Reading list for paranormal investigation and research

In a recent discussion with a paranormal investigation group, I found myself referencing recommending books to check out for the latest on interesting facets of the field. I decided to share this annotated list. Continue reading

Ghosts as modern history (Book review)

Lisa Morton presents another version of the history of ghosts in Ghosts: A Haunted History (Reaktion Books, London, 2015). In this case, it is an international popular history of ghosts in philosophy, literature, movies, television and pop culture. It is general and short, but good. The glossy pages are full of illustrations. The theme of this, and other contemporary books on paranormal culture, is “ghosts are everywhere”. They certainly are ubiquitous in western pop culture. You can’t watch TV, go to the movies, or visit a historic city without bumping up against them! Continue reading

It’s all very fuzzy: Dogman, Bigfoot, and the scent of paranormalia at CryptidCon

Werewolves have staked out new territory within the field of cryptozoology. What does this mean for cryptid-credibility? I explore the ideas and patterns spotted at a recent cryptozoology convention and discover that the paranormal is alive and well in monster research.

September 9-10, 2017 was CryptidCon in Frankfort, Kentucky. I drove 8.5 hours for two days and two nights of listening to those who believe cryptids exist and seeing how these mysterious monsters are represented in our popular culture. And I was glad to do it. I met up with Dr. Jeb Card (academic archaeologist and spooky enthusiast) and Blake Smith (skeptical paranormal researcher and host of Monster Talk podcast). The three of us wanted to see firsthand the current state of cryptozoology. What topics would be covered? How would they be presented? What was the evidence provided in support of these incredible claims? What was new? Continue reading

The manufactured, badly-behaved Ouija demon: Zozo (Book Review)

In the classic book Psychology of Superstition, Gustav Jahoda writes that beliefs are not just in our heads, they affect our behavior, and that self-fulfilling prophecy is not uncommon in human affairs (p. 8). Many events seem trivial and unspectacular, but when placed into a paranormal context, they take on a new and enhanced meaning. We want explanations for the bad things that happen to us and we retroactively look to assign blame to anything but ourselves. There is satisfaction in seeking and establishing patterns that later seem obvious, even though they are concocted and baseless. This is my opinion of what happens when people think they have summoned bad spirits from an Ouija board. Superstition is at the core of this book, The Zozo Phenomenon by Darren Evans and Rosemary Ellen Guiley. Continue reading

Arrogant and confused, ghost and ghoul (Book Review)

I’m still doing research on the Stone Tape idea, as a paranormally-curious geologist does. I was interested in obtaining a book by T.C. Lethbridge because his name comes up repeatedly as a promoter of the concept. It’s been a tricky thing to trace the origin without having easy access to the literature in print. I’ll keep looking. Meanwhile, I was able to secure a copy of Ghost and Ghoul (1961) via intra-library loan from my local county library (to whom I donate financially every month because they are awesome). I’m glad I didn’t purchase it. It’s was absolutely worse than I anticipated. And, it had essentially no mention of the physical recording of ghosts. In fact, Lethbridge promotes the idea that ghosts and ghouls (not visible but “felt” usually as coldness and oppression) are mental manifestations. Back to that idea by and by. First, some additional information about Lethbridge gleaned from this volume. I’m sure there is far more about Lethbridge since he was apparently notable in his time and warranted references and biographies. But after this introduction, you may not wish to bother.

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An inconsistent history of paranormal in America – Book Review

Supernatural America: A Cultural History by L.R. Samuel (2011)

Supernatural America is one of a few books that aim to take the reader on a tour of the country’s paranormal history to end up where we are today. I’ve not read many good ones. (Paranormal Nation by Fitch was possible the WORST. Steer clear of that stinker!) I compare such a project to Brian Inglis’ two volumes (that are not focused on America but on the history of supernatural and paranormal thought) that some think are too pro-paranormal but certainly far more thorough. Continue reading

Media as ‘medium’: Review of Paranormal Media and the good and bad of ghost hunting

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”.

51m9mZYRf4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_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.

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Book reviews: Fall 2014

300x300Since my last book review, I’ve downed a couple more. I can’t manage to review everything but here is a rundown:

Ghosts, E. Russell (1970)
This book was recommended to me by a long-time ghost researcher. I enjoyed it, mostly. It was confusing in parts, uneven. But some excellent points. Harder to get but worth it to have if you are serious about paranormal history.

The Castle of Otranto, H. Walpole (1764)
The first “Gothic” novel. Available outside copyright for free. Strange. Very strange.

Raising the Devil, B. Ellis (2000)
A very worthwhile reference. Learned a lot from this one. You may be able to get it through your local university library. A folklore perspective worth exploring.

Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, S. Poole (2014)
Vampira is entrancing. She was way before her time. This could have been cut down a bit but I enjoyed it all anyway. Now I’m a lifelong fan of Vampira.

The Haunting of Borley Rectory, Dingwall, Goldney & Hall (1956)
After I finished this book I realized I’d already read it 9 years ago. That explains why it didn’t seem impressively shocking. If you have read Price’s Most Haunted House in England, you MUST read this. Can be found in large university libraries.

Unnatural Creatures, N. Gaiman
Could not finish. I just don’t like short stories. Not bad, just not my thing.

Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters – M. Kaplan
Could not finish after first two chapters. Felt “off” as if Kaplan does not know what he is talking about. Focused on mythical monsters and uses guessing and speculation. Missed the mark entirely for me.

Hoaxes, Myths and Manias: Why We need Critical Thinking, R. Bartholomew & B. Radford (2003)
Very good reference. Readable and noteworthy (I marked lots of passages for reference). A must for your skeptical library.

If you would like to purchase any of these books, go through the Doubtful News Amazon link. Thanks.

Unexplained terminology Explained: ‘Paranormal’ versus ‘Supernatural’

Paranormal investigators say they look for evidence of paranormal activity. That phrase always confounded me. I don’t quite get it. What does it mean when someone says they have evidence of “paranormal activity”? And, how do you know it’s not normal activity that you just couldn’t ferret out?

There is a problem with how the word paranormal is used because it is often utilized in a way that is perhaps not consistent with the original intent.

Language evolves. Let me take a shot at unpacking some of these definitions about unexplained phenomena. See if it makes sense.

“Paranormal” and other terms for strange goings-on have changed over time. The word paranormal was coined around 1920. It means “beside, above or beyond normal.” Therefore, it’s anything that isn’t “normal” — or, more precisely, it is used as a label for any phenomenon that appears to defy scientific understanding. Ok, right there is a tripping point. Whose scientific understanding? The observer who is calling it “paranormal”? If so, that is problematic as a theoretical physicist sees things a lot differently than a dentist or a police officer. So, it appears too subjective to be precise. Each person may have their own idea of what constitutes “paranormal activity”.

The term “paranormal” used to just mean extrasensory perception and psychic power but, since the 1970s in particular — thanks to TV shows and proliferation of the subject in popular culture — the term expanded in scope to include all mysterious phenomena seemingly shunned by standard scientific study. It was a convenient way to bring many similarly peculiar topics under one heading for ease of marketing. So today, it can include everything that sounds mysterious: UFOs, hauntings, monster sightings, strange disappearances, anomalous natural phenomena, coincidences, as well as psychic powers.

Not everyone agrees that fields of study such as UFOlogy or cryptozoology (Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster and the like) should be considered paranormal but, if we think about the fact that after all this time, we have yet to document what these things actually are, that is beyond normal. Therefore, paranormal (arguably).

What appears as paranormal could essentially one day become normal. This has happened before with meteorites and still mysterious but likely explainable earthquakes lights and ball lightning. Or, we might not have developed the right technology or made the philosophical breakthrough yet to provide an explanation for some seemingly paranormal events. Perhaps we may find an instrument that can measure whatever it is that results in “hauntings” of a particular type. (Notice that I didn’t say an instrument that detects ghosts — an important distinction.)

Contrasted with paranormal is “supernatural.” To say something is supernatural is to conclude that the phenomenon operates outside the existing laws of nature. We would call such phenomena miraculous, a result of religious, occult (or magical) forces that are outside of human doings. These forces don’t adhere to boundaries of nature, which are waived. Perhaps the entity decides not to be detectable, for example. When that happens, we can’t test it, capture it or measure it. We just broke science. Our understanding stops if the explanation allows for supernatural entities to suspend natural laws on a whim. We end up with a form of “[Insert entity name here] did it.” Game over.

Paranormal events can appear to be supernatural but that in no way is proof that they are. Some unaccounted for natural explanation can be the cause. There is really no way to have excluded all natural possibilities in an investigation. We just may not have all the information. So to say something is the result of “paranormal” or “supernatural” activity is faulty logic. It can appear to be but you can’t say that it is for sure.

If you look at older anomalistic literature, you’ll find the word “preternatural” — a perfectly cromulent word — in place of paranormal. It’s not used as much anymore but it denotes a situation where the phenomenon appears outside the bounds of what we consider normal. It’s not supernatural, just extraordinary.

An even better word to use for weird natural phenomena — like strange falls from the sky (frogs, fish, colored rain), mystery sounds and lights, odd weather phenomena, etc. (things that might also be called Fortean) — would be paranatural. Events seem beyond natural because they are rare, unusual and we can’t quite pinpoint how they happened, but we need not revoke natural laws to have them occur. It’s similar to preternatural but sounds more modern.

