Hex Factor: Inside the Group Offering $250,000 for Proof of Superpowers
To defend science, the Paranormal Challenge devises experiments to test claims of X-ray vision, telekinesis, and other paranormal abilities
When Gary Arnold first heard the noise, he was alone in the library at the local college where he teaches writing. He was enjoying his lunch and reading a copy of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the story of a man whose life is changed by the unexpected spectral visitors.
He heard it in his right ear, a staticky, high-pitched crackle that reminded him of old dial-up modems. It was odd, but it also seemed important, so he pulled his inexpensive feature phone out of his pocket. He hit the voice memo button and for several seconds just recorded the room, and whatever was in there with him.
When he played the recording later, there was no evidence of the noise he remembered, only the crackle of the phone’s mic and his own quiet presence. But when he played it back again, and turned the volume way, way up, he heard in the amplified sound of his own solitude something that astonished him. It was a voice, whispering through the static: “Mr. Arnold.”
It happened the next day, too. Again, it began with the ringing in his ear; again Arnold reached for the voice recorder; and again upon replay he heard what sounded to him like a reply to a question no one had asked: Is anyone there? And the voice on the tape said: “Yes, people.”
Over the next two years, Arnold grew convinced that these experiences were not flukes of imagination or sense, but something otherworldly, something that needed to be shared. While Googling one day in search of someone who might be able to verify his recordings, Arnold came across something called the Paranormal Challenge, a contest offering $250,000 to anyone offering indisputable proof of supernatural abilities. The contest is run by the Center for Inquiry Investigations Group, a branch of a global nonprofit dedicated to the promotion of science and secularism. Over the years it’s devised experiments to test people who claim they can read minds, dim lights with the power of their brains, and peer, X-ray-like, through people’s skin. So far none have passed the test or claimed the prize.
Arnold submitted the online application in August 2020. The cash would be nice, he thought, but even better would be the validation of someone else confirming that what is happening to him is real.
Arnold’s experience is unusual, certainly. But he is far from the only person in the United States to recently develop a fascination in what can’t be seen, or explained, or reasonably supported using the standards of science and evidence.
It’s a curious quirk of human nature that when major change is afoot, be it technological, social, or cultural, the number of people who profess belief in the paranormal goes up as well. The Victorians became obsessed with spiritualism and seances during the Industrial Revolution, when the introduction of new technologies like electricity and telephones made the seemingly miraculous a part of the fabric of daily life. The legend of Bigfoot crossed into popular culture from indigenous folktales and logger camp lore in the late 1950s, when booming economic prosperity for many Americans (particularly white suburban ones) also meant a shift from physical labor to the monotony of office jobs.
Our current era is no different. Christopher Bader, a professor of sociology at Chapman University, started the Chapman University Survey on American Fears with two colleagues in 2014, as part of his research on belief and religion. In the years from 2015 to 2018, when the survey specifically inquired about paranormal phenomena, the percentage of respondents who professed belief in everything from haunted houses to Bigfoot got bigger every year. For example, in 2015 41.4% of people believed it was possible for a house to be haunted by spirits, 18.1% thought aliens have recently visited Earth, and 11.4% believed Bigfoot was real. By 2018, 57.7% believed in haunted houses, 35.1% in alien landings, and 20.7% in Bigfoot.
The fastest-growing religious affiliation in the U.S. are people with no religious affiliation, Bader says, or “nones” in sociological parlance. It’s a broad category that includes both atheists, agnostics, and people whose beliefs don’t fit with any formal religious organization. A large percentage of nones also say they believe in the paranormal. People who accept the paranormal are also more likely than those who don’t to believe in conspiracy theories.
Once those beliefs are there, they are really hard to dislodge. Our brains are exceptionally good at discounting evidence that doesn’t fit with what we already believe, and at prioritizing information that confirms our pre-existing perceptions, said Chris French, a emeritus professor of psychology and head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. It’s incredibly hard to talk people out of what they believe to be true.
That doesn’t stop people from trying.
Three years after Arnold first heard the voices, seven adults gathered in a windowless theater in Los Angeles. They checked their phones and adjusted their face masks while waiting for Arnold to dial in for the initial testing phase of the Paranormal Challenge.
At his wife’s urging, Arnold had filled out the online application. “I communicate with invisible entities daily,” he wrote in the section asking him to describe his claim. “These beings know me and my family by name and claim in their own words to be ‘alien’ and ‘otherworldly’… they will perform even with other people present.” Arnold had proposed that he enter a Faraday cage — a tent that blocks electromagnetic signals — and make contact with the voices there, a proposal the Investigations Group rejected as expensive and irrelevant. If Arnold could, as he claimed, make contact with the entities anywhere, a signal-proof cage wouldn’t be necessary.
