Thursday, January 20, 2011

Paranormal America

Countless books have been written - by believers and skeptics alike - on such paranormal topics as UFOs, Bigfoot, lake-monsters, ghosts, demons, the Bermuda Triangle, ESP, tarot-cards, and astrology. And on quite a bit more, too!

The problem is that not only do the vast majority of those same books very often (albeit not necessarily deliberately) reflect the subconscious prejudices of their respective authors, but they tend to focus more so on the data, than they do on the witnesses to the respective phenomena and the personalities that investigate them.

In other words, what has long been sorely lacking in the domain of paranormal research is a definitive, unbiased, careful, agenda-free and expert study of the mysteries at issue - but with an emphasis on those individuals that take the plunge and dare to immerse themselves in those very same mysteries.

Thankfully, that situation has now been rectified by Christopher D. Bader, F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph O. Baker. Their recently-published title Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture, is a truly excellent treatment of its subject matter, and one that I deeply recommend to those fascinated by all-things paranormal.

And the three are well-qualified to write about, comment upon, and critique such issues: Bader is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Baylor University, Waco, Texas; Mencken is a Professor of Sociology at Baylor; and Baker is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at East Tennessee State University.

But, and here's the important point: this particular trio is not looking to force-feed you any specific theory, idea or notion with respect to Bigfoot, UFOs and all the rest of the high-strangeness that dominates the lives of so many. Rather, they are merely looking for answers - whatever they may ultimately prove to be. And there's none of that annoying, condescending, self-importance and self-congratulatory huffing and puffing that fills the pages of so many skeptical studies of the supernatural to be found in this book either.

It's clear from the outset that the authors are not seeking to demolish any notions that hairy man-beasts are roaming the woods, that aliens may really have crashed at Roswell, New Mexico all those years ago, that ET is abducting earthlings for bizarre reasons of a genetic nature, or that life-after death is a reality. But, they're not looking to do all they can to uphold such beliefs, either.

Instead, what they are doing is taking the refreshing approach of spending as much time as possible studying, and understanding, the witnesses to, and believers in, paranormal phenomena as they are examining the alleged phenomena. And, it is with respect to the witness - or participant - issue that Paranormal America really scores points and hits home.

As the book makes abundantly clear, paranormal research is filled with characters that range from the depressingly boring, to the overwhelmingly obsessed. And, in between, there are - for the most part - those that are open-minded, others who it could be argued are somewhat too open-minded, and many who are just fascinated by the notion that the world as we see it may not actually represent all there is to see.

To their credit, our Three Musketeers do not sit on their laurels as they seek to determine what on earth (or off it!) is afoot. No: they stake-out haunted locales, they hit the road in search of Bigfoot, and they track down key and integral players in the world of the paranormal.

Citing, time and again, thought-provoking statistical data on the nature of belief systems relative to certain, alleged supernatural anomalies said to be in our midst, Bader, Mencken, and Baker show that the field of paranormal research is not at all unlike that of mainstream religion: belief and faith in "something," without any hard evidence of its actual existence, is rampant.

That same paranormal belief, just like religion, on occasion, utterly transforms lives. And, in some cases, a belief in Bigfoot, UFOs and the rest of their motley ilk appears to offer some meaning to the existence of people for whom religion plays no real part.

But, it's crucial to note that while Paranormal America makes it very obvious that - in terms of how people incorporate such controversial issues into their lives - a belief in God (or a belief in a God, or countless Gods) and the way he/she/it/they impacts/impact on the lives of people is not that different to having a belief in Bigfoot, this does not mean that the many and varied phenomena under scrutiny are simply brain-borne fantasies of a definitively X-Files like "I want to believe" nature.

No: our authors are extremely (but not uncritically) open to the idea that certain paranormal phenomena may indeed be a reality, and that just maybe aliens really are flying around, that it's not a waste of time for grown-men to chase Bigfoot on weekends while their wives sit at home rolling their eyes, or that perhaps the dead really can return to either comfort us or scare the you-know-what out of us.

But this is all very much secondary to the undeniably fascinating story at the crux of Paranormal America: namely, the way in which the paranormal - as a medium, and even as an outright culture - has spread astonishingly far and wide across the United States, the means by which belief-systems flourish and mutate, the nature of our deep-seated desires for there to be more to life than just 80-years and then a never-ending "lights-out" scenario, how cultural background, class, geographic location, and even monetary income deeply impact on such beliefs, and how and why people accept, need and yearn for the existence of fantastic, amazing, and occasionally terrifying "things."

Paranormal America is a book that should fascinate anyone and everyone with a deep interest in its subject-matters. Whether you are a full-on believer in the world of the paranormal, a die-hard skeptic, an open-minded interested soul, a combination of all three, or something more, you will gain much satisfaction from digesting this fine, scholarly, and always-entertaining work.

And you'll find yourself exposed to those most fascinating and mysterious of all realms that have led to the ever-present fascination with, and belief-systems relative to, the paranormal: the strange depths and complexities of the human-mind.

1 comment:

I Doubt It said...

A fair assessment - I just finished it as well. I had some trouble associating religion with the paranormal since the authors note that a strong generalized belief in one suppresses belief in the other. I still can't get over the differences- for example, religion is fed to you, the paranormal you seek out yourself.

But, I didn't love the way the questions were phrased in the survey. I mean, haven't we all seen a UFO? I have, but it remained unidentified, not an alien craft.

I appreciate the authors' explanation of why we don't have good data about belief and why it's such a difficult topic. I agree that it's a must-have book. And, their methods and attitudes were commendable.