A person making an extraordinary claim may feel very special. A couple that I met recently who do paranormal research described some acquaintances’ behavior during an investigation of a supposedly haunted place : a woman “swooned” as the spirit overcame her. It was all very dramatic, they said. I’ve seen similar when one ghost hunter of a group claims sighting of a full-body apparition. The rest of the group pays rapt attention to the experiencer, openly wishing they had the encounter as described.
I recently gave a talk at a local paranormal-themed event about science and the paranormal, part of which was a description of “supernatural creep”. This week, I was reminded how powerful the pull of the supernatural is to some and that they will slide towards ever more sensational and dramatic interpretations.
Pursuit of paranormal investigation can be a path to personal empowerment. It becomes serious leisure – part of the definition of self. Some curious people that I thought were grounded have left the ground, metaphorically speaking. Paranormal people I thought were worthy collaborators turned out to be jokers and self-promoters, first and foremost. They’ve either lost contact with reality via small steps, or they have deliberately pursued sensationalist fantasy for some reason or another. (I can’t really say why, don’t know.)
Supernatural creep happens when an investigator takes eyewitness stories at face value, including supernatural qualities of the encounter, and incorporates these features into the description of the phenomenon. Such features include invoking spirits, demons, angels, miracles, or physical implausibilities such as time- or inter-dimensional travel, psychic communication, or other behaviors that do not align with the laws of nature. Authors who will incorporate supernatural features include Stan Gordon, Nick Redfern, even Charles Fort himself. They assumed the accounts to be true as related by the witness without questioning or verifying the reported facts. They just document it. Further reports of the same variety will tend to reinforce the supernatural quality and the investigator may even begin to experience himself what he perceived as supernatural. Thus, we have hauntings attributed to demons, rescues attributed to miracles, shape-shifting cryptids, and Bigfoot as a telepathic, interdimensional visitor.
This week, there was a surge in discussion about supernatural Bigfoot. Certain investigators are saying that they have experienced a “portal” opening, guarded by little demonic bigfoots, that allows the creature to appear or disappear without a trace. This is an area they say is a Bigfoot “habituation” area. When they shine their flashlights at the “portal”, it disappears. (POOF! Like magic.) This is not a new idea – it’s been proposed for other cryptids and mysterious visitors before without evidence.
This nifty and convenient portal explanation is invoked for why we can’t ever catch a Bigfoot or find traces. Bigfoot defies physics! He is a supernatural creature. This would explain a lot. But does it? Nope, it adds a whole other layer of mystery, speculation and creative excuses to the Bigfoot enigma. It explains nothing since there are no “portals” documented or even defined. A mystery is described by an even more enigmatic mystery. That’s absurd and why I will not accept this as a reasonable explanation.
In order to rescue or maintain a belief at any cost, some Bigfooters head to the fringe and go over the edge, assuming supernatural qualities as part of the explanation. In other words: If you have to choose between the belief or a rational explanation, the rational explanation may be that which gets rejected. It’s understandable when they have spent a good part of their lives attempting to resolve this dissonance between what they feel they have experienced and how to explain it.
There are many problems with supernatural creep that show a lack of application of critical thinking:
- Reliance on testimony as evidence, which is based solely on perception and speculation, without other confirmatory markers.
- Ignorance of the well-known mistakes that people make in observation and memory recall, and how easily we can fool ourselves.
- Adoption of an unfalsifiable conclusion (the ‘supernatural’ falls outside the ability to scientifically test the claim.)
- Failing to understand that it’s unreasonable to discard reliable knowledge about natural laws to accommodate a spurious belief.
- Ignoring the findings of experts in a field and co-opting the jargon and ideas into an incoherent “sciencey” explanation (quantum mechanics, wormholes, etc.)
- Failure to recognizing that no evidence can be presented that will change the believer’s mind.
Sensational and fantastic ideas are invoked as a desperate attempt to rescue a belief, but also because it’s fun to think about, and it gets a lot of attention. It makes the experiencer feel even more special.
People love to hear about this stuff so paranormal podcasters, YouTubers, and mystery mongering websites play the supernatural card regularly. Promotion of baseless stories and sensationalistic scenes in order to hook a bigger audience is loathsome and ultimately pointless in solving mysteries (unless it’s done for entertainment or ad revenue).
If it was only entertainment, it wouldn’t be so bad – creative speculation makes for interesting science fiction. But it’s not all done for fun. People really believe this stuff!
I appeared on a few podcasts when invited to talk about the skeptical, scientific point of view by paranormalists who seemed sincere about a quest for the best answers. I did these shows in good faith, assuming that what the host told me was truthful – that they wanted and valued my opinion. I also wrote for a website whose owners also noted the same. But, these paranormal opportunists were two-faced. After thanking me for my appearance or help, they then berating me in public, not with any reasoning or solid arguments, but with ad hominem attacks. Skeptic bashing – how courageous! They mock me for saying that an inter-dimensional Bigfoot is ludicrous? I’ll stick to my conservative rationalism, thanks, it’s been pretty reliable so far in human history.
They didn’t like what I said, I guessed, but I have given reasons for why I do not accept their claims. It’s their turn to justify why they suggest such outrageous happenings as truth. I would bet it’s based on anecdotes, their own perception, and their deep willingness to believe or to experience a manifestation of that special belief. That is not good enough for the rest of us who prefer more solid reasoning.
It’s rather religious, if no rational evidence or discussion will work. I’ve heard it suggested more than once that UFOlogy, Bigfootology and ghostology are very much like religion. Spiritualism actually was one and there are several alien-themed religions and those based on nature spirits. It’s a short leap when belief is the priority.
Actively engaging in supernatural creep means you’ve crossed a line. No longer looking for a reasonable explanation, you have become unreasonable, uncritical, and lost in the spooky fog. No satisfactory answers can be found that way. You’ll only fall down deeper into the rabbit hole.