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Real-Life X-Files

Investigating the Paranormal

Joe Nickell

Publication Year: 2001

As a former private investigator and forensic writer, Joe Nickell has spent much of his career identifying forged documents, working undercover to infiltrate theft rings, and investigating questioned deaths. Now he turns his considerable investigative skill toward the paranormal, researching the most well-known and mysterious phenomena all over the world—spontaneous human combustion, UFO visitations, auras, electronic poltergeists, and many, many more—with an eye toward solving these mysteries rather than promoting or dismissing them. Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal examines the cases of over forty paranormal mysteries. Using a hands-on approach, Nickell visits the scene of the so-called unexplainable activity whenever possible and attempts to physically duplicate the miraculous. Whether he’s inflicting stigmata on himself or recreating the liquefying blood of Saint Januarius, Nickell does whatever necessary to eliminate the probable before considering the supernatural. What is left is that much more fascinating. Nickell reports on familiar legends from American history such as the supernatural events surrounding Abraham Lincoln’s death and the supposed crash landing of an alien spacecraft near Roswell, New Mexico. He closely examines claims of the miraculous, from rose petals bearing the likeness of Jesus to photographs of a “golden door” to heaven. Controversial mysteries such as clairvoyance and “spirit painting,” haunted places, and freaks of nature are just a few of the many topics covered. Suspenseful, engrossing, funny, and grounded in scientific methodology, Real-Life X-Files provides real explanations for the “paranormal” activities that have intrigued human beings for centuries.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

I am grateful to colleagues at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York, for help in various ways, including research assistance. They include Tim Binga, Director of the Center for Inquiry Libraries; Kevin Christopher, Public Relations Director of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal ...

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pp. 1-3

Strange mysteries—UFO and haunted-house reports, claims of spontaneous human combustion and weeping icons, and even more bizarre enigmas—continue to fascinate. We call them paranormal because they are beyond the normal range of nature and human experience. ...

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1. The Case of the Petrified Girl

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pp. 4-9

Raised in the hills of eastern Kentucky, I grew up with the legend of the "petrified girl." Set in the little farming village of Ezel, near my hometown in Morgan County, the story evokes religious accounts of "incorruptible" corpses as well as ghoulish tales of the "undead." ...

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2. The Devil's Footprints

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pp. 10-17

The case of "The Devil's Footprints" is a classic of the "unsolved" genre, having been featured in Rupert T. Gould's Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts (1928, 1964); Frank Edwards's Stranger than Science (1959); C.B. Colby's Strangely Enough (1971); Rupert Furneaux's The World's Most Intriguing True Mysteries (1977); ...

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3. Magicians Among the Spirits

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pp. 18-27

They have become legendary in the history of spiritualism and continue to spark interest and controversy. The question persists: were the Davenport Brothers "probably the greatest mediums of their kind that the world has ever seen;' as Sherlock Holmes's creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote (1926,226), or was magician Harry Houdini ...

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4. The Specter of Spontaneous Human Combustion

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pp. 28-36

Like Count Dracula, the mythical specter of "spontaneous human combustion" (SHC) refuses to die. The latest book to fan the flames of belief, so to speak, is Ablaze! by Larry E. Arnold. The dust jacket blurb states that the author "redirected a background in mechanical and electrical engineering to explore the Unconventional:' ...

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5. Believe It or —— ?

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pp. 37-41

Ripley (1893-1949) began his career by combining a love of athletics and drawing to produce a series of sports cartoons. One day in 1918, facing a deadline and lacking any other idea, he transformed some notes on unusual sports events into a cartoon panel headed "Champs and Chumps." ...

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6. Legend of the "Miraculous Stairway"

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pp. 42-48

The CBS television movie, "The Staircase" (April 12, 1998), told how "a dying nun's wish to complete her order's chapel is fulfilled by a mysterious stranger" (Bobbin 1998). Starring Barbara Hershey as the terminally ill mother superior and William Peterson as the enigmatic carpenter, the movie is an embellishment of the legend ...

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7. Flying Saucer "Dogfight"

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pp. 49-53

The modern wave of UFOs began on June 24,1947, when businessman Kenneth Arnold was flying his private airplane over the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. Arnold saw what he described as a chain of nine disc-like objects, each flying with a motion like "a saucer skipped across water." ...

