It’s not news that the paranormal is mainstream, which is ironic since we commonly understand the paranormal to be events that are NOT normal yet the discussion about it is an everyday occurrence. If you follow TV ghost hunters or paranormal researchers, “evidence” is all around us. So much for it being all that “extraordinary”.
Annette Hill (no relation) is a professor of media and communication in the U.K. Her book, Paranormal Media, provides support for the conclusion that the paranormal as a field of inquiry is variable, pliable, irreducibly complex, and dependent on context to the point that we have trouble even defining it for study.
The volume contains interesting ideas, particularly with regards to reality paranormal television and the role of skepticism. Her findings derive from a study she conducted of 70 interviewees (in the U.K.) regarding paranormal depiction in the media. Also included was a section on “magic” with some mixed feelings on Derren Brown, but my interest was in the revelation of a more nuanced meaning behind ghost hunting shows and the activities of amateur paranormal researchers.
In my previous work examining amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs), it was indisputable that their personal experiences were the impetus for their interest in the paranormal and prompted them to find out more. Also clear was the influence of paranormal television shows, whether they were expository or “reality” types. The importance placed on experiences was a strong theme throughout this book.
To be in the dark, in the silence of a ghost tour, séance, or paranormal investigation, with one’s senses heightened, is fuel for the imagination. We create our own paranormal experiences – if that is what we wish to have at that moment. Paranormal-themed experiences are more than entertainment, they offer emotional reactions for those willing to participate. These experiences can even be life-changing.
Perhaps some participants in a paranormal experience have seen the TV shows. These “second order” experiences are different from actually being in the moment. The participant will be able to answer that clichéd question “Did you hear that?” in the first person. With such a personal scenario, the result will trump any other claim for authenticity.
From armchair ghosthunting to active participation, we see the line crossed from entertainment to reality. In examining ghost hunting TV, Hill uncovers some complications, problems and surprising potential benefits of this programming genre.
Is ghost hunting TV entertainment, reality, both, or neither? There are plentiful discussions regarding the “reality” of such shows. Are they faked? Do they constitute evidence? Are they harmful?
I recall my first introduction to paranormal reality TV – MTV’s Fear. It was blatantly obvious that these people were scaring themselves. They were put into a position that resulted in real emotion and physical effects expressed. As with other reality television, the setup may be more or less contrived but some reactions are real. Viewers have the task of deciding what’s real and what’s not. The problem is, we aren’t given good guidance and we are frequently deliberately misled.
Paranormal claims on TV should be a good exercise in skepticism. But it’s hardly ever framed that way. We are delivered a token skepticism, which I’ll hit on in a bit. Shows like Most Haunted, Ghost Hunters and the dozens of other clones are dependent on the assumption that you are willing to buy into the paranormal causation and they make every effort to play that up – with night vision, voice-overs, eerie music, creative editing, and well-timed commercial breaks.
Broadcasting a LIVE show, as Most Haunted and Ghost Hunters have successfully done (ratings-wise), increases participation – you are following along, you can’t pause, you are almost right there, as it happens. The live aspect heightens debate about what is shown or not shown, and what looks real or could be faked. It’s a game that viewers play whether we treat it as a real-life thriller or a screwball comedy.
TV can’t offer answers to serious questions about life after death, but people still tune in with those thoughts in mind. Hill contends that the resurgence of areas of paranormal belief in the past 20-30 years has given momentum to the TV shows and the popularity of other forms of paranormal experiences and events. But this is a chicken-egg argument? How much of a role do the Hollywood producers play considering the typical formula for ideas is to hit on a winner and keep spinning off slight variations of the same until saturation is reached?
Amateur ghost hunters (some of whom consider themselves to be professionals) are, without a doubt, performing. They are in the role of a sort of everyday superhero fighting disembodied spirits or demons, maybe Satan himself if they are so bold. Or, they are part of a group effort seeking to find the answers to mysteries that have haunted humans forever. Whether on TV or on a ghost tour, this is a performance that can create or reinforce belief in the participant/viewer. Performance and participation are critical strands in the assessment of the paranormal beliefs in culture.
