The odd and clunky guide to researching the paranormal – Book Review

Researching the Paranormal: How to Find Reliable Information about Parapsychology, Ghosts, Astrology, Cryptozoology, Near-Death Experiences, and More

By Courtney M. Block, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2020. 342pp.

There has not previously been a book specifically about how to research the paranormal. Academic librarian Courtney Block aims to help those who may feel embarrassed or confused about approaching unconventional research topics such as ghosts and parapsychology, ufology, cryptozoology, and occult/divination topics. Clearly knowledgeable across a broad scope of paranormal themes and ideas, the author says this book focused primarily on supplying a selection of scholarly and academic references on all these topics to “shine a light on the myriad research that has been done to understand the paranormal”. The volume also revealed the author’s fervent wish to remove the “stigma” that these topics have and to promote “citizen scientists” of whom Block comments are “pushing the boundary of what it means for something to be investigated scientifically”.

This is my wheelhouse. I should appreciate this book. Unfortunately, it loses focus immediately.

Emphasizing the importance of a scientific and scholarly approach, Block states without elaboration that paranormal research challenges the academic status quo and hints that materialistic science may hamper this kind of research. This is odd and reflects the attitude of psi researchers who believe that their evidence is rock solid if only those pesky rules of science were not so strict. So, the reader is left wondering, “what kind of science and scholarship is Block talking about?” The attempt to orient the reader to key ideas of “paranormal”, “scientific”, and even “research” (which isn’t defined until page 94 as “to find out more”) is unclear, buried in a repetitive narrative for which the aim seems more to be about promoting the author’s preferred beliefs than presenting a sound procedure for doing credible research.

The intended audience for this book is also a mystery. Is this a guide for ghost hunters, teens doing research papers, writers? Parts of the book were overly simplistic, as if written for someone who never used a library before. The reading recommendations, however, were often scholarly content that the average non-specialist would find far too challenging to digest.

The author attempts to sort out a research protocol from the ground up, the result of which is disjointed and not easy to follow. For example, Block says one should not use Google as a first step to research. Yet, professionals often begin with broad searches and Wikipedia to get a general orientation to the subject matter prior to a deep dive. Google Scholar is only mentioned in passing and is not explained. Other widely used web tools are not listed. Instead, the author leans heavily on scholarly journals. (Notably, Block is silent on why cryptozoology and ufology have no dedicated journals listed.) It would have been an improvement if the author used an existing concise guide of how to research a topic (of which there are many), supplemented with specific tips for paranormal topics.

University programs, organizations, museums, and special collections are given many pages. These are sources that would be useful mostly for academic research. Yet, this list is also full of holes and barely scrapes the surface of useful material. The sections for books and articles suffer from a similar small sampling, include only a tiny smattering, not even the core literature, for each topic. I question why one would bother with listing fewer than 10 examples of key articles for each huge topic. This didn’t make sense. If there were space constraints to consider, reorganization would have been preferable. Though encouraging approaches to all sides, Block fails to include critical resources or explain their use in fully understanding a research topic. With the massive scope of topics, all end up shortchanged and lacking suitable modern context. Block never mentions anomalistic psychology, and barely touches on sociological studies.

The considerable material from the UK is peppered throughout (mostly related to the Society for Psychical Research) but the remainder is clumped into a strange, disconnected, and aimless last chapter that walks the reader through famous paranormal sites and “magical practices” of the UK. This content was weirdly unsuitable.

A rambling narrative is not an effective vehicle for instruction. The clunky titles, casual language, and repetition also revealed the lack of an editorial hand. The use of many contemporary sources, tools, and brands means this book will age fairly quickly. The multi-task effort Block shouldered is just too huge and complex for one book; it would have worked better as a website or shorter books on each topic. A reader comes away with a hodgepodge of information and suggestions but no clear pathway for researching the paranormal.

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Ghost Studies and Lightforms: A review of two paranormal research books

Long ago, my interest in paranormal topics became jaded because popular books were repetitive, full of the same information and stories as the last one. For decades, books written on cryptozoology and ufology advanced no closer to definitively documenting or explaining these phenomena. Some advocates are persuaded that the many similar stories and imaginative speculation, often tenuously tied to scientific concepts, are sufficient to make remaining skeptics (those that have not been persuaded) or rejectors look absurd. I am not persuaded.

