It’s cheesy, and certainly doesn’t speak to the man’s work, but take the three original Ghostbusters. Imagine the pithy sarcasm of Peter Venkman, the uncompromising shrewdness of Egon Spengler, top it with the zealous, stocky stature of occult-buff Ray Stanz, and you can more or less paint a picture of parapsychologist Dr. Barry E. Taff.
If you’re not familiar with the man, maybe you’re familiar with the 1983 film The Entity starring Barbara Hershey, an eerie psychological horror where the female protagonist is repeatedly raped by some malevolent presence. If you’re not familiar with either, then you’re not clued in on the stranger side of poltergeist phenomena (yes, it gets much stranger).
It’s a film that sparked notoriety in paranormal circles, and even placed at #4 in Martin Scorsese’s “11 Scariest Horror Films of All Time”. It was based on a real 1974 investigation that would mark the beginning of, and ultimately define, Dr. Taff’s long, polarizing, and rather illuminating career in parapsychology.
If Los Angeles has any local legends, The Entity Case is definitely one of them.
During the summer of ‘74, Doris Bither (Carla Moran in the film) and her four children were being terrorized by unseen forces in their new, and rather shabby, home in Culver City, California. As research assistants at UCLA’s now-nonexistent Parapsychology Lab (I’ll get to that later), it was business as usual for Dr. Taff and his colleague Kerry Gaynor when they interviewed Doris at her home. She described some typical, ghostly disturbances since her family moved in, but it wasn’t long before she dropped a bombshell.
“I’ve been raped,” she told them. The men’s faces turned white. “There were three of them. Two held me down, and a big one attacked me.” It was at that point Dr. Taff and Gaynor referred Doris to a clinical psychologist on staff at UCLA and shortly after departed.
It was almost two weeks later that they agreed to return to Doris’ house… now there were witnesses. They arrived, this time met with the smell of rotting flesh, extreme drops in temperature (during a hot L.A. summer), and a frying pan that flew out of a cabinet and tossed itself across the kitchen floor.
What followed was a weeks-long investigation which peaked with the appearance of a full-fledge apparition. In front of Doris, Dr. Taff, and the two dozen research assistants and techies buzzing around the house, strange ‘corpuscular masses of light’ coalesced and formed into the upper torso of a large humanoid figure. It looked around at the room full of shocked onlookers before it vanished suddenly.
Doris eventually moved, only to have the activity follow her. So, she moved again, and then again, and then again. Dr. Taff eventually lost touch with her, and was left with more questions than answers. For more of the story:
That was forty years ago. Though a landmark case, Doris Bither’s is only 1 in over 4,000 that Dr. Taff has personally investigated. With a Ph.D in Psychophysiology and a minor in Biomedical Engineering, his life’s work in the paranormal field has essentially led him to this: “There is no such thing as the paranormal,” he says flatly, “it’s a misnomer.”
Taff posits that we’ve been calling ‘paranormal’ is actually more normal than we may think. I’m not sure if that’s supposed to make you feel better, but, essentially, the problem could have less to do with dead people floating around, and more to do with the psychogenic nature of the human subconscious.
I mentioned the UCLA Parapsychology Lab earlier, Dr. Taff’s old stomping grounds. And no, it isn’t the subject of another horror film. Taff was mentored during a time when there was widespread interest in parapsychology. At UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute (NPI), now the Semel Institute, the lab operated from 1969-1978, headed by Dr. Thelma Moss. The lab functioned on two fronts:
Firstly, it facilitated ‘psi-training research groups’ in which average individuals were aided in developing their extra-sensory perception (ESP), recording the accuracy of nonlocal observation long before Remote Viewing became a household phrase. The lab’s psi results were uncanny, and to test subjects, startling. The success rates transcended the odds of mere coincidence. “It was intriguing, but also boring,” he recalls, “because it became easy to replicate.” In addition to being covered by The L.A. Times and local news, the experiments attracted the attention of the CIA, NSA, ONI, DLI, DIA, DARPA, the FBI, and even the CHP and LAPD, all of whom paid numerous visits to the lab, often in civilian clothing.
