The results of the 2018 Chapman University survey of American Fears have been released and they suggest that America (that is, even well-educated America) is even more accepting of the paranormal than in the past three years. You can view the entire survey here but let me highlight the major points as well as some possible explanations for the numbers and some problems with applying them.
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.
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
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
Ghosts in Popular Culture and Legend
June Michele Pulliam and Anthony J. Fonseca, Editors
Greenwood/ABC-CLIO, LLC 2016 403pp, Index.
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
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
I received a personal message from a paranormal investigator who thought it was a shame I didn’t believe in the validity of spirit communication. He pointed me to a video he made that he said was the clearest responses he’s ever received in an EVP recording. I’m always looking to either be impressed or spot an obvious hoax so I checked it out. Upon noticing that he had included subtitles in the video, I quickly put my hand up to cover the lower portion of the screen while watching so I wouldn’t be primed to “hear” what (he interpreted) the spirit voice had said. I did hear the first sound he interpreted, a very rapid “What?” in response to his opening inquiry because I saw the subtitle signalling it. It was so soon after his question, it felt out of place and I think I would not have noticed it had he not pointed it out. For the rest of the video, without the priming, I could not hear any anomalous voice, just background noise of insects or wind outside the structure. When I told him I was not impressed, he seemed stunned. To him, these voices were crystal clear.
I would not have thought much about this exchange again except it served as a great real life example of the concepts put forward in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. As I was reading it today, the well-tested observations of human perception and thinking habits he explained applied directly to paranormalists and their methods of reinforcing their paranormal worldview. Here are some examples.
There are three books that are explicitly titled “Confessions of a Ghost Hunter” – from 1928, 1936 and 2002.
There is also one called “Confessions of a Reluctant Ghost Hunter” by Von Braschler (2014) that I confess I didn’t read. A defunct Facebook page and website also of the same name appears to be related. Several other media also nab this title in some form or another to the point where it’s getting stale, like just another ghost reality TV show. But I’m here to compare the three books.
I read them in order of popularity today: Price’s first which is also the most substantial and the superior of the lot. Then Taylor’s, who was (maybe still is) popular with the modern amateur ghost hunting community. Finally, O’Donnells, which is nearly forgotten or even unknown by today’s paranormal researchers. Continue reading
As with many cultural products, inspirations and influence for a widely-known idea originated from a variety of places and in alternative flavors. It’s unpredictable what bits and pieces will glom on to the original idea or which paths the notion (good or bad) will take that results in propelling it into mainstream popularity. Then, the idea can take on a life of its own whereby many people who later adopt it don’t know of its long history. This convoluted evolution of an idea applies to the “Stone Tape Theory” of hauntings often invoked by amateur paranormal investigators or mentioned on ghost hunting TV shows.
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.
I’m researching the history of the Stone Tape “theory” of haunting for my Spooky Geology site. It’s something I’ve been working on in bits and pieces for several years now. I’ve watched the movie The Stone Tape (thanks to mooching off Blake Smith’s Plex account) and have keyed into any mention of the idea from various paranormalists. One website mentioned that some paranormalists may have been influenced by a book by Don Robins called The Secret Language of Stone. From 1988, it obviously is later than the 1972 movie. But the write-up seemed interesting. With no luck finding a copy in a library, I picked up a used copy and read it in a week. By the time I was done, I was ready to punch Robins. It’s an annoying book. I don’t think it would have influenced many people who could have made it through the techno-babbling, tangents, and connecting of random threads to get to a frustrating end. Here’s another case of me reading a book so you don’t have to… Continue reading
This might come as a shock to the millions of ghost enthusiasts out there: The scientific consensus is that ghosts are NOT spirits, remnants of the dead, recordings of energy, or supernatural entities. Our existing knowledge about nature does not point to a conclusion that ghosts are a single definable thing, paranormal or normal, that you can find, observe, measure, or study. Yet, there are about 200 guides to “ghost hunting” in print or e-book form that lay out ways to obtain evidence of or make contact with ghosts. Therefore, we have a conundrum at step one of any attempt at ghost hunting – we can’t define what a ghost is, and we do not know its properties because we’ve never determined that they exist and measured them. No ghost handbook has ever led anyone to catch and identify ghosts, they can only lead you to interpret something as a ghost.