The history of serious ghost research spans even longer than cryptids and UFOs. Scientists have been trying to figure out ghostly experiences for centuries. Scientific-sounding concepts abound to attempt to explain ghosts.

One glaring problem with ghosts is that there are many definitions of ghosts/hauntings and various ideas about what they could be from spiritual to scientific (spirits of the dead, demons or other supernatural entities, psychic transmissions, trans-dimensional receptions, time-slips, environmental recording-playback). Where understanding of the natural world via science has advanced by incredible measure, ghost investigation has decidedly not. Therefore, I am justified in being skeptical of any book that claims to use “cutting edge research” and “new theories” to explain this eternal mysterious human experience. 

Older books about ghostly episodes (and hauntings and poltergeists, as well) were frequently much better. Maybe that was because it was more difficult to write a book before the 21st century. To contract a publisher, you had to have some credibility, experience, and substance. Today, you don’t need to impress anyone but yourself, so the field of the paranormal is polluted with unreadable, useless volumes from part-time or celebrity paranormal investigators. Some of these authors truly believe they are doing something new but have failed to examine what has already been done. Many attempt to do science when they have zero scientific background – these are the topic of my book Scientifical Americans. Then, there are those that do have some science background but are outside their wheelhouse. These authors use abundant scientific jargon, analogies, and experiments to push their ideas. They may publish in parapsychology-related or minor journals. Their work might be heavily referenced by others because it is positive and seemingly impressive. But it often does not get wider scientific acceptance because it is flawed and/or has failed to be reproduced. Or, it just has not proved useful in the real world because it doesn’t accurately predict anything. I recently finished two paranormal-themed books that cited one author that could fall into that category – Michael Persinger. Of note, I no longer take Persinger as seriously as I once did and now find his work relating to paranormal experiences lacking. His ideas about the effects of weak, complex electromagnetic fields may be valid but not to the extent they are promoted. And, the tectonic strain theory was very much a house of cards that could not withstand scrutiny.  Persinger is so frequently cited in scientifical paranormal books that he could be on a Ghost Hunters Bingo card. 

The first book I’ll talk about was advertised as using the latest scientific research and new theories to provide scientific explanations for ghostly episodes. Promises, promises…  Disappointingly, the research was tenuous or out of context, the ideas weren’t new (or logical), and the scope of ghostly episodes was ill-defined and narrow. Listen, everyone: you can’t revolutionize any field with a lightweight paperback for general readers. The Ghost Studies: New Perspectives on the Origins of Paranormal Experiences by Brandon Massullo landed far short of the mark. The author admitted this is a complex subject but then writes in a breezy, affected way with stories, much reiteration, and end-of-chapter summary paragraphs (which I personally find off-putting because it was only few pages and I just read it). 

Curiously, this book was written in 2017 and touches on a few topics (popular ghost theories and use of technology) that were also in my own book published the same year. I found some agreement and was hopeful, but the content was too sparse. The major turn in this book happened when the author describes his version of “ingredients for a ghostly experience”. That is, his “theory” is that the following are necessary for a ghost episode: psychological aspects, changes in internal energy, and external acquisition of information.

Depending on what is meant here, psychological aspects are a given for any ghost experience. With “changes in internal energy”, the pseudoscience flag goes flying. He describes how a ghostly experience requires the energy of a person to be involved – their electrical field, which is powered by emotions. The author puts forward the idea (based on dubious research) that our emotions cause bodily changes that alter our human electric field, which then affects the earth’s electromagnetic field allowing for the transmission of information. Finally, a receiver taps into that frequency and receives the information. None of that is supported by good evidence, logic, or math.

There is the typical misuse of the conservation of energy law that energy can’t be destroyed so something of us must live on after we die. As expected, the entire chapter on energy is overly simplistic and the concepts misapplied.

Other chapters cite work by not only Persinger, but Sheldrake. The author repeats that this is scientific research to give it credibility. Unfortunately, he accepts that this research is perfectly valid and ignores the mountains of criticism about it. Science works as a community effort over time, building on what is confirmed. Persinger’s and Sheldrake’s ideas about electromagnetic fields and morphic resonance, respectively, are not accepted as confirmed. Not even close. But they are convenient to use to promote the author’s imaginative idea and those who aren’t specialists are not going to know that. This is how many people get away with promoting pseudoscience in general as it is hard to check and sounds impressive.

