skeptic

The Strange Case of Wilhelm Reich and Orgone Energy Theory

What do Sigmund Freud, English space rock group Hawkwind, and metal filaments encased in resin pyramids have in common?

They’re all connected to Wilhelm Reich and his pet theory of Orgone Energy.

I first became fascinated with Orgone energy when I was sitting at my laptop looking for websites which made false claims about the dangers of electromagnetic radiation, and came across somebody who was selling interesting looking coloured translucent pyramids and stones which were speckled with metallic filaments, called orgonites. They looked like gemstones or polished crystals of some sort, and I thought that perhaps they’d make amusing paperweights.

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… shiny? Orgonite pyramid made by etsy seller VioletFlameOrgoneLA.

Unfortunately, when I looked into orgonites a little further, I was disappointed to find that they’re made of resin and not at all heavy enough to make effective paperweights. I continued to read, and fell down a rabbit hole of strangeness… of orgone energy and the man who devised its existence, Wilhelm Reich.

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Wilhelm Reich in his mid-twenties. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Born in 1897 and graduating in medicine from the University of Vienna in 1922, Wilhelm Reich rose to prominence as an influential second wave psychoanalyst with some rather radical ideas.

As an undergraduate, he met Sigmund Freud and the two became close, with Freud being so impressed with Reich that he allowed him to see patients while still an undergraduate. Unfortunately, this confidence was misplaced – Reich began an affair with a nineteen year old patient, a habit he continued throughout his career.

Freud and Reich did not see eye to eye for long – while Freud was concerned with what a patient said, Reich became much more focused on inflection, body language and facial expression, and reportedly subjected his patients to harrowing sessions to break down what he percieved as being their resistance and inhibition.

One of the ideas that Reich developed was that of “body armour”, or “Charakterpanzer” in which he contended that a there was a strong link between the character, emotional blocks and tension in the body. He suggested that repression of memories and emotion was the cause of physical illness, this being a theory which pops up with alarming regularity in the world of alternative therapies even today.

In 1930, Reich moved beyond psychoanalytic technique, onto touch therapy, sometimes painful, aimed to retrieve a repressed memory from his patients’ childhood. His goal became to trigger a whole body response with this touching, free from repression and inhibition, which he referred to as “orgasm reflex” – a full body convulsion, distinct from regular climax.

That said, Reich was a great proponent of regular climax also. His promotion of underage sex, emphasis on the importance of orgasm, and his sexual involvement with his patients saw the International Psychoanalytical Association request his resignation, to which Reich responded by camping in a tent outside their conference, while wearing a large knife on his belt.

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Sometimes a large knife on your belt is just a large knife on your belt. Photo via Wilhelm Reich Trust.

From there on, his ideas became even more unorthodox – he became convinced that there must be an additional element beyond the physiological which contributes to human orgasm… and this is where orgone energy was born – orgone taking its name from the word ‘orgasm’.

Orgone energy, Reich felt, was everywhere – a biological and cosmic energy which was linked to libido and potency, cancer, frogs, the aurora borealis. He began building contraptions to harness orgone energy… faraday cages made with plywood lined with rock wool and sheet iron, which he referred to as orgone accumulators. He believed that different materials – organic and inorganic, concentrated and reflected orgone energy, and that his orgone accumulators concentrated orgone energy to levels which could be used to treat cancer, experimenting with animals, then using them to treat humans.

Living in the US by this time, in 1940, Reich wrote to Albert Einstein, explaining the hope he had for his orgone accumulators in curing disease and outlining a claim that he could use his accumulators to raise temperature without a heat source. Amazingly, Einstein spent ten days examining an orgone accumulator for evidence of its temperature raising capacity, before dismissing it as the result of ambient temperature gradients. Demonstrating increasing paranoia over the years, Reich believed that Einstein’s dismissal was part of a conspiracy against him.

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Woman demonstrating Orgone Accumulator. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Reich continued his persual of orgone theory, applying it further in his therapy, creating more machines – notably, the ‘cloudbuster’ – a series of metal pipes grounded in water and pointed at the sky, which he believed could unblock orgone energy in the atmosphere and cause rain.