In that sense, all ghost hunting books are worthless. So why bother with them?
First, it’s an interesting cultural phenomena. Actively investigating reports of ghosts and paranormal activity is mainstream and a popular hobby and tourism draw. In 2010, there were over 1000 paranormal investigation groups in the US, the majority of which researched hauntings. (Hill, 2010) It’s not worthless to examine why people spend their time and money on this hobby and how they go about doing it.
Second, the idea of paranormal investigation contains important aspects of society’s attitudes towards finding out about the world, decided what is meaningful and true, using science to examine questions, cooperation and trust in a community, and taking part in a larger effort beyond one’s own small role in life.
I’m deeply interested in the second point. I’ve found that examining amateur paranormal group behaviors and output highlights concepts about science education and public discourse about belief and reality. This piece mentions 11 books on ghost hunting that I have examined. They have broad similarities and distinct differences. In the main portion, I review 4 books on the basis of the following:
1. Readability (language, errors, quality of writing)
2. Credibility (sources, supported arguments vs speculation, factual correctness)
3. Overall value as a cultural product (Buy it or not?)
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.
Paul Cropper sent me a copy of his new book with co-author Tony Healy, Australian Poltergeist: The Stone-throwing Spook of Humpty Doo and Many Other Cases. He must have known how much I love this topic and was eager to learn about various cases around the world.
I learned about the concept of poltergeists before many of today’s weekend ghost hunters were out of diapers. It seems like today’s paranormal investigators do not know much about the long and detailed history about this particular type of haunting. I didn’t know as much as I wanted to but Australian Poltergeist gave me great info but also an increased interest in seeking out more.
Regarding paranormal research, there is no comparison between the work that comes out in print (paper or digital) and the mostly crap posted online from paranormal groups or the media. You are hard-pressed to find anyone online who knows what they are talking about when it comes to solid paranormal scholarship and writes well. Here’s another example – A new book by Jacob Middleton called Spirits of an Industrial Age: Ghost Imposture, Spring-heeled Jack and Victorian Society. It was available to borrow for free from the Kindle lenders library (if you have a Prime membership). So I “borrowed” it for as long as I wanted.
I’ve read a lot of paranormal books, a lot on the web, even “long-haired” academic-type books and papers but I must have missed the fascinating story about the prowling ghost phenomenon of the 19th century. I had an incomplete idea about these old-time spooks. As far as I knew, there was only one Spring-heeled Jack who harassed people of London for a while. I didn’t know his origins or his ultimate fate. (I’m still waiting for Mike Dash’s book to come out.)
In today’s paranormal pop culture, we seek haunted spaces. Middleton’s book describes a strange time where “ghosts” wandered the streets looking for people to frighten. They hid behind hedgerows and in dark alleys. They had no purpose except to be surprising and scary. People really did wear white sheets! (No mention if they said “Boo!”)
The prowling ghost was a well-known phenomena on the outskirts of the big towns in Britain. This book explores the particularly British phenomena in some of its more famous manifestations and how this related to society at that time. In several respects, it is an incredibly interesting and thought-provoking story not many American paranormal researchers know of.
People living in Hammersmith in the early 1800s half expected to meet a specter when out alone at night. There was no public lighting at this time so travel after dark was a serious hazard. The Hammersmith ghost manifested repeatedly in the 1820s and 30s – his identity (presumably multiple) was not resolved. This “ghost” and others like it sought out people to victimize. The goal seemed to be to elicit a good scare but in some cases, there was physical assault. Obviously, women were particularly vulnerable. There is not a lot of info about this aspect, given that the most lurid details were often left out of newspaper accounts, but there is ample suggestion that sexual assault was certainly perpetrated. Females were often targeted, their clothes ripped and skin scratched by long nails or claws of the “ghost”.
