Tag Archives: Supernatural

Short Article 8: Skepticism & The Banshee of Castlederg

The word banshee comes from the Irish term “Bean Sidhe,” which means “woman of the hill.” In Celtic mythology as the ancient gods of Ireland where decreasing in power and influence, they all got their own little hill – Sidh (pronounced “Shee”) – in which to live. Many were downgraded from “divine” status and became simply “fairies.” Goddesses soon become “women of the hills” – bean sidhe – or banshees. Lots of folk tales grew up around the banshees, who were rumoured to appear on hill tops and wail into the night. Their appearance was typically taken as an omen of a death in the family of those who saw them.

My mum recently told me one particular delightful story about her grandfather – Granda Wilson – which made me smile, particularly in light of my own well-known scepticism of all such phenomena.

My Great Grandfather Wilson lived in County Tyrone just outside of a small down called Castlederg. He was a farmer, and as such lived a tough life. However, such farmers were hardy folk, with a wonderful ability to get on with life in the face of hardships, and even to be jolly as they did so. Apparently my Great Grandfather was no exception, and my mum loved to spend time with him on his farm over the summer. In fact she became his shadow and followed him everywhere he went: except when he went to face a banshee.

The weather was stormy and at night a ghostly figure was spotted wailing into the night. Others were called and confirmed that this was indeed a banshee. What else could it be? Word spread around the area and many people were afraid. The old tales of banshees were well ingrained in rural consciousness and banshees were never rumoured to bring glad-tidings! The hill was avoided, particularly at night.

But my great granda Wilson was a hardy farmer, a man too well acquainted with the earth and its natural rhythms to be afraid of any otherworldly nonsense like this! He wasn’t afraid of anything. He was going to put an end to this silly talk and find out once and for all what was going on at the top of this hill. A small group gathered to watch him as he resolved to confront the banshee. He grabbed his coat, a stick, and a torch and headed off.

The small crowd followed him to the bottom of the hill and watched. From the bottom of the hill the people could see the banshee waving and wailing at the top as it had done now for several nights. After a few minutes they heard the huge hearty laugh of my great grandfather Wilson. A few minutes later he reappeared in jolly good spirits. “A banshee?” he laughed. “Did no-one notice in day light the big bloody tree at the top of the hill had a sheet stuck on it!?!”

Yep. Apparently an old bedsheet had blown off someone’s washing line in the storm and got stuck in the tree. In the stormy weather the trees branches wailed and the sheet flapped in the wind like a ghost. What else could it be but a banshee?

The story reminds us of a number of lessons which must be borne in mind when considering all such phenomena:

1. The power stories can have over our collective consciousness,
2. The ability of groups of people to convince each other of things for which there’s a perfectly normal explanation,
3. How our perception of reality can be skewed and affected by the things we believe, and
4. That exposing the plain truth can often be achieved simply by shedding a little light on the matter.

Stephen J. Graham (proud to be 1/8th Wilson)

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Faith Healers: Pulling Our Legs?

My regular readers may already know that I’m currently planning a book examining supernatural claims, particularly within the Christian church. A large part of this work will involve looking at the various healing claims flying around Christendom. To this end I hope to investigate a number of supposed cases of divine healing, and so I began looking around to see if there are any claims worth checking out further. This process has only just begun, but it got off to a rather frustrating start.

I first came across a church based in Northern Ireland called Causeway Coast Vineyard Church, lead by a man called Alan Scott. On May 26th Alan Scott tweeted:

Looking forward to continuing conversation on the gift of faith at 6:30 service tonight. So many people healed over the last few weeks.”

To which I responded:

Are these healings being medically confirmed and documented? I’m genuinely curious, but sceptical of healing claims.”

Alan Scott’s reaction to this was to block me on Twitter. I sent him a message on his personal website expressing my disappointment and failure to understand his reaction. He never responded, and I’m still blocked.

I quickly discovered other members of his church making other claims. The Youth Pastor at Causeway Coast tweeted on 30th May: “One of our young guys got incredible news today that her cancer is all gone after our young guys prayed for her! #childlikefaith #thankful.” Intrigued I asked “What sort of cancer was it, and had she been receiving orthodox medical treatment?” I received no response.

The Director of Evangelical Alliance in Northern Ireland, Peter Lynas, also happens to attend Scott’s church. Around the same time, Lynas retweeted a video that was originally posted by Scott. The video was a testimony from a young woman who claimed to have experienced a healing in her ear. You can watch the short testimony here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5m_GfEn5gfo&feature=youtu.be

I responded to Lynas: “Is this being medically documented and verified? I’ve seen similar testimonies that turned out not quite what it seemed at 1st.” I added “In just a few weeks your church has claimed multiple healings, inc. deafness and cancer. Willing to have them investigated?” I received no response.

