“It has been the passion of my life,” says Deborah Hyde of studying the supernatural. “Belief in the supernatural sheds so much light on the human condition—social psychology, cognition, anthropology—that far from being just some frivolous add-on to what we are, it’s kind of at the center of us.” Like many, she says she began by believing in the phenomena. “Then the belief gets eroded, but the fascination stays the same.” In talks she sometimes cites Saul Lieberman, who said in 1957, “Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is a very important science.”
Like many skeptics in this country, however, Hyde at first felt isolated in her interest. However, her frequent attendance at central London humanist meetings led some of those she met there to suggest she visit the city’s Skeptics in the Pub meets. When she eventually did, she arrived early and got into conversation with several well-known skeptics, one of whom was Chris French. “I felt like I’d found a fellow traveler,” she says. “I always felt interested in this stuff but felt that no one else … that if you’re reading about the supernatural, by definition you were doing something frivolous.” Just as French talks about his years-long effort to get his interest in “weird stuff” taken seriously by academic psychology, Hyde says, “Over my lifetime, I think it has become recognized that you can study the supernatural in a way that’s interesting and valid. But it wasn’t before. They would think someone is going ghost-hunting instead of studying the psychology of belief. So the fact that I had met my own people mattered hugely.”
Bolstered by being able to share her interest, Hyde began blogging and was invited to speak at Britain’s biggest skeptical conference, QED. When French, who took over editing The Skeptic in 2000, decided circa 2010 that he needed a break, he asked her if she wanted to take it on.
“Without thinking, I said yes. I’m glad I did, but without thinking got me later, because it’s a lot of work.”
Under Hyde’s watch, the magazine launched the annual Ockham awards for excellence in skeptical activism. Hyde also expanded the magazine’s range of topics and added a legal column, moved to full color printing, and added an eye-catching centerfold poster that was concise, well-presented, and humorous. “It meant that hopefully the magazine was not so much a quarterly thing as something you could put on your wall and look at every day,” she says. Hyde is now ready for a break herself, and the magazine’s editorship is moving on to Mike Marshall, founder of the Merseyside Skeptics and QEDcon and project director at the Good Thinking Society.
Separately, Hyde is a business director of a company that produces models and props for movies. Because it also used to provide special makeup, occasionally critics dismiss her as a “makeup artist.” Attend any of her talks—or view them on her YouTube channel, however, and it’s clear she has a cross-disciplinary command of her subject that few believers or scholars can muster.
In a talk for French’s Greenwich Skeptics last October, for example, she swept through the history of efforts to squelch witchcraft from 900 CE to the present, scooping in religious history, heresy, law, and the exercise of power. “People always believe in witchcraft,” she concluded, “but witch hunts are different”—an expression of power. You can tell where her sympathies lie: her blog—and Twitter handle—are “Jourdemayne” after Margery Jourdemayne, who was burned at the stake in 1441 after being accused of treasonable witchcraft.
Hyde has no trouble relating such stories to modern phenomena of mass psychology such as vaccine denialism. “When someone maltreats a baby to try to get the fairy out, they’re not just torturing it for the sake of it. They’re working in a socially supported environment, and you could be thought of as not caring if you didn’t do it to get your baby back.” In one particularly odd case, the Irish woman Bridget Cleary was set on fire by her family in the belief that she had been replaced by a fairy. “You’ve got a load of people who are perfectly sane, adults, not cognitively or intellectually impaired, and somehow a fully grown woman ended up being burned alive in the belief that she was a fairy. The whole dynamics of the situation meant that managed to happen. This is the fascinating thing about belief in weird things and another very important strand of it for me: religion gets a get-out-of-jail-free card because it’s respectable, but belief in the supernatural is silly. But it’s the same underlying dynamics in both.”
Hyde is nothing if not thorough in her investigation. As part of a study of lycanthropy, she enlisted the help of the Anglian Wolf Conservatory Trust to understand the difference between our stigmatized images of wolves and biological wolves, which she describes as socialized but not domesticated. In a startling move, the wolf she met licked her face. “One of the coolest experiences of my whole life. I’ve been kissed by a wolf.”