Ghosts, the paranormal and pop culture

Television and films may be spookier and more out of this world than at any time in recent history. The big and small screens are alive with vampires (True Blood), ghosts (American Horror Story), extraterrestrials (Prometheus), zombies (The Walking Dead) and demons (Paranormal Activity).

And why not? According to a Gallup Poll, about 75 percent of Americans hold some form of belief in the paranormal – extrasensory perception, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, communicating with the dead, witches, reincarnation or channeling. And though Hollywood executives are more likely to pay attention to the success of The Walking Dead and Paranormal Activity, some scholars say they are not surprised that the most religious country on Earth should also be the most superstitious. Most religions, they explain, are based on some sort of magical thinking – talking to God on mountaintops, a resurrection, the intervention of divine messengers. Meanwhile, psychics, mediums and paranormal investigators say the high rate of belief in the supernatural confirms what they have seen on the job. Margaret Poloma, a Pentecostal Christian and an expert on that faith, says Hollywood is merely reflecting what she sees in the pews – people, including herself, whose religious faith includes belief in the supernatural powers associated with the divine.

Why it matters

All religions are connected to belief in supernatural forces. Entertainment media influence the way people think and the framework through which they view reality.

Questions for reporters

  • Is there a link between people’s willingness and ability to believe in the paranormal and their ability to believe in a particular faith?
  • Why are so many religions based upon supernatural events – the raising of the dead, the turning of water into wine, the intervention of angels and saints?
  • What differences do people of faith see between miracles and supernatural or paranormal phenomena?
  • How does religious faith coexist with belief in the supernatural?
  • Can belief in the supernatural activities of God fuel belief in secular supernatural events?

Background

Recent TV & film

  • Paranormal Activity (Paramount Pictures) – A house is haunted by demons.
  • True Blood (HBO) – Vampires and humans co-exist in Louisiana.
  • American Horror Story (FX) – A family moves into a haunted mansion.
  • The Walking Dead (AMC) – Zombies take over Atlanta and the world.
  • Prometheus (20th Century Fox) – Scientists become stranded on an alien world.
  • Invasion (ABC) – Aliens invade during a hurricane.
  • Ghostwhisperer (CBS) – About a woman who communicates with ghosts. The show’s web site contains a blog by a psychic who advises the writers and directors.
  • Lost (ABC) – Strange things happen to a group of castaways on a mysterious island. The web site contains message boards on which fans share theories about the show that include numerology, UFOs, ghosts, etc.
  • Medium (NBC) – A woman receives messages from the dead.
  • Surface (NBC) – Mysterious underwater creatures disrupt the planet.
  • Supernatural (WB) – Two brothers crisscross the country to carry out on their missing father’s quest to seek out and silence the supernatural forces responsible for their mother’s murder 20 years ago.
  • The Exorcism of Emily Rose (Sony Pictures) – Theatrical film about a girl possessed by demons.
  • Just Like Heaven (DreamWorks) – A mysterious woman shows up in a man’s apartment with supernatural abilities to appear and disappear at will.
  • Stay (Fox) – Takes place “between the world of the living and the dead.”

Definitions

  • Supernatural – attributable to a power that goes beyond or violates natural forces.
  • Paranormal – an event or perception that involves forces outside the realm of scientific explanation.
  • Ghost – the disembodied spirit of a dead person.
  • Extrasensory perception – perception that occurs beyond the usual senses.
  • Spiritualism – the belief that the human personality survives death and can communicate with the living, usually through the use of a medium; sometimes called spiritism.
  • Clairvoyance – the ability to see things out of the range of normal vision.
  • Astrology – a type of divination based on the movement of the planets and stars.
  • Channeling – the occupation of one person’s body by another’s spirit.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, in defining “religion,” says that, “In every form of religion is implied the conviction that the mysterious, supernatural Being (or beings) has control over the lives and destinies of men.”

On the Internet

  • Ghostvillage.com

    Ghostvillage.com is an online community of people interested in the supernatural.

  • Weird U.S.

    Weird U.S. is a book, and series of individual state books, that document local legends, ghost stories and paranormal occurrences.

  • TopParanormalSites.com

    TopParanormalSites.com lists some of the most popular paranormal themed websites.