Secondly, the lab investigated haunted houses and sites all over Southern California. Among them was the infamous Holly Mont Drive case in 1976, where a once grandiose Mediterranean home now sits rotting, still nestled in the old Hollywood Hills above Franklin Village. In fact, it’s one of the few cases Taff considers to be a genuine ‘haunting’, as opposed to poltergeist phenomena they typically encountered.
The university quickly became wary of the lab’s work, and its end was looming. Being that the lab was a non-sanctioned entity, and with its prospects of attracting federal grant money, new NPI chairman Dr. Louis Jolyon West shut it down. UCLA didn’t want an embarrassing PR scandal on their hands. As disappointed as Dr. Taff was, he didn’t blame the university for its outlook, as the stigma attached to parapsychology was palpable even in 1978. Read more in detail here. Asking the university for information about the lab will yield a stonewall denial of its existence, despite articles like this one still being published to this day.
Though survival-after-death is yet to be proved or disproved, a compelling theory surfaced for Dr. Taff after thousands of investigations and decades of collected data. According to him, what we imagine as ‘ghosts’ is actually stemming from very real, and very alive people. Taff refers to these people as Poltergeist Agents, who unknowingly act as ‘biological waveguides’ when they enter a specific environment. I know, stay with me.
Essentially, Taff lists three variables that act together in concert to produce the physical manifestations of a good old-fashioned haunting: 1) The haunted site is located in an electromagnetically (EMF) anomalous environment 2) The poltergeist agent is usually prone to seizures or epileptic, and their biomagnetic field emits well over one million times the amplitude compared to the average person and 3) The poltergeist agent is neurologically wired in a way, usually an inability to cope with stress, that enables their nervous system to hyper-react to said environment and wreak paranormal havoc.
“Once these conditions are met, all bets are off,” Dr. Taff bluntly assures, “anything could occur.” So, if you’d like to, imagine all your deep-seated, psychological frustrations and anxieties literally coming to life, as it were, and going bump in the night…
There’s more. Poltergeist phenomena, according to Taff, can also behave like a virus, following the agent from house to house, infected the site, leaving it saturated with its residual energy for another potential agent to come along, move in, and pick it up. “The places and faces may change, but the phenomena does not.” And you thought Ebola was scary.
Such intrepid and rarely discussed theories are not unlike the theories of those like Jacques Vallee (The Invisible College), D. Rogo Scott (The Haunted Universe), and John Keel (The Mothman Prophecies). They all too, in their own way, came to the conclusion that there is an underlying connection between all the seemingly ‘separate’ aspects of the paranormal. Consciousness, it seems, plays a pivotal and cunning role.
But it’s a long road to the kind of scientific discovery Dr. Taff is after. There’s a big hindrance to the pursuit of understanding the paranormal: Being eclipsed by its perpetual mystification at the hands of charlatans and science fiction.
“As there are no academic credentials required for anyone to go out and investigate the paranormal,” Dr. Taff says, as matter-of-factly as any scientist could, “every new age groupie is out there looking for demons, emulating the garbage they’ve seen on cable TV paranormal shows. To fully comprehend the possibility that a living person’s subconscious mind can involuntarily generate such power as to manifest luminous anomalies, apparitions, and macroscopic psychokinetic events, is for me, far more compelling than if a discarnate intelligence was responsible.”
The ranting of an acerbic old man, or the long-due condemnation coming from a hardened researcher? While you decide, here’s Nick Kroll’s “Ghost Bouncers” for your viewing pleasure.
Whatever the case may be, it certainly begs the question: Is pop culture, and its increasing saturation in the media, hindering the scientific pursuit of demystifying the paranormal?
Even horror films pre-slasher-80’s held a general air of sophistication in regards to research. Recall the 1973 Roddy McDowall classic Legend of Hell House, based on the book by the late Richard Matheson, in which the rational physicist played by Clive Revill asserts that the Hell House hauntings are merely the result of unfocused electromagnetic energy, and nothing that suggests survival after death; a theory that is tested to untimely ends.
