Joe Nickell
 (born December 1, 1944) is an American prominent skeptic and investigator of the paranormal. He has helped expose such famous forgeries as the purported diary of Jack the Ripper. At the request of document dealer and historian, Seth Keller, Nickell analyzed documentation in the dispute over the authorship of "The Night Before Christmas", ultimately supporting the Clement Clarke Moore claim.

Nickell is Senior Research Fellow for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and writes regularly for their journal, the Skeptical Inquirer. He is also an associate dean of the Center for Inquiry Institute. He is the author or editor of over 30 books.

Personal life

Joe Nickell is the son of J. Wendell and Ella (Turner) Nickell, and grew up in West Liberty, Kentucky. His parents indulged his interest in magic and investigation, allowing him to set aside a room in their house as a crime lab. In 1968, he avoided the draft by moving to Canada where he began his careers as a magician, a card dealer, and a private investigator. When President Jimmy Carter granted unconditional pardons to draft dodgers in 1977, Nickell returned to the United States.

In late 2003, Nickell reconnected with his college girlfriend, Diana G. Harris, and learned he had a daughter, Cherette, and two grandsons, Tyner and Chase. Harris and Nickell married in Springfield, Illinois on April 1, 2006. Harris has assisted Nickell in his investigative work. Cherette had always been told that her biological father was her mother's first husband, although she questioned the lack of family resemblance. On her wedding day, one of the guests mentioned that her parents weren't married when she was conceived. Later Cherette asked her mother about her father and sensed an equivocation in the answer. More conversations with her mother and a DNA test proved that Nickell was her father. Nickell used his daughter's claim that her search was the result of an intuition as the basis for an article on the unconscious collection and processing of data. Nickell concluded, "Cautions notwithstanding, I must admit to a new appreciation of intuition, without which I would not have known of my wonderful daughter--and two grandsons."


Nickell holds B.A. (1967), M.A. (1982), and Ph.D. (1987) degrees from the University of Kentucky. His Ph.D. is in English for graduate work focusing on literary investigation and folklore.

Nickell has worked professionally as a stage magician, carnival pitchman, private detective, blackjack dealer, riverboat manager, university instructor, author, and paranormal investigator, listing over 1000 personae on his website. Since the early 1980s, he has researched, written, co-authored and edited books in many genres.

In the 2007 horror film The Reaping, actress Hilary Swank plays an investigator of the paranormal. Nickell was selected as a character consultant and invited to the movie set to meet with Swank. Nickell said, "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."

Nickell is frequently consulted by news and television producers for his skeptical perspective. He was profiled by The New Yorker writer Burkhard Bilger who met Nickell during the summer of 2002 at Lily Dale, New York, where he had disguised himself to investigate Spiritualist psychics. Nickell is a recurring guest on the Point of Inquiry podcast and conducts the annual Houdini Seance at the Center for Inquiry every Halloween. Nickell explained his philosophy to Blake Smith of the Skeptic podcast "Monster Talk".


Joe Nickell considers Mothman, Owlman and The Flatwoods Monster to be normal misidentified owls and a mixture of pranks and hoaxes. Hes crossed paths with Cryptozoologists Loren Coleman before and appeared in Monster Quest's MothMan episode.


A popular legend of the Point Pleasant area holds that “Mothman” was the creation of a prankster. Supposedly, a local man dressed in a Halloween costume had hidden at night at the abandoned munitions complex known as the TNT area, about five miles north of Point Pleasant, and had scared young couples by jumping out at their cars.

But this local legend is not credible, in my opinion. For one thing, knowledgeable area residents call attention to the fact that there have been several different claimants. For example, Rush Finley (2002), who with his wife Ruth owns the historic Lowe Hotel where I stayed, told me there were “at least half a dozen people” who now claim responsibility for the pranking, supposedly done when they were teenagers. Finley’s opinion is echoed by Charlie Cline (2002), manager of the music store Criminal Records, who thinks many are “jumping on the bandwagon” in this regard. Cline has also heard several such stories.

Another reason this explanation is not credible (except perhaps for later, bandwagon pranks) is that the appearance of such a trickster is not at all compatible with the original eyewitness descriptions of the creature—especially with regard to its glowing red eyes (as we shall see presently).

Costumed prankster or not, there were Mothman hoaxes. Rush Finley told me how some construction workers had used helium from welding tanks to make balloons from sheet plastic and tied red flashlights to them one night. Thus weighted, these Mothmen did not soar high but only drifted over the treetops.

