Going off-track: A visit to the paranormal side of Dragon Con
I have finally experienced Dragon Con, the world’s largest sci-fi/fantasy convention, which was held August 31 to Sept 3 in Atlanta, Georgia. Encompassing 5 hotels and including 40,000 or so attendees, many of whom were in costume, it was a bit overwhelming at times. But, I was determined to squeeze the most out of my participation, hosting a great discussion panel on Monday about skeptics and believers, and attending as many talks as I possibly could.
Besides the uniqueness inherent in a convention fueled by artistic flare, this conference is different from all others I’ve been to in that the various “tracks” (themed schedules) are visited by others who may not attend a conference based solely on that particular theme. Certainly many people wandered into the Skeptic track room as they made their way to events in the nearby Science or Space tracks. This buffet of choices allowed me to see how other fields discuss their content. So, I wanted to share my observations on the Paranormal track, the sessions featuring the TV ghost hunters, and the fantastic talks about monsters.
Three sessions out of these six that I attended featured paranormal investigators telling their stories to the audience of about 40 people. One presenter was an anthropologist/archaeologist who now does “ghost excavations” framed in a social science context. Another was a horror film maker who has film colleagues on his team. The Paranormal 101 session was a panel of three who offered their tips and tricks. For all three, I was LESS than impressed with the content and presentation. I had some idea of the pseudoscientific concepts they would present but it was far worse than that. They made critical assumptions that were NOT TRUE. Scientists did not discover and DON’T condone the stone tape theory of residual haunting. EVPs are NOT definitively communication with ghosts. Most importantly, we have NO reason to accept they are experiencing what they labeled a “ghost” or “haunting” at all.
The mistakes in some cases were ludicrous. One speaker used the word “demononic” repeatedly instead of “demonic”. The film maker had NO knowledge of the effects of atmosphere and priming in affecting your perceptions in a dark and creepy space. He denied that his experiences of entities approaching him are at all psychological. He said he’s too “jaded” to be affected by scary places. Other claims they made were outrageous – seeing a spirit who had huge spikes coming from his head, a ghost boy who causes trouble because he wants to appear in the author’s next book, and that spirits identify with individuals and treat them as one of their own by communicating directly. Ugh. Many in the audience ate this stuff up. It made me gag.
I can’t say that these guys (no women) were totally without informative content. They were very clear that real ghost hunting is NOT what you see on TV. Their methods were just their personal choices, not definitive ones. There was a clear attitude of disdain towards the Ghost Hunters (of the TV show) and other television representations of paranormal investigation. I can understand frustration with such a show. It’s not genuine and yet it remains popular and influential on the public idea of ghost hunting.
I had to wait in line to get into the Ghost Hunters panel featuring Steve Gonsalves and Dave Tango from the show. They repeated this session in order to accommodate the interest. Yet, it wasn’t packed. Ghost Hunters still has strong ratings. It is currently the #2 ranked show on cable among Adults 25-54 in their time slot and has a high ranking with women.
I’ll be blunt. This session was horrendous. Instead of being an informative presentation, it was a fan event. Unprepared to do anything but name drop and tell stories about the show, they spent the first 20 minutes asking the audience who they came to see at the conference. (Many yelled out “YOU!”) They think very highly of themselves.
Their gadget-centric, paranormal-by-default kind of investigation has been going on for over a decade. After 8 years of television, they are still doing the same old tired schtick of attempting to communicate with ghosts. They have discovered nothing new nor strengthened any of their theories about hauntings. Yet, the audiences are duped into thinking that the Ghost Hunters are doing science with their serious attitude, expensive equipment and fancy jargon. This can confuse viewers into thinking the Ghost Hunters are legitimate investigators.
In one enlightening moment, one Ghost Hunter admitted that after 18 years of doing this, not much has changed. The ability to capture evidence has improved but the truly revealing point is that there is STILL no way to quantify it. Their evidence is not worth much of anything if it serves no greater purpose. Paranormal investigators have decades worth of data and case studies. What do they do with it all? I asked this question to the Paranormal 101 group. It’s all in files, they said, and someday we will get together with other investigators and do something with it.
I won’t hold my breath. I simply do not see that ever happening. They enjoy their own sense of being a small, in-the-know community. Their knowledge is personal and that seems good enough for them.
One topic interestingly spanned THREE different tracks: Monsters. I attended “monster” themed events on three different tracks – skeptic, comics and paranormal.
The Skeptic-themed monster talk was, appropriately enough, Monster Talk, the podcast that won this year’s Parsec Award at Dragon Con for “Best Fact Behind the Fiction”. We had a lively discussion about the science behind monsters, past episodes and what exciting topics were to come. This podcast is a fine treatment of the seemingly paranormal through rational inquiry.
