Monday, February 24, 2020

Miracles On Video: Some Examples

People often ask for video evidence of miracles (atheists, agnostics, cessationists, etc.). Some individuals even demand video of miracles, or come close to demanding it, as if any other evidence would be insufficient. I want to provide some examples of miracles caught on film and other forms of evidence for miracles involving video.

But I'm going to offer some qualifiers first. There are some background and interpretive issues that should be addressed.

Regarding the principles involved in evaluating the credibility of witnesses, including those involved with videos, see here. For an outline of my view of the paranormal, see this post. Expectations are important in judging the videos I'll be discussing below. People often bring false expectations to this kind of discussion, which distorts their judgment. I can't address all of the relevant issues here. But it may be helpful to some readers to briefly outline some of the explanatory options for paranormal phenomena.

Not every paranormal ability or event has to be either good or evil or have come directly from a being such as God or a demon. An ability or event can be neutral in some sense. An ability can be something somebody was born with or developed over time, akin to having an unusually good memory or eyesight or a musical talent. It's neutral in the sense that it could be used for good, evil, or neither. A paranormal ability could be latent, then be manifested later in a person's life for whatever reason. Not every paranormal ability or event has to involve some kind of strength. It could be a weakness of some sort, a result of the malfunctioning of a person's soul and/or body. You can't assume that something allegedly paranormal is fake or demonic, for example, just because you find it disgusting, nonsensical, or objectionable in some other way. And so on. I can't go into these issues in a lot of depth at this point. But given how little our culture discusses these things and how much bad reasoning there is on these matters, it's useful to lay out some of the explanatory options for those who haven't given these issues much consideration. Some of the resources I'll be citing below expand on these themes.

Video technology didn't exist for the large majority of human history. The vast majority of what people have believed since the invention of video hasn't depended on video evidence. We reach many conclusions in life, including on highly important matters, without requiring videos.

Miracles are typically unpredictable. Usually, you aren't going to know that something supernatural is about to occur, so that you have time to prepare a camera for filming the event.

And circumstances often prevent videos from being taken or being made widely available when a miracle is anticipated. Even if a prayer for healing is expected to result in a miracle, many people would consider it irreverent to God, disrespectful to the other people involved, or too distracting to take out a smartphone and start filming. In some parts of the world, the sort of video in question would put people at risk if it were disseminated too widely (e.g., regions where Christians are persecuted). Even where that kind of danger isn't involved, people often don't want something publicized because of privacy concerns or some other reason. Sometimes church services or some other relevant context will be recorded on video, but even those contexts don't involve a camera running at all times and in every portion of the facility, much less is the camera always focused where an alleged healing is going to occur.

And a video wouldn't tell you much about a supposed healing of something like deafness or cancer. As Craig Keener notes, "medical documentation seems more reliable than what is normally observable on a video" (Miracles, vol. 2 [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011], 669).

Videos have to be interpreted in a larger context. You need reason to believe that the video hasn't been edited in a misleading way. We rely on sources outside of a video to tell us who the people in the video are, their background, when the video was produced, where it was produced, etc.

The surrounding context is part of the means by which we judge whether the content of the video is of a miraculous nature. Something that isn't miraculous in one context can be considered miraculous in another. An event can seem ordinary at first, but extraordinary when the timing of the event, how much it parallels another event, or some other factor is taken into account. In a post last year, I discussed evidence for modern prophecy fulfillment. Events that aren't miraculous when considered apart from a prophecy can be considered miraculous in light of how they align with that prophecy (e.g., Jesus' influence over the Gentile world, the prominence of Jerusalem in world affairs). And we often believe in those events by means of evidence from videos, among other sources.

I should say something about my own background. Most of my work is in matters pertaining to the ancient world, especially New Testament and patristic issues, not modern miracles. The only paranormal case I'll be citing below about which I have something like a specialist's knowledge is the Enfield Poltergeist. And I'm not going to be citing every relevant video I've seen. I'm just providing some examples.

