Monday, April 14, 2014

Debunking "The Castle Project"

Generally speaking, I try to post longer original pieces on magick and magical techniques on Mondays. This article isn't precisely one of those, but it does have some important implications for any sort of skeptical investigation of magick and other paranormal phenomena. That's why I'm posting it today. There are two kinds of skeptics out there in the world - those who genuinely approach mysterious phenomena with an open mind and those who simply seek to debunk anything out of the ordinary regardless of the evidence presented. The article I'm commenting on here is a good example of the latter, and it should be no surprise that it was written by a member of the James Randi Educational Foundation, one of the world's most well-known debunking organizations.

Over the weekend I got a chance to watch "The Castle Project," a documentary about the renovation of a reputedly haunted mansion in Denver, Colorado into a bed and breakfast. While searching for more information about the property, I also came upon this article from the James Randi Educational Foundation written by Dr. Karen Stollznow debunking the film. While I agree with Stollznow's conclusion that the documentary does not show any substantial evidence of paranormal activity, the way in which the article was written reminds me of much that bothers me about Randi-style skepticism. Instead of addressing the facts in an objective manner, such reports include assumptions of bad faith, innuendo, and sometimes outright misrepresentation to support the foregone conclusion that no evidence of the paranormal can ever be convincing because the paranormal simply does not exist.

Thomas Croke built the Croke-Patterson Mansion in Denver in 1891. Over the years it has been home to many different residents, as well as a doctor’s office, a dance studio, a radio station, an apartment complex and a bed & breakfast, while it remained unoccupied for many years. As an historical “castle” with a colorful past, the Croke-Patterson has a haunted reputation. At great expense, the house was recently purchased by architect Brian Higgins and converted into a boutique hotel renamed the Patterson Historic Inn, although he’s not so interested in history.

Point #1: Higgins is not so interested in history according to whom? It seems to me that the folklore about the house is most definitely part of its history, as it has a strong local reputation as a haunted mansion. One of the problems with the Randi folks is that rather than simply looking at a piece of purported "evidence" of the paranormal and proposing natural explanations that are more plausible than paranormal ones, they tend to impute all sorts of nefarious motives to whoever is presenting the evidence. Often they do that in these sorts of little asides and jabs, which has always struck me as unprofessional.

Recently, we received an email at the JREF asking us to help promote The Castle Project, Higgins’ new documentary about the Croke-Patterson Mansion.

I will grant that trying to enlist JREF in promoting a documentary like this was not very smart on Higgins' part. Anyone familiar with the history of the organization should have realized that even if he had, for example, an authentic raw video recording of a full-bodied, seemingly sentient apparition (which again, to be clear, he does not), JREF would have just accused him of faking it with CGI and still done nothing to promote the documentary. JREF assumes if something can be faked it was faked, which is convenient for them now that most video is digital and therefore anything can be faked.

This begins with skeptics Matthew Baxter and Bryan Bonner bemoaning that the Mansion’s fascinating history is overshadowed by its ghostly lore and urban legends. Twisting this message, the filmmaker promises that he will unearth the “true” ghost stories. The Castle Project’s motto is, “Not based in a true story. It is the true story.”

Well, the thing is, that's literally true until the film nears its end. The "true story" is that Higgins set out to document paranormal activity, but found nothing aside from some random noises, a couple of weird EVP's, and a handful of personal accounts from some of his workers.

The documentary descends into the house’s legends of suicides, death, lynchings, Satanic rituals, ghosts, and a baby buried in the basement. They repeat the popular tale that the first time Thomas Croke walked into the house he remarked, “It’s so haunted here. I can’t live here!” (In reality, he lived there for two years before he sold it to Thomas Patterson.)

Point #2: This latter tale is the first outright misrepresentation in the article. The documentary does repeat the story of Thomas Croke finding the house "too haunted" to live in, but immediately debunks it and includes the fact that Croke lived there for two years. This isn't a "gotcha," rather it's a ghost story that the documentary specifically states is not true. Also, the commentary by Baxter and Bonner earlier in the film specifically identifies some of the other stories listed in this paragraph as obviously false.

These stories are peppered with the testimony of tradespeople who claim to have heard the sounds of phantom music, a girl’s voice and a baby crying. Strangely, when people get to the top of the stairs of the third story house they lose their breath…

A number of the personal experiences of the various tradespeople involve sounds for which they couldn't identify a source, but as most of the work took place in the middle of the day on Denver's Capital Hill most of them were probably just noises from outside. The house is very large and had older windows when the work began, and it would be pretty easy for sounds to carry into the building from somewhere nearby that nonetheless would be out of the line of sight - so when the tradesperson in question looked out the nearest window, he or she wouldn't see anything. This could also be the case with some of the EVP's as well - voices from outside that were too soft to hear clearly because they were filtering into the mansion.

