Heeding (Or Ignoring) Skeptical Investigation

October 22, 2011

One of the interesting things in skeptical research to see is how (or whether) skeptical investigations make it into the mainstream literature. After all, it’s all well and good for skeptics to know that a case has been solved, but the real benefit is when the greater public realizes it.

Here’s some background on a famous haunted house mystery I solved:

The ghost hunting team of Ghost Hunters International traveled to Montego Bay, Jamaica, to investigate “one of the world’s most haunted places”: Rose Hall, said to be haunted by the ghost of an evil woman named Annie Palmer, “The White Witch of Rose Hall.” The episode (“The Legend of Rose Hall,” Season 2, episode 13) aired last year. It’s a shame that the Ghost Hunters didn’t do any actual research on the White Witch of Rose Hall, because I could have saved them some effort (and embarrassment).

Had they read my thorough 2007 investigation into the place, they would have discovered that the ghost of Annie Palmer cannot possibly haunt Rose Hall, because Annie Palmer was never a real person. But I’m getting ahead of the story. According to reports: Annie was “beautiful beyond compare; she had a rich throaty voice with black penetrating eyes… Her complexion was smooth, and she could shift from a gentle smiling creature to a haughty, cruel, sensual, cat-like woman, gracefully exuding both anger and sensuality… Annie had strength besides her cruelty. She had the power of a mind trained in sorcery. She believed in spirits and had the ability to project death fears in her slaves.” As a young girl living in Haiti she had become the favorite of a high voodoo priestess: “It was this woman who taught Annie to believe in spirits, to regard the air as charged with the supernatural, over which she could gain control. She attended forbidden voodoo orgies, summoned by eerie drumbeats in the dead of night.” She moved from Haiti to Jamaica, and soon met and married Rose Hall master John Palmer. According to one account, “John Palmer lived for three years after their marriage. Annie claimed he drank, that the second husband went mad and the third married her for money. The slaves said poison, stabbing, and strangulation did them in one by one.”

Jeff Belanger, in his book The World’s Most Haunted Places, states “Annie killed John Palmer with poison, and then she closed off his bedroom and would not allow anyone to enter it.” It’s all very dramatic-and completely fictional. Annie Palmer is in fact the title character in a famous Jamaican novel, The White Witch of Rose Hall, published in 1929 by Herbert G. de Lisser. There was no real Annie Palmer even remotely resembling that of the White Witch. Thus Annie Palmer never existed, thus they presumably could not have found any evidence of her ghost. Rose Hall, “the most haunted house in the Western Hemisphere” and indeed one of “the world’s most haunted places” is in reality merely myth passed off by careless writers as fact.

Apparently the Ghost Hunters crew believe that fictional characters can have ghosts! It’s one thing to say that a human being has a spirit that can survive in the afterlife and haunt a location. It’s quite another to say that a person who is created by another person’s thoughts or words also has a ghost…

So has my skeptical investigation been heeded or ignored in the years since it was published? The Rose Hall case provides us with an interesting comparison. In one case, the writers acknowledged that the case had been solved; in another, not so much…

Ghost enthusiast Jeff Belanger has recently updated the World’s Most Haunted Places and it includes Rose Hall, where I debunked the White Witch that’s supposed to haunt the place. Jeff has known about my investigation for years, and it’s even on the Wikipedia page! Surely there’s some mention of my work in this updated edition, at least a passing reference….

Nope. That’s very strange. It’s not clear whether he omitted the information because he was unaware of it (sloppy research), or because he was intentionally ignoring skeptical investigation (intellectual dishonesty). I’ve spoken with Jeff, and he seems like a nice guy, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt… I’m sure it was just an oversight.

In contrast, the International Reggae Wine Festival offers tours of Rose Hall, and states at the bottom of the tour offering that “An investigation of the case in 2007 by Benjamin Radford showed the case to have been based on a fictional story.” Ethics in advertising and tourism! Who knew?