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A review of nearly 20 years of sociocultural research and trends on "ghostly episodes" (ghosts, haunted houses, and poltergeists) suggests that personal accounts, group investigations, and popular depictions of anomalous experiences function as active, meaningful, and potent cultural memes. These, in part, reflect interpersonal or group dynamics grounded in Durkheimian models, as well as Social Identity and Conflict theories. Expanding on and integrating these themes, this paper provides a general framework that explains the enduring popularity of ghost narratives in terms of their versatility, adaptability, participatory nature, universality, and scalability (VAPUS model). This perspective implies that ghostly episodes, as experiences and narratives, embody and exemplify the marketing concepts of "brand personality" and consumer engagement. Accordingly, social and cultural influences are discussed as important and inherent contextual variables that help to produce, promote, shape, and sustain these narratives.
© 2018 AIPR, Inc. Australian Journal of Parapsychology
ISSN: 1445-2308 Volume 18, Number 2, pp. 117-152
“Meme-Spirited”: I. The VAPUS Model for
Understanding the Prevalence and Potency of Ghost
Abstract: A review of nearly 20 years of sociocultural research and
trends on “ghostly episodes” (ghosts, haunted houses, and poltergeists)
suggests that personal accounts, group investigations, and popular
depictions of anomalous experiences function as active, meaningful,
and potent cultural memes. These, in part, reflect interpersonal or
group dynamics grounded in Durkheimian models, as well as Social
Identity and Conflict theories. Expanding on and integrating these
themes, this paper provides a general framework that explains the
enduring popularity of ghost narratives in terms of their versatility,
adaptability, participatory nature, universality, and scalability
(VAPUS model). This perspective implies that ghostly episodes, as
experiences and narratives, embody and exemplify the marketing
concepts of brand personality” and consumer engagement.
Accordingly, social and cultural influences are discussed as important
and inherent contextual variables that help to produce, promote,
shape, and sustain these narratives.
Keywords: branding, engagement, ghost, haunt, media, meme, popular
Ghosts are alive and well in modern civilization and academia.
Beyond scholarly discussions about the ontological reality of poltergeists
and haunted houses (see e.g., Baker, 2002; Houran & Lange, 2001a;
Maher, 2015; McCue, 2002; O’Keeffe & Parsons, 2010), surveys have
shown that these anomalous experiences—and their underlying
narratives—exist as potent and widespread shibboleths with the same
legitimacy as other social facts and religious or transpersonal practices
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
(Haraldsson, 1985; Palmer, 1979; Ross & Joshi, 1992). This viewpoint
unfortunately can go under-appreciated.
Illustratively, one recent book reviewer evaluating lay-audience tone
stated (Romer, 2017), “what [the author] writes about is our reaction to
it—literary, cultural, folkloric, religious, cinematic, even briefly in terms of
video games from the introduction onwards, the book deals with what
ghosts mean to us, and I suspect some ambiguity on [the author’s] part as
to whether they actually exist in an objective sense at all” (p. 123,
emphasis added). Yet, this criticism overlooks the reality that sociocultural
trappings to these occurrences are a powerful context for shaping
perceptions or reports (Harte, 2000; Houran, 2000; Lange & Houran,
2001a; Lange, Houran, Harte, & Havens, 1996).
Acknowledging this, authorities in the psychology of religion and
anomalistic psychology increasingly emphasize the difference between
anomalous experiences versus their interpretations (David, 2010; Irwin,
Dagnall, & Drinkwater, 2013; Van Leeuwen & van Elk, 2018). This
suggests that, irrespective of potential biomedical correlates of percipients
(Houran, 2002; Houran, Wiseman, & Thalbourne, 2002; Laythe, Houran,
& Ventola, 2018; Laythe, Laythe, & Woodward, 2017; Laythe & Owen,
2012; Parra, 2018; Parra & Argibay, 2016), people’s beliefs, reactions,
musings, and group affiliations and identities are influential elements in a
comprehensive understanding of the construction or maintenance of
ghostly narratives. In a sense, the proverbial river has jumped its banks to a
new streambed, and we need new yardsticks to take into account the
growing literature and diverse ideological assumptions in this area.
Accordingly, we introduce a sociocultural framework termed the
“VAPUS model” to understand the power of ghost accounts in their myriad
of forms. Our proposal derived from an integrative review of the social and
cultural landscape against which these episodes occur and manifest into
general narratives. This was achieved by examining trends across news
media and the internet, as well as searching popular academic databases
(e.g., Google Scholar, PsychInfo, ResearchGate) for sociocultural studies
(2001 to present, i.e., since the publication of Lange and Houran, 2001a)
using the keywords: “apparition, entity encounter experiences, ghost,
haunt, haunting, poltergeist, sensed presence, and spirit.” We considered
also how the cultural contexts and ramifications of these episodes are
couched within Social Conflict (Marx, 1972; Obershall, 1972), Social
Identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) and Durkheimian (2013) models, as well
as consumer marketing theory (e.g., Aaker, 1997).
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The proliferation and diversity of activities devoted to ghosts
parallel “participant observation” approaches popular in cultural
anthropology and sociology (Houran, 2017), whereby a researcher assumes
the role being studied and partakes in ongoing activities and records
observations. This approach transcends naturalistic observation, because
the observer is a “player” in the action. Consequently, ghostly episodes are
not stagnated, passive, cultural narratives, but seemingly active, reflective,
and experiential memes. To explain this, we propose that five core
features—defined by the acronym VAPUS1—characterize ghost narratives
as a sociocultural construct:
VERSATILITY, representing the cross-section of moods, locations,
and themes embodied within diverse literary genres;
ADAPTABILITY, evolving in accordance with longitudinal societal
PARTICIPATORY NATURE, inviting interaction via individual or
social activity and engagement, such as tours, clubs, private
excursions, and field research;
UNIVERSALITY, interesting or relevant to diverse demographic
populations, including individuals spanning the paranormal belief-
disbelief spectrum;
SCALABILITY, engaging to people individually and collectively,
via meme-like ‘contagious” processes.
The VAPUS model is not simply a list of features but instead
advocates that ghost narratives possess widespread appeal and endurance
due to their capacity to foster emotional and rational engagement within
diverse demographic populations. Furthermore, they promote or reinforce
social interaction and status. These facets might even collectively
capitalize on humankind’s potential biological basis or genetic
predisposition for anomalous experience (McClenon, 2004; Persinger,
2007; Winkelman, 2004). In short, our sociocultural perspective
hypothesizes that ghostly episodes possess a particularly persuasive and
flexible brand personality relative to other human experiences, and even
1 Curiously, Vapus is a boy/male name of Tamil origin, meaning ‘wonderful’, ‘admirable’.
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those of an anomalous or putative parapsychological nature. Baker and
Bader (2014) asserted, somewhat similarly, that the inherent liminality of
spirits as cultural constructs accounts for their persistence, power, and
continual recurrence (p. 569, emphasis added),” and Davies (2007) has
noted that the geographical and architectural location of the ghost narrative
has, itself, taken on a “brand identity” (p. 64).
Brand personality is a concept in consumer marketing theory and
practice that Aaker (1997) defined as, “the set of human characteristics
associated with a brand” (p. 347). Indeed, considerable research (see e.g.,
Aaker, Benet-Martinez, & Garolera, 2001; Goldsmith & Goldsmith, 2009;
Graeff, 1996; Jamal & Goode, 2001; Kressmann et al., 2006; Lin, 2010;
Zinkhan, Haytko, & Ward, 1996) supports the notions that: (i) brands have
personalities or human-like characteristics that distinguish them from each
other, with these personalities being important to consumers; and that (ii)
consumers become “engaged” with brands, meaning that they feel special
emotional or symbolic connections with them.
This idea of branding relates directly to the persuasive power of
ghostly narratives (and consumer products related to this domain).
Essentially, the ability of a ghost narrative to enforce, promote, or
encourage an embedded message as a function of its commonality and
salience in popular culture. It might act as a test of the “contagiousness” of
the Cultural-Source Hypothesis (Merton, 1968) for ghosts. We next
support and expand on each proposed feature of the VAPUS model via a
review of recent literature.
Formally stated, ghost narratives can contain a variety of different
embedded moods, morals, and themes of cultural norms that exist outside
and independently of the supernatural account itself. Thus, ghost narratives
possess additional layers that often serve a cultural purpose of boundary
work or moral judgment. For instance, Edwards (2001) discussed how
themes related to ghosts and “supernatural beings” function as effective
media for storytelling. However, Hollywood’s narrative of supernatural
experiences is “hyperbolic” (Goldstein, Grider, & Thomas, 2007), whereas
personal experiences are typically less dramatic and nuanced. The modern
“haunted house” represents a threshold (e.g., boundary) space and a trial of
courage (Goldstein et al., 2007) where the living must cope with the
lingering dead in everyday life (Wilson, 2010).
For instance, Waskul and Waskul (2016) explored broadly-defined
encounters with ghosts and highlighted our problematic relationship with
them in ordinary life. Lipman (2016) similarly re-evaluated the behaviors
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
of residents who attempt to cope with the uncanniness and confusion
created by purported paranormal events in their home. Additionally,
Tucker (2007) chronicled the haunted dormitory rooms and collegiate
spaces where ghost stories create a bond between young adults
experiencing stress in transitioning to independent life. Ghosts, as
experiences and narratives, therefore might serve as universal
personifications of troubled psyches (von Franz, 1995), or at least partly
represent idioms of distress (for discussions, see: Houran, Kumar,
Thalbourne, & Lavertue, 2002; Lange & Houran, 2001a).
