A Paranormal National disaster: Book review

pn nationI had such high hopes for Paranormal Nation: Why America Needs Ghosts, UFOs and Bigfoot, by Marc E. Fitch (2013). I found it in an academic library, it was hefty, and the topics covered were ripe for exploring: paranormal culture in America, tourism, television, popularity.

Alas, it turned out to be a bloated, credulous, rambling mess. This was a book that screamed for better research, a fact checker, a skeptical approach, and a good editor.

There are certainly many bits of good info in this book. Fitch, from his bio, writes fiction and works in the mental health field. But he clearly does not understand how science works or the value of a skeptical approach. He has obviously extended far beyond his realm of knowledge here. And, unfortunately went on and on about 150 pages too long.

His inspiration for the work, he notes, was Discovery Channel’s show The Haunting. This was a popular “reenactment” style paranormal television show of the kind that grew from 1998 onwards (the other two styles being “documentary style” and “reality-based”). At first, Fitch’s stance on paranormal reality was not revealed. His premise is that there has been renewed public interest in the paranormal at times of massive social change and uses examples such as the Salem witch craze, the rise of Spiritualism, the flap of flying saucers and Satanic Panic as connected to sweeping social change and scientific advances. He suggests all can be seen through the lens of social dissonance in reaction to science development. While he does remark that various factors came into play in these landmark cultural events, it seems that he stresses the importance of science in the equation. Oddly, he remarks that “proving” the paranormal would be “a moral and ethical bomb”. What “paranormal”? Ghosts? Alien visitation? Bigfoot? Religion? He’s lumped it all together in a premise that is not coherent. It’s all downhill from there.

While science gets mild cynical treatment, skeptics are represented as a straw man and outright mocked. First, he gives a pass to the well-known outrageous psychic, Eusapia Palladino. He calls her a “trickster” (and lauds Hansen’s book the Trickster and the Paranormal as one of the “best” books ever written on the paranormal, so he is invested in this concept) who presented a “great challenge to science”. Science is stuck within limits and boundaries of understanding so she did not fit into their framework. Not quite… 

Fitch is not well-versed on the problems of perception (he states that the explanation of Venus as a UFO is “ridiculous”), or how science works to limit subjectivity and the ability to be fooled. Revealingly, he describes science as a matter of faith in the existing paradigm, like a religion. Nope. Wrong.

Once he characterized the “skeptic” as the “lonely nerd” sitting by him or herself at the lunchroom table, “a bit of a downer”, I began to see him arrogant and ignorant, with an agenda. [Ironically, Fitch will no doubt think of me as a downer since I’m not giving praise for this book. You can judge whether that is fair or not.]

Besides the formatting problems that make this book a chore to read at times – it’s highly repetitive with concepts and phrasing reused even in the same paragraph, has extreme amounts of quotes which makes sections feel like a high school term paper, and with rambling philosophical portions interspersed with personal anecdotes – there are two huge flaws with the work that make it unsuitable: it is poorly sourced and obvious mistakes abound.

Poorly sourced

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My first thought, since this book was from 2013, was that it would draw deeply from Bader, et al’s Paranormal America (January, 2011). This source has become a definitive work with regards to modern paranormal belief in the U.S. and was based on sound research and field work. Fitch does not acknowledge it at all. It’s as if he hadn’t known of it and tried to invent his own wheel without proper planning and tools. He does use a Gallop poll from 2011 so he should have known of Paranormal America’s release. This oversight raised a giant question on the soundness of the work. 

In two examples of misplaced trust in sources, first, his questionable conclusions about the War of the Worlds panic tale is taken from about.com. It’s been disputed whether there was mass panic over this radio broadcast. I disagree it should have been presented this way.

Second, he cites Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror novel twice in reference to the idea that this famous haunting was related to a Native American burial ground. He states that burial grounds were regarded as sacred by European settlers and cites a blog about Native American paranormal belief as a source explaining that Native Americans are more powerful in their burial and sacred places because they have merged their essence with the land. That is, their soul became one with the land and the land is unhappy when desecrated. Where are the solid references on folklore or archeology? None. He didn’t look past the fictional account. He didn’t go to available primary sources in these fields. From what I’d heard, Hans Holzer was the originator of this concept. He’s not mentioned either.

Huge blunders

On page 15, Fitch names celebrity psychic John Edward as “John Edwards” multiple times. Such a mistake stands out to me as a lack of simple fact-checking. It gets worse.

Fitch states the “earliest paranormal-based nonfiction program was Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World” in 1980. This is just plain wrong! It was In Search of… in 1976. Maybe he should have checked my list of Paranormal TV shows. In Search of… was far more influential on a generation than Clarke’s show, giving American kids like me their first taste of the mysterious Loch Ness Monster and the Patterson-Gimlin film of Bigfoot. In Search of… is not even mentioned here! That egregious error was bad enough to want me to chuck the book out the window and conclude the author doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but then… he does something inconceivable. He compares UFO researcher Stanton Friedman to internationally influential scientist and communicator Carl Sagan. I slog through three pages of drivel such as “[Both were] men on a mission to change humanity for the better”, and how both were visionaries, urging us to embrace science. This is unforgivably absurd. I’ve tasted quite enough to know this meal is not worth finishing.

Yet, there was at least one more huge blunder I noticed as I scanned the rest of the text to the end. Fitch says that a surprise red panda fossil in Tennessee was revealed (“notably first reported”) by Cryptomundo “a site dedicated to the research and discovery of mysterious and unknown species”. He expands on this apparently momentous find referencing Huffington Post. (What this has to do with the paranormal, I can’t explain.) I don’t recall this event so I look it up – something the author might have reasonably done. It turns out that Loren Coleman of Cryptomundo was visiting the Tennessee fossil site in 2010 when he heard from the paleontologists that there was an as yet unpublicized find of a red panda skull. However, the animal, Pristinailurus bristoli, was known from the site prior to 2004 when it was named . So, while this 2010 skull was a neat find, it was not a new species discovered nor was it as remarkable as Fitch made it out to be. Lazy, misrepresented stuff like this kills credibility. 

By page 220 (of 368, not including notes and index), I stopped reading carefully, skipping the rehash of several topics which appeared over again and more rambling speculation about the state of today’s paranormal horizon. It was not worth my time. He’d lost me at Stanton Friedman. But you can’t say I didn’t give it a chance. I wanted it to be good. It simply wasn’t. Lesson: Even if the premise for the work is good, you had better be prepared to throughly research it. Or else, it’s a dud.