Visiting Al Capone's cell in Eastern State Penitentiary, my dress strap repeatedly undid itself. Only a quick hand kept me from exposure. I've seen books fly off shelves and doors open unexpectedly. I've discovered the lip gloss I lost as a child hidden in a secret basement room in my parents' house while a shadow slunk across the wall, and I walked through the Paramount at night only to hear murmurs and whispers of Hollywood past. None of this scares me.
Real-life paranormal experiences aren't what you see in TV or a movie. They're much more subtle. What scares me are fictionalized accounts and paranormal reality shows. People talking about experiencing phenomena aren't uncommon in gothic tales, or in modern society. With media trending toward the paranormal in TV and film, more and more people are opening themselves to sharing their own experiences. But how much of these are real, and how much is media manipulation?
Scientific experiments on fear and the paranormal revealed three regions in human brains had disturbances when tested on people with neurological disorders who had experiences with an apparition: the insular cortex, which is involved with homeostasis, consciousness, and the processing of emotions; the parietal-frontal cortex, which navigates touch, temperature, and spacial awareness; and the temporal-parietal cortex, which is known to produce out of body experiences. When triggered through patterns, images, and sound, the brain can instill fear and suggest an entity is present.
In an interview with Live Science, University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman talks about the mind's reaction to paranormal experiences. He explains that the power of suggestion, along with fear, heightens senses, allowing a person to see images or shadows. This heightened sense of terror sends blood to the fingertips and other extremities, making the person feel cold. This can lead to hyper-vigilance, which sends a person into an awareness overdrive, hearing and seeing things that may or may not be there.
This theory can be applied to the way Hollywood creates fear with film and TV programs depicting paranormal ideas. In a study by Kristen Harrison and Joanne Cantor, from the University of Michigan and University of Madison–Wisconsin, respectively, 150 college students from the two different schools were interviewed about fears associated with media from childhood. Ninety percent were able to describe a show or movie that frightened them as a child, and 26 percent claimed to have residual anxiety from it. Is the media scientifically disposed to instill fear? Harrison and Cantor say yes.
The person who saw Psycho 25 years ago and won't shower without watching the bathroom door, or the person who saw Jaws 20 years prior and refuses to swim in the ocean, display how the media can provoke terror and give us the initial platform to create patterns, psychological reactions, and projections. Looking into how a film or TV show is made, we can see how editing, music, picture, and sound come together to trigger viewers' emotions.
Daniel Knauf, creator of Carnivàle and writer for The Blacklist, explained the best kind of terror is produced by tension, which can be created through a sustained static shot, holding longer than a shot normally holds, demanding the audience see something.
A classic example of this would be to look at the way Robert Wise executed it in The Haunting. He shows almost nothing in the movie; it's all tone.
"You see deeply carved wooden doors, and he's using sound design to convey something is there. The audience automatically assumes they are supposed to see something, so they start to see it," Knauf said. "We are pattern-recognizing creatures, so even though nothing is happening, you are going to make out faces through the shadow and light.
"In Carnivàle, I did a similar effect. We had a paralyzed individual, Father Balthus, lying in bed," Knauf continued. "He's staring at a stain on the ceiling. Brother Justin is in the room above him, and he's having violent sex with a maid. The sounds become descriptive, growling and keening whines, babies crying and other disturbing sounds going on, which is a function of sound design. We did a slow push on the stain on the ceiling, allowing the audience to conjure their own images. Later, people online were saying there were demonic faces in there."
The same holds true for paranormal reality shows, which rely heavily on mood to induce fright. Sound bites, sustained shots followed by jump screens, along with fuzzy electronic voice phenomena (EVP) recordings, and photos with ambiguous shapes create the template for the mind to fill in the blanks. This leaves the audience to create their own version of the account, in the same way Lewis Carroll never fully described the Jabberwocky. Carroll felt the reader's imagination would conjure up something scarier than he could ever write.
According to Knauf, this is a theatrical tradition that goes all the way back to the Renaissance. He said the gold standard of horror is instilling dread in the audience. Dread feeds our nightmares. Chris Sanders, a producer who worked on My Ghost Story, spoke on how television is edited to be dramatic.
"TV will always focus on what the general populace identifies as supernatural, which is generally shaped by horror films and iconic characters and beings, like terrifying ghosts and creepy monsters," he said. "Six months of paranormal activity has to be condensed into six minutes of television. TV/film producers aren't necessarily concerned with educating people about the spirit world and they may not be educated about it themselves, but that's not their job. Their job is to tell stories and make entertainment for a wide audience."
From the occult viewpoint, the paranormal exists as an intangible world that interacts with us. William S. Burroughs performed exercises based on synchronicity as part of his practice. He noticed that when a person would pay attention to his surroundings on a daily basis, the mundane would start to become symbolic. For instance, he was reading The Wicker Man, and the protagonist in the story is a religious cop. As he took his daily walk, this phrase from the book crossed his mind: "I'm a police officer and when I ask questions I expect answers." At that moment, a police car cut in.
Over time, some people become paranoid from this exercise, noticing the same people throughout the day. A person isn't following them, but according to Burroughs, they are in the same time groove. This is synchronicity. You won't notice it unless you see that person the first time. You are attracting what you are projecting.
"If you ring a bell, that frequency will set off another, but it's not going to set off anything unless you ring it"
In my own experience, I visited an inmate in prison only to be greeted that night by an entity that resembled a Dementor from the Harry Potter books. My question went from, "Did a spirit follow me home?" to "Is this form a personification my mind formed through outside sources and projection?" Knauf said we are defined by what we know: We look at things that makes no sense to us and make it into a form that makes sense. We have to thinks about where the origins came from.
"J.K. Rowling was inspired by something—what she could be describing is a demonic entity that looks like that," he said. "She writes it, and you read it, and you visit this person in prison—and you are visited by whatever demon compelled him to do what he did or an expression of what he is feeling."
Sanders agreed, and added that we should think of the paranormal as frequencies or notes that attract each other. "If you ring a bell, that frequency will set off another, but it's not going to set off anything unless you ring it," he said. "A classic example of this would be telling ghost stories. People may be sitting at a campfire having fun, but once they shift into the frequency of telling the story, it becomes scary. The mind shifts, and the veil thins. They have created a frequency that attracts that energy. It's synergistic."
Whether or not you believe in the paranormal, our perception of it is informed by the images in various types of media that we are surrounded by. My Jabberwocky is different than yours, but the fear experience is the same. We see what we know—but perhaps that's guided by something else too.