Thursday, September 26, 2013

I Want To Believe

Because I often suggest possible explanations to paranormal claims, some people think I've become a cynic who doubts ghosts and other paranormal phenomena exist.  The truth, however, is this:  I don't know.   Have I seen any hard evidence that will convince me it does?  Not yet.  Have I experienced things that make me believe it is possible?  Yes.  But, as I've said before, belief is not fact, and it would be hypocritical of me to assert these experiences as such. 

This past year has brought about a transition of how I approach the paranormal.  As readers of this blog and my book know, I used to believe claims at face value.  I was raised in a family that practiced a faith promising eternal life and most of my real-world friends shared those beliefs.  Those who've read my book know my grandmother's experience that she told me about when I was a little girl.  Later, I initially approached paranormal "investigating" (i.e., ghost hunting) based on them.  

Then a few years ago I met people who were knowledgable in areas (such as psychology, electronics, accoustics, photography, physiology, etc.)  that could offer likely natural explanations about paranormal experiences.  After researching in this direction for myself, I came to doubt most claims had any supernatural origin.  I admit, this created some cognitive dissonance for me, as it was hard for me to set aside a set of beliefs I adhered to for four decades.

I have several friends and family who despite have degrees in sciences including psychology, chemistry, engineering, they still have strong spiritual beliefs, including ghosts.  Some told me they won't read my blog or book. Why?  Because they admit they want their beliefs to remain intact.  That is why I try to remain respectful of other's spiritual beliefs.  To some of my more skeptic friends' irritation, I also give some ghost hunters a "pass" if they disclose they are metaphysical and not "scientific" - and as long as they don't charge.  Psychologists have asserted that we are more comfortable believing than accepting any information which may challenge our beliefs.  I now know how true that is.

A year ago this month, my elderly dad suddenly became ill  and needed intensive care.  Our family had to make the difficult choice that he be cared for in a facility.  Even though I knew this time would be coming, I felt like the foundation that makes me who I am was crumbling away.   I became much less interested in the dead and more invested in the living.  

I am reminded how a few years ago, a popular ghost hunting show profiled The USS Yorktown.  My dad served on this ship during WWII.  After watching the first few minutes, I had to turn it off.  I felt sick inside because some of the spirits the cast was trying to communicate with were my father's buddies who died so young, away from their loved ones.   For the rest of his life, my father suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder due to some horrific experiences in that war.  Suddenly, I felt an enormous guilt for all the times I went ghost hunting, asking for a sign of "someone's" presence.  Ghost hunters may rationalize that they are doing this for "research" or "to help", but honestly, it is also form of entertainment for them.  It upsets me to think that if spirits do exist and are able to revisit important locations from their lives, that my dad would run into some yahoo with an KII and a flashlight just trying to get some thrills.  Anyway, I didn't know it at the time, but my dad also watched that episode.   Luckily, he just laughed it off because he said they got facts about his ship wrong so he couldn't take it seriously.   

My father passed away three weeks ago.  Watching the strong, willful man I always knew deteriorate to a frail bed-ridden shell of himself was utterly heart-breaking.  During this time, family, friends and nurses assured me he was going to a better place and that he knows all the words I held in my heart and meant to tell him.  What struck me is how jealous I was of those people who knew - know - this.  Their belief is so strong, with no room for the slightest doubt.  And they are comforted in it.  

So I want to believe, and I choose to believe for the sake of my emotional well-being, that my father is at peace and is still with me in some form.  Don't worry, I'm not going to see Dad in dust particles in photos (as he was a professional photographer, he wouldn't approve anyway, haha). And I will continue to demand critical thinking in paranormal research - especially from those who go into people's homes to "help". But if I have an experience that supports this for me, then I will embrace it and cherish it.  However, I won't share it. Not just because I understand I could never present it as evidence. But because, as I've said before, if we truly have faith in our beliefs, then we don't need any proof. 

Friday, February 8, 2013

Ghosts and Pop Culture

I haven't forgotten about this blog, but have been busy with other projects.  Meanwhile, here is an article I wrote  for the last issue of The Bent Spoon Magazine: 

While visiting a couple of historic cities recently, I went on some ghost tours.  I like history, I like folklore and I like ghost stories, so these tours are something I enjoy.  I view them as entertainment, and as long as the tour guides don't try to pass themselves off as "paranormal experts" or "professional ghost hunters", I typically keep my opinions to myself - even when orbs are mentioned (believe it, or not.)  I particularly appreciated one tour guide's introduction.  He said ghost stories are like fish stories:   just as the fish keeps getting bigger every time the tale is told, ghost stories also tend to become more embellished and elaborate with each telling.  I agree.  By the time we hear a version years later after the original event, the facts have become diluted, and all that is left is based mostly on imagination.

