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From Issue Five, December 2010 « Previous Article

Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and other Curiosities in Religion and Culture

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Ed: The bulk of this new book, an effective balance of both the academic and the entertaining, profiles what apparently is a growing subculture of Americans who believe in such anomalous phenomena as those identified in its subtitle. The authors, all of whom are sociology professors, draw primarily from data generated by the seminal 2007 Baylor Religion Study but fill in the gaps with their own research as well as numerous case studies of everyday people and their direct experiences with the paranormal. The following excerpt comes from their concluding chapter.

Spending time in the realms of the paranormal led us to reflect on how much has changed since the 1980s. Back then the Internet was in its infancy, not filled with websites, blogs, and discussion forums devoted to paranormal subjects. The X-Files had yet to appear on television. There was no MonsterQuest or Ghost Hunters, let alone the seemingly endless clones and spin-offs that have appeared in their wake. Not that the paranormal is new, far from it. In Search of was a fairly popular pre-1990 paranormal show. In 1992, CBS relaunched Miracles and Other Wonders, hosted by Darren McGavin. Magazines such as Fate and Argosy (now defunct) brought the ghosts and psychic powers to the newsstands.

What appears to have changed is the degree of societal interest in the paranormal and the extent to which this interest has organized. Two decades ago, an attempt to investigate the paranormal nearly always led to someone like Datus Perry [referred to earlier in the book]. Almost every community had “that guy who sees UFOs” or the “family who thinks their house is haunted.” Few people knew of the organized paranormal groups in existence at the time, such as the Mutual UFO Network and National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), so local inquiries usually led to colorful, eccentric dead ends.

It is clear that increased interest in the paranormal has gone hand in hand with greater media attention and the rapid diffusion of the Internet. If you live in a city or town of any size, you are likely to find an organized local or regional group of ghost hunters, a group for developing one’s psychic potential, a UFO investigation club, and depending on the region, a Bigfoot hunting organization. If your area does not have its own paranormal organization or club, it is probably home to a regional chapter of a national one. Twenty years ago, a visit to a reputed haunted house in a community was a lonely affair. Today one may find competition for the ghosts’ attentions from a local ghost-hunting group, a documentary crew, or a radio show.

While we doubt many will argue with us when we claim that interest in the paranormal has increased over the last few decades, it is very difficult to prove so with any certainty. Beliefs about the paranormal have rarely been subjected to detailed scrutiny. When survey researchers have asked Americans if they believe in paranormal topics or have had paranormal experiences, the way in which the questions have been asked, the population to whom the questions have been asked, and even the subjects asked about have varied so dramatically that it is impossible to know for certain how much interest in the paranormal has increased. What we can say for certain is that we live in a paranormal America. Put another way, the paranormal is normal.

It is important that we be very clear what we mean by this statement, as it may be open to misinterpretation. Most books about the paranormal are written from a base underlying assumption regarding the reality of the phenomenon under discussion. A number of skeptics and scientists have written books bemoaning increased interest in the paranormal as a sign that our culture is losing its critical reasoning skills. Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things and the late Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World assume that paranormal phenomena are not objectively real and therefore try to explain what leads people to lose their common sense and believe in fallacious subjects. Books written by paranormal believers attempt to present evidence, often in the form of personal accounts or eyewitness testimony, in an attempt to prove the reality of the phenomenon in question. Conservative Christian authors vary: some arguing that paranormal phenomena are not real while others claim that the paranormal is a tool of Satan.

In the course of researching this book and presenting its findings, we have been accused of being (1) too skeptical by some paranormal believers who wish we would attest to the reality of UFOs or Bigfoot and (2) not skeptical enough by some colleagues who wish we would “call out” lapses in logic among the people we have studied.

We could have presented arguments against the objective reality of UFO abductions. The first widely publicized abduction case of Betty and Barney Hill has been the subject of intense debate. For example, Betty claimed to have copied a “star map” shown to her by her abductors. Skeptics and believers have argued ever since whether the map truly displays a star system (and if so, which one) or is simply a random selection of dots produced by a deluded person.

From our perspective, there was little point in entering such debates. One aspect of the Hill case that few disagree with is that the couple truly believed themselves to have been abducted. From a sociological perspective, that is the important factor. The Hills’ apparent sincerity amid their astonishing claims proved to be a formative moment in what ultimately became a popular phenomenon in the late seventies. Sociologists have long observed that people act upon their strongly held beliefs, whether those beliefs represent “reality” or not.

When we report that the paranormal is normal, therefore, it should not be taken as an implicit or explicit statement for or against the reality of UFOs, psychic phenomena, ghosts, Bigfoot, or any other paranormal topics. We simply mean that the paranormal is no longer a fringe subject. Need proof? Only 32 percent of Americans [based on the 2007 Baylor Religion Survey] report no paranormal beliefs, and half of the population reports belief in two or more paranormal phenomena. Statistically, those who report a paranormal belief are not the oddballs; it is those who have no beliefs that are in the significant minority. Exactly which paranormal beliefs a person finds convincing varies, but whether it is UFOs and ghosts or astrology and telekinesis, most of us believe more than one. If we further consider strong beliefs in active supernatural entities and intense religious experiences, the numbers are even larger. The paranormal is here to stay and is no longer marginal phenomena.

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  • Anonymous Icon

    AlbertRamos Mar 18, 2011

    I do find the book review above concerning "Paranormal America" interesting. I was a Sociology major during my undergrad studies and still have an interest in using the Sociological perspective.

    My approach to UFOs is more skeptical than the above authors. I wrote "How Modern Society Invented UFOs" in 2008. I do use a sociological bent. The attempt is to understand the function of the UFO myth. Anyway, I am thankful to have come across the article above.

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