Instead they proposed an alternative: If Arnold, with the voice’s help, could identify eight of 10 face-down playing cards correctly — a feat whose odds the group has given roughly one in 80,000 odds of occurring by chance — they would invite him out to Los Angeles for an in-person test of his abilities and the chance to win $250,000.
While waiting for Arnold to dial in, his reviewers watched a short film Arnold posted online, a collection of staticky audio clips subtitled with the messages he perceives in the noise.
To Arnold, the words in the amplifications were clear. To this listener, at least, the words aren’t intelligible. When I listened to the clips in his homemade documentary, Subterranean Seance, with the laptop turned away so I couldn’t see Arnold’s captions, they sounded indistinct, similar to the noise of palm smacking the top of a live microphone.
The challenge is a quirky and quixotic mission for all parties involved. While Americans are roughly split on the question of whether ghosts or spirits exist, only a vanishingly small number of them believe they have the power to communicate with them directly — or are willing to give up a Sunday to investigate the claims of those who do.
The theater where Arnold’s test was scheduled to take place sits one floor below the offices of the Center for Inquiry Los Angeles. CFI is home to a host of programs and organizations with a humanist or skeptical bent. These include the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, an organization the British evolutionary biologist founded to promote secularism after writing his 2006 book The God Delusion; the 44-year-old Skeptical Inquirer magazine, a bimonthly publication devoted to debunking paranormal and pseudoscientific claims; and the Investigations Group, a largely volunteer body that bills itself as the world’s largest paranormal investigations effort. The organization brought in $5.4 million in revenues in 2019, 75% of it from individual donors.
“One hundred percent of the people we’ve tested completely believe in their own ability.”
When the challenge first began, said Jim Underdown, executive director of CFI Los Angeles, they were prepared for an onslaught of applications from people looking to land the prize through some kind of deception: Magicians confident that their skills could stand up to the scrutiny of investigators, or people concocting fraudulent schemes to walk away with the money.
That hasn’t been the case. Applicants come from all over the world and make all kinds of claims, but the one thing they have in common is that every single person appears to genuinely believe they do, in fact, possess abilities that science cannot explain.
“One hundred percent of the people we’ve tested completely believe in their own ability,” Underdown said.
That’s certainly true for Arnold. After his first experiences in 2017, the ringing became more frequent, with Arnold snapping on his trusty voice recorder more and more often. As he played back the audio clips, he began to piece together an understanding of the entity, or entities, communicating with him in this novel way.
They knew his name. They knew the names of his family members. They were not human — he knew this because he asked him once what they were, and they said “otherworldly.”
Arnold is 53 years old, a lifelong resident of southeastern Pennsylvania, and a happily married father of two teenagers. He knows what you’re thinking: He sounds insane. He gets it. There was a time he would have thought the same thing. He was raised in a Christian household and had little interest in the paranormal beyond watching the occasional ghost hunter documentary on cable for entertainment. He has an education and understands auditory pareidolia — the brain’s desire to seek understandable words and sounds in the garble of random noise — and hallucinations, and all the ways the mind can fudge the perception of reality. That’s just not what he believes is happening to him.
He says he has had brain scans, that he’s talked to his family doctor about this, and there’s nothing medically wrong. (OneZero could not independently confirm this.) He compares himself to the titular elephant in the Dr. Suess book Horton Hears A Who about a sensitive elephant whose giant ears pick up the cries of a tiny, endangered civilization — Whoville — that no one else can hear. The other animals in the jungle (especially the sour kangaroo, easily one of the bitchiest characters in American literature) mock and persecute Horton when he tells them about the Whos. They say it’s all in his head. Arnold doesn’t say this part, but the book’s conclusion makes clear that Horton was right all along.
Only a handful of the 100 to 150 applicants to the Paranormal Challenge who contact the center each year actually make it to the testing phase, Underdown said. Many stop responding to emails about the specifics of their talents or won’t agree to any proposed testing criteria. Applicants who show signs of mental illness are gently discouraged from pursuing their claims, though it’s not a disqualifier on its own. Previous applicants that have made it to preliminary testing have claimed they could dim light bulbs with their minds, view people’s organs through their skin, and tell just by looking whether the subject of any photograph is currently alive or dead. One woman flew on her own dime to Los Angeles from Ohio to prove to Underdown that she could make him pee his pants with the power of her mind, only to change her mind and withdraw her application shortly after landing.
