In 2013, journalist Tea Krulos explored the real-life superhero phenomenon in Heroes in the Night. There he withheld judgment as he allowed his eccentric subjects to explain why they felt the need to don capes and masks. As a result, he was able to dig deeper, as well as develop a taxonomy of sorts that makes Heroes in the Night the definitive text for those wishing to understand the Clark Kent next door. He applies a similar approach to investigators of the supernatural in Monster Hunters, with similar results.
I should preface my review by admitting to a bias: I am what Krulos’ subjects would dismissively call a skeptic. That is, I agree with Carl Sagan that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Moreover, irrational beliefs are not harmless eccentricities; they can have serious consequences. For instance, belief that vaccines cause autism (they don’t) has led to outbreaks of once-contained diseases. Belief that “intelligent design” is a valid scientific theory (it’s not) that should be taught in public schools contributes to scientific illiteracy at a time when breakthroughs in genetic research could eradicate cancer. And belief that “alternative” treatments are just as effective as scientific medicine (they’re not) wastes limited healthcare dollars, not to mention the lives of patients who pursue such treatments over ones that actually work. The battle between skepticism and superstition is therefore literally a matter of life and death.
Krulos doesn’t share my admittedly hardline views, but as a journalist he “need[s] fact-checking and hard evidence to be satisfied.” But the purpose of this book is not to prove or disprove supernatural beliefs. Rather, Kulos is trying to understand people who don’t simply hold these beliefs, but also devote substantial time and resources into them.
As with Heroes in the Night, Krulos develops a taxonomy for his subject. He examines four main categories of monster hunters: Paranormal investigators, like those appearing in Syfy’s highly-rated Ghost Hunters (2004-present), explore supposedly haunted houses for evidence of contact between the living and the dead. Cryptozoologists hunt for as-yet-undiscovered creatures like Bigfoot or the Chupacabra. UFOlogists look to the skies for flying saucers and to terra firma for the vast government conspiracies that hide “the truth.” Exorcists or demonologists dedicate themselves to fighting demonic possession.
Krulos spends the most time exploring the first category as he embeds himself with the Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee. Noah Leigh, the group’s founder, is a biologist by training who favors a scientific approach. Although obviously open to the possibility of ghostly interventions in the mortal realm, Leigh frequently finds natural explanations for allegedly supernatural phenomena. He criticizes his overly credulous colleagues, as well as those who charge for their services. After all, “ethically how?” can he demand payment when “[t]here is no proof of what we do.” For me, Leigh was the most interesting subject because his clear critical thinking ability ultimately takes a backseat to his willingness to believe in ghosts.
Although he works hard not to judge his subjects, Krulos can’t help it in a couple of cases. The “Reverend” Bob Larson clearly takes advantage of his parishioners’ religious beliefs and mental illness to make an obscene living performing exorcisms. Krulos doesn’t come out and call Larson a scumbag, but he lays out the facts clearly enough for readers to easily reach that conclusion. He paints a more sympathetic picture of Skunk Ape researcher Dave Shealy, but nevertheless makes evident Shealy’s desire to land a reality TV show to get himself out of financial troubles, a desire that clearly influences his cryptozoological claims.
Indeed, the specter (pun intended) of television looms large here. Virtually all of Krulos’ subjects are inspired by a reality TV show, aspire to star in their own show, or both. Supposedly educational channels like History, Discovery Channel and TLC now fill prime time with pseudo-scientific nonsense like Ancient Aliens (2009- present, and beautifully skewered by South Park in 2011). In these shows, the skeptical viewpoint gets a token look, if it gets any look at all. Kulos does a better job here. He regularly checks in with Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer. And Krulos points out that James “The Amazing” Randi, the (non-literal) spiritual heir to hoax-busting magician Harry Houdini, has offered a million dollars to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal abilities under laboratory conditions. To date, no one has passed the Million Dollar Challenge.
In general, Krulos’ detached approach is this book’s greatest strength. His subjects are willing to open up to him because they know he won’t ridicule their beliefs. But the drawback is that he doesn’t push too hard to understand the pathology that causes seemingly rational people to believe irrational things. Leigh in particular stands out as a person with a scientific mind who has devoted an incredible amount of energy into chasing ghosts. Because the truth is that we all—myself included—suffer from the same pathology. We all have blind spots that impair our ability to see the world as it really is. It is perhaps too much to ask of anyone, but I would have liked to gain a better understanding of what causes those blind spots and how we can avoid them.
With that being said, though, Tea Krulos once again explores a fascinating subculture with humor and compassion. His writing is clear and compelling, and I often shared the tingle up my spine that the jaded journalist experienced as he accompanied his unique subjects on their midnight adventures. There may not be any real monsters in Monster Hunters, but the interesting people who chase them more than make up for their absence.