$100,000 is hardly chump change. But 70-year-old Leroy Tessina, a former delivery man, estimates that's the amount of money he's spent on psychics, UFO paraphernalia and other paranormal pursuits over the past few decades. He nearly lost his house in the process.
Among his purchases: several trips to UFO-friendly Roswell, N.M., countless books on extraterrestrials, nearly a decade's worth of sessions with a personal psychic and even a special helmet that supposedly prevents aliens from reading his mind.
But Tessina, a Los Angeles man, said he's a believer no more.
After a mind-bending, life-changing journey with independent filmmaker Blake Freeman, Tessina said he's "reformed" and won't pay peddlers of the paranormal any longer.
"I was into sci-fi as a child and young man and I guess it just evolved from that. I let it rule my life," he said. "Blake told me, 'You screwed up for a while, but now let's go see if we can straighten you out.'
"He showed me the error of my ways, so to speak."
In 2008, the thirtysomething Freeman and the then-sixtysomething Tessina went off on a cross-country adventure to interview so-called experts on alien abductions, ghost hunting, crop circles, psychic healing and more ? all in an effort to expose the truth behind their wild, other-worldly claims.
Documentary in the Same Vein as 'Borat,' 'Religulous'
The result is "Gawd Bless America," a documentary opening in theaters March 4, that blends "Borat"-like antics with "Religulous"-like irreverence to reach, Freeman said, something "real."
"I didn't go into it telling [Tessina] right from the beginning that he was crazy and none of this stuff was real, because I didn't know what we were going to find out on the road," he said. "It was a learning lesson for me too."
Freeman said he'd been thinking of a documentary exploring the paranormal, but it wasn't until he met Tessina that he knew he'd found his subject.
"We ordered pizza and we were actually having a production meeting and, you're not going to believe it, but Leroy showed up at the door," he said. "The bill came to $88.88 and he started talking to me about numerology. ...[And he asked], did I see the UFO in the sky over L.A.? And I thought he was kidding, but he was dead serious."
Crew Punks Crop Circle Expert, Psychic
The pizza order turned into a 20-minute conversation, which led to a show-and-tell of supernatural stuff later that day at Tessina's house.
"This guy is 68 years old, he's a very sweet guy, he's awesome. And he really believes this stuff. I didn't know to what extent," Freeman said. "Immediately I knew that this is the guy and we're going to go on a journey together."
So the pair packed their bags and took off across the country with a camera crew and a mission to uncover quacks.
The team hit five states in 15 days, punking a crop circle expert, a psychic, a so-called "UFO summoner" and others along the way.
To disprove the myth of crop circles, Freeman hired a man off Craigslist to help make what he said was the largest crop circle in North America.
"For $100 on Craigslist, he flies from Hawaii, he's a surfer. Leroy helped us and we made it in four hours in the middle of the night," he said.
They asked an "expert" to come check it out the next morning. The man scanned the downed corn with a magnetic reader and concluded that it was real.
It wasn't until he was given a bird's-eye view from a helicopter that he had the chance to see what the crop circle actually formed: a giant middle finger.
"He was pissed," said Freeman. "It's the greatest reaction ever."
Alien-Human Hybrid Claims He Can't Die
In another truth-seeking set-up, he said, they took Tessina's psychic up into an airplane and had the pilot pretend to kill himself after a short session with the charlatan.
"We scared the psychic into telling us that he wasn't really a psychic," he said. "It's funny, but at the same time it's real and it's a little bit ludicrous."
Tessina said he reached a reckoning point when the pair met a self-proclaimed human-alien hybrid who said he couldn't die.
After the man claimed that his mother had been artificially inseminated by aliens ("like Jesus"), he went on to demonstrate that he could hold on to electric cords and get shocked without harm.
"I had some electronics training when I was in the service and that came to mind. He wasn't grounded. There was no way the shock was going to bother him," Tessina said. "At that point, I knew he was a phony ... Everything else kind of fell into place."
Tessina: I Had to Reassess the Way I Lived, Money I Threw Away
At first, the realization was a little jarring, Tessina said.
"I did have to reassess the way I've lived and the money I threw away, and probably some of the enjoyment I could have had with the money I spent needlessly over fakes," Tessina said.
But, ultimately, he added, he's much happier than he was before. He's sworn off supernatural spending, he doesn't hang with the same crowd of believers and he's trying to earn money through painting (though he joked that a sequel to the film could help too).
And for those still trying to break the cycle of mythical thinking, he had a little bit of advice.
"For people who still believe in it, if that's what makes them happy and they can afford, that's okay. Live and let live. But I do believe that they could do better if they believe more in the here and now rather than ... believing in the fantasy of aliens abducting you or taking over your life," he said. "I just don't believe in it anymore. But if that's the way that some people want to think then it's too bad they couldn't have gone along with Blake and I ? they might have been nonbelievers also."