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Friday, May 22, 2009

Ghosts: An Endangered Species?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Figure 1. Double exposure
Source: The Skeptic's Dictionary

For various reasons, from humanity’s earliest days, the spirits of the dead, or ghosts, are alleged to have visited the living. Some return to avenge the murder, other to warn loved ones of impending catastrophes, and still others to assuage guilt so powerful that it has survived the grave. If one can believe the stories associated with ghosts, they have haunted everything from ancient graveyards and medieval castles to modern mansions and hotels. Short story writers, novelists, and screenwriters would have their readers and audiences believe that some ghosts have a sense of humor while others are somber, indeed. They have appeared in literary works as diverse as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, H. G. Wells’ “The Red Room,” Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Mark Twain’s “A Ghost Story,” Stephen King’s The Shining and Bag of Bones, and Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas. Ghosts have appeared as guest stars, so to speak, in such movies as Topper, Poltergeist, Beetlejuice, Ghost Busters, The Sixth Sense, The Others, An American Haunting, and many others, and in episodes such television shows as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Bewitched, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Ghost Hunters. There’s no doubt about it: ghosts have not only been reported throughout history, but they have also enjoyed plenty of airtime. The virtual omnipresence of ghosts is curious when one considers that such entities may not actually exist. Although men and women who believe in the existence of ghosts offer such evidence for their existence as eye-witness reports, photographs, electronic voice phenomena, abrupt temperature drops, and sudden increases in electromagnetic radiation, this evidence can be explained without reference to the entities that are supposed to cause them, which makes the actual existence of ghosts questionable at best.

Since the beginning of time, people have claimed to have seen ghosts, and believers in the existence of spirits of the dead declare that so many people couldn’t be deceived or lying in providing eye-witness testimony. It does seem likely that some--perhaps many--such eyewitnesses really do believe that they have seen ghosts. Seeing isn’t believing, though, or shouldn’t be. Scientists regard eyewitness testimony, or anecdotal or testimonial evidence, as they prefer to call it, as being notoriously unreliable. In “anecdotal (testimonial) evidence,” an Internet article concerning such evidence, Robert T. Carroll points out that “anecdotes are unreliable for various reasons,” including the distortion that occurs as accounts are told and retold, exaggeration, confusion regarding “time sequences,” “selective” memory, misrepresented “experiences,” and a variety of other conditions, including the affect upon their testimony that “biases, memories, and beliefs” have. Carroll also suggests that gullibility, “delusions,” and even deliberate deceit also make such testimony “inherently problematic and usually. . . impossible to test for accuracy.”

Most people who investigate reports concerning the presence or appearances of ghosts also seek to photograph them. It has been said that cameras do not lie, but the problem with photographic evidence is that it is easy for photographers to doctor film. In his Internet article concerning “spirit photography,” James Randi gives an example of a rather crude attempt by some spiritualists to fool folks into believing they’d captured the apparition of the deceased author of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, as himself a spiritualist, was a frequent focus of “spook-snappers” who “claimed to summon him up after his death in 1930.” The problem, Randi says, with their evidence is that it is “apparently a cut-out of a reversed photo placed in what appears to be cotton wool”; otherwise, the spirit photograph “agrees in detail, lighting, and expression with the original” photograph of the Doyle which was taken in the author’s “prime” (“spirit photography”). In other words, the photograph is a fake. A favorite technique among those who create fake spirit photographs, Carroll points out, is the “double exposure,” an example of which appears on the article’s webpage (see Figure 1). A double exposure occurs when the same film is exposed to first one, and then another, object, with the result that the image of the second object overlays or overlaps the image of the first object; both images appear to have been photographed together, at the same time and in the same place. However, pictures of supposed ghosts sometimes result from the photographer’s own incompetence or “natural events,” rather than deliberate deceitfulness, Carroll concedes, including
various flaws in camera or film, effects due to various exposures, film-processing errors, lens flares (caused by interreflection between lens surfaces), the camera or lens strap hanging over the lens, effects of the flash reflecting off of mirrors, jewelry. . . light patterns, polarization, [or] chemical reactions.
When deliberate deceit occurs, photographers may also use graphic art software or computer graphics software to deliberately manipulate photographs that are uploaded from the camera, into a computer.

