockwork tedium of a world that never changed its routine.
Postscript: On March 10, 1999, Dr. Jule Eisenbud died at his home in Denver. Whatever secrets he held — or thought he held — passed away with him. During our last phone conversation with Eisenbud, in 1998, he told us, “Ted will outlive anything. He may last to the year 2500.” While speaking to Ted on the phone not long ago, he informed us that he had recently been struck by a car, but had made a complete recovery that baffled the doctors who had treated him. Ted Serios may yet defy the laws of nature.