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Houdini, Bigfoot, and the Jackson Pollock Effect

by Daniel Loxton, Nov 13 2012

Recently Skeptical Inquirer writer Benjamin Radford posted a question to the Facebook Group thread for Skeptic magazine’s cryptozoology-themed podcast MonsterTalk on the topic of the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film (purported to show a sasquatch striding across a sandbar in the woods). What are we to make, Radford wondered, of claims that the film cannot be duplicated because it would be too expensive, too difficult technically—or perhaps even impossible to recreate due to the anatomical limits of human actors? I responded to say that all such arguments are in my opinion baloney, but that this does not necessarily imply that attempts to recreate the film to the satisfaction of fair viewers actually ever will succeed. Even if the original was a crude hoax accomplished by cheap, simple means (as I suspect) it may still be the case that it can never be matched.

The reason goes well beyond Patterson or Bigfoot or cryptozoology, and right to the heart of artistic creation. It’s a truth I learned in painting and photography, a truth I live with every day in my work as as a writer and illustrator: sometimes you just get lucky. Sometimes things just work. There’s no great reason for it, no secret key you can turn a second time. Sometimes lightning strikes—and then it is gone. As an artist you seize those moments of magic, knowing you cannot get them back.

The significance of this in relation to the study of paranormal claims was perhaps best explained by skeptical pioneer Harry Houdini:

Again many of the effects produced by mediums are impulsive, spasmodic, done on the spur of the moment, inspired or promoted by the attending circumstances, and could not be duplicated by themselves. Because the circumstances of their origin and performance are so peculiar detection and duplication of Spiritualistic phenomena is sometimes a most complex task. Not only are mediums alert to embrace every advantage offered by auto-suggestion but they also take advantage of every accidental occurrence. For instance, my greatest feat of mystery was performed in 1922…at the home of Mr. B.M.L. Ernest. The children were waiting to set off their display of fireworks when it started to rain. The heavens fairly tore loose. Little Richard in his dismay turned to me and said:

“Can’t you make the rain stop?”

“Why certainly,” I replied and raising my hands said appealingly, “Rain and Storm, I command you to stop.”

This I repeated three times and, as if by miracle, within the next two minutes the rain stopped and the skies became clear. Toward the end of the display of fireworks the little fellow turned to me and with a peculiar gleam in his eyes said:

“Why, Mr. Houdini, it would have stopped raining anyway.” I knew I was risking my whole life’s reputation with the youngster but I said:

“Is that so? I will show you.” Walking out in front I raised my hands suppliantly toward the heavens and with all the command and force I had in me called:

“Listen to my voice, great Commander of the rain, and once more let the water flow to earth and allow the flowers and trees to bloom.”

A chill came over me for as if in response to my command or the prayer of my words another downpour started, but despite the pleading of the children I refused to make it stop again. I was not taking any more chances.1

I’ve come to privately think of the problem of unreproducible one-offs as the “spilled paint” or “Jackson Pollock effect.” Due to the roles of chance and contingency, an event may be astonishingly, stupidly easy to create the first time, yet effectively impossible to duplicate through the same means. Imagine throwing a bucket of paint at a wall. A monkey could literally do that; and yet, no virtuosity of bucket-chucking will suffice to make that exact same splash pattern a second time, no matter how many walls we deface. Skeptics would do well to internalize Houdini’s warning on this score. “I believe,” he said, “that the great majority of so-called manifestations can be duplicated but I am not prepared to include all, because, as before explained, some are spontaneous, and cannot be reproduced by the mediums themselves unless the identical opportunity should present itself, which is as uncertain as lightning striking twice in the same place—possible but improbable.”2

Contingency means not only that some effects are impossible to recreate, but also that some must remain forever unsolved. It would be nice if there were always a trail of evidence, a smoking gun, but the world is not so kind. We’re left with anomalies, dead ends, unanswered questions. This has disquieting implications not only for skeptical investigators, but also for those paranormal proponents whose hopes are built upon a tantalizing “residue of unexplainable cases.” Many of those least explicable cases are to be expected by chance alone. It is simply the nature of the world: sometimes a bolt of lightning looks an awful lot like a miracle.


  1. Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. (Amsterdam: Fredonia Books, 2002.) pp. 245–246
  2. Ibid. p. 247

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9 Responses to “Houdini, Bigfoot, and the Jackson Pollock Effect”

  1. spectator says:

    Thanks for another enlightening article. This helps to remind us that skeptics who approach phenomenon as debunkers risk being just as mistaken with an inaccurate explanation. Yes, people tend to see things and make connections to come up with paranormal explanations.
    This particular film does look like an authentic animal. It is grainy, low quality video that would be impossible to Hollywood’s state of the art ability to recreate. But it’s a one of a kind, which makes this explanation far more plausible.

  2. Anon says:

    Plenty of evidence has emerged that the “PGF” was a wonderful, wonderful hoax: it all worked. Until the last 10 years or so.

  3. tudza says:

    I don’t think Jackson Pollock is a good example. He had control over the application of paint and knew what he wanted to do.

    • Ryan says:

      Yes he seldom splashed or spilled paint. Most often carefully dripping/pouring it off a dowel or brush handle he stuck in a can of paint. That might make it a better metaphor though. Very careful control used to give the appearance of the natural or random, with well trained ability to spin the accidental into the whole? Sounds about right.

  4. Guy Edwards says:

    Anon, there is not “plenty of evidence” that PGF was a hoax, and it misses the point of the article. I would argue tudza misses the point as well. Jackson Pollock could not predict or control how the paint splashed and splattered, therefore no single painting could be duplicated. Plus, his method was to create compositions based on the randomness he could not predict.

    Contingency is the key to the article.

    • Ryan says:

      As I mentioned above Pollock didn’t splash or spatter he most often very carefully poured. But he couldn’t really control what exactly happened when that paint hit the canvas. Only very carefully work with it and around it. Which I think makes the metaphor even more apt.

  5. Phil says:

    You can find the Bigfoot film online with the image stabilized. Looks like a guy walking around to me. But your point is taken, sometimes pure chance means replicating events don’t always work. How many times in sports do you hear one in a million shot?

  6. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    I no longer recall the exact details but once (ONCE!) Fox had a program debunking some paranormal nonsense. Billy Meyer and his Unidentified Fony Objects was the focus of one segment. They also had one on the Patterson film in which it was alleged that a local man dressed up in a gorilla suit for the fil. The man himself was not interviewed (Dead? Not commenting? Don’t recall.), but film showed that he was big and tall and his normal gait was identical with the alleged Bigfoot of the film.
    I’m sorry now that I didn’t take more careful note of the program. It aired on Fox Network in the late ’90s. Someone with more patience and time than I can call on should be able to find it.