Paranormal activities

Many people claim to have seen something supernatural — but is there a rational explanation for these reports, or are we just watching too much TV?

Illustration by Roger Wilkie

Illustration by Roger Wilkie

Most of us will recall having an experience that we can’t quite explain. An eerie shadow. A flickering light. A bump in the night. Maybe you just finished an all-night Netflix binge of The X-Files and, just as you’re closing the laptop, something strange catches your eye. You try to find a rational explanation for your encounter, but you definitely saw something weird and now you’re freaking out. You don’t believe in ghost stories, but how can science explain what you saw?

The X-Files was one of many popular supernatural TV shows in the 90s. Although the characters try to be rational, they can’t help but feel something strange is at work.

As is the show’s usual formula, in the "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas" episode agent Fox Mulder believes a paranormal occurrence is in motion, and agent Dana Scully attempts to rationalise it all with a scientific explanation.

"These are tricks that the mind plays. They are ingrained clichés from a thousand different horror films," says Scully. "When we hear a sound, we get a chill… we see a shadow and we allow ourselves to imagine something that an otherwise rational person would discount out of hand… [the idea] that a spirit would materialise or return for no other purpose than to show itself, is silly and ridiculous…. it doesn’t take an advanced degree in psychology to understand the unconscious yearnings that these imaginings satisfy."


In The X-Files episode ‘How the Ghosts Stole Christmas’ (1998), FBI agents Mulder and Scully arrive at a haunted house on Christmas Eve.


The 'unconscious yearnings' Scully speaks of are revealed throughout the course of the episode to be the basic human desire for companionship — lonely people claim paranormal sightings as a cry for attention. This may be too simple an explanation, however; studies have shown that paranormal belief is not only widespread, but quite diverse. A 2013 Harris Poll surveying 2,250 Americans about spiritual belief found that 42% believe in ghosts. A 2009 Australian survey in the same vein showed that 49% of us believe in extra-sensory perception or other psychic powers, 35% in UFOs, and 53% in a life after death. A survey conducted by Glenn G. Sparks and Will Miller in 2000 showed that more US citizens were uncertain about the paranormal than those who reported outright disbelief. It seems we are inclined to have an open mind about the paranormal; we may not all believe in ghosts, but we’re not ready to totally discount the idea either.

Perhaps this is due to the prevalence of paranormal TV shows like The X-Files? After all, the influence of TV on our behaviour has been a hot topic for decades. Sparks and Miller investigated this, too. Interestingly, their survey showed that some people who watched paranormal-themed shows did regularly report a small increase in their paranormal belief — but only in respondents who had already claimed to have a brush with the paranormal, not those who were uncertain or non-believing. How did these believers come to rationalise that they had a paranormal experience in the first place?

Polls and surveys show that 42% of Americans believe in ghosts and many are uncertain about the existence of many paranormal phenomena.   The National Archives UK/Flickr  (public domain)

Polls and surveys show that 42% of Americans believe in ghosts and many are uncertain about the existence of many paranormal phenomena. The National Archives UK/Flickr (public domain)

The explanation may lie in the idea that ghosts only come out in the dark. This seems to be generally accepted in our mythos; in countless episodes of The X-Files, Supernatural, Buffy and more, paranormal activity is heightened as soon as the sun goes down and conveniently clears up around daybreak. You have probably even convinced yourself you saw something ghoulish in the dark only to realise in lighter hours that there was never anything there. One popular theory is that due to our ancestors having much to fear in the dark, we have evolved agency-detection mechanisms (i.e. we behave as though an agent is present when faced with a scary situation), just in case there is a predator. We are at a disadvantage in the dark and thus more alert to ambiguous sights and sounds in our environment. The perception of a ‘ghost’ could simply be an overreaction to something we didn’t expect, like a sudden gust of wind.