Jump forward to The Innkeepers, a 2010 indie darling written and directed by Ti West. The frumpy male character Luke, played by Pat Healy, is nothing more than an amateur (and, spoiler alert: phony) ghost hunter hoping to get hits on his blog and score points with Claire, played by Sara Paxton, also a mere ghost hunting enthusiast. Nothing in the story comes to revelation, as it turns out creepy ghost brides are simply creepy ghost brides. Or how about the anti-climactic reveal in 2013’s The Conjuring, when it turns out creepy, satanic ghost witches are simply creepy, satanic ghost witches?
Not that anyone’s putting recent filmmaking efforts down, but it’s the culture itself that may have an impairment—pigeon-holing investigations as ‘ghost hunts’ and reducing its aims to nothing beyond a reality TV market in a culture that continues to shout, “Show me the money (not so much the data)!”
It’s these very reasons Dr. Taff doesn’t bother preaching to the choir. He blames the fact that the paranormal arena is ignored by mainstream science and psychologists on the fact that it attracts droves of mentally and emotionally unstable people.
It becomes a catch-22—without the funding and research, it becomes difficult to properly differentiate between what’s parapsychological and what’s psychotic. Suffice to say Taff received a bit of backlash from the paranormal community, and was put down for what was construed as an attack on the mentally ill.
Although blunt, even curt, his conclusions and ongoing theories are made clear, steered by observational data. In our rational and mechanistic culture of the West, Dr. Taff is a lone voice in bringing a scientific framework to a phenomenon we have credulous language for, if any language at all—scrubbed from the pages of Wikipedia, purged from the annals of academia.
For the first time in his lengthy career, he published a book chronicling his case studies. Aliens Above, Ghosts Below: Explorations of the Unknown (Cosmic Pantheon Press) is a healthy mix of spine-tingling chills, dry analysis, and rather candid personal insight. There’s a lot to geek out to, everything from haunted houses to alien abduction to warp drives to alternative means of energy. There’s almost too much to consider. What you’re getting is the vanguard of rationale for strange albeit everyday phenomena that continues to dazzle the public, and frustrate mainstream science.
A remake of The Entity has been in the works for quite some time now (director Hideo Nakata was attached at one point), which would resemble more closely the events of the actual case. The 1983 version was based on the novel by Frank De Felitta, who was present during the investigation. If you’ve read this far, I imagine your interest is piqued. So, for your eerie pleasure, I’ve included segments of a phone interview I had with Dr. Taff this past Day of the Dead:
It’s been a long time since ‘The Entity’, a film that continues terrifying its audience. Do you think the remake can have the same effect, or are its aims completely different?
I personally didn’t like the film. The director rewrote a lot of it, and it was lambasted in the press. I remember Barbara Hershey pleaded with the production company to be in the movie, as did Ron Silver, but they hated it after it was torn apart in the media. If [the remake] was made today, and was the same thing as it was then, it might be a little hokey. But if it’s more serious and follows what really transpired, it could be more frightening. A lot of it simply depends on who’s writing, directing, and acting in it.
In the field, you’ve witnessed objects, even people, being tossed across rooms by unseen forces. If restless dead people aren’t the culprit, what then is at work here?
I don’t, for one second, believe this is the work of dead people throwing living people around. The evidence and collected data suggests these effects are the result of what’s called Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis (RSPK).
There’s two types of psychokinesis (moving physical objects around without physical means). There’s microscopic, which works on very small scales, things like affecting random number generators, random event generators, and moving subatomic particles around. It’s usually electrostatic-based, fatigue in the individual is shown, as it’s done on a conscious level. And then there’s macroscopic, what we call ‘poltergeist,’ and that’s a whole different ball of wax. We’re talking about the ability of moving very massive objects, hundreds of pounds easily. It’s done on a subconscious level, as there is no fatigue seen in the person at the core of it. Like the microscopic type, it’s believed that the phenomena are generated by a living human agency.
So, it’s our subconscious minds, then, that have the ability to hurl household objects around?
