“These, Gentleman, are the opinions on which I base my facts” – Winston Churchill
When someone tells you how paranormal phenomena “typically” behave, you really have two options: (1) walk away, or (2) deliver a sound thrashing. I’m neither advising you go out and find the local ghost hunter and administer a beat down, nor abandoning a somewhat fast and loose model agnosticism as an approach to anomalistics, rather disparaging a current trend in the popularization of investigations of the mysteries of life, the universe, and everything. Let’s face it, outside of politics, it’s tough to make a living as a kook these days. Luckily we have the Discovery Channel. Generally, I shy away from anything that smells of a review of modern representations of paranormal phenomena in mass media, and must ruefully admit to a certain morbid fascination with the plethora of television shows on supernatural subjects, but in an effort to comfort myself over what is clearly an addiction, I think of my interest as clinical, rather than voyeuristic. I leave it to the alert reader to assay whether by clinical I refer to a scholarly approach, or something requiring inpatient treatment.
One of my guilty pleasures is The Travel Channel’s “Paranormal Caught on Camera”. I like to watch it with a glass of bourbon in hand, justifying it as a drinking game where I take a shot every time commentators make a statement like “Ghosts are attached to…” or “Bigfoot typically…”. The truth is I just like bourbon. I do the same thing when I watch the Cooking Channel whenever they use Siracha.
I enjoy exactly two-thirds of “Paranormal Caught on Camera”. They show videos taken by ordinary people of stuff caught on camera that they can’t explain, and given the ubiquity of reasonably high-quality cameras on every cell phone, and the fact that a cell phone is a necessity these days, it’s no surprise that they have plenty of material. Many may ultimately have natural explanations, but often they are just plain weird, and even if faked for the “likes”, one has to marvel at the ingenuity behind the effect. I can also appreciate the interviews of the people who made the recording (who are often quite open about the particular model they are using for personal interpretation e.g. “I’m a self-identified Christian, a neo-pagan, or a skeptic”), but generally say, “I don’t know what the hell I’m looking at, I just thought I’d better record it”, which shows great presence of mind. Unfortunately, the last third of the show involves “expert” commentary on each video. This is where I begin to deplete my bourbon supply.
When it comes to anomalistics, I find myself somewhat at sea ontologically and epistemologically, as by definition we’re looking at things that apparently fall outside our models. I don’t object to spirit boxes, Ouija boards, spirit mediums, dowsing rods, or anything else that floats your boat and focuses your attention. Throw things against the wall and see what sticks. Which reminds me, I need to repaint my wall.
What distresses me is the confidence of the expert commentators (presumably selected as “luminaries” or at least “celebrities” in the world of paranormal phenomena), who make authoritative statements about what ghosts, cryptids, UFOs, and all manner of folkloric critters and ill-defined entities are inclined to do, commenting with great self-assurance on anything from the physics to the psychology to the origin of unexplained creatures/objects. Far be it from me to denigrate the concept of “expertise”. Some people just know more about stuff. If you need a good UNIX shell script, I’m your guy, but if I need to repair my front steps, I’m calling in an experienced stonemason. Keep in mind that experience does not necessarily correlate with expertise. Expertise presumes not only experience, but an understanding of a body of knowledge that represent fundamentals. When it comes to anomalistics, by definition, we do not have “fundamentals” due to the ephemeral nature of our object of study.
For example, a common trope across a wide variety of paranormal TV shows is that ghosts hang out in bars. Why? Well, bars are held to be reserves of intense emotional states – love, anger, rage, depression, ecstasy, and all those things that make for good literature including violence and murder. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard an expert opine that “intense emotional states imprint themselves on the environment”, which when you consider it is just a less physical and user-friendly version of “stone tape” theory. How one goes from “emotional imprint” to very deliberately throwing chairs, breaking bottles, and harassing the staff and customers is not clear to me, but it’s simply thrown out there as a definitive explanation. Choose a phenomenon, tune into the Discovery Channel, and you will find an expert making similar concrete pronouncements regarding the reasons and mechanisms by which anomalistic things manifest themselves. Thought experiments and playing with ontological/epistemological models can be fun and productive, but how quickly we stumble from the “fact-ish” to analysis and interpretation, with an arrogance that ignores the inherent absurdism in defining the inadequately definable. I have a theory. See what I did there?
What I think we’re seeing in the latest crop of paranormal TV shows is actually a reflection of trends in the media over the past few decades, with the advent of 24 hour news. 24 hour news requires 24 hours of content. It was never that there wasn’t truly a full 24 hours of news in the world to fill the time with “breaking news”, it’s just darned expensive to send reporters all over the place and viewers tend to care about places they’ve actually heard of. Consequently, you get about 6 hours of news every day, with 18 hours of accompanying “news analysis”, or in the popular parlance, “Talking Heads”. The talking head is presumably an expert on the subject in question, and is brought on to boil down complex issues into palatable bites for us unwashed masses, help us cut through the mess that is human civilization and understand the essentials. In a world of media bubbles, where trusted sources tend to conform to our political-cultural outlook, this can be problematic, if not downright obfuscating.
Consider the 2022 inflationary problems in the United States. We can all see it. We can all feel its empirical effects. A lot of time is spent analyzing it in the news. If we knew exactly what to do about it, we would fix it. Among the many problems related, there are simply too many variables to definitively identify a solution. Sure, economists know a few things that “might” help, but the subgenre of news analysis (which far outweighs actual news), tends to speak with more authority and self-assuredness than their analysis genuinely deserves. As goes the mundane world of the looming recession, so too does anomalistics. Paranormal enthusiasts embrace the plethora of TV shows we can indulge in these days, but to fill the content space as cheaply as possible, it requires the relatively inexpensive addition of expert analysis. Honestly, the Bigfoot video is only 7 minutes long, and you’ve got an hour to fill. Hence we now have an industry of professional paranormal commentators, providing the same sort of “news analysis” with the same level of confidence in their pronouncements about origins, causes, and explanations that one gets from economists. Of course, “I don’t know” is not a very satisfying explanation for anything, but perhaps in not making the same mistake as devout skeptics, hardcore physicalists, and well, most lunatics, anomalists should embrace the elusive nature of their study as an exercise, not in emulating physicalism, but in poking at the corners of an ill-defined reality with a stick. As Bret Harte once said, “A bird in hand is a certainty. But a bird in the bush may sing”.