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Staring at Men Who Stare at Goats

by Michael Shermer, Nov 10 2009


The Men Who Stare at Goats had so much potential as a film given the bizarre and comical nature of the weird things the United States government believed about the paranormal in its two-decade long secret psychic spy program, so wonderfully captured by the British investigative journalist John Ronson in his book of the same title. Give Hollywood some credit for at least keeping his book title (a rarity indeed in Hollywood because, you know, producers and directors always know what’s best for your book). Unfortunately, if you saw the trailer for the film, you saw most of the funniest bits, with only a few more gems scattered throughout. This is a shame because with four major stars in the film it could have done much better than the $13.3 million it grossed in its opening weekend. This was slightly better than the UFO thriller The Fourth Kind ($12.5 million), and Paranormal Activity ($8.6 million), although the latter film was produced for about $15,000 and has accumulated a staggering 45-day gross of $97.4 million, empirical evidence that the paranormal still pays, and pays very well!

At the very end of the credits of The Men Who Stare at Goats, as Boston’s foot-stomping song “More Than a Feeling” blasts along, a disclaimer rolls by at eye-blurring speed, basically saying that most of the characters and plot line in the film are entirely made up and have next to no connection to Ronson’s book or what really happened in the psychic spy program. Ain’t that the truth. The premise is so contrived as to be almost painful (if only it were funny, which it wasn’t): the wife of Ewan McGregor’s journalist character leaves him for his senior editor, a one-armed creepo with a black handed prosthetic that was apparently attractive to the smitten wife, and so he sets out to prove his journalistic/husbandly manhood by trying to get embedded in the U.S. army during the Iraqi invasion. Along the way he runs into George Clooney’s army psychic spy character and gets pulled into doing a story about what the U.S. government did back in the 1970s and 1980s. The bit about men staring at goats to try to kill them is true. The part about playing the theme song from Barney the purple dinosaur as a torture weapon is also true. The army officer who tried to run through walls also happened, with precisely the same result as in the movie: the wall’s atoms repelled his atoms with the predictable result. (And why, oh why, would they not use the real name of that officer: Major General Albert Stubblebine III? You couldn’t make up a better name!) I think that’s about it. Oh, guys did wear their hair longer then and had mustaches.

It is with some irony, then, that at the beginning of the film a line appears: “More of this is true than you would believe.” Okay, so what is true and what isn’t? Here is what I know. In 1995, the story broke that for the previous 25 years the U.S. Army had invested $20 million in a highly secret psychic spy program called Star Gate (also Grill Flame and Scanate), a Cold War project intended to close the “psi gap” (the psychic equivalent of the missile gap) between the United States and Soviet Union. The Soviets were training psychic spies, so we would as well. Forget the film. Read the book. In The Men Who Stare at Goats Jon Ronson tells the story of this program, how it started, the bizarre twists and turns it took, and how its legacy carries on today.

In a highly readable narrative style, Ronson takes readers on a Looking Glass-like tour of what U.S. Psychological Operations (PsyOps) forces were researching: invisibility, levitation, telekinesis, walking through walls, and even killing goats just by staring at them (the ultimate goal was killing enemy soldiers telepathically). In one project, psychic spies attempted to use “remote viewing” to identify the location of missile silos, submarines, POWs, and MIAs from a small room in a run-down Maryland building. If these skills could be honed and combined, perhaps military officials could zap remotely viewed enemy missiles in their silos, or so the thinking went.

Initially, the Star Gate story received broad media attention — including a spot on ABC’s Nightline — and made a few of the psychic spies, such as Ed Dames and Joe McMoneagle, minor celebrities. As regular guests on Art Bell’s pro-paranormal radio talk show, the former spies spun tales that, had they not been documented elsewhere, would have seemed like the ramblings of paranoid cultists.

But Ronson has brought new depth to the account by carefully tracking down leads, revealing connections, and uncovering previously undisclosed stories. For example, Ronson convincingly connects some of the bizarre torture techniques used on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, with similar techniques employed during the FBI siege of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. FBI agents blasted the Branch Davidians all night with such obnoxious sounds as screaming rabbits, crying seagulls, dentist drills, and Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” The U.S. military employed the same technique on Iraqi prisoners of war, instead using the theme song from the PBS kids series Barney and Friends — a tune many parents concur does become torturous with repetition.

