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The Church of the Paranormal

Despite our reputation as a science-minded superpower, America has always had a predilection for the unseen.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Photo: Columbia Pictures)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Photo: Columbia Pictures)

Don’t be shy. Depending on your poll of choice, anywhere from a third to nearly half of you either believe in ghosts or are pretty sure you do. And if not ghosts, then aliens, mediums, or astrology, for which belief has either held steady or risen over the last couple of decades.More than two-thirds of Americans hold at least one paranormal—unsanctioned by religion—belief, according to the Baylor Religion Survey. That’s more than voted in the 2012 presidential election.

It’s not just belief: everywhere you look in the United States today, the supernatural is more culturally important, more acceptable, and just ... more than it’s ever been before. Paranormal-themed media of all types have surged, in fiction obviously, but also in non-fiction too, where the past few years have brought us everything from The Most Terrifying Places in America to Psychic Tia to The Monster Project. Then there are the Bigfoot hunts, the ghost hunting tool reviews, the UFO spotting iPhone apps—we can’t get enough of this stuff.

This should come as no surprise. Despite our reputation as a science-minded superpower, America has always had a predilection for the unseen. It has ebbed and flowed with us for as long as this nation has existed, in the form of the 18th-century pilgrim mystics, the domesticated poltergeists that knocked on command in the 19th, and even in the academically inclined parapsychologists of the 20th. Whether you believe in these ideas or not is almost immaterial: the paranormal is an inescapable ingredient in the American identity that has shaped and been shaped by our society for centuries.

Perhaps that makes it all the more meaningful that today’s supernatural surge is not just another cycle of the same old thing, but a fundamental shift in how we approach the paranormal. It’s democratic, laden with jargon, and endlessly customizable—in short, it’s the DIY American techno-religion of the 21st century.

People used to turn to religion for those answers, but these days, more Americans are shifting away from formal churches to nebulously identify as "spiritual but not religious," or, more simply, as "nothing in particular."

THE GHOULS THAT A society believes in have a funny way of telling the story of that group’s members. “You could actually think about the paranormal as this sort of blank slate onto which cultural ideas are projected,” as Joseph Baker, a sociologist at East Tennessee State University and co-author of Paranormal America, explains it. Sometimes this is obvious—our ghosts, for instance, tend to haunt our sins: slave plantations, Civil War battlefields, Native American burial grounds. More subtle, though, is the fact that when they haunt, they generally show up as wisps and shadows and barely coherent mutters on a recorder—a far cry from their Medieval counterparts, who tended to appear more or less as their old selves and complain about purgatory and missed confessions. Our ghouls are actually derived from a form that picked up for Western traditions like ours around the Victorian era, a shift linked to both a rising tide of skepticism and the emergence of proto-cinematic entertainment like phantasmagoria.

It’s possible to track our national evolution through our paranormal leanings. Take Spiritualism: that was a female-dominated séance-center phenomenon that arose in the mid-1800s, in the midst, not coincidentally, of the brewing suffrage movement; an enormous influx of immigrants (and consequently new worldviews); and a tide of science and skepticism against which Spiritualism’s rush to commune with the dead/past offered comfort. Then there’s the mid-20th century, which brought us the Cold War, new technology, and UFO culture. Lights in the sky were no longer angels or stray enemy craft, but even more technologically advanced creatures from the great beyond. These kind of links are everywhere—the atomic bomb, radiation, X-Men, and the Human Potential Movement; counterculture and occultism; globalization, the powersuited ’80s, and the New Age.

But it isn’t just that our paranormality mirrors us. It also engages with us, and shapes us, and urges our beliefs onward in a feed-forward cycle of strangeness. Possession cases and exorcism demand spiked after the 1973 release of The Exorcist. Spiritualism was buoyed as much by its resonance in society as by the newspapers that made it sensational. And UFOs were literally reshaped by the media. “If you go back to the beginning of the UFOs in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s, and you look at reports from different countries, the aliens were everything you can imagine,” says Christopher Bader, a sociologist at Chapman University. In Russia, people reported one-eyed giants; in South America, hairy little monsters. “But what happened is that the U.S. popularized the idea of this little grey thing [the egg-headed, big-eyed alien] and that image has become so pervasive that it’s basically killed off the other aliens around the globe.”

