Transcript Episode 1 – Anthology as Paranormal Research

This episode we talk about my background and why there is need of a change in understanding in what theory is and how it is applied in paranormal research.

<intro>(He runs towards things that go bump in the night; this is The Paranormal Theory with Topher the Paranormal Hobo. Where he strips down current paranormal thought and tries to apply actual scientific theory to the field. Here is Topher)</intro>

That’s right I am Topher, and this is the Paranormal Theory podcast, where I use my education to possibly map a new way to look at my interests in the paranormal.  But you’re probably asking why you should listen to me?  Or even better, who’s this guy? For a little background, on me, I am an archaeologist who was in the field for a decade before having to find a new home because of health concerns. But while I was a young pup and still in college learning the base theories of anthropology, I started to realize that I can carry that information and critical thinking into crafting theories for the paranormal field.

I started looking at the core theories at the beginning of Anthropology and Archaeology and noticed that I could totally adapt them into the search for the paranormal. This was around 2006 or 2007, so Ghosthunters was still all the rage, and the boom in paranormal programming was at its peak.

I wrote paper after paper, about the need for more rigor in the research conducted and it was met with a blind eye in the paranormal community I came from, and with laughter from the academic community that I was now finding myself circulating in.

So, I did what anybody would do, I put everything away and just focused on the academic work.  Got into the field and ducked my head and did my job for the next ten years.  Yeah, I wrote the occasional thing, but mostly just kept that in the realm of folklore.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about what this podcast is about.  Each show I will take an aspect of the state of the current theory in the paranormal field and see how we can give ourselves a foundation to build up and what is lacking.

But before getting into this, I need to thank our sponsors for today’s show.

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Thank you to our sponsor, but back to the topic at hand…

Many people ask, “Why try to investigate the paranormal”.  The simple answer is, why not.  Admittedly, the subject has taken a different task, for me personally, ever since I started on my path of education.  What I was looking for when I was younger is not what I am looking for now.  I started looking into this as a way to scare myself.  This came to the point that I was almost a fear junky.  I fell in love with the adrenaline rush that the fight or flight instinct gave me.  Unfortunately, that has not changed.  What has changed is the why I still am interested in the research. 

I started to notice the change in myself and in what I understood as I was working on an associate degree in Psychology.  Short of what I now call my flights of intellectual fantasy during one particular Philosophy class, I was starting to see a more logical side.  I grew to look at why, rather than what was out there.  Why do certain people report certain phenomena?  Why do people like me feel the need to seek out and push for the rush of a fear response?  Why does a psychologist look at things in a cultural view?  If a person who was suffering from Schizophrenia reports auditory and visual hallucinations but reports them in a culturally accepted form, they are not diagnosed as being schizophrenia.   If the person believes that the spirits are communicating with them, and they do not hurt anyone, they are healthy.  That was where I was at during the beginning of my education.

I grew during this time to look at the field itself.  Most of preconceptions were that if I used technology to do what I was doing, I was being scientific.  When I moved on from my Associates in psychology to work on my Bachelors in anthropology, I realized that I was wrong.  That is the course of things that we are looking at in this series.

This might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Sometimes it might even go over some people’s heads. What we are talking about in this series is the core foundation of paranormal investigation and new theoretical constructs that can be used and applied to the field as a whole.

In any general discussion of theory and method, there is inevitably an argumentative bias on the part of the person coming up with it.  I believe that the isolation and study of cultural beliefs, rather than an ad hoc series of conjecture and hypothesis, which is the only meaningful approach to understanding cultural processes behind the interpretation of experiences.  A cultural system is a set of constant or cyclically repetitive articulations between the social, technological, and ideological cosmologies, as adaptive means available to a human population.

So, what does that mean? People don’t interpret experiences in the same way.  Similarly, interpretations are not uniform at the same locations.  As groups of people vary, so do the basis for beliefs and reasoning these people employ.  The abandonment, replacement, and enculturation of beliefs at different locations, where groups of variable structure observe different values and ideologies create a tapestry of beliefs in which we must unravel to understand the interpretations made by members of said group.  This tapestry may be read in the cultural background and religious upbringing of the individuals.  We may not always be able to state or determine what specific activities resulted in observed interpretations, but we can recognize that more than just events played a role to produce these explanations.  I have attempted to argue in several circles that we can uncover, both from the nature of the populations of a location and from their background associations, the building framework of experiential interpretation.  The structure of a rationalization should, and in my opinion does, reflect all other structures in one’s life, for example, religious upbringing, economical position, and folk background.  All these are summarized from the events, which occur as part of the normal functioning of culture. 