Still other pranks occurred following the first wave of sightings. The spring of 1967 brought a number of UFO reports that were described in local newspapers and involved both misidentification of mundane phenomena and deliberate hoaxing.

Some of the UFOs were soon identified as commercial or military planes (notably a U.S. C-119 “flying boxcar” on a training mission from Columbus, Ohio). However, a private plane with a “prankster pilot” was reported to have been “gliding back and forth across the river for several nights” to frighten locals. On one occasion, however, according to a newspaper account, the pilot came too close to a hilltop and was suddenly forced “to cut his engines on.” (See newspaper clippings in Sergent and Wamsley 2002.)

Loren Coleman - Best of The Lot

In Point Pleasant, West Virginia, March 18-20, 2011, Skeptic Joe Nickell was there to do a TV shoot regarding The MothMan when he finally meet Loren Coleman in person when he was also flown in for the show.

Loren Coleman With Joe Nickell

As they sat talking in the lobby of the Lowe Hotel, Joe told him lightheartedly that he regarded him as "the best of a bad lot." Loren laughed and Joe went on to suggest he would perhaps say the same of him, Just as Joe reject the pejorative "debunker" that is often applied to him, Loren decries the label "believer" being pasted onto him. Rather, they are both field investigators and scholars and, while they may find ourselves on opposite sides of the fence, they therefore may have more in common with each other than with some persons in our own respective camps.

Joe Nickell said "I now apply the term cryptozoologist to myself, albeit usually adding the adjective skeptical to clarify my orientation. Those who are purely True Believers or dismissive debunkers—who avoid the scholarly approach implied by the suffix ology (from the Greek logos, "description," indicating a branch of learning)—clearly do not earn the appellation."

Coleman once wrote a foreword to Joe Nickell's Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World's Most Elusive Creatures (2006, co-author Ben Radford). And on CNN they briefly debated a film clip of a lake "monster" which Joe suggested (due in part to its fast, undulating locomotion) was a large European otter, Lutra lutra. Loren responded with a blog titled "Otter nonsense," caricaturing my position, and Joe replied saying "he otter do better." All in good fun, despite the seriousness of the debate. (See my "The Loch Ness Critter," Skeptical Inquirer, Sept./Oct. 2007).

"Two fellows with much of life in common—one chiding his own colleagues to be more skeptical, the other urging his to do more listening. Well met."


Nickell's books can be divided into four main categories—religious, forensic, paranormal, and mysteries. He has also written two books for young readers and two stand-alone books, one on UFOs, one on a regional alcoholic drink, and several additional small press and "contributed to" books

Paranormal investigations

Joe Nickell at QED Con 2012 with photo of alleged Spontaneous Human Combustion

Secrets of the Supernatural: Investigating the World's Occult Mysteries was Nickell's first book of his paranormal investigation genre. He and his collaborator, John F. Fisher, look for the answers to the Crystal Skulls, spontaneous human combustion, the Mackenzie House, and lesser known mysteries. On a Point of Inquiry podcast years later, Nickell explained that the same mysteries are reported over and over again because, "For each new generation, they have to re-learn that there is controversy...Each new generation hears these for the first time...It's an endless process in which you have to be willing to speak to the next crop of people."

Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics, and Other Mysteries, written by Nickell and Robert A. Baker, is a handbook that combines the practical techniques of investigating the paranormal with a description of the psychology of believers. Baker and Nickell met at the University of Kentucky and Nickell often quoted Baker, "...there are no haunted places, only haunted people."

Mysterious Realms: Probing Paranormal, Historical, and Forensic Enigmas, written by Nickell and Fisher, analyzes another 10 frequently reported mysteries, including theKennedy assassination, Kentucky's Gray Lady ghost, and UFO cover-up conspiracy theories.

Nickell asked several researchers to investigate the claims of psychic detectives, then collected their reports in Psychic Sleuths: ESP and Sensational Cases. None of the reports give any credibility to the psychics and Nickell concludes they are either self-deluded or frauds. Many use cold reading in their conversations with police detectives, getting the officers to reveal details about the investigation that the psychic then includes in a prediction. Others use retrofitting; that is, throwing out several vague clues during the investigation and, when the case is solved, showcasing the clues that had any relationship to the solution and ignoring those that were irrelevant.

In Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings, Nickell begins with a ghost story from the 17th century, then shows how such stories evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries as new technology and communication methods became available. The faked Cottingley Fairies photographs, for example, became possible only when cameras became available to the general public.

The Outer Edge: Classic Investigations of the Paranormal is a collection of articles edited by Nickell, Barry Karr and Tom Genoni. It features Nickell and John F. Fischer's 1987 work "Incredible Cremations: Investigating Spontaneous Combustion Deaths" along with essays by Martin Gardner, Ray Hyman, Susan Blackmore, and James Randi. In the introduction, Carl Sagan writes about being accused, as a skeptic, of closing his mind to the truth:

Adventures in Paranormal Investigation is a more detailed work than many of Nickell's others, running the gamut from dowsing to Frankenstein to healing spas. Adventures contains Nickell's essay on discovering he had an adult daughter and accepting that she attributed her search for him to "intuition".

The first half of CSI Paranormal is a handbook on how to investigate paranormal claims. Nickell dismisses the approach of stumbling in the dark misinterpreting electronic meter readings, confusing correlation with causality, and arguing from ignorance; i.e., "I don't know what it is so it must be a ghost." Instead, he proposes an investigative strategy to:

  1. Investigate on site
  2. Check details of an account
  3. Research precedents
  4. Carefully examine physical evidence
  5. Analyze development of a phenomenon
  6. Assess a claim with a controlled test or experiment
  7. Consider an innovative analysis
  8. Attempt to recreate the "impossible"
  9. Go undercover to investigate

In the second half of the book, Nickell shows how this strategy has been used to evaluate the claims of the Giant Ell, the Roswell UFO, the grilled cheese Madonna, and John Edward.

In the 2012 book, The Science of Ghosts, Nickell relates several archetype ghost stories—the girl in the snow, Elvis, phantom soldiers, and haunted lighthouses, castles, ships, and theaters. By tracking the development of these stories over the years, he demonstrates that the stories are not evidence of spirits, but evidence of the impact an appropriate setting can have on susceptible witnesses. He refreshes his subject with an analysis of 21st century paranormal investigators, particularly Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of the Syfy Channel's Ghost Hunters. He compares their investigations of the Myrtles Plantation, theWinchester Mystery House and the St. Augustine Lighthouse with his own, concluding:


Ambrose Bierce Is Missing And Other Historical Mysteries was Nickell's 1992 foray presenting historical investigations to the reading public.In the introduction, he uses the legal concepts of "a preponderance of the evidence" and "clear and compelling evidence" as standards by which hypotheses explaining mysteries should be objectively measured. Subjectively wishing an explanation is true can lead to imposing a hypothesis on the data instead of using data to test a hypothesis (the scientific method). Nickell's 2005 update of Ambrose BierceUnsolved History: Investigating Mysteries of the Past, is the same text with the addition of two books to its "Recommended Works".

Real-Life X-Files and its sequel, The Mystery Chronicle are a series of short essays on the histories, expanding mythologies, and likely causes of several dozen mysteries. In some cases, Nickell re-creates the legends, demonstrating that no special powers are needed to duplicate the effects. In others, he answers common lore with facts uncovered in his research. In 1982, Nickell and five of his relatives created a 440 foot long condor in a field in Kentucky by plotting coordinates of points on a drawing, a technique Nickell believes could have been used to create the Nazca Lines in Peru. "That is, on the small drawing we would measure along the center line from one end (the bird's beak) to a point on the line directly opposite the point to be plotted (say a wing tip). Then we would measure the distance from the center line to the desired point. A given number of units on the small drawing would require the same number of units—larger units—on the large drawing."

Harry Eager of the Maui News calls Secrets of Sideshows " ...virtually an encyclopedia of that nearly extinct form of entertainment." He faults Nickell for downplaying the brutality and grim fakery of the shows, especially what he calls "prettying" the geeks.

Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World's Most Elusive Creatures is a collaboration of Nickell and Ben Radford. Author Ed Grabianowski summarizes one of the many possible explanations for lake monster sightings,

The research for Tracking the Man-Beasts: Sasquatch, Vampires, Zombies, and More took Nickell to many locations of reported monster sightings—the Pacific Northwest forBigfoot, Australia for the Yowie, Austria for werewolves, New England for vampires, Argentina for the Chupacabra, West Virginia for aliens, and Louisiana for the swamp creatures. Nickell traces the monsters' iconography from first reports to latest sightings, concluding that the tales reflect the evolution of their cultural environment, not any basis in fact. A quote from his guide in the Louisiana swamps provides insight into the genesis of the tales, " ...frightening tales could sometimes have been concocted to keep outsiders away—to safeguard prime hunting territory or even possibly to help protect moonshine stills. Charbonnet also suggested that such stories served in a bogyman fashion, frightening children so they would keep away from dangerous areas."