On the 6th June I wrote to Causeway Coast Vineyard, introducing myself and my plan for my book, asking about the claims that had been made recently, and if I could investigate them further. I received no response. On Sunday 28th June – three weeks after my letter – I emailed the church with a reminder and a copy of my letter. So far I have received no response.

Shortly after posting my original letter to Causeway Coast I wrote to Mark Marx, a member of the church and the founder of a ministry called “Healing on the Streets.” Again, I received no response. I sent several messages on Twitter, also receiving no response. So I decided to research a little into Healing on the Streets to see if I could find any information or testimonies that I could follow up. I initially discovered a street healer in America called Todd White and watched several of his videos on Youtube. I was rather deflated to see that his signature move was the old leg lengthening parlour trick. This is a trick that has been part of the arsenal of every two bit healer across the globe. It smacks of chicanery. It reeks of charlatanry. It’s been shown time and time again to be fake. James Randi and Derren Brown are amongst the many sceptics who have conclusively demonstrated what really lies behind the trick. The ruse can be achieved in a number of ways, and Randi describes one way in his book “The Faith Healers,” or you can watch Brown performing it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpz_9_KalFY. If you ever see a faith healer perform this wonder, alarm bells should be ringing. Even without this knowledge it should make one wonder: is it not strange that God would regularly expand countless legs by a mere inch or 2 but never re-grow a missing limb? And should we forget babies with AIDS, thalidomide children, and meningitis, and praise Jesus for dealing with the real scourge of the earth: people with one leg slightly shorter than the other? How odd it is that God would do an overabundance of miracles that can be easily faked, all over the globe by anyone with a little training.

If a faith healer performs an alleged instance of healing that has been shown over and over again to be false, used by chalatans 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, his ministry should be disregarded and his claims rejected.

Naturally I wanted to know if there was any connection between Todd White’s Healing on the Streets and the Healing on the Streets of Mark Marx. To my chagrin I soon discovered that Mark Marx performs exactly the same signature wonder as Todd White: he makes slightly shorter legs grow out before your very eyes! You can see him perform it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wW2IgE78qzQ and the feat is performed in several other Healing on the Streets videos (does Marx train people to do it?). In this particular video I found it strange how sure Marx was that the woman’s leg would grow – he knew before he prayed that it would grow out, and made sure everyone had a good view to see this marvel that was sure to occur. How was he so sure? Moreover, rather than pray he seems to command the woman’s body to grow and heal. Anyhow, astounded, and rather disappointed, I tweeted Marx: “Is this a genuine miracle in your view or are you simply performing the trick exposed many times” – and I included here a link to Derren Brown’s video above. Marx finally responded: he blocked me.

This was both an amusing and incredibly frustrating episode. What are we to make of it? What are we to make of the lack of straight answers to simple questions? What are we to make of the lack of tolerance for daring to ask questions at all, and of the silence in the face of honest enquiry?

A less generous interpretation is to see Marx as yet another trickster, building a reputation and drawing in a steady stream of cash as an in-demand speaker and healer. But I’d rather not accuse Marx of that. I hope he’s honest, but just self-deceived. After all, psychologists are aware of mechanisms that could be at work here, deceiving even the faith-healer. Take, for example, the now famous 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.” It is this ideomotor phenomenon that is responsible for what happens during activities such as Ouija boards or table turning (it’s not demons or the ghosts of the dead, folks!). It also – if Marx is an honest man, genuinely believing himself to be a conduit of divine power – explains what lies behind Marx’s leg growing marvels. I wonder, could Marx produce examples of this kind of healing occurring when he isn’t actually holding or touching the person’s feet or legs? Since he seems to perform the wonder on a regular basis it shouldn’t be a problem to independently verify whether or not any limbs are growing at all. Can he produce any such evidence, or is he willing to undergo such investigation? 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.” Can Marx provide an example of a person’s leg growing where there is medical evidence – not just self-diagnosis or diagnosis by Marx – of complications caused by having one leg shorter than another, and where medical evidence is subsequently sought after the supposed miracle to confirm that healing really has taken place? Since Marx seems to come across a rather uncanny number of people with this condition, should it be so hard to produce just one example that meets such basic criteria?

In the absence of a proper response from Marx, it’s difficult not to conclude that all that’s going on here is either self-deception, or downright trickery. Personally I prefer not to think the latter. Anyhow, Christians should have nothing to do with such claims. The Bible calls Christians to show discernment. Discernment isn’t something mystical or other-worldly. It’s simply the application of one’s rational faculties and the determination not to be so gullible in the face of every seemingly magical or supernatural phenomenon that we come across. Most of the time, it’s just someone pulling our legs.

Stephen J. Graham

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