For the performer, there is pleasure in the act. They feel special. They may relish the attention, being treated as an expert, or leading the crowd. This idea ties into my past exploration of serious leisure, where a person’s identity is heavily dependent on their hobbies or interests outside of their official work or career. Many ARIG members gain self-esteem and social value from their participation. Hill explains that the paranormal culture is a means to explore alternative identities, behaviors and beliefs, to test them out in the safe performance space. When the psychic medium or the lead investigator excels at performance, becoming ghost showmen, they conduct the audience in a performance as well which enhances belief. Hill equates this to playing in an orchestra. The participants get a rush out of being part of a bigger mission.
Life philosophy and lifestyle
Sociologists say that spirit beliefs reflect the changing culture and anxieties. Today’s paranormal beliefs are integrating into mass entertainment.
Allowing a paranormal interest to usurp more time, effort and money results in a deeper integration into lifestyle. For some, the paranormal and supernatural have become the foundation of their worldview. Hill emphasizes that paranormal participation is less about religious beliefs of a person (which is a frame that is sometimes used for paranormal belief) than about social and cultural aspects, a personality of seeking, and a longing for enchantment in life. That seems to suggest religion is separate from those things. I don’t think it is; I suspect there is one or more common personality traits. Therefore, I see participation in religious and paranormal activities to be similar.
On the other hand, there is no overseeing authority for the paranormal – it is unorthodox with no set rules. That flexibility is a draw for those who feel religious teachings are too rigid or aren’t adequate to make sense of the world, so they find an outlet of creativity in the paranormal.
Being “open-minded” is a frequent description of an outlook conducive to pursuit of the paranormal. Open-mindedness means something very different to those who readily accept paranormal claims as true compared to those who apply critical thinking to these claims. For example, open-minded for skeptics means that you consider all the evidence including that it’s been a mistake or a hoax, but reason is still applied. For non-skeptics, an open mind means you close off no options even if they seem implausible. Reason and rationality are not readily applied because they are necessarily limiting. Open-mindedness in the paranormal exhibits a strong intent toward wishful thinking while rejecting anything greater than cursory critical thinking. The emphasis is on being positive as opposed to negative as associated with occult leanings. Paranormal proponents want to be seen as positive, helpful, pioneering. They see science in the form of “ivory towers” and dusty tomes, unchanging, uninterested in exploring the fringes.
A distrust of authority – in the form the media, religious institutions, and science – is exhibited by paranormalists. However, paranormalists will use all three of those communities when they can get exposure and credibility from them. This discord with authority was not explored very well in Hill’s book. She makes clear that those in her study don’t trust the media as much as they trust their own experiences, but, frankly, this doesn’t mesh with the influence that the media has in boosting the popularity of the paranormal. There is little clarification here. More work needs to be done, it may be just extremely complex to tease out in a simple conclusion.
A curious anecdote is related from one of the originators of the influential Most Haunted television show. He observed the many paranormal articles in mainstream women’s magazines and then sold the show as women’s programming. The female audience is frequently a target for self-help pieces that emphasize personal transformation – physical, mental or spiritual. Horoscopes, a common feature in women’s magazines, were a way to feel some control over life. Psychic mediums helped to resolve unresolved relationships or to aid in life decisions. Tapping into your own “psychic abilities” was sold as possible and empowering. Participating in paranormal investigation was to be part of something bigger than oneself, to feel important, to acquire expertise without formal schooling, and to play a leadership role.
Interestingly, the watering down of the paranormal with pop psychology like this changed the meaning of the paranormal in culture. Now it was more anything goes New Age. It was a hidden power to be harnessed for self-improvement. This alternative narrative to conventional roles (of women, in particular) was apparent in the Spiritualists popularity, when mediums commanded attention, influence, and made money from it. Today, New Age paranormality merges with topics of health and well-being in the media instead of being relegated just to the “occult” umbrella. Feel good beliefs in things “beyond” are maintained and enhanced by pop culture.
Paranormal as revenue streams
Thanks to the popularity of places with paranormal lore, Hill says the parapsychologists have trouble getting into these spaces to do more involved research. The locations, often in need of funding to maintain them, allow ghost hunting groups and tours to pay for access. This is just one way that the paranormal has evolved into an important revenue stream.