ON OCTOBER 6, 2004, Ghost Hunterspremiered on the SyFy channel. Images flicked past as the narrator launched into his introduction. “Tonight on Ghost Hunters: Jason and Grant. Their profession: plumbers. Their passion: paranormal investigations.” (Darkened stairways, a doll’s face.) A few minutes later, cut to co-star Grant Wilson: “I do believe in ghosts.”

Looking back, this was a watershed moment. Twenty years earlier, Ghostbusters had made ghostbusting cool; Ghost Hunters made it feasible. The crew hunted for ghosts with ordinary equipment anyone could find online, like voice recorders, night-vision cameras, and electromagnetic field detectors. The two stars were everyday Joes with bosses, families, and a posse that included an environmental engineer and a salesman. “It made the experience very human,” says Deonna Kelli Sayed, author of Paranormal Obsession. “It’s not these academic parapsychologists, for Gods’ sakes—it’s plumbers.” It wasn’t the first paranormal reality show, but it was the one, Sayed says, at the right time and the right combination of ordinary folk in extraordinary circumstances to resonate throughout the country.

Ghost Hunters turns 10 years old this year, and its legacy includes the cornucopia of paranormal non-fiction programs so prevalent today (28 showed new episodes in 2011 alone). Hauntings are up, and supernatural tourism has become a serious moneymaker for historic homes. Last summer, Shreveport, Louisiana, became one of the first cities to sponsor a paranormal festival. But by far the biggest change that Ghost Hunters has left is in the paranormal groups: almost every metro area in the U.S. now has at least one amateur paranormal hunting group, if not several, most formed after 2007 and all vying for the best haunts. “I live in Orange County, California,” Bader says. “If I claimed a ghost in my house, there’d be 20 different groups fighting each other with sticks to try and get in here.”

The degree to which serious paranormal interest is so popular and so genuinely cool in the mainstream now is unprecedented, but Ghost Hunters also helped catalyze change in how the subject was engaged. Bader, with Baker and others, has spent several years shadowing these groups. In Paranormal Cultures, he calls the culture “paranormal discovery,” and points to three main factors as the cause: science, democratization, and availability.

First, there’s the science—that shows up in the EMF detectors, audio recorders, motion sensors, and lingo that gets kicked around on a stakeout. This makes up the core of the modern paranormal investigation, although generally speaking, it isn’t actually science so much as it is a scientific ritual, endowing the hunt with sophistication and legitimacy. “They have an idea from pop culture about what science is and they really want to portray themselves as scientific,” Bader says. “This Bigfoot group I was with, they had all these ranks and titles, they would call each other lead investigator, investigator-in-training, even though it was just three dudes out in the woods.”

This low scientific bar also democratizes the area—factor number two. The day of the formally trained or gifted professional, whether a parapsychologist ghost hunter or an anthropologist Bigfoot chaser, is over. With technology to support them and reality shows to guide them, literally anyone can do this. It’s a wide-open area.

As the third and final factor, hunters have learned to bring the paranormal to them when they’re ready to search—sometimes luring it in with pheromone chips and come-hither-Sasquatch calls (for Bigfoot), flashing lights in the sky (UFOlogists), or flipping on a recorder and inviting ghosts for a chat. “That’s a really different approach,” Bader says. “Where instead of waiting for a sighting and rushing out there, any weekend I want, me and my buddy can go out in the woods and start screaming.”