Articles

  • “Three in Four Americans Believe in Paranormal”

    A June 2005 Gallup Poll found that three in four Americans express belief in at least one paranormal belief. The most popular were extrasensory perception and haunted houses.

  • “American Spiritualism: A historical overview”

    Read an excerpt of a chapter written by Bret E. Carroll about the history of Spiritualism in America in Cassadaga: The South’s Oldest Spiritualist Community (University Press of Florida, 2000) as posted on Beliefnet.com.

National sources

  • Dr. Margaret Poloma

    Dr. Margaret Poloma is Professor Emeritus in Sociology at the University of Akron in Ohio. She wrote about miracles as supernatural/ paranormal phenomenon in Main Street Mystics: The Toronto Blessing and Reviving Pentecostalism (Alta Mira Press, 2003). She describes herself as a Pentecostal Christian who has experienced paranormal phenomena within the framework of her religion.

    She says that religious people regularly experience the supernatural and the paranormal, two things she says form the basis of religious belief.

  • Glenn Sparks

    Glenn Sparks, a communications professor at Purdue University in Indiana, says television shows may influence what people believe about the supernatural. He studied how television in the 1990s influenced people’s belief in UFOs and alien abductions.

  • Alan Jacobs

    Alan Jacobs is an English professor at Wheaton College in Illinois. An evangelical Christian, he wrote about how Harry Potter’s magic fits with faith in an essay in First Things. He is the author The Narnian: the Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis (HarperCollins, 2005).

  • William Dinges

    William Dinges is a professor of religious studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and an expert on American Catholicism. He says the growing divide between what is “religious” and what is “spiritual” has resulted in spirituality that lends itself easily to supernatural and paranormal phenomena. He is a co-author of Young Adult Catholics: Religion in the Culture of Choice (2001) and can speak about the views of teenagers and young adults toward the Catholic Church.

  • Lynn Schofield Clark

    Lynn Schofield Clark is Associate Professor in Media, Film, and Journalism Studies, and Director of the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media at the University of Denver. She directs the Teens and the New Media@Home Project, which studies how young people use new media technologies. She also is the author of From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media and the Supernatural (Oxford University Press, 2003), which is based on extensive interviews with U.S. teens and considers how presentations of the supernatural in the media help shape the religious views of teenagers. She says there is a trend toward the “normalization” of psychic powers and mystical experiences reflected in contemporary television shows and movies.

  • Christine Wicker

    Christine Wicker is the author of two books on the supernatural and paranormal, Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead and Not in Kansas Anymore: The Curious Tale of How Magic is Transforming America (both Harper Collins, 2003 and 2005 respectively). She says there is more “magical thinking,” in part, because people are more skeptical of science and because theories of the “so-called new physics” support various religious, spiritual and magical ideas. She can also discuss the history of “Christo-magic,” the magical thinking of different types of Christians throughout American history.

  • Mary Roach

    Mary Roach is the author of Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (W.W. Norton, 2005), in which she investigates claims of life after death and attempts to understand why people believe in reincarnation despite a lack of “proof.”

  • Leonard Norman Primiano

    Leonard Norman Primiano is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Cabrini College in Radnor, Pa. He contributed a chapter on the supernatural on television in God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture, edited by Eric Mazur (Routledge, 2000). A recent publication is “I Wanna Do Bad Things With You: Fantasia on Themes of American Religion from the Title Sequence of HBO’s True Blood” in God In The Details: American Religion In Popular Culture.

  • Alexander Seinfeld

    Alexander Seinfeld is a rabbi and an expert on Judaism and the supernatural and has given talks on the subject of Judaism and ghosts, necromancy and astronomy. He is based in Baltimore.

  • Tim Winter

    Tim Winter is President of the Parents Television Council in Los Angeles, which tries to bring more family oriented programming to television and monitors network programming.

    Contact: 213-403-1300.
  • Jeff Belanger

    Jeff Belanger is the founder of Ghostvillage.com, an Internet community dedicated to the supernatural, and the author of several books on ghosts and the dead including The World’s Most Haunted PlacesWeird Massachusetts, and Who’s Haunting the White House.

  • Rick Hayes

    Rick Hayes is a paranormal communications expert. He was raised as a Christian and established LifesGift. He says that he sees no conflict between his Christian beliefs and his ability to relay messages from the dead, and that this gift makes him feel more blessed. He is based in Evansville, Ind. Contact Rick here.

