Collective Paranormal Experiences – discovering ghosts together


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 ghoststairsconclusion. 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).

Empty Spaces

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 examinedemptyspace2 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. In the grandfather clock arms2example 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.
  2. 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.






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.



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.