If neither eyewitness testimony nor photographs prove the existence of ghosts, perhaps electronic voice phenomena, or EVP, do so. A sophisticated term for tape-recorded voices, EVP demonstrate the presence of ghosts, some contend, since sensitive instruments have recorded the disembodied voices of apparitions. However, as Carroll indicates, in his Internet article, “electric voice phenomenon,” skeptics point out that such sounds may not be voices at all, but may be nothing more than the results of “interference from a nearby CB [citizen’s band radio] operator or cross modulation”--one radio station transmitting over another station’s broadcast. Likewise, EVP may be nothing more than a listener’s interpreting “random noise” as the statements of a disembodied voice or voices. In the same Internet article, Carroll cites the explanation for this tendency by Jim Alcock, a psychologist: “When our brains try to find patterns, they are guided in part by what we expect to hear. . . . People can clearly ‘hear’ voices and words not just in the context of muddled voices, but in a pattern of white noise in which there are no words at all.” It seems that, for these reasons, EVP is just as problematic as the proof of ghosts’ existence as eyewitness reports and photographs have been shown to be.

Perhaps the abrupt drop in temperature that some ghost hunters have both felt and recorded will prove more convincing evidence of the existence of the spirits of the dead. According to an anonymous “paranormal researcher,” who writes, in answer to a question posted on Yahoo! Answers, it is believed that such “cold spots” result from ghosts’ draining of energy sources, such as electricity, as a means to produce sounds or to speak. Supposedly, the energy they draw from the environment heats their own energy, but this heat is then dissipated by the sound effect the ghost produces with this borrowed energy. Neither this researcher nor any other seems able to explain how a disembodied spirit--that is, an entity that has no lips, teeth, tongue, vocal cords, or lungs--can speak, even if it does help itself to ambient energy sources. Once again, Carroll finds such evidence to be less than persuasive. In his Internet article, “ghost,” he notes that “many people report physical changes in haunted places, especially a feeling of a presence accompanied by temperature drop and hearing unaccountable sounds” and agreeing that such people “are not imagining things,” he, nevertheless, discounts the notion that ghosts are responsible for these phenomena. Instead, he says,
Scientists who have investigated haunted places account for both the temperature changes and the sounds by finding physical sources of the drafts, such as empty spaces behind walls or currents set in motion by low frequency sound waves (infrasound) produced by such mundane objects as extraction fans.
Sudden increases in electromagnetic radiation is “produced by such things as power lines, electric appliances, radio waves, and microwaves,” Carroll observes, in his Internet article “EMF (EMT).” Therefore, he adds, the idea that ghosts somehow cause such radiation seems unlikely, and, indeed, “some think that electromagnetic fields are inducing the haunting experience” (“ghost”).

Occasionally, as a Halloween feature, some newspapers or television shows spotlight a supposedly haunted house. The ghostly phenomena are described, and then a natural explanation is provided for each of the supposedly supernatural elements of the tale. One such account, by Cathy Lubenski, appeared under the title “When your house has spooks, who are you going to call” in The San Diego Union-Tribune. Her story included reports of slime oozing from walls, cold spots, lights flashing on and off, doors opening by themselves, knocking inside walls, foul odors, and howling. Were one living in a house in which such phenomena were occurring, it might well seem that the residence was indeed haunted. Instead, each of these phenomena had a natural cause, not a supernatural origin. The slime was from a bee’s nest in the attic; the cold spots resulted from an air-conditioner unit’s return airflow; the stench was an effect of dead rats in the wall and trapped sewer gas; the howling was the wind, blowing down a vent. Philosophers advise people to adopt the principle of Occam’s razor, which says, essentially, that one should never consider more possible causes than the number that are necessary to explain why something happens. As Carroll points out, “Occam’s razor is also called the principle of parsimony,” and “it is usually interpreted to mean something like ‘the simpler the explanation, the better’” or “as most people would put it today, ‘don’t make any more assumptions than you have to.’” To demonstrate the principle, Carroll offers this example: “[Erik] Von Däniken could be right: maybe extraterrestrials did teach ancient people art and engineering, but we don't need to posit alien visitations in order to explain the feats of ancient people.” Therefore, according to Occam’s razor, one should not attribute “art and engineering” to the human intelligence and ingenuity that men and women develop as the result of their evolutionary, genetic and environmental inheritance. The same applies, of course, with respect to ghosts. The fact that eye-witness reports, photographs, electronic voice phenomena, abrupt temperature drops, and sudden increases in electromagnetic radiation that have been cited as evidence for the existence of ghosts can be explained without reference to these supernatural entities, making which are supposed to cause them makes the actual existence of ghosts questionable at best. Therefore, one can conclude that it is more likely that ghosts do not exist than to suppose that they do. Nevertheless, some are likely to believe in them because they add mystery to the everydayness of ordinary life, they suggest that there is some sort of existence after death, and they make interesting literary and dramatic characters that enliven short stories, novels, and movies. Likewise, they are convenient symbols of such emotional and psychological states and experiences as guilt, the memory of traumatic past experiences, and of actual historical events. In the sense that human beings are, to some extent, products of their own previous experiences and of historical affairs, they are haunted, after all--by the ghosts of their pasts.