His claims about curing cancer were investigated by the FDA, who put an injunction on his literature and orgone machines, which reportedly triggered a further deterioration in his mental health. By the mid 1950s, he was convinced that UFOs were attacking earth with deadly orgone radiation, and would spend nights scanning the skies with binoculars, convinced he was fighting an interplanetary battle, shooting down UFOs with his cloudbusters.

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Reich with Cloudbuster. Photo via “New Illuminati“, a fine example of writing by modern Reich believers.

In 1956, an FDA inspector posing as a customer requested an orgone accumulator part be sent over state lines. The part was sent and Reich and an associate were charged with contempt of court. Reich was sentenced to two years imprisonment, his literature ordered to be burnt, and his machines destroyed. Psychiatric assessments were unfavourable, but he served eight months in prison, where he experienced sudden heart failure and died. He was sixty years of age.

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Wilhelm Reich, 1897 – 1957. Image via versobooks.

Orgone theory has made its way into popular culture over the years… or at least, popular counterculture. William S Burroughs was convinced that a home built orgone accumulator box greatly assisted him during times of withdrawal from heroin.

If you’ve seen the video to Kate Bush’s 1985 song Cloudbusting, you may remember Donald Sutherland playing a character who created a large metal vaguely steampunky machine with four long tubes, which he wheeled up onto a hill to point at the sky and create rain. Donald Sutherland was portraying Wilhelm Reich, and Kate Bush his son, the song based on a view of Wilhelm Reich through the eyes of his son Peter.

Then there’s American New Wave band Devo’s Energy Domes – the iconic terraced round ziggeraut style plastic hats worn by band members! One of the stories that has been told about the origin of the energy dome.. and there are several… is that the energy domes recycle the wasted orgone energy lost from the top of the head.

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Are they not men to be taken seriously? Photo: Jay Spencer

Space Rock group Hawkwind wrote a ten minute long song titled “Orgone Accumulator”, Dr Durand Durand in Barbarella was loosely based on Wilhelm Reich, orgone energy was mentioned in the BBC comedy Peep Show when Jez and Super Hans joined a cult, the orgone accumulator box was parodied in the Woody Allen film Sleeper… but what is the relevance of orgone theory today?


(I dare you to listen to the whole thing)

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Doctor Durand Durand’s Excessive Machine

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Close enough, automatic subtitles. Video here.

Well, there are still the true believers out there, who pen missives defending Wilhelm Reich, claim he was assassinated as part of a grand conspiracy to suppress the truth… and there are also people selling products based on orgone theory. In 2000, a couple in America who had been studying Reich’s work, decided that layering metal filaments and quartz crystal in catalyzed organic fiberglass resin created an item which harnessed the power of orgone energy, much the way Reich’s accumulators were meant to, with their layers of plywood, rock wool and sheet iron.

Orgonites are quite the cottage industry.

Orgonites: quite the cottage industry.

At the last Mind, Body, Wallet Festival we went to, I came across two seperate groups selling orgone related paraphenalia – and one was selling a variety of orgonites! They weren’t directly referring to Reich’s theories, but were going down the electromagnetic radiation fearmongering path, claiming that their orgonites could protect against damaging negative energies.

With a pang of regret as I handed money over to a Mind, Body, Wallet vendor who wasn’t located in the cafeteria area, I bought myself a souvenir.

Protected from weird energy!

Protected from weird energy!

Online, there are also many orgonite selling businesses, including those who’ve gone further and sell cloudbusting machines, which would make perfectly serviceable but expensive trellises for growing beans on, if you’re into that kind of thing. There are orgonites made specifically for using to protect against energy emitted by computers, phones, and mobile phone towers, against nuclear energy, against bad vibes from neighbours.

It’s a little strange though – that the people I’ve encountered selling items based on orgone energy don’t tend to mention Wilhelm Reich and the kinda sexy roots of his theory. I haven’t quite had the audacity to ask an orgonite salesperson where orgone energy theory came from, but perhaps one day.

This post is an adapted version of a report I gave on The Skeptic Zone Live Show, episode #355 {permalink}.

Psychics and Ghost Hunters and Skeptics, Oh My! The Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo 2014.