Before 2004, variations of these methods had been knocking about in bits and pieces. The UFO community, for instance, has been working on its own ideas since mainstream science kicked it out in the ’60s, and ghost groups have long existed in the U.S., but were few and far between and often shadowed by experts. Probably the closest analog to modern times are the séance holders of the mid-1800s, who invoked their ghosts to knock on demand, though that lacks today’s technological nuance and popular breadth. Ghost Hunters helped gather these disparate threads and crystallize them into a coherent and sensational whole; Sayed describes it as having “opened a portal.” The result is a profoundly altered way of interacting with the paranormal that wrenches it from the hands of the elite and the expert, and reshapes it into a weekend pastime for the everyman. The paranormal is a commodity for everyone, a brand for new markets, a product for export. We’ve created the spiritual Whopper. You can have it your way.

THIS MODERN PARANORMALITY IS the new baseline, experts tell me. “We’ve crossed a threshold where we will probably always see this as having some special place, even once the shows subside a little bit,” Sayed says.

And yet isn’t that bizarre? We are, after all, the nation that put an all-in-one juggernaut of a laboratory on Mars, and then profiled the team that landed it in GQ. We respect science, but science doesn’t accept the paranormal. How does that reconcile with our non-ironic pursuit of that which goes bump in the night?

Social theories for our paranormal passions run the gamut from anti-authoritarianism and empowerment of the disenfranchised (this is cool, I can do it, and Big Science/Big Church can shove it) to intriguing the cutting-edge elite (do you like my new toy? It’s the very latest in ghost trackers) to old-fashioned American frontier pushing (to infinity, and way, way beyond). All of these are probably true to various degrees for different people, but, according to Tok Thompson, a folklorist at the University of Southern California, there’s likely something more profound at work. “Even though it’s done great things for the iPads, I don’t think science has done very well at answering the big questions like, What happens when I die?” he says. “In fact, science has absolutely nothing to say about that right now, and people want to know.”

People used to turn to religion for those answers, but these days, more Americans are shifting away from formal churches to nebulously identify as “spiritual but not religious,” or, more simply, as “nothing in particular.” These unaffiliated are younger—the same population in whom paranormal belief is generally higher. This move puts them in a curious place. They’re no longer constrained by church beliefs, but they still feel spiritual leanings; they’re deeply embedded in a highly scientific and technological society, but reject any kind of supernatural. So they mix and match.

“A certain kind of American is no longer going to the Bible for his or her worldview, they’re going to science,” says Jeffrey Kripal, a religion scholar at Rice University who has studied the interaction between pop culture and the paranormal. But, he adds, “they’re then linking that science up with these various spiritual currents, which have been in America for at least a century and a half, and they’re basically building a new religious worldview.”

You can see this in the way this emerging paranormal culture has been accompanied by a lack of unifying rationale. Some people are in it for the adventure, others for proof of something more to the world. Some call themselves skeptics, others warlocks—and some kickstart their ghost hunting lessons with prayer. “I do think honestly that there is a make-your-own-religion to this,” says Baker, who recently completed an anthropological study of several southern ghosthunting groups. “I think it will end up creating much more the idea of the spiritual buffet where people can find these more idiosyncratic ways to combine these different beliefs.”

And we’re spreading the gospel. In Paranormal Obsession, Sayed reports ghost hunting groups springing up in the Middle East and Malaysia; Bader and Baker have found the same in Italy; Gerhard Mayer, a psychologist the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health, describes the same in Germany. These groups cite American television as their inspiration.

This does not come without a cost. Like us, these countries have their own paranormal landscapes shaped from their own history and cultural and religious institutions. By changing their approach, we’re changing their beliefs. In Italy, Bader writes in Paranormal Cultures, “a historical focus upon evil-eyes and curses appears to be rapidly giving way to an Americanised paranormal of UFO contacts and abductions and ghosthunting tours and teams.” Research respectively conducted by himself and Mayer have discovered that Italian media and German ghost hunting groups seem to have drifted away from an originally quite skeptical view of the paranormal in the late 20th century into a gradually more accepting view today. “I wouldn’t say it’s the singular thing,” Bader says. “But I would say that it’s our fault. We’re the source of it, and it’s spreading.”