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FIRE WALKING AND THE PERSISTENCE OF CHARLATANS LOREN PANKRATZ* A little reflection will show that humbug is an astonishingly wide-spread phenomenon.—P. T. Barnum For centuries fire walking was a part ofreligious ceremonies and tribal rites. Such events were usually preceded by weeks of personal preparation such as fasting, devotion, or celibacy, and they were accompanied by beating drums, chanting, ecstasy, or frenzy. Americans now have the opportunity to participate in fire walking by paying to attend a "psychology workshop." Only a few hours of preparation are necessary; chanting and frenzy are still available. Those who play with fire, however, can get burned. Traditional therapists report seeing the fallout of fire walking events; some people are depressed because they were not changed by the experience as anticipated , and some are depressed because they failed to demonstrate courage . Many have been burned literally, some requiring hospitalization. Nevertheless, leaders and participants claim success over everything from phobias to the remission of malignant tumors. Fire walking remains surprisingly popular, and some people undoubtedly gain self-confidence from the experience. Weighing its positive and negative consequences , however, is not of interest to me. The disturbing part of the fire walking craze, I believe, is its implicit endorsement of medical and psychological quackery. The advertisements I read present fire walking as a mystical experience that transcends known natural physiological effects. The parsimonious, scientific aspects are ignored or denied. This is as senseless as promoting skydiving as a mystical transformation from sky to earth. It may take courage ?Departments of Psychiatry and Medical Psychology, Oregon Health Sciences University , and Veterans Administration Medical Center, P.O. Box 1034, Portland, Oregon 97219.© 1988 by The University of Chicago. AU rights reserved. 0031-5982/88/3 102-0576$01.00 Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 31, 2 · Winter 1988 | 291 and provide an exhilarating experience, but it does not defy natural laws. The Investigation ofFire Walking In 1934 the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation decided to study the mystery of fire walking. Harry Price, who had a large laboratory for investigating psychic phenomena, placed an advertisement in the Times. He received hundreds of letters from people who said they had witnessed fire walking, but no one was prepared to do it. Price (1881-1948) was perhaps the greatest investigator of psychic phenomena of all time [I]. He spent his life studying poltergeists, spirit photography, mediums, and hauntings. He believed that psychic phenomena existed; however, he was usually vigorous in ferreting out fraud [2, 3]. In 1935 Price met Kuda Bux, a young Kashmir magician who had a sensational blindfold act. Bux stated that he had walked on fiery pits during Muhammadan religious ceremonies in India. Clippings in his scrapbook supported his statements. He agreed to walk on fire and submit to any scientific test that Price or his colleagues could devise. Price appealed for help in assessing the fire walk. Although no one in England had any experience, a group of physicians and scientists devised a considerable number of tests. They gathered on Monday, September 9, 1935, for a trial run. Three tons of wood blazed for hours before Bux declared that conditions were proper. He made no special preparations; there were no ceremonies or fasting, no wild drums or frenzy. He was cool and dignified as he stepped into the coals and made four deliberate steps across the trench, which was so hot that no one could go near it in comfort. He made three more trips across. His feet were again examined, and there was not a suspicion of a blister. The temperature of the surface of the fire was measured at 430 degrees Celsius; the interior of the fire was nearly four times as hot. As a dramatic final touch, Price tossed several sheets of paper on the embers; they burst into flames immediately. Digby Moynagh, editor of St. Bartholomew's Hospitaljournal, was one of the observers ofthe test. He had an unconquerable desire to try the walk himself. Everyone advised him against the trial except Kuda Bux. Price finally gave his consent for Moynagh to walk. Moynagh, dressed in tweed slacks and sweater, stepped rapidly through the inferno. He admitted it was...


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