Researchers in China have gone even farther and found that these responses may be linked to a fear of the night time, rather than the dark. They tested this distinction by exposing 120 women to fear-inducing images and sounds in a windowless cubicle. The tests were conducted alternatingly during daytime and nighttime, once with lights on, and once with lights off. Their fear was measured with physiological data like sweating and heart rate, as well as the women’s verbal reports. The results showed that participants were more fearful of the stimuli presented at nighttime, regardless of how much light was in the room. This suggests that our circadian rhythm (our biological clock that tells us when to sleep and so on) influences our reactions to potential threats. So, when our bodies and minds perceive it is night, we are more likely to overreact to unexpected occurrences.

Of course, frequent strange visions are known symptoms of epilepsy and schizophrenia. Approximately 50 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with epilepsy, and 1.5 million with schizophrenia. Whilst research has shown that visions can be induced in people by stimulating the temporoparietal junction (an area that is overactive in schizophrenic patients) these diagnoses can’t possibly account for the majority of paranormal believers.

So called “haunted houses” reportedly give people strange feelings. Some have tried to explain the visions and anxiety people feel through measuring changes in electromagnetic fields and infrasound, but the evidence has come up short. It looks like it might just be all in our heads.   Freaktography/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND )

So called “haunted houses” reportedly give people strange feelings. Some have tried to explain the visions and anxiety people feel through measuring changes in electromagnetic fields and infrasound, but the evidence has come up short. It looks like it might just be all in our heads. Freaktography/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND)


Some people refuse to believe that paranormal sightings are a product of the mind and have tried to come up with explanations based on external factors. So far the popular contenders are electromagnetic fields (fields generated by natural and human-made sources) and infrasound (sound waves lower than the human hearing range ) which ghost hunters often test for in reportedly haunted sites as 'proof' that something spooky is going on. This has, of course, been debunked by researchers and even Mythbusters; these naturally occurring phenomena have nothing to do with sensing ghosts, and there is little evidence to suggest that they cause abnormal reactions in humans either. What’s more likely to be the answer behind these ghost sightings is suggestibility.

A study conducted in 2014 tested the power of suggestion on a mix of participants containing both paranormal believers and non-believers. In the experiment they were shown a video of a fake psychic “bending” a metal key, followed by a dummy witness either confirming or denying that the key bent before their eyes. Those exposed to the witness’ suggestion were more likely to report that the key did actually bend, and even more so if they were prior believers in the paranormal. If you’ve ever seen a TV show like Ghost Hunters or any other paranormal reality program, you’ll be able to recall countless episodes where one person will start to “feel a presence” and their buddies will suddenly jump in with "oh yeah, I definitely felt something!" accompanied by ominous music. It’s powerful stuff, but more ascribable to their media production abilities than anything else.


A teaser clip from Ghost Hunters, a popular paranormal reality tv show.


Research has also shown that paranormal believers are more susceptible to the conjunction fallacy — that is, they often misperceive that specific conditions are more likely than general ones. For example, a person is more likely to believe in the occurrence of multiple connected events, when the occurrence of just one is more probable. This means they are particularly poor in judging probability, which would certainly affect the way they perceive and explain unexpected phenomena. This could have a domino effect, leading people who think they’ve seen a ghost to suddenly believe that aliens, Bigfoot, and the Mothman also exist.

‘You've probably convinced yourself you've seen aliens. You know why you think you see the things you do?...’cause you're lonely men. A lonely man chasing para-mastabatory illusions that you believe will give your life meaning and significance, which your pathetic social maladjustment makes impossible for you to find elsewhere. You probably consider yourself passionate, serious, misunderstood. Am I right?’
– Maurice, a ghost, ironically taunts Mulder in ‘How The Ghosts Stole Christmas’

We as humans are always coming up with ways to explain the inexplicable. It’s almost as if we can’t stand just not knowing stuff. It is impossible to say when the idea of ‘ghosts’ was first born, but not hard to see why the idea stuck around. It’s comforting to attach meaning to what is unknown, and exciting to investigate possibilities beyond the corporeal. Science points us to seeing that our paranormal experiences are probably mere illusions caused by overactive minds, while our cultural mythos dares us to believe that maybe, just maybe, something else is out there. Admittedly, sometimes it’s just more fun to believe.

Edited by Cherese Sonkkila