Early in October 2014, along with my Skeptic Zone cohorts and members of the Australian Skeptics, I was invited to attend the Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo in Casula, New South Wales. Held in the old Casula Powerhouse, reputed to be haunted, the expo featured a main floor with displays and stalls, a room in which several psychics were conducting readings and a main theatre where workshops and talks were taking place.

The Skeptic Zone contingent, Maynard, Richard and Jo.

The Skeptic Zone contingent, Maynard, Richard and Jo.

Frankly, I had utterly no idea what to expect, this being the first event I’d attended based around things we skeptics tend to be skeptical about. I wondered whether my lack of belief in the supernatural and tendency to question paranormal claims would be a source of conflict or hostility, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel, being immersed in a group of people with such different beliefs to my own. I took comfort in the fact that Richard Saunders had been invited to speak though, and that Australian Skeptics had been given a table on the main floor – surely we were welcome.

Skeptics! Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

Skeptics! Richard Saunders and Tim Mendham. Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

The expo organisers were kind enough to provide me with a media pass, so I decided that I would spend the day immersing myself in the workshops and talks that I had access to.

Before the workshops began, I had a bit of a wander around the tables that were set up in the main hall downstairs to see who was there and what sorts of things they were talking about or selling… and they were a varied bunch: ghost hunters, psychics, people concerned with auras, crystal sellers, all sorts of fun novelties (inflatable aliens and Edgar Allen Poe action figures were spotted!), people drawing portraits of spirit guides, people selling clothing. What stood out to me was that it was all quite… well, benign, really. I’m the sort of skeptic who struggles most with medical quackery; comparatively, I actually find the paranormal side of things quite fun. Not to say that I think that it’s all harmless. I worry about people handing money over to shonky psychics who aren’t on the up and up, I get a little concerned as to whether claims to be able to contact the deceased interfere with people’s grieving processes – but all in all, belief in the paranormal isn’t something I tend to feel any need to rail against.

 

A Witch’s Circle and a Visit to the Spirit Plane

The first workshop for the day was run by Kylie Allerton, titled “A Tarot Ritual – connecting you with the spirit world”. I entered the theatre to be greeted by an interesting scene on the stage – a circular mat was on the floor, surrounded by cushions – and on the mat were an assortment of items; a small cauldron sort of a thing, a little resin cast human skull, a couple of long bones, some goblet type cups, an incense burner and a deck of tarot cards.

I took a seat near the front of the theatre and took a moment to take everything in… for somebody who doesn’t tend to get too much exposure to the world of spirituality, it was an unusual scene for me to behold. Before long, the friendly people who were running the expo introduced Kylie Allerton.

Kylie is a psychic reader and practicing white witch who incorporates crystal balls, the tarot, and palmistry when conducting readings. Today she was working with the tarot – and us! The audience, there were perhaps forty of us, were invited to come and join her on stage and create a circle around the mat. It took me by surprise, frankly – I was expecting something akin to a lecture, rather than a participatory exercise – but I decided on the spot that I’d take the opportunity to join in and experience everything that I could.

I hoped that nobody would mind a non-believer taking part in what was about to happen… if such a thing as negative or cynical vibes exist, I aimed not to emit them. I did my best to be open to whatever occurred, to join in rather than pooh-pooh things that I don’t necessarily believe in.

Down we went, we formed a seated circle around the mat, some people removed their shoes and got comfortable. Kylie explained that we were going to do some summoning and that she’d give us each a tarot card to use as a portal to the spirit plane.

Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography

I was under the impression that purple would be appropriate, but it seems I could have just worn black. Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

We began the ritual with some breathing exercises, during which we were to consider a person who had passed away that we wished to get in contact with, and a question that we would like to ask them. The incense was heady and I focused on my breath, so I didn’t really spend a great deal of time paying attention to what the other participants were up to, but the room seemed incredibly calm. Then Kylie began to open a witch’s circle. This isn’t a subject that I know too much about, but she recited incantations, blessings and called upon the spirits of air and fire – when she did this, we joined in with a little chanting. Bones were struck together, something was set on fire and we were ready – Kylie walked around the circle with a deck of tarot cards held out face down and we were instructed to choose one each.