It’s more complicated than that. It seems to be that there are several overlapping variables at work. One is the location—either a geomagnetic or an electromagnetic anomaly site—where there’s some strong form of energy that we know of affecting the individual at the core of the phenomenon. The second variable is that the individual is usually seizure-prone or epileptic, sometimes without knowing it. Lastly, they also suffer from ineffective coping mechanisms and problems dealing with stress. If those three variables work in the right relationship with one another, you get phenomena.
The way the electromagnetic environment affects these people is stressful. It alters their body in some way. The mechanism is called ‘inductive resonance coupling’. So, even if you’re in the right environment and you’re seizure-prone or epileptic, if the field doesn’t resonate with yours…nothing happens. And that may be based more on your emotions than anything else. What’s also curious is that most seizure-prone or epileptic people are not poltergeist agents. It’s unilateral, not bilateral, and we don’t know what the missing variable is. This is why, with every case we approach, on top of everything else we do a medical background check of the individual and ask a lot of personal questions that, seemingly, have little to do with what’s going on.
If mainstream science pursued the understanding this phenomena, what kind of consequences would it have on the current paradigm?
My gut is telling me is that if we find out what this energy is, it could take us to the stars. This is energy that does work without heat! There’s only four forms of energy that we basically deal with: electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear, and gravitational. Well, it can’t be gravitational because the mass is insufficient. It can’t be nuclear because the individual would be dead due to ionization long before any RSPK occurred. Is it electromagnetic? When you see a 215-pound man being picked up and thrown across a room, his clothing and everything else should burst into flame by the liberated heat of the force doing it. Second law of thermodynamics. But it doesn’t get hot, it gets cold! What are we being shown here? Call it Zero Point Energy, call it whatever you want, but whatever it is explains much, if not all, of the paranormal—from ESP all the way to OBE’s (out-of-body experiences) and NDE’s (near-death experiences). However, the way this energy couples to us is almost assuredly magnetic in nature. The problem is we can’t simulate these conditions and test it in a lab yet. For one, it would be very, very costly, and more importantly, it would also put the test subjects at risk—you might fry them.
A Wikipedia search for Remote Viewing tells us there is no credible scientific evidence that RV works, and that it failed to produce any useful intelligence information. What are your thoughts?
Well, I’m curious as to who wrote and posted the entry. Anyways, yes, there is an overwhelming amount of data, it’s been replicated thousands of times. We ran the research at UCLA long before there was work at SRI [Stanford Research Institute], and it ran until ’78 when the lab closed. After that, we went into offices in the Westwood area and ran it through 1987, and then everyone went in their own direction and that was that. It’s real. It’s demonstrable. It doesn’t work with everyone, if it did we would understand it. And even when it does work with a lot of people, we still don’t understand the mechanism. The reason our government didn’t do anything with remote viewing is because 1) they couldn’t weaponize it 2) they couldn’t profit from it and C) they were skeptical of it because we couldn’t explain the mechanism, even though it worked. So, if you can’t kill anybody with it, and if you can’t explain it, then either it’s useless or it must be the Devil.
What do you think we can we do to reintroduce science into the paranormal?
First of all, get rid of the crap on television. One of the biggest negative factors dealing with this subject matter is, basically, all of these paranormal reality shows being fraudulent. In my opinion, they’ve set the field back at least three quarters of a century. The shows are all fake, everyone knows that. A lot of people don’t even care. There isn’t a legitimate paranormal reality show on TV because it can’t count on something happening, you have to make it happen, and that means you’re faking it. But if you’re a producer, you’ve got to have a show, you can’t just have talking heads for forty-two minutes. It’s this kind of market that has attached a stigma to the paranormal. If you go into this field there’s a good chance, academically, you’ll never work. You won’t have a job. I can testify to that.
So your work in this field has alienated you from other professional endeavors? What sort of prejudice have you experienced?
