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.