Collective Paranormal Experiences – noticing ghosts together

In my earlier post, I discussed the need to examine paranormal experiences from a social perspective. This post is the first of three which will discuss the findings from my doctoral research, exploring social interaction and paranormal events in the context of paranormal groups. In this first section, I would like to discuss how paranormal events become noticed by more than one person, and as such become part of a wider group experience.

The findings from my doctoral research are based upon a research method called Conversation Analysis. This allows the detailed analysis of interaction – most usually conversation – with a focus on the discovery of processes and patterns within everyday conversation. For the purpose of my research I was keen to use this method to examine the interaction between individuals as they take part in paranormal investigations, and more specifically when they report an experience taking place. As such, I adopted this method to examine video data of groups having experiences. One of the advantages of this approach is it provides the opportunity to break down social interaction (such as conversation, actions, movements) by transcribing the activities taking place. It provides an in-depth insight into what people do and when.

I trawled through over one hundred hours of video data to find cases when paranormal groups reported an experience taking place, and then transcribed what was going on, moment by moment. It provided a fascinating perspective into what happens during a paranormal event between the people that are experiencing it. As I did this, I started to notice patterns in the way that unusual events were noticed and shared.

What is that?

As I examined the transcripts of data, a regular word emerged each time an experience was noticed – “that”. This was particularly prevalent when an unusual event occurred in the external environment, such as a sound or vision (‘feelings’ are slighting different and I will examine these in a later blog). And “that” was always posed as a question. For example, in one instance a scratching noise can be heard, as this happens the group look towards a space in the room and one of them says, “what was that?”. In another example, a popping sound is heard, and the first reaction to the sound is “what’s that?”. Sometimes the reaction to an event would be upgraded, demonstrating shock and surprise at the encounter, “what the hell is that?” and “what the fuck is that?” to name a couple of instances.

Whilst initially the posing of a “that” question seems fairly mundane it is interesting to thatnote the choice of the word ‘that’ rather than a description of the event taking place. Individuals did not say “did you see a ghost standing in the corner”, “did you hear a breath”, “did you hear a man speaking”, at least in the first instance of noticing and announcing this to the group. This is interesting because ‘that’ carries with it certain characteristics. Firstly, it is a demonstrative (i.e. we use it to demonstrate certain things in the environment – i.e. look at that flower). Secondly, it is also an ambiguous term unless accompanied by the thing we are describing. As such, by leaving ‘that’ on its own we invite others to discover what ‘that’ might be with us. Thirdly, and leading on from this point, ‘that’ in certain contexts is a special type of demonstrative because it has the potential to imply transgressive qualities to an event. Think for instance about what you might say if you saw something quite disgusting on the floor, your reaction may be “urghh, what is that?”. It is often used then to point out things in the environment that are unexpected or unusual in form.

In the context of paranormal groups, a “that” question following an event in the environment does a number of things. It communicates to the group that someone has noticed something in the environment, that it may be unusual or transgressive in nature, and by posing the question invites others to discover what it may be. This is important in our understanding of paranormal events because it indicates that individuals do not immediately identify an experience and then communicate this to others, but invite the discovery of these events collectively. By using the term ‘that’ the event, regardless of what it might be, is also poised from the beginning as having potentially unusual characteristics. Therefore, from the first noticing of an event the group are invited to discover it’s unusual potential.

The “that” question appears to be an important starting point in the formation of collective paranormal experiences. As I examine further in the paper “The transgressive that: Making the world uncanny”, this is not only evident in ghostly encounters but collective UFO sightings also. In the next blog, I will go further to discuss how a group progress from ‘that’ to identifying an event as paranormal in nature. Until then I encourage you to listen out for “that” questions when you next watch a paranormal show or see a collective experience taking place – you will notice just how frequent they are. A warning though, as I have found in my own research, once you notice “that” it is difficult not to, in some respects it quite literally haunts you…

 

 

 

 

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Ghosts exist…what now?

This week I came across the Sir Noface documentary currently touring America. Led by Chad Calek, a well-known paranormal investigator and filmmaker, the documentary claims to provide definitive proof of ghosts – in the form of a full apparition appearing on camera. As always I remain sceptical of this claim, particularly following the commercialised manner in which it appears to be being presented to the public – sell out tours including a range of ticket packages, a documentary film which I am sure will come with a price tag, merchandise etc. Surely, one would assume, if you had dedicated your life to paranormal research and you truly believe you have finally found proof of ghosts you would share far and wide? Open up the footage to further analysis? Invite other researchers and scientists along to discuss the merit and implications of such a find? Furthermore, the recent claim by Most Haunted to have captured a ghost on camera – which looks suspiciously like a poor attempt at a video overlay of Stuart accompanied by some pretty terrible acting – has left a sour taste for such claims. I do, however, like to remain open-minded and I can’t help but feel curious both about the footage itself, and why it is being revealed the way that it is…

It did get me thinking though – what if it was real? What if after all these years someone finally did have unequivocal evidence that ghosts exist? In the world of paranormal research we are often pre-occupied with the question – “do ghosts exist?”. However, we rarely stop to think what would happen if they do, and I think it is worth some thought.