It is in this belief on my part, that I am proposing a framework in which our work in this field can be constructed.  Changes in methods obviously occurred in the past, as it continues to take place today.  If it did not, then we would be in the same place, method wise, as we were when individuals started the pursuit to find an answer to the experiences that so many people have reported.  To start is to ask the question that begs an answer before we can make any further progress in this field, “What are the goals and aims of paranormal research?” 

Most of the field would agree that they are striving to explain the experiences many people have reported all over the globe, and throughout history.  First, we must understand the historical aspect of the paranormal before we can strive to explain current interpretations.  Most researchers assume that reports, regardless of their context or methods of collection, can be treated as equal and comparable “traits.”  Once differences and similarities are “defined” in terms of these equal and comparable “traits,” interpretation proceeds within something of a theoretical vacuum of “traditional” concepts defined largely based on what has been postulated by local “experts” or those proposed by television shows that act as surrogate instructors on interpretations.

I suggest that this undifferentiated and unstructured view is inadequate, that events/experiences having their origins in different cultural systems will be reported with obvious differences and similarities, in terms of the structure of the cultural system of which they were experienced.  Further, that the temporal and spatial spans within and between reports will vary with the relationships between cultural beliefs and religious systems.  Study of these distributions can potentially yield valuable information concerning the nature of the events/experiences. In short, the explanation of differences and similarities between events must be offered in terms of our current knowledge of the structural and functional characteristics of cultural systems.

The “historical” concept of explanations, as they are in the field currently, simply explicates mechanisms of probable causes. They add nothing to the explanation of the processes of cultural and individual interpretation.  We must seek explanation in systemic terms for events such as reported footsteps, physical contact, visual apparitions, etc.  Only then, will we make major contributions in the area of explanation and provide a basis for the further advancement of paranormal theory.

As an exercise in explanation of the methodological questions brought up here, I will present a general discussion of particular systemic approach in the evaluation of paranormal experiences and potential evidence and utilize these distinctions in an attempted explanation of a particular set of observations.  However, more to the point, I intend to provide a framework in which to build on several observations and to provide a platform to make better interpretations from the field.

So now that I got all that jargon out of the way and gave a long-winded explanation as to what I want to do, and why I think it needs to be done, lets get into why I say this is a cultural thing and not just numbers and statistic.  Remember Archaeology is a four-field science in America. Archaeology, Linguistics, Physical Anthropology and Cultural Anthropology (joking refer to by students as “stones”, “tones”, “bones” and “thrones”.)

We interpret an archaeological site by comparing it to another culture that we can see to day and see if there are any similarities between the two. For instance, we found that there was two rings of debris at prehistoric camp sites and was curious to figure out what was the cause and what meaning it had.  Someone had the idea to look at native hunting groups in the north and found that they tossed the small bones of their meal into the fire and the larger sections and bones that were discarded were tossed behind them as they sat.  This made a small circle of bones in the center and left a large circle behind them.  We made the association that this explains why we found this in our sites and gave us a better understanding of what the past was like.

We also look at historical sources and compare what was said in those sources to what was found to see if there is a correlation.  If so, then the historic source is accurate an we can infer other items should follow the same. If there is a discrepancy, we then investigate further to find out what actually took place and create new sources that can explain the difference and how we came to that understanding.

I am simply suggesting that we do that here. And what better way to do so than to look at the history of paranormal reports.  Most people don’t realize that ghost reports go back to the beginnings of writing in most places.

Since the dawn of writing, there are accounts of ghosts visiting their relatives in order to pass on some secret or dire warning.  From the second century AD, we have what appears to be the very first ghost story from Pliny the Younger that talks of a house in Athens that is haunted by the spirit.  The spirit is of an old dirty man with a scraggly beard rattling chains, moving though the house, and always vanishing at one spot.  It was not until a scholar followed the ghost and marked the spot of the disappearance, that they found the spirit was leading them to its corpse.  Once the body, a skeleton wrapped in chains, was found and given a proper burial, the haunting stopped. 