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8. A Study in Clairvoyance

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pp. 54-59

On March 16, 1992, I appeared on The Jerry Springer Show with what were billed as "today's outrageous psychics!' They included an "aura" photographer, a pet prognosticator, and the self-proclaimed "world's greatest psychic;' who was introduced as "Mr. B of ESP" Mr. B, Springer promised, would "use his extraordinary powers" ...

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9. The Kennedy Curse

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pp. 60-69

The tragic death of John F. Kennedy Jr. on July 16, 1999, sparked renewed claims of a "Kennedy curse"—only the latest in a series of alleged popular hexes such as the Hope Diamond jinx and the curse of King Tut's mummy. During live CBS coverage of the search for Kennedy's missing airplane, ...

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10. Riddle of the Circles

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pp. 70-83

For years a mysterious phenomenon has been plaguing southern English crop fields. Typically producing swirled, circular depressions in cereal crops, it has left in its wake beleaguered farmers and an astonished populace—not to mention befuddled scientists and would-be "investigators"—all struggling to keep apace ...

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11. Cult of the "UFO Missionaries"

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pp. 84-88

Marshall Herff Applewhite (1931-1997) and Bonnie Lu Trousdale Nettles (ca. 1927-1985) were styled "UFO missionaries extraordinary" in a 1976 book by that name compiled by ufologist Hayden Hewes and paranormal pulp writer Brad Steiger (Hewes and Steiger 1976). The story of Applewhite and Nettles is a bizarre tale ...

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12. The Electronic Poltergeist

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pp. 89-91

In the late 1990s, a strange entity calling himself Sommy harassed an Emeryville, Ontario, family for months, supposedly using "high-tech" means to stalk Debbie and Dwayne Tamai and make their lives miserable. As reported on Dateline NBC, the harassment began with the telephone—at first clicks, ...

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13. The Silver Lake Serpent

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pp. 92-104

On the night of July 13, 1855, in Wyoming County, New York, two boys and five men were fishing from a boat on Silver Lake near the village of Perry. After several minutes of watching a floating log, one man exclaimed, "Boys, that thing is moving!" Indeed, according to the Wyoming Times, after bobbing in and out of sight, ...

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14. Miraculous Rose Petals

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pp. 105-108

It has long been common, especially within the Catholic tradition, to discover faces of holy personages in random patterns and to suggest that these are miraculous. In my book Looking for a Miracle (Nickell 1993), and in a recent article in Free Inquiry magazine (Nickell 1997), I recounted several of these, ...

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15. Paranormal Lincoln

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pp. 109-117

His guiding of the United States through its greatest crisis and his subsequent martyrdom have caused the shadow of the tall, sixteenth president to loom still larger. Called "the most mythic of all American presidents" (Cohen 1989, 7), Abraham Lincoln has long been credited with supernatural powers. ...

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16. The Roswell Legend

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pp. 118-121

More than a half century ago, in the summer of 1947, the modern UFO craze began. Fed by fantasy, faddishness, and even outright fakery, the mythology has become so well nourished that it has begun to spawn bizarre religious cults like Heaven's Gate. In 1997, the Roswell controversy reached out to involve U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond ...

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17. Investigating Police Psychics

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pp. 122-127

The subject is nothing if not controversial. On one television show an experienced detective insists that no psychic has ever helped his department solve a crime, while another broadcast features an equally experienced investigator who maintains that psychics are an occasionally valuable resource, ...

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18. Ghostly Photos

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pp. 128-132

A rash of new "ghost" photographs is plaguing the western world. I first became aware of the mysterious phenomenon when I received a call at my office at the Center for Inquiry. It was from a Lockport, New York, couple who were experiencing some spooky occurrences and were concerned about their young children. ..

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19. The Lake Utopia Monster

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pp. 133-136

"Maritimers better lock up their ghosts," the Canadian Press writer advised residents of the Atlantic provinces. "Professional skeptic Joe Nickell is touring the region;' announced the tongue-in-cheek warning in Canadian newspapers, "and not a lake monster, a beloved spectre or even the Oak Island treasure is safe ...

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20. Memory of a Past Life

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pp. 137-141

Perhaps not since the famous "Bridie Murphy" case of the 1950s—when American housewife Virginia Tighe supposedly discovered she was the reincarnation of an Irishwoman—has a single "past-life regression" case received such widespread attention as that of an English resident named Jenny Cockell. ...

