There are numerous explanations and theories regarding why paranormal experiences occur, and what they may be. Believers in the supernatural may argue that experiences are evidence of the existence of ghosts and the otherworldly. Skeptics, on the other hand, may explain such phenomena away as the result of environmental and psychological influences, perhaps even fraud or simply the ‘need’ to believe in something. Regardless of these debates, paranormal experiences are still a prevalent part of our human and indeed, social, experience.
Over the last six years my interest has been in the ‘social’ element of such experiences. It all started with an encounter of my own, and a subsequent interest in understanding collective experiences:
When I was a student I took part in paranormal investigations as part of a local group in Aberdeen. During one investigation we were spending the night in the local Tolbooth (an old Scottish jail). We had split into teams to investigate the building and I was sat with a fellow investigator in one of the old cells – the rest of the team were located in other parts of the building. I vividly remember that we were sitting eating some biscuits that we had bought on the investigation to keep us going through the night. We were taking a break – by this point it was in the early hours of the morning – and not actively ‘looking’ for anything. As we sat there, I started to notice what looked like a shape standing in the doorway to the other room. At first I thought it was just my imagination, and although I could see it, I was aware that it was not like seeing it with my eyes – almost like a vision overlaying reality. This ‘vision’ became clearer to the point where I could see a man standing in the doorway, dressed in old, quite ragged looking clothing. The experience was not at all scary, and did not even feel particularly real. My initial thought was that I was just tired. That was until my fellow investigator said, “can you see that?”. I proceeded to ask her what she could see, and her reply astounded me, “it looks like a man standing in the doorway”. I replied, “yes”, and asked her what she could see. Between us we both described exactly the same figure. After a short while the vision seemed to dissipate and we were both left puzzled by the encounter. Had we both just seen a ghost? Or somehow shared the exact same vision between us?
I have had a number of paranormal experiences, I guess one of the reasons that I became interested in researching this area. Looking back I am fairly sure that many of these could be explained by rational causes, however, this one always fascinated me. It also became a significant experience for me because I had shared it with someone else, and therefore it felt more ‘real’.
As I continued my research in this area and started my doctoral research it became clear that social confirmation of paranormal experiences is an important component in our understanding of them. Collective experiences have formed part of our spiritual and social history for a long time, and even in this modern day we seek confirmation of such encounters together – consider for instance the significant rise of paranormal and ghost hunting groups. Given the nature of paranormal experiences, and the ontological questions that surround them, collective experiences also provide an affirmation to such events. If more than one person is involved in experiencing the ghost, it has the potential to negate the psychological component – i.e. “it was not just my imagination, because Sue saw it too”. This is not to say that having a collective experience proves the existence of ghosts, and the argument for environmental or collective psychological influences still remains. However, investigating how we come to see and understand paranormal events together can offer some interesting insights into the ways that the paranormal is experienced.
In my thesis, I address collective experiences in the context of paranormal groups. I appreciate, however, that this is a fairly chunky piece of bed time reading and as such over the next few blogs posts my aim is to explain these findings. In doing so, I will discuss how we come to notice paranormal events, discover them and ‘feel’ them collectively.