Why monsters and art are good for you

This weekend I attended the Nuart Aberdeen 2018 festival. Nuart is a street art festival originating in Stavanger and brings together internationally renowned artists to transform city spaces. For the next few years, the festival will take place in Aberdeen and has already brought a fabulous splash of colour to the granite city.

I was delighted this year to see that the 2018 festival had embraced the supernatural in it’s street art, and I found myself wondering around Aberdeen on the hunt for supernatural critters. It also reminded me how prevalent the supernatural is in our contemporary lives, and reaffirmed the importance of being a researcher in this area. Here is why…

The supernatural is fun…

One of my favourite moments as we walked around Nuart was the ‘Chalk Don’t Chalk Monster Workshop’ (by artist Bortusk Leer). As we climbed the steps to the Rooftop Gardens we emerged into a world of googly-eyed, spindly-armed, multiple coloured monsters – and you couldn’t help but smile!

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Families were taking part in the workshop with kids drawing their own versions of monsters with chalk on the ground. They were equally as weird and wonderful as the ones created by the artist, and you couldn’t help but imagine what your own monster would look like. Monsters here were a fun and exciting was to engage kids (and grown ups!) with art, and to encourage imagination and creativity.

 

The supernatural tells a story…

As we walked around the city it was clear that the supernatural was used in some of the artwork to communicate a message or tell a story. Perhaps most prominently was a piece by artist Bordalo II who designs large-scale public sculptures of animals out of materials that contribute towards their extinction or environmental degradation. For Nuart in Aberdeen the sculpture was a Unicorn.

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I was talking to my husband over lunch after we had toured the city and we were discussing this particular piece of art. We read in the brochure about the political message behind the materials used and both initially commented on the existence of Unicorns in the first place. However, it was not until later as I thought more about it that I realised that this was probably the point. If we continue to destroy the environment by using and disposing of these materials these animals will become just as mythical as the Unicorn itself.

Art and the supernatural, therefore, has the potential to communicate interesting and important messages.

The supernatural is part of our past and present…

I was impressed to see that one of the artworks told the history of the witch trials in Aberdeen. The artwork had a fabulous title “We are the granddaughters, all of the witches you were never able to burn” (by artist Carrie Reichard). As well as telling the history of witchcraft accusations and burnings in the city, which resulted in the death of 30 people in Aberdeen and up to 3800 across Scotland (mainly older women), it did something more.

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Next to the history of witch trials in Aberdeen was a mosaic of famous and inspirational women from the city. There was a clear message, and the supernatural featured in this story of empowerment and change from the past to the present.

Art and the supernatural worked together at the Nuart festival to inspire, enchant and talk to people. And perhaps that is why we continue to embrace the supernatural in our contemporary lives, because it allows us to see, experience and interpret the world in more extraordinary and meaningful ways.

And my favourite piece from the festival…

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Why host a conference on the supernatural in contemporary society?

On 23rd and 24th August 2018, we will be hosting a new conference called, Supernatural in Contemporary Society (SCSC). The conference will be held at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, and aims to provide a platform to discuss the continuing role of the supernatural, and its value to culture, heritage and tourism. I am hugely excited to host the conference and we have two excellent key note speakers lined up – Dr David Clarke and Professor Dennis Waskul. However, why host such a conference? And why focus on contemporary issues?

The inspiration to host SCSC came predominantly from the fascinating body of research that exists out there on the supernatural in a range of contexts. I have, however, often found it difficult with my own research to find a ‘home’ for it. There are obvious homes for research in the realms of parapsychology with conferences such as the Annual Convention of Parapsychological Association or the SPR Annual Conference. There are also some fascinating projects and conferences available for those that explore the supernatural in the realms of literature and folklore – see for instance the excellent conferences hosted this year as part of the Supernatural Cities and the Open Graves, Open Minds projects. Networks such as Exploring the Extraordinary have also provided opportunities to explore extraordinary experiences in a range of subject areas. However, there is not a clear home for research that explores the supernatural in everyday contexts such as tourism, events, heritage, media, and as a profession. Additionally, there seemed to be an opportunity to host a conference that could explore links between subject areas and potentially promote cross-disciplinary working. After recently writing a chapter for a new book, The Supernatural in Society, Culture and History (by Dennis Waskul and Marc Eaton), it became clear that there was value to be had in making these links across research topics. As such, a conference that invites research from a range of scholars has the potential to provide interesting insights and opportunities for future research directions.

The supernatural also continues to be a prominent feature in our modern world. However, we are often focused on ‘why’ this is rather than considering the value and impact it may have. Looking at contemporary issues of the supernatural in everyday society may allow us to explore these issues further. In addition to academic papers, the conference will also invite short case study presentations and posters from industry, and host an industry workshop with heritage organisations to consider the value and impact of the supernatural for tourism. Heritage organisations are increasingly using ghostly stories and supernatural legends to promote their sites . For instance, the recently opened Peterhead Prison is already hosting overnight ghost hunts and ghost walks, and the National Trust regularly promote their ghosts to attract visitors. A conference that focuses on contemporary contexts (such as heritage), explores links between research and industry, and is forward thinking in terms of future research and projects, should be beneficial for scholars, organisations and those with a general interest in the topic.