The tale of the Hammersmith ghost spread beyond the locals. This was not a normally behaved ghost. It seemed an obvious hoax; someone (or more than one) was deliberately doing this. The most common guess was that it was bored aristocrat boys who, if caught, were able to buy their way out of trouble. Besides, law enforcement was lax. Often, gun fire would not draw police attention since it was so common. As fear in the town increased, so did vigilanteism as the citizens had to take matters into their own hands.
The Hammersmith ghost activity came to a crescendo when it resulted in a mistaken death. Thomas Millwood was shot in what was judged to be a case of mistaken identity. He was mistaken for the ghost because he was wearing a bricklayers light clothing. The shooter, Francis Smith, was repentant, but was to be hanged. He was pardoned due to sympathy for the man who thought he was shooting the troublesome “ghost”.
Several more such tricksters appeared. The most famous off all these terrorizing characters was Spring-heeled Jack (1837 onwards). While this book contains excellent info about the Jack phenomena — such as documentation that almost all remarkable traits of Spring Heeled Jack (claws, flame, jumping, etc.) appeared to have precedent from earlier marauders — it is not a definitive book on Jack. What it does do is place Jack into the tail-end chronology of prowling ghosts of Britain.
The term “spring-heeled jack” eventually became a personification of any threat, attack, or display of aggression by an assailant. Even though some attacks were real, it appeared Jack was very much an early urban legend generating lurid tales for the newspapers and penny dreadfuls.
Army barracks were often the reported locations of ghost sightings with armed soldiers reporting a “spring-heeled jack”. Guards would see apparitions in the night temporarily forgetting their fellow officers were not beyond playing tricks. Confronting a ghost was a brave act.
The bogeyman of Spring-heeled Jack was replaced in society by fear of a more notorious Jack in the late 1800s. The prowling ghosts disappeared as society evolved greater personal security measures.
If there is one concept that all paranormal researcher should understand is that ghosts are a product of their time. To those of us used to hearing about the transparent, amorphous, contemporary shadow person or ghost, the physicality of the Georgian and Victorian “ghost” descriptions are strange. They were solid, like people. Many of them WERE people. There were misperceptions, of course, sightings of people who were going about their business in the dead of night but in unfortunate clothing or circumstances for which they were mistaken as a paranormal marauder. Most people assumed they were hoaxes. But even when you know it’s a fake, the surprise encounter can be disarming and intimidating.
Speaking of surprising encounters, funnily enough, nudity was considered ghostly. Nude, likely disturbed, people running around in the night were mistaken for ghosts. In several instances Middleton points out that deviant sexual activity was conflated with the supernatural. Again, we see things through the lens of that time.
The book can be a bit wandering in places, the chronology was difficult for me to track, maybe because some ghosts made return appearances, but I learned so much that was new to me. The sociology of ghosts is fascinating; ghosts live off of human belief.
Expecting a low-quality amateurish piece like so many paranormal books out these days, Spirits of an Industrial Age is surprisingly well done. I enjoyed it so much that I purchased it as a Kindle e-book because I didn’t want to give it up!
If I could teach a class about paranormal history to today’s Dunning-Kruger suffering ghost hunters, I would include this book. An important addition to the cultural study of ghosts (as well as history and historical crime), it’s well worth the price for those of us that love real ghost stories. Ghost back in those days were WAY more interesting than the mists and floating balls of dust today. Ghosts then were far more exciting, but potentially more dangerous because they were “real”.
I finished my thesis last year on amateur paranormal investigation groups. Many of you have requested copies. It can be purchased but not many would want to spend the money for that so I’m giving it away via PDF.