Cult of Paranormality

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Posted July 17, 2008 in Feature Story

“That is definitely a ghost orb!”

Diana Rodriguez believes. She is giddily passing around a grainy blown-up print of a picture taken on the balcony of the California Theater in San Bernardino, which she believes is haunted. It shows a woman ascending the stairs carrying a couple of small devices in her hands and, off to the left, hovering in the air, a bright opaque circle of light, known in ghost hunting circles as an “orb.” Rodriguez is convinced this particular orb is proof of paranormal activity within the walls of the California.

Rodriguez is co-organizer of the Riverside Investigators of the Paranormal, or R.I.P., one of hundreds of groups around the country that poke around old buildings, cemeteries and private residences, Electro Magnetic Field meters in hand, looking to confirm or debunk the existence of spirits and apparitions. The woman in the picture is Kd Foreman, herself the leader of the California Private Paranormal Investigators (CPPI), which is an offshoot of yet another group led by Peaches Veatch, the Inland Empire Paranormal Investigators (IEPI).

If the alphabet soup sounds complicated, try sorting out the proper place for the increasingly popular, yet oft-maligned, field of paranormal investigations. Do practitioners offer proof of an afterlife? Are they frauds? Are they crazy? Are their investigative techniques compatible with science? Is it merely entertainment? Does it even matter to true believers? Like things that go bump in the night, there are no easy explanations.

 

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The Sci-Fi Channel’s Ghost Hunters program is hot. The docu-soap is so hot that its Roto-Rooter plumbers turned media stars have parlayed the television program into a wildly successful organization called TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society), and many other paranormal organizations across the country have joined their umbrella group.  

The local IE citizen corps that have sprouted in the show’s wake, however, insist that they are driven not by money or fame but simple human curiosity, fanned by their own spontaneous run-ins with the supernatural. For a teenaged Veatch, it started with seeing a white mist hovering above the deceased at a funeral home and, later, seeing her godfather, dead for many years, appear in a chair in her bedroom.

“I had been asleep and I woke up and wondered ‘am I still sleeping’?” she related. The fact that she wasn’t able to communicate with him directly made her all the more intrigued. “He was looking at me and it was kind of like he was trying to talk to me and nothing would come out.”

Fueled by modern technological tools like K-2 Meters—“the latest and greatest ghost hunting” device, says Foreman—Dual Temp Infrared Thermometers and Digital Voice Recorders, not to mention frayed inhabitants of allegedly haunted residences, the investigative teams have plenty of resources and support to make their rounds. Sometimes what they find is both unexplainable and reassuring—at least, to most people.

A Gallup poll taken in 2005 showed that three out of every four Americans believe in at least one kind of paranormal activity—be it haunted houses, UFO’s, ESP, reincarnation, etc. Though the poll does not explain why they believe, oftentimes it’s Americans own supernatural experiences that turn the tide. John Adams, a historian at the Rialto Historical Society, said working in the RHS building has convinced him, a former atheist, to believe.  

“This place is definitely haunted,” Adams testifies about the century-old building. The Society is more than happy with the report filed by Foreman and her investigators. 

But not everyone is so certain.

 

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Get out! Get out!

The disembodied voice emanates from an EVP—Electronic Voice Phenomena—acquired by Rodriguez during her initial visit to the California. Excited by this, she summons a known skeptic among the California’s staff (who preferred not to be identified in his article), and compels him to listen to this startling discovery. The various investigators grow eager to hear the skeptic’s reaction to this potential proof of the afterlife. He listens once intently, asks to listen a second time, says he hears something, and then makes his final assessment.

“I’m still not convinced.”

Still, for an 80-year old theater going through massive renovation ahead of a full season of musicals and revues—and with no real inclination for the paranormal—the California staff are good sports. They’ve allowed the CPPI free reign of the facilities for a couple of hours in the morning and were as helpful as non-believers could be. The withering criticism of paranormal skeptics nationwide is not nearly so obliging.

 

 

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James Randi does believe—in fraud. Randi, a trained stage magician who infamously punk’d mentalist Uri Gellar and TV evangelist Peter Popoff on the Johnny Carson Show in the 1970s, writes a weekly online column called SWIFT for the express purpose of belittling and debunking all manner of fraudulent claims. Through his James Randi Educational Foundation, he offers a million dollars to anyone who can successfully prove any existence of paranormal activity. So far, thousands have applied and none have gotten past the preliminary stages, not even the woman who insisted she could make anyone urinate on her command. (She was shocked, shocked, to find she couldn’t.)

Still, exposing frauds on TV doesn’t necessarily prove a deterrent. “Johnny used to ask me, ‘how come we didn’t put them out of business?’” Randi recalls. “I told him the more you challenge [people’s] beliefs, the more they will fight you.”

The very mention of paranormal investigators quickly raises the bile in Randi. “You should speak to me before you go with the team,” he urges. Though seemingly an innocent vocation, Randi, like many other leading paranormal skeptics, is greatly alarmed by the spread of misinformation and shoddy unscientific investigative practices these groups engender.

