This review of HUNT FOR THE SKINWALKER, by Colm Kelleher and George Knapp, originally appeared in Issue 4 of SUB ROSA (a free online PDF magazine), in which interested readers will also find an in-depth article about the Skinwalker Ranch investigation by the authors of the book.
A rancher buys a property in remote Utah, which he soon finds is 'haunted' by some sort of paranormal intelligence. A number of his cattle are mutilated, his dogs are incinerated by a glowing orb, he sees a being resembling the semi-invisible alien from the movie Predator, and his wife experiences poltergeist-like phenomena within the house. A billionaire businessman interested in the search for alien life hears of the high weirdness, and buys the ranch outright, sending in his own professional team of scientists to study the phenomenon with magnometers, infra-red binoculars and video cameras. They see beings crawling out of 'portals', beasts with glowing eyes hanging from trees in the dark of night, and even have telepathic messages from a UFO-like entity invade their mind.
Any Hollywood producer reading a movie script with that for a logline might start salivating. But, unbelievably, the story is true (well, they would probably just start drooling hearing that fact). In Hunt for the Skinwalker, investigative journalist George Knapp and molecular biologist Colm Kelleher tell the story of the so-called 'Skinwalker Ranch', which has reached almost legendary status in recent years among 'border experience' researchers due to the small amount of publically available information about it. Not that Knapp needs to employ a great deal of investigative nous for this book, as his co-author Kelleher was the lead scientist involved in the research, so one might therefore call this the official version of what occurred.
The book is divided into three parts. It begins with Part 1 - "The Hotspot", telling the story of rancher Tom Gorman (not his real name) who bought the 480 acre property in the fall of 1994, as well as sharing some of the related history of the location (including Native American myths and fireside stories of occult Masonic influences). If you live alone on farmland somewhere, this isn't the best book to be reading late at night. The Gorman family catalogue a nightmarish range of phenomena, which include the deaths of both their livestock and the family pets. 'Flying refrigerator' UFOs are seen (a curious echo of Vallee's research in Brazil?), unkillable foul-smelling beasts turn up regularly, and even a 'portal' in the sky opens up on numerous occasions.
Part 2 - "The Investigation Begins" continues the tale from 1996, when billionaire real estate entrepreneur Robert Bigelow bought the ranch as a 'live laboratory' for his newly formed National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS). NIDS had been created with the express intention of supporting scientific investigation into 'border sciences' - the paranormal, UFOs etc. Kelleher recounts his first visit to the ranch (on which he was to spend many months), and then goes on to list a number of strange experiences witnessed by members of the NIDS team. These events bring some credibility to the Skinwalker Ranch story, with the word of reputable scientists and law enforcement officers lending support to Gorman's anecdotal account. Ultimately however, despite the long hours and scientific rigour devoted to the investigation, the NIDS team were unable to come up with much evidence of note - at least, I don't see any skeptics changing their opinion based on what is offered in Hunt for the Skinwalker.
Nevertheless, the first two parts of the book will be gripping reading for those not familiar with the story of the Skinwalker Ranch. For those who have kept up with the story via the Internet (with necessary filtering of outlandish rumours), there won't be a lot more learnt beyond the facts delivered by George Knapp in his earlier 3-part "Path of the Skinwalker" article for the Las Vegas Mercury (available as PDFs from www.huntfortheskinwalker.com). However, the third part of the book, "Aftermath and Hypotheses", is worth the price of the book. It delivers the thoughts, feelings and conclusions which the NIDS team came to on the basis of what they witnessed, and also explores possible models and theories for what is happening. Parallel universes, imaginal realms, Vallee's Magonia...all are mentioned, which means here we have another book pointing at cross-overs between various fields of research such as ufology, shamanism and consciousness.
