U.K. researcher and psychology professor Richard Wiseman has explained very well that those who believe in the paranormal will report more paranormal experiences than those who do not believe . If you buy into the idea that a paranormal phenomenon is real, and deliberately search for it, then find it you will. Everything odd that happens in that dark cemetery, creaky old home, or dilapidated, abandoned hospital will feed into your paranormal mindset. If you think your instruments record ghostly activity, then you see the fluctuating measurements as evidence ghosts are there. If you believe spirits can influence recording equipment, then you will hear their disembodied voices in EVPs. So it is not a surprise to find viewers imitate their favorite ghost hunters from TV and get similar results.
In 2001, a study  concluded that paranormal television viewing is related to the viewers’ belief in the paranormal. This was done BEFORE the boom in “reality” ghost hunting shows. As far as I know, no studies have assessed how the widespread media portrayal of real-life ghost hunting influences people’s belief in the reality of these phenomena. Or, worse, what if the viewers think that what ghost hunters do is valid and “scientific”?
Sure, many tune in to shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures just to laugh at a bunch of people going around scaring themselves but a good portion of the fans of these shows DO think it’s real. Pay a visit to their fan forums or go to their public appearances if you doubt it. Paranormal investigation groups openly state they are inspired and influenced to do what they do by watching TV ghost hunters. They will affiliate themselves with TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society [Ghost Hunters]) or GAC (Ghost Adventure Crew) as a symbol of their legitimacy.
One paranormal-related news story (among the hundreds this time of year) particularly caught my attention as an example of the influence of TV: Kansas man takes up ghost hunting. He admits what hooked him, “…he started thinking he could do what he was watching on cable.”
The article also notes: “Like those investigation teams on television, the team has recorded unexplainable videos and ‘EVPs’…” and “The EMF detector was showing a magnetic field, and the homeowners had suspected there was the spirit of a woman in the house.”
Television and the internet have spread these paranormal-related memes efficiently, haven’t they? Has it become mainstream and acceptable to be a paranormal investigator? If not, it’s close to it. The popularity of paranormal reality TV has not abated.
Research studies tell us that interest and belief in the paranormal are related to people’s personal experiences. A casual review of the biographies of MOST of today’s pro-paranormal investigators bears this out. It is no different than the man profiled in the above report. He is looking for answers to questions that persist as unanswered to him.
While mainstream science does not count paranormal phenomena as genuine (it can’t really, since science builds conclusions upon what we provisionally know, not WISH, to be true), today’s ghost investigators treat the paranormal as if it is some fringe area of nature left for intrepid amateurs to unlock via gadgetry.
They use seriously sciencey sounding explanations - all bogus. There is no scientific evidence for ghosts as remnants of the now dead. There is, however, a scientific explanation for what people experience as ghosts. It’s in our brains, it’s in our psyche . Sadly, that internal explanation hasn’t been quite as popular as the spookier idea of external entities.
Ghost hunting shows on television justify and enhance belief in the paranormal. They feed it. Often the audience members eating it up are children and teens. Frankly, the only way to address such misinformation is to hit it head on. General science education isn’t going to be an immediate help. In order to make an impact, we must address the subject specifically. This means greater media coverage of a skeptical viewpoint, college (or free) classes in how to evaluate paranormal claims, public challenging of the “paranormal experts” to defend their conclusions. It won’t eliminate the belief in the paranormal explanations, of course, but just as TV has made a difference to enhance belief, advocacy of the non-paranormal view may help to dispel some of it.
I get excited every time I find a story for Doubtful News that I can label “Skeptical Activism”. If we don’t speak out to the television networks or question the actions of the local paranormal advocates, then we can only expect the paranormal to become ever more normal - mainstream and accepted.
1. R. Wiseman. Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there. Spin Solutions Ltd. Kindle Edition; and R. Wiseman, The Haunted Brain, Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 35, No. 5, Sept/Oct 2011, pp 46-50.
2. G.G. Sparks and W. Miller, Investigating the Relationship Between Exposure to Television Programs that Depict Paranormal Phenomena and Beliefs in the Paranormal. Communication Monographs, Vol. 68, No. 1, March 2001, pp 98–113.
3. Psyche – The mind functioning as the center of thought, emotion, and behavior and consciously or unconsciously mediating the body's responses to the social and physical environment. Reference: The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary. Houghton Mifflin Company. Dictionary.com.
Sharon Hill is a long time participant in the skeptical community. As an independent researcher on topics of science and public understanding, she writes about "sciencey" sounding claims and runs a unique skeptical newsfeed at Doubtfulnews. Her personal website is "Doubtful".