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20 QUESTIONS WITH Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow

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Karen is Associate Editor of The Skeptic magazine and is a Committee Member of the Australian Skeptics Inc. Karen has been an investigative researcher of the paranormal and pseudoscientific for the past ten years. Karen has a prolific publishing record that includes a decade of contributions to The Skeptic, a column in Australasian Science, articles in The Skeptical Inquirer, and a chapter in Michael Shermer's book on alternative medicine, Heilungsversprechen.

Karen has researched and written about a large range of phenomena, including: ghosts, psychics, aura reading, poltergeists, mediums and spiritualism, chain letters, astrology, tarot, divination, hoaxes, pareidolia, angels, cults, curses, UFOs, legends, cryptozoology, psychic healing, tarot, graphology, automatic writing, anti-gravity spots, conspiracy theories, and alternative medicine. Most recently, Karen has visited and investigated the hauntings of Yellowstone, Alcatraz, the Winchester Mystery House and various reputed phenomena in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Karen has a website, www.bad-language.com,
a site for busting myths about language, and a resource for skepticism and critical thinking. Bad Language tackles language legends and myths (about swearing, insults, pronunciation, writing, alien languages, speaking in tongues, weird theories and inventions, etc.), provides general info about skepticism and contains a large collection of Karen's articles.




Karen has a PhD in Linguistics and works as a Researcher, Lecturer and Consultant Linguist

Karen Stollznow 20 questions

1. Where do you see ghost hunting and Paranormal groups, web sites or Ghost information, tours Books like your own in 10 years?

If the proliferation and popularity of related groups, television shows and web sites are anything to go by, I'd forecast that there will be a continued, if not increased interest in this area.

Paranormal topics delve into beliefs, fears, hopes, hardship, the meaning of life, life after death and other concerns and experiences fundamental to the human condition. These issues will naturally and always be of curiosity to people, even across cultures.

2. What would you personally consider to be the definitive proof that ghosts are real?

Seeing a ghost myself? Not really. I'm not the only one who needs to be convinced.

I can claim to have seen a ghost and then proceed to spread the story to anyone prepared to listen, but this account is hardly "definitive" or "proof".

Paranormal or pseudoscientific phenomena that can be demonstrated under test conditions could constitute "proof". I'm certainly not convinced by way of a 'dust orb', an unintelligible 'spirit recording' or a vanishing hitchhiker tale.

I've often heard the quip 'for the skeptic, no proof is enough'. That's bollocks. Proof is proof, and skeptics seek the evidence, if indeed there is any. However, for some people, 'anything is proof'.

3. What is the most real evidence you personally have uncovered so far?

I haven't encountered any evidence at all, so far.

I won't completely discount the possibility of uncovering future evidence from some area across the broad realm of the paranormal and pseudoscientific.

4. Are you skeptical of the claims other make of their findings?

Absolutely. Anecdotal evidence, stories, subjective, uncritical interpretations of anomalous sounds and photographs, detecting temperature changes, motion and magnetic fields, the movement of dowsing rods, feelings, 'knowing' and 'intuition' do not constitute evidence.

However, most non-skeptical investigators will claim to be 'a skeptic'. They know there is credibility associated with skepticism and the scientific method. If you think you're skeptical, are you skeptical enough? In the end, we should all
have the same objective...

5. If you could investigate your "Dream Haunted Hot Spot" where would it be?

There are many, many unique places that I have yet to visit, including Coral Castle near Miami; Resurrection Cemetery (home of 'Resurrection Mary') near Chicago; Haunted Hollywood; Tombstone, Arizona; Roswell, New Mexico; the Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Kentucky; Salem, Massachusetts and Myrtle's Plantation in Louisiana. In fact, next week I am travelling to New Orleans and intend on investigating some of the ghosts, voodoo, hoodoo, juju and infamous folklore there.

Outside of the US, I am keen to visit Borley Rectory, Hampton Court and Windsor Castle in England, Glamis Castle in Scotland, the Chase Vault in Barbados, the Bermuda Triangle, the Oak Island "Money Pit" in Canada, Monte Cristo Homestead in Australia...among many other places!

6. What was your first Paranormal encounter?

I have had many strange experiences that have always had natural, logical explanations; ethereal music in a crematorium that turned out to be 'piped music'; phantom piano playing that turned out to be live piano playing; a glowing white 'angel' in a cemetery that turned out to be a street light; a 'glowing blue man' that just turned out to be a man; erratic, flickering lights and a misbehaving television set that turned out to be a break in the circuit; a 'ghost' that turned out to be a deer; 'spirit' voices that turned out to be human voices;

7. What scares you about Ghost Hunting or Paranormal Investigations?

The dogmatism, irrationality and delusion of some 'believers'.

Aside from that, any investigator needs to be careful of the practical dangers of inspecting dilapidated houses and buildings, the risks of hanging out in unfamiliar environments, especially at night-time, and to ensure that you receive
permission to access private property before you go looking for ghosts where there might be guns.

8. If you could work side by side with one of the Paranormal Investigator greats, who would it be?

Harry Houdini. Skeptic, magician and renaissance man. He debunked numerous psychics and mediums, some who even fooled academics. As a conjuror he could replicate their performances. As a child, I was also very interested in the seminal work of Harry Price. Perhaps I can channel them both?

