As I wrote yesterday, sociologists and ethnographers are paying greater attention to paranormal communities. I commented on Bader’s analysis of Bigfoot seeking groups and their mix of naturalistic and paranormalist views among participants. Perhaps separation rather than mix may be more apt. The observation of different camps within a paranormal field is not new but since Bigfoot as an area of study is newer than ghosts, it’s worth a remark to explain why some will ignore or denigrate others in the same community even though they have a fringe topic interest in common. In a new essay collection related to the Supernatural in Society conference I mentioned yesterday, Marc Eaton contributed a piece describing a similar split in the ghost hunting community . Not only does this parallel the Bigfoot community in several ways but it was interesting because Eaton focuses on his interpretation of scientism as prevalent and investigators who work at “being sciencey” (my words, not his) as a way of legitimizing their work. Unfortunately, Eaton doesn’t cite my preceding work that overlaps a lot with his observations but I’ll see if I can reach him to introduce it. Meanwhile, I must reiterate a few of his observations and quibble with a few others.
Eaton begins his article titled “Paranormal Investigation: The Scientist and the Sensitive” in the compilation edited by himself and Waskul by suggesting that orthodox religious participation is dwindling, losing to the popularity of more democratic and personal spiritualism practices. This correlation seems well established and, I agree, a key component in the rise in paranormal topics in the media. He sees paranormal investigators (I use the umbrella term “ARIGs” – amateur research and investigation groups – to encompass cryptozoologists and ufologists) as located at the intersection of this individualized spirituality and the adoption of scientism.
There is a lot of new research happening in academia about paranormal culture and belief. I kid you not. Scholars in sociology, psychology, religious studies, and media studies are noticing that millions of people are deeply affected by paranormal beliefs and personal experiences. There is so much happening, especially regarding ghostly episodes, that it’s difficult to keep up with it all. Even new journals and conferences are springing up in the past few years.
When people ask me why I bother to spend my time on this stuff, I’m amazing at how ignorant they are that over half the population believes in some paranormal idea. Or at least, they are curious about it. This is not fringe. The paranormal is mainstream. It’s a resilient thread in our human history, it isn’t going away. It’s influential, it’s popular, and it’s big business as well.
Speaking of conferences, videos of the talks from the Supernatural in Contemporary Society Conference, which took place at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland in August 2018 are available for viewing. The visuals are awful but you can hear the speakers talk which is the most important thing. The conference purpose as given was “to explore the continuing role of the supernatural.” The conference intent was to “provide an interdisciplinary forum to discuss current and emerging research, and examine these in relation to the impact and value this has on culture, heritage and tourism.”
I may have something to say about several of these talks as I work through them but I advise you to check out the ones in the areas of your interest. There are many – ghosts & hauntings, Slenderman, witchcraft, Satanism, ufology, and anomalistics.
How often have you heard someone say “I know what I saw”. Observations and remembrances of events are deeply flawed but we still rely on our memory to give us a true account and we believe reports of eyewitnesses. These accounts are the primary evidence put forward in support of paranormal reality. Those who believe in the reality of UFOs, Bigfoot, ghosts, or anomalous phenomena are heavily influenced by seemingly legitimate and truthful tellings of strange events people say happened to them. They also contend that there are so many accounts that “there must be something to it” and “all these witnesses aren’t lying”. Investigators collect these reports and then derive ideas, theories, and conclusions from them. But if the reports are not accurate, the data is unreliable and misleading – garbage in, garbage out. Here is the second example of why we need to qualify eyewitness accounts as data. (See the first here.) Continue reading →
The primary evidence put forward in support of paranormal reality are accounts of witnesses. Those who believe in the reality of UFOs, Bigfoot, or ghosts are heavily influenced by seemingly legitimate and truthful tellings of strange events people say happened to them. They also contend that there are so many accounts that “there must be something to it” and “all these witnesses aren’t lying”. Investigators collect these reports and then derive ideas, theories, and conclusions from them. Astounding accounts show up in the media, sometimes repeatedly, and those who hear paranormal-themed stories from TV and popular written accounts tend to accept that they are accurate. This is a deeply flawed assumption to make. I recently came across two sources that exemplify why we need to qualify eyewitness accounts as data. Here is the first. Continue reading →
A recent discussion with a person who pitches ideas for TV shows got me thinking about what a solid, informative, program about the paranormal would look like. The bottom line… it would be really difficult and producers are likely not willing to take a risk on it.Continue reading →
Several people have asked me to explain why I now reject “Skeptic” to describe myself. In short, the label is limiting and is overwrought with mistaken assumptions of being elitist, arrogant, and closed-minded. Unfortunately, being labeled a Skeptic sends a signal to some to tune out what I might say by default because of the association with having a dismissive, know-it-all attitude, defeating any efforts at meaningful exchange over questionable claims.
