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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Collective Paranormal Experiences

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.

 

Fairies vs. Tourists: Isle of Skye

Last week I had the privilege of returning to the West Coast of Scotland for a short camping trip with my husband. It is the first time I have been back to the West Coast, where I spent my teen years growing up on the Isle of Skye, for about 10 years. Needless to say it was as stunningly beautiful as I remembered it being, and even though the weather was a little soggy, the scenery was still breath-taking. I have always found that about Scotland – the weather is somewhat unpredictable but regardless of this it is still able to enchant you, indeed sometimes the moody clouds and misty mornings add to the wonder.

Something had changed though since my last visit…tourists…and lots of them. I first noticed this when we were considering finding a hotel on Skye – from previously living on the island I was fully aware of the midgy potential at this time of year and did not quite fancy sharing my tent with them. However, pretty much all of the hotels were fully booked or VERY expensive. As such, we had resolved ourselves to camping (we actually did find a hotel in the end after ending up with a very soggy tent the night before – but that is a different story!). Once we arrived on the island I was surprised to see just how many tourists there were, as well as lots of new road and tourist signs which I could not recall from before. Skye it seemed was experiencing a tourist boom!

When I lived on Skye previously we relied heavily on the tourism industry and as such I was initially pleased to see the island doing so well. Tourism 10-15 years ago was much more seasonal, and certainly not to the same magnitude! Preferring to have more of a nostalgic trip though, and to show my husband around the spots that I had grown up in and remembered fondly, I was keen to stay away from what had now become the tourist hot spots. One such place I wanted to show him was the Fairy Glen – an enchanting little place near Uig at the north end of the island. I had visited a few times when I lived on Skye and you could always enjoy a quiet stroll through the miniaturised landscape.

I was, therefore, stunned to find out when we arrived that we struggled to find IMG_2459[1]somewhere to park. Twenty to thirty cars lined the small single track lane through the Fairy Glen, and dotted around the landscape were groups of people grabbing selfies. We finally managed to find somewhere to park, and started to walk along one of the well worn paths that I could not remember from my previous visits. It suddenly felt much less a nostalgic trip and more like a tourist attraction.

Another odd thing grabbed my attention as we reached what is known as Castle Ewan. Lots of miniature piles of stones were scattered across the landscape, and spiral patterns etched into the ground with larger stones, leading to a smaller cairn in the middle. There was one particularly odd pile of stones that had coloured paint on it, as if people had marked it with highlighters. Later on my husband noticed another area of stones with this colourful graffiti sprawled across it. I started to realise as I looked around that visitors were adding to these piles, and treating them as if they were a natural part of the landscape – I guessed they assumed put their by the ‘fairies’.

 

 

On our way back to the car I noticed something odder. A large group of people walking backwards around one of the circular stone patterns on the floor, they were laughing and trying not to fall over each other as a kilt wearing tour guide directed the strange ritual. They had stones in their hands which they were dropping on the floor as they walked around.

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This strange behaviour was a little baffling, however, after a bit of investigation it seems that some tour companies are encouraging visitors to leave stones and walk backwards to appease the fairies as local folklore suggests. However, these stories appear to be entirely made up. Skye does have some fascinating fairy lore and stories associated with it including the ‘Fairy Flag’ at Dunvegan Castle, and the stories discussed here by Carolyn Emerick. The Fairy Glen, however, like the Fairy Pools gets its name not from the legends (at least known) in the area but the mystical and beautiful landscapes that they inhabit. Given this, I am not sure that these rituals to bring visitors ‘goodluck’ are necessarily appeasing the fairies, they are most certainly, however, changing the landscape. Indeed, if there are fairies at the Fairy Glen I am fairly sure that the sudden influx of tourists moving stones around their backyard would do quite the opposite of appeasing them!

