The so-called “leg growing miracle” has a long history. Despite the fact that it’s a well-known illusionist’s trick which has also been proven to have been faked by many unscrupulous faith-healers around the globe, it still makes periodic returns to the charismatic church scene. Seemingly it has become fashionable again, and there is no shortage of faith-healers claiming to be able to work this orthopaedic wonder. The performance of the wonder changes slightly from healer to healer, but the basic routine is pretty much the same. The evangelist has a person with some sort of pain – usually back, hip, or leg – sit in a chair. He remarks that such pain can be caused by one leg being shorter than the other. Lo and behold, when he lifts the person’s legs up one is shorter than the other by 1-3 inches. After a minute or two of prayer – or, oddly, directly commanding the leg to grow – the “shorter” leg appears to grow out until it’s the same length.
I’ve been following the work of one such healer called Mark Marx, who is based in Causeway Coast Vineyard Church in Northern Ireland. Youtube has many videos of Marx performing this wonder, and I was referred to his most recent work here:
I will discuss this video in more depth shortly.
Why should any rational person believe what they are seeing when someone claims to demonstrate the power of Almighty God by making a slightly shorter leg grow a little? What good reason is there to believe that these demonstrations require any kind of otherworldly explanation? Of course, the gullible require no such reason. After all, the temptation to believe one has witnessed a special wonder of God is a strong one. Not only is there no good reason to believe these demonstrations are miraculous, there is a multitude of reasons to react with scepticism, (though remember that the burden of proof rests with the healer, not the sceptic). Here are just a few:
1. This feat (pardon the pun) is incredibly easy to fake, and anyone with a little training or effort can learn to do it. There are several ways to achieve the effect and I’ve been able to replicate Marx’s wonders with my 9 year old son as a volunteer. I made his right leg grow out to match his left, but I made it too long and then made his left leg grow out to match his right! It’s very easy – try it yourself at home and amaze your friends! (Interestingly, in Marx’s videos it’s almost always the left leg that is shorter. The only occasion I found of the right leg being lengthened seemed to be a case when the person in question identified that leg as a problem).
2. The trick actually has been faked by certain faith-healers trying to pass it off as the work of the Lord. For instance, in his documentary “Miracles for Sale,” which can be viewed in full here (I strongly recommend it): https://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=bouAp1pGBwk, Derren Brown demonstrates one method of achieving the effect. Later on in the documentary Brown and his team paid a visit to the church of the faith-healer WV Grant, where Brown was called out using a fake name he had written on a prayer card before the service, but which of course Grant claimed had been supernaturally revealed to him. Grant then proceeded to perform the leg growing trick on Brown using exactly the technique Brown had earlier demonstrated.
3. Leg-growing has been used as a common sideshow illusionist’s trick, as revealed by the mentalist James Randi who discusses several ways in which the trick can be performed (with reference also to the discredited faith healer AA Allen who fooled the masses with this and other tricks and claims). This is highly significant. Suppose I met a man who claimed to be able to saw a person in half and then stick them back together again totally unharmed. He then proceeds to do so right before my eyes. What would I make of this? Well, if I was a caveman who lived several thousand years ago I might well be impressed. However, I am well aware that this is a common magician’s trick – in fact I also happen to know exactly how the trick is done – so I remain sceptical. Am I not right to remain equally sceptical in the face of a much less impressive wonder?
4. Those that perform this wonder are unable to bring healing to certain ailments which are not so easy to fake. Youtube contains no videos of Marx growing out a missing leg, and yet this should be no less difficult for the omnipotent creator of the universe to achieve. Of course, some healers claim the miracle is legitimate because it is accompanied by pain relief. However, relieving pain is not in the same category as re-growing a limb or curing Down’s Syndrome. Pain is incredibly susceptible to the power of suggestion. I invite the reader to look at Brown’s documentary – from about 57 minutes in – to see how Brown uses a fake healer he has trained to bring pain relief to many people they meet on the streets using nothing but psychological techniques. Further, an ex-member of Causeway Coast Vineyard Church testified to me how the leg-growing wonder was performed on her without the accompanying pain relief. In fact, she never had anything wrong with her legs, but rather suffered from pregnancy-related back pain. She was told she should have more faith – a rather sickening ploy that is all too common: blame the ill and infirm for their illnesses, thus adding guilt to injury.
