This week we ask author, researcher, and editor Benjamin Radford about his new nonfiction work, Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment, published by the University of New Mexico Press. Radford is the deputy editor of the must-read Skeptical Inquirer science magazine.
New Mexico Mercury: I know you must be a skeptical inquirer yourself. But what first drew you to investigating old New Mexico mysteries like the haunted KiMo theater and the real-world crime scene of a serial killer on Albuquerque’s West Mesa?
Basically the short answer is that I got shamed into it. I’d spent many years researching and investigating unsolved and “unexplained” mysteries around the world—Loch Ness in Scotland, a mysterious bat-demon called popobawa in the East African island of Zanzibar, crop circles in England, the chupacabra in Puerto Rico and Nicaragua, and so on—but I hadn’t really devoted a lot of time to mysteries right here where I grew up. I was speaking with my editor at UNM Press (they published my 2011 book Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore) and he said, “Well, you’ve researched weird events all around the world, why not write a book about New Mexico?”
I’d done a handful of local cases, for example I investigated and solved the mystery of the Santa Fe Courthouse Ghost (chapter 5 in Mysterious New Mexico) in 2007, and the KiMo ghost in 2008 (I appeared with investigative reporter Larry Barker for that case). So I included those, and added a bunch of new mysteries to the book. The KiMo story is a particular favorite of mine because I grew up hearing about it, and I always wondered what was really going on. It’s just as well I didn’t look into it years ago, because I don’t think I’d have had the skills and experience to figure it out. The true story of the KiMo ghost is a really interesting one, regardless of whether you believe in ghosts or not, in terms of the lore and legend. The West Mesa serial killer chapter seemed like a natural—after all, it’s one of the most notorious crime scenes in the country. But I also approached that investigation carefully, because unlike most of the other mysteries I wrote about, there are real people alive today who lost loved ones in that tragedy. It was important to me that it be written with respect and not come off as exploitative. Nonetheless, it had some interesting angles in terms of local psychics who presumably could have been able to prevent or solve the crime.
NMM: You use the term “surreal New Mexico” to describe a part of our world that we don’t normally pay attention to here. Would you describe its essential nature?
I find much of New Mexico a bit surreal. National labs here are developing cutting-edge technology, amazing science that will bear fruit for future generations. But then, sitting right alongside that, there’s also a strong tradition of magic, mystery, and miracles. You can find that in the stories and traditions of New Mexicans—perhaps most prominently in the Native American communities, but also in the Hispanic and Anglo ones as well. Though I’m not a professional folklorist, I spend a lot of time researching folklore, and I’m always fascinated to see how each culture has his or her own unique beliefs and perspectives.
While many people might invoke a mysticism in the surreal, I think that a lot of science and modern technology is surreal. Using smartphones that most of us carry every day, we can locate our position anywhere on Earth within a few feet and even talk to someone in real time on another continent—these are things unimaginable less than a century ago, and for most of human history. That, to me, is just as surreal and wonderful as any magic or miracle in the state.
NMM: It’s fascinating to read about the miracle staircase in the Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe, the San Luis Valley crystal skull, and the West Mesa serial killer all in the same book. What ties them together?
I think that one of the running themes in my work is taking some strange or mysterious claim and trying to see what the real, scientific evidence is for it. I love stories and mysteries as much as the next person—in fact probably more—but I also want to take it a step further to find out if it’s true. In each of these cases you have something that people think they know, or have heard about, but I’m trying to bring a different perspective to the story. My interest is in getting past the superficial stories, the thumbnail sketches, to dig a little deeper and put some context to these mysteries. A lot of times the reason that something seems mysterious or unexplained is that we don’t really have enough information about it—or that there’s a lot of information about it, but nobody has taken the time and effort to pick up each claim or piece of evidence one by one and examine it to see if it’s true or not. The first step to solving a mystery is sorting fact from fiction, and that’s a big part of what I do for all these cases. It’s not that I’m so brilliant that nobody else could have done this; it’s more that nobody else put in the time and effort to really try to solve these mysteries.
NMM: How did you come up with the idea of applying the scientific method to help solve these New Mexico mysteries?
I’ve been doing these sorts of investigations for over fifteen years. I wrote a 2010 book titled Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries, which was published here in New Mexico. I work for a nonprofit educational organization called the Center for Inquiry. They publish Skeptical Inquirer magazine, which I’m a columnist for and deputy editor of. Our basic goal is to encourage science literacy, media literacy, and critical thinking.
In terms of how I started, as a teenager growing up in Corrales I was fascinated, like most kids, by books about the strange and mysterious world around me. In the summer I’d walk to the local used bookstore and pull out a handful of crumpled allowance dollars to scoop up paperbacks from the fifties. Along with Doc Savage, Tom Swift, and Encyclopedia Brown books, I’d pick up a few “true mystery” collections. I especially remember books by Frank Edwards, with titles like Stranger Than Science. Inside those books, I found odd and mysterious stories and phenomena spilling from page after yellowed page. These weren’t ghost stories or silly pulp fiction novels; these were, as the cover blurb read, “Astounding stories of strange events! All authentic—all absolutely true!” I loved these stories of mysteries, supernatural coincidences, prophecies, terrifying creatures, and fascinating oddities. The stories had titles like “The Invisible Fangs” and “The Girl Who Lived Twice” and “A Voice FromThe Dead?”