Works Cited

Carroll, Robert. "anecdotal (testimonial) evidence." The Skeptic's Dictionary. 23 Feb 2009. 22 May 2009 http://www.skepdic.com/testimon.html.

---. "electronic voice phenomenon (EVP)." The Skeptic's Dictionary. 23 Feb 2009. http://www.skepdic.com/evp.html.

---. "EMF (EMR)." The Skeptic's Dictionary. 23 Feb 2009. 22 May 2009 http://www.skepdic.com/emf.html.

---. "ghost." The Skeptic’s Dictionary. 23 Feb 2009. 22 May 2009 http://www.skepdic.com/ghosts.html.

"I believe spirits use energy to communicate with us. But which energy sources?." Yahoo! Answers. 2009. Yahoo!. 22 May 2009 http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080819160007AAjvMQ7.

Lubenski, Cathy. "When your house has spooks, who are you going to call." The San Diego Union-Tribune 29 Oct 2000: C6. Print.

Randi, James. "spirit photography." An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural . 2007. James Randi Education Foundation. 22 May 2009 http://www.randi.org/encyclopedia/spirit%20photography.html

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Paranormal vs. Supernatural: What’s the Diff?

Copyright 2009 by Gary L. Pullman

Sometimes, in demonstrating how to brainstorm about an essay topic, selecting horror movies, I ask students to name the titles of as many such movies as spring to mind (seldom a difficult feat for them, as the genre remains quite popular among young adults). Then, I ask them to identify the monster, or threat--the antagonist, to use the proper terminology--that appears in each of the films they have named. Again, this is usually a quick and easy task. Finally, I ask them to group the films’ adversaries into one of three possible categories: natural, paranormal, or supernatural. This is where the fun begins.

It’s a simple enough matter, usually, to identify the threats which fall under the “natural” label, especially after I supply my students with the scientific definition of “nature”: everything that exists as either matter or energy (which are, of course, the same thing, in different forms--in other words, the universe itself. The supernatural is anything which falls outside, or is beyond, the universe: God, angels, demons, and the like, if they exist. Mad scientists, mutant cannibals (and just plain cannibals), serial killers, and such are examples of natural threats. So far, so simple.

What about borderline creatures, though? Are vampires, werewolves, and zombies, for example, natural or supernatural? And what about Freddy Krueger? In fact, what does the word “paranormal” mean, anyway? If the universe is nature and anything outside or beyond the universe is supernatural, where does the paranormal fit into the scheme of things?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “paranormal,” formed of the prefix “para,” meaning alongside, and “normal,” meaning “conforming to common standards, usual,” was coined in 1920. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “paranormal” to mean “beyond the range of normal experience or scientific explanation.” In other words, the paranormal is not supernatural--it is not outside or beyond the universe; it is natural, but, at the present, at least, inexplicable, which is to say that science cannot yet explain its nature. The same dictionary offers, as examples of paranormal phenomena, telepathy and “a medium’s paranormal powers.”

Wikipedia offers a few other examples of such phenomena or of paranormal sciences, including the percentages of the American population which, according to a Gallup poll, believes in each phenomenon, shown here in parentheses: psychic or spiritual healing (54), extrasensory perception (ESP) (50), ghosts (42), demons (41), extraterrestrials (33), clairvoyance and prophecy (32), communication with the dead (28), astrology (28), witchcraft (26), reincarnation (25), and channeling (15); 36 percent believe in telepathy.