  • James Randi

    James Randi is one of the foremost skeptics of all things paranormal. He is the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about fraudulent paranormal claims. It is based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He says people believe in the supernatural because it is comforting to think there is life after death and that their loved ones are still with them.

  • Barry Karr

    Barry Karr is executive director of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which aims to promote scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason in examining controversial and extraordinary claims.

  • Robert Todd Carroll

    Robert Todd Carroll is the author of The Skeptics Dictionary: A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions (John Wiley & Sons, 2003) and maintains a website of the same name. He is a retired philosophy professor at Sacramento City College in California.

  • The National Spiritualist Association of Churches

    The National Spiritualist Association of Churches maintains a state-by-state list of Spiritualist churches across the United States.

  • The American Ghost Society

    The American Ghost Society is a national network of ghost hunters, authors, ghost enthusiasts and psychical researchers who conduct investigations into the paranormal. They maintain a list of members and ghost hunters by state.

  • Lesley Armstrong Northup

    Lesley Armstrong Northup is an associate professor of religious studies at Florida International University in Miami. She wrote “Homosexuality in the Evolution of American Christianity,” a chapter in the volume Religion & Sexuality: Passionate Debates, edited by C.K. Robertson.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Eugene Gallagher

    Eugene Gallagher is a professor of religious studies at Connecticut College in New London. He has written about belief in sorcery and new religious movements. He is the co-author of Why Waco.

  • Michael Brown

    Michael Brown is a professor of anthropology and Latin American studies at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. He has written about belief in magic and in channeling.

  • Jason Hawes

    Jason Hawes is founder of the Atlantic Paranormal Society, which investigates paranormal phenomena, including ghosts, in the north Atlantic states. He is also a star and producer of the Syfy show Ghost Hunters. Contact Jason here or via Facebook.

  • David Roozen

    David Roozen, professor of religion and society and director of the Hartford Seminary Institute For Religion Research, has written about religious television. He specializes in national religious trends.

  • Laura Donaldson

    Laura Donaldson is an associate professor of English at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. She has written about women’s beliefs in the New Age movement, which includes belief in many supernatural and paranormal phenomena.

  • Terrence Hines

    Terrence Hines is a professor of psychology at Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y., and the author of Pseudoscience and the Paranormal (Prometheus Books, 2003). He says uncritical presentation of the supernatural and paranormal in the media leads to high belief ratings. But he also thinks the human brain may be constructed to believe in “cognitive illusions,” such as the belief that prayer brought on a cure as opposed to chance.

  • Bill Ellis

    Bill Ellis is  Professor Emeritus of English and American studies at Pennsylvania State University, Hazleton. He is the author of Aliens, Ghosts and Cults: Legends We Live (University Press of Mississippi, 2001).

  • Yvonne Chireau

    Yvonne Chireau is an professor of religion at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and the author of numerous books and articles on the supernatural and African-American religion, including Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (University of California Press, 2003).

  • Jose C. Nieto

    Jose C. Nieto is a professor  emeritus of religion and history at Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa. He is an expert on mysticism and wrote the book Religious Experience and Mysticism: Otherness as Experience of Transcendence (University Press of America, 1997).

  • Laurel Kearns

    Laurel Kearns is an associate professor of the sociology of religion and environmental studies at Drew University in Madison, N.J. Her main research interests are Christian responses to ecological concerns and nature spirituality. 

  • Robert Thompson

    Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, has written about the depiction of religion in television.

     

In the South

  • Christine Rodriguez

    Christine Rodriguez is the founder of East Coast Hauntings Organization, a nonprofit paranormal scientific investigation group in Washington, N.C.

  • Phillip Charles Lucas

    Phillip Charles Lucas is a professor of religious studies at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla. He is the co-editor of Cassadaga: The South’s Oldest Spiritualist Community (University Press of Florida, 2000) and general editor of Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. His other publications include “Enfants Terribles: The Challenge of Sectarian Converts to Ethnic Orthodox Churches in the United States,” published in Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions (2003).

  • Julie Ingersoll

    Julie Ingersoll is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and can discuss religion and popular culture. She has written about faith and values among Jimmy Buffett fans.

  • Vinson Synan

    Vinson Synan is Dean Emeritus of the School of Divinity at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. He is an expert on the Pentecostal movement and its history.