This unconfirmed research constitutes the “studies” of the title and is presented as amazing new results to inform the author’s theory of ghosts. The book quickly became tedious to read as Massullo admits possible weaknesses in the explanations but then cites the few studies as confirmation that we now “know” these things are real/true. By page 51, Massullo tells the reader that they now have “a strong foundation regarding research and possible explanation for hauntings”. I cringe when those making quick and shallow arguments assume they have done a fine job of instructing the reader.

I had a problem with the narrow focus of ghostly episodes. As a parapsychologist, his view is that psi events are the cause of ghosts. This is very much “phantasms of the living” category of ghosts. But this type ignores the much broader range of experiences people consider “ghostly” around the world and through time. The huge span of ghost literature reveals that the concept of ghosts is diverse and culturally-influenced. So, this narrowness of situation is limiting. Additionally, I am not convinced by the evidence of psi as it has not gotten better over time and no reasonable mechanism has been put forward.

Throughout, he repeatedly states he “believes” this or that is happening. Science-based work has no place for “belief”. You either have demonstrated something to satisfaction or not. The author is highly intelligent and probably a fine therapist. However, the volume fails to take seriously the very real effects of social suggestion and exaggeration of experiences for storytelling purposes. People frequently feel what they are told to feel in places they view as haunted. And, those who experience the death of a loved one have unique personal responses that have nothing to do with “biological radio” transmitted via the earth’s electromagnetic field. Books are difficult to write, for sure. I support expressing opinions and concepts about mysterious things but I do not support dressing up suppositions with sciencey language. This is deceptive and confuses the lay reader into thinking the ideas have more merit than they really do.

The second book was Lightforms: Spiritual Encounters with Unusual Light Phenomena by Mark Fox. This second edition, published in 2016, has been retitled from the first. The author promotes the term “lightforms” as a description of these experiences of light. It is deliberate that it sounds like “lifeforms”. This book is also called a “study” suggesting it is original research. I enjoyed the intro and Chapter 1. It was well-written and entertaining as well as effectively framing the previous research for this topic. Fox’s work was to distill 400 personal accounts of experiences with unusual light phenomena collected by the Religious Experiences Research Centre. I was hoping the experiences and analysis would not be constrained by the religious aspects, but, unfortunately, they were. There was very little on what is called “earth lights” that I am interested in. And an argument could be made for a crossover with UFO experiences. Yet, the author did note that accounts where “angels” were mentioned, other than a reference to NDEs, were nonexistent. Since the database used included accounts that were 30 years old up to relatively recent (I assumed, it’s not clear), the cultural aspects are muddled.  

The accounts were categorized weirdly by some lesser characteristic: seen by many, seen alone, lights that embrace and fill, that illuminate landscapes or people, that penetrate (beams, rays, shafts), that invoke visionary experiences, brighter than the sun. I could not make any sense of this division. I quickly got bored with short account after account, chapter after chapter. As I noted at the start of this piece, that’s what turned me off to paranormal lit in general. I admit to skimming beginning around page 115 because the text was mostly anecdotes.

The author does very little with these accounts except to count them and call that a “statistical analysis”. Then he tries to be precise with this volume of highly imprecise anecdotal data by categorizing percentages of accounts that produced positive feelings, occurred during a personal “crisis”, those followed by positive “fruits” (outcomes) – a word the author overuses ad nauseam. Because the anecdotes do not follow a set structure, this is a flawed approach. He then presents a model of these experiences by mashing all of those most noted features together. There is no detailed analysis here. 

Then, the author explores some possible explanations from psychology and neurosciences. Along with a decent array of other researchers, here is where Persinger is invoked regarding his work on Temporal Lobe Transients. Again, I see the word “cutting-edge” appear to describe the research. But is it? It’s fringe, but is it expanding our understanding, pushing the limits? Is it predicting anything? Is it paving the way for more research? I’m not convinced it did any of that. Fox does not consider Persinger’s work as particularly enlightening toward an explanation he seeks because of the difference in response by experiencers – Fox’s respondents interpreted a more fulfilling experience. While the book leans fairly heavily towards a Christian version of God, Fox ultimately fails to arrive at a solid conclusion for lightforms. It remains a mystery, he says, but they are “proof that this world is not all there is”. Well, I agree that people can certainly imagine another world that isn’t this one but, again, stories and speculation alone aren’t going to get all of us on board. I finished the book a bit more knowledgeable about the variety of personal spiritual encounters with light, but that’s it.