My chosen person who had passed away that I thought I’d like to have a conversation with was my beloved grandmother… and the tarot card that I had selected was The High Priestess. The character in this card struck me as rather matriarchal – a wise woman, as I considered my grandmother to be. Some others, particularly those who had cards from the minor arcana (sort of the equivalent of numbered cards, rather than face cards) didn’t see immediate relevance in the cards that they had selected. Kylie invited us to think about our first impressions on seeing the pictures on the cards, to study the colours and details, and offered to chat with people throughout the day if they wanted a hand interpreting their selection.

The High Priestess.

The High Priestess.

Next, we used the cards to create portals to the spirit world. We followed Kylie’s instructions and examined them with our regular eyes, held them to our foreheads and examined them with our third eyes, put our cards down and visualised them with our third eyes, then imagined them growing, to the size of a painting, to the size of a doorway, into a doorway, which we then stepped through.

I found this fairly simple to go along with, it was much like participating in guided mediation, and I went with whatever came to mind as we were taken through a scenario of walking into our cards, through a landscape – this was the spirit world – then toward our deceased loved one, who we conversed with. The background of my card seemed to be tropical fruit, so I imagined walking through a plantation of pineapples, which became a very odd forest, where I eventually met my grandmother. I remember my grandmother fairly well, I think – though I’m aware that our memories aren’t entirely reliable – I imagined a fairly believable conversation with her (she wasn’t a believer when she was alive and acquiesced in our conversation that she was a composite of my memory and imagination). Then Kylie guided us through saying goodbye, heading back across our landscapes, back through our doorways and told us to shrink the cards back down to their actual size again.

The circle was closed and we toddled off with our cards.

 

Ghost Hunters!

The next session, “Communicating with the Dead – Modern Techniques and Victorian Twists”, was with Rob and Anne from Eastern States Paranormal, a paranormal investigative team based in NSW.

Rob and Anne were very affable speakers and presented us with an overview of their experiences attempting to communicate with the dead and the techniques that they’ve used to do so.

We were taken through some audio of different techniques they’ve used in reputably haunted locations to contact the spirits – singing, stomping, chanting, singing in tones which clash. Anne and Rob played us some recordings of EVPs, electronic voice phenomenon, which are sounds found on electronic recordings that some interpret as ‘spirit voices’.

Eastern States Paranormal... ESP! Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

Eastern States Paranormal, or… ESP! Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

The audio recordings were of varying quality and I cannot say whether or not what we were hearing were the voices of spirits, but I was incredibly aware of the concept of pareidolia while throughout this presentation – pareidolia being our tendency to recognise patterns within random stimuli, with or without suggestion. It’s an interesting phenomenon: we hear phrases when songs are played backwards, we see faces in the surface of mars. I feel that a desire or expectation to see or hear something, sometimes combined with suggestion, can account for many things which are heard in EVPs, or seen in spirit photography, which was also presented in Eastern States Paranormal’s talk.

Toward the end, we were given an interesting rundown on the history of different modalities which people have used to attempt to contact the spirit world – Ouija Boards, tipping tables and the like. As a skeptical type, I suspect that the ideomotor effect comes into play when such devices are being used, but I find them to be fascinating curiosities.

Anne and Rob struck me as kind and good humoured people – they were curious about contacting the other side, they were very respectful in their approach and they demonstrated a genuine desire to help others who are experiencing otherwordly concerns.

 

Mitchell Coombes, Celebrity Psychic

After a break for lunch was the drawcard of the expo, Mitchell Coombes. Billed as “Australia’s most trusted psychic medium” and awarded 2011 Psychic of the year, Mitchell Coombes is an author, appears on radio and television regularly and was one of the contestants on season one of The One, a reality tv show pitting psychics against one another, on which our very own Richard Saunders was a judge.

While I’ve seen broadcasts of many psychic shows on television and YouTube and have seen Mitchell himself on daytime television, this was the first time I’d been an audience member… it was a very different experience. Mitchell is a very charismatic speaker; he’s high-paced, energetic and very good at engaging his audience. After he had introduced himself and told an anecdote about a client who wasn’t certain she’d had an experience with contact from the afterlife – of course she had! – Mitchell asked us to help him raise the energy of the room by standing up, stomping our feet, clapping our hands and cheering. It reminded me of being in an evangelical church or a faith healing service – the crowd went wild and the excitement in the room was palpable.