One thing that did strike me though was that the tourist-made structures that now inhabited the Fairy Glen did add another mystical element to the place. There was strange eeriness to the abandoned stone spirals, and crooked rock structures littering the landscape. Personally, I think the beauty of the Fairy Glen can be appreciated in its natural form with or without its fairy residents. However, what became viscerally clear from my visit was that this place has little choice in whether it has fairies or not. Every stone placed, step walked backwards and story told (real or not) by its increasing tourist crowds sprinkles a little more fairy dust on the Glen…

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From an academic perspective I found the role that tourism was playing in the formation of local legend interesting. I wondered to myself how long it would take, given the significant visitors numbers, for these stories to become part of Skye’s ‘official’ fairy lore. On a personal level, however, I found the treatment of the Fairy Glen in this way quite sad. The landscape is beautiful and mystical without the creation of rituals to add to the visitors ‘experience’. As such, I would encourage guides and visitors to consider how such a place can be appreciated without an impact upon the natural environment. The Fairy Glen is a stunning setting to tell stories of fairies, amongst the miniature hills, lochs and trees, but perhaps that is all that is needed. I would like to believe we can still be enchanted by the beauty of a place, and its authentic natural properties, without the superficial ‘thrills’ engendered by performing such rituals.

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Mountain ghosts: otherworldly encounters in high places

Recently I summited Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak, standing at 5895m. It was an extraordinary experience (which I write more about here), and whilst I did have some more unusual moments on my climb these were more of the reflective and awe inspiring kind triggered by the immense beauty of the place. In my research I have, however, come across stories of ghostly encounters on mountains around the world and always found this a fascinating topic. From my own experiences walking Munros around Scotland it also does not surprise me. There have been more than a few occasions when whilst walking I have thought my walking companion was beside me, only to turn around and find that they have stopped a while back to take a photo. Indeed during an earlier training walk for Kilimanjaro this year, we got lost on a mountain called Ben Chonzie after the weather closed in. This resulted in us descending the wrong side of the mountain to then have to climb up it again before we could find our way home. The cloud level was very low, the rain had drawn in and needless to say after many hours of walking by this point we were all a bit miserable. On the way back up the mountain (for the second time!) there were a number of occasions when I thought I could hear another pair of footsteps right beside me. However, when I turned around they would seem to stop and I would notice that my husband and mother-in-law were a distance behind me. I remember thinking at the time that it was a little eerie, and the misty surroundings and lashing rain did not help with this lingering thought…

I am fairly sure that my own experiences have most likely been a mixture of the weather conditions, feeling pretty exhausted or the environment. It is after all easy to hear things you would maybe not pay attention to if the weather was lovely and you could enjoy the view (such as, for instance, the echoes of my own or others footsteps). However, my experiences are not stand alone and many others have reported unusual encounters in the higher places of the world. Here are just a few of these stories:

Mount Everest, Nepal

The world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, is considered the ultimate survival everestchallenge. Standing at 8848m, it attracts hundreds of climbers each year determined to stand at the highest place on earth. Mount Everest, however, has a darker side claiming over 250 lives many of whom have succumbed to altitude sickness or been the unfortunate victims of an avalanche. Due to the height of Everest and difficulty navigating its landscape many of the bodies remain on the mountain leading it to become known as the highest graveyard on earth or ‘rainbow ridge (or valley)’ due to the colourful down jackets worn by fallen climbers. It is perhaps not surprising then, that mountaineers have reported ghostly encounters in such a place. In 2004, Sherpa Pemba Dorji reported seeing dark shadows at the summit of Everest during his speed ascent. In his account he says:

“When I paused at a mound of rocks I saw some spirits in the form of black shadows coming towards me, stretching their hands and begging for something to eat. I think those were the spirits of the many mountaineers killed during and after their ascent of Mount Everest. The bodies of many of those who died are still on the mountain and one climber who died from an accidental fall is still hanging from a rope.”

In an earlier expedition in 1975, climbers Dougal Haston and Doug Scott described how they felt the presence of a third climber with them after they encountered trouble just below the summit. Spending the night in a snow hole, with no food and limited oxygen, they report how this third climber comforted them and talked them through their ordeal.