One of Ronson’s sources, none other than Uri Geller (of bent-spoon fame), led him to one Maj. Gen. Albert Stubblebine III, who directed the psychic spy network from his office in Arlington, Virginia. Stubblebine thought that with enough practice he could learn to walk through walls, a belief encouraged by Lt. Col. Jim Channon, a Vietnam vet whose post-war experiences at such new age meccas as the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, led him to found the “first earth battalion” of “warrior monks” and “jedi knights.” These warriors, according to Channon, would transform the nature of war by entering hostile lands with “sparkly eyes,” marching to the mantra of “om,” and presenting the enemy with “automatic hugs.” Disillusioned by the ugly carnage of modern war, Channon envisioned a battalion armory of machines that would produce “discordant sounds” (Nancy and Barney?) and “psycho-electric” guns that would shoot “positive energy” at enemy soldiers.

Although Ronson expresses skepticism throughout his narrative, he avoids the ontological question of whether any of these claims have any basis in reality. That is, can anyone levitate, turn invisible, walk through walls, or remote view a hidden object? Inquiring minds (scientists) want to know. The answer is an unequivocal no. Under controlled conditions remote viewers have never succeeded in finding a hidden target with greater accuracy than random guessing. The occasional successes you hear about are due either to chance or suspect experiment conditions, like when the person who subjectively assesses whether the remote viewer’s narrative description seems to match the target already knows the target location and its characteristics. When both the experimenter and the remote viewer are blinded to the target, all psychic powers vanish.

Herein lies an important lesson that I have learned in many years of paranormal investigations and that Ronson gleaned in researching his illuminating book: What people remember rarely corresponds to what actually happened. Case in point to return to the title theme: A man named Guy Savelli told Ronson that he had seen soldiers kill goats by staring at them, and that he himself had also done so. But as the story unfolds we discover that Savelli is recalling, years later, what he remembers about a particular “experiment” with 30 numbered goats. Savelli randomly chose goat number 16 and gave it his best death stare. But he couldn’t concentrate that day, so he quit the experiment, only to be told later that goat number 17 had died. End of story. No autopsy or explanation of the cause of death. No information about how much time had elapsed; the conditions, like temperature, of the room into which the 30 goats had been placed; how long they had been there, and so forth. Since Ronson was skeptical, Savelli triumphantly produced a videotape of another experiment where someone else supposedly stopped the heart of a goat. But the tape showed only a goat whose heart rate dropped from 65 to 55 beats per minute.

That was the extent of the empirical evidence of goat killing, and as someone who has spent decades in the same fruitless pursuit of phantom goats, I conclude that the evidence for the paranormal in general doesn’t get much better than this.

They shoot horses, don’t they?


50 Responses to “Staring at Men Who Stare at Goats”

  1. I disagree, I thought the film was worth seeing although I agree that it’s not going to win any awards. It is kind of disappointing that it didn’t do too well at the box office because I was hoping that they might make Ronson’s other book THEM into a feature film.

    • tmac57 says:

      From the Official Jon Ronson Forum: “Universal Pictures has acquired rights to the Jon Ronson book “Them,” which will be used as the basis for a Mike White script to be directed by Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”).
      Jack Black and White will produce under their U-based Black and White banner along with Wright and Nira Park. “

  2. I think I enjoyed the movie more than Michael, although they did add an annoying Hollywood flavor to the story.

    While the movie flirted closer to the line of whether or not the “powers” were real – I loved the way in which they portrayed the psychics as all self-deluded bravado. It seemed as if they tried to give both skeptics and believers something to like.

    FYI – here is our interview with Jon Ronson:

    • Eric Erickson says:

      *Spoiler Alert*

      I think the movie could not decide weather it wanted to be hollywood or not. I agree with Micheal that most of the funny bits were in the trailer. Tonaly the film was not balanced. The transition from dramatic moments to comic was disjointed.

      I was disappointed because I was expecting a much more skeptical, or at least to leave it up in the air. It is the same pricipal as not showing the monster too much in a horror film. I think the movie did a diservice to the narative by presenting the flash backs as fact and not mearly as Clooney’s character remembers them. The ending bugged me to, not because he ran through a wall (we know that is impossible) but because it undermines the message they were building up to.

      Bridges’ and Clooney’s characters may have failed to reach the Army in building a more “wonderful” army. But that is OK. We should have lofty goals and strive to make the world a better place, even if you fail or are doomed from the start.

      I was suprised then that McGreggor’s caracter ran towards the wall and rather than bumping into it and give a wry smile he made it through.

      In the end they decided that they were going to make the movie very “Hollywood” and feel good, rather than to give people pause and have a thought provoking experience.

      Then again, it did get me thinking, and isn’t that what art is supposed to do?