Young readers

In 1989, Nickell wrote his first book for young readers, The Magic Detectives: Join Them in Solving Strange Mysteries, engaging children by presenting paranormal stories in the form of mysteries with clues embedded in the narrative. The solutions, printed upside down, follow each story. The book also contains teachers' guides for additional assignments and recommended readings.

The 1991 Wonder Workers! How They Perform the Impossible was summarized by P.J. Rooks as, "...a 200-year, biographical tour of some of the more famous shenanigans and side show splendors of both sincere and charlatan magicians...{that} guides readers on a fascinating exposé of magical history that leaves us, at the end of every page, thinking, "A-ha! I was wondering how they did that!"


In 1997, Nickell, with Kendrick Frazier and Barry Karr, published "The UFO Invasion", an anthology of UFO articles written for the Skeptical Inquirer magazine covering the topic from history and abductions toRoswell and crop circles. The editors included six of Nickell's articles in the book. Nickell explained the physiology of alien abduction stories, "People claiming to be abducted by aliens is such an astonishing thing that you think they have either be crazy or lying, and in fact they may be perfectly sane and normal. ...They probably were having these powerful waking dreams. ...In this state, they tend to see bizarre imagery. ...The other kind of experience is hypnosis. ...Hypnosis is the yellow brick road to fantasy land."


The Warrens

Although Nickell rejects the term "debunker" to describe his work, his evidenced-based investigations of paranormal events has not yet uncovered any miracles, ghosts or monsters. His insistence on documented facts led to a heated exchange with Ed and Lorraine Warren on the Sally show in 1992. Nickell and the Warrens appeared on Sally Jesse Raphael's talk show with the Snedeker family, whose reports of ghosts and demons led to the 1992 book, In A Dark Place, The Story Of A True Haunting by novelist Ray Garton and the 2009 movie, The Haunting in Connecticut. After an on-air threat of violence from Ed Warren, Nickell stated:

Nickell continues to cite the Warrens as an example of exploitative and harmful charlatans. He told Blake Smith, host of the MonsterTalk podcast,

"...the approach of so-called ghost hunters is simply one of mystery mongering. Like claims for the paranormal in general, their assertions that certain places are haunted are based on the logical fallacy of arguing from ignorance: "We don't know what caused such-and-such (a noise, say), so it must be a ghost. In fact, one cannot draw a conclusion from a lack of knowledge. The problem is exacerbated by the pseudoscientific use of scientific equipment and by the distinct possibility that ghost hunters are actually causing—even if unintentionally—some of the very phenomena they are experiencing."



Nickell proposes that alien encounters are the result of misinterpreted natural phenomena, hoaxes, or a fantasy prone personality. To explain the evolving nature of alien sightings, Nickell told the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast team,

"I did an alien timeline, and did sort of Walt Disney-esque cartoon drawings of the different types of aliens, starting in 1947 with some little green men, and showing the sort of imaginative variety of alien types over the years, of hairy dwarves, and cyclopean figures, and robotic forms and blobs and just all manner. Just as people would imagine; if I asked someone to imagine an alien creature, it would be all over the place. But then, with the Betty and Barney Hill case, you began to get the little big-eyed, big-headed humanoid, and that type came back and back until now, if you go into a toy store and you look at aliens, you see pretty much that's the standard model. Very unlikely that if life developed on some distant planet, that it would look so much like us. We tend to make the various entities that we're interested in in our own image. And so Bigfoot is our big, stupid cousin from the past, and ET is our futuristic relative coming from the future back to save us. These are forms of us. Of course, ghosts are transparent forms of us; angels are us with wings, and of course, vampires are us with an attitude"

Magazine articles and website blogs

Nickel has written the "Investigative Files" column for the Skeptical Inquirer(SI) magazine since 1995 and contributes frequently to the Center for Inquiry website. The articles reflect the range of Nickell's interests and investigative skills, including spontaneous human combustion, ghost photographs, reincarnation, voodoo, Bigfoot, quack medicine, Elvis, psychic frauds, and phrenology. In his SI article about the Bell Witch Poltergeist, Nickell analyzed the content of the alleged Bell Manuscript for anachronistic references and word use, comparing the writing styles of Richard Williams Bell, the reported original author, and M.V. Ingram, the reporter who expanded on the story 50 years later. Nickell concludes, "Given all of these similarities between the texts, in addition to the other evidence, I have little hesitation in concluding that Ingram was the author of 'Bell'".