The philosophy and process of scientific skepticism should be the unifying connection for the network of people who label themselves “Skeptics” and who participate in the associated activities and behaviors. I can’t see a clear mission or positive coherent message that unites Skeptics. This ongoing problem worsened in the past 10 years, reaching its low about 5 years ago with scandal, factions, and boycotts in what appeared to me to be a failure in leadership. Continue reading →
An article in Gizmodo today focused on the question of why UFO sightings (reported to NUFORC and MUFON – the major U.S. organizations who record these claims) are in decline since 2012 – a 30 to 40 percent drop from 2012 to 2017. When Jennings Brown, the journalist, contacted me Friday to talk about it, a few things came to mind. In contrast to the opinion of one leader in the UFO community quoted in the piece, I refuse to cop out with an untested, unsupported sci-fi-inspired answer to this trend. I suspect the real answer is social and far more complicated than we can easily tease out.
The latest episode of Big Picture Science radio show/podcast is called “Flat Earth” and features several interview segments about how amateurs are questioning scientific authority and attempting to sound sciencey all the while. Why do they do this? It’s complicated. The rise in flat earth belief is a good framework for this episode. This new conspiratorial claim is clearly not about science ignorance and lack of education – we all were taught at least this basic earth fact – but it is about the rejection of authority. They are refusing that established narrative and substituting their own personal ones. Evidence is seen through their own two-dimensional lenses. Continue reading →
By coincidence, I was reading an old book on Loch Ness that I found in a used bookstore while the news broke of a new scientific project to take place on the lake. The book from 1977 – Search at Loch Ness by Dennis Meredith – was an overly sunny view of the Academy of Applied Sciences work over many years spearheaded by Robert Rines. Using sonar and underwater strobes and cameras, this crew produced most notably the 1972 “flipper” photos and the 1975 body and head (“Gargoyle”) shots among an array of odd sonar traces, all of which they sold to the scientific world, the British House of Commons, and to the public as proof of a large unknown animal that deserved further attention. Oh, how things have changed since this book! Continue reading →
The Secret History of the Jersey Devil: How Quakers, Hucksters, and Benjamin Franklin Created a Monster
Brian Regal and Frank J. Esposito
Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 2018
Only in very recent years, thanks to Bill Sprouse and Brian Regal, has the connection to Daniel Leeds been made to the Leeds Devil which later became the Jersey Devil – the official demon of New Jersey. The story about Leeds’ alliances, his nasty break with his Quaker neighbors, the production of a controversial almanac, and his family’s feud with Benjamin Franklin has been colorfully described primarily by Regal, a science historian. The premise of this volume is that the Jersey Devil is a beast spawned not from a demon seed but from freethinking, politics, a hoax, and the media.
I’m sold on the idea that the legend of this devil was formed from these threads that reached far back to pre-USA times. But it’s not the story most people have heard. There was no Mother Leeds, no devil child, no cryptid lurking in the Pine Barrens. But there was a notable and chastised family, probably some monstrous births, some Native folklore, and a climate of susceptibility that nurtured the myth we have today.
A common critical observation in cryptid circles is as follows:
With everyone having readily available technology in their pockets or within reach, there should be plenty of high-quality imagery of cryptids (or mysterious entities of any type) if they really are around as claimed.
Yesterday was one of several instances where I saw something that may have been intriguing but failed to get documentation of it. It led me to think less of (but not dismiss entirely) the claim that we should have more visual evidence. Firstly, it is factual that there are more security cameras, game trail cameras, and other automatic visual recording devices operating today that should, logically, obtain interesting footage. There are many outstanding examples of trail cams that have captured rare animals, animals outside of an assumed range, and remarkable situations that have proved enlightening. Those cameras aren’t thinking. My incident, which I believe others frequently experience as well, shows that our very human attempt to make sense of what we see results in missed documentation. Continue reading →
This is an encyclopedia with alphabetical entries that explore mostly “tales and motifs” in popular culture from early writings to modern media. The entries are well researched and cross-referenced so the reader is able to see themes emerge throughout. I read it cover to cover as well as using it as a references for a paper reviewing paranormal trends over the past decade. While quite long, I read a few entries per day. – it’s a great bedside table book (if you don’t mind the red ghostly eye staring at you). The book intends to show the breadth and depth of ghostlore and its influences from society and other cultural influences.