Of course, accounts can also capture other moods or motivations, as
illustrated by the publication of two Special Issues of peer-reviewed
journals that addressed the versatile and adaptable functions of ghost
narratives. In particular, Cultural Geographies (2008, Vol. 15, Issue 3)
related hauntings to different geographical and geo-political contexts, and
the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature (2007,
Spectres, Screens, Shadows, Mirrors) explored the array of conceptual,
metaphorical, and symbolic meanings that spectral themes can take in
language and exposition.
In the early 2000s, several authors likewise published new social
and cultural histories of ghosts (Clarke, 2012; Davies, 2007; Middleton,
2018; Morton, 2015; Pulliam & Fonseca, 2016). These include Dickey’s
(2016) informative historical-themed approach to American ghosts and
their social value; Blum’s (2006) sympathetic look at early psychical
researchers for popular audiences; and Roach’s (2006) discussion on the
use of science in examining the afterlife from historical to modern
There are other important contributions. Houran (2004) edited a
collection of essays that explored diverse biopsychosocial motivations for
humanity’s historical interest in spirits. Additionally, Davies (2007)
presented a social history of ghosts that uniquely expands upon traditional
ghosts, and the plethora of general history texts on the subject and
incorporates the ongoing modern history of haunts. His work, constructed
in a thematic rather than chronological manner, tackles the experience of,
explanation for and representation of ghosts, without reference to
existence. Other edited anthologies have focused on the survival question
from both sympathetic (e.g., Storm & Thalbourne, 2006) and skeptical
orientations (e.g., Martin & Augustine, 2015).
Furthermore, Healy and Cropper (2014) created a catalog of
poltergeist reports featuring several personal investigations, mostly in
Australia. This book served as a reminder that typical poltergeist
characteristics, such as stone throwing, fire starting, and adeptly evading
documentation, still occur today. Counter to this, Wiseman’s (2011) text,
Paranormality was a fully-referenced, interactive book (i.e., contained
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video demonstrations and tests) examining the psychology of paranormal
belief and current theories with relevance to ghostly episodes. Finally,
Bartholomew and Nickell (2015) published a collection exposing the
decidedly non-paranormal stories behind infamous American hauntings.
They implicated the film and television industry as complicit in promoting
“Hollywood” aspects of these tales, even when claims were
Versatility, as we define it, has led to complicated political themes
within ghost narratives. An important stream of research focused on
language, meaning, and culture has developed in the humanities relating to
hauntings. This new perspective de-emphasized the physical reality of
ghosts and instead applied them as a metaphor, rich with cultural meaning
(Partridge, 2013). This spectral turnapproach blossomed in the 2000s in
the fields of media studies and sociology, where the notion of ghosts
signified socially “missing” people and cultures (Lipman, 2016).
Within Jacques Derrida’s (1993) hauntology, “ghost” became
“spectre.” This framing acknowledged the sociocultural function of
hauntings. Derrida (1993) coined the term to express sentiments of Marxist
neoliberal capitalism that loomed over Europe at that time (Hanks, 2015).
Since its inception, del Pilar Blanco and Peeren (2013), and Peeren (2014),
have collected influential writings on the concept. Braudy (2016) adopted a
more pop culture-oriented perspective on hauntology that explored why
science and reason oriented cultural forces could not effectively limit its
Similarly, Davies (2007) has argued that ghost narratives change to
mirror societal developments. For example, he noted, how the once
legendary reports of phantom coaches and horsemen gave way to ethereal
automobiles to reflect the advent of transport technologies. Additionally,
the significant increase of reports of roadside ghosts (hitchhikers, accident
victims, etc.) in the 20th century “are folkloric signifiers of the increasing
cultural importance of the car” and how the ritualistic “practice of planting
memorial crosses and laying flowers at the locations of fatal accidents act
as focal points for the generation of new hauntings,” (Davies, 2007, p.
248). In further recognition that accounts morph in various ways over time,
Irwin (2004) has noted:
First, some supposedly real-life cases initially may have been devised as a
good story but then presented as authentic in the hope of enhancing their
commercial potential. Second, fictional ghost stories (and folklore too)
promote a particular stereotype of an apparitional experience and it is
feasible that witnesses’ accounts of their experience unwittingly are
distorted to conform to these popular expectations (p. 199).
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The versatile nature of ghost narratives is also significant given their
representation of a cross-section of themes embodied within diverse
literary genres or human experience. Within this core feature there is
recognition that accounts morph over time. In particular, the terms
“haunted,” “ghosted,” and “uncanny” (Royle, 2003) proliferated in
academic literature creating a “haunted aesthetic” (Thompson, 2012) that
spilled over into music (Fischer, 2017), literature, and film (van Elferen,
2010). Reduced to metaphor, the ghost of yore lost its traditional cultural
meaning. The “ghost” instead referred to a range of dysfunctional social
states. Specifically, dispossession, post-colonial guilt about suppressing
indigenous people and minorities (Berglund, 2000; Cameron, 2008;
Lincoln & Lincoln, 2015; Richardson, 2005), disappointment in the
utopian future that never materialized (Fischer, 2017; Gordon, 2008),
preoccupation with trauma and millennial anxiety (Weinstock, 2004), and
the realization that nothing was original, but all a product of the past (see
Holloway & Kneale, 2008; Machon, 2013; Peeren, 2010). Moreover,
“ghosted” as a metaphorical concept expanded in the common lexicon,
understood as being not all there, invisible, ineffectual, or lingering on the
margins as applying to modern technology and social behaviors (del Pilar
Blanco & Peeren, 2010).
This second feature represents the universal force of culture
throughout time. Just as social views change on a decade-to-decade basis,
so too have the contents or meanings of ghost narratives. Specifically, they
maintain core features while adapting to changes in morality, technology,
and society—often to suit the motives and needs of groups and
organizations (Haslam, Oakes, Turner, & McGarty, 1995; Hogg & Turner,
The sociological literature has widely addressed a range of factors
regarding ghostly accounts and experiences. These include cultural identity
(Bird, 2002; del Pilar Blanco & Peeren, 2013; Goldstein et al., 2007;
Gordon, 2008), the role of narrative (del Pilar Blanco & Peeren, 2010;
Wooffitt, 1992), ghosts and the sociology of place (Bell, 1997), the
importance of making a personal connection to the past (Beisaw, 2016;
Hanks, 2015), and ghost themes as a reflection of social changes (Davies,
2007; del Pilar Blanco & Peeren, 2010; Finucane, 1996; Richardson,
2005). The latter factor is profoundly evident in the “spectral turn” and the
“hauntology” trend (Davis, 2005; Derrida, 1993), two coined terms
signifying a recent interest in the supernatural.
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Potts (2006) echoed the universal appeal of ghosts, which changes
with the times, and the utility of a compelling narrative to keep the past
alive, though most researchers still hint at the potential for the modern
commercially-driven mass media discourse to overtake folklore. Other
studies have used qualitative methods—like Interpretive
Phenomenological Analysis (e.g., Childs & Murray, 2010; Drinkwater,
Dagnall, & Bate, 2013; Simmonds-Moore, 2016) and Conversation
Analysis (Murray & Wooffitt, 2010). These papers explore how witnesses
construct meaning from their experiences and likewise how experiences
affect individuals. This last approach is particularly relevant given that
percipients often realize that their anomalous experiences are
unconventional. Hence, they sometimes rationalize them with orthodox
beliefs when discussing them publicly (Drinkwater et al., 2013; Schmied-
Knittel & Schetsche, 2005) or otherwise ‘mould’ their accounts in the face
of overt skepticism (Ohashi, Wooffitt, Jackson, & Nixon, 2013).
Adaptability is similarly evident when the themes or contents in
narratives change with psychological, physical, or cultural settings, thereby
reinforcing their personal-relevance to percipients. In particular, some
researchers have argued that accounts of ghosts closely parallel reports of
“entity encounter experiences (EEEs),” such as extraterrestrials, elves and
folklore-related beings, Men in Black (MIB), demons, and angels (Evans,
1987; Hansen, 1988). As an example, Musgrave and Houran (2000)
outlined similar structures and contents between Medieval-era experiences,
known as the flight to the Witches’ Sabbat, and modern accounts of UFO
abductions. Such studies imply the existence of a core phenomenon (or
phenomena) that changes its appearance in accordance with the
sociocultural context in which the phenomenon manifests (cf. Evans, 1987;
Hufford, 1982).
These ideas draw on earlier psychological discussions of apparitions
(e.g., Tyrrell, 1943/1973), and some empirical evidence supports this line
of thinking. For instance, Houran (2000) published a meta-analysis of four
EEE studies that examined the relation between contextual variables and
witness accounts of ghosts and haunts, angelic visitations, deathbed
visions, and shamanic-trance journeys. Results revealed important
findings. Firstly, there was a strong congruence between the content of the
experiences and the nature of the contextual variables (i.e., psychological
or environmental cues) available to percipients. Secondly, the number of
contextual variables was related to percipients’ state of arousal
immediately preceding the experience. Finally, the number of contextual
variables were also associated with the number of perceptual modalities
involved in experiences.