I don't know much about videos of alleged healings. There are many of them on YouTube and elsewhere. Craig Keener discusses some of them in his two-volume work on miracles mentioned above (668-73). The videos he cites are ones I either haven't seen or am hesitant about. He refers to controversies surrounding some of the videos, and he mentions further documentation he's acquired through other sources, meaning that the videos aren't all that he's going by. His discussion of these videos illustrates not only that such videos exist, but also their limitations and the value of having other types of evidence to supplement what we have on film.

The Ted Serios case involves not only a lot of thoughtography in the form of photographs, but also some video of Serios producing thoughtography. See here and here for some videos of Stephen Braude providing an overview of the case. Here you can watch a brief segment about Serios on the In Search Of television program. It shows some videos of Serios at work, including his production of an image on a video camera. As Leonard Nimoy explains during the program, Serios often operated under strict controls and produced highly impressive results. And there are other YouTube videos of Serios in action. You can get further information on the case in Braude's Psi Encyclopedia article here and a book he wrote, The Gold Leaf Lady (Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 2007).

And the case from which that book gets its title should be mentioned. To see some videos about the woman called the Gold Leaf Lady, go here for a television program that aired on NBC in 1990 and here for Braude discussing the case. And he discusses it in his book cited above and in an article here for the Psi Encyclopedia. Even though the first video provides the most film footage of the woman with the gold leaf on her body, it's the least valuable treatment of the case. You'll get a better overview from the book and article, even though they don't involve any video. And that illustrates the limitations of video and how cautious we should be in how we judge the value of video evidence. The videos of the woman with the gold leaf on her body have some significance. But they should be supplemented with other forms of evidence.

Notice, too, what kinds of problems are often created when videos are introduced, like the one from NBC linked above. See this segment, for example, in which Mary Beth McDonald, who saw the gold leaf appear on the woman, comments, "I was a Doubting Thomas, too. But, if you saw it, you, too, would be a believer." She comes across as an actress in a really bad infomercial. She has a big smile on her face, with her eyes big, and she sounds like she's delivering prepared lines. She may be entirely sincere, but she doesn't come across that way. Bert Schwarz comes across as mostly sincere, but he also sounds bad at times, like he's delivering lines he'd prepared. By contrast, Jerry Burr, a police investigator who appears on the program, comes across as more credible. He talks in a more natural way, so he comes across as more sincere and believable. Most likely, he'd had more experience speaking on television, and speaking in public in general, than the other two individuals I just mentioned. That's one of the problems with relying on videos. People who appear in them are often nervous, prepare what they're going to say ahead of time, etc., which affects how their credibility is perceived, sometimes inaccurately. Then there's the ridiculous music that's often playing in the background during the video, which can be distracting and trivializes what's being discussed. Some portions of the program feature Paul Kurtz, two of his students, and a magician offering a skeptical perspective. Their claims and arguments are bad, but much of the evidence against their assertions isn't provided in the video. To get a fuller picture of what happened behind the scenes of that television program and a fuller picture of the case as a whole, you should read Braude's book and article.

Here's a video about the Philip experiment, involving séance phenomena. The video consists largely of reenactments, but also has comments from people involved with the experiment and some footage from it starting here, followed by other footage periodically. And here's another video on the experiment. Go here for a Psi Encyclopedia overview of the subject.

I also want to cite some examples from poltergeist cases. I'll begin with one I haven't studied much, then discuss one I've researched in a lot of depth, Enfield.

Go here for some footage from the Humpty Doo case in Australia in the 1990s. Notice the converging lines of evidence: eyewitness testimony, video footage, thermal measurements, etc. It's common for objects moved by a poltergeist to get unusually hot, so what's captured in the video linked above is corroborated by what's occurred in other poltergeist cases. Paul Cropper, an eyewitness of the case, wrote, "Brendan [the man in the video above who took the thermal recordings] told Tony and I that the residents were never told he was using a thermal device so he could more easily catch them out. I assume they thought Brendan was using a normal video camera."

