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Saturday, April 15, 2006

MCLA course project has students researching unexplained phenomena

By Jennifer Huberdeau, North Adams Transcript
April 14, 2006

MCLA junior George Inman delved into the subculture phenomenon of vampirism — both the psychic- and blood-feeding kind. Photo by Paul Guillotte/North Adams Transcript

NORTH ADAMS — Floating lanterns, wandering lights, strange winds and eerie voices calling from within the Hoosac Tunnel are staple legends surrounding the infamous portal. The validity of claims about the haunting of the tunnel was one of many subjects explored in a "Skeptic Fair" at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
"I'm still 50/50 on my findings. It think part of it is fabricated because of the history of the tunnel. There are things I can't explain, but I believe a large part of it is psychological. You get an eerie feeling at the tunnel, but it is dark, damp and cold inside the tunnel," said Julia Kowalski, a senior from South Bridge.

Students in psychology professor Thomas Byrne's class, the "Psychology of Superstition and the Unexplained," presented their findings on topics ranging from alien abductions and crop circles to the practices of Reiki and chiropracty.

"The basic idea was for my students to examine why or why not people believe these things and to examine their own belief systems. They were given a lot of leeway to choose their topic, I only asked they go into the project with an open mind — without preconceived opinions," Byrnes said. "They were asked to investigate their topic, find evidence and decide if the claims were true or false."

Kowalski said her initial idea was to investigate the infamous crop circles, but on a suggestion of a friend, decided to look at the Hoosac Tunnel because of her ability to gain "hands-on" evidence.

"I actually brought a tape recorder into the tunnel. I went into the tunnel about 2,500 feet," she said. Kowalski was trying to recreate a similar experiment done by college students during the early 1980s. That experiment captured what some people would call electronic voice phenomena or "muffled voices."

"I didn't have any muffled voices, just those of my friends and myself. I think one explanation for the muffled voices could be contributed to echoes in the tunnel," Kowalski said. She said other things like wandering lights could possibly be train lights.

"Your head plays tricks on you especially when you're in a place that's underground and is dark, damp and cold. The temperature is about 15 degrees colder in the tunnel, so any burst of air from the tunnel is cold and could contribute for the strange winds people encounter," she said.

One tale she found was about a hunter, Frank Webster, who disappeared near the tunnel in 1874. Webster was found days later, beaten and without his rifle. He claimed strange voices called him into the tunnel, where a ghost took his gun and then beat him.


"There's nothing to prove some person didn't do it. I think a lot of stories are fabricated. I think this is where a lot of stories come into play," she said.

She said the tunnel's history has taken on its own life, with varying versions of the circumstances of the tunnel workers deaths and even discrepancies of what the term 'hoosac' actually means.

"In my research I found many people wrote the American Indian word 'hoosac' was supposed to mean forbidden. It actually means "stone place" in Mohican," Kowalski said.

George Inman, a junior, studied the underground subculture of vampyrism and the characteristics of the movements followers.

"There are two kinds of vampires, those who believe they are psychic vampires and that they feed off of other people's minds and those who are more traditional and feed off of blood. They cut themselves and feed off of each other," he said.

Inman said a lot of the subculture is influenced by the original inspiration for Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. He said the followers dress in black and claim they are sensitive to light, such as Vlad did.

"They also all seem to play Vampire: The Masquerade. It's huge around the world and they claim that it allows them social acceptance. The popularity is unbelievable," Inman said.

He said the followers of vampyrism seem to have similar characteristics: emotional irritability and instability, depression, belief in psychic powers, a strong sex drive and a "thirst" best described as comparable to a migraine headache.

"They seem to have a seclusionary lifestyle, but coming together gives them a sense of community and a release of romanticism," Inman said.

Senior Jodi Browning of Plaistow, N.H., focused on the phenomenon of alien abduction claims. In her research, she found over 6,000 Americans have claimed to be abducted since 1960.

"There is no documentation of abductions before the 1960s," she said. "Another odd thing is that a very large percentage of abductees claim to have telepathically communicated with the aliens, but the conversations take place in English."

While Browning did not discredit the possibility of aliens existing, she did say she leaned toward believing the empirical studies done by psychologists which seem to link many abduction stories with traumatic events, including sexual abuse.

"The empirical studies are more objective. I tend to believe that for some people it is easier for them to believe they were abused by aliens. I also think there is a large connection between media influence and hallucinations with the claims," she said.

Another student's study showed that there is no solid link between healing and the practice of Reiki, while an investigation into chiropractic services found that autistic children receiving the therapy had positive results including increased speech and vocalization, better bladder control and an evening of leg lengths.


Jennifer Huberdeau can be reached at

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