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The Psychology of Hoaxing

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The Psychology of Hoaxing by Attila Kaldy

This is an area that has seldom been covered within the field of researching the unexplained. Most of us have dedicated countless hours analysing and dissecting files on the basis that the image or video footage is as a true representation of the unexplained - as one can appreciate the attention for detail is paramount. In many cases when misidentifications are revealed, it can provide great satisfaction for the researcher who has proven his or her conduct through thorough effort, and the reporting individual who now becomes a more critical and educated observer.

There are those occasions when deliberate misrepresentations fall into our hands. Upon first glance we may notice that something just doesn’t sit right: inconsistency, tessellation, incorrect orientation, resolution discrepancies, dull witness reaction etc. In most instances the reports accompanying these hoaxes are filled with colourful statements. Without stating the obvious, the researcher has now wasted considerable and irretrievable time on this purposeless fabrication. In order to view examples, one only has to browse through the infinite collection of footage and imagery on the World Wide Web.

One of history’s classic hoaxers and legendary fabricators of fairy tales was George Adamski in his chronology of encounters with exotic alien beings. Adamski was born to a working class Polish family. Like many struggling blue-collar families in the early 20 century, proper education was unaffordable. It is possible that due to the absence of education Adamski gained little or no social status whatsoever.
Through his parents, George Adamski was introduced to a religious cult movement, which greatly influenced his life. It seems that what he lacked elsewhere was partially substituted by his fellow cultists.

Beside his religious dedication Adamski also nurtured a passion for astronomy. It is strongly believed that his interest in astronomy tied into to his obsession for ‘flying saucers’ and ‘space people’. Adamski would spend many nights with his telescope waiting for his ‘space brothers’ and ‘space sisters’ to arrive. It is therefore safe to assume that a combination of the abovementioned ingredients initiated his stories of encounters with Venusians in the early 1950s (and later with other exotic human like aliens from Mars and Saturn). This ignited a large cult following, a form of spiritualist movement that embraced Adamski’s outlandish claims and philosophies.

In defence of his early followers we must understand that this was before the time of space exploration, before discovering that the carbon dioxide atmosphere that encompasses Venus produces sulphuric acid rain, before the time we knew that Mars is an arid rock strewn landscape and Saturn a gas giant. In order to ad credence to his deceitful claims Adamski went as far as producing fake photography and video footage of an alleged Venusian Scout ship using a homemade model. To his followers it was like the revelation of the Holy Grail.

Another interesting trickster in history was the 19century jewellery engraver and later spirit photographer William Mumler. As an amateur photographer Mumler began experimenting with different exposures. When creating a self-portrait Mumler discovered his ‘doppelganger’ after processing the image. This discovery of double exposure made him realise the monetary potential this could yield through the spiritualist community. Promoting himself as a spirit photographer, Mumler’s fraudulent work soon made him a hit among the spiritualists and unfortunate grievers of lost loved ones. He was taken to court in 1869 and charged with fraud. Several professional photographers explained to the court how his effects were easily recreated in a darkroom while another witness claimed that Mumler sold him photos to exhibit them in his museum as ‘specimens of humbug’.

On a slightly different level we have individuals who take advantage of an event to embellish the truth. In 1977, Enfield UK, teenager Janet Hodgson allegedly experienced one of the most well documented poltergeist cases in history. The investigation was conducted by The Society of Psychical Research (SPR) members Guy Lyon Playfair and Maurice Grosse. Although there may have been some element of truth in the Enfield poltergeist phenomenon, Janet later admitted playing practical jokes, which unfortunately placed serious doubt on the entire case.

The spiritualist movement during the 19 and early 20 century certainly brought a tide of fraudulence, charlatans, tricksters and other flamboyant individuals into the spotlight. The exposure of these hoaxers slowly disintegrated the popularity of this epic trend towards the 1920s and 30s and has largely contributed towards the brutal scepticism of the
psi phenomena. During its height many false characters played on the vulnerability of the uninitiated as well as those suffering from depression, grief and post trauma. There were known cases where trust was manipulated and thus entire fortunes were lost to these scandalous practitioners.

One of the cohorts in trickery was the late Florence Cook. Her popularity escalated after she learnt the skill of producing ectoplasm. This substance was regarded as spirit matter that would flow from a medium’s orifice and form into limbs, faces or even materialise an entire body. Later investigations uncovered that ectoplasm had a variety of different types including cheese cloth (swallowed and then regurgitated), paper, cotton rubbed in goose fat and rubber bladders.

What drives these individuals to perform these elaborate hoaxes?

Deception comes in many different forms and personalities, each with their own motivation, whether it’s greed, an attempt to vilify another party or simply to gain some form of social status or maybe even megalomania. We have all bent the truth in one way or another but what happens when it becomes compulsive?

Geoge Adamski grew up in a modest religious environment before WWI, dropping out of school at an early age. Being uneducated, Adamski was easily influenced by cult movements during this era. It is not unreasonable to assume that his indoctrinated beliefs played a large role in his fantasy prone philosophies. It is true that in his seminars Adamski came through as an influential, obsessive cult leader. These key indicators are associated with a disorder known as Asperger Syndrome. Although not confirmed, his repetitive behaviour patterns that revolved around his fanatical outlandish belief system certainly seem to be a key symptom.

In addition we have a clear outline of his religious past, which indicates that his indoctrinated memories would have certainly influenced his actions. This delusional disorder appears to be a common trait among fanatical cult leaders. Another critical point emerges: did Adamski really believe in his own fairy tales, or were they nothing more than fabrications from a convincing con artist?
Another aspect of Adamski that also coalesces with Janet Hodgson’s (Enfiled poltergeist case) behaviour pattern is the need for social recognition and validation of their worth to others. An emotionally immature person will commit to almost any methodology including deceit, lying (compulsive), manipulation and other forms of trickery to become the centre of attention. This behaviour has the characteristics of Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome. Although most common cases are associated with self induced harm or harming a victim in order to gain attention and/or pity, this disorder also follows a pattern of pathological lying to draw interest to the subject. In some instances the perpetrator will be so convincing that he or she will believe their own lies or confabulation.

In William Mumler’s case, it is hard to ascertain whether or not his motive was to draw attention to his fraudulent skills, to gain financial benefits through deceit or perhaps a mixture of both. In modern society deceit and other forms of disinformation is spread electronically through our global networks. This provides a pool of opportunities for false informers to continue, almost unhindered with their scheming.

Sociopathological disorders or antisocial personality disorders are usually those with little or no empathy towards other people and lack the ability to interact on a proper social level. Sociopathological hoaxers will either put their bait out and see who falls victim or target specific individuals to vilify or discredit, especially those who pose a threat (paranoia). Although this behaviour is not exclusive to sociopaths, many with this order will be persistent and continue with a set pattern to achieve their desired outcome.
As an ingredient, a sociopath will use attractive personality traits to manipulate their victims. The ultimate goal however is control. In most cases, such personalities will hide behind the veil of information technology and operate under a pseudonym.

Although we could continue to analyse the motivations of famous hoaxers, charlatans and tricksters over the centuries, this assessment provides a general insight of the psychology and the causative disorders that may prompt these individuals to carry out their actions.

Looking for Orthon: Colin Bennett
George Adamski: Prof. Solomon (from the original print of ‘Harper’s Weekly’)
This House is Haunted: Guy Lyon Playfair
All Psych Journal

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