Because I am one of those "early bird" types, I usually spend some time waiting for the tour to start, so I listen in on conversations from other tourists.  I paid closer attention on these recent tours and heard people say things often repeated in the paranormal community:  ghosts linger because of unfinished business, places where a lot of deaths or tragedies occur become haunted, children are more sensitive to the "other side", some ghosts are confused and need help "crossing over".   Because some of these good people were making these statements with such conviction, I asked if they did any ghost hunting or watched the TV ghost hunting shows.  To my surprise, most said they did not.  This got me thinking: if they are not watching these shows, where are they getting these ideas?  Some said they had friends who were "into that stuff".  Others said they had gone to psychics who told them these things.  And others explained that's what they've always heard.   But from where?

These ideas are not just limited to people interested in paranormal investigating, they are ingrained in our cultural consciousness.  I looked back at popular movies that I watched as a kid.   There.  Woven into carefully crafted dialog to move the plot forward, are the seeds.  Even though consciously, we know we are watching fiction, the suggestions are planted.  Later, when we hear these same ideas in a different context, they "ring true" for us and are further reinforced in our beliefs.

Let's look at some well-known examples:  The Shining, Ghost Busters and Poltergeist.  These movies have become iconic, spawning catch-phrases and other references in our popular culture.

The Shining, based on Stephen King's novel, was released in 1980.  It started slow at the box office, but then gained momentum earning a profit and over the years, it has attained cult status as well as belated critical acclaim.   The following is a conversation between the characters Dick Halloran, a worker for the Overlook Hotel, and Danny, a little boy with psychic powers whose "imaginary friend"Tony, shows him disturbing images.
Dick Halloran: Has Tony ever told you anything about this place? About the Overlook Hotel?
Danny Torrance: I don't know.
Dick Hallorann: Now think real hard now. Think.
Danny Torrance: Maybe he showed me something.
Dick Hallorann: Try to think of what it was.
Danny Torrance: Mr. Hallorann, are you scared of this place?
Dick Hallorann: No. Scared - there's nothin' here. It's just that, you know, some places are like people. Some "shine" and some don't. I guess you could say the Overlook Hotel here has somethin' almost like "shining."
Danny Torrance: Is there something bad here?
Dick Hallorann: Well, you know, Doc, when something happens, you can leave a trace of itself behind. Say like, if someone burns toast. Well, maybe things that happen leave other kinds of traces behind. Not things that anyone can notice, but things that people who "shine" can see. Just like they can see things that haven't happened yet. Well, sometimes they can see things that happened a long time ago. I think a lot of things happened right here in this particular hotel over the years. And not all of 'em was good.  

There is even a reference about the dangers of desecrating sacred ground.  In a conversation with Wendi (Danny's mother), the hotel's manager, Mr. Ullman, reveals the Overlook was built on Native American burial grounds.  

Poltergeist was released in 1982.  Written and produced by Steven Spielberg, it was a world-wide box office success.  We see a familiar formula that was actually practiced in parapsychology:  scientists working with psychics on cases of paranormal phenomena.

Diane's daughter, Carol Anne, was taken by spirits haunting their home.  Diane talks to Dr. Lesh, a parapsychologist, and her assistant:
Diane: You were saying about poltergeists. 
Dr. Lesh: Poltergeists are usually associated with an individual. Hauntings seem to be connected with an area. A house usually. 
Marty: Poltergeist disturbances are of a fairly short duration. Perhaps a couple of months. Hauntings can go on for years. 
Diane: Are you telling me that all of this could just suddenly end at any time? 
Dr. Lesh: Yes, it could. Unless it's a haunting. But hauntings don't usually revolve around living people. 

The scientist goes on to explain why some ghosts linger:
Dr. Lesh: Some people believe that when you die there is a wonderful light. As bright as the sun but it doesn't hurt to look into it. All the answers to all the questions you want to know are inside that light. And when you walk to it... you become a part of it forever. Now, some people die, but they don't know they're gone. 