K2, China-Pakistan Border

The summit of K2 stands at 8611m. Although smaller than Everest it is considered to be K2one the hardest challenges a climber can face and the ‘Holy Grail of mountaineering’. It is also considered to be a much more perilous ascent, with 23% of attempts on K2 resulting in death (compared to 4% on Everest). Perhaps one of the most interesting ghost stories from K2 was reported in 1992 when Thor Kieser and Scott Fisher attempted the climb. Six years earlier during a particularly bad summer, which saw 13 deaths on the mountain, a British female climber called Julie Tullis died after a bad fall. She passed away from frost bite and her injuries at Camp IV. As Thor and Scott were waiting at Base Camp six years later their quiet was interrupted by a radio call that said, “Camp IV to Base Camp, do you read, over?”. The pair were alone on the mountain and the call was made by a British women.

Grandfather Mountain, North Carolina, USA

Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina gets its name from the rock formations that make up its peak, resembling the head of a bearded old man laying down to 681px-Grandfather_Mountain_NCsleep. Tourists to the area regularly visit the mountain and trek along its trails. It is reported, however, that during these visits a number of people have come across the hiker of an old man who seems out of place. Unlike other hikers he wears old workers clothes, an old army rucksack and carries a long walking stick. He also never acknowledges anyone’s greeting, quickly moving past them and then disappearing further up the trail. Nobody knows who the ghostly hiker is, and whilst some suggest that he is the spirit of a hiker who became lost and died on the mountain, others suggest that he is simply the spirit of an old man who loved the mountain so much that he has returned to continue enjoying it after his death.

Ben Macdui, Scotland

A little closer to home for me, ‘The Big Grey Man’ of Ben Macdui is a fairly well-known ghost story from the Cairngorm mountain region. There have been numerous reports since the late 1800’s of a mysterious and sinister figure that haunts the mountain and surrounding area. During his climb in 1892 Professor Norman Collie reported how he felt as if he had been stalked by an unseen presence that followed him down from the summit of Ben Macdui. Whilst he did not see the figure he could hear its large footsteps and had the feeling that it was a menacing creature. He vowed not to return to the mountain alone again and concluded that there was “something very queer about the top of Ben Macdui”. Others have reported similarly strange encounters on the peak with regular stories of climbers being overcome by a poignant feeling of dread and fear, and the impression of a malevolent presence nearby. Another tale tells of a man who had come face-to-face with a large brown creature staring at him through his tent as he slept at the summit. Terrified he froze, until the creature moved away, and he watched it descend down the mountain. He described the creature as about twenty foot tall. A similar creature has been seen by others up until as recently as the 1990’s, and some claim that these creatures are guarding the land around the mountain chasing away those that dare to trespass. More stories of ‘The Big Grey Man’ can be found here…

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It is perhaps not surprising that mountains are home to ghostly encounters. From my own experiences hiking I can appreciate the often surreal and harsh surroundings that open up the possibilities of something supernatural or otherworldly. I am sure that many of these encounters can be explained away by the effects of the environment, or psychological causes – the ‘sensed-presence effect’ is particularly relevant to some of the encounters mentioned. For those peaks that inhabit the ‘death zone’ and where oxygen is deprived these considerations are perhaps even more likely. However, what interests me from these stories is the variety of encounters that are reported and the different interpretations assigned to them. There is the comforting ghost that accompanied the two Everest climbers, the ‘lost’ ghosts reported on both K2 and Everest, the sinister presence protecting its land on Ben Macdui and the ghost who simply loves the mountain in North Carolina. Whether we walk with ghosts or not on mountains these accounts provide an interesting insight into the way that we see and experience these magnificent landscapes.

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…

 

 

 

What is Ghost Tourism?

Following my previous blog on the commodification of ghosts I thought it would be interesting to explore the increasingly popular area of ghost tourism further. By ghost tourism, we are referring to those touristic experiences that involve the commercialisation of ghosts.