Consistent with the adaptability premise, these findings suggest that
sociocultural context shapes the phenomenology of witness perceptions or
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reports. Moreover, research has also found that individual events or
manifestations that define EEEs—e.g., apparitions, possession, folklore
beings, and physical effects typical of poltergeist disturbances—can be
statistically modelled as a unidimensional factor constituting a
probabilistic hierarchy or continuum (Houran & Lange, 2001b). Lastly,
percipients of EEEs also share a common psychometric profile,
characterized by a permeable (or loose) mental boundary structure (e.g.,
Laythe et al., 2018; Parra, 2007, 2018; Parra & Argibay, 2016). Overall,
from this perspective, ghosts, haunted houses, and poltergeists seem to
represent merely one portrayal of a broader, adaptable narrative.
One societal change that has clearly influenced ghost narratives is
the resurgence of interest in the history and analysis of Spiritualism that is
evident both in popular (Blum, 2006; Jaher, 2015; Roach, 2006) and
academic (Caterine, 2011; Natale, 2016) treatments. For example,
Spiritualistic themes prevail within contemporary television (Sausman,
2010). Spirit interactions as a coping mechanism for grief, and as a means
for desired reconnection with the deceased, rose in popularity, particularly
after September 11, 2001, and in the event of traumatic loss generally
(Seirmarco et al., 2012). A psychic’s function in society has changed.
Currently, there exists a proliferation of celebrity psychics and professional
mediums, who have essentially assumed the role of grief counsellors using
after death communication (Kwilecki, 2009; Weinstein, 2004). Davies
(2007) has also noted that modern, TV-based, mediums are no longer
praying for resident spirits, but have taken on the role as ghost counsellors
and, to a certain extent, exorcists, where the mental afflictions of ghosts are
relieved through spiritualistic communication of various types.
Commodification of psychic powers have reached new heights as celebrity
psychics featured in popular television series and participated in live tour
events. These promotional activities mirrored those used by famous
psychic mediums during the heyday of Spiritualism (Natale, 2016).
This third component draws on the notion that beyond their physical
status, it is the observation or participation with a “ghost” that makes the
event culturally “real.” In other words, the relationship between the
observer and their interpretation of a “ghost” creates the narrative. Further,
as a second component of participation, ghost narratives serve as powerful
social motivators towards group construction and social participation in
both a positive and negative (conflict) sense.
For example, Eaton (2018), proposed a five-phase development
process of the narrative accounts specifically using a paranormal
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
investigation as a model. Within this narrative account, he argued, the
legitimacy of a ghost narrative “was evaluated on the basis of its
contribution to status reinforcement within the idiocultural group” (p. 23).
This means the basis for dismissal of the account was whether the narrator
was within the group or a marginal member, even if there were significant
other reasons to accept the account as legitimate (Eaton, 2018). Thus,
within the overarching VAPUS model, “participatory” represents the
inherent tendency of ghost narratives to form groups and organizations via
Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), and the inevitable conflict
that results from group formation.
Social Identity Theory (SIT) is a well-researched set of principles
that involve the influence of the group upon the individual, and how groups
reliably interact with each other. Early studies by Sherif (1956)
demonstrated in-groups and out-groups as a root precursor of conflict
(Allport, 1954) and group conformity effects (Asch, 1955). These seminal
works demonstrated the inherent tendencies for group formation and the
degrees of both conformity and prejudice that often result. Research prior
to SIT revealed the human proclivity towards group affiliation with the
Minimal Group Paradigm (MGP: Brewer, 1979; Tajfel, Billig, Bundy, &
Flament, 1971). MGP is a laboratory design that created artificial in-
groups (i.e., the group a participant belongs to) and out-groups (i.e., the
group the participant does not belong to) while controlling for
environmental cues to individual’s group membership (Bourhis, Sachdev,
& Gagnon, 1994; Tajfel et al., 1971). These studies demonstrated in-group
bias (i.e. preference towards one’s own groups) in minimal conditions,
supporting a theory that in-group bias requires little environmental context
(Brewer, 1979; Tajfel et al., 1971).
Henri Tajfel expanded on MGP and subsequently presented a body
of research that developed as SIT (Tajfel & Turner, 1979; for a historical
review see Hogg & Abrams, 1999). SIT is a series of premises that hold
one’s sense of self and behavior partially derive from the collective self
(Hogg & Williams, 2000). That is, our affiliation with groups within
society partially dictates our sense of self and behavior towards other
groups. These social affiliations correspond to our social identity, the parts
of the “self” that are dependent on social group context and affiliation.
Conversely, SIT also proposes the construct of personal identity, a sense of
self derived from personal qualities and interpersonal relationships (Hogg
& Abrams, 1999).
According to SIT, the motivational components of “in/out group”
classification is to maintain positive social identity which in turn promotes
positive self-image (Tajfel, 1981). We assume that social categories (e.g.,
skeptic, scientist, psychologist, ghost- hunter, or parapsychologist) partially
define one’s identity by providing behavioral, attitudinal, and evaluative
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
norms (Haslam et al., 1995). Because group memberships help to foster a
positive self-image, the evaluations of other groups are often less favorable
than evaluations of the group to which an individual belongs (Brewer,
1979; Hogg, Terry, & White, 1995; Tajfel et al., 1971; Tajfel & Turner,
1979). In sum, SIT postulates that in-group bias and out-group derogation
occurs because people wish to maintain a positive sense of self.
The participatory aspect of ghost narratives promotes SIT-oriented
group dynamics to form. Modern paranormal-themed trends emphasize and
require the need for and value placed on personal experiences—although
they lack evidential weight given their subjective and unverifiable nature
(Hanks, 2015; Houran, Lynn, & Lange, 2017). However, at the societal
level, anomalous experiences remain a core driver for belief in the
paranormal and social acceptance (see e.g., Clarke, 1995). Furthermore,
Beisaw (2016) has explored the usefulness of ghost narratives in relating
archeological information, since it allows modern audiences to feel
empathy for and a connection to those who lived in the past. One
manifestation of this connection is through visits to ostensibly haunted
locations. Legend-tripping represents deliberate excursions to places
associated with spooky events, with the intention of having paranormal
Folklorists from the late 1960s used this term to describe a ritual
performance, often by teens, to test the truth of popular tales by visiting
certain locations and taking prescribed actions (Bird, 2002). Kinsella
(2011) related the increasing popularity of legend-tripping, both in reality
and virtually, via live-streaming videos of their experiences or exploits.
Ghost-hunting reality television shows broadcast interactive live specials
that act as a virtual legend trip. Any resulting events that are attributable to
the paranormal become part of the legend causing it to further evolve and
gain new narrative details. Legend-tripping allows a distinct “being in the
moment” experience (A. Hill, 2011). This somewhat immersive aspect
involving media is not new though the frequency of such occasions is
unparalleled. The infamous ghost-hunter, Harry Price, for example, worked
with BBC Radio to produce the first live broadcast from a haunted house in
1936 (Davies, 2007). Performative acts, especially when enacted with
others, form and reinforce beliefs (Childs & Murray, 2010; Goldstein et al.,
Ghost-related tourism flourished in the 2000s, buoyed by media
depictions of haunted places. Hanks (2015) provided a comprehensive
guide separating types of tourism experiences into ghost tours, commercial
ghost-hunts, and amateur investigation activities. These categories reflect
the degree of serious interest by participants. These activities, she
concluded, are a modern way for individuals to understand, interact with,
and reinterpret the past on one’s own terms. This view of reclaiming
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personal heritage is more prevalent in the U.K. The origin and rise of
paranormal popular culture reflect this (Clarke, 2012; Davies, 2007).
Haunted tourist spots feel more atmospheric in October, and tales of local
haunts manifest every Halloween season in local and national news outlets
(Howells, 2008; Wadler, 2008). However, the topic remains popular
throughout the year. This theme is prominent in American culture (Baker
& Bader, 2014; Booker, 2009) and has become pronounced worldwide
(Molle & Bader, 2013).
We describe this fourth component in two principal ways. First,
ghost narratives are universal across all cultures and societies. Second, they
appeal to and involve individuals who both reject or accept the narratives
as relevant to their identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) or ideology. Key to the
sociological approach is the notion that researchers should understand the
universal culture of belief. Explicitly, who believes and why it matters
(Goode, 2012; Laycock, 2011; Ridolfo, Baxter, & Lucas, 2010), how
beliefs are socially-constructed or mediated (Bader, 2017; Baker & Bader,
2014; Childs & Murray, 2010), and the extent to which media and popular
culture influence beliefs (Hanks, 2015; A. Hill, 2011; S. Hill, 2017;
Leeder, 2013; Markovsky & Thye, 2001). Paranormal beliefs are
important, because they challenge scientific and cultural authorities (S.
Hill, 2017; Northcote, 2007) and provide an alternative view of the world
(Bader, 2017; Cameron, 2008; Clark, 2003; Goode, 2012; A. Hill, 2011;
Holloway, 2010; Ridolfo et al., 2010).
Bader (2017) observed that distinct paranormal belief sub-cultures
and ideologies can exist without an equitable connection or overlap.