Mitchell then seemed to receive messages from the spirit world to be passed on to members of the audience.

I found this part a little difficult. A couple of days prior, I’d been chatting with Richard about the talk he was going to present and one of the things he covered were questions that psychics can use to gain more information from the audience: “I’m getting an ‘A’ name”, “I’m getting a blue car”, etcetera. Well, Mitchell did get an A name, but the car (or motorcycle) was red.

Mitchell Coombes speaks with an audience member. Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

Mitchell Coombes speaks with an audience member. Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

The audience did seem to get a lot out of his readings though – there was a lot of laughter, a few tears. I’d recommend that anyone skeptical of psychics attend such a show, experiencing the emotion in the room gave me a greater appreciation of how psychics can interact with their audiences. Usually when I see readings done, I’m able to rewind, rewatch and analyse while removed from the situation – live shows are a very different experience to witness than recorded sessions.

 

Energetic Healing

Next up was Sue Bishop, presenting a workshop on “Energetic Healing – are your thoughts and feelings making you sick?” Sue is a metaphysician, psychic, teacher and author and is the co-founder and director of the Chiara College of Metaphysics, which offer courses on metaphysics, parapsychology, spiritual healing and intuitive sciences.

This session was the closest the expo came to presenting what I felt was questionable health advice, I did struggle with some of it a little. Sue believes that blocked charkras can be responsible for disease, that tending to the spiritual self can prevent disease from taking hold and that energetic healing can be conducted, attending to a person’s auras, to manage their wellness. Sitting and listening to her speak about these things and tell us of how she prevented the diabetes that she had a genetic predisposition toward by making lifestyle changes and letting go of troubles from her past, I frequently wanted to ask her where her knowledge came from and how it was that she knew it to be true – but interrupting her talk would have been very rude. I would be curious to speak with her more about her beliefs in the future though.

Sue then had us come to the stage for an energetic healing workshop – we were to pair up with strangers and prepare for the first exercise. My partner was a sweet woman around my own age, and I found myself worrying that she would feel that I was being somewhat disingenuous, being a skeptic taking part in something which may be important to her. I took part in the exercises with good intentions, absolutely wished her well and followed the instructions that Sue gave as best as I could.

First was an exercise in which we were instructed to take turns channeling white light into our crown chakras, then focusing to make that light either cool fast moving blue or warm slow red, then passing it to our partners, who had to guess what colour light they had been given. My partner did the channelling first and was surprised that I’d guessed correctly that she’d aimed to pass me blue. Frankly, the odds were fifty-fifty to begin with; then I took into consideration that cool blue was much more appealing than warm red under the hot stage lights and that my partner had an expression on her face which was somewhat serene and seemed to match better with the former colour choice.

Then it was my turn to pass a colour. I’m not entirely sure what white light, or energy, is – it isn’t visible light – but I know that a crown chakra is located around the forehead, so I imagined a beam of literal white light entering my forehead, moving through my body into my hands and turning a cool, calm, flowing blue. I made a gesture of passing it to my partner and imagined it moving to her hands, she told me it was blue. Again, I’m inclined to put it down to probability, environmental influences and visual cues – and perhaps the way Sue described the two colours as she was giving us our instructions made one seem more appealing than the other. I didn’t have an opportunity to note the trends of the entire group.

Our next exercise was to do the same, but instead of passing a colour, we were to pass an emotion from our memories. Sue asked us to keep our faces neutral as we recalled a time of joy, to be visualised as yellow, or hurt, which was to be visualised as a hot murky red. My partner went first and I watched her concentrate. Her face did remain fairly neutral, but she took some time before she was ready to pass to me and her body language struck me as quite unhappy. I was actually quite concerned for her – when she made a passing gesture to me, I told her that I felt that things weren’t too good for her and asked if she was okay. She was incredibly apologetic and all I could think to do was reassure her that I was fine, just concerned for her, and opt to send her joy in return. She seemed a little fragile and sad to me, perhaps she’d been through hard times, and I hoped that my good intentions were more important somehow than my lack of belief.

