Tag Archives: paranormal

Monster Mash

American MonstersIn one of those ironies of personal history, I never met Linda Godfrey although we lived not far from one another and shared a great many common interests. I’m not sure she would return the sentiment, but while I lived at Nashotah House many odd things happened. Academics can be pretty deep in denial about what they experience, and although I never saw any man-wolves, as I stood outside one night to photograph a comet I felt terribly exposed and in not a little danger. This was on a rural seminary campus. Nashotah was still wooded then, before evangelical shaving of the landscape, and certainly among the most gothic of seminaries I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile Linda Godfrey was researching, just a few miles down the road, weird animal sightings on Bray Road. I began a correspondence with her after we left Wisconsin and I have read all of her books. Local history has always fascinated me, and although I was an accidental Wisconsonite, I nevertheless enjoyed learning about the strangeness of the state I formerly called home.

Godfrey’s latest book, American Monsters: A History of Monster Lore, Legends, and Sightings in America, throws a wider net. We are all in here with the monsters. Blending, as the subtitle suggests, lore and legends with eyewitness accounts, American Monsters can leave the reader a little disoriented, in a good way. We’ve been taught to discount anything that doesn’t match the everyday—what boss wants a worker with a higher vision?—and pretend that such things don’t exist. Weird creatures don’t donate their bodies to science readily, and we are left wondering if something is really peering at us from these October woods. Inside you’ll find stories of flying, swimming, and running monsters. We are safe nowhere. Either from the scientifically undocumented or from those that are purely imaginary. I stand outside in the dark in a smallish town waiting for a bus. What was that sound behind me?

Monsters are only now beginning to gain academic respectability. When I was in graduate school the topic felt so puerile that no respectable Ph.D. candidate would dare suggest such a dissertation to a button-down committee. Now they are beginning to roll off the presses. As part of the religious imagination, monsters are not so easily dismissed. We can assign them to the dark caverns of fantasy and under-stimulated imagination, but they will burst out in their own time and, like gods, demand our devotion. I have no idea whether these cryptids creep, flap, or swish around in our world. People see them all the same. And believing may be seeing. I’m glad for Godfrey’s success at pointing out that our rational world is full of monsters. Hers is a perfect book for days of effacing light and lengthening shadows, all across the country.

Strange Orthodoxies

SeriouslyStrangeI had already read three of his books before I called on Jeffrey Kripal. Reading his work created a strange longing in me, as if I had been missing something I once might’ve had, but had lost on my way to academia. Kripal is a fearless writer and a profoundly kind man. He gave me a copy of his edited collection, Seriously Strange: Thinking Anew about Psychical Experiences, (co-edited by Sudhir Kakar, part of the Boundaries of Consciousness series). Like myself, Dr. Kripal had come to the conclusion that a number of apparently disparate human experiences actually belong to the same overarching class. Religion shares not a little ground with monstrosity, heroes, and the paranormal. With the exception of religion (generally) the other phenomena are classed as puerile and not worthy of consideration beyond their juvenile appeal. No real scholar would bother with them.

The orthodoxy of knowledge is a funny thing. I have been fascinated by what science teaches us about the universe since I was I child. Some of it is seriously strange as well. I always thought that science was observing the world closely and drawing logical inferences. Somewhere along the line, science became theory driven—I suspect it was some time after Darwin; and even Freud recognized the draw of the uncanny and how it related to numinous regions of human experience. In any case, by the time I was able to comprehend (partially) the fantastically complex system that science had built up I found a universe teeming with black holes that nobody had ever seen, and sub-atomic particles that behaved very naughtily, not being consistent with what we’d expect. Indeed, uncertainty abounded. Uncertainty is crucial to the humility which is the only true adjunct to human knowledge. We can only know enough to say we wish we knew more.

In the last few decades, however, science has adopted a magisterium like that of the medieval Catholic Church. That realm of unchallenged knowledge ignores the anomalous and declares that everything is reducible to material. Ironically, it seems, material is reducible to energy, and energy is less well tamed. Our understanding of our universe is still in its infancy. We haven’t even learned to walk yet. From the beginning, however, we have been religious and even science suggests that it may be biologically beneficial. So Seriously Strange takes some of the borderlands of mainstream science and looks closely at them. Some of the assertions are modest, and nobody claims to prove anything here. The essays will, however, instill a sense of much needed wonder into a Weltanschauung that increasingly has no space for simply being human.

Sidekick

I have moved from the territory of Sharon to that of Laura. New York City is a conglomeration of smaller neighborhoods, and even Midtown Manhattan hosts hundreds of smaller sub-divisions. Although I’ve never intentionally consulted a psychic, I do tend to notice them. Once while on a visit to Galena, Illinois during the summer, we stumbled on a psychic booth where the proprietor was giving free readings. With some trepidation, we let her give our daughter a reading, just for fun. I don’t recall what she said, or even what her name might have been. There’s just enough fear of the unknown left in me to compel me ever want to visit a psychic, even if it is for entertainment purposes only. Clearly, however, there is a market. Where the market makes a hole someone will fill it. So I pondered Laura the psychic.

