Legacy’s End: The Rise and Fall of the UCLA Parapsychology Lab

Many people are curious about the real story of UCLA’s former parapsychology lab (not a department!), which existed from about 1967 through 1978. In the early 1970s I personally conducted research there along two fronts. One front was in the lab itself, where I conducted psi training research groups from 1971 through 1980. The other was in the field, where I investigated ghosts, hauntings, and poltergeists (as in the Entity and Hollymont cases). Both of these endeavors yielded considerable evidence that have helped us better understand the nature of psi at many levels.

The lab was located on the fifth floor of the former Neuropsychiatric Institute (NPI; now the Semel Institute) at UCLA’s Center for the Health Sciences. In many ways it was a clearinghouse for various researchers and scientists to visit and share data, conduct their own research, or participate in ours. Each member of the lab sort of did his or her own “thing” in relation to the lab’s operations.

Many factors were involved in the lab’s demise, but chief among them was a series of events that, while they should have been fortunate, since they underscored the popularity and effectiveness of the lab and its research, apparently attracted too much media attention for UCLA in general and the NPI in particular to stomach.

Early years: Hauntings, poltergeists, and paranormal powers

The lab’s director was Dr. Thelma Moss, a clinical psychologist by training. She initially began by conducting studies of extrasensory perception (ESP), hypnosis, healing, alternative medicine, and the investigation of hauntings and poltergeists. Dr. Moss received great accolades and academic respect for her pioneering research efforts and the contributions they made to the nascent science of parapsychology. She was a brilliant, accomplished, and dedicated medical psychologist and parapsychologist.

Interestingly, Dr. Moss started her adult life not in academia but in the entertainment industry as an actress and screenwriter writer under her maiden name, Thelma Schnee. One of the films she co-wrote was Colossus of New York (1958), which starred Marla Powers, Otto Kruger, and Ross Martin. The story dealt with the transplantation of a human brain (Martin’s) into a large, menacing robot with an extraordinarily massive head. The robot soon develops a rather evil personality and, somewhat prophetically, supernatural/paranormal powers. Given the era when this film was produced — the Golden Age of low-budget sci-fi/horror films — it was quite well made for its time. After the death of Thelma’s husband almost immediately following the birth of their daughter, she went back to school to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology.

UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience, formerly the Neuropsychiatric Institute (NPI)

I began my involvement with the lab and Dr. Moss as both a research assistant and a subject. There was a formal study conducted on me starting in the fall of 1969 that was later published in a medical journal, “A Laboratory Investigation of Telepathy: The Study of A Psychic” by Thelma Moss, Ph.D., Herbert H. Eveloff, M.D. and Alice Chang, M.A., in Behavioral Neuropsychiatry, Vol. 6, Numbers 1-12, April-December 1974-January-March 1975, pp. 71-80.

It was extremely difficult for Drs. Moss and Eveloff even to find a peer-reviewed journal that would publish this study, as its results were a just a little too good for most to believe. This is why it took so long for it to find its way into print.

Moreover, the neurophysiological data collected on me over the course of the study was so, shall we say, unique that even the aforementioned publishing journal automatically assumed the instrumentation used to collect it must have been malfunctioning and in need of repair, which would have meant the results were, at best, artifactual. And so the journal refused to publish that specific portion of the study.

Following the study, I stayed on and eventually became a research associate, which is a more dedicated and integral member of the lab. In this capacity I started conducting more of my own research.

Dr. Moss’s Kirlian cul-de-sac

The direction of Dr. Moss’s own research took a definitive turn into a new and, in my opinion, unfortunate direction after she read Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain by Ostrander and Schroeder in 1971, and shortly thereafter met Kendall Johnson, who brought in his own homemade Kirlian photography apparatus, she totally changed her interest and orientation toward parapsychological research, since she erroneously assumed, as did (almost) everyone else, that Kirlian photography indeed showed the human aura.

Dr. Moss became obsessed with this then-poorly understood corona-discharge photographic method and pretty much lost touch with her former parapsychological interests. In the end, her compulsive obsession with Kirlian photography cost her her job and career, as she was ignoring her professional responsibilities at the NPI and not publishing the proper types of articles in the proper peer-reviewed journals. We all know the old phrase in academia, “publish or perish.” People who didn’t follow this tenet were toast in academia.

