Religion and the Paranormal

A detailed look at the spooky facts in Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture edited by Christopher D. Bader, F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph Baker appeared yesterday on the Huffington Post:

In the 1980s, the actress Shirley MacLaine was ridiculed for discussing her interest in channeling, reincarnation and UFOs in her book Out on a Limb. But research indicates she may have been less a wacky outcast and more representative of the population than the image ingrained by late-night comics suggested. The average American holds slightly more than two paranormal beliefs, report Bader, Mencken and Baker.

“Statistically, those who report a paranormal belief are not the oddballs,” the researchers said.

But there are major differences in the types of people who gravitate toward different paranormal phenomena. Bigfoot conventions are almost all-male outings, while psychic affairs attract a largely female audience. The 2005 Baylor Religion Survey found that women are twice as likely as men to believe in astrology, that people can communicate with the dead (a big reason Medium lasted for seven TV seasons) and that at least some psychics can foresee the future. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to believe in UFOs.

Who Doesn’t Believe in Big Foot?

A review in the Washington Post Book World picked three new books about UFOs, and it led off with a review of our title:

UFOs exist — about that we all must agree. As long as humans have gazed heavenward, we have seen inexplicable objects. In the early 1800s, scientists debated the nature of what we now call meteors. In 1947, Kenneth Arnold saw nine objects darting about Mount Rainier, the report that gave birth to modern stories of flying saucers. In Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture (New York Univ.; paperback, $20), we learn that almost one in five Americans claims to have seen something in the sky that they could not identify.

Despite the prevalence of such sightings, though, witnesses are usually the butt of jokes. Christopher D. Bader, F. Carson Mencken and Joseph O. Baker, the authors of “Paranormal America,” offer a possible reason for our dismissive attitude. Believers tend to be unmarried men of limited economic means — the stereotypical yahoo, seeing the world through beer-bottle glasses. But this fascinating book calls into question that easy explanation. The authors convincingly show that believing in flying saucers or some other paranormal subject — Bigfoot, ghosts, astrology, psychics — is not fringe at all. More than two-thirds of Americans accept the reality of at least one such phenomenon.

The Angry Coffee House Ghost

Christopher D. Bader, F. Carson Mencken, Joseph Baker

Nearly every building in historic downtown Jefferson, Texas, claims its own resident ghosts. The angriest of these ghosts purportedly haunt the Big Cypress Coffee House. A psychic told the owner, Duane, that the building is inhabited by up to 150 spirits with nasty dispositions; they push, prod, grab and scratch whoever dares visit the upstairs rooms in the building. Duane, who lives there, claims that the sudden appearance of an enormous, growling, demonic dog led him to move his bed to different room.

While researching our book on paranormal beliefs in America, we visited the coffee shop on a cold December evening with the intention of staying the night. Two psychics, Gigi and Leigh, and a ghost investigator, Victoria, accompanied us.

When we returned home, family and friends were anxious to know what had happened during the night, eager for ghost stories. We imagine our recounting of the night’s events differs substantially from the psychics.

We did not see any ghosts. Thankfully no demon dogs ever appeared. We were never pushed or prodded. We never heard voices in our ears, nor saw dark shadows flitting about the room.

For Gigi, Leigh, and Victoria, though, the evening was one of continual and dramatic events. Victoria saw orbs of evil energy in her photographs. Gigi was psychically overwhelmed and fell to the ground when dozens of ghosts rushed her at once. The psychics conversed with ghosts they said were standing behind us and conducted rituals to keep us safe from demonic entities. We were only able to spend the night, they said, because they staved off these evil forces.

As it turns out our evening was not spent watching ghosts but watching people who believe in ghosts. Gigi, Leigh, and Victoria’s pre-existing beliefs in the reality of ghosts colored their interpretation of every noise, sound and impression from our evening. This begs the question – who believes in ghosts?

Indeed, there are some strong demographic patterns in ghost beliefs and related experiences. Forty-five percent of women believe in ghosts, compared to 32% of men. There are strong income and education effects as well. Those of lower incomes and with lower levels of education are the most likely to believe in ghosts and believe that they have experienced a haunted house. But lest we conclude that ghost beliefs are confined to the economically marginalized we should note that, while those who have not received a high school diploma are the most likely to believe in ghosts (59%), so do nearly half (47%) of those who have a college degree.

Americans exhibit greater belief in ghosts in the 21st century than they did in the past several decades (In 1998 the Southern Focus poll found that 44% of Americans believe in ghosts. In 1988 a four-state study of Ohio, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and California found that 27% of respondents believed in ghosts. Neither survey determined the certainty of belief) Nearly one-fifth of Americans (21%) are now absolutely convinced of the reality of ghosts. Nearly another third (28%) think that ghosts probably exist. Twenty-two percent of Americans believe that they have lived in a haunted house, or visited the house of a friend or family member that was haunted. We are not qualified to speak to the reality, or lack thereof, of ghosts. But we can say that a steady diet of ghost-related movies, television shows, websites, and books appears to have produced a haunted America.

Christopher D. Bader, F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph Baker are the authors of Paranormal America, coming in October 2010 from NYU Press.