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Andrew W.K. on Believing in the Paranormal

The only thing to fear is how little we actually know.

There are scientific theories that paranormal events are products of the human mind, and ghosts only exist because we believe in them. A few years ago, a group of science students and college friends set out to prove this by creating a supernatural entity... with their minds. They attempted to recreate an experiment from the 1970s where they stare at a drawing of a dead man and try to summon his spirit.

So they got the drawing and stared and stared. And stared some more. They concentrated very hard on bringing this spirit forward. The experiment was a success—an unfortunate success.

What I've just described is the plot of a movie called The Apparition. Its tagline: "Once you believe it's real, you die." Critics widely panned the movie, which tanked at the box office when it came out in 2012. But I enjoyed it—particularly how the apparition's abilities to manipulate objects in truly metaphysical ways was portrayed.

The Apparition ends by suddenly cutting to black. Nothing is resolved, and the audience is never told whether the spirit these researchers has summoned is real or not—or how the movie's characters came to die, or even if they did. But I thought it absolutely nailed many of the subtle conditions that often occur during paranormal experiences; in other words, it ends the only way a movie about the paranormal should.

Understanding the paranormal, in a sense, is to reckon with the idea that we will never fully grasp it. We are forced to accept that there is an infinite well of knowledge about the world we don't possess. We are especially uncomfortable when asked to engage with realms of human experience that don't fit within the accorded norms. This part of the human story is roundly mocked in academic circles and dismissed quickly by cynics—despite the rumored existence of these types of phenomena being at the heart of the human experience for all of recorded history.

In his book The Trickster and the Paranormal, parapsychologist George P. Hansen explains quite thoroughly (564 pages!) why these types of ideas—spirits of the dead, UFOs, clairvoyance, psychokinesis—hold such a strange place in our culture, and why they're often marginalized or relegated to the sidelines. Thinking deeply about them—accepting that they could be real—is problematic for science, which cannot fully offer tangible proof. These events push us past the limits of our minds, and when given the choice of confusion or dismissal, we mostly opt for the latter. "The paranormal and supernatural are ambiguous," Hansen writes. "They don't fit in the rational world." This is why, he explains, they're often scoffed at or derided.

A 2005 Gallup Poll revealed that three out of four Americans believed in at least one kind of paranormal phenomenon.

Which is odd, considering we accept them in other ways. There are supernatural elements in lots of the world's great literature and movies, and all major religions include stories involving miracles science cannot explain. A 2005 Gallup poll revealed that three out of four Americans believed in at least one kind of paranormal phenomenon—be it extrasensory perception (ESP), telepathy, haunted houses or communicating with the dead. This reddit thread titled "[Serious] Have you ever experienced any paranormal activity?" has more than 5,000 responses. Still, as Hansen writes, "there are no university departments of parapsychology" and "only two laboratories in the U.S. devoted to parapsychology that employ two or more full-time scientists who publish in peer-reviewed scientific journals." Sizeable industries and well-funded research labs are organized around cloning, artificial insemination, and genetic manipulation, despite ethical qualms. Yet, "the lowly ghost researcher receives only sneers."

Hansen writes that much of this is due to the "trickster" archetype and his role in the paranormal and all that surrounds it. This is the spirit that both reveals and exploits the ambiguity at the heart of these kinds of events, the opaqueness that is the direct result of a lack of real and credible research. The trickster himself moves within the edges of the world, between the spaces of larger and more familiar social and cultural realms.

Paranormal activity itself often seeps out from between these same seams: between day and night, between earth and space, between childhood and adulthood, between union and separation. When tension and anxiety break apart our carefully maintained daily routines and understanding, the trickster will be there to challenge, and sometimes, thrill us.

We can maintain a type of open mindedness that does not risk casting us into willful ignorance. It starts with a humbling acceptance that there is a great deal we simply do not and cannot know or understand. For many, it simply doesn't feel good to think about the unthinkable. This is rational. What I encourage others to consider is that our reactions of aggressive skepticism are in themselves part of this mysterious dance between the known and the unknowable. Do we have the humility to accept there could be areas of reality that lie beyond our understanding? For some, this is a distressing thought. For others, it's where the party begins.

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