Who believes in the preternatural? The answers might surprise you…

“There’s the idea that people who believe in the paranormal are unconventional, that you’d know if you saw one, that there’s the guy that has the tinfoil on his head or mental illness,” explains Dr. Christopher Bader, an associate professor of sociology at Baylor University and co-author of Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture. “But the paranormal is becoming more and more normal[…] More and more people who seem conventional are spending their lives exploring it. The more things they believe in the less conventional they are.”

Bader, along with fellow sociologists Dr. Carson Mencken, Baylor University and Dr. Joseph Baker, East Tennessee State University, tagged along Sasquatch hunts, spent multiple nights in haunted houses, visited palmists and interviewed people who have seen UFOs  as they researched what turned out to be a 272-page tome: Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture. The book chronicles a range of paranormal experiences, beliefs and activities claimed by some Americans. They also looked at whether those holding unusual beliefs are unconventional in other ways as well as whether those beliefs tie in with religions and, if so, how.

Mencken and Bader talked about the project, which they began in 2006 and finally published in 2010, in an interview.

Social Behavior Learned, not inherited
NSF image depicting social behavior is learned not genetic

Q: How did you all get interested in the paranormal and the people who believe in it?

Bader: I’ve been studying them for about 20 years, since I rode around with a guy looking for Bigfoot.

Mencken: I grew up in Charleston, S.C. and there are a bunch of stories from there. A good friend of mine makes a living giving haunted history tours. My parents claimed we had a haunted house. It was never really clear what you were supposed to see and when; it was just that you knew it when you saw it. That was part of the Old South culture. There are a lot of good stories but not a systematic analysis of clean data from a reliable source. A book on statistics on Bigfoot and UFOs would be interesting, but we felt we needed a personal touch. We got the data and thought, “We can do this better than anybody else.”

Q: How did you approach the people who believe in the paranormal?

Mencken: We were very honest with them that neither of us was believers or had had an experience, but we were interested in their experience. The first time, I was a little spooked. Some were there trying to convert you — but that’s not why we were there.

Bader: You’re as respectful as you would be of anyone. It’s one thing to laugh on CNN, but you’re not going to giggle in their faces. For us, it doesn’t matter if Bigfoot exists. That might be kind of cool, but that’s not our purpose. We want to know how does this affect these people’s lives? Do other people make fun? We’re not Geraldo Rivera.

Q: Who are the most memorable people you’ve run into in your research?

Bader: There’s a woman named Laura, a retired postal worker from Washington State, who is one of those who has experienced everything. She’s from another planet, she’s reincarnated from another universe, she’s an astrologer, and she’s a palm reader who believes in Bigfoot. She just sees the world differently. She saw no conflict between those things; she just sees the world as a mysterious place. We all share a soul, and she has memory of people sacrificing mammoths.

Mencken: I think the Bigfoot guys were most memorable. They’re normal guys, but they’ve had an experience in the woods that caused them to seek more information.

Q: How does religion figure into the paranormal?

Mencken: One of the most interesting things about religion is that not all Christians feel the same about the paranormal. A friend of mine who’s a Baptist minister was very negative across the board. [Obviously, not the Baptist preacher who predicted the Rapture beginning on Saturday 21 May.] More conservative denominations of congregations are less likely to believe in the paranormal; those with more liberal backgrounds are more likely. Spiritualists are strong supporters of the cosmic, hard-core paranormal. To atheists, it’s all hooey.

The Baylor Religion Survey of 2006, which was also used while researching the book supports this, indicating:

  • 75 percent believe alternative treatment is as effective as traditional medicine
  • 52 percent believe dreams can sometimes foretell the future or reveal hidden truths
  • 37 percent believe places can be haunted
  • 28 percent believe it’s possible to influence the world through the mind alone (telekinesis)
  • 25 percent believe some UFOs are probably spaceships from other worlds
  • 20 percent believe it’s possible to communicate with the dead
  • 18 percent believe creatures such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster will one day be discovered by science
  • 13 percent believe in astrologers, palm readers, tarot cards, fortune tellers and psychics.

Q: How do believers in the paranormal see themselves?

Bader: I think these guys we spent time with looking for Bigfoot think, “Either Bigfoot is real or I’m crazy.” It threatens their identity. They’d be quite happy if they found it. They won’t be looking for giant beavers or woodpeckers. They’ve got this tension in their life. You’d think Bigfoot people would understand people who believe in UFOs. But they think, “Those UFO people are crazy.” They don’t see themselves as similar to people reading their auras.

The conclusion: even in the 21st century we are still trying to make sense of our universe and for many of us, that means more that just what we see, feel, hear, taste and smell every day.

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