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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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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Seeing heaven – extraordinary experiences at 5895m!

On Sunday 16th July 2017 at 6.55am I summited Kilimanjaro with Mo, my mother-in-law. It had been the accumulation of 2 years of planning and preparation, walking plentiful Munros across Scotland, going to the gym several times a week, and talking LOTS about what it might be like to climb the highest peak in Africa. It took us 7 days along the Lemosho route to reach the summit, and another 1 day to descend. It was a significant challenge, but also an extraordinary and beautiful journey!

Needless to say climbing Kilimanjaro was far removed from my normal day-to-day routine which is, to be fair, pretty ‘kushti’, and certainly does not require much thought about oxygen levels, heart rate and where to go to the toilet (which turned out to be daily concerns on the mountain!).  It was also a completely different environment, nestled in the heart of Africa yet the ascent took us through four completely different climates – from the thick jungle to barren desert, from mid 20C to -15C degrees. It was a physical and most certainly, mental, challenge.

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Now that I am back at sea level and have had some time to consider the journey, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on a side of climbing Kilimanjaro that I have been able to find little written about since I returned. This being the ‘extraordinary’, and what some may consider ‘spiritual’ experiences, encountered on the mountain. Whilst I do not align myself to a particular religion, there were moments when the beauty and immensity of the journey probed at deeper philosophical and spiritual questions. I found this particularly valuable at a personal level, but it also made me consider the role that these experiences play in a broader society that in many ways strips us of these moments for philosophical and deeper thought. Perhaps finding these moments is what makes touristic experiences such as climbing Kilimanjaro so popular in our modern Western world…

During our 8 day journey there were numerous moments of reflection, and I guess the fairly long days of walking (usually single file), focusing on getting to the next camp, fostered this. However, there were a few defining points along the way that made a deeper connection more pronounced. Firstly, the environment was phenomenally beautiful. At night the stars stretched vastly across the sky and as we neared the latter part of our trip the Milky Way appeared brighter and deeper. One evening, myself and one of our group, Rob, stood and stared at the stars for what must have been half an hour. This combined with the silhouette of Kilimanjaro as a backdrop and the lights of Moshi in the distance made for a truly stunning scene and a real sense of ‘smallness’ in the immensity of the Universe. Day 2 Z24We were also above the clouds. The beauty of this took me by surprise, and even now when showing people the photos, I can’t stop pointing out the carpet of clouds laid out below us! Whilst not religious, I had grown up with the socially constructed image of what heaven would be in my mind, and this was it – I was seeing heaven. Day 5 Baranco 16Secondly, the physical challenge and effects of altitude impacted people differently. For me, altitude did not effect me in the way I expected – most usually headaches and nausea – instead I could not sleep….for three days! By day four I was utterly exhausted, and had begun to have some rather trippy visions. To try and help me sleep I had started to meditate and on the third night had experienced a vision of a floating head of a bearded tribesman hovering over me! It was incredibly clear and difficult to shake, leaving me wondering the next day what it might mean…fortunately Mo, was carrying some Diazepam, and I managed to knock myself out for the following four nights! Although I am not one for usually taking pills, without these I am sure I would have either run out of energy or gone slightly loopy! Finally, summit night was perhaps the most physically challenging but also mentally exhausting experience of the trip (and indeed of my life so far!) . We arose at 10pm after very little sleep to start our ascent at 11pm. Not only was this surreal, but trekking at night in the cold and dark with nothing but a head lamp and the feet in front of you is somewhat of an assault on the senses! However, even in what was a fairly gruelling 8 hour trek to the top there were some truly wonderful moments. I saw my first ever moonrise over Mawenzie Peak, a stunning golden glow emerging over the cloud lined tops of Kilimanjaro’s second highest point. About two hours from the summit as I lifted my head to look towards the top where I could now see head torches disappearing, I also saw the most amazing shooting star. It literally appeared for the few seconds that I took to look towards the summit and shot across the sky in the direction we were heading. At that point in time, I don’t know why, but I knew we were going to make it.

We arrived at Stella Point, the first stage of the summit, as the sun started to rise. We walked for a short while longer before stopping, having a seat and some cold tea. We watched as the golden glow of the sun appeared over the top of the clouds, the glow somewhat more beautiful as it was the first warmth we had felt in 8 hours of climbing.NOVATEK CAMERA

At this point I knew why there were stories of people finding God at the top of Kilimanjaro. Indeed the Chagga people believe that the underworld can be accessed at this point where the sky and the earth meet. According to this belief you may find heavenly paradise, or the gateway to the “ghosts”, depending on which gateway you pursue.

For me, I did not find God or indeed a gateway to another world. However, I did feel an extraordinary connection to the world at that point and the beautiful immensity of it all – so much so that my first reaction on reaching Uruhu peak was to cry. I had seen heaven at the top of Kilimanjaro but not in the divine sense – instead heaven appeared to me as a window into the breath-taking beauty of our world and the extraordinary possibilities that we have to experience it.

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