So let’s pretend for a moment that proof is finally presented that ghosts, that is spirits of the dead, are real. What might it mean for…ghosthome

Our day-to-day lives…what if that bump in the night could actually be a ghost? Or you potentially share your home with a phantom lodger? Would you suddenly feel more self conscious having a shower or walking around in your undies? Perhaps we would think more about the history of our homes when we buy them and along with questions about woodworm and damp spots, we might also ask if it is haunted.

Research…at current paranormal research is considered to be at the fringes of an ‘acceptable’ research topic. However, I imagine this would change. Perhaps University departments such as the Centre for the Study of Anomalous Psychological Processes (CSAPP) at the University of Northampton, Anomalous Experience Research Unit (AERU) at the University of York or the Koestler Unit at the University of Edinburgh would become popular research centres. The potential for funding would likely increase and as such new centres of research, courses in the paranormal and research projects may emerge. And new questions may be on the agenda. Instead of investigating if such phenomena exists, we might be considering what ghosts are? What their existence means? How can we study/ understand them further?

Religion and belief…what would it mean for religion? I imagine for some that proof of ghosts would be considered proof of a soul, and therefore an afterlife. As in most cases, the existence of ghosts would likely be interpreted in different ways by different faiths and I guess others would use it to solidify their own belief systems. Some may deny the evidence, and others may set up new religious groups based on it.

Business…in previous posts I have discussed the commercialisation of ghosts. Part of the draw to forms of ghost tourism is the ‘possibility’ of ghosts and the desire to be enchanted by such experiences. However, what if the ‘possibility’ is taken away? Would the business of ghosts lose the intrigue that makes its so appealing? Would the prospect that we are potentially living with ghosts on a daily basis take a way from the desire to go ‘seeking’ them? Or on the other hand would it encourage the commercialisation of ghosts further – perhaps mediums and psychics would feel justified, and ghost hunts would be more popular because the experiences are suddenly more authentic. I also wonder if there may be ethical implications…I can imagine groups being set up to protect the rights of ghosts, or certifications being required to be a genuinely haunted location or for working in the field.

Death…and what might it mean for our inevitability? Would it alleviate our fear of death to know that something exists beyond? And how would I feel if I thought my loved ones might be ghosts? I guess to some extent this may raise more questions. When I spoke to my husband about this he said it might be quite good as being a ghost you could possibly travel around the world visiting places you could not in life – and I guess that would be pretty cool. At the same time, what if you or a loved one was trapped, as we often perceive ghosts to be. This must be a lonely existence and actually the thought of this is potentially more upsetting than not knowing at all (I notice a new film is soon coming out exploring this issue from the ghosts perspective – A Ghost Story).

I am sure there would be plenty more questions and implications of ghosts existing, but after considering this possibility briefly one certainty is that it seems to raise more questions than answers.  And maybe this makes the need to question proof all the more important and perhaps if, one day, proof really is established we should consider how such evidence is introduced to the world…

 

Nice view, two bathrooms…and a ghost!

I have lived in a few properties over the years that I considered to have spooky goings on. Indeed those earlier experiences were probably partly responsible for my interest in studying the supernatural. However, I never considered the possibility of a resident ghost being a marketing tool for selling my home – indeed I would have thought quite the opposite!

Recently, a few news articles have caught my eye though and it appears that there is currently a boom in ‘spooky’ real estate. Consider for instance the “Haunted Hill House” in Mineral Wells, Texas. Evidently in need of a few repairs and on at the price of $99,900 it is marketed as having 5 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms (1 sealed for unknown reasons) and nine resident ghosts. The property is also sold as a thriving ghost tour business hosting paranormal investigations for $400 a night, and operating as a paranormal research centre. The owners claim to have tried to renovate the property but faced difficulties due to ‘supernatural complications’. Likewise, in October 2016 (rather appropriately) the reputedly haunted “The Cage” residence in Essex, UK, went up for sale. Even the estate agent claimed to have captured paranormal activity with one of the photos from the property featuring its very own orb. The Cage is a well-known haunted location in England, with a dark history of imprisoning Ursula Kemp accused of being a witch before being hung for her alleged crimes in 1582. The property was marketed as either a residence (for those brave enough!) or a popular paranormal business. If, lg_8e8cd7-ClownMotel_Bethanyhowever, a haunted house is not quite enough for you then why not double up on the phobia potential and purchase America’s ‘Most Haunted’ Clown Motel? As of July 2017, the notorious clown motel, not only filled with thousands of clowns but located next to a cemetery in Nevada, was put up for sale for $900,000 (the only stipulation being that any buyer must keep all of the clowns…).