Firstly, it is worth noting that ‘ghosts’ as an attraction and indeed the commercialisation of them is not necessarily a new phenomena. Consider for instance the case of the Cock Lane Ghost of 1762 which drew in large crowds to a small lane in London, as a result the local businesses in the area reaped the rewards. Or the famous case of the Fox Sisters of 1848 who attracted many people to their séances to witness reputedly paranormal events. However, whilst historically these cases were fairly infrequent, in recent years we have seen the rise in contemporary ghost tourism and as a result an increasing number of businesses and organisations offering ghost-related services and experiences. In his paper “Legend-tripping in spooky places”, Holloway (2010) offers an interesting assessment of the different types of ghost tourism that are available:

Forms of Ghost Tourism

Hotels & Haunted Accommodation – rather than avoiding telling their guests about spooky goings on and the darker history of where they are staying, it is now common to see hotels openly advertising themselves as haunted. Indeed there are now sites that promote haunted places to stay such as hauntedrooms.co.uk, and you might even find yourself paying more for the extra ‘visitor’!

Ghost Hunting – most likely inspired by the hugely popular TV show Most Haunted and the subsequent paranormal shows that have emerged from this, there are now numerous organisations that offer paid ghost hunting events. These events usually involve participants taking part in ghost vigils, using ‘paranormal’ equipment, conducting séances and staying overnight in a haunted building. Whilst plenty of businesses have tried their hand at offering paranormal events some of the longer standing companies in the UK include Haunted Happenings, Fright Nights, and Mysteria Paranormal Events.

Ghost Tours & Walks – perhaps the most popular form of ghost tourism, ghost walks involve companies offering organised tours around a location where alleged hauntings have taken place. They are incredibly popular attracting large audiences throughout the year, and particularly over the Halloween period. Some cities, such as York, have numerous ghost walks leading to increased competition and as one tour guide once said to me the, Ghost Wars.

In addition to the categories identified by Holloway, I would be inclined to add to this a few additional forms of ghost tourism which have recently emerged:

Haunted Attractions – whilst ghost tours take visitors to the hauntings, there is a growing number of attractions that bring the hauntings to visitors in the form of museums and collections. For instance, you can visit Lorraine and Edward Warren’s Occult Museum, or Zak Bagan’s (from Ghost Adventures) newly opened paranormal museum in Las Vegas, both of which feature objects and artefacts believed to be haunted or possessed by spirits.

Ghost Festivals and Haunted Places – increasingly cities and towns are marketing themselves a ‘paranormal hotspots’. The City of York for instance claimed the Most Haunted City in the World title with over 504 recorded hauntings, and Pluckley claimed the Most Haunted Village in England status with a said 12-16 ghosts. Increasingly, the most haunted status of these destinations has become part of the tourism strategy, advertising their haunted history and promoting visitor attractions based on this. In addition, several ghost/ paranormal festivals can now be found hosting a range of events for the ghost tourism audience (i.e. Cheltenham Paranormal Festival, and Stirling’s Scottish Paranormal Festival).

Self-guided paranormal tours – perhaps a fairly new addition to the ghost tourism field is the concept of self-guided tours primarily involving visitors planning road trips or destination visits by following recommended routes and ‘hot spots’ for paranormal activity. For instance, you can now access haunted travel guides and road trips. Indeed I know a couple who have recently left for their holiday in America to do just this.

Why has ghost tourism become so popular?

