Review of Syfy’s Fact or Faked

Rebecca Watson

Today I had the good fortune to discover the show Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files, which is available for free viewing on Hulu for those in the United States. This is, apparently, a Syfy Network original series that has already been running for two seasons, with a third premiering this spring. According to its website, FoFPF (pronounced: "fawf-pfffff") "revolutionizes paranormal programming by investigating the evidence witnesses post on the Internet every day." Finally, someone is paying attention to "amateur paranormal researchers" who post fuzzy videos on YouTube!

I was wondering if the hosts would actually take a skeptical look at the paranormal, so I checked out their website and was happy to find an article titled 5 Historic – and Spooky – Hoaxes. The five hoaxes in question are The Blair Witch Project (yes, that was debunked. The same day that Ghost Dad was debunked), The Amityville Horror (ditto), Ghostwatch (a BBC show that was debunked literally in the credits of the show), War of the Worlds (ditto), and THE SALEM WITCH TRIALS. Did you guys know that that had been debunked? Chief investigator: my fourth grade social studies teacher.

Good job, team. Good debunkings. It should now be clear that this team isn't afraid to go after the tough cases.

But really, I like the idea of the show—in each episode the hosts try to recreate "paranormal" videos in an attempt to explain them. So I decided to go ahead and watch the latest episode, which is called the “Mexico City Cave Witch.” That is a superb title and it filled me with hope.

Here's the promo for the episode, for those who aren't in the United States or don't want to waste their brain cells watching an entire episode.

The show opens with the team hanging out, showing each other the spooky videos they found on YouTube this week. The FoFPF team includes Ben, a former FBI agent (no explanation for why he left the FBI, but we can probably extrapolate from the fact that he is now on a show talking about how spooky witches are); Jael, an investigative reporter; Bill, the "lead scientist" with absolutely no scientific qualifications; Austin, a personal trainer with "a degree in biology"; Lanisha, a photographer; and Devin, "tech specialist."

Austin breathlessly shows the cave witch video, which I have turned into an animated gif for your convenience:

cave witch

Professor Bill provides the scientific description of what he has just seen: "To me it looked like she's just floating there, and then it took off."

One host suggests that maybe someone just stood on top of the cave and pulled an object up, but Austin counters with the ironclad fact that the video maker claims he has nothing to gain from hoaxing this video . . . besides appearing on television, of course. People eat rat intestines for the chance to be on television, but Austin doesn't think someone would spend ten minutes making a "witch" video? No matter—if they act like it might be real, they get a free trip to Mexico. Admit it: you, too, would exchange your very dignity for a vacation in Mexico.

But first, they need to investigate the Case of the Exploding Bar Ashtray. There's security cam footage that shows an ashtray sitting on a bar, and then it explodes. Oh, also, everyone pretends to see some kind of ghostly orb that is nearly invisible on my computer screen, but never mind that, because the ashtray explosion is actually a pretty neat puzzle. My hopes are high.

The team heads to the bar, where they test a few hypotheses, just like in real science. One idea is that something fell on the ashtray, so they drop a "very small screw" approximately 2.5 feet into a glass ashtray to see if it will explode. They count down to make everything more dramatic.

"3-2-1 GO DEVIN!"

Nothing happens of course, so next they drop a ball bearing.


The ball bearing broke the ashtray, but they act as though the breakage is substantially different from the original video (it isn't), plus they point out that there's no visible falling object in the original video.

At this point I had to wonder if any of them had ever worked in a restaurant, or if they would talk with someone who works regularly with glass. If they had, I feel like maybe it would have occurred to them sooner that glass explodes more often than one might think. Tempered glass with a small defect could break at any time, but particularly with quick temperature changes that could be caused by, say, an ashtray that comes straight out of an industrial dishwasher and onto a counter directly above an ice box. This, of course, would be difficult to recreate with a single "experiment" because it's a rare event that requires a flawed glass.

They do come tantalizingly close. They talk about temperature changes, and they have a very high-tech animation showing what happens to the molecules in glass that undergoes thermal shock. They suggest that maybe the ashtray was very cold for some reason and someone put a lit cigarette in it, which they test by placing a hot coal in an icy ashtray. Nothing happens, so they take a blowtorch directly to the ashtray. It explodes! They astutely point out that there is no blow torch visible in the footage, so they deem the possibility of extreme temperature change "unrealistic." Remember that line in five minutes when they're talking about how maybe ghosts did it.

Next they try a controlled explosion, and of course the ashtray explodes. But then they realize that ghosts are the more likely explanation so they go looking for "cold spots." They use walkie talkies, despite being in the same bar, because without walkie talkies you can't say things like "NEGATIVE" without looking just plain silly. They find a warm spot along the bar where an electric cord is. They do recall that they took a blow torch to that bar hours ago but declare that it is impossible that it would still be several degrees warmer.