Similarly, Clarke (2012) noted that paranormal belief spans the spectrum
from local neighborhoods to celebrity circles. Bader (2017) defined
paranormal as being deliberately outside religion and lacking the stability
of religious institutions. Likewise, Lipman (2016) noted the separating of
religious concepts from ghostly phenomena or appearances. Some
researchers disagree with these views. For instance, Laycock (2011, 2014)
contended that serious study by religious scholars parallels traditional
religion. The reporting of paranormal phenomena in religious texts further
complicates the religious-paranormal divide.
This separation and crossing of religious and paranormal “boundary
space” (Durkheim, 2013) is further convoluted by some Judeo-Christian
sects engaging in orthodox prejudice against what are deemed “demonic”
or unholy manifestations of the paranormal (Baker, Bader, & Mencken,
2006; MacDonald, 1995; Mencken, Bader, & Kim, 2009). As a prominent
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example in measurement, the Rasch scaled version of the Revised
Paranormal Belief Scale recognizes this distinction by reframing the
measure into two separate factors New Age Belief and Traditional (i.e.,
Christian) Paranormal Belief (Lange, Irwin, & Houran, 2000).
Furthermore, modern amateur paranormal investigators weave spiritual
aspects, such as “cleansing rituals,” the use of prayers and protective
devices, and the demonic interpretation of various haunt or poltergeist
phenomena into their practices (e.g., Guiley, 2007; Tilley, 2002).
Parapsychologists frequently use self-report surveys to assess the
prevalence of paranormal or unorthodox beliefs (e.g., Dagnall, Drinkwater,
Parker, & Clough, 2016; Palmer, 1979). This emphasis differs to that of
conventional psychologists, who tend to focus on belief strength rather
than prevalence (see Drinkwater, Denovan, Dagnall, & Parker, 2017).
Alongside academic surveys, public opinion polls provide important
insights into the incidence of specific paranormal beliefs. For instance, the
Gallup polls of 1990, 2001 and 2005 reported that a substantial proportion
of respondents believed in ghosts and hauntings (Dagnall, Drinkwater,
Denovan, & Parker, 2015). Specifically, the 2005 Gallup poll observed that
37% of the sampled group believed that houses could be haunted, and 32%
thought that the spirits of dead people could return to certain
places/situations (Moore, 2015). Other surveys report similar figures.
Notably, a Pew Research Center (2009) poll found that 18% of Americans
claimed to have seen a ghost and 29% felt “in touch” (communication)
with someone who had passed (Lipka, 2015).
Regarding incidence rates, it is important to note that belief in
ghostly episodes is a social phenomenon that varies in accordance with
time and place. Consequently, whereas belief levels remain relatively high
within contemporary western cultures, endorsement rates of ghostly
episodes fluctuate over time. For instance, the Harris poll
( revealed a decline of 10 points in the belief
of ghost existence between 2003 (51%) and 2016 (41%). Recent YouGov
polls produced similar levels of agreement (McCarriston, 2017). In
percentage terms, YouGov polls documented a slight increase in belief in
ghosts since 2015. This corresponds more generally with the decline in
organized religious belief documented in the first decade of the 21st
century (Hood, Hill, & Spilka, 2009). The Chapman University (2018)
polls, conducted from 2016 to 2018 and framed within the subject of
“American fears,” showed a rise in belief in nearly all Fortean topics
(including alien visitation, haunts and ghosts, telekinesis, and Bigfoot)
except “psychic fortune telling” (Chapman University, 2018). In the
present context, 58% of the 2018 respondents agreed (“somewhat or
strongly”) with a belief in hauntings by ghosts.
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
Polls also reveal important age-related differences. For example,
Francis and Williams (2007) examined teen belief in England and Wales.
Collectively, their data suggest that juveniles exhibit high levels of belief.
An earlier study by Francis and Kay (1995) demonstrated the extent of 13-
to 15-year-old interest in the ghosts. Within a sample of 13,000
respondents, 31% believed it was possible to contact the spirits of the dead,
and 37% believed in ghosts. Similarly, Boyd’s (1996) large-scale survey of
14- to 15-year-olds found that 41% believed it was possible to contact the
spirits of the dead, and 28% disagreed that it was wrong to contact the
spirits of the dead using a Ouija board.
Relatedly, polls often conflate interest and belief. Paranormal
themes and images are readily available in the media and potentially prime
respondents toward positive responses (Nisbet, 2006). Consequently, it is
difficult to determine whether numbers represent belief or curiosity. To an
extent, examination of concurrent information can provide guidance. The
rise of belief in Scandinavian countries, typically and historically less
prone to supernatural-themed belief, provides additional evidence that the
increase spans Western nations (Maher, 2015).
This fifth component emphasizes that narratives are contagious and
generalizable to small and large sets of people. Along these lines, Harvey
(2013) has argued that supernatural themes have become urbanized,
domesticated, democratized, and commercialized. Paranormal belief now
unsurprisingly spans the spectrum from local neighborhoods to celebrity
circles (Clarke, 2012). Ghosts are consequently ubiquitous in
contemporary American life (Booker, 2009; Heffter, 2014; Wadler,
2008)—a continuous presence (Peeren, 2010) that is socially-acceptable
(Hanks, 2015; Pierce, 2012). The experience narrative, in turn, contributes
to the construction of social reality (Childs & Murray, 2010; Goldstein et
al., 2007; Ironside, 2016; Mayer & Grunder, 2011). The constructed
narrative finally becomes evidence to the experiencer and the audience
(Kinsella, 2011; McNeill, 2006).
This evidence can subsequently scale quickly from the individual-
level to group-level via perceptual or psychological contagion (Nisbet,
1979; Romer, 2013)—paralleling outbreaks of mass psychogenic illness
(Houran, Kumar et al., 2002; Lange & Houran, 1999, 2001a). The
engagement of people in ghost narratives via meme-like ‘contagious”
processes is not a new idea. Contagion is the triggering of similar accounts
in individuals proximal to the initial reported anomalous experience
(O’Keeffe & Parsons, 2010). Houran and colleagues (Houran & Lange,
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1996; Lange & Houran, 2001a, 2001b) have often discussed and
empirically explored the notion that ghost, haunt, or poltergeist-like
experiences involve a catalyst or instigating event that starts a germination
process, with anomalous experiences subsequently multiplying and
spreading like a contagion or meme across a set of observers. Although the
related phenomenon of suggestion has been extensively studied (e.g.,
Dagnall, Drinkwater, Denovan, & Parker, 2015; Granqvist et al., 2005;
Lange & Houran, 1997; Terhune & Smith, 2006; Wiseman, Watt,
Greening, Stevens, & O’Keeffe, 2002), research on contagion is sparse.
Literally, this means that haunt narratives have a powerful
propensity to ‘go viral’ across media platforms. This process has been
aided, if not enabled, by the 21st century’s landscape of web-based and 24-
hour news sources that have regularly incorporated ghost stories into local
and national feeds. This has been aided, if not enabled, by the 21st century,
web-based, and 24-hour news landscape that incorporated ghost stories
into local and national feeds. These appeared and then spread via social
media. The rapid development of the internet has facilitated an ease of
communication with “personal stories, footage, products and services
shared and commodified like never before” (Haynes, 2016, p. 13). As a
result, countless claims of ghosts caught on phone cameras and
surveillance cameras are shared with a worldwide audience. These
frequently show vague figures, faces, or human simulacra, which the media
labels as “mysterious” or “ghostly.” Many claims are obvious hoaxes or a
result of optical distortion or glitches. Yet, the stories gain viewers with a
“sharing unprecedented in known human history” (Haynes, 2016, p. 13).
Web feeds of tabloid media outlets and paranormal-themed blogs have
reached saturation. Stories prove irresistible to those who wish to speculate
on the cause, enhance their existing beliefs, or display skepticism (Clarke,
2012; Edwards, 2008).
Stories of families terrorized by ghosts resemble Hollywood scripts.
For example, the 2014 story of the Ammons family “demon house” in
Indiana drew international attention when they claimed paranormal activity
affected them both inside and away from their house (Kwiatkowski, 2014).
Eyewitness testimony from police, health officials, and a clergyman
bolstered the drama and resulted in heavy media coverage, including
commentary and interest from so-called paranormal reality show
celebrities (for example, Ghost Adventures [2008-2018] host Zak Bagans,
who purchased the house and released a movie based on the case titled
Demon House [Bagans, Dorse, & Taglieri, 2018]). Simultaneously, there
was an absence of scholarly interest.
Entertainment news media report celebrity encounters with ghosts
and their attempts to manage their haunted mansions/rentals or technical
malfunctions. A modern trend reinvigorated the connection of ghosts and
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
sex. In Victorian England, there was a conflation of deviant sexual activity
with supernatural events (Middleton, 2018). Internet-based media—
particularly tabloids—have eagerly posted modern salacious ghost sex
stories. Some celebrity women made headlines by admitting to having
sexual encounters with spirits and sometimes even liking it. Perhaps
unsurprisingly, the term spectrophilia has entered the Google search
rankings. We should mention that there are cases in the academic literature
related to this basic concept. Perhaps the most sensationalized example is
the 1970s-era “Doris Bither case” in Culver City, California (see e.g., Taff,
2014). Bither, a mother of four children, claimed that she was repeatedly
attacked and raped by invisible entities that she believed were the ghosts of
three men. The case inspired Frank De Felitta’s 1978 book The Entity,
which was made into a 1982 film of the same name. Instances of less
intense, albeit still frightening, ‘supernatural assaults’ have likewise been
documented (see e.g., Houran, 2002; Hufford, 1982, 2001).