Tangina is the psychic the scientific team brings in.  She explains:
Tangina: There is no death. There is only a transition to a different sphere of consciousness. Carol Anne is not like those she's with. She is a living presence in their spiritual earthbound plain. They are attracted to the one thing about her that is different from themselves - her lifeforce. It is very strong. It gives off its own illumination. It is a light that implies life and memory of love and home and earthly pleasures, something they desperately desire but can't have anymore. Right now, she's the closest thing to that, and that is a terrible distraction from the real LIGHT that has finally come for them. You understand me? These souls, who for whatever reason are not at rest, are also not aware that they have passed on. They're not part of consciousness as we know it. They linger in a perpetual dreamstate, a nightmare from which they can not awake. Inside the spectral light is salvation, a window to the next plain. They must pass through this membrane where friends are waiting to guide them to new destinies. Carol Anne must help them cross over, and she will only hear her mother's voice. Now hold on to yourselves... There's one more thing. A terrible presence is in there with her. So much rage, so much betrayal, I've never sensed anything like it. I don't know what hovers over this house, but it was strong enough to punch a hole into this world and take your daughter away from you. It keeps Carol Anne very close to it and away from the spectral light. It LIES to her, it tells her things only a child could understand. It has been using her to restrain the others. To her, it simply IS another child. To us, it is the BEAST. Now, let's go get your daughter. 

Later, Tangina declares the house "clean" of spirits, reinforcing the notion that psychics can "cleanse" homes.

Ghost Busters was released in 1984 and was both a critical and box office success.  It had a hit song from its soundtrack and later a cartoon was produced. There is an array of Ghost Busters merchandise available.   While a comedy, it referred to the fact that parapsychology was studied at esteemed Universities and helped instill the notion there are "professional" ghost hunters who can help people with their haunts.

Dr Ray Stantz: [astounded] Wow! Talk about telekinetic activity, look at this mess! 
Dr. Egon Spengler: Ray, look at this. 
Dr Ray Stantz: Ectoplasmic residue. 
Dr. Egon Spengler: Venkman, get a sample of this. 
Dr Ray Stantz: It's the real thing. 
Dr. Peter Venkman: Someone blows their nose and you want to keep it? 
Dr. Egon Spengler: I'd like to analyze it. 

Dean Yeager: This university will no longer continue any funding for any of your group's activities. 
Dr. Peter Venkman: But the kids love us! 
Dean Yeager: Doctor... Venkman. The purpose of science is to serve mankind. You seem to regard science as some kind of dodge... or hustle. Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy, and your conclusions are highly questionable! You are a poor scientist, Dr. Venkman! 

Walter Peck: Exactly what are you a doctor of, Mr. Venkman? 
Dr. Peter Venkman: Well, I have a PhD in parapsychology and psychology. 
Walter Peck: And now, you catch ghosts? 
Dr. Peter Venkman: Yeah, you could say that. 
Walter Peck: And how many ghosts have you caught, Mr. Venkman? 
Dr. Peter Venkman: I'm not at liberty to say. 

Dr Ray Stantz: Are you troubled by strange noises in the middle of the night? 
Dr. Egon Spengler: Do you experience feelings of dread in your basement or attic? 
Dr. Peter Venkman: Have you or your family ever seen a spook, spectre or ghost? 
Dr Ray Stantz: If the answer is "yes," then don't wait another minute. Pick up the phone and call the professionals... 
Dr Ray Stantz, Dr. Egon Spengler, Dr. Peter Venkman: Ghostbusters. 
Dr Ray Stantz: Our courteous and efficient staff is on call 24 hours a day to serve all your supernatural elimination needs. 
Dr Ray Stantz, Dr. Egon Spengler, Dr. Peter Venkman: We're ready to believe you.

Many other films have depicted similar ideas about psychics, the afterlife and the nature of ghosts.  Some of my favorite include: The Changeling (1980), The Entity (1982), Ghost (1990), The Others (2001).   Before my time, there was The Uninvited (1944), Carnival of Souls (1962), The Haunting (1963).

Stories about ghosts and hauntings are not limited to the big screen.  I grew up watching various TV shows that examined the paranormal:  One of my favorites was In Search of.... (1976-1982) hosted by Leonard Nimoy.  (I knew him as Mr. Spock on Star Trek, so to me, he was obviously an authority on whatever topic discussed.) The introduction from an episode about ghosts in 1976 included this statement:
"Those who have studied ghosts claim to have discerned patterns in their behavior.  For example, a ghost might be thought of as a spirit of someone who died in emotional turmoil.  Further, it seems the spirits remains close to the place associated with the turmoil.  Finally, it wanders in its restless limbo until relived of whatever burden it is."