  3. Woof says:

    No Goats
    No Glory!

    That cracks me up.

  4. Cthandhs says:

    I saw the film and I liked it. I read Ronson’s other book Them: Adventures With Extremists and thoroughly enjoyed it. I think his satirical style comes through, even if the film is a bit clunky. I look forward to reading the book, and I’m sure others will too. Any exposure of this kind of material in a wide release is a good thing.

  5. IanKoro says:

    I would somewhat agree with the idea that these ideas were originally worth checking out. That’s what science is about, of course. We honestly don’t know if it’s possible to kill something with your mind or perform remote viewing without testing it.

    While a lot of the people involved in this stuff were (and still are) completely nuts, testing it out was perfectly valid. Obviously, they didn’t come up with much of any real value, but you don’t know that until you explore it from all angles.

    • kabol says:

      We honestly don’t know if it’s possible to kill something with your mind or perform remote viewing without testing it.

      we don’t know or we didn’t know? you’re dwelling on past tense, right?

      i say the next religion someone makes up, they need to make sure to emphasize the idea of killing in the name of their religion with only their minds.

      it would save a lot of people a lot of heartache.

      • IanKoro says:

        What I really meant is we don’t really know ANYTHING without testing it. Technically we don’t know for sure yet… it’s just really, really unlikely.

    • John says:

      That’s why I run confirmation trials of killing people with my mind every time I’m on my motorcycle and some jackass almost kills me with their car.

      So far no luck!

  6. Max says:

    This was in Time two months ago.

    “Samurai Mind Training for Modern American Warriors”,8599,1920753,00.html

    Not long ago at Fort Bragg, N.C., the country’s largest military base, seven soldiers sat in a semi-circle, lights dimmed, eyes closed, two fingertips lightly pressed beneath their belly buttons to activate their “core.” Electronic music thumped as the soldiers tried to silence their thoughts, the key to Warrior Mind Training, a form of meditation slowly making inroads on military bases across the country.

  7. wulfmankarl says:

    Our Al-Qaeda enemies stare at goats too, for entirely different reasons.

  8. Mike says:

    I was planning to see the movie, but now I’m not so sure. I have the book sitting at home, waiting for me to finish reading the book I’m currently on. I don’t know if I should read the book first and then see the movie (and probably be disappointed), or see the movie first and then read the book (and probably wonder what happened), or just read the book and forget about the movie. Hmm seems I’ll be better off going with the latter.

  9. tudza says:

    Clooney tried to kill a goat by staring at it, but he blew it. This is illegal in most states.

  10. Josh W. says:

    Books are typically better than the movies on which they are based and this is no exception. Although it had moments of mild entertainment, overall it was lacking. Having read the book I found myself confused several times during the movie. It seemed like the producers went out of their way to change things that did not need changing.
    Stick with the written word on this one.

  11. Awwwwwwwww, but the trailer looked so good! Nevermind, I’ll still pay good money to see it and decide for myself.

  12. kabol says:

    this is interesting:

    Psychologist: ‘No Evidence Behind It

    Could they document successes? Sometimes, Smith said. The viewers provided just one slice of information and, often, he said they wouldn’t get feedback on the projects.

    But in one high-profile example, he said, a particularly talented viewer, Joe McMoneagle, predicted a new class of Soviet submarine months before photos confirmed its existence.

    Still, after 20 years, the controversial program was brought under review and found to be lacking enough evidence to justify its continued existence.

    wow, by these standards – gene roddenberry, isaac asimov and (insert sci-fi writer here)are psychic prophets.

    “Rather than admit they don’t have anything there, they say there must be something wrong with science. That’s the nature of psychic phenomena. Whenever you study it, it disappears,” he said. “The situation is that they just don’t have anything that would come close to being scientific evidence.”

    Col. John B. Alexander, a retired intelligence officer who is on the IRVA’s executive board, didn’t take part in the remote viewing program, but participated in other activities loosely described in “The Men Who Stare at Goats.”

    Even more than the remote viewing program, the so-called First Earth Battalion supposedly inspired much of the book and movie. In the movie, members of the group are the ones who experiment most heavily with the paranormal.

    But Alexander said that though the Battalion did indeed exist, it was not an official, authorized military unit. Instead, it was a manual and tool meant to encourage other officers to think creatively.

    “It was what we called a ‘notional unit’,” he said. People interested in it would meet occasionally, but the purpose was less about studying the paranormal and more about pushing boundaries to improve military operations, he said.