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21. Photographing the Aura

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pp. 142-149

At psychic fairs and other popular venues, "aura" photographic portraits are all the rage. But are they really what they are claimed to be? According to belief that has persisted since ancient times, the aura is a radiance from the "energy field" that supposedly emanates from and surrounds all living things. ...

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22. Mystery of the Holy Shroud

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pp. 150-156

In what Time magazine called "a sort of resurrection;' the Shroud of Turin controversy has risen once again. It was sparked by exhibition of the reputed burial cloth during April and May 1998, the first public showing in two decades. It also marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the first photograph of the cloth's image ...

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23. The Giant Frog

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pp. 157-159

Like the Lake Utopia Monster (see chapter 19), another reputed New Brunswick lake leviathan is the giant amphibian now displayed at the York Sunbury Historical Society Museum in Fredericton (figure 23.1). Dating to the 1880s, the huge bullfrog reportedly lived in Killarney Lake, some eight miles from Fredericton, ...

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24. The Alien Likeness

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pp. 160-163

In a manner similar to the evolution of Jesus' features in art (Nickell 1988, 41-48), or of the popular likeness of Santa Claus (Flynn 1993) the concept of what alien creatures look like has undergone change over time. In the course of graduate work I did in folklore in 1982 and subsequently published (Nickell 1984), ...

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25. In Search of "Snake Oil"

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pp. 164-169

"Snake oil"—the expression has come to be synonymous with a quack remedy. But questions about the origins of the term provide the basis for an interesting investigation. Although considered quintessentially American, patent medicines actually originated in England. The recipient of the first royal patent for ...

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26. The Haunted Cathedral

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pp. 170-173

Built between 1845 and 1853, Christ Church Cathedral in Fredericton, New Brunswick, is considered "one of the most fascinating ecclesiastical buildings in Canada" (Trueman 1975). Certainly with its imposing spire and lofty interior arches it represents an excellent example of Gothic Revival architecture (figure 26.1). ...

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27. Miracle Photographs

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pp. 174-178

On Friday, October 27,1995, the television program Unsolved Mysteries aired a segment, "Kentucky Visions;' that included investigative work by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. The popular, prime-time television series had requested CSICOP's opinion of some "miraculous" photographs ...

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28. The Gypsies' "Great Trick"

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pp. 179-184

Everyone knows what fortune-telling is supposed to be, but sometimes it might best be defined as "the art of absconding with fortunes." For example, in 1995 a London gypsy who called herself "Mrs. Marina" persuaded a man to hand over his life's savings, some £3,000. The thirty-five-year-old postman, whom police described as ...

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29. Magnetic Hill

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pp. 185-187

Located in eastern New Brunswick, near Moncton, is Magnetic Hill, Canada's third most -visited natural tourist attraction (after Niagara Falls and the Canadian Rockies). Nineteenth-century farmers going to market noticed a mysterious stretch of road where a wagon going uphill would run against the hooves of the horse pulling it. ...

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30. Phantom Ship

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pp. 188-189

In 1999, at Nova Scotia's Mahone Bay, I investigated the twin riddles of the Teazer Light and the Oak Island "Money Pit." (The latter, one of the world's greatest unsolved mysteries, is discussed in "The Secrets of Oak Island" chapter of this book.) The Teazer Light is an example of "ghost lights" or "luminous phenomena" ...

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31. The Cryptic Stone

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pp. 190-193

During an investigative tour of Canada's maritime provinces in 1999 (Morris 1999), my final adventure (before ferrying two hundred miles across the Atlantic to the coast of Maine to begin the drive back to Buffalo) focused on the intriguing case of the Yarmouth Stone, now located in the Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia, Museum. ...

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32. Communicating with the Dead?

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pp. 194-199

Thanks to modern mass media, old-fashioned spiritualism is undergoing something of a revival. Witness James Van Praagh's best-selling Talking to Heaven (1997) and the talk-show popularity of Van Praagh and other mediums like Rosemary Altea, George Anderson, and John Edward. ...

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33. Jesus Among the Clouds

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pp. 200-203

According to a Texas newspaper, a Fort Worth woman has obtained a remarkable photograph of Jesus. As reported in the Arlington (Texas) Morning News, the woman, a University of Dallas student, took the picture in 1992. She claims she was fleeing an abusive husband, traveling with her two-year-old son ...