For example, I do a lot of normal things, I have a company that develops a number of medical patents, not involving the paranormal. But since my name is in these [business] plans, potential investors have looked me up and instantly think I’m nuts because, well… “You’re doing all this crazy stuff.” See, if you’re already wealthy, or you’ve made a lot of money turning investments into big profits, then you’re “eccentric,” and they don’t care what you’re doing. But if you’re not financially lucrative, or successful doing anything with someone else’s money, then you’re “crazy.”
I confronted an investor about it recently. It was a big multinational electronics company, you’ve probably heard of them. They initially approved to develop three out of five of our patents. It went to the head of development, they thought our work was great, we’re given a green light. Okay, great. But then months go by, and we don’t hear from them. So, we send an inquiry. The head of the company gets back to us, and starts going off on how the patents are bullshit, the research is bullshit, and on and on. And we’re going, “What? Where did this come from?” So, I asked him, “Look, tell me the truth. Drop the bullshit, and just tell me the truth.” And after a long pause he says, “Okay, you want to know the truth? I looked you up and the minute I found out who are you and what you do, I threw it away. You’re crazy. No one’s giving you money, no one will ever give you money, they’ll think you’re crazy, and you are. End of story.” So, this has happened at least six to eight times that we know of, and it’s because of my background in parapsychology. Since then, we’ve changed a lot of our plans, omitted my name, we changed the name of the company, I don’t even know what it is anymore, nor do I want to know. I’m completely removed from it. So, getting into this professionally, you’ll eventually discover you can’t get a job. “Sorry, position’s already full.” That kind of thing. It’s looked at as a pseudoscience, it’s looked at as a fringe science. If you can’t make a lot of money with it, and if you can’t kill people with it, no one cares. It has no use in the western world. So that’s, y’know, where things are.
It’s interesting that hauntings could be more of a mental health issue than, say, a spiritual one. If people find themselves in a ‘haunted’ home, what can they do about it (short of running to their favorite television network)?
Well, first of all, the probability of something literally harming people is the chance of you getting hit with a meteorite in the next five minutes. It’s not going to happen. And since most people don’t even want to read what the real research has indicated, it’s a dead end. Until we get to the point where we understand the mechanism behind these things, nothing will ever change. This kind of phenomena has been around forever. Our ancestors believed this stuff was the result of dead people floating around. Now we know different. I have a little over 4,500 cases in my file, and I’d say more than 99% have been poltergeists. Very few, if any, have been what we call ‘hauntings,’ and even those are suspect. You go where the data takes you. If you can’t replicate something in a laboratory under controlled conditions, like we can with remote viewing, you’re basically left with noticing patterns—longitudinal patterns—in the data you collect. And it’s there. It’s kind of a joke almost. As I always emphasize: the places and faces may change, but the events do not. So you see the same thing, over and over, over and over. And you keep getting the same stories, the same measurements, the same readings, and the same answers to all the medical and psychological background questions. So the question becomes: How many times do you have to be hit in the head with this stuff before you realize, “Oh my god, this is amazing?!”
In terms of having an interest in this subject matter, I’ve gotten the most useful information attending your lectures. How often do you speak publicly?
Well, in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s I was lecturing a lot. But it’s very infrequently now. If I lecture a couple times a year, I’m amazed. The only thing I’ve done recently, funny enough, was film for a TV show, “Ghost Adventures: Aftershocks” on the Travel Channel.
So paranormal reality shows aren’t entirely off the table for you?
The only reason I agree to do certain shows is because they don’t ask me to lie about myself or the work. I’m not conducting any field research, but they are featuring a recent update from my Cielo Drive case in the Benedict Canyon area. We’ve got this incredible photo. The woman pictured was having a mini seizure, and directly next to her head is a strange, luminous anomaly that wasn’t seen by anyone present at the time. I think what we’re seeing here is the optical analog of what the energy is doing to her: the very potent geomagnetic field was literally cooking her brain, and she was convulsing because of it.
Wow, so that’ll be featured on ‘Ghost Adventures: Aftershocks’ on the Travel Channel?
Yes, it’s supposed to air in February.
How can people contact you if they’d like to host a lecture or just inquire?
They’re welcome to visit my site at barrytaff.net.