If I'm stuck with living greats, I'd have to choose magician Penn Jillette. But that's probably only because I want to sleep with him.

9. Read any good Paranormal Books lately other then your own?

I'll recommend some classics: Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World, James Randi's Flim Flam!, Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things, Ian Rowland's the Full Facts Book of Cold Reading, Lynne Kelly's The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal, Richard Wiseman's Deception and Self-Deception and Bob Carroll's The Skeptic's Dictionary.

10. What Question do people ask you most when you tell them your a paranormal investigator, writer?

Have you ever seen a ghost? My answer? No!

11. In your opinion, Where is the most Haunted city in America or the world?

The prevalence of this title tends to undermine the claim. So many places claim to be "America's most haunted city", including New Orleans, Chicago, Gettysburg, Savannah, Salem, San Diego and San Francisco.

One of the world contenders is Pluckley in England. This is a small village with a population of only 1000 people, and at least 20 ghosts. Pluckley must have more ghosts per square mile and per capita than any other city in the world! The village lays claim to a 'Red Lady', a 'White Lady', a 'Tudor Lady', a phantom coach and horses, the sounds of the 'Screaming Man' and many other ghosts!

12. Do you feel more people should get involved with Ghost hunting or Paranormal Investigation?

Definitely. You'll find more orbs than headless coach drivers, but it is good fun. Furthermore, these beliefs and stories are important from a folkloric and historical perspective.

13. What does the future hold for you?

In the near future, a book about my experiences as a (skeptical) paranormal investigator; Red, White and (True) Blue (a travelogue); ongoing articles and many, many more investigations!

I'd love to act as a skeptical consultant or 'devil's advocate' for an investigative show about the paranormal. Of course, having such a show is 'de rigueur' nowadays, but after a decade of investigations, this is no passing fad for me. I would also like to write and produce my own series, from a humorous, skeptical perspective. I'm not the crusty, bearded, bespectacled stereotypical skeptic.

14. Paranormal Conventions do you see them growing?And if so which ones are the Must go to ones?

Conferences are important for any legitimate industry, for sharing and discussing research, results and also for networking. I'd like to see more paranormal conferences, if they will take a more responsible, scientific viewpoint.

I recently attended the HPI's (http://ghosts.meetup.com/231/) inaugural conference at the Brookdale Lodge near Santa Cruz. With an interactive session on 'remote viewing', a séance and an investigation of the haunted hotel, this was definitely paranormal!

Again, I'll play the dissenter and recommend a few annual Skeptics conventions, including the Australian Skeptic's conferences (held in Tasmania in November 2007 www.skeptics.com.au), the James Randi Educational Foundation's The Amaz!ng Meeting and the Skeptics Society's yearly conventions. Do a search online, there are also many local communities that hold monthly meetings and functions.

15. What is your most favored tool of the trade?

Critical thinking. Forget flashy, expensive, irrelevant equipment. Investigating the paranormal requires a healthy dose of skepticism, an open mind and a sense of humour.

16. Tell us about your best moment in investigating or conference attending for you?

I would have to say that my finest moment was an undercover investigation of a large telephone psychic company. The company advertised that they were seeking psychics and I applied for a role. The company waxed lyrical that they hire only 1% of applicants, and that they have stringent recruitment procedures. However, after bluffing my way through an application form, an email reading, a real time chat room reading and even a telephone reading, this skeptic was offered a job as a psychic!

You can read the whole story here: www.bad-language.com/psychicskeptic

Another crazy experience involved an investigation into pareidolia (seeing faces on food, and places other than faces). Following the 'Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese Sandwich' affair, I created the 'Pope Tart', a Pop Tart that 'revealed' the face of Pope John Paul II. This created a media frenzy, and demonstrated the subjective nature of this phenomenon.

More can be found here: http://www.bad-language.com/popetart

17. What is the hardest part about being a paranormal writer?

I am extremely enthusiastic about what I do and I enjoy travelling and writing about my experiences. It's a challenge to peel back the layers of myth, rumour and fiction to reveal any fact.

What can be annoying, rather than "hard", is to read the uncritical, accepting accounts of paranorma lphenomena written by others. Tell it as an experience, or tell it as a tale, but don't tell itas fact.

18. How do you document your investigations?

These investigations are ethnographic in nature. As 'fieldwork', they are based in observation, and involve describing and recording any results. In this sense, 'results' are descriptions of experiences, folklore and cultural anthropology.

19. Have you ever taken a ghost Tour? And, What about it did you not like?

I have taken many ghost tours, some recent, local ones include the San Francisco Ghost Hunt Walking Tour, the Haunted Haight Walking Tour, the Old Sacramento Ghost Tour, the Sacramento Old City Cemetery Ghost Tour, the various tours at the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose and a number of tours around Alcatraz.

I love the narrative and historical aspects of these tours. What do I not like? It peeves me when the stories are told as fact, or not even told at all. I went on the Quarantine Station Tour in Manly, Sydney so many times that I knew more stories than the tour guides!

20. What in the field of ghost hunting and Paranormal Investigating needs the most attention.

The belief that paranormal investigators adopt the scientific method. The use of scientific instruments is not, in itself, the scientific method.

I would urge investigators to think critically in analysing their findings and to not treat the label 'paranormal' as some sort of default for anything that is not immediately explicable. As I always say, the absence of an explanation is not proof of the paranormal.


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