The Comic track featured a session with three monster artists. Sparsely attended due to the time of the event, it was WELL worth it. These guys knew monsters inside and out. They were well-versed in monsters of different cultures and across the range of comics and film. I could have listened to them for another hour or two talk about the characteristics and pop culture ideas surrounding portrayal of monsters in art. It was awesome.
My last session of Dragon Con was one on American werewolf reports. Also called “dogmen”, there are increasing numbers of reports from people who say they’ve witnessed a large, hairy, bipedal/quadripedal animal with a dog-like snout around inhabited areas. Contrary to most Bigfoot reports, this animal is reportedly aggressive and bloodthirsty. Or, so the stories make it seem. A pair of women sitting in front of me in the room mumbled to themselves after one asked a question about suitability of habitat and food sources for this alleged top predator. Shouldn’t we be seeing more cases of livestock loss and remnant carcasses? The speaker responded that it was a coverup. The horrible carnage was just not being reported.
Once you dodge a legitimate, important question by claiming a conspiracy, you’ve lost credibility. I then posed a question about REAL wolves possibly being responsible (as opposed to hypothetical beasties). By then it was clear there was some significant doubt in the room. The proponent of the dogman explanation took the few facts that were available and spun them into tale that even the most casual critical thinker could NOT accept. It was not a convincing case. Incidentally, it makes a HUGE difference if one person stands out in dissent or doubt. It makes the rest of the observers take note and consider that possibly that person has a point. That effect is why skeptics SHOULD attend such paranormal-positive events and ask probing, smart questions. Don’t be mean or a pest but it should be your goal to call them out of the blatant holes in their conclusions.
The paranormal track was all about speculation and stories. Evidence was abysmally poor or completely lacking. We were told, “Yes, there are tracks but they are inconclusive.” “Yes, this is an EVP. Here is what it’s supposed to sound like.” “Yes, look at this blur – see the human figure in the mist?” “Yes, the EVP sounded like ‘Chelsey’ and I found the previous owners name was ‘Chelsey’! So, proof positive!”
At times I felt duped having spent time listening to these people. It was not easy to sit quiet and observe but that’s what you must do to learn.It’s CRITICAL for skeptics to experience and attempt to understand the opposite viewpoints. It was enlightening, although at times utterly brain-numbing, to listen along with the believers. When no one knows that a knowledgeable skeptic is in the audience, the speaker and people around you will often say the darndest things. (Tim Farley revealed that Stanton Friedman, UFO guy, was relieved not to be subjected to skeptics.I skipped Stan because my brain was already overloaded with pompous paranormality for the day.)
I saw cracks in the paranormal track. Among the low turnout for the non-headlining speakers, there was some doubt and discontent there. I wonder if people are jaded over the sad state of ghost evidence. Like the two women in the werewolf session, some people who seek out paranormal subjects want the real story, not tall tales and rampant speculation. They are growing tired of the same old stuff and lack of progress. Sure there is still a big draw for the celebrities of ghost hunting but that’s fading as the novelty wears off and the shows devolve into dull, repetitive manufactured drama, often openly discredited by your local, boots-on-the-ground paranormal team. Of course, it could just be that the track is not managed well whereas the skeptic track is.
It’s actually a shame that the skeptic and paranormal tracks can’t figure out a way to overlap. From what I understand, there used to be a session where skeptics and believers participated together. But, the paranormal volunteers declined the invitation or perhaps they just feel more comfortable preaching to the choir. Not so for the skeptics. Skeptic track isn’t a fan track, this is inquiry and exploration of a topic. Hard questions are the norm.
From what I observed, the foundation of attendees at the paranormal track events are emotionally invested in the belief they will not easily relinquish and they don’t want to consider an alternative explanation. But there are a few who MIGHT be open to new ideas. How can we reach them? I examined that topic in my panel about attracting believers to skeptical content. The key is grabbing them with the topic, letting them have their say, not being dismissive and initiating a discussion. There was discussion from other skeptical speakers that several potential and rational explanations which we take for granted, like pareidolia, cold reading and the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, are unknown concepts to paranormalists. If you talk about the paranormal, and remain respectful to people with other views, you prop open the door for new visitors to stop by and be exposed to something new. It may change their minds at that minute or at some other moment down the road.
Dragon Con is famous for the huge number of attendees that participating in cosplay, for a little while they can be the embodiment of their favorite sci-fi or fantasy character. It’s fun to pretend but inevitably they return to real life when they are out of costume. The paranormal believers, on the other hand, inhabit the realm of fantasy most all the time believing that the spirits of the dead are among us, want to speak to us, wish to interact with us. Can we get them to peer over to the other side?
We should focus an effort on getting heard by the people in the other rooms. This would be a worthy goal of the skeptic track – to take advantage of the strange juxtaposition of fantasy and reality at Dragon Con.