Point #3: As far as I recall, that "out of breath" comment isn't in the documentary. I don't remember any such claim from the tradespeople Higgins interviewed. Stollznow is right that treating such a statement as paranormal would be ridiculous, but where did she get it? She may have seen some additional interview with Higgins or something to that effect, but she should identify her sources for any material not found in the film itself. Otherwise it just looks like she's making things up.

Previous residents, labeled as “survivors”, also share their ghost stories. We hear about the kindly ghost that assisted a woman pregnant with triplets, and the story of two guard dogs that “committed suicide” by jumping to their deaths from a third floor room because they were “so afraid of something in the house”. When the place was an apartment block the former landlord said that her tenants were “leaving at an alarming rate.”

In my opinion, this is the main reason that I don't see how JREF would ever be interested in promoting this documentary. The stories of the previous residents that Higgins was able to interview are simply presented as is, without any additional commentary at all discussing their relative merits. In fact, I expect that a number of these stories came to be because the mansion looks like a haunted house, especially before it was renovated.

If a place is known to be haunted, nobody will want to live there, and that means the rents are lower. Low rents attract less wealthy individuals. One of the people interviewed says the same thing about businesses from when the building was offices, but the same factors apply - once a building gets a reputation, rents go down, and less successful businesses rent from you because they can afford it. The whole thing is a vicious circle.

The other kind of people that a haunted house will attract are those who like the idea of ghosts. So instead of looking for natural explanations for anything weird, they'll just tend to assume that if they can't immediately explain something it must be paranormal. Hence they wind up with ghost stories that they're happy to share. With the way memory works, the stories also are likely to change over time, with key elements that might allow them to be explained simply dropped and the unusual events themselves made more dramatic.

(However, they don’t tell the strange story of the time that Bryan discovered a freezer full of cats stored there by former owner, veterinarian Douglas Ikeler.)

The film does include an interview with Ikeler, though, in which he explains he was saving the cats so that he could bury them properly. It would have been more interesting to include the whole story of the cats rather than just the one interview.

Then a team of ghost hunters and psychics is brought in because the place is “busy as a shopping mall” with both good and evil “spirits”.

The ghost hunters manage to record a couple of EVP's and find some areas with high EMF - which is not surprising in any building with old wiring, or in which electrical work is being done. And as I mentioned above, the EVP's could easily have been sounds filtering in from outside. Most of them don't pass the "closed-eyes test" which is one of the best ways to evaluate video in which an EVP is juxtaposed with the words it's supposed to be saying.

If you're looking at the words while you listen, your brain does a simple mosaic-like pattern recognition that makes the sounds match the words more closely. So the best way to see if you can tell what such a recording is saying is to close your eyes and just listen. If the sound is unintelligible under those circumstances, it probably is not speech. On the other hand, if you can understand it, the recording is worth examining more closely.

The plot only gets worse from here. For no apparent reason, Higgins travels to Italy in search of an explanation for these alleged events. He says, “I’ve been on a long journey uncovering answers to the afterlife question, and I’m as close as one can get without, well, you know.” Higgins reaches a very bizarre conclusion. The stone used to build the house came from a park in Colorado Springs called The Garden of the Gods. Higgins draws a connection between its rock formations and the illustrations of purgatory in Dante’s Inferno. Given this physical similarity, he believes that the Garden of the Gods is a portal to purgatory. As a result, the stone from the park used to build the Croke-Patterson Mansion is haunted which causes the hauntings.

I'll grant that this section of the article is spot-on - the Purgatory hypothesis does pretty much go off the rails.

Higgins comments that he couldn't get anybody from a church to talk with him about Purgatory, seeming to imply something sinister about this, but fails to mention that outside of Roman Catholicism few churches even include the concept as part of their theology. I know that had he called the ELCA Lutheran church that I grew up in, he would have been politely told that it wasn't part of their beliefs and that would be that. So this may have been the source of the "resistance" that he encountered.

He goes on to claim that because rock formations in the Garden of the Gods look kind of like a particular set of illustrations from Dante's Purgatorio there must be a connection. It's a classic mosaic effect argument - the illustrations from Dante are of the "mountain of Purgatory," and it should be no surprise to anyone that when viewed from the right angle the rock formations also look like mountains.

Where’s the proof? During the 2012 fires in Colorado Springs, a fire also broke out in the Croke-Patterson Mansion at the same time! (Higgins forgot to mention that there were fires statewide at the time, and his tradespeople had not disposed of oil-soaked rags, which were strewn about the area and caught alight).

