I FIRST MET Dr Ciarán O’Keeffe in Liverpool about 12 years ago and, although our meeting was purely professional, we did become friends even though we came from opposite sides of the paranormal.
Ciarán is a sceptic and I am a believer, so to speak, but our mutual interests led us to write a book together: The Great Paranormal Clash. This was turned into a stage show and later a television production on the Paranormal Channel.
I also spent a short time alongside Ciarán on the long-running and popular TV programme Most Haunted. More recently, we have written a revised version of our book, retitled Science and Séance.
Although we disagreed about a lot of things connected to the paranormal, Ciarán and I, surprisingly, agreed about many significant points and particularly about mediums.
Recently we have been working together in London on promotional activities for Syfy Channel in connection with the new American TV series The Exorcist, currently being broadcast on Fox.
And so, to find out more about the way Dr O’Keeffe thinks and perceives the whole genre of the paranormal, I seized the opportunity, during a break in our filming, to question him about his beliefs and share them with Psychic News readers.
First of all, please tell us about your academic role and your background.
I am Head of Psychology at Bucks New University in Buckinghamshire. In addition to having departmental manager responsibilities, I am programme leader for the BSc. (Hons) Criminological Psychology and BSc. (Hons) Psychology and Criminology courses. This hints at the many “hats” I wear: parapsychologist; investigative (forensic) psychologist; music psychologist; writer; ghostbuster!
The “hats” also illustrate what is at the heart of my background: science and academia. In terms of my background, I’ve primarily taken an academic journey, starting with an undergraduate liberal arts degree in the USA, double majoring in Music and Psychology, to an MSc in Investigative Psychology, where my independent research encompassed the geo-spatial behaviour of serial killers, psychological profiling, mental maps of cyber criminals and the psychology of fraud.
My Master’s thesis examined the use of psychic detectives and that led me to a PhD at the University of Hertfordshire, focused on the content of advice given by practitioners claiming a paranormal ability (everything from astrology, psychometry and psychic handwriting analysis to various forms of mediumship).
Peppered along the academic journey were “forays” into other areas: English teacher in Madrid; nursing care assistant (in various hospitals in the South East); research assistant at the National Centre for Tactile Diagrams; media parapsychologist and sceptic; and volunteer worker at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (London).
For those Psychic News readers unfamiliar with the term, please explain exactly what parapsychology is.
Parapsychology is the scientific study of the paranormal which covers many topics including ESP (telepathy, precognition and clairvoyance), PK (psychokinesis) and Survival (otherwise known as after-death communication: haunting experiences, mediumship, etc.). My area of expertise is in the latter (Survival research) with which I’ve been involved for over 25 years.
What led to your interest in the paranormal?
I’ve been fascinated by ghost stories since a very young age. I was a voracious reader as a boy – books by Clive Barker, James Herbert, M.R. James, H.P. Lovecraft – and it fuelled an interest in ghostly experiences. Around the same time, Arthur C. Clarke had his TV show, Mysterious World, and I was hooked.
In 1984, when the movie Ghostbusters came out, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. A degree in psychology in the US and research at the Institute of Parapsychology [founded by Dr J.B. Rhine, a pioneer in the field] started a long path of study, qualifications and experience to finally gain a PhD in a parapsychology topic and live my dream of becoming Dr Venkman [the role played by Bill Murray in Ghostbusters].
As long as I have known you, you have always appeared to have a non-paranormal explanation for everything. What would it take to make Dr Ciarán O’Keeffe say: “Wow! Now I do believe”?
That’s a tough question because the paranormal is such a vast area. It covers everything from cryptozoological creatures such as the Loch Ness monster and the yeti, through to claims of telepathy and mediumship and finally to extra-terrestrial phenomena, such as UFOs and alien abductions.
For each phenomenon it would take different types of evidence to convince me. As a scientist, however, it is not about belief; it is about remaining objective and unbiased and not letting belief get in the way of good scientific judgment.
If we’re talking about direct personal experience of ghosts, which is my main area of study, there are several cases which, if we take the accounts on face value, are incredibly convincing. As for direct experience, in the past I used to say if a ghost came up to me and shouted “Boo!” I might believe.
Now, as a result of an astute colleague’s point that I would be equally vulnerable to possible visual hallucination and issues around eyewitness testimony, I say I would need a ghost to come up to me and shout “Boo!” and for that encounter to be filmed and witnessed by a second person.
In your opinion, are there any genuine mediums?
Define “genuine”. If you mean genuine as in actually communicate with spirit then I need to explain my view on proof. As a scientist, I’m naturally sceptical – which ultimately means I question but I let the evidence speak.
The majority of good evidence for mediumship comes from personal testimonies. This is not “proof”. It is often highly evidential for those receiving the messages but it does not stand up to scientific scrutiny.
Achieving the level of evidence required to change my opinion would require laboratory-based studies under controlled conditions. There have been a number of these conducted over the past decade or so (and earlier) but some are seriously flawed (and I’ve said as much in various published critical reviews).
