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Why the United States Government Embraced the Occult

A new book chronicles decades of extravagant attempts to weaponize psychic powers.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1952, the U.S. Army asked Duke University to help them develop a program to determine if dogs were psychic. Specifically, they wondered, could dogs use extrasensory perception (ESP)? To this end, researchers carried out a series of 48 tests on a beach in Northern California to see if dogs could locate underwater explosives. At first, the results pleased the scientists, who concluded that there was “no known way in which the dogs could have located the under-water mines except by extrasensory perception.”

Let us pause for a minute before going further. A dog’s olfactory capabilities are 40 to 50 times greater than those of a human; its hearing is four times stronger. Judging them by human metrics, dogs literally have extrasensory perception. This does not mean, however, that they are psychic or paranormal. And sure enough, further tests failed to deliver any supernatural results. A follow-up program was deemed an “utter failure,” and researchers noted a “rather conspicuous refusal of the dogs to alert.”

This experiment is only one of the strange stories—many of them recently declassified—in Annie Jacobsen’s Phenomena: The Secret History of the U. S. Government’s Investigations Into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis. As with her previous books on Area 51, Operation Paperclip (the secret project to bring Nazi rocket scientists to the U.S. after the war), and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which develops new technology for the Defense Department), this one begins with the fallout of World War II and the extreme measures the military-industrial complex took to unlock and weaponize psychic abilities in the early days of the Cold War. Spanning over 50 years, Jacobsen’s tale takes us from the immediate postwar years to the CIA’s experiments in the 1960s and ‘70s. The Defense Department, she tells us, began its own experiments in the 1980s and ‘90s, before their final incarnation, Project Stargate, was finally decommissioned in 1995.

Although Jacobsen’s book demonstrates an alarming pattern of government activity, the phenomena themselves are what makes her book so fascinating, and often troubling. “My intention … for this book,” she writes, “was not to prove or disprove anyone or any concept, but to report objectively on the government’s long-standing interest in ESP and PK phenomena.” That being said, she cuts these charlatans a great deal of slack while subtly undermining their critics, creating a reading experience that’s alternately frustrating and exhausting. And while she couldn’t have predicted this before finishing the book, Phenomena arrives at the beginning of a presidency that is thriving on conspiracy, distortion of fact, the discrediting of reliable sources, and outright paranoia. With the President of the United States quoting the National Enquirer as a legitimate news source, we’re in desperate need of a thorough account of the overlap between the government and the occult—but given our current climate, such a book also requires greater moral clarity.

The quest for extrasensory perception, an outgrowth of the nineteenth and early twentieth century Spiritualist movement, had begun in the 1930s, mainly with Duke University’s parapsychology experiments, conducted by J. B. Rhine. But in the wake of World War II, the US government began looking for ways to influence and control human behavior, and, in addition to traditional psychological tactics, attention increasingly turned to parapsychology, as well.

In the early 1950s, the Defense Department tasked Henry “Andrija” Puharich with locating mushrooms that they believed might unlock psychic powers (a project the CIA was also working on, under the codename Project MKULTRA). During this time Puharich was also researching faith healers, though much of his early research is still classified by the Atomic Energy Commission. Eventually, Puharich began exploring ESP and psychokinesis or PK (the ability to move objects with one’s mind), and began researching test subjects who appeared to have psychic potential.

Already well underway in period immediately after World War II, this paranormal research was greatly accelerated after a woman named Ninel Kulagina appeared on Russian TV, beginning in the 1960s, moving objects with her mind. Kulagina’s feats may well have been staged (U.S. analysts couldn’t tell for sure), but she spooked them nonetheless, leading to a joint intelligence assessment by the Defense Department on the “Soviet psychoenergetic threat.” Because much of this still remains classified, it’s not always clear how high up these directives went, or who exactly was aware in all cases of how much energy was being spent on this nonsense. The picture that does emerge, though, is a Cold War government terrified that the Soviet Union was developing an edge in any technology, be it normal or paranormal, and one willing to throw money just about anywhere so long as it meant staying ahead of the Russians.

Threat of an “ESP gap” led to a staggering number of bizarre programs in the ensuing years. In addition to the mine-sniffing dogs and mushroom research, there were lengthy and repeated attempts to prove that humans could communicate telepathically. When the nuclear submarine USS Nautilus became the first vessel to reach the North Pole by traveling under the polar ice caps, a sailor onboard was attempting to send ESP messages using Zener cards (the ubiquitous black and white cards with simple images—a square, a circle, a plus, a star, and a set of wavy lines—to a receiver at a Westinghouse facility in Friendship, Maryland. (One report stated a success rate of 75 per cent; once it hit the press, though, the Navy claimed it all was a hoax.)