SCSC therefore intends to provide a platform for sharing research across disciplines, exploring areas for new research directions and developing networks for academic and applied projects, and discovering what the value and impact of the supernatural is within contemporary society. If you have an interest in the supernatural, have research you would like to share or have case study examples to discuss with our delegates we would be delighted to see you there!

You can find out more about the conference and the Call for Papers here – http://www.rgu.ac.uk/scsc

You can also follow us on our Twitter (@SCSC2018) and Facebook.

 

 

 

8 Tips for Talking Ghosts: The Media

Ghosts don’t frighten me…but the media does!

Today I attended a workshop run by Women in Journalism Scotland who do some excellent work training, mentoring and encouraging women in the media. I took part not because I am a journalist but because if I’m honest the media makes me a little nervous. My nerves are not necessarily about appearing on camera, giving an interview on air or being quoted in an article, I have done some of those things before. You see what unnerves me is the context…my area of expertise is the paranormal, and that comes with baggage!

It’s a hugely frustrating piece of baggage (the kind where you take your holdall and after hours of lugging it around train stations and airports wish you had purchased a wheely bag…but also kind of know that a wheely bag doesn’t get you to the same exciting places as one you can carry, adventure-like, on your shoulder…). Its frustrating because I know I am knowledgeable in my field, I have been involved in the area for over 10 years and received a PhD in the topic. I also know that there are some really interesting and engaging conversations to have and although I am comfortable talking to peers, colleagues and my students about it I still find myself  nervous of having such conversations through the media. The paranormal unfortunately is a topic ‘haunted’ by its past, and current popularisation. It has a history of sensationalised cases that have hit the media and then turned out to be either fake or misunderstood. In recent years the rise of paranormal TV, film and representation on social media has left its scars and the paranormal has found its place in entertainment rather than perceived as a serious topic of research. The question of “is it real?” and “do you believe?” has dominated debate and opinion, and those who research the area are often considered ghostbusters regardless of their focus. It’s credibility as a discipline is, perhaps understandably, sometimes questioned.

This is a shame. There are some fascinating studies that explore the Supernatural and it’s role in our society beyond questions of belief or existence (not that these are bad questions!). However, I fear that like myself some people will be nervous about sharing this research with the public through the media. I am an academic, and I understand that whatever opinion I give or research I share reflects on my academic credibility, as well as the University I represent. I am nervous that the newspaper headline will read Ghostbuster Lecturer…or an interview will be accompanied by spooky sound effects in the background…the usual clichés. However, after attending the event today I have realised something – the only way to tackle this issue is for experts in this area to lead the way and shape the conversation.

I raised my concerns at the event today to a panel of journalists and explained my area of expertise and why I was concerned. It was lovely to see the excitement that this kind of topic brings when people hear that the paranormal is your area of study – I encounter it quite a lot and this is positive! They sympathised with my plight but also provided some good tips (for both this topic and more generally) that I thought would be useful to share. This advice is from industry professionals working in the media and journalism, and whilst I am yet to try these out, I hope they will be useful for others considering sharing their research.

8 Tips for Talking Ghosts (or indeed anything else…)

1. Do your research into the publication/ media outlet. Tabloids are likely to sensationalise and there may be specific media outlets that work with your topic (for instance my research into haunted heritage may receive a better write up with someone like BBC History).

2. Be honest and communicate the parameters you would like to talk within. If you are not comfortable talking about an area raise this in advance, a good journalist will adhere to this. This it seems is particularly important in the paranormal world – I often find that everyone assumes you are a parapsychologist in the field, and often ask psychology based questions, even if this is not your area of study.

3. Ask for either the questions or general ‘jist’ of the interview in advance. Again, most journalists should at least be able to give you a feel for the direction of the interview.

4. Prepare. Particularly think of any challenging questions that could be asked and how you will respond.

5. Don’t feel that you have to answer everything. If you are unsure be honest and explain in the interview that this is not your area of expertise.

6. Think about what the key message is you want to communicate and make sure you get this across. Interviews may be short or cut off quickly so you want to get your ‘sound bite’ in when you can.

7. You can say no. If your not comfortable doing the interview or with the outlet it will be published in you can say no, other opportunities are likely to arise.

8. Be proactive. If you want to be a spokesperson for your area of research seek out opportunities in places you would like your voice to be heard.

I hope these tips are useful. I certainly found the sessions helpful, and will be using this advice in the future if media opportunities arise. Please do feel free to discuss any experiences you have had with the media and paranormal below, or indeed share your own advice on the topic.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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…

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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’?

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.