As can be seen from this list, which includes demons, ghosts, and witches along with psychics and extraterrestrials, there is a confusion as to which phenomena and which individuals belong to the paranormal and which belong to the supernatural categories. This confusion, I believe, results from the scientism of our age, which makes it fashionable for people who fancy themselves intelligent and educated to dismiss whatever cannot be explained scientifically or, if such phenomena cannot be entirely rejected, to classify them as as-yet inexplicable natural phenomena. That way, the existence of a supernatural realm need not be admitted or even entertained. Scientists tend to be materialists, believing that the real consists only of the twofold unity of matter and energy, not dualists who believe that there is both the material (matter and energy) and the spiritual, or supernatural. If so, everything that was once regarded as having been supernatural will be regarded (if it cannot be dismissed) as paranormal and, maybe, if and when it is explained by science, as natural. Indeed, Sigmund Freud sought to explain even God as but a natural--and in Freud’s opinion, an obsolete--phenomenon.

Meanwhile, among skeptics, there is an ongoing campaign to eliminate the paranormal by explaining them as products of ignorance, misunderstanding, or deceit. Ridicule is also a tactic that skeptics sometimes employ in this campaign. For example, The Skeptics’ Dictionary contends that the perception of some “events” as being of a paranormal nature may be attributed to “ignorance or magical thinking.” The dictionary is equally suspicious of each individual phenomenon or “paranormal science” as well. Concerning psychics’ alleged ability to discern future events, for example, The Skeptic’s Dictionary quotes Jay Leno (“How come you never see a headline like 'Psychic Wins Lottery'?”), following with a number of similar observations:

Psychics don't rely on psychics to warn them of impending disasters. Psychics don't predict their own deaths or diseases. They go to the dentist like the rest of us. They're as surprised and disturbed as the rest of us when they have to call a plumber or an electrician to fix some defect at home. Their planes are delayed without their being able to anticipate the delays. If they want to know something about Abraham Lincoln, they go to the library; they don't try to talk to Abe's spirit. In short, psychics live by the known laws of nature except when they are playing the psychic game with people.
In An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, James Randi, a magician who exercises a skeptical attitude toward all things alleged to be paranormal or supernatural, takes issue with the notion of such phenomena as well, often employing the same arguments and rhetorical strategies as The Skeptic’s Dictionary.

In short, the difference between the paranormal and the supernatural lies in whether one is a materialist, believing in only the existence of matter and energy, or a dualist, believing in the existence of both matter and energy and spirit. If one maintains a belief in the reality of the spiritual, he or she will classify such entities as angels, demons, ghosts, gods, vampires, and other threats of a spiritual nature as supernatural, rather than paranormal, phenomena. He or she may also include witches (because, although they are human, they are empowered by the devil, who is himself a supernatural entity) and other natural threats that are energized, so to speak, by a power that transcends nature and is, as such, outside or beyond the universe. Otherwise, one is likely to reject the supernatural as a category altogether, identifying every inexplicable phenomenon as paranormal, whether it is dark matter or a teenage werewolf. Indeed, some scientists dedicate at least part of their time to debunking allegedly paranormal phenomena, explaining what natural conditions or processes may explain them, as the author of The Serpent and the Rainbow explains the creation of zombies by voodoo priests.

Based upon my recent reading of Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to the Fantastic, I add the following addendum to this essay.

According to Todorov:

The fantastic. . . lasts only as long as a certain hesitation [in deciding] whether or not what they [the reader and the protagonist] perceive derives from "reality" as it exists in the common opinion. . . . If he [the reader] decides that the laws of reality remain intact and permit an explanation of the phenomena described, we can say that the work belongs to the another genre [than the fantastic]: the uncanny. If, on the contrary, he decides that new laws of nature must be entertained to account for the phenomena, we enter the genre of the marvelous (The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, 41).
Todorov further differentiates these two categories by characterizing the uncanny as “the supernatural explained” and the marvelous as “the supernatural accepted” (41-42).

Interestingly, the prejudice against even the possibility of the supernatural’s existence which is implicit in the designation of natural versus paranormal phenomena, which excludes any consideration of the supernatural, suggests that there are no marvelous phenomena; instead, there can be only the uncanny. Consequently, for those who subscribe to this view, the fantastic itself no longer exists in this scheme, for the fantastic depends, as Todorov points out, upon the tension of indecision concerning to which category an incident belongs, the natural or the supernatural. The paranormal is understood, by those who posit it, in lieu of the supernatural, as the natural as yet unexplained.