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The other day I passed her sign. Like most psychic ads I see, Laura’s sign makes use of religious symbols; the cross, bird, crescent and star, all thrown together amid an interfaith openness from which most religions might learn a lesson. Are psychics religious? I suppose that’s a personal question. The phenomenon of psi, if it does exist, and if it does involve spooky influence at a distance, tends to be classed with the supernatural. A few brave universities have from time to time explored the phenomenon, whether or not commercial psychics have it, scientifically. They set up controlled experiments and have even obtained statistically significant results. I’m more inclined to doubt statistics than the outcomes. Statistics are the tools of markets, and markets, well, make me shiver.

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Then I passed another sign. This one, just a block or two from Laura, seemed to suggest that witchcraft might unleash my potential and power. That sounds like a good thing. But then I noticed the FOX logo at the bottom. Another quality program, it seems, has fallen to the spell of witchcraft. It did confirm, however, that it is all about money. One size does not fit all. Religion adapts to fit a free market economy. Totalitarian states either attempt to disband religion completely and/or build up a national mythology that supplements traditional teachings. It doesn’t take a psychic to see that coming. As long as there’s money to be made, who’s complaining?

Alien Jesus

While trawling the internet over the weekend, I came upon an interesting article that ties together religion and paranormal belief. According to ADG, a unnamed woman (already the question marks erupt) in Galilee in 1967 was visited by aliens. Instead of photographing them, as most unnamed women would, she followed their instructions to point her camera at the lake (Sea of Galilee) and snap one for the album. When she turned back around the aliens were gone, and when she had the film developed there was a picture of Jesus and a disciple or two, walking along the sea in earnest conversation. Well, one doesn’t have to be a scholar of Tobit to spot the apocryphal, and this obviously bogus story received far more hits than any of my posts do. People are fascinated by the concept, even though most of the comments show some healthy skepticism.

To me the fascinating aspect is that religion and paranormal topics hold hands so easily. That is not to suggest they are the same thing, but rather that they are both perhaps directed toward a similar goal. We find ourselves in a cold world, often. There are cruelties, atrocities, and a disheartening lack of care for others. We want to believe that somebody out there has got our backs. Is it so different to believe that God dwells in the sky than to believe that aliens do as well? What is more important than the putative fact of such celestial dwellers is the belief in them. Our minds, no matter how we may protest otherwise, are perfectly well aware of their own limitations. We can’t know everything, and so we must believe.

Many of us find ourselves in an uninspiring cycle of work, sleep, and work. Sometimes we actually even do sleep, too. Cogs in a capitalistic money machine, we leave our weekends free (sometimes) to pursue a little meaning. As much as some may castigate religion, we should not forget that without it we would not have the weekend! For a little while we can break the meaningless cycle, the treadmill upon which we heavily thump our way through five days out of every seven. Is it any wonder that so many want to believe that, like Calgon, aliens might come to take us away from our drudgery? If that doesn’t work, there’s always religious services. All you have to do is point your camera and believe.

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Dangers de la nuit

Sex&Paranormal Some books require extra clothing on the bus. When I saw the title of Paul Chambers’ Sex and the Paranormal, I noted the juxtaposition of two aspects I’ve frequently argued are intimately related to religion. There can be no question that religions in some way attempt to regulate sexuality. Those forbidden topics loosely collected under the sobriquet of “the paranormal” tend to be only a baby-step or two away from religious beliefs. Often those who are open to religious acceptance also allow for the possibility of the paranormal. So what did these two quasi-religious phenomena have to do with one another? How was I going to read a book with a title like this on public transit? How would I plumb the depths of its wisdom without feeling like a pervert? I found an unused book sock, a kind of colored condom for textbooks, and wrapped in around my questionable interests and read as discretely as possible.

Chambers, a member of the Society of Psychical Research, as well as a scientist, starts the reader off with what he is surely correct in identifying as a combination of sleep paralysis and hypnopompic hallucinations—the feeling of being violated by demons or ghosts in the night. While the reasons are poorly understood (beyond our latent sense of vulnerability while asleep), the fact of sleep paralysis is well documented. As Chambers points out, our over-active, often religiously fueled, imagination fills in the blanks for those who wake up unable to move, feeling a presence in their darkened rooms. This leads Chambers into a discussion of Lilith and succubi and incubi, the molesting demons of ancient lore. Witch-hunts and amorous aliens are strange bedfellows in this volume as well.

