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Same Darkness, Same Light

by Daniel Loxton, Jan 22 2013

I had a post ready to go for this morning on the topic of early twentieth century skeptical activist Joseph F. Rinn; but at a couple of thousand words, I thought it might be more appropriate for next week’s eSkeptic, our free weekly email newsletter over at the Skeptics Society. (You can subscribe to eSkeptic here.) Like my last post on the surprisingly complicated history of the skeptical slogan “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence,” my current Junior Skeptic article about second century Roman debunker Lucian of Samosata, and my next Junior Skeptic about two especially hard core early twentieth century skeptical investigators who happened to be women, the new Rinn piece is part of larger exploration I’ve been doing of the skeptical work of the decades, centuries, and even millennia prior to 1976 (the year of the formation of CSICOP, now called CSI—a moment which is usually considered the birth of the fully modern skeptical movement).

The skeptics of previous eras faced a few wrinkles unique to their contexts. How could they not? Yet the more striking thing is how very much repeats over time. The mysteries are the much same, decade after decade, and often identical. The arguments, the exposés, the scams, the rhetoric, and the sense of unique moral urgency—of sliding into a new Dark Age—all these echo across generations. For all the fine mustaches of the early twentieth century skeptical scene (and man, those were some damn fine mustaches) these were people whose mission and challenges were much the same as my own. The sense of continuity this historical perspective brings is—palpable? illuminating? remarkable?

As my intended post has gone to another home, I’d like to share with you an amusing if trivial example: in many eras, skeptics have suggested that it may be a bad idea to investigate mysteries in the freaking dark.

In 2010, Benjamin Radford identified messing about in darkness as one of the best ways not to investigate the paranormal in his book Scientific Paranormal Investigation. You wouldn’t think that would need bringing up, would you? And yet, again and again we see poorly-lit paranormal advocates stumbling all over our televisions.

Nearly every ghost-themed TV show has several scenes in which the investigators walk around a darkened place, usually at night, looking for ghosts. Purposely conducting an investigation in the dark is the equivalent of tying an anvil to a marathon runner’s foot. … If the purpose of the investigation is to get spooky footage, turn the lights off. If the purpose is to scientifically search for evidence of ghosts, leave the lights on.1

Father C. M. de Heredia shows two séance props—a false finger and a comb with hollow handle—from which "ectoplasm" could be "materialized."

Father C. M. de Heredia shows two séance props—a false finger and a comb with a hollow spine—from which “ectoplasm” could be “materialized.”

Given the silliness of these nighttime shenanigans, and given the generations of scientific skeptics to toil in this field before us, it may not surprise you that this suggestion has come up before. Father Carlos M. de Heredia was a practicing Jesuit priest from Mexico, a magician, a well known skeptic of the early twentieth century, and a respected colleague of the other skeptics of his period. He was cited by Harry Houdini,2 exposed mediumistic trickery for Popular Mechanics,3 and wrote an insightful, aptly-titled 1922 English-language debunking book, Spiritism and Common Sense. He also felt that light was good for seeing.

Good light is certainly necessary for good observation. That requisite is missing. The theories of the scientific observer may come from inspiration, but surely his knowledge comes through the senses. The light in such cases is not conducive to the accuracy of visual observation at least. And when the séance is held in the dark, as often, there is no observation, no careful scrutiny at all.4

Which of course is very often deliberate. For all the patter and lore and traditions that justify wide-eyed attention in the dark, the underlying reasons for darkness in séances and ghost-hunts and Bigfoot wrangling is that this condition gives reign to the imagination—and permits and conceals trickery. As Father Heredia explained, “The strangeness of atmosphere—a factor entirely absent from the ordinary investigations of the scientific observer—tends to increase his emotional sensitiveness. That feeling of mystery, of something extraordinary about to occur, influences his disposition to see and believe the mysterious and extraordinary.”

The persuasive effect of the cloak of darkness, as David Phelps Abbott explained in his famous 1907 exposé Behind the Scenes with the Mediums, was an innovation of nineteenth century tricksters, a fashion that was picked up and spread:

The next fashion was the dark seance. This always seemed so unreasonable to me, and such evidence of trickery, that I have always been surprised that otherwise intelligent persons could give credence to such performances.5

Unreasonable, perhaps. And yet darkness worked then, and works now, and has worked for a very long time. Here is how Lucian of Samosata described the stage-setting for Alexander the Oracle-monger, almost two thousand years ago:

“Now then, please imagine a little room, not very bright and not admitting any too much daylight…”6


  1. Radford, Benjamin. Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. (Rhomus Publishing Company: Corrales, 2010.) p. 125
  2. Houdini, Harry. A Magician Among the Spirits. (Fredonia Books: Amsterdam, 2002.) p. 114
  3. “Spirit Hands, ‘Ectoplasm,’ and Rubber Gloves.” Popular Mechanics. Vol. 40, No. 1. July 1923. pp. 14–15.
  4. C. M. de Heredia. Spiritism and Common Sense. (New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1922.) p. 46
  5. Abbot, David Phelps. Behind the Scenes with the Mediums. (Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Co., 1907.) pp. 53–54
  6. Lucian. A. M. Harmon, trans. Lucian. Vol IV. (London: William Heinemann, 1961). p. 197–199/li>

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11 Responses to “Same Darkness, Same Light”

  1. Archie Clebberdale says:

    In defence of dark investigations, ghosts and such are usually imagined as faint light emitting figures. Additionally, some narratives hold that ghosts are adverse to light or nocturnal.
    So if you are going to hunt for ghosts, despite the ludicrousness of the concept, by all means do so at night. But do it properly; don’t make a circus out of it. And have realistic expectations: given previous results, don’t hope for more than boring night-time footage completely devoid of ghosts.