    The story of the goat stared to death, he said, likely came from casual experiments with the martial technique, dim mak or “death touch.”

  13. kabol says:

    heh heh — i just realized Ool. JB Alexander said “notional unit” while talking about goats.

  14. Dorene says:

    Shermer provides evidence for a long-held belief of mine: Never read the book first.

    I loved the movie.

  15. Mark says:

    I wonder what constitutes a good movie for Shermer? Didn’t he know that you are supposed to suspend disbelief (skepticism) at the door of the movie theater? That’s the difference between movies and science, Michael. Stick to debunking myths and leave the movie reviews to the experts (which is all of us!).

    • tmac57 says:

      I think Shermer thinks the movie failed because it had very little to do with the book which treats the whole affair in a skeptical way. I can see why that would be disappointing because I was personally hoping to see a good movie with a skeptical view do well. Since the disclaimer basically says that the movie is fiction, people will not realize the really bizarre (and funny) things the military did actually do. They will just blow it off as another wacky fictional movie instead of a real story. Personally,real-life nuttiness is more amusing to me than fiction.

  16. Ray Briggs says:

    Years ago in Azusa California I used to sometime walk next to a fenced yard with a large and very scary pit bull that would rush at me with the clear intention of killing me. Fortunately the high chain-link fence was my security. I had tried to be friendly by saying nice dog and holding my hand close to the fence but he just wanted to bite it off. I remembered hearing that a person could stare down animals and because of the fence I could try it and did. I simply stared right into those fierce eyes and guess what. After maybe 15 or 20 seconds he slowly stopped being so ferocious. Without the fence I would have been mincemeat. I continued staring and he continued to look at me. Then he began to back up and then whimpered a little and retreated back across the yard! No, he didn’t die, but the effect was dramatic. I did it again to demo it to my wife once and it worked exactly the same. I actually felt pity for the dog and didn’t do it again. Any time I did walk by the fence he was again his aggressive self. My staring had not gained me any respect. Maybe if I had done it regularly it would have, but he was still scary and I usually just avoided him by walking on the other side of the street. Incidentally, there were sometimes children in the yard and he would play gently with them. I guess they were accepted as members of the pack.

  17. Bernie Mooney says:

    Once again Shermer is wrong. Remote viewing has been proven to be real and more than “chance.” If he had bothered to read any of the experiments, or literature about them, he would know that.

    The reason the military abandoned the program was not because there wasn’t anything to it, but rather it wasn’t consistent enough for their needs.

    • Jim Shaver says:

      Or perhaps, Bernie, Michael Shermer writes about things about which he does know and for which he does research the available literature. One of you seems to do good science and good writing, and one of you seems credulous and lazy.

      • Jay says:

        It seems simple enough – he just needs to provide a documented case of it’s success where both the subject and the control know nothing of the target. But I would have to admit – that’s a pretty hard one to prove unless they kept it very simple – like a simple series of colors or textures.

        I would love to see unequivocal proof of remote viewing. It’s just that I have not seen any yet either.

  18. Beelzebud says:

    I didn’t realize this comedy movie was supposed to be a documentary.

    Next you’ll tell us that warp drives don’t exist..

  19. SundaeSchool says:

    This reminds me of a wonderful short story, “The Public Hating,” by Steve Allen about a sell-out crowd at Yankee Stadium whose collective hateful thoughts literally roasted a despised criminal.

  20. Marv says:

    Shermer says:

    “When both the experimenter and the remote viewer are blinded to the target, all psychic powers vanish.”

    What utter, absolute tosh. I can say no more; Skep-Dicks like this wind me up something rotten…go do some proper research Michael.

  21. Jen says:

    Its ok to be afraid.

  22. Tim says:

    DIVORCE COURT! lol, that was the funniest thing I’ve seen in some time. Wow!

  23. Waco Cars says:

    Great fact there at the end. Never saw the movie in theaters, but your spot on with the trailer containing many of the more comedic moments in the film. Im not surprised at all they kept the title the same. What else would they have named the film?

  24. Igre says:

    I’ve never seen the movie but I’ve read the book. I can’t wait to watch the film so that i can relate more.

  25. Igrice says:

    I saw this movie and it was great! I like it so much.

  26. Is there a movie entitled Men Who Stare at ants??

  27. Anton says:

    I Never saw the movie in theaters, but your spot on with the trailer containing many of the more comedic moments in the film…
    violent criminal attorney seattle

  28. I’ve just ordered the movie, hope it will be fine.. I heard a lot about it!

  29. yes, very interesting piece of art!