Indeed a number of properties have started to appear on the market with their very own ghosts – Carbisdale Castle with ‘Betty’ the ghost, the ghost of Bela Lugosi (the 1930’s Count Dracula) in his Hollywood home, or Darnick Tower which has various ghosts haunting the grounds. Ghosts it seems have become a popular selling point…particularly it seems if the property in question requires a bit of work!

The move towards marketing ghosts or hauntings to sell a house is an interesting development. In the three examples mentioned earlier, the properties were not only being sold as a residency but also for their business potential – further demonstrating the commercialisation of ghosts in our modern society. A haunted house traditionally would have been considered a concerning feature, and as demonstrated by the infamous ‘Ghostbusters’ ruling in 1991 deter potential buyers. In this particular case, a New York Court officially ruled a house as ‘haunted’ after a seller was taken to court for not declaring the property as haunted at the time of the sale. Whilst it could not be proven that a ghost inhabited the property the previous owner had perpetuated rumours that the house was haunted. It was only after the buyer had put a considerable down payment on the property that he found out its reputation – this led to a court case ruling in the buyers favour. Since this case some states in America now require sellers to declare if a property is allegedly haunted – or at least if you have publicly acknowledged it as haunted. As discussed on Realtor failure to do so could result in grounds for the buyer to sue.

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Given the current trend for haunted house sales, however, it seems like keeping your ‘ghosts in the closet’ is not only a poor legal decision but also potentially a poor sales decision! To hell with it, instead of the smell of freshly baked bread to lure your buyers in, why not crack out the Ouija Board and leave a few windows open to ensure the odd cold spot lingers. In fact I think I won’t bother with replacing the old doors and creaky floor boards in our house if we put it up for sale, instead I’ll find a ghost and let them do the selling for me…

 

 

 

Who believes in ghosts?

beliefFor some belief in ghosts is considered to be merely the result of an overactive imagination or a few too many evenings spent watching horror movies in the dark. Indeed those that believe in the paranormal may face the prospect of being viewed as naïve, gullible or even just plain silly. In a society that has moved away somewhat from standard religious traditions, one might assume that belief in the paranormal is isolated to a minority of individuals, or at least reducing in scale. However, research suggests that this is not the case, and indeed belief in ghosts and a wide range of paranormal phenomena is still very much ‘alive’.

In 1975, Andrew Greeley was one of the first researchers to carry out a major study into belief in the paranormal in America. His findings revealed that nearly one fifth of the population had a belief in the paranormal. This was followed by further studies, such as a the Gallup Poll in 1979, which also suggested that belief in this area was high (revealing that over 90% of adults in America believed in some level of paranormal phenomena). However, these studies also cast light on the complex nature of paranormal belief and the many different categories this could fall into, for instance one might believe in psi-related abilities, ghosts, demonic possession, UFO’s, or extraordinary life forms (such as ‘Nessie’). Indeed, several researchers observed that individuals tended to adopt a pick ‘n’ mix style approach to their understanding of what was acceptable or real (for instance see Irwin’s 1993 study). As such, over the years researchers have attempted to create research methods that capture these differences developing inventories such as Tobacyk’s Paranormal Belief Scale (1988) and Otis and Alcock’s Extraordinary Belief Inventory (1982). These have provided a more comprehensive ‘glimpse’ into the scale of belief and who this concerns.