Any that do present a strong case for accurate mediumship are, in my opinion, offering evidence of paranormal communication. If a medium is accurate under controlled conditions then there has to be some way of assessing that accuracy. If that’s the case, then it means someone, somewhere knows that information. So, who is to say the information has not been received through some other paranormal ability other than mediumship (e.g. telepathically from the client)?
Of course, proof of paranormal communication is amazing and I think some of the research at the Windbridge Institute in Tucson, Arizona, for example [PN November 2015], is heading in the right direction, but it is not proof of mediumship.
If by “genuine” mediums you mean ones who are in it for genuine reasons rather than being deliberately fraudulent, then I’m always reminded of a quotation from the movie Red Lights where Margaret Matheson (the sceptical paranormal investigator) says: “You know, there are two kinds of people out there with a special gift – the ones who really think they have some kind of power, and the other guys who think we can’t figure them out. They’re both wrong.”
Now, I don’t fully agree with its arrogance, as it would be impossible to test every single medium, but I do love that statement.
In fact, the majority of the mediums I meet and have worked with do really think they have some kind of power and are “genuinely” in it to learn, help and provide messages. It is the minority who are being deliberately fraudulent.
If by “genuine” mediums you mean ones who I think are genuinely communicating with spirit, the answer has to be “No, I have yet to meet one”.
Of all the paranormal situations you have investigated, which has been the most interesting and why?
That’s an incredibly difficult question to answer as all of my investigations have been interesting. I am genuinely fascinated by this area of study and no two investigations are the same. There are some key locations, however, that stick in my mind for their infamy or intriguing phenomena: Hampton Court Palace; Hex Nightclub (Birkenhead); a World War Two underground bunker (Channel Islands); Oxford Castle; Hever Castle (Kent); West Virginia State Penitentiary (Moundsville, WV); Eastern State Penitentiary (Philadelphia); SS Great Britain (Bristol); Waverly Hills Sanatorium (Louisville, KY); Bokor Hill Station (Cambodia)…the list could go on. I guess you’ll have to wait for my autobiography to read all about these cases and more!
Have you ever experienced paranormal phenomena you could not explain?
Over the thousands of investigations of haunting experiences, I estimate I have had over 50 that others may interpret as being paranormal, but with my knowledge and understanding of possible environmental and psychological causes, I know they have natural explanations.
There are only a handful of incidents that I class as “head-scratching moments”. One of them was an investigation of a nightclub in the north west of England. Aside from a number of phenomena recorded, the most significant evidence came from footage captured by a thermal imaging camera.
These essentially allow you the luxury of actually seeing what a thermometer picks up, recording temperature fluctuations in the form of colours. With most of these units, you look through them in much the same way as you look through a video recorder to view the image. Using infrared technology, you can actually see the shape and size of cold spots.
During a séance conducted by the staff at the nightclub (a replication of the original trigger for the paranormal activity), a colleague and I noticed on our thermal imaging camera that every time one of the circle “called out” it affected the temperature readings.
Inexplicably, it seemed as if the temperature was reacting to their voice. At certain times during the séance the group was also surrounded by a mass of green shapes on the imager – green indicating a drop in temperature.
We checked and double-checked the room and weather recordings outside, and there were no obvious signs of draughts to account for the sudden drops in temperature.
It looked like a scene from the movie The Fog – as the séance participants were reporting a drop in temperature and apparently getting communication, a green fog on the thermal imager really did seem to close in around them.
Why is there so much interest today in the paranormal? Also, from a psychologist’s perspective, can involvement in the paranormal be psychologically detrimental to some people?
There has always been an interest in the paranormal. Certainly we have seen a recent peak of interest due in no small part to a prevalence of “paranormal reality shows” on television, an increase in the horror and ghost movie genre and the proliferation of social media, especially YouTube, in the last decade.
As for your point about involvement in the paranormal being psychologically detrimental to some people – there’s no evidence that this is the case. In fact, involvement in ghost hunting has provided a much-needed pursuit for those in search of answers and, as such, has had a positive influence for many.
With your question I think you are implicitly asking about the testimonies associated with things like ouija boards and the “dark arts”. Certainly there are anecdotal accounts of people being affected negatively after dabbling with such oracles but this, in my opinion, is down to psychology, belief and possibly a pre-existing addictive personality.
However, I am frequently asked whether I would recommend using a ouija board. I know their success is solely down to psychology and something perfectly natural called “ideomotor reflex” (a proven phenomenon first investigated by William Carpenter back in 1852 and again in 1853 by Faraday).
So, one would expect I don’t have a problem with anyone using ouija boards. Wrong. If you have a strong belief in their power and the source of the messages, and especially if you believe they could attract negative entities, then there is the very real possibility that you could be affected detrimentally.
For that reason alone, even though it would be purely psychological, if you have that belief I would advise against their use.
The second part of Billy Roberts’ interview with Dr Ciarán O’Keeffe will appear in PN February 2017 issue.