The increased commercialization of the paranormal is most obviously evident in the proliferation of ghost tours, events, conferences, books, web resources, digital media, and in television and movies. Some of these are truly terrible. Why are they popular? Hill hinted at why there may be built-in success in commercialization of the paranormal – the perpetual state of uncertainty. While it’s frustratingly obvious to some of us that the ghost hunters will NEVER find anything valuable or convincing, a portion of the audience will employ wishful thinking and keep returning to see if they get that lucky experience THIS time. The elusiveness of the phenomenon is part of the draw. Attempts at paranormal experiencing can go on forever! Because the participation plus the performance creates and then grows the belief, it’s a self-perpetuating thing. Only a major shift in cultural thinking will diminish this. It won’t ever go away completely.
A final thread to note in Hill’s work is the contribution of skepticism to paranormal discourse. I was intrigued by this because it provided a view I had not heard before. Hill notes that skepticism is a KEY part of the framework of paranormal thinking and it is understood as “rational thinking”. Those that participated in her study (we might extrapolate this to the general audience) were very cognizant of the typical skeptical arguments. They expect these opposing points to be brought up, they understand the basics of the counter arguments, and this helps move the discussion along into deeper examination.
I found in my ARIGs study how paranormal researchers give skepticism lip service. Paranormal believers are aware of the strong skeptical position and still admit and embrace the paranormal belief. This shows a value of personal belief and experience over applied rationality and reason. Yet, the researchers wish to appear rational because being irrational is not a high value in our society. So, they will attempt to justify why they feel their approach is rational.
Hill describes the “avowal of prior skepticism” which occurs as part of the demonstration of rationality. Coined by Peter Lamont, this is the behavior of saying “I used to be skeptical until…” and then some experience is related as justification of the change. It’s a nifty ploy that is typically effective unless you are aware of its true purpose of framing the non-rational conclusions that follow. Those who use the ploy suggest it shows critical reflection.
Summing up the concepts presented in this book and my thoughts prompted by it, pursuit of the paranormal is mainstream as people are looking for extraordinary experiences or alternative identities to enhance their lives.
In the case of participation by watching paranormal TV, there is value that I’d not realized. It allows for self-reflection on belief and skepticism by the audience. They have a chance to consider alternative narratives of the world; it can symbolically open doors to these other ways of thinking. It’s not a scientific process and is a mistake to consider it as such. But, as I also found with my past research, activities of paranormalists do reflect their perception of the scientific process.
Second-order experiences can lead to first-person participation. That is, a TV show can prompt people to get out and have these experiences for themselves. They will certainly gain something from it. They will have social experiences that can very likely grow and reinforce a paranormal inclination. Participants are aware of the aspects of skepticism and irrationality, attempt to account for these, and willingly get further involved, even if they never find evidence convincing to others. There are some other needs being fulfilled by these pursuits that result in them being incorporated into the participant’s lifestyle.
Hill successfully makes the argument that the meaning of the “paranormal” is unclear and changing. It’s complicated. However, she did not include a comprehensive view of paranormal meaning over time as, unfortunately, she drew on popular sources mostly from the mid-1990s onward such as Blum (review) and Davies. She ignored Finucane entirely. The next logical progression from this book is to Sconce’s Haunting Media.
The book is weakened by a lack of attention and understanding of what sound science entails. That paranormal researchers do “science” may be assumed and it should not be. I feel their mixed love-hate relationship with science as a source of authority and credibility is an important thread in the discussion of paranormal cultures. What is emphasized is that these paranormal experiences are about feeling, instincts, and sensory input. “You have to feel it to know it.” This is decidedly unscientific. It also leads to a self-definition of paranormal which is problematic since that is shaped by factors specific to the person, not objective factors, that the experiencer perceived as unusual. What is scary or relevant to one is nothing to another. By attempting to “know” only through experience leaves out the knowledge that may be relevant to a reasonable conclusion about what is happening. Banking on experience is closed-minded. It’s only your point of view. It’s not the whole thing.
There are many aspects of paranormal study. It’s not codified and it’s unorthodox. I suspect it will continue to be so in the future as participants will resist fitting it into any box, and culture will continue to incorporate such beliefs and use them as raw material to produce new media.