Studies like this daringly bring together subjects that have been parsed apart by conventional society. They are also deeply relevant. Many of us remember the (largely mythic) Satanic worship scares that plagued pockets of America, and then Europe, in the 1990s—latter day witch-scares, as Chambers points out—the tremors of discontent that rumble through societies struggling for an overly rational explanation for human behavior. They are present-day reminders that no amount of fiscal solvency and empirical data will ever banish the deep fears from the human mind. Our emotions have often served us very well, and have sometimes abused us, for the entirety of our evolved existence. And although we can hold them at bay in the clear light of day, at night we are surprised to discover that we really believe in monsters after all.

Paranormal Academy

ParanormalA recurrent theme on this blog (as my faithful few will doubtless know) is that religion draws from the same stream of cultural energies as do other phenomena such as horror movies and the paranormal. Religion and fear and curiosity seem to share some common parameters, and every now and again serious academics tackle these connections as well. Erich Goode, a sociologist, has taken on unconventional beliefs in his The Paranormal: Who Believes, Why They Believe, and Why it Matters. Unlike many academic writers on the topic, Goode does not attempt to debunk, but it is also clear that he does not ascribe to the unconventional viewpoints he examines either. In what must be an important realization among sociologists, Goode, like some of his colleagues who also consider the paranormal, finds that belief is widespread. Large segments of the US population allow for some validity toward ghosts, psychics, aliens, and yes, even creationism.

That last one stopped me for a second. Several seconds, actually. Creationism paranormal? When Goode’s delineations are considered, this is not completely inappropriate, but creationism is pure-blood religion. Not that it is necessary for religion, but its birth and considerable growth has been among the conventicle of true Bible believers. It is clear that in Goode’s line of reasoning there is only a fuzzy line between religion and the paranormal. I’ve asserted that same fuzzy line, but I’d never considered biblical literalism as paranormal. Maybe because I was raised in that environment it seemed normal and natural to me. Maybe because it is in the Bible it feels weird to hear it classed as paranormal. Maybe because believers in ghosts, aliens, and undiscovered forces have at least some viable evidence to indicate their beliefs are valid; the creationist distortion appears not to belong in the same camp.

Creationism is a complex psychological phenomenon, to be sure. How people who know the obvious practicalities of science (such as television and the internet, where creationism can be expounded) have demonstrated that its overall methodology is sound, how such people can accept a fairy tale beginning to a Grimm tales world is difficult to fathom. And creationists, in general, would reject belief in what most of society considers paranormal. Can these coexist in the same category? While Goode constructs his paradigm as those who accept and reject empirical reductionism, I’m not convinced that religious belief is the same as paranormal belief. The parsing is a bit too coarse here. Creationism, which began life as a religious belief, has become a political agenda all about domination. It is not so much naiveté as it is need to rule. Somehow I doubt the ghost hunter with her or his night vision camera and digital voice recorder has any real designs on textbook distortion or having women keep silent on Sunday morning.

Flying None?

RoughGuidesWhile reading about a saint or two recently, I once again came across the concept of levitation. Long dismissed as overly gullible piety of superstitious pre-moderns, the practice has been relegated to the scratched and damaged basement of religious thought. Or so it would seem. While examining a World Religions textbook at work, I came across a picture of a young person in meditation who was, to all appearances, levitating. The caption simply noted that levitation is a component of some religious practitioners’ discipline and then quietly moved on. No scare quotes or allegedlys to be seen. The publisher of the text was one of the major textbook moguls. Curious, I found a reference to The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena by Bob Rickard and John Michell. This intriguing book, in its second edition, bears the Penguin imprimatur, and therefore should be taken seriously. While I am certain that any number of skeptical readers will declare me hopelessly naive, I found the book full of interesting anomalies, and many of them, as I’ve noted several times on this blog, tied the paranormal to religion.

While I can’t accept everything I read in The Rough Guide, there remain, even after healthy doubt, a number of weird things that persist in our reductionistic world. Strange phenomena do not necessarily validate religion, of course, and many of those “revelations” people claim must be simple pareidolia. These are entertaining, no doubt, but hardly newsworthy. It is rather those phenomena that refuse to play by the rules that raise questions about our demon-haunted world. If even just a handful, or even one of the cases of levitation actually occurred, it would mean some serious rethinking concerning the nature of gravity. Do saints levitate? I’m no saint, so perhaps it’s best not to ask me. If one lies about it, then s/he is hardly a saint.

As uncomfortable as the unexplained may make us, these reports do serve as a reminder that our scientific worldview is, in many ways, still in its infancy. A few years back, sitting in on the lecture of a friend concerning the science of the Mesopotamians, it was clear that rational thought has very early origins in human civilization. At the same time, the Mesopotamians had plenty of room for gods and the supernatural in their worldview as well. Here in our electronic twenty-first century, it might seem that reason will see us through just about any crisis. Even a glance at the headlines reveals we’re not there yet. Some will blame the religious, the “superstitious,” the irrational for our problems. Meanwhile far from the eyes of scientists and authorities of secular power, maybe, just maybe, a religious practitioner may be hovering a few inches off the ground.