And now, back to a fate worse than death: grading students’ papers.

My Cup of Blood

Anyone who becomes an aficionado of anything tends, eventually, to develop criteria for elements or features of the person, place, or thing of whom or which he or she has become enamored. Horror fiction--admittedly not everyone’s cuppa blood--is no different (okay, maybe it’s a little different): it, too, appeals to different fans, each for reasons of his or her own. Of course, in general, book reviews, the flyleaves of novels, and movie trailers suggest what many, maybe even most, readers of a particular type of fiction enjoy, but, right here, right now, I’m talking more specifically--one might say, even more eccentrically. In other words, I’m talking what I happen to like, without assuming (assuming makes an “ass” of “u” and “me”) that you also like the same. It’s entirely possible that you will; on the other hand, it’s entirely likely that you won’t.

Anyway, this is what I happen to like in horror fiction:

Small-town settings in which I get to know the townspeople, both the good, the bad, and the ugly. For this reason alone, I’m a sucker for most of Stephen King’s novels. Most of them, from 'Salem's Lot to Under the Dome, are set in small towns that are peopled by the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of the appeal here, granted, is the sense of community that such settings entail.

Isolated settings, such as caves, desert wastelands, islands, mountaintops, space, swamps, where characters are cut off from civilization and culture and must survive and thrive or die on their own, without assistance, by their wits and other personal resources. Many are the examples of such novels and screenplays, but Alien, The Shining, The Descent, Desperation, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, are some of the ones that come readily to mind.

Total institutions as settings. Camps, hospitals, military installations, nursing homes, prisons, resorts, spaceships, and other worlds unto themselves are examples of such settings, and Sleepaway Camp, Coma, The Green Mile, and Aliens are some of the novels or films that take place in such settings.

Anecdotal scenes--in other words, short scenes that showcase a character--usually, an unusual, even eccentric, character. Both Dean Koontz and the dynamic duo, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, excel at this, so I keep reading their series (although Koontz’s canine companions frequently--indeed, almost always--annoy, as does his relentless optimism).

Atmosphere, mood, and tone. Here, King is king, but so is Bentley Little. In the use of description to terrorize and horrify, both are masters of the craft.

A bit of erotica (okay, okay, sex--are you satisfied?), often of the unusual variety. Sex sells, and, yes, sex whets my reader’s appetite. Bentley Little is the go-to guy for this spicy ingredient, although Koontz has done a bit of seasoning with this spice, too, in such novels as Lightning and Demon Seed (and, some say, Hung).

Believable characters. Stephen King, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, and Dan Simmons are great at creating characters that stick to readers’ ribs.

Innovation. Bram Stoker demonstrates it, especially in his short story “Dracula’s Guest,” as does H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and a host of other, mostly classical, horror novelists and short story writers. For an example, check out my post on Stoker’s story, which is a real stoker, to be sure. Stephen King shows innovation, too, in ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining, It, and other novels. One might even argue that Dean Koontz’s something-for-everyone, cross-genre writing is innovative; he seems to have been one of the first, if not the first, to pen such tales.

Technique. Check out Frank Peretti’s use of maps and his allusions to the senses in Monster; my post on this very topic is worth a look, if I do say so myself, which, of course, I do. Opening chapters that accomplish a multitude of narrative purposes (not usually all at once, but successively) are attractive, too, and Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are as good as anyone, and better than many, at this art.

A connective universe--a mythos, if you will, such as both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, and, to a lesser extent, Dean Koontz, Bentley Little, and even Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child have created through the use of recurring settings, characters, themes, and other elements of fiction.

A lack of pretentiousness. Dean Koontz has it, as do Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, Bentley Little, and (to some extent, although he has become condescending and self-indulgent of late, Stephen King); unfortunately, both Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon have become too self-important in their later works, Simmons almost to the point of becoming unreadable. Come on, people, you’re writing about monsters--you should be humble.

Longevity. Writers who have been around for a while usually get better, Stephen King, Dan Simmons, and Robert McCammon excepted.

Pacing. Neither too fast nor too slow. Dean Koontz is good, maybe the best, here, of contemporary horror writers.

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