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34. Alien Implants

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pp. 204-209

Science fiction author Whitley Strieber continues to promote the notion of extraterrestrial visitations. His Communion: A True Story (1987) told of his own close encounter-actually, what psychologist Robert A. Baker has diagnosed as "a classic, textbook description of a hypnopompic hallucination" (or "waking dream") ...

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35. Sleuthing a Psychic Sleuth

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pp. 210-213

On February 7, 1996, I appeared on the Mark Walberg Show, a television program produced in New York City. Among other guests—who included an alien abductee and her hypnotherapist, a UFO conspiracy theorist, and a pair of ghost hunters—there were two "psychics," one of whom claimed to assist police departments. ...

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36. Adventure of the Weeping Icon

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pp. 214-218

On Tuesday, September 3, 1996, at the request of The Toronto Sun, I headed to Canada to investigate the world's latest "weeping icon." I was to meet with reporters at the newspaper's King Street offices and from there to be escorted to a Greek Orthodox Church in Toronto's East York district. ...

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37. The Secrets of Oak Island

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pp. 219-234

It has been the focus of "the world's longest and most expensive treasure hunt" and "one of the world's deepest and most costly archaeological digs" (O'Connor 1988, 1,4), as well as being "Canada's best-known mystery" (Colombo 1988, 33) and indeed one of "the great mysteries of the world." ...

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38. Enigma of the Crystal Tears

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pp. 235-239

Gosh, I thought, after watching an episode of the then-new Fox TV series, Psi Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal. Those Office of Scientific Investigation and Research (O.S.I.R.) types sure seem cool. "Case file 20168;' they would begin. They would make sure their phone calls went out over "secure lines ...

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39. Death of the Fire-Breathing Woman

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pp. 240-245

Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) cases continue to spark controversy (so to speak), largely due to the efforts of nonscientist authors and journalists. These include self-styled British paranormal researchers Jenny Randles and Peter Hough (Spontaneous Human Combustion 1992), ...

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40. Comatose "Miracle Worker"

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pp. 246-251

As we begin the new millennium, the media have been pointing to "millennial madness" as the source for a wide range of divine claims. Yet the faithful have been seeking miracles and finding them—or so they believe—in unlikely forms and places for years. These include apparitions of the Virgin Mary ...

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41. Extraterrestrial Autopsy

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pp. 252-258

It keeps going and going and .... The Roswell crashed-saucer myth was given renewed impetus by a controversial television program, ''Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?" that purported to depict the autopsy of a flying saucer occupant. The "documentary;' promoted by a British marketing agency ...

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42. Spirit Paintings

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pp. 259-266

During the heyday of spiritualism, among the "physical phenomena" commonly manifested were so-called spirit paintings. These were portraits and other artworks, done in various media and produced under a variety of conditions but always ascribed to spirit entities. ...

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43. Watching the Spirits Paint

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pp. 267-275

In addition to the Campbell "brothers" (the subject of the previous chapter), the other major spiritualists whose mediumship produced "spirit" paintings were the Bangs sisters of Chicago. Sitters watched portraits of their deceased loved ones gradually appear before their eyes. ...

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44. Stigmata

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pp. 276-288

Of reputed miraculous powers, perhaps none is more popularly equated with saintliness than stigmata, the wounds of Christ's crucifIxion allegedly duplicated spontaneously upon the body of a Christian. Indeed one historical survey indicated that about a fIfth of all stigmatics are eventually beatifIed or canonized ...

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45. Haunted Inns

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pp. 289-300

If testimonials in countless books and articles are to be believed, spending the night in a quaint old hotel might provide an encounter with an extra, ethereal visitor. In the course of thirty years of paranormal investigation, I have had the opportunity to experience many "haunted" sites. ...

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46. The Flatwoods UFO Monster

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pp. 301-311

In modem police parlance, a long-unsolved homicide or other crime may be known as a "cold case:' a term we might borrow for such paranormal mysteries as that of the Flatwoods Monster, which was launched on September 12, 1952, and never completely explained. ...

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47. Milk-Drinking Idols

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pp. 312-315

As the phenomenon progressed, it spread from the deity Lord Ganesh, the elephant-headed, multihanded, Hindu god, to other idols, including Nandi the Bull, and statues of Lord Shiva, who is often depicted in human form with a serpent around his neck. Spreading across India, the milk-sipping phenomenon soon extended ...


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pp. 316-318


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pp. 319-326

E-ISBN-13: 9780813170831
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813122106

Page Count: 336
Publication Year: 2001