The research to date exploring ‘who’ believes has identified some interesting areas. Perhaps most notably is the general consensus that belief in ghosts or ‘spirits’ in particular can be found across society. Research suggests that belief falls across age ranges although is more prominent in young adults, females tend to be more likely to believe in ghosts and haunted houses (however, UFO and extra-terrestrial experiences was higher in men), and belief was highest amongst those with a Hispanic origin. However, whilst paranormal belief has often been associated with those of potentially lower economic status, education level and employment status, the research findings suggest that there is no correlation, with belief still prominent in those with high levels of education and higher status jobs (see studies by Gallup Poll 2005; Tobacyk, Pritchett and Mitchell, 1988; Clark, 1991; Irwin, 1993; Goode, 2000; Markovskye & Thye, 2001). Furthermore, research into the psychological and cognitive traits that underpin belief in the paranormal has revealed that the whilst those that believe in the paranormal may be associated with lower intelligence, gullibility and naivety, there is no evidence to validate this. Indeed, some research suggests that belief in the paranormal is associated with higher levels of creativity and a desire to have new experiences. Although it should be noted that, in addition to this, research also suggests that individuals with a high level of belief tend to also be prone to fantasising and have a high level of hypnotic suggestibility (see Irwin 1993). Other research has also linked childhood abuse and trauma to paranormal experience and belief in later life (see Lawrence et al, 1995; Perkins & Allen, 2006).

Whilst this research helps to highlight some of the demographics and traits associated with ‘believers’, perhaps what it ultimately shows is the diversity and complexity of understanding the social landscape of this area. Paranormal belief is still wide spread regardless of a shift away from traditional religious belief and practice. Perhaps indeed the a movement away from traditional belief structures has encouraged the propensity to engage with the paranormal as a more fluid and flexible way to make sense of life, and indeed death. After all you can now pay to ‘indulge’ in your paranormal beliefs for a short period of time (i.e. an evening in a ‘haunted’ house) by participating in a range of events and experiences without the commitment of being affiliated with a religion or organisation.

What is clear from these findings is that paranormal belief is not a trivial concern with belief continuing to be widespread across society. As such, further research that investigates paranormal beliefs, and the experiences that are associated with them, has the potential to further our understanding of a phenomena that plays a role in many of our lives.

For a further discussion on paranormal belief and a full list of the references discussed please view my doctoral thesis.

 

Why research the paranormal and its role in society?

seanceAs a first blog post it feels relevant to consider why it may be important or even relevant to examine the paranormal and society. The paranormal, and its various forms (supernatural, extraordinary, etc), after all are often considered to be a somewhat unusual areas of interest both academically and more generally, denigrated by many as cult, abnormal and often just strange. Whilst it cannot be denied that there are unusual aspects to the paranormal, it is also true that experiences have been a part of our human and social history for a very long time. Tribal communities have for many years drawn upon ritual to evoke spiritual experiences; psychics, mediums, spiritual healers, shamans and the many other titles they adopt have claimed to connect with an ethereal word for centuries; and in our modern world the paranormal is embraced by the media, special interest groups and even capitalised on by tourism and experience companies. The paranormal, as such, has and continues to be a part of our society in many different ways.

There are a few different academic books and research papers now available that examine the paranormal and its role is society. Of particular note is Goode’s book “The Paranormal, Who believes, Why they believe, and Why it Matters” is particularly good, and touches upon a range of interesting sociological issues. However, in general research into the paranormal has largely been dominated by psychological research with organisations such as the Parapsychological Foundation and the Society for Psychicial Research (although not entirely psychological led) leading the way with this. In addition, research has concerned itself largely with questions of ontological reality – simply put, are these experiences real? Whilst this research has been excellent in many ways and developed our understanding of the paranormal world, it can be argued that to develop a fully comprehensive understanding of phenomena we must also explore the social processes and structures that influence belief and indeed experiences themselves. Recently, research has started to emerge in this area, in particular in relation to belief and social influence, namely Goode (as mentioned above) and Castro, Burrows & Wooffitt’s research paper “The paranormal is (still) normal“, amongst others. There is, however, significant space and I believe demand for further research in this area particularly in the domain of paranormal experience and how these events are understood in relation to social interaction and broader social influence.

During the six years I spent researching this area for my PhD thesis (which can be read here) I focused specifically on the social interactions that determine how groups come to see and understand paranormal events collectively. The findings from this research suggest that paranormal events when experienced as a collective are understood as paranormal, rather than normal, through socially organised practices. This, therefore, suggests that how we come to understand paranormal experiences is not necessarily routed in our purely psychological interpretations of these events, but depends upon the interactions we have with others as we talk about, share and evaluate them.

The development of Paranormal & Society follows on from this research with the intention of expanding on the findings. As discussed, the paranormal has been a part of our social and human experience for a long time and whilst it is interesting to contemplate the reality of these events, regardless of whether their origin is paranormal or not, they exist in our social world and we have for many years drawn meaning from them. We have for instance built religions around them, created stories to retell them, and produced various media to describe them. It, therefore, seems useful to acknowledge their existence as a meaningful human experience and explore their roles in our lives, and the lives of others.