The popularity of ghost tourism can perhaps be attributed to a number of broader social changes. Firstly, as discussed in my previous blog, we are now in an ‘experience economy’ which as discussed by Pine and Gilmore (2011) leads to consumers seeking more meaningful and unique experiences through their consumption decisions. Ghost tourism is well situated to offer these kind of experiences, fulfilling many of the requirements that Poulsson & Kale (2004) suggest make up such experiences – primarily, personal relevance, novelty, surprise, learning and engagement. Secondly, the rise in ghost tourism corresponds with the rise in popularity of dark tourism or thanotourism – the travel and consumption of sites associated with death and tragedy (for instance prisons, battlefields etc). Dr Philip Stone a leading researcher in this area and Director of the Institute of Dark Tourism Research, suggested that the desire to consume dark tourism is multi-faceted and proposed a spectrum of dark tourism in 2006, from the more light hearted Dark Fun Factories which focus on entertainment through to the darkest which he suggests are Dark Genocide Camps, largely focusing on historic education. Ghost tourism, and its various forms, has the potential to be located along this spectrum from its most light-hearted offerings (such as ghost walks), through to darker engagements such as ghost hunts and their associated activities. Indeed it could be suggested that ghost tourism goes one step further by offering individuals the chance to not only engage with dark sites, but actually to have ‘dark experiences’. Further, popular media has played an important role in bringing many of the forms of ghost tourism explored here into the public eye. Programmes such as Most Haunted, and the many shows that have evolved from this including Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Paranormal Witness, My Ghost Story, amongst many others, have popularised the paranormal and in doing so driven demand for opportunities that encourage engagement with it. Finally, as suggested by Holloway (2010) the increased interest in ghost tourism could also be associated by an increased desire to be re-enchanted with the world. As Holloway suggests, recent years have seen the advancement of science and logical thinking and whilst this has led to wide-spread development and technological advancement, it has also somewhat disenchanted the world, taking away some of the wonder and mystery that has resonated with human history for a very long time. Movement away from spirituality, religion, myths and fables, has led to an increased feeling of disenchantment, and as such individuals search for feelings of awe, enchantment and mystery though other means – ghost tourism being a potential outlet for this.

In conclusion, it could be suggested that the increased diversity and popularity in ghost tourism could potentially be attributed to recent changes in society. In particular, as explored in this blog, these may include an increased desire for experiences and in particular dark experiences, increased access to ‘paranormal media’ and a yearning to be re-enchanted with the world.

Dr Ghosts: PhDs and the paranormal

ghoststudyIn the last few months I have come to the end of, what has certainly felt like, a fairly long 5 1/2 years of doctoral research on paranormal experiences. Whilst I cannot speak for all PhD students who are studying subjects related to the paranormal, I thought it might be useful to share some of my own experiences now that I am post-doc!

1) Don’t judge me I am researching the paranormal…

When I first started my doctoral research I felt somewhat validated, as if I had an ‘excuse’ to study the paranormal, because I was carrying out academic research at a reputable University. Whilst I had been interested in the subject for years and carried out my own personal research, I felt like being a PhD student gave me a certain status that in doing so gave my research merit too. However, I soon found out that what I thought would give me confidence in speaking about my research area started to work against me. In fact it turns out that the first question most people ask when you mention that you are doing a PhD, is what your research is on (little do they know the terror and subsequent personal doubt this tiny question instils in the average PhD student!). As it turns out, when people ask this question they are largely expecting a response that could be considered worthy of winning the next Noble prize. And, when they hear that you are studying the paranormal they are quite bemused that this is a ‘real’ research subject! I would increasingly find myself in situations with the broader academic community or in the ‘real’ world not only trying to explain what my research was about (which as I found out, I don’t think you ever actually know until the end…and even then your still not 100%), but also trying to justify why it was worthwhile. I found myself basically making excuses for myself and supporting this with a “and I am self-funded” statement to try and counter any “this is where my taxes go” type responses before they occurred!

Now I am out the other side and understand my work and its contributions more fully I find myself embracing my research much more. To be honest, I think it is also a matter of realising that I have spent a long time working on a project and actually could not give two scoobies whether someone thinks it is ‘significant’ in the research field or not. On speaking to other current and post-doctorates though I think the “don’t judge me I am a researching the paranormal” phenomena is not an isolated experience.

2) Wow…your subject must be soooo interesting….