Beyond books and movies, however, the Internet paved the way for
the democratization of information. This was key to the proliferation of
paranormal expertise and authority without professional qualifications.
Online interaction provided the ultimate alternative to physical meetups,
eliminating distance between those of like interests, and served to reinforce
and grow paranormal belief systems (Bader, 2017; S. Hill, 2017; McNeill
2006). From 1996 to 2017,’s page on the paranormal was a
popular site for general paranormal interest (Dreyfuss, 2017)., created in 1999, was a high-ranking site that featured
content typical for many such sites—news stories copied verbatim from
media outlets and public contributions of stories, photos and videos. A
huge volume of websites devoted to ghost research, investigation,
theorizing, and presenting evidence developed in the early to mid-2000s
(Potts, 2004).
MySpace, a platform to easily create and manage a personal
webpage online, began in 2003. Amateur paranormal researchers used
MySpace to advertise investigations and publish evidence. The popularity
of Facebook and its public access opening in 2006 meant it took over from
MySpace as the platform of choice (Hartung, 2011). Facebook allows
groups and individuals, even businesses geared towards the paranormal, to
advance their identities and brands. Online forums, especially those related
to popular television shows, were places where enthusiasts would gather to
share stories and opinions (S. Hill, 2017). Facebook is a primary
communication hub because accounts are free, easy to set up, and the
platform facilitates networking and discussion. Nonprofit and advocacy
groups find marketing success on the platform (Waters, Burnett, Lamm, &
Lucas, 2009). Many groups interact with members and the public regularly
on Facebook, or produce quick videos posted on YouTube and are shared
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via Facebook, which seemingly remains the most popular platform for
sharing news stories, videos, or photos that ‘go viral’. The Internet has also
become a primary sounding board for crowd-sourced criticism, debunking,
and exposure of hoaxes/frauds (Shirky, 2008). Social media will likely
remain a crucial mechanism in the evolution and transmission of ghost-
related discourse.
Internet radio has also stoked paranormal interest. This derived from
late-night radio, which began decades ago and continued to be influential
into the 21st century. Notably, Coast to Coast AM is the premier platform
for the weirdest “true” tales in America. According to their website
(, the program is broadcast
on over 600 United States affiliates. The quantity of paranormal themes on
Internet radio reflects the subject matter’s pervasive content. A search on
the various Internet Radio platforms reveals dozens of paranormal-themed
shows. Furthermore, live shows are often archived into podcasts that can
be downloaded at the listener’s convenience. Over 100 paranormal-themed
podcasts appear in a search of Apple’s iTunes store. Producible by anyone
at minimal cost with a microphone and easy-to-use recording software,
paranormal-themed podcasts (including skeptical treatments of the topic)
are difficult to fit into the standard podcast categories. These podcasts are
categorized in podcast feeds as “science,” “society and culture,” “religion
and spirituality” and “history.” The genre of “real ghost stories” in which
people share personal experiences, is also popular (e.g., Real Ghost Stories
Online,2 and Jim Harold’s Campfire3).
Arguably the most famous and influential ghost research group in
the world is The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) headquartered in
Rhode Island, U.S. and featured on Ghost Hunters (2004-2016). The
working-class family, men founders got their big break in a New York
Times article (Leland, 2002) that featured these plumbers-by-day turned
professional ghost-hunters in their free time. Brown (2008) profiled ghost-
hunting groups in New England and found nearly all groups were directly
or indirectly influenced by TAPS, or Demonologists Ed and Lorraine
Warren (from Connecticut). TAPS emphasizes surveillance, collecting
evidence with equipment, and at least an attempt at finding a natural cause
at work. This is in stark contrast to the Warrens, who used psychic ability
and fundamentalist religious beliefs to popularize household demons. The
influence of the Warrens continues as many amateur groups now have their
own (self-claimed) demonologist (S. Hill, 2017).
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
Millions of people watch Ghost Hunters and similar shows on
television believing them to be examples of legitimate scientific
investigation (S. Hill, 2017; Radford, 2010). What happens on television is
a constructed version of inquiry fit into the timeframe of a show. Programs
often magnify and dramatize anomalies and attribute their causation to
paranormal forces. This conflates interpretation with observation.
Television ghost-hunters strive for legitimacy through the use of apparatus
and seemingly rational analysis, while playing up contemporary cultural
concerns (Potts, 2004). The popularity of the depiction of paranormal
investigations made it palatable to mainstream society and reduced the
stigma of individuals enlisting on-site investigators (Pierce, 2012). This has
also influenced the proliferation of amateur ghost-hunting groups
In describing our VAPUS model, we have strived to highlight the
changes in media, society, and authority with respect to ghost narratives, as
well as acknowledge the proliferation of ghost-hunting as a major cultural
establishment. Even though there are different manners or motivations for
attempting to interact with the paranormal, it should be clear throughout
this review of representative literature that the cultural roles of power,
authority, and popularity essentially contaminate the scientific evaluation
of ghostly episodes. Simply put, the agendas, goals, and controversies of
invested organizations encompassed by our model affect the nature and
acceptance of information, media, and science. Such issues, as they revolve
around these narratives, are textbook examples of Social-Conflict models
within sociology (Marx, 1972; Oberschall, 1973). That is, findings from
amateur and professional ghost investigations alike are inherently filtered
through various social goals, economics, authority, power, and the
competition among these forces.
What Durkheim (1965) called the separation of the “sacred and
profane” is relevant here. The assumptions of acceptable and unacceptable
beliefs, values, and norms of “science” are being driven not by the quality
of research, but by its ideological leanings, which support the authority or
rightness of the ideology of a given group (Boudry & Braeckman, 2012).
Durkheim went further to define “social boundaries” and “boundary
crossing” as the interplay of expected rules (e.g., norms) of given groups,
and the role of deviance (violation of these norms) to shape, define, and
clarify acceptable behaviors within each group in a cultural sense. Groups
that do not meet these internal norms and beliefs are deemed “other” and
are viewed, in the least, with suspicion, and include those within said
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groups who do not conform to the predominant ideology (Bauer, 2014;
Besta, Mattingly, & Blazek, 2016; Tajfel & Turner, 2004).
We would be remiss not to address the broader picture of how the
VAPUS model fits within a field full of concepts and theories. Perhaps
most importantly, our framework represents a fundamental and conceptual
“meta-model” for identifying the social and interpretive components
inherent to ghost narratives. In this way, it allows researchers to
deconstruct the inevitable sociocultural components that represent the
“other side of the coin” to the ontological study of the phenomena
associated with ghostly episodes themselves.
Obviously, VAPUS does not supplant any of the established theories
that we have applied within the model. Rather, our model draws on clinical
systems theory—also referred as ecosystems or biopsychosocial models
(e.g., Engel, 1977; Mash, 1989)—representing the incontrovertible fact that
the effects of group dynamics, social forces, and cultural norms are not
fully divisible from the attentional, perceptual, or interpretive processes
within all aspects of the human psyche (for comprehensive reviews, see
Ross & Nisbett, 1991; Zimbardo & Leippe, 1991). Sociocultural variables
therefore seem as pertinent and influential as any of the other context
effects in haunts that have been popularized by Lange and Houran (2001a;
Houran, 2000; cf. Harte, 2000), such as paranormal belief or demand
characteristics. Accordingly, it is improper to minimize the role and
influence of environmental cues, situational contexts, or cultural ideology
as mere “confounds or artifacts” that cloud our understanding of the
ontological reality to ghostly episodes. Doing so ignores entire fields of
empirical findings and principles that this paper clearly demonstrates.
Rather, any comprehensive model for the phenomenon of “ghosts and
haunted houses” must accommodate the VAPUS features within a common
framework that also includes psychological, environmental, and potentially
parapsychological perspectives.
However, while we would attest that sociocultural factors are
conjoined to ghostly phenomena, we must also recognize that the “proof”
or lack thereof of anomalous phenomena is quite irrelevant to the cultural
“meaning-making” process (e.g. Hufford, 1982) represented by the
VAPUS model. As we have argued elsewhere (Laythe & Owen, 2013;
Laythe et al., 2017), quantifying “objective” haunt phenomena is extremely
challenging without adequate environmental controls. Thus, the focus
within parapsychology to document anomalous phenomena empirically, or
skeptics’ attempts to disprove the same does not necessarily change the
sociocultural narrative that individuals, groups, and sub-cultures maintain
about the interpretation of ghostly phenomena.
Within the sociocultural domain of our psyches, facts and evidence
are mostly irrelevant in comparison to group affiliation (Tajfel & Turner,
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
1979), and the general acceptance or popularity of a set of cultural beliefs.
We illustrated this fact in our introductory examples of the overall
popularity of ghost narratives, noting that quality evidence or facts prevent
neither the media nor ghost-hunting organizations from becoming
“experts” in this space. It is also obvious within the culture of science—in
which Auguste Comte’s positivism is still commonly believed—that part
of its philosophical assumptions has been clearly debunked within
psychology and some argue even within quantum physics. That is, an
observation of a thing does indeed change its behavior, from humans and
possibly down to sub-atomic particles (for an interesting discussion on this
latter issue, see e.g., Podolskiy & Lanza, 2016).