As time carries on, ghost stories are modified and changes to fit the current understanding of people involved.  During Homers time, ghosts were weak things that flittered from the bodies of the deceased and hurried themselves down into Hades.  They were of no more consequence to the daily lives of the living than shadows.  As time progresses, ghosts grow more solid and dangerous.  They would

Another widespread belief concerning ghosts is that they were composed of a misty, airy, or subtle material. Anthropologists speculate that this may also stem from early beliefs that ghosts were the person within the person, most noticeable in ancient cultures as a person’s breath, which upon exhaling in colder climates appears visibly as a white mist. This belief may have also fostered the metaphorical meaning of “breath” in certain languages, such as the Latin spiritus and the Greek pneuma, which by analogy became extended to mean the soul. In the Bible, God is depicted as animating Adam with a breath. Although the evidence for ghosts is largely anecdotal, the belief in ghosts throughout history has remained widespread and persistent.

     In many historical accounts, ghosts were thought to be deceased persons looking for vengeance, or imprisoned on earth for bad things they did during life. Most cultures have ghost stories in their mythologies. Many stories from the Middle Ages and the Romantic era rely on the macabre and the fantastic, and ghosts are a major theme in literature from those eras.

Ghost stories date back to ancient times, and can be found in many different cultures. The Chinese philosopher, Mo Tzu (470-391 BC), is quoted as having said: “The way to find out whether anything exists or not is to depend on the testimony of the ears and eyes of the multitude. If some have heard it or some have seen it then we have to say it exists. If no one has heard it and no one has seen it then we have to say it does not exist. So, then, why not go to some village or some district and inquire? If from antiquity to the present, and since the beginning of man, there are men who have seen the bodies of ghosts and spirits and heard their voices, how can we say that they do not exist? If none have heard them and none have seen them, then how can we say they do? But those who deny the existence of the spirits say: “Many in the world have heard and seen something of ghosts and spirits. Since they vary in testimony, who are to be accepted as really having heard and seen them?” Mo Tzu said: As we are to rely on what many have jointly seen and what many have jointly heard, the case of Tu Po is to be accepted.”

     (Note: King Hsuan (827-783 BC) executed his minister, Tu Po, on false charges even after being warned that Tu Po’s ghost would seek revenge. Three years later, according to historical chronicles, Tu Po’s ghost shot and killed Hsuan with a bow and arrow before an assembly of feudal lords.)

One of the earliest known ghost “sightings” in the west took place in Athens, Greece. Pliny the Younger (c. 63 – 113 AD) described it in a letter to Licinius Sura: Athenodoros Cananites (c. 74 BC – 7 AD), a Stoic philosopher, decided to rent a large, Athenian house, to investigate widespread rumors that it was haunted. Athenodoros staked out at the house that night, and, sure enough, a disheveled, aged spectre, bound at feet and hands with rattling chains, eventually “appeared”. The spirit then beckoned for Athenodoros to follow him; Athenodoros complied, but the ghost soon vanished. The philosopher marked the spot where the old man had disappeared, and, on the next day, advised the magistrates to dig there. The man’s shackled bones were reportedly uncovered three years later. After a proper burial, the hauntings ceased.

    Many Eastern religious traditions also subscribe to the concept of ghosts. The Hindu Garuda Purana has detailed information about ghosts. The Hebrew Torah and the Bible contain few references to ghosts, associating spiritism with forbidden occult activities. Deuteronomy 18:11. The most notable reference is in the Second Book of Samuel, in which a disguised King Saul has the Witch of Endor summon the spirit of Samuel. In the New Testament, Jesus has to persuade the Disciples that he is not ghost following the resurrection, Matthew 24. In a similar vein, Jesus’ followers at first believe him to be a ghost when they see him walking on water.

   The Child ballad Sweet William’s Ghost recounts the story of a ghost returning to beg a woman to free him from his promise to marry her, as he can not, being dead; her refusal would mean his damnation. This reflects a popular British belief that the dead would haunt their lovers if they took up with a new love without some formal release.