On the other side of the coin there are those open-minded positive people that hear about your research interests and are enthusiastic to hear more. When faced with the alternative, these people make your day when you come across them during your doctoral studies. You love them. However, at the same time they remind you that yes your subject is interesting so why does it seem such a chore, and towards the end why do you actually pretty much despise it!? And this is one of the problems of studying this area. I think most people, and certainly those that I have met, who go into research in the paranormal do so because they are passionate about it and intrigued to find out more. When I first started my PhD I could not believe that I was going to be able to write about something that I was genuinely fascinated with whilst I knew others who were starting their research in topics that they were pursuing simply because they could get funding for it. However, the PhD process has the ability to turn fascination into frustration, interest into irritation, and love into loathing. As many PhD students will tell you it can be a very isolating and deeply reflective process, I also found that it stripped me of my identity as anything other than a PhD student and academic researcher, and as a result I somewhat lost the interest I had previously had with the paranormal and the very reasons I had chosen to pursue research in it. It is not until now I am on the other side that I have started to regain the personal interest that I once had. As such, I would always caution that pursuing PhD research in this area is about more that personal interest in the topic, you have to be prepared to lose this and still battle on to the end!

3) Goodbye paranormal illusion, hello bullsh*t…

I am sure it is the same with any area of interest when you start to look closely at it, but I think when you are studying the paranormal it’s easier to see it more clearly. Simply put there is a lot of bullsh*t in the paranormal world, and suddenly when you are sitting on the other side of the fence, gazing at this world through the critical, academic goggles that becomes part of your doctoral persona its a lot easier to see. At first this was somewhat of a revelation, it was almost satisfying to look out there and observe the paranormal world in a new light. However, at the same time it somewhat ruins the illusion that makes this subject exciting and interesting…and actually the reason that you started studying it. Suddenly you can no longer go on a ghost walk, take part in a séance, visit a medium or hear the fascinating tales of peoples experiences without the academic devil on your shoulder whispering in your ear…”didn’t you read about this technique somewhere”, “that sounds like sleep paralysis”, “ha, that is what he said they would do to influence the audience”. You cannot watch a programme on the paranormal without analysing it, ever since writing my chapter on the use of the phrase “what was that” I have been plagued by noticing it constantly whenever I indulge in my guilty ‘Ghost Adventures’ pleasure. It kind of ruins the enjoyment of the field, suddenly you know too much and its difficult to switch off and sometimes just be part of the ‘experience’.

4) Ill never be a full-time ghostbuster 😦

I guess this is something that should be pretty evident from the start but I think there is always that glimmer of hope that maybe you can get a job at the end of your PhD that revolves around researching the paranormal. The reality is that even though people will delight in calling you a ‘real-life ghostbuster’ or ‘Dr Ghosts’, careers in the paranormal are pretty much non-existent. Most of the time those that are able to continue their research do so by working in closely related fields such as psychology, which then allows them to continue research interests in the paranormal amongst other areas. For me, the realisation was that in my area, sociology, the likelihood of an academic career that allowed me to focus on the paranormal was very slim indeed. As such, I quickly came to the realisation that any research in this area would need to be in addition to rather than part of my professional career. And with that I put my ‘proton pack’ away…

5) The ‘other side’

Perhaps these reflections portray a pretty glum side of completing a PhD on the paranormal. I think, however, they reflect the intensity of the PhD process and from talking to other post-docs the resentment of your topic…whatever it may be…appears to be a natural part of the process. Someone compared completing a PhD like giving birth to me, and whilst I do not have the latter experience as a comparison I can see the connection…coming up with the idea is the fun and easy bit, as it grows and you nurture it though you become exhausted, your sleep is disrupted, you binge eat, everyone keeps asking where you are at with, and you just want it to end…then there is the last excruciating push and the terrifying viva, and then there it is, this thing that you have created. And actually, now that I look back at it I am quite proud not only of getting through the process, but for sticking to a topic that interested me, and now with some distance still does. I might not be a full time ghostbuster, the paranormal illusion has somewhat faded, but after all that I agree with that dude who said my topic was interesting because you know what, now I am on the other side, it is.

 

 

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.

 

Have we commodified ghosts?