However, considerable social science literature clearly dictates that
most of the VAPUS components are inexorably interrelated. As a thought
experiment example, the extent to which contagion effects are related to
the effects of persuasion or suggestion, if formally tested, is likely neither
to be simple nor straightforward. These social effects are inherently
interwoven to the extent that their labelling may be considered more of a
product of the historical culture of the specific field studying them, as
opposed to distinct operational definitions. As such, components of
VAPUS should be considered highly interconnected, yet conceptually
beneficial for the beginning process of separating the person’s individual
contribution of interpretation to the ontological phenomena that are
deemed ‘ghostly’. Despite these issues, we offer our model as a viable
starting point for the conceptual evaluation of the potentially vast
sociocultural influences or nuances within accounts or investigations. We
will illustrate these points and further expound on the model in a follow-up
paper devoted to salient case analyses.
Creating valid empirical measurements for the five features of our
model would seem to be useful in any future research that aims to
understand and model haunt-type phenomena. For instance, factors such as
identity fusion (Gomez et al., 2011) or behavioral adherence to ideology
(i.e. the extent to which a belief is used as a cognitive schematic
mechanism), could provide important clues that help us further to refine
aspects of the model. Obviously, more work is needed to separate and
define what could be a core phenomenon (or phenomena) from its
psychosocial and cultural trappings (cf. Evans, 1987; Houran, 2000;
Hufford, 1982)—an arduous task that our VAPUS model might imply is
infeasible or misguided, if not impossible.
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Sharon A. Hill has a Masters degree in Education focused on Science and
the Public and is a professional geologist. As an independent researcher, she
studies natural anomalies, paranormal culture, and the investigation
methods of amateur paranormalists.
Ciaran O’Keeffe (Ph.D.) is Associate Head of the School of Human &
Social Sciences at Buckinghamshire New University. He is also Programme
Leader for the B.Sc. (Hons.) Criminological Psychology, B.Sc. (Hons.)
Psychology & Criminology, and B.Sc. (Hons.) Business & Psychology, in
addition to running modules on Exceptional Human Experiences,
Investigative Psychology, and Victimology.
Brian Laythe (Ph.D.) is the Director of the Institute for the Study of
Religious and Anomalous Experience and Managing Partner of Iudicium, a
forensic psychological consultancy. He is also an Associate Professor of
Sociology and Psychology at Ivy Tech Community College and teaches
undergraduate courses at Indiana University Southeast.
Neil Dagnall (Ph.D.) is a Programme Leader and a Unit Leader in the
Psychology Department at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he
teaches at undergraduate and postgraduate level.
Kenneth Drinkwater (Ph.D.) is a Lecturer and Researcher in Cognitive
Psychology and Parapsychology at Manchester Metropolitan University,
where he conducts research in parapsychology and psychology.
Annalisa Ventola is the executive director of the Parapsychological
Association, an independent researcher, and editor of Public
Parapsychology; a blog devoted to promoting public scholarship in the
fields of parapsychology and anomalous psychology.
James Houran (Ph.D.) holds a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology
(1996) from the University of Illinois at Springfield (USA) and a Doctorate
in Medicine (Psychology) (2004) from the University of Adelaide
(Australia). He serves as a Research Director at Integrated Knowledge
Systems, Research Professor at the Laboratory of Statistics and
Computation, ISLA in Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto, Portugal.
Australian Journal of Parapsychology
We thank John Potts and Lance Storm for helpful feedback on an earlier
draft of this paper.
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Sharon A. Hill
Lithospherica, LLC
6116 Chatham Glenn Way
Harrisburg, PA, 17111
Ciarán O’Keeffe
Bucks New University
School of Human and Social Sciences
Queen Alexandra Road
High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire
Brian Laythe
Institute for the Study of Religious and Anomalous Experience
32 Beechwood Road
Jeffersonville, IN, 47130
Neil Dagnall and Kenneth Drinkwater
Manchester Metropolitan University
Department of Psychology
3.11 Brooks Building, Manchester Campus
Manchester, M15 6BH
Annalisa Ventola
Parapsychological Association
PO Box 14884, Columbus, OH 43214
James Houran, Ph.D. (Corresponding Author)
7041 Briarmeadow Drive
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... A rather conspicuous 'resurrection' is happening. Whether old wine in new bottles or a reverent nod to the 19 th century investigations of Spiritualism that birthed psychical research and modern parapsychology, the question of postmortem survival of consciousness has again become a hot button topic in the social and biomedical sciences (Alvarado, 2019;Bastos et al., 2015;Hill et al., 2018;O'Keeffe & Wiseman, 2005). Unfortunately, modern treatises are limited in offering only religio-cultural overviews of related beliefs (e.g., Nagasawa & Matheson, 2017), a single category of evidence (e.g., Gauld, 1982a;Haraldsson & Matlock, 2016;Houran & Lange, 2001), or echo chambers of skeptical (e.g., Martin, & Augustine, 2015) or sympathetic views (e.g., Storm & Thalbourne, 2006). ...
... However, mainstream scientists tend not to equate paranormal experiences phenomenologically with other types of witnessed events. An obvious example of this prejudice is the trite phrase, 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' (see e.g., Deming, 2016;McMahon, 2020), Of course, 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' merely follows what is ideologically acceptable (or possible) within the belief system evaluating the claimed event (Hill et al., 2018McClenon, 1994). To our knowledge, there are no philosophical or empirical arguments that human perception of, say, an 'office building' is fundamentally or factually different from the perception of an 'apparition,' with the exception of the perceptual or attributional errors that we address in this essay. ...
... Worse still, it is well-es-tablished that ideological beliefs or norms can have great power regardless of their validity (Merton, 1995). 'Popular makes correct' as the saying goes, and we have addressed the cultural biases for and against the paranormal in previous works Hill et al., 2018Hill et al., , 2019Houran et al., 2020). ...
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The idea of ‘life after death’ transcends philosophy or religion, as science can test predictions from claims by both its advocates and skeptics. This study therefore featured two researchers with opposite views, who jointly gathered hundreds of research studies to evaluate the maximum average percentage effect that seemingly supports (i.e., anomalous effects) or refutes (i.e., known confounds) the survival hypothesis. The mathematical analysis found that known confounds did not account for 39% of survival-related phenomena that appear to attest directly to human consciousness continuing in some form after bodily death. Thus, we concluded that popular skeptical explanations are presently insufficient to explain a sizable portion of the purported evidence in favor of survival. People with documented experiences under conditions that overcome the known confounds thus arguably meet the legal requirements for expert witness testimony. The equation that led to our verdict can also purposefully guide future research, which one day might finally resolve this enduring question scientifically. Keywords: anomalous experience, empiricism, paranormal belief, probability, survival
... Reflecting on it now, The Golden Book of the Mysterious engaged me so effectively, in part, because it brought information to life via highly readable content that was reinforced by memorable illustrations. This is unsurprising given that research suggests 'high-strangeness' (e.g., ghosts) has a particularly strong and enduring 'brand personality' precisely because diverse audiences can interact or participate in these topics as narrative constructions (Hill et al., 2018Houran et al., 2020). But I digress. ...
... A rather conspicuous 'resurrection' is happening. Whether old wine in new bottles or a reverent nod to the 19 th century investigations of Spiritualism that birthed psychical research and modern parapsychology, the question of postmortem survival of consciousness has again become a hot button topic in the social and biomedical sciences Bastos et al., 2015;Hill et al., 2018;O'Keeffe & Wiseman, 2005). Unfortunately, modern treatises are limited in offering only religio-cultural overviews of related beliefs (e.g., Nagasawa & Matheson, 2017), a single category of evidence (e.g., Gauld, 1982a;Haraldsson & Matlock, 2016;Houran & Lange, 2001), or echo chambers of skeptical (e.g., Martin, & Augustine, 2015) or sympathetic views (e.g., Storm & Thalbourne, 2006). ...
... However, mainstream scientists tend not to equate paranormal experiences phenomenologically with other types of witnessed events. An obvious example of this prejudice is the trite phrase, 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' (see e.g., Deming, 2016;McMahon, 2020), Of course, 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' merely follows what is ideologically acceptable (or possible) within the belief system evaluating the claimed event (Hill et al., 2018McClenon, 1994). To our knowledge, there are no philosophical or empirical arguments that human perception of, say, an 'office building' is fundamentally or factually different from the perception of an 'apparition,' with the exception of the perceptual or attributional errors that we address in this essay. ...
... Some research suggests that outwardly disparate "(entity) encounter experiences "-e.g., spirits, angels, gods, demons, poltergeists, extraterrestrials, Men in Black (MIB), and folklore-type little people-generally have similar narrative structures (Evans, 1987;Hufford, 2001;Young, 2018) and perceptual contents (Houran, 2000;Houran and Lange, 2001b;Houran et al., 2019a). However, the exact attribution or meaning of these occurrences typically reflects the percipient's religiocultural milieu, with many people ascribing their experiences to hauntings or poltergeists (collectively termed ghostly episodes) (Hill et al., 2018Houran et al., 2019a). ...