“They don’t know what they’re talking about,” Randi says about paranormal investigators in general terms. “It’s all lies and deception.” When asked why there is inherent harm in this practice, Randi posits, “What if there were amateur doctors?” In other words, would the general populace be okay with groups of them holding meetings and congratulating themselves on deceitful quackery?

Even more strident and vociferous in his criticism is Joe Nickell. Nickell has authored over a dozen books investigating unexplained phenomena, including Lake Monster Mysteries with Ben Radford, and is a Senior Research Fellow for the Committee of Skeptical Inquiry, the online arm of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Nickell calls the general practice of paranormal investigations “nonsense” and the idea that photos of orbs equal ghost energy frankly “absurd.”   

There is no aspect of paranormal investigation that Nickell won’t castigate, saying they help foment dogma and superstitious beliefs and that accepting their findings leads people to “magical thinking” that could later be harmful to them. The fact that anyone can acquire “a panoply of Radio Shack devices” and become expert “pseudo-scientists” boggles his mind. “There is no known evidence of ghostly energy. There is no scientific evidence ghosts exist. Brainless ghosts that are able to walk and talk is not a scientific concept,” Nickell maintains.  

Whereas Randi absolutely doesn’t believe in ghosts (“There is no evidence!”) and Nickell hedges (“What I believe doesn’t matter”), one skeptic who does admit to believing in ghosts in Nickell’s colleague, Ben Radford.  

Radford, managing editor of CSI: Online, has tagged along with numerous investigative groups and talks like a man who truly wishes he could prove their existence. Unfortunately for Radford all his poking around has led to logical explanations and nothing connected to the supernatural. Again, the inability of the paranormal investigators to provide credible scientific evidence undermines their relevance, Radford feels, though he does understand why they exist.

“For these people it’s a community thing, a pastime. There’s a strong social aspect in hanging out with your buddies.”

 

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At the California, this communal bonding is readily apparent. Upstairs, in a pitch-dark dressing room, Foreman sits with two other members of CPPI, Mat Hunt and Brandi Corriea. They could just as easily be sitting around a campfire. They spin tales of spirits opening doors in Fontana, voices speaking to them in cemeteries in Ontario and a particularly disturbing incident inside the Queen Mary when Foreman and Corriea got separated from their tour group.

“We heard all these boxes falling over and moving, being shoved around and the room kind of curved.” Foreman says. “You can be skeptical about that, we were there, we’re like oh, this is one of our prized recordings.”

The group is well aware of the skeptics, but can’t get too worked up about them. “They’re a fly in our ointment,” is the most passionate response Foreman can muster. “Most of the skeptics I’ve run into are afraid of betraying their background,” says Foreman.

One former skeptic is Corriea, the lone ranger of the group. Corriea likes to forge out on her own and she has amassed a nifty collection of EVPs. One such EVP was recorded in a decorated restroom at the Rialto Historical Society. Just after she comments that the room reminds her of “a medieval torturer” a voice responds, “I perished here.” Later, Corriea says that Jean Randall, president of the Society, told her that indeed someone died in that very same room.  

Does this constitute ironclad proof? EVPs are mysterious but subject to individual interpretation. Corriea insists that those who listen to hers wear earphones, but even with them it is hard to conclusively identify what is heard. People hear towards their own leanings. It’s not unlike listening to Beatles’ albums during the “Paul is Dead’ period.  

According to Adams, during CPPI’s visit to the Rialto Historical Society, they were accompanied by a Time/Warner cable cameraman. His video revealed evidence of EVP’s, which he then turned into a news report. It’s not known if the cameraman looked for a logical explanation for this occurrence. In the media, paranormal investigators are rarely investigated themselves.  

Without a skeptical inquiry, does all this media coverage make the investigators something else? Could they just as easily be classified as performance artists?

 

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Samantha Henderson is a fantasy writer from Covina. A dedicated church-goer who is convinced her own house is haunted, she is a great admirer of Goth horror author H.P. Lovecraft, whose book Necronomicon (a.k.a. “The Book of Dead Names”) has polarized fans ever since its publication. Though Lovecraft insisted Necronomicon was pure fiction, it has not stopped a certain small segment of fans from believing its contents as gospel.  

Though Henderson creates her own fantastic worlds, she understands the difference between fiction and belief is razor thin. “If you show people three random pictures, they will create their own narrative,” she says. The ones who want to believe in ghost orbs will have no problem seeing them, just as some Lovecraft followers believe Necronomicon is the truth.  

As the media market for believing in ghosts gets larger, it could be argued that paranormal investigators are great believers in publicity and love to bask in the limelight, whether they accept money or not. Very few groups turn down interview requests. Increased media exposure naturally brings closer scrutiny, especially in a YouTube world. If viewed as performance artists, then only the quality of their product becomes the issue, not whether its conclusions were reached in accordance with set guidelines.  

Henderson thinks that is an interesting notion. “When you read fiction, you don’t question whether or not vampires really live in Los Angeles.”

 

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Back at the California Theater, as the investigators prepare to leave, the staff is passing out brochures advertising their upcoming season. “Come back and see Joan Rivers!” When asked if Rivers isn’t herself a ghost, everyone laughs.  

“Under all that Botox, who knows?” 


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