Sorry about the word salad in this post but terminology is rather important for effective communication in order to avoid being misunderstood. These various words reflect the degree to which you want to go beyond observable, experimentally derived evidence. They get progressively LESS likely to be the correct designation: Paranatural -> paranormal/preternatural -> supernatural (which we can’t actually “prove”).

Pedantry over. We now resume normal communication.

This was originally posted at Huffington Post May 19, 2013.

Your friendly neighborhood mon$ter

In a recent post on Skeptoid blog, I suggest that paranormal-based tourism, such as ghost tours and monster festivals, which are growing in popularity, border on fraud.

“Even if there are long-standing legends of strange events occurring at some location, to suggest that a place is haunted just to freak people out is contemptible.”

“Ghost tours and monster festivals are fun. But, their apparent frivolity disguise an underlying invitation to buy into an idea just because it’s entertaining while having no basis in reality.”

Commenters remarked that I might be getting too worked up over it.  Continue reading

Scientific or Scientifical?

About half of all amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs – those self-forming groups that do ghost hunting, Bigfoot searches, cataloging of UFO sightings, and other paranormalia) on the Internet say they use scientific methods and equipment and/or their field is based in science. [1]

As one who actually did scientific work in a lab (geochemistry) and geologic investigations, I had a hard time with their claims about scientificity. To be scientific, in a strict sense, there is no substitute for academic training. Long ago, we exhausted all the relatively simple ways of learning about the world and science rocketed out of the reach of amateurs. Now, like it or not, science takes a big effort – careful planning, funding, collaboration and eventual publication so that results can be critically evaluated by the community. In Western society, science is a privileged method of inquiry. The public generally understands that the methods of science are rigorous and the results are authoritative. So, to say that one is “scientific” is to set a very high bar. I could not help but wonder just how close to the bar these ARIG participants could get. So, I looked at their websites and read their publications. Continue reading

Monster Stories from Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is the locale for oodles of strange stories, from the ghosts of Gettysburg to Thunderbirds of the northern forests, from the Jersey Devil sightings along the Delaware to UFOs in Kecksburg (and all across the state).  A 135-page book by Patty A. Wilson chronicles, specifically, Monsters in Pennsylvania: Mysterious Creatures in the Keystone State. As a monster fan myself (I hold a PhD in Cryptozoology from Thunderwood College [wink, wink], I was eager to check out the tales of local monsters. Continue reading

Continuing miseducation classes

Where can you learn Photoshop, CPR and Civil War history all in one place at a reasonable price? Continuing education offerings at local community colleges include useful courses in computer and technology fields, healthcare and safety occupations, business management and languages. General interest courses are offered in history, gardening, hobbies and include local trips and tours. In terms of offerings to the community, that’s great.

Local community colleges offer affordable, good quality educational opportunities to those students who might not be able to attend larger campuses of higher education. The average citizen would reasonably assume that since these mostly non-credit courses are offered in affiliation with the college, they are taught by qualified professionals. The Continuing Ed course catalog is distributed by the college and, as such, dons the patina of respectability associated with the school. Continue reading

Trying to boost your local tourism? Become a hauntrepreneur.

I came across this story about “haunted” Lafayette, Indiana.

It’s a typical soft news story about local authors and their new book of collected yarns. It also provided a little Fortean kick since, according to Mysterious America by Loren Coleman, place names that include “Fayette” or “Lafayette” have unusual activity or bad luck associated with them. I won’t go into depth about how that is totally selective cherry-picking and uninteresting. But, it is both.

In Lafayette, the authors rightly thought that a combination of interesting stories and local history would be winner. “I thought people would read about history if a ghost story was attached.” The article notes that the authors are “not ghost hunters, but writers who decided to document people’s stories about supernatural folklore.” They use the usual disclaimer, “We leave it up to the reader to decide whether they believe it or not.”

There’s a problem with that idea. These stories aren’t categorized outright as fiction. They get shelved under “local interest” or “travel”. The concept of ghosts as genuine entities lacks scientific validity. The stories, however, can fall nicely into folklore as suggested. So, file ghost stories under “fiction” or “folklore” and quit treating them as “true stories”.
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Ghost hunting entertainment – Paranormal State lecture

ParanormalStatePenn State’s Harrisburg campus hosted a presentation by Paranormal State’s Ryan Buell (with Sergey along) on October 2. The event attracted over 60 people of all ages. Primarily, the crowd was students, some with their parents. There were obviously several fans of the show. Continue reading