Nickell's writing for the Center for Inquiry (CfI) includes "Nickell-odeon Reviews", written with an emphasis on the facts behind the scripts. Nickell adds credibility to the plot of the Charles Dickens movie, "The Invisible Woman." "Although not mentioned in the movie, posthumous confirmation of the affair came from Dickens' letters. Although many had been destroyed by his family, some merely had offending passages inked out. But that cloak of invisibility was ineffective: Dickens scholars turned to forensics, using infrared photography to read the obscured portions. These contained references to "Nelly" and confirmed the persistent rumors."


Nickell received the 2004 Isaac Asimov Award from the American Humanist Association and was a co-recipient of the 2005 and the 2012 Robert P. Balles Prize in Critical Thinking, awarded by CSICOP, now called CSI.

He was also presented an award for promotion of science in popular media at the 3rd Annual Independent Investigative Group IIG Awards, held on May 18, 2009.

In October 2011 asteroid 31451 (1999 CE10) was named JoeNickell in his honor by its discoverer James E. McGaha.


  • Inquest on the Shroud of Turin: Latest Scientific Findings (Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY; 1983). Revised edition, 1998.
  • Secrets of the Supernatural: Investigating the World's Occult Mysteries (Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY; 1988, 1991; with John F. Fischer).
  • The Magic Detectives: Join Them in Solving Strange Mysteries (Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY; 1989).
  • Pen, Ink, and Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective (Oak Knoll Books: New Castle, DE; 1990, 2000, 2003).
  • Wonder-Workers! How They Perform the Impossible (Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY; 1991).
  • Unsolved History: Investigating Mysteries of the Past originally published as Ambrose Bierce is Missing and Other Historical Mysteries (University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, KY; 1992, 2005).
  • Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics, and Other Mysteries (Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY; 1992; with Robert A. Baker).
  • Mysterious Realms: Probing Paranormal, Historical, and Forensic Enigmas (Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY; 1992; with John F. Fischer).
  • Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions and Healing Cures (Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY; 1993, 1998).
  • Psychic Sleuths: ESP and Sensational Cases (Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY; 1994).
  • Camera Clues: A Handbook for Photographic Investigation (University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, KY; 1994, 2005).
  • Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings (Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY; 1995).
  • Detecting Forgery: Forensic Investigation of Documents (University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, KY; 1996, 2005).
  • The Outer Edge: Classic Investigations of the Paranormal (CSICOP: Amherst, NY; 1996, co-edited with Barry Karr and Tom Genoni).
  • The UFO Invasion: The Roswell Incident, Alien Abductions, and Government Coverups (Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY; 1997; co-edited with Kendrick Frazier and Barry Karr).
  • Crime Science: Methods of Forensic Detection (University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, KY; 1999; with co-author John F. Fischer).
  • Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal (University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, KY; 2001).
  • The Kentucky Mint Julep (University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, KY; 2003).
  • Investigating the Paranormal (Barnes & Noble Books: New York; 2004).
  • The Mystery Chronicles: More Real-Life X-Files(University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, KY; 2004).
  • Secrets of the Sideshows (University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, KY; 2005).
  • Cronache del Misterio (Newton Compton editori: Rome, Italy; 2006).
  • Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World's Most Elusive Creatures, (University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, KY; 2006; with co-author Benjamin Radford).
  • Relics of the Christ(University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, KY; 2007).
  • Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, KY; 2007).
  • Tracking The Man-Beasts: Sasquatch, Vampires, Zombies, and More (Prometheus Books: Amhurst, NY; 2011).
  • Real or Fake: Studies in Authentication (University Press of Kentucky: Lexington, KY; 2009).
  • CSI Paranormal, (Inquiry Press): Amherst, NY; 2012.
  • The Science of Ghosts (Prometheus Books: Amherst, NY; 2012).
  • The Science of Miracles: Investigating the Incredible(Prometheus Books: Amhurst, NY; 2-13).
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