5. I’ve yet to come across a case which includes a proper diagnosis by a medical professional. Marx simply sits the person in a chair and lifts their legs up. It doesn’t take a degree in orthopedics to see the flaw here. This is not how such conditions are diagnosed. When a person sits in a chair there are many variables at work, given the number of joints and muscles at play: from the lower back right down to the ankle. A slight change in movement or positioning can make it look like one leg is shorter than the other. Marx is not a medical professional. He has no authority or legitimacy to diagnose any orthopaedic condition and yet he does so time and time again. In leg growing videos few people ever appear to have been properly diagnosed with the condition of having a shorter leg. The first they hear of it is when the healer sits them down, lifts their legs up, and points it out. Note that if they subsequently go to their doctor and are told that their legs are fine it looks as if the healer has worked a miracle, when in fact they had nothing wrong with their legs in the first place.
6. Faith healers are notoriously reluctant to be investigated. See this article – https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/07/03/faith-healers-pulling-our-legs/ – where I discuss how difficult it was trying to engage with Marx and several other members of his church. Getting information from a faith-healer is like trying to get blood out of a stone. You are shunned and met with silence at every turn; honest questions and expressions of scepticism simply are not tolerated.
7. Even though faith-healers rarely co-operate with objective investigation, there remain highly plausible explanations for what might be going on in such cases – aside from the possibility of fraud and trickery. Take, for example, the ideomotor effect. This occurs when, through the mechanisms of suggestion or expectation, the body undergoes some sort of involuntary movement – often incredibly slight – without the person being aware of it. American psychologist Roy Hyman concludes that tests on the ideomotor effect show that “honest, intelligent people can unconsciously engage in muscular activity that is consistent with their expectations.” Chris French, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmith’s University of London, cautions: “The ideomotor effect is capable of producing powerful illusions that can be exploited by the unscrupulous. Those whom they fool are usually well-intentioned, often highly intelligent individuals. But the demonstrations used to convince them of the claims are never carried out under properly controlled conditions.” It is the ideomotor phenomenon that is responsible for what happens during activities such as Ouija boards or table turning, and could very easily explain the phenomenon of leg growing (assuming there’s no fraud or trickery at work).
These are just a few of the reasons why we are rightly sceptical of this supposed miracle. Have a look at the video of Marx above. Note at the beginning how the young woman is already seated with her shoes off even before we know she has the malady. Note also how Marx is at pains to stress that he’s glad she’s not wearing shoes because there has been a criticism that the wonder is explained by manipulating a person’s shoes. Seemingly Marx is well aware of the version of the trick demonstrated by Derren Brown (and used by WV Grant) which involves manipulating the shoes of the healee. But, as I indicated above, there are other ways to achieve the required result, and I performed the wonder on my barefoot son a few nights ago using two methods: firstly, moving his legs slightly sideways, and also by pushing the bottom of one heal with my hands in exactly the same position as Marx’s hands are in this video. Anyhow, note how Marx then tells the young woman that he hopes she does indeed have one leg shorter than the other – presumably so he can prove to all of us sceptics that it’s not shoe manipulation but a miracle! And, well, whaddya know, when he lifts up her legs there is one shorter than the other! Fancy that! (I will note in passing that the difference is much less pronounced than in videos showing people with their shoes on). To be honest, if Marx was a charlatan I don’t think the rest of the video would run any differently, since the effect would be exactly the same.
As things stand I find no reason to think there is anything remotely miraculous going on here. What would be more impressive is if we had an actual medically documented case; one where a person had actually been diagnosed by a medical professional as having a shorter leg which was then grown out miraculously and confirmed by an independent objective medical professional. We never see this, despite the fact that Marx and others come across a rather uncanny number of people with this malady – (there’s damn near an epidemic of this condition wherever these guys go!) – such that it shouldn’t be so difficult to provide objective medical evidence. One member of the Vineyard Church replied to me on Youtube that medical evidence doesn’t matter so much. Instead, what really matters is the “fruit” – the person experiences pain relief. Isn’t that all the matters? Well, no. If that’s all that matters then presumably we should see every African witchdoctor as a genuine miracle worker when he brings pain relief to the masses with his mixture of tonics, enchantments, and quack medical procedures.
Many might conclude that Marx is just another fraud, a trickster building himself a lucrative ministry as an in-demand speaker and healer, and earning money off the gullible. That isn’t my claim here. My claim is far more restrained – a simple call for scepticism in the face of supposed wonders. To put it simply: if a faith healer performs an alleged instance of healing that has been shown over and over again to be false, used by charlatans to manipulate the faithful (and extract money), and which is quite easily faked, then he bears a burden of proof to show that his version of the healing is genuine. Until such time as he does so, we are right to disregard his ministry and reject his claims.
Stephen J. Graham
See my follow-up article also: https://stephenjgraham.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/marx-of-suspect-healing-a-follow-up/