In The Reaping Hilary Swank plays a former missionary who, having lost her faith, is now a debunker of supposed miracles, called to sites all over the world to investigate weeping statues, wall stains resembling saints and the bleeding palms of stigmatics.
She is asked to visit a town in Louisiana where the river has turned blood red, and after a series of frog falls, locust swarms, cattle die-offs and bubonic warts, it becomes clear that someone upstairs isn't happy.
While the movie's histrionic religious ending is perhaps a bit hard to swallow, there is certainly much here of interest to forteans, and the swampy, gothic Deep South locations are beautifully captured.
As part of the research for the film the producers brought in Joe Nickell, who spends his life, like Swank's character, investigating anomalies. We spoke to Nickell about his experience with the film and his visits to miracle sites.
You were brought in as a consultant, as the lead character is a paranormal investigator like yourself. What did you make of the completed movie?
I liked the first 10 or 15 minutes, where the character seemed to be doing something similar to what I do. But then it changed into the world of the supernatural, which, for good or evil, has never happened to me: I've never had frogs rain down upon upon me!
Do you think it would be possible to have a Hollywood film in which scepticism wins out? Isn't scepticism always essentially anti-climactic - ie. there is a mystery, the mystery is dissipated and, er, that's it.
Well, the kind of work I do is interesting and it has all sorts of drama and tensions without necessarily going off into a fantasy. The miracle girl here [in the US] known as Audrey Santo has just died and I had a relationship, not a happy one I'm sorry to say, with that family who... you know, I was criticizing what they were doing. But it was a sad story and there was a lot of drama behind the scenes in that family - this girl who couldn't heal herself, was comatose, but was supposedly healing others. My heart went out to the family, but intellectually I did not believe there were miracles happening, that statues were weeping oil.
If I were doing a film I wouldn't try to make it a propaganda film on the other side - a mean-spirited, debunking film - but I think instead you could play it straight: the issues, be they searching for lake monsters or making crop circles, are interesting and have a lot of drama in themselves.
The dramatic tension in the first part of the film is created in the clash between the sceptical outsider and the superstitious townsfolk. Do you feel a similar tension when you're out investigating?
That's very real. I've been out at miracle sites - I'm a respectful person when I go to religious sites, I don't engage in confrontation, I don't laugh at people - but I investigate. I do remember one site in Ohio where there were so-called glowing statues, and I showed that they were simply shining due to the ambient street light. The next day this lady came up to me and asked me what I'd found, and I told her. She looked at me and smiled very sweetly and said, "Well, I prefer not to believe that". That's the gentler side of confrontation.
At the start of the film there is a scene at a miracle site in Chile where blood is seeping from the walls. The investigator who examines the site reveals later in a college lecture that the liquid is actually industrial waste, which happens also to be intoxicating the pilgrims. Her message is: if you invest all your energy into the world of the paranormal there's a danger that you take your eye off the ball from political and economic realities. Did that resonate with any of your findings as a paranormal investigator?
I've certainly found at miracle sites there are great ironies. For example, at Conyers, Georgia, where Nancy Fowler the former visionary was holding forth, they were counting the waters from the spring there as having miraculous properties, and it turned out that the water was contaminated with E. coli, and was later shut down. There are ironies like that.
I've also seen first hand the desperation of a family to have a child healed - I've gone undercover at healing ceremonies by Peter Popoff and others - and I've seen the tragic economic circumstances of these families.
A final thought: there's a bit of a paradox in being a sceptical paranormal investigator: you are taking an opposite stance from believers who are immersed in the paranormal but at the same time you are clearly drawn to it and you spend your life thinking about these issues. What do you make of that?
Certainly, I feel the emotional draw of the paranormal. I once went to counsel a family who thought their house was haunted. It was one of these spooky old Victorian places and I remember looking at the lady and saying: "If this place isn't haunted, it ought to be". I've felt it at the haunted gas chamber at Dachau, or the haunted Kremlin - while I didn't feel there were ghosts there literally I could feel the impress of history and the drama. But when we're looking at it factually we have to think with the organ above the neck rather than the one below!