The type of info you’ll need to know depends upon the type of paranormal or supernatural force or entity that is (allegedly) involved. Is it a demon? A ghost? A clairvoyant or a telekinetic person? Someone who’s adept at levitation whom other characters just don’t want hanging around all the time? Vampires? Werewolves? Zombies? An extraterrestrial species? Cthuthlu? Something else entirely?
Let’s take a look at some of the paranormal and supernatural classics and mainstays of the horror genre and the alternative explanations for them.
Okay, demons. First, what are they supposed to be? Evil spirits, right? But spirits of what? Dead animals? Dead people? Hats and shoes? Or are they a breed apart? Biblical traditions maintain that demons are fallen angels--angels, in other words, who rebelled against God, perhaps under the leadership of Satan, and were punished by being cast out of heaven and into hell. From time to time, they may visit the earth to tempt human beings for fun and profit (their victims’ eternal damnation, which would swell the population of hell).
Apparently, demons--or, quite a few of them, anyway--can possess people, and they may do so either individually or in groups. William Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist and the movie based upon it are supposedly based upon a true exorcism. The movies The Possession of Emily Rose and Requiem are both allegedly based upon another real-life case. They are interesting to study because each suggests a different approach that the skeptic character in your story could take in debunking the existence of demons--at least those who possess people.
The case upon which The Exorcist is supposedly based is nothing more than the result of exaggerations of the incidents that are alleged to have occurred in the actual case or sheer inventions, some contend. According to “The Real Story Behind the Exorcist,” “virtually all of the gory and sensational details were embellished or made up. Simple spitting became Technicolor, projectile vomiting; (normal) shaking of a bed became thunderous quaking and levitation; the boy’s low growl became a gravelly, Satanic voice.”
The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Requiem rely upon mischaracterizing mental illness and its effects as being demonic possession and its effects, critics argue. Adopting this approach to debunk diagnoses of demonic possession, the horror story’s skeptical character would say that the supposedly possessed person is mentally ill and susceptible to suggestions on the part of the exorcist:
“. . . exorcisms have been (and continue to be) performed, often on emotionally and mentally disturbed people. . . . Most often, exorcisms are done on people of strong religious faith. To the extent that exorcisms ‘work,’ it is primarily due to the power of suggestion and the placebo effect. If you believe you are possessed, and that a given ritual will cleanse you, then it just might.”
Mark Opsasnick’s thorough, detailed debunking, “The Haunted Boy: The Cold, Hard Facts Behind the Story that Inspired The Exorcist,” explains the exaggeration-invention approach to creating demons and demonic possession. The Skeptic’s Dictionary lists it and numerous other books and articles that question, evaluate, and reject spurious claims to demonic possession. (The Skeptic’s Dictionary, by the way, is an excellent basic source for all alternative explanations of allegedly paranormal and supernatural and, indeed, otherworldly, or extraterrestrial, phenomena).
Thus, the horror story’s skeptical character can explain demons and demonic possession by suggesting that demons and demonic possession are concocted out of exaggerations and inventions, the misdiagnoses of mental illness as demonic possession and susceptibility of the apparently possessed religious victim, or both.
What about ghosts? How might our fictional skeptic debunk them and their ghostly deeds? Supposedly, a ghost is the spirit of a dead person. Over the years, ghosts have collected quite a list of characteristics:
- They’re made of ectoplasm.
- Their presence is discernable by psychics.
- They make the air cold because they’re energy magnets, and thermal energy is energy. (One might say that ghosts were once environmental threats, except that, with global warming underway, they may now be ecological heroes.)
- They tend to be rather camera shy, but other equipment seems to register phantom phenomena.
- They sometimes haunt places or people or both with which or whom they were associated in the days of their incarnation, perhaps for revenge or for no other reason that they don’t know they’re dead (hard to imagine) or how to get to the great beyond.
- They can walk through solid objects, such as walls or your Aunt Betty.
- Some, known as poltergeists, are especially noisy and destructive.
What’s our skeptic’s likely answers to such claims? Ghosts may also be products of hallucinations, especially during sleep paralysis. Most ghost stories rely upon anecdotal evidence, which is “always incomplete and selective.” (For a critique of anecdotal evidence, check out “anecdotal [tensional] evidence”.)
According to The Skeptic’s Dictionary, skeptics have found cheesecloth an excellent “ectoplasm” material for use at séances conducted by mediums (sort of psychic midwives), especially if the medium who delivered the ghosts, so to speak, was a woman. Scientific American established a committee to investigate one medium’s psychic abilities, Harvard psychology professor William McDougall summarizing one of his group’s findings: “There is good evidence that "ectoplasm" issues, or did issue on some and probably all occasions [from] one particular 'opening in the anatomy' (i.e., the vagina).” She refused to be strip-searched before séances and would not “perform in tights.” Another skeptic “offers a much simpler explanation for the production of ectoplasm. Have your husband sit next to you during the séance. Make sure he has stuffed his shirt or pants with stuff to slip to you under the table when the lights are out.”
According to The Skeptic’s Dictionary, the big chill that is said to accompany the presence of ghosts is likely to result from drafts of air. Some noise may also be attributed to such ventilation. The activity of mechanical equipment, such as extraction fans, may also create air currents that produce odd sounds. Ghosts supposedly prefer night to day and darkness to light because it’s easier to see them in the dark than in daylight, since their ectoplasm is supposedly see-through. Our skeptic might counter this claim by suggesting another reason for ghosts’ alleged preference for darkness: it’s much easier to deceive others under conditions of darkness, too, than it is in broad daylight or in a well-lighted room.