One of the most popular and long-running experiments concerned “remote viewing.” Individuals would sit in locked rooms and attempt to see events from far away. Sometimes these individuals were natural psychics, but as the program grew the Defense Department attempted to prove that ability could be developed in otherwise normal individuals. Much of this was focused on military intelligence gathering, but one researcher, Ed Dames, used taxpayer money to direct supposed psychics to look for evidence of UFOs, to locate the lost city of Atlantis and the Ark of the Covenant, and to watch gladiator games in ancient Rome.

When Marine Lieutenant Colonel William Higgins was kidnapped by Hezbollah in 1988, the Defense Department brought in Dames, along with psychics Angela Dellafiora and Paul Smith, to see if they could remotely locate where he was being held. While other agencies were working through traditional surveillance and intelligence-gathering mechanisms, Dellafiora told her handlers that Higgins was still alive and confidently pointed to a bare patch of desert on a map of Lebanon where she said he was being held. She then said he was being moved constantly, that he was being held “on water,” and that something about his “feet would be a clue to investigators.” Subsequent reports would reveal that Higgins was already dead; Hezbollah would later release a video of Higgins’s corpse with a noose around his neck, though investigators determined he’d been killed much earlier, his body kept on ice for months.

Dellafiora’s claims are typical of the kind of “evidence” that runs through Phenomena. She provided no actionable intelligence and was wrong about the most salient question of whether or not Higgins was still alive. But researchers determined he hadn’t been hanged because of the position of his feet in the video (pointing outwards, rather than down, as would have been the case had he been hanged), and her reference to Higgins being “on water” could be taken to refer to the ice his body was kept on—so all of this could somehow taken as a sign of success. For decades, researchers used half-successes like this to justify their attempts to prove individuals could see events far away and provide useful intelligence. Jacobsen offers a few cases of surprising success, which might lead one to believe there is something to remote viewing, but, without any sense of how many failures accompanied these successes (judging by the length of the programs, they must have numbered in the thousands), it’s hard to gauge whether or not these were just random luck.

Unlike dogs sniffing for land mines, humans see only what they want to see. Reading through Jacobsen’s cavalcade of experimenters and government officials, the recurrent theme is one of longing: a longing for something greater, something beyond the everyday, something more wonderful. Their stories are of ordinary individuals with promising careers who fell to the siren song of pseudoscience; men like Dale Graff, who had an out-of-body experience while saving his wife from drowning in Hawaii in 1969. The experience led him to give up his PhD in aeronautical engineering because “he believed there were pursuits beyond the confines of orthodox science that had greater significance and should be taken on.” Graff would go on to be a leading researcher of remote viewing projects at the Air Force, chasing false positives and statistical noise in search of proof that psychic powers existed.

Or, even more dismaying, Edgar Mitchell, the sixth astronaut to set foot on the moon, a man who saw magisterial vistas the rest of us can only dream of. And yet, during his first night aboard Apollo 14, while he was supposed to be getting necessary sleep, he was obsessing about ESP, attempting to transmit Zener card images to a friend in a Chicago apartment. While the Apollo 14 mission was a success, the Zener card experiment was a failure. That didn’t stop Mitchell from choosing ESP over NASA: He quit the agency and set out to prove to the world that ESP was real. Mitchell’s time on the moon is the kind of thing that millions of school kids dream of doing some day; it’s a dream that spurs young men and women to study science and go into STEM careers. That someone with such a rare and fantastic opportunity would walk away from it to promote nonsense of charlatans is staggering, and speaks for the strange psychological desperation in so many of Jacobsen’s subjects.

Ultimately, Jacobsen herself shares this longing. Her first book, Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Military Base, hinged on a revelation that the aliens at Roswell were in fact genetically-altered humans, created by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele at the behest of Joseph Stalin in order to trigger a War of the Worlds-style panic. She based this claim on one anonymous source whose account has never been corroborated or substantiated elsewhere. As with Area 51, one should proceed with caution in Phenomena before accepting any of the evidence for the supernatural presented here.

