Observing Paranormal Investigators: An ongoing research project at SFU

A recent piece published in University Affairs magazine (Canada) entitled “Making sense of the paranormal” was about the rise of academic interest in paranormal culture and the people who participate in it. Of course, this caught my attention, particularly, the work of Dr. Paul Kingsbury of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C. which was described as follows:

Dr. Kingsbury is nearing completion of a four-year study funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant to observe paranormal investigators. He’s gone on a dozen ghost investigations, attended numerous UFO and sasquatch conferences, and driven around rural England to visit crop circles. He’s looking broadly at who gets involved, what motivates them and how they share their data.

I emailed Dr. Kingsbury to make sure he was aware of my newly-published results in this area. He was. He pointed me to a talk he gave in March 2017 on his preliminary results. I recommend having a watch of this worthwhile discussion. Dr. Kingsbury, a geographer, used the framework of psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s “university discourse” which is one of four discourses or social links he proposed. I need to read more on this. Essentially, it means that there is a social bond founded in language. Kingsbury is researching the ghost-, Bigfoot- and UFO investigation groups (which I called ARIGs) at a more personal level than I did by conducting interviews and directly participating in the events. Where my intent was to examine how these groups use science and then portray that to the public, Dr. Kingsbury is digging into why people get involved in paranormal investigation, who they are, and how the groups and conferences represent their work. So, it’s obvious there is considerable overlap, but each of our projects is complementary to the other in forming a larger social picture of 21st-century paranormal culture in North America (and Western Europe, we can safely extrapolate).

The much-used idea to encapsulate the current paranormal popular culture is that it is “normal” and not marginal. It is mainstream. This is borne out by considerable work from academia and media studies in the past 30 years that shows that paranormal topics are no longer on the fringes of society. Our family and neighbors are deeply involved in and accept ideas of UFOs, ghosts and cryptids as real. But academics, Dr. Kingsbury clarifies, have mostly studied the representational culture, not the “lived” culture, though that is now changing. Dr. Kingsbury’s expertise is in psychoanalytic geographies. It is fascinating how intra-disciplinary research into paranormal topics is. I come from the land of scientific skepticism, science education, and geological sciences but I know those who are historians, psychologists, archaeologists and paleontologists. There are linguists and literary specialists, biologists, folklorists, physicists, computer scientists, filmmakers, electronic technicians, photographers, etc. You can approach this from so many different angles and they are all worthwhile.

Check out Paul Kingsbury’s talk here:

As I noted, there is much overlap with what I found in examining these groups. But I see some stark differences and areas in which my conclusions differ. He has done most of his work with ghost investigators and in ufology. Regarding ufology, he applies Lacan’s theory of discourse by describing the knowledge being delivered through expert speakers and media. Attendees often come to UFO conferences because they are seeking understanding and advice about what happened to them. It is a non-judgemental place where their sublime or bizarre experiences are accepted. This is in contrast to day-to-day situations where they may be doubted or discredited by non-believers. The conferences are structured similarly to academic conferences – in hotels, with books for sale and vendors selling their wares, information tables, name tags, and conference swag. The speakers are given podiums to deliver presentations, just like academic researchers. I was especially taken by his explanation of “master signifiers” – the depictions of UFOs and aliens that do the cultural work of portraying ideas. I would like to hear more about this idea and what master signifiers are for ghost investigators and cryptozoologists.

Amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs) generally adopt a mission to help people. Dr. Kingsbury highlights this especially in terms of ghost-ARIGs. He is studying 5 groups in the local area and says they have altruistic goals but not a goal to prove the existence of ghosts. However, in my survey, I found very clear evidence that many groups aim to do exactly this. So, I wonder if these 5 particular groups have deemphasized that or if the community as a whole is moving away from this lofty (and unobtainable) goal. My survey was done in 2010 so it could be that the community has recognized this a lost cause and regrouped. The observation made by those of us taking the broader, outsider view of groups (but not so much by the participants of the groups) is that they are seeking an ephemeral and probably unobtainable object – spirits, Bigfoot, or evidence of an alien encounter. He points out the paradoxical approaches of relying on gadgets that never fully capture and explain the paranormal object. Relating back to the language aspect, we do not have the concrete entities to show the world so we use signifiers to represent them, and these signifers do the crucial job of holding the concept together. There is a void that goes unfilled – like an empty box or vase that has structure but there is nothing inside. Though he explains “paranormal” in the common usage, the paranormal itself is exclusionary. It is what is not normal. Or it is the unknown or unknowable. How can you capture that? “Chasing ghosts” is what ARIGs are doing metaphorically, as well.

There were several group members in the audience and they asked question after the presentation. The tone and content of these questions were incredibly revealing. One paranormal investigator asked why Dr. Kingsbury didn’t show more of their evidence of the paranormal, like EVPs. Another asked about the government’s role in disclosure. Another relayed a question from an absent participant who wanted to know if academia would ever teach the truth about the Egyptian pyramids (assuming he meant the “alien-assisted” scenario). And one gentleman asked the SFU president what it would take for them to fund their own Sasquatch expedition. All these questioners seemed to miss or not care about the main points in the talk. It was a stark disconnect. They wanted to discuss their personal interests and beliefs and assert their own positions. Academics in this arena, as Kingsbury too softly pointed out, are trying to be objective and maintain the integrity of the study. He did not emphasize this, but it’s NOT about belief in the paranormal, it’s a level removed from that. I suspect the ARIGs did not comprehend the metanarrative presented in the talk. I do not think they understand the scientific approach and why it’s necessary. I also suspect that this kind of big-picture cultural research will not be absorbed or even get the attention of many ARIGs. I hope I’m wrong, but considering past behavior towards skeptical scholarship, I don’t think I am.

Thankfully, the last question was by Kingsbury’s colleague who brought this back to the topic of place which I found deeply interesting. What is it about peoples’ reactions to battlefields, historic locations, cemeteries, old forests and wooded areas just outside of town, swamps, deserts and abandoned places that make us “feel” haunted or in an enchanted environment? I hope more is done on this topic that is intertwined with paranormal- and dark tourism.

Finally, I have a concern about one point and one potential pathway to explore. Dr. Kingsbury referred twice to indigenous peoples’ connection to Sasquatch. I feel this is a touchy area as what the Natives perceive as a Sasquatch is not the same as that of the cryptozoologists. Cryptozoologists have been too quick and careless in co-opting Native legends as evidence for the Sasquatch or Bigfoot. Meurger’s book Lake Monster Traditions examines this error. Another loose end was Dr. Kingsbury’s mention of the great desire the participants express in their pursuit. I connect this to their sense of identity through Stebbins’ concept of serious leisure. ARIG members are searching for meaning for themselves but they also enjoy their new position of being knowledge experts, and in conducting the professional-looking activities of investigation, research, and presentation. An under-emphasized aspect of ARIGs that they do this work also to obtain a sense of importance in society and feel they contribute to something larger than themselves.

I’m looking forward to the final writeup of Dr. Kingsbury’s finding. This is fascinating stuff.

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