If you click here, you can watch a video of the Enfield poltergeist in action. The footage was taken by Stewart Lamont and his team for the BBC. It includes some voice phenomena and knocking. Here's an article I wrote analyzing the video, and quoting an email exchange I had with Lamont, a few years ago. Since posting that article, I've written more extensively on the voice in the Enfield case and the knocking. There's a lot about the video that people criticize, such as the smiling and laughing of the Hodgson girls, how easily critics think they could fake the poltergeist voice, and Janet's comment that "It's not haunted." But my 2017 article explains why none of those objections are significant and why the video probably does capture some paranormal activity.

Something else should be said about Enfield that doesn't get discussed much in the context of video issues. Sometimes there's a lack of video evidence for supernatural events because an entity involved with the events doesn't want to be filmed or is inhibited by filming. I've discussed some of the potential psychological and mechanical reasons why there would be an aversion to filming in my article on the voice and personality of the Enfield poltergeist. (Do a Ctrl F search for the sections of the article titled "Concealment" and "More About Mechanical Issues".) Poltergeists are often of a mischievous nature. Maurice Grosse, the chief investigator of the Enfield case, commented:

"This remarkable case taught me one lesson I will never forget. It is a lesson that has been confirmed in other cases I have investigated, namely: be as clinically scientific in your approach as you wish, but if you choose to play 'Hunt the Poltergeist'—'Confusion' is the name of the game." (Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 51, 1981-82, p. 195)

That's not just applicable to poltergeists. Supernatural phenomena more broadly often involve some entity, human or otherwise, who doesn't want to be filmed for whatever reason. And we often have evidence of that opposition to filming, which means that the aversion to videos isn't just a speculative hypothesis. Guy Playfair noted that, during the investigation of the Enfield case, there were "countless" incidents of video and other types of equipment failing in ways that seemed to be paranormal (This House Is Haunted [United States: White Crow Books, 2011], 34). I've cited examples in previous posts. (Do a Ctrl F search for "equipment failures" here.) I want to highlight one that's especially relevant to the context of this post.

In September of 1977, Pye Business Communications sent a team to the Hodgsons' house to try to get some poltergeist activity on video. Playfair notes in his book that the poltergeist was active before the Pye team arrived and that something paranormal had occurred "just before" the people from Pye got to the house (39). Yet, the poltergeist became inactive once the team got there, with one exception. Click here to listen to what Ron Denney of Pye said in a 1978 documentary by the BBC, regarding what happened to Pye's video equipment after they set it up in the Hodgsons' house:

And on this occasion, I went through the sequence, pressed the button, and all the lights on the recorder came on, one after the other, which is absolutely impossible. And there's no way, which we know, that this can happen at all, because the recorder had particular facilities on it for editing and sound dubbing and so on, each of which had separate buttons you had to press. And when you pressed these buttons, they lit up. And so there was no way, logically, that these buttons could, in fact, light up simply by pressing the on switch. But not only that, we found the machine wouldn't function. It jammed itself up completely. And when we eventually managed to retrieve the cassette from the machine, we found that the tape had come out of the cassette and wound itself around one of the [unintelligible], underneath the actual cassette itself. Now, we've never had this happen before, and I've never had it happen since, and I would say it's probably one chance in a million that that could actually happen.

Notice that there are a few independent lines of evidence that the poltergeist didn't want filmed in this context. It was active in the house until just before the Pye team arrived, then stopped. And it only became active again to make the camera equipment malfunction in multiple ways.

The audio recordings by Grosse and Playfair provide many examples of the poltergeist showing hostility toward camera equipment in one way or another. The poltergeist voice frequently made negative comments about video equipment and told them to get it out of the house. They had been keeping a video camera in the house somewhat often in January of 1978. At one point during that month, they found some of the tape from one of their video cassettes ripped out and lying on the staircase (discussed at 0:16 on tape 65A in Grosse's collection).

Near the beginning of this post, I discussed some of the reasons why miracles are often difficult to film and why when there are videos of them, those videos aren't always made available to the public. The unwillingness of some of the agents of paranormal phenomena, such as poltergeists, to be filmed is another factor that needs to be taken into account. Still, we do have some videos of the paranormal, occasionally even footage of entities that are often hostile toward being filmed.

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