Dr. Moss was a very skilled clinical psychologist, but she had no knowledge of photography, electronics, physics, electrophysiology or biophysics, and thus she was totally out of her element in terms of investigating any paranormal linkage to Kirlian photography. For those who do not know of or remember Kirlian photography, it was (and is) a high-voltage, very high-frequency, extremely low amperage process that was applied to an electrode covered in a protective/insulating dielectric, in order to take pictures of what many originally thought was the aura: that invisible, mythical part of ourselves that extends outward and carries within it who and what we are. Unlike normal photography, there’s no lens employed with this method.

Kirlian photo of a fingertip

While intriguing to the eye, the visually stunning color photographs generated by this method, depicting what look like energy fields surrounding fingers, hands, and plants, were not what they appeared to be. These photos were so compelling that many refused to look at the facts underlying them. This was a situation where people only looked for evidence that supported their own theories, which is not science. Science is where your theory conforms to the data that supports it.

Unlike normal photography, where one captures light reflected by the subject, Kirlian photography was totally dependent upon generating that high-voltage, low-amperage charge to run over the person or object in what’s known as the “skin effect.” If the frequency was dramatically dropped and the amperage even marginally raised, a person would be instantly electrocuted by this method. Basically, Kirlian photography was simply attaching an old Tesla Coil to a timer and electrode plate.

As hardened scientists began examining and experimenting with this process, they discovered that it is little more than corona discharge photography and is primarily mediated by the presence of moisture in or around the object being photographed. While there appeared to be some potential applications for Kirlian photography as a non-destructive testing and evaluation method, its use in parapsychology was/is no more relevant than the old galvanic skin response (GSR) or an EKG.

Dr. Moss was an assistant professor of clinical psychology, and she was finally promoted to an associate professor, but at the same time she was made an adjunct professor. Essentially, this is equivalent to one step forward, two steps backwards. She was eventually dismissed from her position at the NPI in late 1978, and she continued her work privately until she suffered a massive cerebral aneurysm in the late 1980’s, requiring lengthy surgery and prolonged rehabilitation. The severe physical damage and trauma to her brain left Dr. Moss in a mental state where she frequently confounded past and present, having almost no long-term memory and a severely impaired short-term memory. She passed away on February 1st of 1997, at the age of 79.

“Psychic Wonders,” three strikes, and a sinking ship

The rash of publicity that contributed to the lab’s demise began with a rather lengthy, tongue-in-cheek article, “Ghost Watch in Hollywood,” that appeared on the front page of the View section in the Los Angeles Times in May of 1976. The article dealt with the Hollymont haunting case (regarding which, see chapter one, “A Haunting Thought,” in my book Aliens Above, Ghosts Below).

This lead article mentioned the lab, Dr. Moss, Dr. Gerald Shure from the campus psychology department, me, and my colleague at the time, Kerry Gaynor. The reporting could have been far better in terms of its attitude, but it also could have been much, much worse in terms of painting all of us as nut jobs and lunatics. Still, it attracted a great deal of attention for us at all levels and constituted strike one against us.

Strike two occurred when our lab was visited by Eye on L.A. from KABC-TV. The show did a lengthy piece on Gaynor, me, and our field research. They titled it “Ghost Hunters,” and it featured a pioneering use of holography in relation to ghosts and apparitions. The program was nominated for an Emmy for its unique visual presentation, which of course generated even more publicity for the lab, which was ultimately not a good thing.

A few months later, yours truly was featured in another KABC-TV News show, “Psychic Wonders with Christine Lund.” In this seven-part series, which ran daily for one week, I used my medical intuitive ability to diagnose various members of the KABC-TV news staff on camera. Apparently, my diagnoses were very accurate.

But no matter. Strike three. We were out!

Oddly, I received no reaction or feedback from the university regarding this final KABC appearance. But behind the scenes there was a bubbling cauldron of embarrassment, humiliation, anger, worry, concern, and literal paranoia among the powers that be at UCLA, and especially at the NPI.