Meanwhile, I’m always hoping the NEXT book will leave me pleasantly surprised. Am I too critical? I don’t think so. Writing a book is tough but I expect an author to write thoughtfully, logically, and to do a good job of laying out a decent argument. Those qualities seems difficult to come by. 

Paranormal tourism paper shows themed tourism is popular and profitable

I collaborated on a new paper now online for Cornell Hospitality Quarterly about paranormal tourism called “Paranormal Tourism: Market Study of a Novel and Interactive Approach to Space Activation and Monetization”.

Abstract

We review the premise, popularity, and profitability of paranormal tourism, which involves visits to any setting or locale for the explicit purpose of encountering apparent supernatural phenomena for leisure, investigation, services, products, or conventions. This niche sector can offer an inherently engaging conceptual framework for seasonal or year-round space activation and monetization by businesses situated in specific settings or cities. On a broader level, the niche also illustrates how tourism–hospitality brands and operations can navigate and even capitalize on three paradigm shifts that have disrupted contemporary markets, that is, the mobilities, performative, and creative turns. This assertion is underscored with a case analysis of a historic site that successfully leveraged paranormal themes as part of its space reactivation and rebranding. Finally, our market study suggests that the success factors of paranormal tourism might indicate a fourth paradigm shift across the wider tourism–hospitality industry, whereby the experience economy is transforming to an enchantment economy.

My job was to gather information on the popularity of paranormal beliefs and themed tourism. I collected data via Google searches and compiled the results. I can’t take credit for the structure or conclusions. As with my other papers with Houran’s group, they are the academics. I get down to the local level and pull out the popular cultural information and themes and they form it into models and structures for further research. And, someone other than me uses words like “space activation”, which isn’t something that could be conceived in my brain. But that’s how collaborations work. I could never do this kind of paper on my own. Science is a community effort.

From Houran, et al. (2020)

The conclusions were that there is a distinct benefit in leveraging a paranormal theme for those sites that can find a way to do it. The surge in paranormal themes in branding a site is further evidence to support a widespread cultural move towards “re-enchantment” of the landscape. It appears that many sites risk their reputation as a “haunted” site because the short-term economic benefit far outweighs the potential dip in reputation. People visit! The example given is the Eastern State Penitentiary that capitalized on their Halloween events and their spooky tales to draw increased crowds to what essentially is a historic landmark to a failed experiment in mass incarceration. People come to be creeped out and the scary tales enhance that branding.

Advertising for the ESP’s seasonal moneymaker.

We connect the creative turn towards paranormal branding in tourism to the previously described VAPUS model.

I’ve made a copy of the paper available here.

Supernatural Creep: When explanations slide off to the fringes

Originally published as Supernatural Creep: The Slippery Slope to Unfalsifiability for my column Sounds Sciencey on csicop.org May 29, 2013.

I’m taking a step beyond sciencey with the following topic. What happens when science doesn’t cooperate with your subject area? Researchers of unexplained events may get frustrated and disenchanted with the scientific process when the eyewitness accounts they collect are too weird to explain via conventional means. They go unconventional.

Captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel led the hunt for a beast that was attacking and devouring victims in the Gevaudan, France, in 1794. He had a problem. He could not catch and kill the man-eating monster. Being a proud man, he had to justify why he could not conquer this particular foe. Since the option that he was an inadequate huntsman was not acceptable, the creature must be supernatural in its abilities to escape his capture. The characteristics of the beast were exaggerated—it was huge, cunning, and not just an ordinary wolf. Captain Duhamel left defeated by what must truly be an extraordinary beast.

The cognitive dissonance experienced by the French captain is reflected today by those who can’t capture Bigfoot. When normal processes and causes fail to satisfactorily explain events or answers to questions, then the reasoning slips beyond nature, into super nature, beyond the testable claims of science.

I call this “supernatural creep.” Although, I swear I’m not the first one to name it as such. I searched to find where I have seen this referenced before. (If anyone knows, please email me so I can give the originator due credit.) Once I noticed this kind of reasoning, I saw it frequently. Wherever I come across this concept, it reveals a bit about human nature:

If you have to choose between the belief or a rational explanation, the rational explanation may be that which gets rejected.