Hunt for the Skinwalker is certainly a gripping read, one of the few books of late which I've found myself continually picking up during the day to read 'just one more chapter'. However, after waiting so long for some official word on the Skinwalker Ranch research, I was also disappointed by the lack of evidence which resulted, and also some of the methodology. Colm Kelleher points out in the Preface:
In addition to eyewitness testimony, we obtained an intriguing body of physical evidence to support many of the accounts described in the book. We compiled photos and videos and accumulated reports of demonstrable physical effects on people, animals, equipment, everyday objects, and the environment.
If this is the case, it's a shame that more wasn't shared with the reader. A few colour plates, or even tabulated or graphed data, may have helped in raising the story from feeling like a modern urban legend, into its rightful place as a fascinating scientific investigation. Some very interesting magnetic fields were recorded in the wake of anomalous phenomena occuring on the ranch. Why not describe these in more detail? Likewise, a couple of times in the book one of these 'physical effects on people' is off-handedly mentioned - blood noses. This sounds intriguing, so why not share more about the circumstances under which it happened, etc.? Obviously, Hunt for the Skinwalker is intended as a popular read, so I may be perhaps asking for more than is required - if so, I hope some hard data is released at some point in another form.
Beyond that criticism though, I was also perplexed by a number of things about the investigation. At one point, the NIDS investigators and Gorman give chase to an entity in the middle of the night, and witness it hanging from a tree. Gorman promptly jumps from the vehicle and unleashes a round from his rifle at it. Was this 'shoot-to-kill policy', against an apparently intelligent entity, agreed with by NIDS? It would seem so, as no criticism is levelled at Gorman for his actions. Indeed, the fact that NIDS kept Gorman on at the ranch as caretaker is also a strange decision - one of the first examinations of the Gorman story would have to consider the hoax explanation. To avoid any further 'contamination' of the investigation by this possibility, Gorman should have been excluded when the research began. To be fair, the authors do give some reasons, such as that the paranormal events may have been 'attracted' to him in some way. But overall, this is a nagging problem throughout the book.
The tabloidish descriptions of Gorman throughout the book (a proud man, a simple man, a great rancher, a man with "the perfect eyesight of a trained marksman") only further inflame the skeptical mind...it's almost as if the authors need us to believe this man, so they lavish praise on him. Ironically, in describing why the Gorman's bought the ranch, they sometimes actually throw doubt on his background...it was to "get away from the busybodies and the closed community that kept prying into their lives", to escape the rumour mill of their previous small town life. These privacy problems were probably more to do with their Mormon background, but in all I finished the book with grave doubts about the Gormans' side of the story - though I have to say they were redeemed somewhat by the support lent by NIDS investigators in the second half of the book.
All in all though, Hunt for the Skinwalker is an important chronicle of one of the few scientific investigations of a paranormal hotspot. It will be an eye-opening account for those new to the subjects of the Skinwalker Ranch and ‘border experiences’, and will no doubt also serve as a topic of great debate within the frontier science research community. Kelleher and Knapp sum up the investigation well in their concluding remarks in the book:
The investigation of the phenomena at the Gorman ranch was an ambitious if unconventional example of what science is supposed to tod. Explore the unknown. Ask questions about the unexplained. Poke around and see what happens. Honest inquiry into unanswered questions is – or should be – a textbook definition of what science does…But finding answers is not always part of that definition even when engaged in “normal” science…though we can eliminate a few of the hypotheses – hoax, group hallucination, and tectonic strain theory – there is simply insufficient data to be able to select a likely solution to the events.
Part of the difficulty in this scientific investigation was the ‘trickster’ element so often described in paranormal events – as if an intelligence is making the decisions as to what is observed and when, which is hardly conducive to the replicability and hard objective results required by science. As mentioned, I do have my doubts as to this book’s ability to change any skeptic’s mind on the matter, but hopefully further data from the investigation will be forthcoming in different forms. In the meantime, those interested in these phenomenon will be able to scan this chronicle for items of interest to their own research. And if a Hollywood producer doesn’t option the film rights on this one soon, I’m going to have to get a bank loan and snap it up myself – an unbelievable story.