Then we moved to the front row of seats, partner number one standing behind partner number two, and performed what we were told was a short energy healing session. There was a lot to it… white universal energy from above, grounding earth energy from below, healing angels standing behind us. Chakras, auras, miasm, many different colours, silver filaments, fohat, akasha and ether, nadis – this was complicated stuff. Sue talked us through everything, she spoke of energy to visualise, what each aura looked like, that we were to transfer energy from various places through ourselves and to the person we were healing, massaging their auras. The massage was literal, we placed hands on one another, then raised them to where each aura was meant to exist around the body and sort of smoothed them out.

I wasn't sure how to draw 'miasm', but I did get distracted playing in Photoshop for a good fifteen minutes trying to show what I was visualising during the energy healing workshop.

I wasn’t sure how to draw ‘miasm’, but I did get distracted playing in Photoshop for a good fifteen minutes trying to show what I was visualising during the energy healing workshop.

 

When my partner was being the healer, I sat peacefully in my seat and listened to descriptions of colours and patterns and lights – frankly, it was quite pleasant to just sit passively. When asked how I felt afterward, I truthfully replied that I was ready to get into bed – it had been a long day and I welcomed more stillness!

Next was my turn to stand while my partner sat – I imagined light coming from above, energy coming from below, somebody standing behind me passing general healing sort of vibes through me. I put my hands on my partner’s shoulders, smoothed out what are to me imaginary auras and generally hoped that she was well. She seemed happy afterward.

One thing I really want to say about the energy healing workshop: I thought that it was very much to Sue’s credit that she mentioned several times that one of the things people do when they’re experiencing the onset of disease is to dismiss thoughts of going to their doctor, and that this was a problem. I agree with her strongly here – if things are potentially amiss, see your GP!

 

The Skeptical Perspective

The last talk of the day was from Richard Saunders; and I’d really like to credit the organisers of the Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo for inviting a skeptic to speak at their event. I feel that it’s a testament to their sense of enquiry that they’d include the perspective of a non-believer in their programme.

Richard Saunders with Spoony Action at a Distance.

Richard Saunders with some Spoony Action at a Distance.

I really wasn’t sure how Richard’s talk would be received. After introducing himself, explaining his background and what the Australian Skeptics get up to, Richard posed some questions about the nature of ghosts and spirits and the mechanisms people use to detect and communicate with them, discussed the fallibility of human memory and perception, noted some questions that psychics who aren’t on the up and up can use to gain information when cold reading, explained how paradolia works – and it was all really well received. I noticed a lot of people in the audience nodding along in agreement, a few “Ah ha!” moments and a few giggles at Richard’s jokes.

We had a few people approach us afterward to say that they were happy that we were there – including my partner from the energy healing workshop, who I was glad to have the opportunity to have a bit of a debriefing chat with and let her know that I wished her the best.

I really appreciated Richard’s approach to speaking at the expo. Perhaps some people expected a skeptic to be negative and make claims that the paranormal does not exist; there was none of that. He primarily approached the topics that he covered from a consumer affairs angle – with tips on not being cheated by psychics who weren’t on the up and up – and gave reassurances that human minds can very easily be fooled.

... but there were cosplayers!

Have you or your family ever seen a spook, spectre or ghost? Photo by Darrin Langbien Photography.

So, that was my day at the Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo.

I can’t honestly say that I saw any evidence of an afterlife, anybody’s ability to communicate with those who have passed on, the existence of psychic energy, spirits or the paranormal in general, but I did encounter many people who were welcoming, good humoured and kind hearted. I would like to thank the organisers and attendees of the Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo – I had a lot of fun and look forward to doing it again in 2015!

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Surprise Jawa! Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

 

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic Magazine Vol. 34 No. 4, and a version of it was on episode #312 of The Skeptic Zone Podcast {Permalink} – also in this episode, Maynard speaks with several expo attendees. With thanks to Darrin Langbien Photography and The Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo for professional photographs reproduced in this piece