  • Alan Brown

    Alan Brown is a professor of English at the University of West Alabama and author of Haunted Places in the American South (University Press of Mississippi, 2002) He specializes in oral Southern ghost stories.

  • John P. Ferré

    John P. Ferré is associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. His focus is on media, religion and culture. He is the editor of Channels of Belief: Religion and American Commercial Television (Iowa State University Press, 1990).

  • Charles Lippy

    Charles Lippy is a retired professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He has written extensively on American religious history, including Pluralism Comes of Age: American Religious Culture in the Twentieth Century; Modern American Popular Religion; and, as co-author, The Evangelicals: A Historical, Thematic and Biographical Guide.

  • Mark Hulsether

    Mark Hulsether, Religious Studies Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, has written extensively on religion and popular culture. He wrote the 2007 book Religion, Culture and Politics in the Twentieth-Century United States (Edinburgh University Press). He has also written about North American liberation theologies and the transformation of the Protestant left since World War II.

  • Guillermo Fuentes

    Guillermo Fuentes is the executive director of San Antonio Paranormal Investigations, which investigates ghosts and other paranormal phenomenon throughout Texas and the Southwest.

  • John Hannah

    John Hannah is a professor of historical theology at Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas. He has written about the Toronto Blessing and other mystical phenomena in the Pentecostal tradition.

  • Steven Wolff

    Steven Wolff directs the South Texas Ghost Hunters Alliance, a nonprofit group of paranormal investigators who hunt ghosts in the San Antonio area.

  • Reg Grant

    Reg Grant is a professor of pastoral ministries and director of the Media Arts and Worship Program at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has an interest in media as a writer, producer and actor and frequently comments on spirituality. He can speak about the connection between comic book heroes and religion, the Star Wars film series’ Buddhist-style philosophy in the context of traditional Christian doctrine, and more.

In the Midwest

  • Paul Allen Williams

    Paul Allen Williams is an assistant professor in the department of philosophy and religion at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, and was editor of the Journal of Religion and Film from 2004 to 2008. He also teaches courses on African religions, the history of Christianity, world religions, Islam and New Testament.

  • Troy Taylor

    Troy Taylor specializes in Midwestern ghosts and paranormal phenomena. He is also the founder and president of the American Ghost Society. He is based in the Chicago area.

  • Echo Bodine

    Echo Bodine is a Minnesota-based psychic who serves as a consultant on numerous television shows about the supernatural.

  • James Lewis

    James R. Lewis is a lecturer in religious studies in the philosophy department at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He is the editor of Scientology (March 2009), described as a comprehensive examination of the church’s theology, growth and controversies.

  • Selena Fox

    Selena Fox is a high priestess and senior minister of Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan church and pagan resource center near Mount Horeb, Wis. Wicca is a neo-pagan faith that relies heavily on nature and a belief in some forms of magic and the supernatural.

    Contact: 608-924-2216.
  • William D. Romanowski

    William D. Romanowski is a professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. He wrote Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in American Life and Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture.

In the West

  • Bret Carroll

    Bret Carroll is an assistant professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of Spiritualism in Antebellum America (Indiana University Press, 1997).

  • Catherine Albanese

    Catherine Albanese is Professor Emerita in Comparative Religions & Research at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of Nature Religion in America: From the Algonkian Indians to New Age (University of Chicago Press, 1991) and America: Religions and Religion, 5th. ed. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2012).

  • Charles Tart

    Charles Tart is a professor at The Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, Calif., and the author of numerous articles and books on psychology and parapsychology. He edited Body Mind Spirit: Exploring the Parapsychology of Spirituality (Hampton Roads, 1997). He says one reason belief in the supernatural and paranormal runs so high is because many people feel they have experienced such phenomena personally. Media interest in the paranormal, he says, is secondary and is driven by the public’s interest.

  • Craig Detweiler

    Craig Detweiler is associate professor of communication at Pepperdine University in California. He is co-author of A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture (Baker Academic, 2003). Contact 310-497-7204 (cell), craig.detweiler@biola.edu.

  • Jonathan Bock

    Jonathan Bock is president of Grace Hill Media in Studio City, Calif., a public relations firm that markets films to religious audiences on behalf of major movie studios.

    Contact: 818-762-0000.

Relevant source guides