In addition to my interest in researching the paranormal, I am also a lecturer in Events Management. One of the modules that I teach on and have an additional research interests in looks at the rise of the experience economy and our desire to communicate our identities through lifestyle consumption. During the first couple of years of my doctoral research whilst living in York, and prior to this, I was involved in organising ghost tours and paranormal events. Indeed my involvement in this area influenced my decision to pursue research into the paranormal, with my undergraduate dissertation focusing on the reasons why individuals consume paranormal events and experiences (the work can be found here). As such, I have always been fascinated by peoples desire to pay for paranormal experiences – a practice which has become increasingly popular. To the extent where I think we can start to question whether we have somewhat commodified ghosts?

It could be argued that for a long time people have paid to have some form of interaction with the paranormal world. Be this paying a spiritual healer or witch doctor for their time, paying to visit a séance during the rise of the Spiritualist movement, or paying simply to be entertained by books, films or people telling ‘spooky’ stories. However, in the last 15-20 years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of organisations that offer the potential to have a ‘first-hand’ paranormal experience, for a price. This is without doubt a reflection on the popularity that surrounded, as Koven (2007) calls it ‘supernatural reality TV’ series Most Haunted, which launched in 2002. Regardless of the authenticity of the show it is fair to say that it attracted significant viewing figures (approximately 1 million per new show according to the shows producers) and popularised the notion of ‘ghost hunting’ as a hobby that was open to the general public. As a result, a number of amateur paranormal groups started to emerge with it being suggested by researchers such as Hill (2010), that there are about 2500 groups operating in the UK alone. At around the same time several businesses also started to emerge often formed as ‘side-lines’ for the amateur groups, and offered the paying public the chance to have the ‘Most Haunted experience’. Most Haunted themselves also started offering ‘live’ shows in 2005 attracting in a substantial viewing audience of over 5 million.

Initially, businesses offering paranormal events were fairly few and the cost to attend an event was relatively high. For instance, you may be charged £70 to £100 per person to stay overnight in a supposedly haunted building and take part in a range of activities (such as séances, ‘vigils’, table tilting, Ouija boards etc). However, over the years the number of businesses offering these types of events has increased resulting in more competition, this has also led to the uniqueness of the offering being reduced, and as such the cost of attending paranormal events has also dropped. These days you might pay £20-40 to attend a ‘normal’ paranormal event, perhaps more if an overnight stay is involved. In addition to paranormal event companies, the ‘ghost economy’ has diversified with the number of organisations offering ghost tours increasing, hotels capitalising on their ‘haunted rooms’ (there is even a website to find them),  and destinations have even incorporated it into their tourism strategies (York is apparently the most haunted city in Europe).

The ‘ghost economy’ is quite literally ‘booming’ (don’t mind the pun). However, it does not stand alone with the desire to consume varied and meaningful experiencse identified in a range of other sectors (i.e. events, tourism, hospitality). Indeed, it could be suggested that the desire to consume paranormal experiences reflects a movement towards a more experience-based economy generally (as discussed by Pine and Gilmore, 2011). Further, a rise in dark tourism (travelling to places associated with death and suffering i.e. prisons, war camps etc) has also been identified by researchers such as Dr Philip Stone who has established a research institute dedicated to exploring the phenomena. It is plausible to suggest that there is a link between dark tourism and ghost tourism with those sites often associated with death and disaster often attracting speculation for potential hauntings as well. The difference being that rather than simply learning about these sites which is often associated with dark tourism, those visiting these sites as part of a paranormal event will be seeking a ‘dark’ experience there also.

The consumer market that now exists for paranormal events and experiences has resulted in the uniqueness that these experiences once had becoming somewhat lost in the milieu of options available. It has become a relatively commonplace and fairly competitive market place – there is money in ghosts and they are being capitalised upon. As such, it could be argued that ghosts or certainly the ‘ghost experience’ has been commodified. And perhaps this raises some interesting questions about whether the meaning of these experiences has changed, the role they now play in our society (from spiritual to entertainment) and what is next for ghosts and their stories after they have been consumed by the ‘ghost economy’?