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.

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