The assertion that these stories were “fully documented” was perhaps the strangest claim in the book, since almost none of the books cited sources, references, or any documentation whatsoever! (The “science cannot explain” line was quite popular, and also appeared on many other similar books, such as Rupert T. Gould’s 1965 book Oddities: Mysterious, True Events Science Cannot Explain! I pictured worried scientists—imagined as balding men in horn-rimmed glasses and white lab coats—huddled together, chain-smoking and fretting about the seemingly supernatural mysteries they couldn’t explain.)
I continued to gather more and more of these books, and between the library and the bookstore I was a voracious reader for a few summers. I had books on fortune-telling, astrology, and the Bermuda Triangle. I had books on demonic possession, exorcism, palmistry, and dowsing. I had books on mysterious creatures, psychic powers, ghosts, flying saucers, and monsters in dark corners of the world. I assumed that these stories were all (or mostly) true—the authors seemed quite authoritative.
But I noticed that there seemed to be precious little actual investigation; instead, most of the accounts seemed merely copied from other, older sources. There were plenty of theories and bald assertions, but no real scientific investigation, no one doing a reality check on the stories. I decided that when I grew up I wanted to personally investigate these mysteries, see what I could find out. I didn’t want to just take someone else’s word for it. Science is simply a way of examining the world, a very effective method of analysis and investigation, so it was a natural field for me to get into. There are many ways humans find out about the world around us. The most common is through personal experience; we see or hear something, learn from it, and move on. For the most part personal experience works well for everyday things. But personal experience can sometimes mislead us, especially when dealing with things that we don’t encounter every day—such as the paranormal.
Personal perception and experience tells us that our planet revolves around us. The sun moves across the sky from east to west, while we don’t appear to be moving at all. But personal experience is of course wrong; it is instead the earth that revolves around the sun. Science reveals that the earth we walk on is also revolving at over one thousand miles per hour (at the equator), contrary to personal experience. So understanding how science works, and how it can be used to learn about the world, just encouraged me to extend the process to “unexplained” mysteries. Since that time I’ve gotten a bachelor’s in psychology from the University of New Mexico and a masters in education, focusing on science literacy, from the University at Buffalo.
NMM: What has been the response to this book? Have you found yourself in the middle of more controversies? Do you plan a sequel to Mysterious New Mexico?
Overall the response to Mysterious New Mexico has been overwhelmingly positive so far, and I’m very grateful, because I put a lot of time and effort into it. The only real complaint I’ve heard about was from the management at Ojo Caliente hot springs. Apparently they were upset that I debunked a few of their claims about the healing benefits of their waters (for example, it’s true that their waters contain lithium, which has been proven to lift moods in certain people, but the amount in the water is far below clinically effective doses—you’d have to drink fifty gallons to see any benefit!). But I’m hardly discouraging people from going there; I think it’s a beautiful, wonderful place that should be experienced by residents and visitors alike. My only issue is that people should go there with realistic, evidence-based expectations about what the waters will or will not do for you.
I’ve had people tell me they really enjoy lesser-known New Mexico mysteries, such as the Aztec UFO crash (“Everyone’s heard of Roswell, how about something different!”), or ones they’re familiar with from their childhood, like La Llorona (“My grandmother saw her on Second Street!”). There are many mysteries remaining in the state, and maybe someday I’ll get around to researching and writing about more of them for a sequel. The work that I do is very time- and labor-intensive—going out to sites and doing field research and investigations, conducting interviews and analyses, that sort of thing. I don’t just collect ghost stories—there’s nothing wrong with that, don’t get me wrong, but I want to go beyond just the stories to see if they’re true, which very few authors do. I’m working on a new book, on evil clowns, that will come out next year. After that, who knows?
A handful of people have said that while they enjoyed the book and appreciated someone taking the time and effort to really investigate mysteries they’d grown up hearing about, they were a little sad that I finally solved them. I understand what they mean, but I don’t see it that way: I see magic all around us. Whether ghosts exist or not, or whether the Loretto staircase is a true miracle, isn’t really the point. I just love finding out about the world and seeing what’s really there. My goal is not to debunk or disprove the paranormal or the supernatural—I’d love to find hard evidence of most of these mysteries and phenomena. If these things exist, I want to scientifically prove it—but if they don’t, I want to prove that as well. My goal is to explore and understand our world as best I can, which I think is ultimately our goal as humans. We can’t know everything, but I want to know as much as I can while I’m here.
Mysterious New Mexico is available at bookstores or directly from the University of New Mexico Press at unmpress.com or 800.249.7737.