While few ghosts worthy of the film have appeared on camera, some ghost hunters claim to have caught evidence of them on such equipment as “tape recorders, EMF detectors, video cameras with night vision, metal detectors.” Skeptics might question whether this--or any--equipment has been designed to detect ghosts, noting that, just because such equipment may look scientific, doesn’t mean that it is, and that certainly “tape recorders, EMF detectors, video cameras with night vision, metal detectors.” are not designed to detect the spirits of the deceased. Live Science finds ghost hunters’ supposedly scientific equipment questionable and challenges the claims its users have made concerning the equipment’s detection of ghosts. After pointing out that “the equipment is only as scientific as the person using it,” Benjamin Radford, the author of “The Shady Science of Ghost Hunting,” queried an equipment supplier as to the “scientific rationale. . . behind the equipment he sold” and received this surprisingly candid answer:
“At a haunted location," Cook said, "strong, erratic fluctuating EMFs are commonly found. It seems these energy fields have some definite connection to the presence of ghosts. The exact nature of that connection is still a mystery. However, the anomalous fields are easy to find. Whenever you locate one, a ghost might be present.... any erratic EMF fluctuations you may detect may indicate ghostly activity. . . . There exists no device that can conclusively detect ghosts."
Radford observes, with logic fatal to ghost hunting, “The supposed links between ghosts and electromagnetic fields, low temperatures, radiation, odd photographic images, and so on are based on nothing more than guesses, unproven theories, and wild conjecture. If a device could reliably determine the presence or absence of ghosts, then by definition, ghosts would be proven to exist.”
As Radford points out in the same article, statistics also cast doubt upon ghosts who are said to haunt their murderers: “If murder victims whose killings remains unsolved are truly destined to walk the earth and haunt the living, then we should expect to encounter ghosts nearly everywhere. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly a quarter of all homicides remains unsolved each year,” and “There are about 30,000 homicides in America each year.”
He also questions how it is that ghosts wear clothing: “Do shoes, coats, hats, and belts also have souls? Logically, ghosts should appear naked.”
“On the Subject of Ghosts,” an article by Michael LaPointe, the “laws laid down by Sir Isaac Newton” make it “impossible for a non-physical entity to simultaneously walk upon surfaces and pass through solid objects, such as doors and walls; if a being is applying force to the ground in order to propel themselves, they therefore can’t pass through other solids without falling through the floor.” One has a choice, it seems. He or she can believe the anecdotal evidence of a haunted soul who sees ghosts do such things or the eminent scientist Isaac Newton, who says that neither ghosts nor anything else in the universe can perform such impossible feats. The party with whose claim one sides suggests much about his or her faith, whether it’s in the supernatural or the scientific.
As The Skeptic’s Dictionary points out, poltergeists generally turn out to be not mischievous, noisy nuisances of the spirit world but, rather, flesh-and-blood pranksters of a juvenile nature, whose antics are coupled, perhaps, with “perceptual misinterpretations, e. g., seeing things move that never moved or attributing sounds or movement of inanimate objects to spirits when one can't detect the source” or air drafts and other natural causes.
In one case, a woman named Mrs. Connolly found:
“A imitation fireplace and a couple of chairs overturned in the living room. Such things went on for four days. A building inspector suggested the problem might be coming from the fireplace, so Mrs. Connolly hired someone to put a protective covering over the chimney top. "From that moment on, the objects stayed put". . . . Mrs. Connolly was not a superstitious woman and attributed the events to powerful drafts swirling down the chimney and disturbing objects in their path. When confronted with poltergeist activity one should not rule out such natural factors as drafts of wind.”
Children are the poltergeists in another account of alleged poltergeist activity that is recounted in The Skeptic’s Dictionary:
“William Roll investigated the Resch case and declared it authentic. In 1984, Tina was 14 years old and living in Columbus, Ohio. Newspaper reports testified to her chaotic household where telephones would fly, lamps would swing and fall, all accompanied by loud noises. James Randi also investigated the case and found that Tina was hoaxing her adoptive parents and using the media attention to assist her quest to find her biological parents.
A video camera from a visiting TV crew that was inadvertently left running, recorded Tina cheating by surreptitiously pulling over a lamp while unobserved. The other occurrences were shown to be inventions of the press or highly exaggerated descriptions of quite explainable events. (Randi 1995).”
Even mere forgetfulness can explain the movement of objects by ghosts. People sometimes move an object, such as a set of keys, from one location, such as their bedroom dresser, to another, such as the kitchen counter, and, forgetting having done so, attribute the object’s relocation to the ghost that they believe must be haunting their homes.
But what about well-known accounts of ghostly visitations and haunted houses, such as Amityville? A couple of articles have appeared on the Live Science website that debunk Amityville: “The Truth Behind Amityville” and “The Truth Behind the Amityville Horror.” They’re a bit too involved and lengthy to summarize here; that’s why you’re directed there.
In Part II of “Alternative Explanations,” we’ll consider how your horror story’s skeptical character might debunk claims about other paranormal and supernatural phenomena.