If you were a movie mogul filming a supernatural thriller, would you rather have Hilary Swank play a Joe Nickell type, or Joe Nickell play himself? Okay, you’re right: Hollywood chose the former—sort of. But I was something more than a bit player, anyway, in what proved to be a cast of millions—of locusts that is. Perhaps I should explain.
Long before Warner Bros.’ The Reaping (April 5, 2007 release) was a gleam in Hilary Swank’s eye, I received the first of a few phone calls from Hollywood moviemaker James Cox. He was working on a script about a thriller, set (if I recall correctly) in New England and based on a recurrence of the biblical plagues (water turning to blood, locusts swarming, etc.). I learned it was to feature a “debunker” of religious miracles—someone supposedly like me. I labored mightily, if unsuccessfully, to convey the idea that, in my career of thirty-plus years, I had actually investigated paranormal claims, subsequently debunking them, to be sure, but not setting out with any more of an agenda than to find the truth. I explained that one should avoid a mystery-mongering approach on the one hand and a dismissive one on the other; instead, paranormal (including supernatural) claims should be carefully examined to uncover the truth. If that is done, I am confident, any needed debunking will take care of itself.
I learned from Cox that, by the end of the movie, the miracles investigator would be led by the evidence to regain his or her faith. Exasperated, I said that asking me to assist with such a drama was rather like suggesting I stick my foot out and shoot a bullet through it. I have since adopted a more resigned attitude.
Anyway, time passed and I almost forgot about our discussions, until CFI executive director Barry Karr told me in July 2005 of an exchange of e-mails he was having with Kate Garwood, the associate producer of a forthcoming movie called The Reaping. I could see it was the same one I had earlier been consulted about, although we learned others than Cox wrote the final script.
Barry had asked Garwood why she was ordering a number of back issues of the Skeptical Inquirer. She replied: “We are making a movie where Hilary Swank plays a professor who debunks miracles, so we were just doing some research on the subject. I’m sure your Skeptical Inquirer magazines will come in very useful!”
Barry called her attention to my book Looking for a Miracle (Prometheus 1993; 1998), mentioning that it had made a cameo appearance in the 1999 movie Stigmata. “But seriously,” he added, “I think you’d find the book helpful as well.”
Garwood responded: “Thanks for the recommendation of Looking for a Miracle by Joe Nickell. I have a copy sitting on my desk already. Very interesting. The director has already read it, and we have a copy for Hilary, also.” She also said: “We can probably leave the CSICOP [now CSI] materials lying around in her office set, if you like. Who knows whether it will turn up on camera!”
The Reaping came to be described (by www.hilaryswankfan.org) as the story of “a former missionary who lost her faith after her family was tragically killed, and has since become a world-renowned expert in disproving phenomena. But when she investigates a small Louisiana town that is suffering from what appear to be the Biblical plagues, she realizes that science cannot explain what is happening and she must regain her faith to combat dark forces threatening the community.”
In September 2005, I was invited to be “on location”—at the movie’s new site—in St. Francisville, Louisiana. My actual travel was on- and off-again due to the effects of Hurricane Katrina, with actors and crew having been moved out of the area for a time. Finally, on September 28, I flew there and had comfortable accommodations courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures, which had maintained a number of rooms at a hotel in the city. (I had been in St. Francisville before, spending an August 2001 night alone in the “haunted” Myrtles Plantation house for a Discovery Channel documentary. See SI, September/October 2003, pp. 12—15.)
I was escorted on the set by London filmmaker Lawrence Elman who was producing the material that will accompany the movie on its DVD. Warner Bros. had secured a large compound with some warehouse-type buildings, and, parked everywhere in between, were mobile dressing rooms, restrooms, and other trailers and vehicles. One building had been converted into a dining hall, and I had one of those fine meals that traveling movie chefs seem to manage to whip up despite the circumstances. In another building, set up as a studio for some filming, I was able to watch one scene with Hilary Swank as it was—in typical fashion—shot over and over.
I was introduced to the director and others, including various producers. One said, “Oh, you’re the person Hilary’s character is based on.” Actually, my life and work were only partial inspiration for the role, which, after all, is fictional. (Nevertheless, my colleagues at the Center for Inquiry continue to pretend that Hilary plays me and that therefore I’m a closet—pun intended—cross-dresser.)
Later, I was introduced to Hilary, and we talked for awhile. The two-time Oscar winner (Boys Don’t Cry, 1999, and Million Dollar Baby, 2004) is a very real and engaging person—even brassy and full of mischief. I gave her one of my trademark wooden nickels (which I use as a business card), then did a few magic tricks with another. Forgetting she already had one, I gave the second one “back” to her. Thus secretly armed with two of the mock coins, she did an impromptu which-hand-is-it-in effect, then slyly got rid of the extra coin by slipping it into the hip pocket of her jeans.
I liked her immediately, and we discussed our respective philosophies. Without speaking for her, I would think she might describe herself as being more “spiritual” than either “religious” or “skeptical.” As for me, I told her, my work has increasingly convinced me that we live in a real, natural world, one that science is best suited to explain.
As we parted, Lawrence Elman and I went out one door of the building and Hilary (and a couple of others who had joined her) went out another. As it happened, however, our respective walkways funneled us all to the same exterior stairway, and Hilary feigned surprise at seeing me again. With a grand gesture, and a knowing look, she exclaimed, “Coincidence??!!”
Her subsequent characterization of me was interesting. Referring to her subscription to the Skeptical Inquirer, she told an interviewer for Ain’t It Cool News that I (not referred to by name) “debunks miracles. For every miracle or myth that you can bring, he’ll find a scientific reason why it’s not.” She said the magazine was part of her overall research for her role: “It was definitely an important part of it, because they really get into the mind of how to see something scientifically. When she [her character, Professor Katherine Winter] was a missionary, in the beginning, and had a really specific outlook on life. . . . I didn’t know there was such a thing [as a miracle “debunker”], so it was really intriguing.” Hilary seemed to appreciate (and commented on in another interview) that I—also like her character—had a religious background. (In my youth, I was a Bible reader in my hometown Christian Church. To that, I attribute much of my knowledge of the Old and New Testaments, my appreciation of the rich cadences of the King James translation, and my ability to address a sizeable audience and project my voice to the back row—as well as my understanding of the spiritual impulse. Though now a secular humanist, I define that as “an atheist with a heart.”)
While in St. Francisville, I was interviewed on camera for the DVD. That took place in a beautiful old cemetery where trees were hung with Spanish moss. Still later, Elman had the idea to enlist me in my real-life role as an actual investigator of miracles, and we began work on a related documentary on the biblical plagues. The idea, he explained to Barry Karr, was “to have Joe and his inquisitive mind lead us through the maze of this biblical tale,” to interview scientists regarding how the plagues might be explained, and theologians and biblical scholars regarding the evidence for their occurrence. (Thus far, the filming has been done at numerous sites, and I have been recorded not only at my office and lab but also at the library at St. Bonaventure University in St. Bonaventure, New York, and studios and other sites in London.)
This has all been an interesting experience. I have witnessed, on a St. Francisville street, faux buildings made for the movie; watched, or viewed on film, scenes created by special effects and stunt doubles; and looked into the biblical myths that inspired the scary story. What I have garnered from it all is that Hilary Swank is a refreshingly real Hollywood product. As for me, my Hollywood career seems already in decline, as I return to my job of looking for a miracle. Beyond the illusory apparitions, fake weeping icons, bogus stigmatics, and sadly ineffective “healings,” I am still looking—and so far finding a very real, very natural world.