Paranormal hits the mainstream. Guest Post by Marlon Heimerl at HalloweenCostumes.com
A curious trend is afoot in the paranormal community. It’s stamped into the muddy footprints of alleged Bigfoots and in the chilly mists of reported ghostly apparitions on cable TV. It’s evidenced in the blood-packet littered pathways of zombie pub crawls. Shows and movies like the Walking Dead, the Twilight saga, Hemlock Grove and countless ghost investigation series point to its popularity. In short, the paranormal is upon us and is creeping into our everyday lives at an increasing rate.
While Bigfoot, zombies and ghosts clearly represent disparate phenomenon, one similarity running through their shared narrative is a skyrocketing market and increasing influence in society and popular culture. So the anthropological and sociological question arises: Why did ‘paranormal’ or ‘fringe’ phenomenon become the focal point of so much attention, and what does it tell us about the current state of affairs in society?
Before unpacking the mystery box behind the question of “why paranormal?”, we should first define what actually constitutes a ‘paranormal experience’ (at least for semantics’ sake).
In the Journal of American Culture in 1994, William L. MacDonald classified paranormal experiences in a manner that filtered out some of the muck. He defined paranormal experiences “as those instances in which persons perceive phenomena that appear to defy scientific explanation.”
This definition is simple and broad enough to encompass the current landscape. After all, until certain phenomenon or experiences are definitively proven or disproven, they appear to fall within the “unsolved” or “unknown” realm of existing scientific explanation (whether there is a feasible and yet-to-be-discovered scientific explanation or not). In so much, ‘paranormal’ becomes a handy term for explaining a broad swath of ‘unexplained’ phenomenon without walking on proverbial egg shells and painstakingly juggling semantics.
(Editor’s note: Some people will cringe at the notion of using the word “paranormal” as an encompassing term. For those in the audience with this particular axe to grind, please just substitute “paranormal” for “unknown” or “unsolved” and the problem becomes exclusively semantic within the context of this discussion.)
The Statistics of Belief…
However you slice it or whatever you call it, ‘paranormal’, ‘fringe phenomenon’ or the exploration of the ‘unknown’ is clearly captivating the masses and (in some cases) arguably changing their very beliefs. For evidence of the rising popularity of the paranormal and an increase in the overall number of “believers” in many cases, one truly doesn’t have to look very far.
Ghosts by the Numbers
According to a 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, belief in ghostly encounters is on the rise in America. The poll revealed that 29% of Americans report they have felt in touch with someone who has died and 18% report having been in the presence of a ghost.
“The proportion of Americans who say they have interacted with a ghost has doubled over the past 13 years (9% in 1996 compared with 18% today).” the report reads. “The number saying they have felt in touch with someone who has died has also grown considerably, from 18% in 1996 to 29% today.”
Furthermore, a 2012 poll conducted by the Huffington Post and YouGov reveals that 45% of the poll’s 1,000 respondents “believe in ghosts, or that the spirits of dead people can come back in certain places and situations.”
Another 64% of respondents reported a belief in life after death. While each survey clearly dealt with different samples, they both demonstrate a skyward trend in the number of people that believe ghosts exist.
(Here an important distinction must be made. The percent-increase in the belief in ghosts discussed above is indicative of contemporary American beliefs and peoples. This is not to say that belief in ghosts has never been stronger elsewhere in the world or at any other time. In fact, there are cultures where the religion is tied to belief in spirits and ghosts, and thus, this assessment is directed at Western culture and contemporary America in particular.)
On the financial side, it’s also hard to ignore the flowering paranormal industry as a viable means for making a living, or if nothing else, making a name. Between Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Fact of Faked, Coast to Coast AM, Paranormal State and countless other mainstream programs dedicated to strange goings-on, there is clearly a media appetite for investigating the paranormal. Not to mention that ghost hunting societies are quickly becoming a dime a dozen. DoubtfulNews.com put their number somewhere around “well over 1000 groups” in the U.S.” (admitting that the exact number is quite difficult to count). That’s roughly 20 per state, should that approximation hold true! Indeed, whether for curiosity, fun, the pursuit of truth (both debunking or proving) or for financial gain, clearly the prevalence of investigating ghosts is on the rise in the U.S., as is the overall belief in their existence.
But that still doesn’t answer the burning question: Why now of all times is this belief and human interest in ghosts on the rise in America? Perhaps the answer lies in the Hyper-sensitive Agent Detection Device, or H.A.D.D.
Stephen Law, Ph.D. writes in PyschologyToday.com about Oxford psychologist Justin Barrett’s use of H.A.D.D. as a possible explanation for why peoples from cultures around the world believe in invisible beings, including ghosts, dead ancestors, angels and gods.
The argument for H.A.D.D. in its condensed form goes like this. People either explain things through natural causes and laws or through “appealing to agents” –looking for the “who” behind the “it”, i.e. as Law puts it, “Why did the apple fall from the tree? Because Ted wanted to eat it, believed that shaking the tree would make it fall, and so shook the tree.”
