In my earlier post, ‘Noticing ghosts together’, I discussed how unusual events are noticed and shared collectively. In particular, I mentioned how the use of “that” questions draw attention to an event and imply strange or transgressive qualities towards it. In this post I would like to explore how an event progresses from first being noticed by a group, to being understood and categorised as potentially paranormal.
This discussion further draws upon my doctoral research which examined the social interaction of paranormal investigation groups. I, therefore, approach this from the perspective of examining the talk and actions that inform how people come to understand paranormal events. It should be acknowledged then that I do not discuss the psychological or broader sociological influences (such as belief), in this context, but certainly recognise that these may play an additional role. This approach does, however, provide an interesting perspective into how groups collectively come to understand the nature of an event.
At the route of this discussion is the understanding that individuals do not immediately categorise events as paranormal, but go through a variety of processes to reach this conclusion. This has been acknowledged by other researchers, for instance, in their book Ghostly Encounters: The Hauntings of Everyday Life, Dennis and Michelle Waskul (2016) examine the sense-making practices that individuals go through to determine an event as paranormal. Likewise, Robin Wooffitt has examined how people account for strange events, often drawing upon normal narratives to explain abnormal encounters (a device he calls “I was just doing X…when Y”). This research suggests, as does my own, that individuals do not immediately ‘jump’ to a conclusion that they have experienced a paranormal event but reach this conclusion through various individual and social practices.
The research I have mentioned predominantly focuses on individual experiences, and how these are accounted for to others after the event. In contrast my research explores how groups collectively reach an understanding of an event being paranormal as it occurs in the moment. There are challenges for the group to contend with in this context, perhaps most notably they are often dealing with phenomena that is ‘invisible’ (such as sounds, fleeting visions). Therefore, there are added challenges in not only ‘seeing’ the phenomena that is being discussed, but also determining its features and whether these constitute something that is paranormal. It is not, for instance, like pointing to a physical object, such as an apple, and attempting to describe it. By breaking down the interactions of groups, however, it is possible to analyse the resources that individuals and groups use to discuss and negotiate unusual events and their paranormal potential.
Below I discuss a couple of ways that groups collectively come to understand events as paranormal in nature – by positioning events in empty space and establishing their features through talk and action. This is a very brief summary, a full analysis can be found in my latest paper (available for free with the publisher until 17th November).
There is a strand of studies that examine a practice called Deixis am Phantasma, the practice of pointing at empty space. Traditionally, this has been examined in storytelling and the ways that people might use empty space to illustrate abstract ideas (for instance, if I tell you a story I might point to an imaginary map in the air to demonstrate how far away one thing is from another). During my research, I noticed that this was also common during paranormal events, and that empty space was often used a resource to not only locate an event, but also to imply paranormal qualities. In the context of this research an empty space is defined by its lack of any physical object or normal influence that could, conceivably, be responsible for the event that occurred.
To illustrate this let me provide a few examples from the data used in my doctoral studies. These examples are taken from video footage collected during paranormal investigations and focus on ‘moments’ when a reputedly paranormal event occurs:
- During an investigation the group hear a large bang. One of the group says “now what was that?”, and this is followed by a different member of the group pointing out of the room into the hallway. As he does this he says “over” indicating that he believes the sound has come from where he is pointing towards – an empty space outside the room they are in. At this moment, the group are all located in one room, and as such a bang from outside this room in a space void of people, has the potential to be unexplained.
- In a different investigation, the group hear a moaning sound. One of the group members asks if the group heard “that”. After agreeing that the group have heard something, they then locate the ‘moaning’ sound in an empty space behind the group.
- In a final example, the group are conducting a Ouija Board experiment and hear the sound of a grandfather clock. As there are no grandfather clocks in the room one of them says “what the fuck is that?”. After identifying that it sounds like a grandfather clock another member of group asks if it might be the regular electric clock located in the room. The group explore this possibility by going over to the clock and listening to the ticking sound that it is making. They quickly, however, agree that it was not the sound of the electric clock but the ‘booming’ of a grandfather clock and locate the sound in a different empty space away from where the electric clock is situated.
Positioning the event in an empty space is important to understanding and categorising it as potentially paranormal. It provides a space for the event to be ‘seen’ and assessed collectively by the group. Empty spaces, by the very fact that they do not contain an obvious explanation for the event, imply transgressive qualities towards them. If for instance, the large bang occurred in the room with the rest of the group it has the potential to be attributed to a ‘living’ person. Likewise, if the moan had come from near one of the group members it could have been one of them, and if the clock sound came from the area of the electric clock it is likely that this could simply be the source of the sound. By positioning events in empty space, no apparent source is evident for them and as such a paranormal potential is implied.
Establishing the features of an event
In addition to locating events in empty space, groups collectively establish the features of an event together. Gestures are often used to aid this, as individuals illustrate the experience that they encountered to others. By establishing the features of an event (e.g. what it sounded like or looked like), the group develop an understanding of its properties and whether these have the potential to be paranormal in nature. For instance:
- In the grandfather clock example discussed above, in addition to locating the event in an empty space one of the group members describes the sound that they heard as an “old boom” rather than the sound of an electric clock. She describes this as “like a heart beat” and as she says this gestures to her heart to illustrate the ‘heart beat’ sound that she heard.
- In a different instance, the group hear the sound of a dog scratching. Initially they attribute this sound to one of the group members and ask her to scratch the clothes that she has on to establish if it was her. She denies this but still scratches her clothes to prove this, as she does so they confirm that it was not her, and sounded more like an actual dog scratching. To illustrate this two groups members scratch in the air and make a “chu chu” sound. They then locate the sound in an empty space between two of the group members.
The features of an event are negotiated between the group through talk and gesture to establish its paranormal potential. By identifying that an event differs from any normal explanations that may be available, a collective understanding of the event as paranormal is established.
What does this mean?
In the context of paranormal groups these interactions are important in establishing the nature of an event. These findings suggest that firstly events are not immediately identified as paranormal, but this understanding is reached through the collective activity of the group. This activity is carefully managed and the group draw upon various resources which are available to them to reach an understanding – including the environment around them (i.e. empty space) and their ability to illustrate the events features through talk and action. Secondly, the observation that an event is not immediately categorised as paranormal is in itself interesting. It demonstrates that social confirmation of an experience is desirable and actively sought by the group. Finally, it demonstrates that categorising an event as paranormal is a negotiation between the group, rather than a conclusion that is forced upon them. This is not to say that issues of influence and power between group members is absent, but it suggests that collective paranormal experiences are perhaps more complicated than simple persuasion or manipulation. Discovering ghosts together is a social process, and groups demonstrate a careful and conscious effort to manage how these experiences are presented to and understood by others.