“With all of the junk-science paranormal reality shows that are currently polluting television and the Internet, the field really does retain some of the air of pseudoscientific disrespectability that UCLA was so worried about in the past.”

Adding considerable fuel and fool to this simmering pot was the fact that from 1974 to 1976, during three of the four academic quarters, we (the lab) were actually teaching a ten week parapsychology course at the UCLA Extension division. These classes were held in Moore Hall 100, the largest lecture facility on campus back in those days. The attendance was absolutely massive for each class, with the 700-seat auditorium packed in a standing-room-only situation.

If our lab were a ship, then this level of community attention, combined with the attention we were receiving from the media, represented a two-fronted attack that was shooting holes in both our port and starboard sides. We were sinking rapidly, and we weren’t even aware of it. The proverbial shit was about to hit the fan, and the precise manner of the event was manifested in a most extraordinary way.

Prophetic nightmare: “I’ve brought you here to bury you”

In early 1978 I had a very vivid dream about the lab. I dreamed that we were all there: Dr. Moss, Kerry, John, Francis, and me.

Suddenly, the head of the NPI, Dr. West, walked in and began talking about his dislike of the work we were doing. In the midst of his ranting, the entire room began to violently shake, as though we were suffering a major earthquake. As the shaking continued, the room felt as though it were falling and the entire building collapsing beneath us. We all attempted to grab onto something in response. Then the shaking and falling sensations abruptly ceased. These motions were now replaced by another, that of moving horizontally.

All of our attention was immediately drawn to the lab’s windows facing west. We were indeed moving horizontally. However, there was an odd wooden plank of sorts upon which sat the rotted corpse of a woman. To her right was the rotted and mangled corpse of a large German Shepherd.

Dr. West let out a loud scream and told us frantically that the woman sitting on the plank was his dead sister, and that the dog was her old German Shepherd, which was also dead.

Then the room’s motion stopped. I opened the lab’s only door and stepped out into what should have been the hallway. But there was no hallway. In fact, there was no building.

The image we were presented with came right out a horror movie. We were now outdoors. Under a brilliant full moon, the ground appeared as moist, dark, freshly turned earth, with a subtle shrouding of fog hanging over it. Immediately before me were crude wooden steps leading downward toward the ground.

I took them, and once on the ground I turned back and was shocked to discover that our lab’s room had turned into an early-to-mid 19th century funeral coach with glass walls and candled lights at each corner. Sitting atop the driver’s bench was the rotted corpse-like woman with the mangled German Shepherd.

I asked our “corpse driver” what all of this was. She, or it, immediately answered, “I’ve brought you here to bury you, because you’re dead.”

And with that I awoke, covered in sweat, and with a feeling that my heart was about to explode out of my chest. Words cannot convey my emotional reaction to this dream. As I reflected on it, my first thought was that perhaps there would be a major earthquake and the entire NPI would collapse, killing us all. After I had had some time to think about the dream logically and rationally, I recognized the far more likely possibility: that what I had just dreamt was a horror-laden, melodramatic metaphor of our lab’s imminent demise. Of course, I had no way of knowing which of these interpretations was correct, although the second one seemed more likely.

At work I discussed my dream with Thelma, and she, too, thought it represented little more than my insecurities about the lab’s future. This was a reasonable assumption, and it may have been partially correct, since all of us in the lab were increasingly aware of how Dr. West, the NPI’s officials, and UCLA’ administrators in general felt about our work. Even in those early years, there was a formal academic concern over political correctness. So we all knew that we and the lab were living on borrowed time, since we had access to all of the facilities and services of a conventional lab without any funding whatsoever.

I formally looked into filing research grant requests with the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and found that both of these governmental agencies were somewhat interested in the research I was conducting into learned psi. So were various intelligence and military agencies. But UCLA, and especially the NPI, wanted nothing to do with being formally and publicly associated with parapsychological research. Such a connection would surely have been a political suicide, even back in those halcyon times. Both made it very clear to me and my colleagues that they would not allow or condone such efforts.

Dr. Moss, for her part, had no interest in even filling out grant applications, as she knew all about the inherent problems associated with such procedures and the inevitable fallout related to them. The whole scenario was the epitome of a “Catch-22” situation, since no matter what we did, we would lose. Thus, our fate was sealed.