In fact, I'll go ahead and debunk the fire even further. As I recall, the date given in the documentary for the fire that broke out near the Garden of the Gods and at the mansion was June 22, 2012. That day holds the record for the hottest June 22nd in Denver's history, 102 degrees. The entire week consisted of record high temperatures, with the all-time high of 105 reached four days later. As the mansion was being renovated, it certainly would have had no functional air conditioning.

It seems pretty obvious to me that both fires were caused by the extreme high temperatures, especially if oil-soaked rags were indeed left in the building rather than disposed of properly. It's not 100% clear from the film that such rags were left about, but it does include a conversation with the fire inspector in which he's stating something to the effect that "sometimes these things can cause a fire," which does fit with that explanation.

Point #4: Looking up the temperature there took two minutes on Google. It's a record high, so it was mentioned in many news reports and so forth and it wasn't even two years ago so those reports are still active. So why didn't it get mentioned in the Randi article? Another problem with JREF skeptics is that as soon as they find a claim outlandish, they don't bother to put much effort into debunking it, and if they are indeed trying to be objective they should. In the time it took Stollznow to write her little dig suggesting Higgins "doesn't care" about history, she could have turned her debunking the fire into a slam dunk.

According to Higgins, the Croke-Patterson Mansion is cursed by the rock from which it was built and this is the source of the paranormal activity. He also blames the cursed rock because he fell out with his former business partner Travis McAfoos who abandoned the project and sold out to Higgins.

Which, basically, sounds more like superstition than anything else. In the film, McAfoos was extremely disheartened at how far back the fire had set their renovations. I think that's a more likely explanation for their falling out, especially if he blamed Higgins or his contractors for the fire.

In the documentary, he spent two weeks living in the mansion to see if it is haunted. During this time, he collects footage of “orbs”,

But in the documentary, he clearly explains that they're dust from the renovation and nothing paranormal.

he hears “phantom” footsteps,

The banging noises are not "phantom" sounds, they are real and they were recorded. But I think I may have a normal explanation for them. In some cases, they could be old windows, but one of the clearest shows up in the basement while Higgins is sitting here:

He explains at one point that past the opening in the brick walls are holes that vent up to the fireplaces. The brickwork could even be the base of the main chimney, it's hard to say. Now if you look at the mansion you'll realize that it's quite tall, so the chimney runs way up into the air. And, as a matter of fact, I think I was able to identify the slightly metallic "bang" that seems to come from above as a fireplace flue opening a bit and then dropping closed, likely due to air pressure from outside wind.

I happened to grow up in a house with a fireplace that had a cast-iron flue, so I'm familiar with that particular noise and there's nothing paranormal about it. One or two of the EVP's also sound like metallic scratching, which might be attributable to the same mechanism. It's possible that this is only an issue because someone knocked out that opening in the wall, allowing air from the basement to flow into the chimney.

and a bat flies into his room.

Watching Higgins try to get the bat out of his room is quite funny.

He cuts short his stay because he was “too scared”.

The latter statement implies that Higgins was "scared" of something paranormal. He was not. He states clearly that the reason he terminated his stay was that there were no fire detectors in the building and with the renovation going on the room that was available for him to stay in was on the third floor. He realized, correctly, that this was a dangerous state of affairs. This strikes me as another misrepresentation.

Higgins now claims the Croke-Patterson Mansion is a “hotspot of activity.” This comes from the same man who revealed to us that he “never saw a thing” during his stay in the house for the documentary, although he often had to fend off homeless people that tried to break into the building.

So much for the “true story” of the Croke-Patterson Mansion.

I didn't see anything in the documentary about fending off homeless people, so I don't know where that information is coming from and again I would like to see a source. But I also didn't see anything that I would classify as potentially paranormal activity, and therefore no basis for Higgins' claim that the mansion is a "hotspot." Furthermore, I don't believe that any sort of Purgatory exists, so obviously I'm not inclined to think it might be in Colorado. All that being said, I enjoyed the documentary. I like seeing paranormal investigations whether or not they turn up anything unusual, because scientific inquiry is valuable whether or not your hypothesis winds up confirmed. I also like historic renovation, so I'm pretty much the film's target audience, and unless it was really bad I figured that I would like it.

"The Castle Project" can be found at Amazon here. Higgins did eventually complete the renovations and his bed and breakfast is open for business. It's now called the Patterson Historic Inn, and its website can be found here. The gallery shots are pretty, and if I'm ever in Denver it looks like a really nice place to stay. I just wouldn't go there expecting to see any ghosts.

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