Throwback Thursday: Looking Back at UCLA’s Paranormal Research in the ’70s


Retro Thursdays are our chance to reflect on past events on or near campus and connect them to the present. Each week we feature and analyze an old article from the Daily Bruin Archives with the aim of chronicling campus history.

“The Bible calls it seeing visions, and there are scientists who call it precognition. … They all mean seeing the future.

It’s from “The Shining,” Stephen King’s 1977 novel about a boy named Danny Torrance with psychic powers. It wasn’t King’s first look at the subject, and it wouldn’t be the last.

“Carrie,” released two years earlier, features a girl with telekinetic abilities who takes revenge on her high school after a cruel prank gone wrong.

“Carrie” and “The Shining” both came out during an extended wave of media and pop culture featuring powerful psychics and mind readers. Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” featured psychic researchers as heroes, while at the same time Stan Lee created Professor X, the psychically gifted leader of the original X-Men team.

Believe it or not, this wave of pop culture didn’t start on a whim. Supernatural abilities were based on real science at the time. In 2010, the Daily Bruin glanced at Thelma Moss, a UCLA professor who was one of the leading paranormal researchers in the ’70s.

Before joining UCLA, she was an actress both on screen and on stage, and responsible screenwriter of films such as Paramount’s sci-fi thriller “The Colossus of New York”. After a prolonged battle with depression, she enrolled at UCLA, where she became interested in the supernatural, eventually leading the Parapsychology Lab from 1968 to 1978.

Parapsychology – the study of psychic phenomena, such as clairvoyance, poltergeists, and hauntings – got its start in the mid-1850s when psychologists began to seriously study the claims of psychics and psychics.

In 1911, Stanford became the first university to study extrasensory perception. and psychic phenomena in a laboratory, with Duke in 1930. Moss’ key innovation came from his use of “Kirlian photography,” a technique that combined photographic film with high electric current that purported to show “the aura. of someone’s life.

In modern times, it’s hard to imagine any money being invested in the study of apparitions and clairvoyants, but from the 1930s to the 1990s this is exactly what happened.

Parapsychological researchers like Joseph B. Rhine and Karl Zener have become sensations for their tests with ESP and riddles. In the 1950s, the CIA launched Project Star Gate, a serious government attempt to use parapsychology to spy on the Soviet Union. In Moss’s laboratory, thousands of individuals who claimed to have suffered from hauntings or to have psychic powers came to be interviewed.

Daily Bruin staff investigating the lab spoke to Kerry Gaynor, a former researcher who worked with Moss.

“It was a very exciting time. Things are changing with the trends, and in the 1970s there was huge interest in parapsychology, ”Gaynor said in the article. “We got calls and letters every day. We heard about this kind of thing all over the country and around the world. “

Of course, ESP’s moment didn’t last. From the start, Rhine’s experiments were attacked for their lack of replicability. The Star Gate project ended after failing to produce useful applications. The Kirlian photograph fell through when it turned out that these “auras” were just body moisture.

The Daily Bruin article quoted James Randi, a retired stage magician and professional skeptic, who noted the tendency of people to “get it wrong” when it came to mediums and psychics.

At present, there are only two US universities that still have departments of parapsychology: the University of Virginia and the University of Arizona. UVA currently offers salaried research positions for its Perceptual Studies division, which uses “EEG, transcranial optical imaging and fMRI to study altered states of consciousness and paranormal abilities”. UA offers a similar program in its lab for the advancement of consciousness and health.

Otherwise, the phenomenon continues in the movies: Danny Torrance returns to theaters next week with “Doctor Sleep,” while Netflix’s “Stranger Things” continues to feature psychically fueled Eleven.

Perhaps that is how Moss would have liked it: as she puts it, the type of person who is most likely to possess these paranormal “faculties” is “characteristic of the artist.” Despite a life spent in academia, she remained connected to Hollywood, serving as a consultant on such famous films as “Poltergeist” and “The Exorcist”.

As it stands, parapsychology will likely stay outside the mainstream science. But then again, haven’t we all experienced something we couldn’t explain?

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