There’s a tongue-in-cheek quality to the Paranormal Challenge. Inviting people to prove their skill as a dowser or telepath is a bit of a campy publicity stunt to draw attention to the center’s more serious work campaigning against potentially harmful examples of pseudoscience in public life. The Investigations Group has led campaigns against bracelets that claim to enhance the wearer’s athletic abilities, bogus alternative medicine courses passing as legitimate continuing education for health care professionals, and self-proclaimed psychics who market their services to vulnerable individuals.
The Center for Inquiry, the Investigation Group’s parent organization, devotes the bulk of its resources to defending the separation of church and state and atheists’ rights. “To move forward, we need to discard old superstitions, prejudices, and magical thinking and embrace facts, evidence, and critical thinking,” the center’s mission statement reads. “It’s about more than whether or not God exists. It’s about more than whether ghosts roam among us, aliens hover above us, or psychics can see within us.” What’s left over after the superstition is discarded are a lot of the community bonds that people find in church: communion with people who believe with equal fervor the things that they do, a desire to convert other people to their way of thinking, and a sense that their most dearly held principles are under siege. On this latter part, they’re not entirely wrong.
By the time a person is committed deeply enough to their paranormal beliefs to apply for something like the Paranormal Challenge, “there is no way that the skeptical groups will ever make any inroads with them. If that is their goal, it won’t work,” Bader said. “When someone’s deeply invested in a belief system — and I’ve seen this with conspiracy theories and paranormal beliefs for a long time — there’s always a ready explanation [for why a test fails]. The difficulty is to figure out how we can get people to a place where they’re ready to question their own beliefs.”
There have been skeptics for as long as there has been belief. At the moment, however, standing up for science feels particularly quixotic. A few thousand people read Skeptical Inquirer; many more millions read conspiracy pages on Facebook. The misinformation just keeps growing. “It’s been a bit disheartening for me,” Underdown said. “It’s like, holy shit, where do we start? I mean, this is massive, this mountain we need to chip away at. But I think it starts with understanding it.”
“We need critical thinking more than ever at the moment. We may be on the verge of an effective vaccine for Covid, but there are so many people who will refuse to take it because of all this misinformation.”
The issue with believing that the Earth is flat and the moon landing was faked or that it’s possible to bend spoons with your mind is not just that these things aren’t true. It’s that ignoring the evidence that they aren’t true makes the believer more likely to accept other demonstrably false things that pose a danger to themselves and others: that the coronavirus is a hoax, for example, or that vaccines are dangerous instruments of government control, or that the nation’s politicians and entertainers are secretly evil pedophiles who must be stopped.
“The problem with fringe beliefs is that often one conspiracy begets another,” writes author Colin Dickey in The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession With the Unexplained. “Once you’ve decided that the consensus is wrong about a given arena of scientific knowledge, it’s easier to cast suspicion on other consensus beliefs as well, and once you’ve made the choice to doubt mainstream science, it can be hard to pick and choose which orthodoxies to discard.”
The current pandemic has proliferated in part because of a lack of national consensus on the basic scientific fact of its existence and lethality. Action on climate change has stalled for decades while politicians have turned a scientific discussion into a cultural debate. Rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol to protest a coordinated attack on democracy that never actually happened. Believing in things that aren’t true has become a national, if not global, emergency. We’re all stuck in a version of the Paranormal Challenge, one with much higher stakes than prize money.
“We need critical thinking more than ever at the moment,” French said. “We may be on the verge of an effective vaccine for Covid, but there are so many people who will refuse to take it because of all this misinformation… I don’t think there has ever been a point in my life when things have felt as out of control and uncertain as they do at this moment.”
Arnold’s test for the Paranormal Challenge never happened. He bailed on the playing card test, invalidating his application for one calendar year, and afterward he and Underdown exchanged testy emails about what was actually agreed to on test day. (After the story’s publication, Arnold said family circumstances also contributed to his decision to skip the test.) Rather than subject his abilities to quizzing by nonbelievers, Arnold has decided to focus on sharing his message with a more receptive audience. He has made a half-hour documentary that’s mostly clips of his recordings and shots of himself talking to a hand-held camera.
“What I’m going public with is, it’s true we’re not alone,” he says. He knows this is hard to accept. He felt that way once, too. But “sometimes,” he says, “you need to adjust your way of thinking when you’re confronted with evidence that your thinking is wrong.”
Update: An earlier version of this story misstated in which ear Gary Arnold believes he hears paranormal signals and where he lives. He hears the signals in his right ear, and he lives in southeastern Pennsylvania.