    The Unquiet Grave expresses a belief even more widespread, found in various locations over Europe: ghosts can stem from the excessive grief of the living, whose mourning interferes with the dead’s peaceful rest. A great scientist who believed in life after death was Thomas Edison (1847-1931). Edison was a genius ahead of his time. He invented the light bulb, phonograph, typewriter, electric motor, stock ticker, and 1,093 other patented inventions. One of his inventions that he worked on at the end of his career was a secret project, a machine that would let the living see and communicate with the dead.

    Edison believed that the “soul” was made up of what he called “life units”. These microscopic particles or life units could rearrange into any form. They retained full memory, personality and were indestructible. Edison’s machine would detect these life units in the environment and allow living individuals to communicate with the dead. He put many years of hard work into his new creation, but sadly, he died before it was finished. Some people thought Edison was crazy. Others thought that he was onto something bigger than any of his other inventions. They believed that if he had a little more time, we might all today be living in a very different world.

   Attempts to apply modern scientific or investigative standards to the study of apparitional experiences began with the work of Edmund Gurney, Frederick William Henry Myers and Frank Podmore (1886), who were leading figures in the early years of the Society for Psychical Research. Their motive, as with most of the early work of the Society, was to provide evidence for human survival after death. For this reason they had a particular interest in what are known as ‘crisis cases’. These are cases in which a person has a quasi-perceptual experience of someone at a distance at the time of that person’s death or other crisis. If the temporal coincidence of the crisis and the distant apparitional experience cannot be explained by any conventional means, then the presumption is made that some as yet unknown form of communication, such as telepathy (a term coined by Myers), has taken place.

    While the extent to which the work of Gurney and his colleagues succeeded in providing evidence for either telepathy or survival of death is still controversial, the large collection of firsthand written accounts which resulted from their painstaking methods still constitutes a body of valuable data concerning the phenomenology of hallucinations in the sane.

    A notable later discussion of apparitional experiences was that of G.N.M. Tyrrell (1943), also a leading member of the Society for Psychical Research of his day. Tyrrell accepted the hallucinatory character of the experience, pointing out that it is virtually unknown for firsthand accounts to claim that apparitional figures leave any of the normal physical effects, such as footprints in snow, that one would expect of a real person. However, Tyrrell develops the idea that the apparition may be a way for the unconscious part of the mind to bring to consciousness information that has been paranormally acquired – in crisis cases, for example. He introduces an evocative metaphor of a mental ‘stage-carpenter’, behind the scenes in the unconscious part of the mind, and constructing the quasi-perceptual experience that eventually appears on the stage of consciousness, so that it embodies paranormal information in a symbolic way, a person drowning at a distance appearing soaked in water, for example.

    The study and discussion of apparitions took a different turn in the 1970s, with the work of Celia Green and Charles McCreery (1975). They were not primarily interested in the question of whether apparitions could shed any light on the existence or otherwise of telepathy, or in the survival question; instead they were concerned to analyze a large number of cases with a view to providing a taxonomy of the different types of experience, viewed simply as a type of anomalous perceptual experience or hallucination.

    One of the points that was highlighted by their work was point (2) listed above, namely that ‘real-life’ accounts of apparitional experiences differ markedly from the traditional or literary ghost story. These are some of the more notable differences, at least as indicated by their own collection of 1800 firsthand accounts:

    Subjects of apparitional experiences are by no means always frightened by the experience; indeed they may find them soothing or reassuring at times of crisis or ongoing stress in their lives.

Spontaneous apparitional experiences tend to happen in humdrum or everyday surroundings, and under conditions of low central nervous system arousal, most often in the subject’s own home – while doing housework, for example. By contrast, subjects who visit reputedly haunted locations in hopes of ‘seeing a ghost’ are more often than not disappointed.

   Apparitions tend to be reported as appearing solid and not transparent; indeed they may be as realistic in a variety of ways as to deceive the percipient as to their hallucinatory nature; in some cases the subject only achieves insight after the experience has ended.

It is unusual for an apparitional figure to engage in any verbal interaction with the percipient; this is consistent with the finding that the majority of such experiences only involve one sense (most commonly the visual).