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Paranormal education classes showing up at major universities

Paranormal subjects typically lie outside the circle of academic respectability. One can argue that they have been deliberately marginalized to keep them diminished in credibility. But, with the majority of the population of the U.S. subscribing to at least one paranormal belief, I’d argue we should be discussing these phenomena in an intellectual context. Things are changing. But for a while now, non-credit, community education classes have been providing a certain degree of legitimacy to these subject areas. 

In recent news on paranormal-themed websites, I’ve heard that David Halperin, retired professor of religious studies, is teaching a non-credit course about UFOs and alien visitation at Duke University. Entitled UFOs–Encounter, Mystery, Myth, he writes about it here. These kinds of continuing education courses, aimed at those with leisure time for enrichment activities, are very common. In this situation, at least we see a qualified teacher. He’s qualified in both instruction and in UFO lore. I suspect this course will be interesting and worthwhile. Here is the summary:

This course rests on two premises: (1) UFOs are a myth; (2) myths are real.  UFOs became a feature of the cultural landscape 71 years ago.  They’ve been debunked innumerable times, yet remain firmly fixed in our shared consciousness.  In the changed socio-political environment since the 2016 election they’ve achieved a surprising new respectability.  We’ll explore these “visitors from inner space” from a psychological and religious perspective, asking the essential question –not “Where do they come from?” or “How do they fly?” but, “What do they mean?” –for us as individuals, as a culture, as a species.

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Doubt and About: Revisiting Fort and more short book opinions

It’s been a long while since I did a “doubt and about” post detailing what’s going on. I’m in a weird space right now. I don’t really feel like talking about anything but I also want to share some things. Going by that last sentence, I am admitting that I am inconsistent. I have internal conflicts. I know something is bad, yet I indulge it – like talking about Bigfoot. I have changed my mind about things. I have discarded previous modes of thinking. I find there is nothing wrong with that and I am enjoying the exploration. 

Blogs are dead. Yet, people still write them and others read them. I likely will regret this post and others tomorrrow. But it feels natural to write publicly at this moment.

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Perhaps you can never organize paranormal research

I am enjoying my latest read. It’s George Hansen’s The Trickster and the Paranormal (2001). George and I met years ago at a parapsychology conference in Gettysburg. Even though he is a critic of organized skepticism, he’s just as much a critic of shoddy paranormal research. And, his criticism of CSICOP is not unjustified, for the most part. I can’t yet outline everything I found intriguing with this book because I’m not through yet. He might chuckle when he hears that I could not skip around but had to read it cover to cover – it’s my thick-boundary personality. But, I believe I am loosening up! And, thus, perceiving and understanding the bigger picture much more clearly via stepping outside of the skeptic and believer tribes. I may be actually in the betwixt and between, as they say. At least it feels like that these days.

The major theme of the book is the trickster elements tied to supernatural claims and to those who are involved in some way (for or against). Of particular note, I had to copy this quote into my notes and am eager to share it here, especially with UFO researchers who are trying to forge a new structure to the field:Read More »

Believers are the majority: Paranormal acceptance in America is rising

The results of the 2018 Chapman University survey of American Fears have been released and they suggest that America (that is, even well-educated America) is even more accepting of the paranormal than in the past three years. You can view the entire survey here but let me highlight the major points as well as some possible explanations for the numbers and some problems with applying them.

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Supernatural in Society conference: Bader on Bigfooters

There is a lot of new research happening in academia about paranormal culture and belief. I kid you not. Scholars in sociology, psychology, religious studies, and media studies are noticing that millions of people are deeply affected by paranormal beliefs and personal experiences. There is so much happening, especially regarding ghostly episodes, that it’s difficult to keep up with it all. Even new journals and conferences are springing up in the past few years.

When people ask me why I bother to spend my time on this stuff, I’m amazing at how ignorant they are that over half the population believes in some paranormal idea. Or at least, they are curious about it. This is not fringe. The paranormal is mainstream. It’s a resilient thread in our human history, it isn’t going away. It’s influential, it’s popular, and it’s big business as well.