... These episodes are not uncommon in the general population and have strong supernatural connotations for many people (Hill et al., 2018Houran et al., 2020). Research indicates that singular or sporadic haunt-type experiences can be induced for clinical, leisure, research, or transpersonal purposes by means of suggestion-expectancy effects , transcerebral magnetic stimulation (Persinger et al., 2000), creative dissociation (Maraldi and Krippner, 2013), psychedelic use (Davis et al., 2020), channeling activities (Pederzoli et al., 2022), ritual settings (Caputo et al., 2021), and environmental psychology . ...
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Haunted People Syndrome (HP-S) denotes individuals who recurrently report various “supernatural” encounters in everyday settings ostensibly due to heightened somatic-sensory sensitivities to dis-ease states (e.g., marked but sub-clinical levels of distress), which are contextualized by paranormal beliefs and reinforced by perceptual contagion effects. This view helps to explain why these anomalous experiences often appear to be idioms of stress or trauma. We tested the validity and practical utility of the HP-S concept in an empirical study of an active and reportedly intense ghostly episode that was a clinical referral. The case centered on the life story of the primary percipient, a retired female healthcare worker. Secondary percipients included her husband and adult daughter, all of whom reported an array of benign and threatening anomalies (psychological and physical in nature) across five successive residences. Guided by prior research, we administered the family online measures of transliminality, sensory-processing sensitivity, paranormal belief, locus of control, desirability for control, and a standardized checklist of haunt-type phenomena. The primary percipient also completed a measure of adverse childhood events and supplied an event diary of her anomalous experiences. We found reasonably consistent support for HP-S from a set of quantitative observations that compared five proposed syndrome features against the family members’ psychometric profiles and the structure and contents of their anomalous experiences. Specifically, the reported anomalies both correlated with the family’s scores on transliminality and paranormal belief, as well as elicited attributions and reaction patterns aligned with threat (agency) detection. There was also some evidence of perceptual congruency among the family members’ anomalous experiences. Putative psi cannot be ruled out, but we conclude that the family’s ordeal fundamentally involved the symptoms and manifestations of thin (or “permeable”) mental boundary functioning in the face of unfavorable circumstances or overstimulating environments and subsequently acerbated by poor emotion regulation, histrionic and catastrophizing reactions, and active confirmation biases.
... Furthermore, these older structures are places where terrible things are said to have happened, with the implication that some "residue" of the events remains. Such narratives can be personally compelling (Eaton, 2018) and socially engaging (Hill et al., 2018. These structures "…place us on our highest alert, and when combined with hazards that have threatened humans from the dawn of time, will creep us out every time" (McAndrew, 2020, p. 30). ...
... In this way, hypotheses can be explored and tested in real-time and within naturalistic settings. The rubric of ghosts and haunts naturally attracts the general public (Hill et al., 2018, which can subsequently encourage large and diverse research samples (cf. Wiseman, Watt, et al., 2003). ...
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Fieldwork studies of "haunted houses" can offer ecologically valid insights for model-building or theory-formation in consciousness studies from parapsychological and conventional perspectives. The interactionist hypothesis asserts that these anomalous episodes are a phenomenon rooted in environment-person bidirectional influences. Although prior research has examined the role of various physical factors in some haunt cases, relatively recent findings in environmental psychology suggest the potential involvement of six "Gestalt influences" that transcend discrete variables as conscious-or unconscious-stimulants of witness experiences. These meta-patterns in the psychology of spaces or settings involve: (i) affordance, (ii) atmosphere, (iii) ambiguity and threat anticipatory processes, (iv) immersion and presence, (v) legibility, and (vi) percipient memory and associations. Thus, haunted houses might be variants of "enchanted spaces or extraordinary architectural experiences." New research designs are thus recommended to scrutinise the presence and impact of Gestalt influences and enactive processes in parapsychological contexts.
... In fact, Taylor (2003) reported that 5% of ICs documented across her research surveys were specifically personalized as "ghosts" by experients. This characterization carries loaded connotations of paranormal agency (Hill et al., 2018Houran et al., 2020), which appear to be bolstered by anecdotal reports of ICs that seemingly "come alive" and behave in ways that correspond to Houran et al.'s (2019aHouran et al.'s ( , 2019b set of subjective and objective anomalies that typify ghostly episodes (for an overview and discussion, see Little, Laythe, & Houran, 2021). ...
... To be sure, Armah and Landers-Potts (2021) found that adults who reported childhood ICs demonstrated an enhanced emotional response to external stimuli and a tendency to become absorbed in detailed recollections of events. This is where systems (or biopsychosocial) theory comes into play when describing the onset or contents of ghostly episodes and encounter experiences as an interplay of variables found in both the experient and the environment Hess, 1991;Hill et al., 2018Hill et al., , 2019Houran et al., 2020;Maraldi & Krippner, 2013;O'Keeffe et al., 2019). ...
Reports of childhood imaginary companions (IC) sometimes contain "creepy or spooky" perceptions or themes that suggest such occurrences could be overlooked or disguised forms of a "ghostly episode" or "entity encounter experience." This idea was explored via a content analysis of vetted narratives from the Reddit website involving ICs with haunt-type features (n = 143). We tested whether the phenomenology of these experiences: (a) show an "Age × Gender × Anxiety" effect consistent with the assumed psychology of focus persons in poltergeist-like experiences; (b) map to Houran et al.'s (2019b) Rasch hierarchy of anomalies associated with ghostly episodes per the Survey of Strange Events (SSE); and (c) correspond to a specific type of "haunt condition" (i.e., spontaneous, primed, lifestyle, fantasy, or illicit). Results indicated that ICs attributed to "ghosts" corresponded to higher SSE scores. Experients' gender and inferred anxiety likewise showed significant and positive associations with SSE scores. Finally, the SSE features of ghostly IC experiences most strongly correlated to the phenomenologies of "spontaneous" and "induced" haunt conditions as reported in Houran et al. (2019b). We discuss the results in terms of some ICs being anomalous or exceptional human experiences that might require approaches beyond developmental and clinical psychology to understand fully their contents, structure, and ultimate nature.
... In fact, Taylor (2003) reported that 5% of ICs documented across her research surveys were specifically personalized as "ghosts" by experients. This characterization carries loaded connotations of paranormal agency (Hill et al., 2018Houran et al., 2020), which appear to be bolstered by anecdotal reports of ICs that seemingly "come alive" and behave in ways that correspond to Houran et al.'s (2019aHouran et al.'s ( , 2019b set of subjective and objective anomalies that typify ghostly episodes (for an overview and discussion, see Little, Laythe, & Houran, 2021). ...
... To be sure, Armah and Landers-Potts (2021) found that adults who reported childhood ICs demonstrated an enhanced emotional response to external stimuli and a tendency to become absorbed in detailed recollections of events. This is where systems (or biopsychosocial) theory comes into play when describing the onset or contents of ghostly episodes and encounter experiences as an interplay of variables found in both the experient and the environment Hess, 1991;Hill et al., 2018Hill et al., , 2019Houran et al., 2020;Maraldi & Krippner, 2013;O'Keeffe et al., 2019). ...
... Reflecting on it now, The Golden Book of the Mysterious engaged me so effectively, in part, because it brought information to life via highly readable content that was reinforced by memorable illustrations. This is unsurprising given that research suggests 'high-strangeness' (e.g., ghosts) has a particularly strong and enduring 'brand personality' precisely because diverse audiences can interact or participate in these topics as narrative constructions (Hill et al., 2018Houran et al., 2020). But I digress. ...
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The founding of the Journal of Scientific Exploration in 1987 coincided with my graduation from high school and start of higher education. Even then I was deeply interested in all types of anomalies thanks to my parents’ gift about ten years earlier of Jane Werner Watson and Sol Chaneles’ (1976) The Golden Book of the Mysterious (NY: Golden Press). That book was a childhood obsession that steadily evolved to serious academic curiosity, which then quickly transformed into passionate participation in scholarly research and writing. My curiosity and passion certainly endure, but these have been become increasingly balanced with skepticism that erupted from several negative experiences over the years with ideological-motivated academics. Of course, bias cuts both ways (Drinkwater et al., 2019; Irwin et al., 2016, 2017; Kennedy, 2005; Truzzi, 1987), so my own work has disappointed — and sometimes even irked — both debunkers of the paranormal and fervent believers in otherworldly phenomena. My appointment as the new Editor-in-Chief (EiC) might thus surprise individuals who do not view me as a sympathetic champion for the advancement of ‘edge science,’ or what amounts to empirical observations that challenge scientific principles or concepts as presently understood. This Editorial avoids reciting my professional background and interests, which anyone can easily read at the Parapsychological Association website ( or via my ORCID record ( Rather, the goal here is to introduce readers to the underlying philosophy that will be the backbone of my JSE tenure. Indeed, readers deserve to know what the EiC stands for. I have also not been immersed in the Society for Scientific Exploration’s (SSE) activities and culture in recent years, so some members might understandably deem me an outsider. However, my academic career has consistently centered on edge science and advancing its cause. The diligent efforts of past Editors, Associate Editors, Editorial Board, and the unsung hero known as Kathleen Erickson (Managing Editor) have achieved notable strides in the JSE’s quality and impact over the years. But my primary aim is now to take the journal to the next level by bolstering its familiarity, reach, and influence within academia and the mainstream consciousness alike. This pursuit involves diversifying the provocative research in its pages and making that content more accessible and useful to non-specialists in other fields, as well as to journalistic outlets and the mass media. The latter forums can and should play a valuable role in public science education (Höttecke & Allchin, 2020; Huber et al., 2019; Olson & Kutner, 2008), although these can easily miss the mark as illustrated by my own frustrating experiences with misreported research.