Not a Roger Corman horror movie

I didn’t totally subscribe to Thelma’s belief that my dream was nothing more than a product of my subconscious fears regarding the lab’s inevitable demise. But after the passage of several weeks, I pretty much forgot about it. Right up until the day, that is, when Dr. West made an unexpected visit to the lab and announced the end of everything.

He entered and proceeded to tell us that our lab would be shut down and its space given to others who had the funding to pay for the requisite facilities and services that we were getting free of charge. Having delivered the death sentence, he turned to leave, but I stopped him and asked if I could speak with him for a moment. He agreed. I don’t know what gave me the courage, but I proceeded to ask whether he had a sister.

He answered that he “did have a sister.” Given the content of my dream, which suddenly came rushing back into my memory, I couldn’t refrain from asking what he meant by “did.” He replied that his sister had died some time ago. I asked about the cause of her death. He said, “She suffered a protracted death from cancer that wasted most of her body.”

I expressed my condolences, and he thanked me, but then he asked me why I had asked about his sister in the first place. Thinking on my feet, I said that somebody had mentioned her to me some time ago, and I was simply curious.

I knew that I might never again have an opportunity to speak with Dr. West in such a casual manner, so before the moment could pass, I quickly asked him one last question: “Did your sister have a dog?”

He looked at me very strangely, cocking his head to one side and probably trying to figure out why I was asking such obscure questions of him. He thought for a long moment before finally answering, “Why yes, she used to have a dog.”

“What breed of dog?” I asked.

“A German Shepherd,” he replied.

When I asked him — out of the middle of a deep and intense sense of shock — what had ever become of the dog, he looked at me as though I were a police detective interrogating a suspect. But the good doctor did answer the question, and said that his sister’s German Shepherd had been killed in a violent auto accident many years before she herself passed.

I thanked him for his time, and then he walked away, never suspecting my real reason for asking such bizarre questions of someone who was almost a complete stranger. Had I told him of my dream, he probably would have thought that I belonged in the NPI myself as an inpatient, since he had an extremely skeptical attitude about paranormal matters like dream precognition.

From everything I had just learned in that conversation, I saw that it was obvious my dream had been affected by a very common form of distortion called “primary process.” In layman’s terms, this is a method by which our subconscious mind colors or modifies information that might otherwise be too painful or difficult for our conscious mind to deal with. Primary process distortion is like noise as related to signal, and is extremely common when dealing with paranormal perception. In fact, it’s very rare for it not to occur.

The thought that our lab might close must have been far too painful for my conscious mind to deal with, and so my unconscious had cleverly cloaked it with the melodrama of a low-budget, Roger Corman-like horror movie.

But the reality itself was not a dream or a fictional melodrama. It was all too concrete and literal. The lab did close. Those of us who worked there did disband. And eventually, the very fact that there had ever been a parapsychology lab at UCLA was lost in an astounding haze of institutional amnesia.

Legacy’s end

It has now been over three decades since these things happened. Today, if you call UCLA or the Semel Institute and ask anyone there about our old lab, the reply is simple and direct: “There was never such a lab anywhere on campus.” And since the Extension division does not have records going back that far, there is no proof that my colleagues and I ever taught parapsychology anywhere on the UCLA campus at any time.

During the lab’s lifetime, stories about it appeared once in the UCLA Monthly and three times in the school’s newspaper, The Daily Bruin. (The newspaper also published a piece on it in 2010, for which Kerry and I were interviewed, but the writer conveniently avoided mentioning the fact that Kerry and I were also students on campus during that same period.) But they, too, have not kept files or records about such stories going back that far in time. Or at least that’s what they claim.

Thus, officially, as far as UCLA is concerned, we never existed. But given the university’s utter embarrassment at our presence, combined with the passage of such a long span of time, this really doesn’t surprise me. I’m sure this state of institutional amnesia regarding the UCLA parapsychology lab is exactly the way the university would like it to remain, and quite honestly, I don’t blame them. With all of the junk-science paranormal reality shows that are currently polluting television and the Internet, the field really does retain some of the air of pseudoscientific disrespectability that they were so worried about in the past. Still, it’s odd to recall just how sensitive many universities were to this matter some four decades ago, and also the extraordinary lengths to which they went in order to hinder and stifle valid parapsychological research.