Uri Geller bending a spoon in 1964.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Her discussion of the spoon-bending parties of Jack Houck is a good case in point: Houck was an aerospace engineer who believed that “the ability to bend metal had something to do with one’s belief system. Perhaps psychokinesis was not a so-called paranormal superpower but an ability to harness the energy force the Chinese called qi that was latent in all people.” Houck held parties at his house with a “high-energy environment of excitement,” with people holding spoons and shouting “Bend!” According to Houck, in one 1981 party “nineteen out of the twenty-one spoons bent,” a careful use of the passive verb tense to suggest that they did this somehow of their own accord. Jacobsen goes on to write that:

Houck watched hundreds, then thousands of average Americans suspend their disbelief and bend metal without physical force. Yes, it’s likely some percentage of the guests cheated. But hundreds of them bent hacksaw blades, silver-plated serving spoons, and five-sixteenth-inch steel rods that are physically impossible to bend by hand.

Perhaps. A Youtube video of one of Houck’s party shows a tent-revival-esque atmosphere and a lot of people physically bending spoons by hand while shouting “Bend!” If you Google “spoon bending,” you’ll yield far more tutorials from magicians and sleight-of-hand experts on how to do this simple stage trick than you will videos purporting to capture the real thing. (As for the hacksaw blades and steel rods—well, any stage magician will tell you a few audience plants can go a long way; after all, Houck was out to make money from this schtick.) Penn and Teller are among many magicians who’ve debunked Houck’s spoon bending, though they’re not mentioned here.

And then there’s Uri Geller, who looms large in these pages. A former Israeli paratrooper, Geller rose to fame in the late 1960s, performing stage shows that he insisted were not staged and that demonstrated, instead, a real magic that he himself did not fully understand. After becoming famous for the same spoon bending sham that Houck favored, Geller was approached by Andrija Puharich in the summer of 1971, with an offer to come to the United States to further test his powers in a laboratory setting. Geller worked with Puharich, the astronaut Edgar Mitchell, and others in the development of the Defense Department’s remote viewing labs, before going on to make millions “dowsing” for oil corporations in the 1980s. (Most recently, he’s brought his spoon-bending talent to a Kellogg’s cereal ad campaign). While magicians like James Randi repeatedly demonstrated the ways in which Geller’s supposed feats could be easily staged, he continued to dazzle his government handlers.

Some of this material, including Geller’s antics, was already covered in Jon Ronson’s 2004 The Men Who Stare at Goats, and though Phenomena is far more comprehensive and detailed, in many ways Ronson’s remains the better book. This is in part because Ronson’s bullshit detector is more finely tuned and he better captures the simultaneously hilarious and deeply horrific nature of his material. Ronson also recognizes that the ultimate aim of much of this government research was to harm and kill people: His light-hearted tone takes a deep nose dive in the book’s final chapters as he discusses Project Artichoke—a mind control program in the CIA that used, among other techniques, hypnosis, isolation and forced drug dependency followed by rapid withdrawal—and the death of Frank Olson.

Olson was a bacteriologist who became involved in Project Artichoke and, in 1953, was dosed with LSD against his knowledge. A few days later, he fell out of a thirteen-story Manhattan hotel window; the CIA has maintained it was suicide, though his family has spent decades arguing it was murder. In contrast to Ronson, though, Jacobsen tends to treat the CIA and the Department of Defense as wacky and endlessly intriguing bureaucracies, and not two agencies who have as one of their primary purposes the killing of human beings.

Reading Jacobsen’s book in the Trump era makes one wonder if her hands-off reportage of obvious bullshit is not only irresponsible, but actively harmful. As skeptic Martin Gardner told Time magazine in 1973, “Belief in occultism provides a climate for the rise of a demagogue. I think this is precisely what happened in Nazi Germany before the rise of Hitler.” It is one thing to describe the stupid nonsense government researchers believed, but quite another to give the reader the impression that any of it has merit.

Or maybe something else is at work here. When ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency, which eventually became DARPA, the same agency Jacobsen profiled in her Pulitzer-nominated Pentagon’s Brain) researchers evaluated Geller’s supposed feats, they found loose laboratory controls, skewing of data, and bias of researchers influencing the outcomes. There is serious doubt, concluded the ARPA report, “that Geller’s accomplishment transcends the range of activities that a skillful magician can perform.” The CIA, on the other hand, was not interested in whether or not Geller was genuinely paranormal, but “rather whether his capabilities are exploitable by CIA.”

Which is to say: The odds of the government harnessing psychic phenomena may be slim, but it may be in the government’s interest to continue to promote this belief, as the idea itself may have powerful psychological impacts on America’s enemies—or even its own populace. Perhaps Jacobsen’s sources had reasons for helping her believe in the impossible.