In short, our reliance on H.A.D.D. has caused humans to be overly sensitive to agency. In such an active environment filled with friends, family, predators, enemies, prey and so forth, “Spotting and understanding other agents helps us survive and reproduce.” In time, this could have made us oversensitive to sound or other stimuli which we then assign to an agency, even one we cannot see. So is born a belief in ghosts. Could a modern world increasingly riddled with stimuli and interactions be responsible for kicking this response into overdrive? We’ll leave that to the doctors to decide.
On the other side of this debate, the question may be answered more simply if we turn to psychotherapist, Jonathan Alpert, who was quoted by the Huffington Post’s Lee Speigel as saying, “I think that people believe in ghosts or spirits because it provides comfort. There are so many things in life that are hard to explain, and that’s why we tell stories and have myths.”
Myth or reality, one thing is for certain; paranormal interest and speculation, especially in the case of ghosts, is on the rise.
Meteoric Rise of Zombies
Tracking percent change of “true believers” within the arena of zombies is a bit more difficult; perhaps because zombie popularity has arguably never been as high as it is today and thus, never warranted earlier polling. Nonetheless, amid the small bits of information existing on true believers of zombies, a 2012 poll conducted by All-Russia Center for Public Opinion (and published in TheMoscowNews.com) revealed that 2% of survey respondents stated a belief in zombies.
Speaking to the psychology of zombies, another PPP poll revealed that zombies are considered to be the “scariest monster” by respondents, with 29% percent of voters giving zombies the top spot ahead of the second scariest monster – vampires – with a score of 15% of votes. If nothing else, this implies a latent fear of zombies that transcends and surpasses your standard paranormal monsters; perhaps because of the scientific arguments, leading news stories (the Florida “zombie”) and popular television series’ like The Walking Dead, which gave the monster a recognizable and biological face. (This is just conjecture, but seems like a logical tie in to the overall picture.)
Extending the idea of a zombie infestation beyond benign and half-joking theoretical fear, Professor Sarah Lauro of Clemson University moves the discussion toward zombie popularity within the actual human condition and mind. She attributes the upwelling of zombie popularity to host of different thought processes and interpretations surrounding the socioeconomic state.
Lauro writes on Clemson.edu:
“Why do so many people spend time dressing up and acting like zombies in public? Well, it’s complicated, and there are a variety of reasons. Some do it to make visible their dissatisfaction with a government they feel isn’t listening to them or an economic system that makes them brain-dead consumers; some do it as a kind of exercise of community, just to show how the collective can be organized and made to participate in an event without any ties to commercialism; many have no idea why they do it, but some play dead, one supposes, just to feel alive.”
As Meg Kinnard of the Huffington Post put it after an interview with Lauro, zombie fascination thus often coincides with national unhappiness. In the article, Kinnard points to rising dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq in 2005 in relation to skyward zombie popularity at the same time. Kinnard also references major movies, including “Dawn of the Dead” and “28 Days Later,” for fanning the zombie flames in the 2Ks.
Most importantly, Kinnard’s interview with Lauro established that “the display of dissatisfaction isn’t always a conscious expression of that feeling of frustration,” and so people can be unwitting contributors to the fulfillment of this socioeconomic prophecy.
In another interview, Zombie Research Society founder, researcher and author, Matt Mogk, attributed zombie popularity to a number of different sociopolitical phenomena consistent with the state of the 21st century world. Topping his list, zombie popularity is driven by latent apocalyptic fears (seeded in global warming, thermonuclear war and biological warfare), lack of a “new frontier” and the need to create grimy, unrelenting villain that matches our unromantic paradigm and the fact that zombies are inherently biological, which plays into our view that zombies need not be created by magical or paranormal means.
According to a 2012 Angus Reid Public Opinion survey, “[roughly] three-in-ten Americans (29%) and [roughly] one-in-five Canadians (21%) think Bigfoot is “definitely” or “probably” real.”
Comparing these results to a PPP poll referenced above reveals a discrepancy; as that poll places the number of Bigfoot believers at 14% of voters. (Perhaps the keyword here is “voters,” explaining the discrepancy or perhaps, as is often the case with polling, the samples were demographically dissimilar.)
Since neither poll provides earlier data to show percent-change over time, anecdotal evidence is our best bet for establishing that people are more interested in Bigfoot today than they were in the past. With shows like Animal Planet’s “Finding Bigfoot,” Jacklink’s Beef Jerky’s lovable “Messing with Sasquatch” ad campaign and Dr. Ketchum’s Bigfoot DNA standoff busying the airwaves in recent memory, it’s safe to argue that Bigfoot is more centrally planted in the public eye than usual.
Cast in this light, it is clear that Bigfoot is responsible for leaving a sizable footprint on the hearts and minds of society, whether out of disbelief, cautious optimism or total unflinching belief.
When considering the sum of its parts, the spinning and increasingly widening gyre of paranormal popularity is a result of a host of complicated and often interrelated socioeconomic and psychological factors. In truth, it is probably such a mosaic of colliding societal, economic and personal interests among individuals that we may never know definitively what is driving interest in the paranormal.
Perhaps for those most enamored with the world of the paranormal, this question doesn’t need answering for the show to go on. After all, in a world where so much is “solved” and quantified, we all can get an exciting jolt of optimism when considering the possibility that we haven’t answered every mystery out there just yet.6 comments