The paranormal is something explored vehemently within films and documentaries, with many flicks terrifying cinema goers and film fanatics alike. But what is it about these movies and programmes that scares people so easily? Many would argue the atmosphere, created by producers who earn millions of pounds for their work, is the main factor involved in petrifying audiences. A large percentage of people are adamant there needs to be a really evil villain; somebody or something that will feature in your worst nightmares. However, as a Psychologist, I believe different. I believe that what makes us jump off our seats when watching a horror film, which dabbles in the area of ghosts and poltergeists, is something that costs a lot less than the wages of those world-famous producers and directors. In fact, it’s priceless.
Psychologists such as John B. Watson have suggested that we have a small set of innate emotions that every person possesses, with fear being one. Under this broad umbrella term, fear of the unknown features. Studies have shown that people usually fear uncertainty. Think back to when you were a child. Remember those times when your parents would tell you not to talk to strangers? That’s a clear example of being scared of something beyond control and some Psychologists have recently argued that we should not feat strangers but instead by wary of the risks they may pose to children (Gallagher, B., 2008). Other research has also pointed out that people perceive the unknown as a risk to themselves and loved ones, which can cause them fear and stress (Burton, L.D., 2011). It doesn’t take a genius to work out that it’s in human nature to avoid anything that causes unwanted anxiety and stress. For this reason I believe that people are so reluctant to talk about their paranormal experiences, as well as believing other peoples’ stories.
I was keen to explore this idea and spoke to somebody who was very much like myself: a young female who is in the media and copywriting industry, as I felt that somebody who writes for a living will obviously have to do a lot of research. This naturally would make them quite a skeptical person, as they’d read a lot of contradictory stories in the media and on the internet, therefore wouldn’t be biased about accounts of their experiences.
As expected, Amy reports her first experience with the paranormal occurring when she was very young. “My first paranormal experience was when I was about 4 years old and I heard a cat in our house and then saw a black cat cross our landing. Needless to say we had no such cat, no open windows etc. But I was very young then so my memory is a little hazy.” The idea of the memory being hazy is one which critics of the paranormal use often. However, Amy moves on to explain an experience she had a little later on that she is very certain of. “The one I vividly remember is when I was around 7-8 and we had moved into a new house. I was a restless sleeper as a child and always wanted to be in bed with my Mum and Dad, so I got up to try and sneak in like I usually did, only noticed they were still up. I crept down the stairs and as I got to the bottom I saw a man slumped on the stairs holding a blue bottle. He was fuzzy and it wasn’t dark, the landing light was on so the area was relatively well lit. I ran into the living room where I could see the light on, only as I reached to put my hand on the door knob, the lights went off. When I entered the room, it was empty and as I sprinted back up the stairs the man had gone and my parents where in bed.” It could be argued that children have overactive imaginations and so create these visions, however Amy had many experiences in the same house up to the age of 17 when her family moved. “After we moved my Mum then told me a man who had lived in the house, when my Dad was a child and living around the corner, had died in the top bedroom. Strange!” Spooky…
As a Psychologist, I’m aware of the scientific explanations for experiences like Amy’s. The Social learning Theory argues that people, especially children, learn from the environment and model their behaviour on influential forces (Ormrod, J.E., 1999). This can come in the form of parents whose children learn by observing and imitating their actions. Therefore if a parent talked a lot about paranormal experiences, or told their child that ghosts definitely existed, it would be logical for this child to grow up believing the same. However, this specific explanation is not evident in Amy’s case. “I have always been brought up to believe in what I wanted to and had no pressure from anybody to sway to believing one particular thing. I have always been very spiritual since I was a child and I suppose it’s just a part of my repertoire. My Mum and Dad are very open people and never ridiculed me if I had any experiences nor did they encourage me, it just was what it was and we didn’t dwell on anything.”
The idea of a child modelling their behaviour on a parent, or influential person in their life, does carry on throughout a life however the hold it has over a person decreases somewhat as people age and grow up. Teenagers are often influenced by factors outside the family home, such as peers and relationships. Therefore, this explanation would not apply should a person have had numerous paranormal experiences throughout their life and in different locations. This is what has happened to Amy. When discussing the amount of paranormal experiences, she says “[I’ve had] SO many! I used to live in an old converted stable from the 1700’s and my Mum and I were watching TV one night. To look at, the house looked like a new build on the inside, despite being so old, so it never felt spooky at all and we were totally at ease there. As I went to change the channel I couldn’t find the remote. My Mum and I looked EVERYWHERE, even in the fridge, to absolutely no avail. I sat down and then got up again- the remote fell off my knee!” She continues, “Another time I was living in the old women’s hospital in Liverpool whilst I was in University and was awoken at 5:57am by the sound of my radio BLASTING out Valerie by Amy Winehouse. It was switched off at the wall! The next day I awoke at the same time to my books falling down from my shelf.”
It isn’t just Amy who has experienced the paranormal though. Millions of people all over the world claim to have had a brush with a ghost or been in a situation where weird and strange things can’t be explained. Yet, despite this large number, there are a lot of people who are very skeptical and refuse to believe any of the claims. As Amy notes, this may be down to those who try to make money from it and will make up anything to get a little bit of fame…”Although I believe I also take a skeptical stance as I think that a lot of experiences can be explained and some people are just looking for things, so sometimes the believers fuel the skeptics by generating ridiculous stories and it doesn’t help fight the believers corner. Some people may also be too scared to believe and not want to acknowledge that there could be something else after this life.” It may be, however, that some people are just more open to suggestions about paranormal activities than others and this may lead to them experiencing such things: “I believe that some people are more open minded than others and some attract it more than others, so yes, I think some people will have more paranormal experience than others.”
There you have it. A Psychologist’s and Copywriter’s view on the paranormal, with lots of spooky tales to go with it! Next time you’re listening to somebody’s account of a ghost they’ve seen or weird experience they’ve had, don’t be so quick to dismiss it. Remember that it’s in our nature to shy away from anything that may cause stress and fear. So why not embrace it? You never know, you could be sat at the kitchen table munching away on a bowl of cereal whilst sat next to your very own Casper.