    • If glowing in the dark is a specific characteristic of the thing you’re looking for—as in the mediumistic manifestations of ectoplasm—investigators have little choice but to work in the dark. These type of phenomena have a way of being available only under the worst conditions. In an example offered by one of the 1887 Seybert Commissioners charged by the University of Pennsylvania to dig into mediums, “The bare statement of the conditions whereunder the Mediums maintain that the manifestations of Independent Slate Writing are alone possible, involves the extreme difficulty, we might almost say the impossibility, of any genuine or rational investigation.”

      If the conditions become onerous or slippery enough, the whole thing may descend into untestable irrelevance. Joseph Rinn nailed it a 1906 New York Times quote: “if conditions that permit fraud are necessary for the production of psychic phenomena, we had better quit investigations.”

      • Steven St. John says:

        That’s a wonderful quote from Joseph Rinn.

      • Susan Gerbic says:

        “faint light emitting figures”

        If the “ghost” has measurable qualities then it can be tested.

        The question to ask is not “how is it best to spot a ghost?” but “do ghosts exist?”

  2. Trimegistus says:

    I think it’s great that Mr. Loxton is bringing some attention to these forgotten heroes of skepticism. It’s odd that old quacks like Faust, Paracelsus, or the Fox sisters are remembered across centuries, but the rationalists who debunked them are forgotten.

    • Thank you. I’ve long considered myself reasonably well-acquainted with the history of this field, but I have to say that upon digging further I’m a bit shocked at just how much has been forgotten. Whole skeptical careers and even communities utterly vanished from the memory even of niche enthusiasts and professional practitioners. It’s humbling.

  3. Loren Petrich says:

    This reminds me of what Martin Gardner once commented about many psi researchers.

    He noted that their preoccupation with borderline statistical effects is just like spiritualist mediums’ preferring to work in the dark.

    In both cases, they are claiming effects that are ambiguous or barely perceivable.

    That’s why particle physicists like a statistical threshold of 5 standard deviations for claiming discoveries.

  4. Dave Davis says:

    I enjoyed learning about Joseph F. Rinn and his magnum opus. Many thanks. I’m surprised that he lacks a Wikipedia page of his own (unless I have overlooked it). There’s the beginnings of a similar entry here — Perhaps someone could start a wikipedia page for him and his work– certainly he qualifies.

    • Thank you. I noticed the lack of a Wikipedia page for Rinn as well (and similar gaps for many early skeptics, and tipped off Susan Gerbic, who has commendably taken the lead in the important work of fixing such gaps. I strongly recommend that grassroots skeptics looking for useful outlets for their activist ambitions or even hobby interest in skepticism to contact Susan and join her in her work.

  5. Lloyd Smith says:

    Daniel, just found your article. Interesting stuff. I don’t think I would classify C. M. de Heredia as complete skeptic, he endorsed some psychical phenomena and wrote that he believed a girl was posessed by the devil in his book Spiritism and Common Sense. His work on debunking spiritualism though was sound.

    Trevor H. Hall is another skeptic who has been forgotten about, as is Gordon Stein and D. H. Rawcliffe.

    I know someone who you might want to do a blog post on if you are interested in looking up some other forgotten psychic debunkers, Melvin Harris author of Sorry – You’ve Been Duped. A fascinating little book which has been forgotten. Also Beware Familiar Spirits by the magician John Mulholland.

  6. Lloyd Smith says:

    I have been trying to figure out the author of this book:

    “On the other side of the footlights
    an expose of routines, apparatus and deceptions resorted to by mediums, clairvoyants, fortune tellers and crystal gazers in deluding the public”

    The book says it was written in 1922 by the pseud of Dr. X a magician.

    I looked for the author and it says in some places his real name was “Willis Dutcher” but this does not seem to be true. Another forgotten book. There are so many of these, and the problem is trying to dig up information about the author.

    There was also Fulton Oursler who invented the pen name Samri Frikell the author of Spirit Mediums Exposed (1930). Houdini contributed a chapter to it, but again the book has been totally forgotten. Somebody needs to reprint these guys works!

    This dude also comes to mind:

    Another forgotten psychic debunker. I could be listing them all day lol. One day all we can hope is that someone will make all these books more accessible to the public. Skeptics are also in the dark for not knowing some of these old books, and they could be very useful. Trevor H. Hall has written a book Old Conjuring Books (1973) which lists many books by magicians debunking fraud mediums.