"Maybe this is a communication attempt," they guess. They think it's the previous owner of the bar, who shot himself. No one asks the important question: Did he hate smokers?

Suddenly, a glass falls in the darkened bar, confirming the fact that this is definitely a ghost with little respect for expensive glassware.

As a final nail in the coffin, Professor Bill finds electronic voice phenomena (EVP), which is just garbled white noise and background sounds that cause people to hear any message they'd like, such as Satanic messages in Queen songs.

Anyway, yes, the group agrees that "ghost" is the most likely explanation. I was disappointed—not just because they settled for a supernatural explanation, but because they didn't even bother to get an opera singer in to sing a note at the exact frequency of the glass. "3-2-1 RESONATE!"

Next up: Witch cave. Let's go to Mexico!

So, this video is pretty obviously not a witch. In fact, it is so obviously not a witch that I was initially astounded that these people could actually keep a straight face while pretending as though there's a possibility this is a video of an honest-to-goodness witch. But then I thought, "Wait a minute, Rebecca. You're an adult of average intelligence. Maybe it's not so obvious to other people."

That's why I decided to poll some children to find out what they think of it. Each of the kids' parents showed them the above animated gif, explained that a man says it's a witch but he may or may not be telling the truth, and asked them what they thought it was. Here are the responses:

"It could be, I dunno, a bird flying off carrying a black cloth?"
Joe, age 10

Joe's mom Lorna says: I told Joe about the man saying it was a witch, but who might or might not be a liar, and he climbed right behind me on my office chair to view the gif, which is a signal that he was *expecting* it to be a witch or something scary, but when I asked him afterwards if he thought it was a witch, he gave a very emphatic and scornful "no".

“That’s not a witch! Looks like someone doing their washing! … Looks like a bit of cloth being caught by the wind. Witches don’t exist.”
Scarlett, age 10

“Looks like something leaping, like a cat? You can see its tail.”

"So, you don’t think it’s a witch?"

“No, everyone knows witches aren’t real.”
Lucas, age 7

"It looks like a bin bag."
Natasha, age 10

"I think I know what that is. I think it's an animal that's either going off looking like it's flying or it's a kind of bird with a long tail. Or it could be someone just playing a trick on him and like, just lifting up some black clothes. It's not a very good job with the camera either."
Izzie, age 8

So there you have it—from this sample we can conclude that the majority of children aged seven to ten understand that witches don't exist and that even if they did exist, this is not a video of one. However! I bet if you offered those children the opportunity to go to Mexico to be sure, they'd … well actually they probably wouldn't do it, because most children have yet to learn the joys of spending long days on sandy beaches drinking margaritas.

Anyway, our intrepid team of adults decide to start their investigation with the hypothesis advanced by Joe (age 10), by dragging an owl out to the cave in the middle of the day to see if the witch could have been a bird. The poor nocturnal creature is clearly not amused, but this is science.


"3-2-1 RELEASE OWL!"

The lack of any kind of flapping wing in the original video shoots this hypothesis down. Next theory: parkour. It is obviously not parkour, any more than it is planking or coning. Parkour does not involve a floppy, limp body wobbling several feet into the air. They are now really stretching my patience by pretending to be morons in order to get a few more hours in Mexico. Again, maybe I would do the same. It looks nice there. Anyway, physical therapist and "stunt expert" Austin gets to show off his skills.

"3-2-1 MAKE THE MOVE!"

They figure out that it's probably not parkour, so at last they make a dummy, dressed all in black, and tie it to a string. Just like the original video maker obviously did.


Kudos to the editing team who valiantly tried to make this part suspenseful. The team was pulling a string with a dummy attached, but the music suggested they were firing their last bullets at an advancing horde of zombies.

Everyone is surprised that the video of their dummy looked exactly like the original. Final conclusion: hoax. Final cost: hotel and airfare to Mexico for three hosts, cameraperson, audio tech, and producer, plus one-day owl rental.

All in all, I can't say this is the worst paranormal show on television. The hosts act like morons, but I think it's pretty clear that most of them (I'm really not sure about Bill) are just going through the motions to be on television and get free trips to Mexico. This is pretty much just the world we live in now, and we're all complicit … especially me, because I watched this show and then wrote a really long article about it.

Final rating: 2 out of 5 broken ashtrays for FoFPF. 1 out of 5 floppy witches for society. 5 out of 5 angry owls for the kids in my survey group, who were so great that I'm thinking of using them as a regular resource.

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For further reading about Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files, please see CSI’s earlier article by Karen Stollznow.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at and appears on the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.