... The major limitation being overreliance on a narrow index of person-centred paranormal experience, direct reported encounters (i.e., SPEs). This focus ignores the fact that involvement in the paranormal takes many forms, such as actively engaging with practitioners (i.e., Mediums, Psychics, Fortune-Tellers, and Spiritualists), and normative influences (e.g., family and peers) (Hill et al., 2018;Drinkwater et al., 2019). ...
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This study examined the degree to which within-individual variations in paranormal experience were related to belief in the paranormal, preferential thinking style, and delusion formation. A sample of 956 non-clinical adults completed measures assessing experience-based paranormal indices (i.e., paranormal experience, paranormal practitioner visiting, and paranormal ability), paranormal belief, belief in science, proneness to reality testing deficits, and emotion-based reasoning. Latent profile analysis (LPA) combined the experience-based indices to produce six underlying groups. Inter-class comparison via multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) indicated that both breadth and intensity of experiential factors were associated with higher belief in in the paranormal, increased proneness to reality testing deficits, and greater emotion-based reasoning. Belief in science, however, was less susceptible to experiential variations. Further analysis of reality testing subscales revealed that experiential profiles influenced levels of intrapsychic activity in subtle and intricate ways, especially those indexing Auditory and Visual Hallucinations and Delusional Thinking. Collectively, identification of profiles and inter-class comparisons provided a sophisticated understanding of the relative contribution of experiential factors to differences in paranormal belief, belief in science, proneness to reality testing deficits, and emotion-based reasoning.
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This paper aims to identify possibilities for paranormal tourism development in Serbia and to determine domestic tourists' interest in participating in paranormal tourism. Paranormal places and bizarre rituals have been defined as potential paranormal tourism localities and events. Paranormal tourism is one of the new forms of special interest tourism. It is evident that paranormal tourism is a result of the expansion of other related types of tourism, such as dark tourism, ghost tourism, spiritual tourism, cultural tourism, ethnological tourism, new age tourism and pilgrimage tourism. It is defined by tourists' interest in topics which challenge realist ontologies and representational epistemologies. The present study examines responses from 405 Serbia residents (potential tourists).
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The importance of extraordinary experiences for the process of adopting a heterodox belief system or an alternative religious world view is often neglected in the existing research literature. Scholars of religion commonly lay stress on the process of religious conversion characterized by different stages. Extraordinary experiences are, thereby, included as potential internal catalysts (e.g. mystical experiences or near-death experiences), but only among others. The particular quality of the extraordinary experience remains largely unconsidered. In our paper, we emphasise the personal extraordinary experiences of strongly subjective evidence as an important factor in the process of becoming a magical practitioner and adopting a heterodox worldview. Our examination is based on the interview data of three field studies with neoshamans, contemporary magicians, and German heathen (Asatru) , conducted in German-speaking countries. First, we outline differ ent functions of extraordinary experiences regarding the process. Second, we reflect on the process of converting the personal extraordinary experience into a narration (framing). Finally, we propose to distinguish between two classes of extraordinary experiences, with regard to their function in the process of adopting a heterodox (religious) worldview. Furthermore we address the methodological problem r egarding the possibility of the reconstruction of factual/objective 'para-normal' events as potential catalysts of extraordinary experiences. This gives rise to the question of the validity of narratively embedded and processed extraordinary experiences. In this context, the German differentiation between Erlebnis (experience in the sense of a pure individual impression) and Erfahrung (social form of experience, based on shared knowledge) seems to be a crucial distinction.
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Haunt and poltergeist' experiences tend to occur around certain individuals ('person-focusing'). To study this phenomenon, a convenience sample of college students (N = 313) completed measures of trait Anxiety and Depression, Vulnerability, Intellect, Paranormal Belief (New Age Philosophy and Traditional Paranormal Beliefs), Locus of Control, Fear of the Paranormal, Rational Engagement, Experiential Ability, Experiential Engagement and Transliminality, along with demographic information and details about their haunt-type experiences. Two groups were randomly formed that each included 'haunters' (those reporting experiences) and 'non-haunters' (no experiences). Using a split-sample approach, we explored associations between the psychometric variables and haunt reports in Sample 1 (Haunters n = 73; Non-Haunters n = 74) and tested the generalizability of the results in a replication with Sample 2 (Haunters n = 85; Non-Haunters n = 61). The psychometric variables generally showed non-significant associations with the onset or specific features ('number of discrete events' and 'number of discrete modalities') of haunters' experiences. However, moderate-sized effects of Transliminality replicated across samples. The New Age Philosophy variety of paranormal belief was a secondary variable that replicated in correlational analyses only. Findings suggest a transliminal basis to person-focusing, and this profile informs model-building and theory-formation for these experiences in terms of stimulus detection and interpretation.
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This essay explores factors that arguably hinder progress in the domain of parapsychology that deals with ghostly episodes-apparitions, haunts and poltergeist-like outbreaks. An infatuation with gadgets and hardware, a sensationalized public image and a lack of consistent, cumulative theory-building all individually and collectively seem to constrain the active adoption and application of other approaches that are more concerned with 'substance over style'. Indeed, this modern era of analytics opens new avenues in methodology and modeling. Examples of this potential are reviewed and discussed. Ultimately, it is proposed that multidisciplinary, collaborative research programs equally focused on psychometric and environmental variables are required to achieve a cohesive, scientific explanation for these phenomena.
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This essay introduces the central results – for the first time in the English language – of a representative survey which was carried out at the Institut fu¨r Grenzgebieteder Psychologie und Psychohgienein Freiburg in the year 2000. Over 1500 persons of the Federal Republic of Germany were questioned in a telephone interview about their attitude towards paranormal phenomena and about personal experiences in this field. The results are surprising: Germans are quite open-minded about paranormal phenomena, and more than half of the people even give an account of personal exceptional experiences. Interestingly, it is primarily young people who believe in the existence of psi phenomena and who are increasingly having personal experiences in this field. Presented are qualitative results, as well as descriptive statistics. In a second telephone interview more than 200 persons were questioned once again, this time in detail, about their personal experiences. It was found that dealing with the paranormal is not seen as problematic at all.
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This research argues that the meaning embedded in consumption symbols, such as commercial brands, can serve to represent and institutionalize the values and beliefs of a culture. Relying on a combined emic-etic approach, the authors conducted 4 studies to examine how symbolic and expressive attributes associated with commercial brands are structured and how this structure varies across 3 cultures. Studies 1 and 2 revealed a set of "brand personality" dimensions common to both Japan and the United States (Sincerity, Excitement, Competence, and Sophistication), as well as culture-specific Japanese (Peacefulness) and American (Ruggedness) dimensions. Studied 3 and 4, which extended this set of findings to Spain, yielded brand personality dimensions common to both Spain and the United States (Sincerity, Excitement, and Sophistication), plus nonshared Spanish (Passion) and American (Competence and Ruggedness) dimensions. The meaning of these brand personality dimensions is discussed in the context of cross-cultural research on values and affect, globalization issues, and cultural frame shifting.
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We develop a new model of how human agency-detection capacities and other socio-cognitive biases are involved in forming religious beliefs. Crucially, we distinguish general religious beliefs (such as *God exists*) from personal religious beliefs that directly refer to the agent holding the belief or to her peripersonal time and space (such as *God appeared to _me_ last night*). On our model, people acquire general religious beliefs mostly from their surrounding culture; however, people use agency-intuitions and other low-level experiences to form personal religious beliefs. We call our model the Interactive Religious Experience Model (IREM). IREM inverts received versions of Hyperactive Agency-Detection Device Theory (HADD Theory): instead of saying that agency-intuitions are major causes of religious belief in general, IREM says that general belief in supernatural agents causes people to seek situations that trigger agency-intuitions and other experiences, since these enable one to form personal beliefs about those agents. In addition to developing this model, we (1) present empirical and conceptual difficulties with received versions of HADD Theory, (2) explain how IREM incorporates philosophical work on indexical belief, (3) relate IREM to existing anthropological and psychological research, and (4) propose future empirical research programs based on IREM.
Ghosts and other supernatural phenomena are widely represented throughout modern culture. They can be found in any number of entertainment, commercial, and other contexts, but popular media or commodified representations of ghosts can be quite different from the beliefs people hold about them, based on tradition or direct experience. Personal belief and cultural tradition on the one hand, and popular and commercial representation on the other, nevertheless continually feed each other. They frequently share space in how people think about the supernatural. In Haunting Experiences, three well-known folklorists seek to broaden the discussion of ghost lore by examining it from a variety of angles in various modern contexts. Diane E. Goldstein, Sylvia Ann Grider, and Jeannie Banks Thomas take ghosts seriously, as they draw on contemporary scholarship that emphasizes both the basis of belief in experience (rather than mere fantasy) and the usefulness of ghost stories. They look closely at the narrative role of such lore in matters such as socialization and gender. And they unravel the complex mix of mass media, commodification, and popular culture that today puts old spirits into new contexts.