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 →
Shadow Cats: The Black Panthers of North America
Anomalist Books, 2018.
Paperback, color illustrations, 221pp
Right now was a GREAT time to release a book about the subject “black panther”. I’m being sarcastic because if you Google the term, you get nothing but returns on the comic character and movie*. The “black panther” that author Michael Mayes (TexasCryptidHunter) writes about is the generic term for a big cat (specifically a leopard or jaguar) with black coloration. The color is caused by melanism, which is a recessive allele in leopards and dominant in jaguars. Overall black color has never been found to occur in lions, tigers or pumas (cougar/mountain lion). Since leopards are not native to North America and jaguars are in Central and South America (with a rare few wandering as far north as the southernmost areas of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas), large black cats would be considered “cryptids” because it is doubtful they exist. Science be damned, people report seeing large black cats all over the US (and also the UK, and in 2012-3 the French Riviera.) There is an array of reasonable explanations for these sightings but, as with any cryptid, people who have such experiences eventually settle on their own interpretation and many are convinced they have seen a dangerous predator in the form of a black panther. Continue reading →
Today I received some emails from people who wanted to tell me their paranormal stories. I have to say, no, I don’t want to hear any more stories. There are a MILLION stories; I can’t do anything with stories. They are, in practicality, worthless to me. Decades, even centuries, of stories about hauntings, monsters, and weird observations are available, yet they get us no closer to establishing reliable information. However, if you are in the PA/MD/NJ area and need help with an actual investigation, please contact Anomalies Research Society and we’ll see what we can do to help. Or, if you have very good original information that you know will be useful to me in terms of science and the paranormal and know my previous work, then feel free to pass it on. Also, if you propose a worthwhile project related to investigating these type of observations, then I’m listening. Otherwise, I’m sorry, I’m not going to answer positively to hear your personal story. Paranormal investigation through personal anecdotes is not worthwhile for me but there are PLENTY of other people who are interested. Contact them instead.
Secondly, over the past two years, I’ve noticed a surge in paranormal programming that goes straight to YouTube, Amazon Prime video, or Netflix streaming, bypassing network broadcasting. Often these get renamed or repackaged for other countries or are amateur ventures. Though they are very popular (these outlets can’t seem to get enough of them), I realized I can no longer accurately keep track of them. Originally, I set up the Paranormal TV list to track the escalating trend in these shows that occurred in the 2000s and to see what stations carried that ball. I used other internet sources who kept tabs on the new shows coming out. But the rules have changed and I no longer need the list so I have ceased updating it as of this year. I am pleased to say the list was used not only for my work but by Dr. Christopher Bader in the 2nd edition of Paranormal America as well as thousands of people who clicked on the list to find their favorite show in the mix or muse on just how many there were.
Steve Parsons appears to be on the same page as me about the poor understanding of ghost investigations by amateur investigators. He wrote a detailed and very readable book with the aim to show that this kind of sensationalized paranormal inquiry should not be confused with parapsychology or science: Ghostology: The Art of the Ghost Hunter (Steven T. Parsons, 2015,
White Crow Books, UK).
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). Continue reading →
“An organization suffering under the whip of an abusive or egomaniacal leader,” Jeffrey Kluger writes, “is hardly an organization functioning at its best.” Keeping the near-boiling caldron (of the leader) from bubbling over means minimizing experiences of shame and maximizing displays of pride and hubris and attacking those who upset the balance. Sound familiar? The book The Narcissist Next Door begins on page 1 with Donald Trump. It was published in 2014! We are living out this book today in the form of the Narcissist in the White House.
It was crystal-clear prior to his election that Trump was an exemplary narcissist. He had an overinflated ego regularly on display. As Kluger notes about narcissists, their confidence level exceeds their performances; and they don’t learn from experiences. Ego protection is of the utmost importance. If they didn’t think of the latest good idea, they will steal the credit for it. Continue reading →