Speaking of conferences, videos of the talks from the Supernatural in Contemporary Society Conference, which took place at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland in August 2018 are available for viewing. The visuals are awful but you can hear the speakers talk which is the most important thing. The conference purpose as given was “to explore the continuing role of the supernatural.” The conference intent was to “provide an interdisciplinary forum to discuss current and emerging research, and examine these in relation to the impact and value this has on culture, heritage and tourism.”

I may have something to say about several of these talks as I work through them but I advise you to check out the ones in the areas of your interest. There are many – ghosts & hauntings, Slenderman, witchcraft, Satanism, ufology, and anomalistics.

First up is Christopher Bader’s talk on Bigfoot seekers. Read More »

UFO reports declining: Several social factors involved

An article in Gizmodo today focused on the question of why UFO sightings (reported to NUFORC and MUFON – the major U.S. organizations who record these claims) are in decline since 2012 – a 30 to 40 percent drop from 2012 to 2017. When Jennings Brown, the journalist, contacted me Friday to talk about it, a few things came to mind. In contrast to the opinion of one leader in the UFO community quoted in the piece, I refuse to cop out with an untested, unsupported sci-fi-inspired answer to this trend. I suspect the real answer is social and far more complicated than we can easily tease out.

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Ghosts as modern history (Book review)

Lisa Morton presents another version of the history of ghosts in Ghosts: A Haunted History (Reaktion Books, London, 2015). In this case, it is an international popular history of ghosts in philosophy, literature, movies, television and pop culture. It is general and short, but good. The glossy pages are full of illustrations. The theme of this, and other contemporary books on paranormal culture, is “ghosts are everywhere”. They certainly are ubiquitous in western pop culture. You can’t watch TV, go to the movies, or visit a historic city without bumping up against them!Read More »

It’s all very fuzzy: Dogman, Bigfoot, and the scent of paranormalia at CryptidCon

Werewolves have staked out new territory within the field of cryptozoology. What does this mean for cryptid-credibility? I explore the ideas and patterns spotted at a recent cryptozoology convention and discover that the paranormal is alive and well in monster research.

September 9-10, 2017 was CryptidCon in Frankfort, Kentucky. I drove 8.5 hours for two days and two nights of listening to those who believe cryptids exist and seeing how these mysterious monsters are represented in our popular culture. And I was glad to do it. I met up with Dr. Jeb Card (academic archaeologist and spooky enthusiast) and Blake Smith (skeptical paranormal researcher and host of Monster Talk podcast). The three of us wanted to see firsthand the current state of cryptozoology. What topics would be covered? How would they be presented? What was the evidence provided in support of these incredible claims? What was new?Read More »

The manufactured, badly-behaved Ouija demon: Zozo (Book Review)

In the classic book Psychology of Superstition, Gustav Jahoda writes that beliefs are not just in our heads, they affect our behavior, and that self-fulfilling prophecy is not uncommon in human affairs (p. 8). Many events seem trivial and unspectacular, but when placed into a paranormal context, they take on a new and enhanced meaning. We want explanations for the bad things that happen to us and we retroactively look to assign blame to anything but ourselves. There is satisfaction in seeking and establishing patterns that later seem obvious, even though they are concocted and baseless. This is my opinion of what happens when people think they have summoned bad spirits from an Ouija board. Superstition is at the core of this book, The Zozo Phenomenon by Darren Evans and Rosemary Ellen Guiley.Read More »

Arrogant and confused, ghost and ghoul (Book Review)

I’m still doing research on the Stone Tape idea, as a paranormally-curious geologist does. I was interested in obtaining a book by T.C. Lethbridge because his name comes up repeatedly as a promoter of the concept. It’s been a tricky thing to trace the origin without having easy access to the literature in print. I’ll keep looking. Meanwhile, I was able to secure a copy of Ghost and Ghoul (1961) via intra-library loan from my local county library (to whom I donate financially every month because they are awesome). I’m glad I didn’t purchase it. It’s was absolutely worse than I anticipated. And, it had essentially no mention of the physical recording of ghosts. In fact, Lethbridge promotes the idea that ghosts and ghouls (not visible but “felt” usually as coldness and oppression) are mental manifestations. Back to that idea by and by. First, some additional information about Lethbridge gleaned from this volume. I’m sure there is far more about Lethbridge since he was apparently notable in his time and warranted references and biographies. But after this introduction, you may not wish to bother.