“Today, if you call UCLA or the Semel Institute and ask anyone there about our old lab, the reply is simple and direct: ‘There was never such a lab anywhere on campus.'”

Even after the ignominious end of the research lab that should have left a lasting, above-board legacy, some of us who were there continue to pursue our own research, only not in an academic setting but in the public sector. This is despite the deep discouragement we feel at having lost such a wonderful facility located in the midst of an incredible university and teaching hospital. In the final analysis, each thing must end in order for another thing to begin anew. There may never be another facility like the UCLA parapsychology lab in my lifetime, but that doesn’t mean its memory and the shining hope it generated in all of us who worked there will not survive long after we’re gone.

I truly don’t know what I would have done with my life and where I would be today had it not been for the lab and the foundation it offered all of us in terms of organization, learning, evolving, and growing. There is no “what if” when it comes to this lab, no laments and speculations over what might have been if things had happened differently. There is only what was and is. And I, for one, am grateful to the lab, and to the people I worked alongside there, for helping to nurture and guide all of us along in this most intriguing and fascinating adventure of seeking to understand life in all its mystery.

Images: Semel Institute photo © 2003 by Alan Nyiri, courtesy of the Atkinson Photographic Archive and/or Stephanie Diani, © 2006 Regents of the University of California, via UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Kirlian fingertip photo by Plínio Ganzer Moreira (Feito por mim) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Old Graveyard image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Dr. Barry E. Taff

Dr. Barry E. Taff is an internationally renowned pioneer in the field of parapsychology. He holds a doctorate in psychophysiology with a minor in biomedical engineering, and he worked out of UCLA’s former parapsychology laboratory from 1969 through 1978 as a research associate. He was lead researcher on the case that was the basis of the book THE ENTITY as well as its 1983 horror movie adaptation. He has appeared on numerous television and radio shows, and has consulted for government agencies, businesses, and law enforcement. He is the author of ALIENS ABOVE, GHOSTS BELOW: EXPLORATIONS OF THE UNKNOWN.

Posted on November 15, 2012, in Aliens Above, Ghosts Below and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I just stumbled across your recap of NPI, Dr. Moss and the Parapsychology Lab. It brought back some great memories for me. I was a Continuing Education Specialist at UCLA Extension from 1972-82 and coordinated all of those fabulously attended programs in the 70’s. The attendance at the very first program (cosponsored with Stanford) at the Student Union actually had 1800 people attending…the largest turnout extension ever had at least in those days. I still have a couple of Ken Johnson’s Kirlian photos, used to have film strips of Olga Worrel’s healing hands and may have kept brochures from those programs “that never existed.” I was Sue Oliver in those days. Sorry to hear of Thelma’s sad end. My best wishes to you.

  2. Eleanor Espensen

    I left the NPI in 1972. I was Dr. West’s secretary, and spent time in conversation with one of the psycholgists, whose name I have forgotten. His work was helping the families of people who were dying. He said each of us has only a certain amount of sadness for a dying person, and when that person lives on, the mourning person is finding that he wants his beloved relative or friend to die. The doctor was working to relieve that person of his feeling of guilt. I’ve tried over the years to remember that kind doctor’s name. Can you help me? Thank you.

  3. Hi Barry,
    My name was Linda Watts when I worked at the NPI. I was Admin. Assistant to Ed Liston and sat in his office with Susan Major who worked for Dr. Ungerleider around the corner from your lab. I remember you well. That my typewriter would jam sometimes when you came in our office. That you helped find missing people with the police department. That you privately taught a class off-campus on developing psychic skills. I decided not to pursue it after one class realizing that it can become a burden . I hope all is well with you. I remember those years at the NPI as nothing less than fascinating. All the best, Linda

  4. Yes, my name is Bill parks. In 1969 I had the chance to be involved for a time with a healer named jack I grey. He was one of those people that Dr Miss was researching where you involved with that work ? Sure would like to find out anything. Thanks

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