Hans Holzer, noted parapsychologist and one of the most recognized names in the paranormal community even today, was featured in the episode.

Another popular show I watched regularly was Unsolved Mysteries (1987-2002). It often profiled stories about ghosts and speculations on why places were haunted.  For example, a couple of homes featured had been built upon forgotten cemeteries, one family's ghostly problems began when they brought a second-hand bunk bed into their house, or some experts suggested people weren't seeing real ghosts at all, but having psychic experiences.  Experts including parapsychologists Dr. William Roll, Dr. Barry Taft and Dr. Andrew Nichols as well as paranormal investigator John Zaffis were often profiled in episodes.  In one episode discussing the nature of ghosts, one person offering an explanation had the title "registered nurse".  I'm not sure when or where ghosts were a part of nursing school curriculum, but I guess the title made her seem more credible than "Random Woman with an Opinion".

Other, lesser-known TV shows focused on the paranormal as well, including Sightings (1992-1997), The Extraordinary (1993-1996), and Unexplained Mysteries (2003-4).

The ideas from these movies and TV shows nestled themselves into many viewers' brains and beliefs.  Years later, when we watch a ghost hunting show or take a ghost tour and hear them repeated, they sound "right" even though there are no facts to substantiate the ideas.  According to psychologists, we humans like our beliefs; we are actually more comfortable believing than not.  Michael Shermer, psychologist and author of The Believing Brain explains this is due to our brains being hard-wired to finding patterns in random data.  In addition, when we feel uncertain or less in control (perhaps like when we experience something "unexplained"), we tend to see non-existent patterns even more.  So when skeptics tell us there is no evidence for these beliefs and they're not the best foundation on which to base a paranormal investigation, we don't like it.  And experiments on confirmation bias show that people prefer to believe an earlier notion, even after presented with evidence contrary to that belief.

This is the source of much frustration with the paranormal community.  Investigators who claim they want to "help others" or "prove there are ghosts" can do neither if they are unable to recognize that most of the popular assertions about ghosts have no basis in fact.  Physicist Stephen Hawking said, "The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge." It is a disservice to  research, as well as clients seeking answers, to cling to "evidence" that only fit our beliefs while ignoring alternative logical explanations.  The truth might indeed be out there, but we're much more likely to find it though critical thinking rather than pop culture.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Don't Dream It, Be It

"We spend too much time in our heads and not enough time being productive, working, contributing to society, building community. Instead we shake off the thoughts with trivial pursuits and entertainment hoping for relief from our own haunts when all the time our forefathers, though tough, had it right. We need to step away from distraction and embrace one another, grab hold of life and quit living vicariously through entertainment, fantasy. Reality is just outside our door and it is nothing to be afraid of." ~ William James (Psychologist, Society for Psychical Research)

The New Year prompts me to reflect and reassess what is working to enrich my life and what isn't.  I strive to foster pursuits that serve a positive, constructive purpose and eliminate those which don't.  This includes my interest in the paranormal.

Several years ago, I was as a blind believer in the paranormal.  I was a faithful fan of paranormal "reality" shows and I enjoyed going to creepy places and watching my KII meter light up. But the more I learned from people with expertise in various sciences and technology, it slowly dawned on me that what I watched on TV and saw emulated on "ghost hunts" wasn't working.  It wasn't bringing me any closer to finding the truth in paranormal claims.  I began to ditch false and/or counterproductive "theories", equipment, and methodology.  Of course, along with that, came the realization that authentic "evidence" of the paranormal, if it exists, remains frustratingly elusive.

During the past year, I have been lucky to meet or network with a number of interesting people within the paranormal community, from true believers to staunch skeptics.  I've been introduced to informative web radio shows, books and articles.  The more I listened and learned, the more it reaffirmed for me that there is a need to promote critical thinking when considering paranormal claims.  Many paranormal investigators are still clinging to baseless notions and resisting scientific facts that may challenge their beliefs. Some of them go into people's homes and businesses and spread misinformation, which is not only a disservice to the people they want to help, but also continues to hinder any valid research in the paranormal.  But I also know there are some who are genuinely looking for answers, whether they turn out to be paranormal or not.  It is why for now, I will continue with this blog.

Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”  While reading books by actual scientific investigators like Joe Nickell and Ben Radford, I am acutely aware that I have much more to learn.  I have become concerned with my own role as a paranormal investigator.   For example, I am no longer comfortable doing residential cases. First, because of the popularity of paranormal TV shows, many clients have unrealistic expectations and have already formed strong conclusions, and therefore, reject common sense explanations I might offer. Also, something that has been bothering me for a while, is that many well-meaning paranormal investigators (myself included) go into people's homes and offer advice in areas in which they have no academic or professional credentials. I've come to realize that even though I am careful to explain I am not an expert and my conclusions are based only on opinion, clients still had the perception that I had answers that I, and most ghost hunters I know, do not have the qualifications to give. As I've said many times, I don't want to risk misleading people, especially if I am invited into their home to "help".  In my opinion, investigators who boast "expertise" and advise in specific areas when they have no such accredited education and degree, are akin to those who present false positives like orbs as paranormal evidence.

Many of us grew watching shows like In Search Of... and Unsolved Mysteries which profiled parapsychologists with scientific degrees exploring the realm of the supernatural.  I thought it would be a pretty cool occupation.  But unlike some of the parapsychologists I admired, I never got around to getting an advanced degree in a relevant science like psychology, physics or anthropology. Then a TV show called Ghost Hunters profiled a couple of plumbers who did ghost hunting, making paranormal investigating accessible to everyone.  The problem was, it made it accessible to everyone - regardless if they had any clue of what they were doing or not. This reminds me of something the character Dr. Ian Malcom said in Jurassic Park: that the researchers were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.  We all know how that turned out:

This observation is not limited to paranormal investigators, but to some skeptics as well.  There are some who have no more qualifications than the ghost hunters they criticize, who have spread misinformation too. An example, I've seen is some armchair skeptics dismissing paranormal claims as products of Fantasy Prone Personalities.  While FPP may indeed be a factor in some cases, there are other physiological, environmental and psychological factors that can cause people without FPP to experience misperceptions and mistake some experiences as paranormal.  For example, people with FPP may be prone to experience hypnagogic hallucinations, but according to medical doctors who study these sleep disorders, other factors, including certain medications, stress, disrupted sleep patterns, may also cause them in people without FPP.

"I'm here to help" is a common slogan among ghost hunters.  It's even one of the reasons I wanted to become an investigator.  While I think most have best of intentions, I'm not sure if many of them have stopped to consider what this really means or the responsibility this carries.  We still see many investigators present false positives as "evidence" and making claims that they cannot validate.  The result is they are misleading the very people they pledged to help.   To be crystal clear: I am not telling ghost hunters to give up their hobby.  But I am asking them to be more honest and mindful of how they promote themselves to clients.  If teams are unwilling to conduct investigations from a truly skeptical  approach (which does not mean if you can't debunk it, then it must be a ghost), then I request they ditch the term "scientific".  If teams use unproven theories and/or equipment to draw their conclusions, again, ditch the term "scientific".  A more fitting description might be "experimental" or "exploratory".  If teams go in with the foregone (and unproven) conclusion that ghosts are everywhere and they can communicate with them and even help them "move on", then these teams, no matter how much technical gear they tote around, are metaphysical-based, not scientific.

I am asking teams who are committed to being science-based to educate themselves and seek knowledge from people with relevant expertise.  One of the most common mistakes - one I've been guilty of myself - is that many fledgling ghost hunters seek their "education" from other ghost hunters (or paranormal TV shows) instead of: 1. people who have a sound foundation in scientific methodology to reduce confirmation bias and subjective data/techniques 2. people with professional expertise in environmental, physiological and psychological factors that can contribute to misperceptions, and 3. people with professional expertise in equipment used on investigations to reduce false positives.

Going back to William James's quote at the beginning:  "... grab a hold of life and quit living vicariously through entertainment, fantasy." if paranormal investigators want to present themselves as "experts", then I encourage them to go out and earn it.  They either can get a degree in a relevant science from an accredited college or gain professional experience that can be applied toward paranormal research.  (Sorry, bogus on-line degrees or certifications don't count.)  If they truly want to help others, then after looking for ghosts in old battlefields, abandoned hospitals, asylums, orphanages, etc. they might also consider becoming a volunteer for the living.  There are a lot of people in veteran's programs, youth programs, hospitals, homeless shelters, etc. who could use assistance.   I've heard a lot of investigators declare that they want to "help" ghosts find their way in the afterlife.  Right now, there is no evidence that anyone can do that.  So perhaps they could also consider helping people who are still with us in this life, by pursuing a service-orientated profession such as nursing, counseling, teaching, or police work.

I wish you a Happy New Year.  I hope you will step out the door and continue this journey with me. Out there, we just might find the answers we're looking for.