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An inconsistent history of paranormal in America – Book Review

Supernatural America: A Cultural History by L.R. Samuel (2011)

Supernatural America is one of a few books that aim to take the reader on a tour of the country’s paranormal history to end up where we are today. I’ve not read many good ones. (Paranormal Nation by Fitch was possible the WORST. Steer clear of that stinker!) I compare such a project to Brian Inglis’ two volumes (that are not focused on America but on the history of supernatural and paranormal thought) that some think are too pro-paranormal but certainly far more thorough.Read More »

Paranormal investigators and Velikovsky sound similarly sciencey

worlds in collisionIn January 2013, I wrote about Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, and pseudoscience, referencing Michael Gordin’s excellent book The Pseudoscience Wars (2012). Well, I’m writing about it again, to be included in a book about amateur investigation groups “sounding sciencey” and fooling the public. I went back to some of my old sources and found a good one. It’s nice to know that even though you forgot you ever thought about this thing before, you actually wrote it down, and now realize you were on the right track.

 

A fascinating discussion by R.G.A. Dolby (1975) provides a case study about a popular idea that was nearly universally rejected by orthodox scientists, sold directly to the public by a non-expert, and even involved religious connections. It is a classic case of what we call pseudoscience.

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Media as ‘medium’: Review of Paranormal Media and the good and bad of ghost hunting

It’s not news that the paranormal is mainstream, which is ironic since we commonly understand the paranormal to be events that are NOT normal yet the discussion about it is an everyday occurrence. If you follow TV ghost hunters or paranormal researchers, “evidence” is all around us. So much for it being all that “extraordinary”.

51m9mZYRf4L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Annette Hill (no relation) is a professor of media and communication in the U.K. Her book, Paranormal Media, provides support for the conclusion that the paranormal as a field of inquiry is variable, pliable, irreducibly complex, and dependent on context to the point that we have trouble even defining it for study.

The volume contains interesting ideas, particularly with regards to reality paranormal television and the role of skepticism. Her findings derive from a study she conducted of 70 interviewees (in the U.K.) regarding paranormal depiction in the media. Also included was a section on “magic” with some mixed feelings on Derren Brown, but my interest was in the revelation of a more nuanced meaning behind ghost hunting shows and the activities of amateur paranormal researchers.

In my previous work examining amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs), it was indisputable that their personal experiences were the impetus for their interest in the paranormal and prompted them to find out more. Also clear was the influence of paranormal television shows, whether they were expository or “reality” types. The importance placed on experiences was a strong theme throughout this book.

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If you think Bigfoot is an interdimensional being, you’ve lost your footing

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. Read More »

Book reviews: Fall 2014

300x300Since my last book review, I’ve downed a couple more. I can’t manage to review everything but here is a rundown:

Ghosts, E. Russell (1970)
This book was recommended to me by a long-time ghost researcher. I enjoyed it, mostly. It was confusing in parts, uneven. But some excellent points. Harder to get but worth it to have if you are serious about paranormal history.

The Castle of Otranto, H. Walpole (1764)
The first “Gothic” novel. Available outside copyright for free. Strange. Very strange.

Raising the Devil, B. Ellis (2000)
A very worthwhile reference. Learned a lot from this one. You may be able to get it through your local university library. A folklore perspective worth exploring.

Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, S. Poole (2014)
Vampira is entrancing. She was way before her time. This could have been cut down a bit but I enjoyed it all anyway. Now I’m a lifelong fan of Vampira.

The Haunting of Borley Rectory, Dingwall, Goldney & Hall (1956)
After I finished this book I realized I’d already read it 9 years ago. That explains why it didn’t seem impressively shocking. If you have read Price’s Most Haunted House in England, you MUST read this. Can be found in large university libraries.

Unnatural Creatures, N. Gaiman
Could not finish. I just don’t like short stories. Not bad, just not my thing.

Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters – M. Kaplan
Could not finish after first two chapters. Felt “off” as if Kaplan does not know what he is talking about. Focused on mythical monsters and uses guessing and speculation. Missed the mark entirely for me.

Hoaxes, Myths and Manias: Why We need Critical Thinking, R. Bartholomew & B. Radford (2003)
Very good reference. Readable and noteworthy (I marked lots of passages for reference). A must for your skeptical library.

If you would like to purchase any of these books, go through the Doubtful News Amazon link. Thanks.