“Removing the ‘Super’ from Supernatural: The Nobility of Paranormal Research”
By Daniel Gould
In the early part of the 1900s Thomas Edison was working on a special project.
The man who gave the world the electric light bulb, the motion picture camera, the phonograph, and who held over 1,000 US patents, was now constructing a machine he called “The Telephone to the Dead.” This device, as he explained to American Magazine during a 1920 interview, would enable “personalities which have left this Earth to communicate with us.”
These “personalities,” of course, were spirits of the deceased. Thomas Edison—one of the most advanced scientific minds of his generation—believed in ghosts. And he is not the only well-known and highly educated individual to openly discuss his forthright acceptance of the supernatural world. Harry Truman, the nation’s 33rd president, once complained in a letter to his wife, “I sit here in this old house [The White House] and work on foreign affairs, read reports, and work on speeches—all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway… The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth.”
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is ripe with haunted tales of the paranormal. Following the conclusion of WWII, British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was on working visit to the White House. He enjoyed ending the evenings with a long bath, glass of scotch, and a cigar. Upon one occasion he stepped out of the bath, walked into the adjoining room stark naked—perhaps still smoking his cigar—and came face to face with the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. Always full of wit and quick on the uptake, he said, “Good evening, Mr. President. You seem to have me at a disadvantage.”
Of course, skeptics can openly challenge Truman’s and Churchill’s accounts with (I admit) logic and rationality. The White House is, just as Truman explained, an old house, and old houses are drafty with creaky floors and settling foundations. As for Churchill, it was likely he may have had more than just one glass of scotch the night he conversed with Lincoln’s ghost.
But what if the stories are true?
And more importantly, why can’t they be? Why are individuals so quick to disregard these types of claims?
The human mind is far too hasty in dismissing something if it lands outside the neat little box we call reality—not in the sense that it is more real or substantiated than something on the outside, but because it contains all that is recognizable and familiar. Sadly, this is where the vast majority of men and women live. Outside the box is a frightening place because nothing is defined, labeled, or qualified. Outside the box is a mystery and mysteries have a way of scaring the hell out of us. Yet at the same time the most celebrated and noble minds through history have dared to think outside the box. Nicolaus Copernicus suggested the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the solar system when the rest of the world believed in the geocentric model. Even when Galileo built telescopes capable of proving Copernicus’s heliocentric theories true he was suspected of heresy and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
Flash forward 500 years and heliocentricity is so universally accepted to think otherwise is not only ignorant, it is scientific blasphemy. Copernicus and Galileo were right all along. What was once outside the box now rest comfortably inside. The magic and mysticism of the past sometimes ends up as the scientific reality of the present.
Consider the stories European capitalists heard during the age of imperialism in Africa. Natives told frightening tales of hairy beast-like men who lived in the mountains and jungle highlands. These creatures were the subject of terror and fear to the African tribes, but to the Europeans they were nothing more than silly, irrational fairytales. The westerners saw them as pure myth, legends concocted by a primitive culture that were just too fantastic to be true. But in 1902 a German army officer named Captain Robert von Beringe shot and killed one of these mysterious creatures. The specimen was packed up and shipped to the Berlin Zoological Museum where researchers and scientist classified it as a new species of primate—Gorilla beringei. With one shot from a high powered hunting rifle myth became fact.
The scientific world is in a constant state of flux. The coelacanth is another prime example of a widely accepted, in-the-box convention that was redefined with one shocking discovery. A loped-finned fish thought to be extinct since the late cretaceous period (65 million years ago), a living coelacanth was pulled out of the Chalumna River in South Africa near the Indian Ocean in 1938. The strange looking catch baffled local fisherman but a South African museum official, Marjorie Courenay-Latimer, recognized the exotic creature from its fossil record. Dubbed the “Lazarus fish,” the coelacanth serves as a constant reminder that life has a way of surprising us when we least expect it.
If we close our minds and refuse to think outside of the box then we risk missing the next great discovery. There is an inherent danger in ignoring a belief or theory because it may be categorized as supernatural, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as, “attributed to or thought to reveal some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.” According to this definition Copernicus’s theory of heliocentricity was supernatural during his time, as was the common mountain gorilla before the turn of the twentieth century. The “super” in these two cases has hence been removed. If something is “beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature” it may only be because science, or our understanding of the natural laws, has not advanced to a point that can measure or qualify it… yet.
But as time marches forward, so, too, does science and our knowledge of the world. And the biggest threat to this progression is a closed mind.
The study of ghosts and the paranormal requires an open-mind, just like any commonly accepted scholarly discipline. It’s unfortunate that this endeavor is viewed more as a fun little hobby than a noble science or a legitimate field of research. Ghost hunting has become a form of entertainment, a part of popular culture glamorized on television shows and in film. And because of this its validity has been undercut. The truth is ghost hunting is a term that needs to go away; its implications detract from its authority as a valid field of study. A far better designation is paranormal research, because real research is paramount, as is a collective understanding of a variety of academic subjects—science, history, culture, psychology, philosophy, spirituality, religion, literature. And, of course, the most important condition—the fortitude to step outside the box.
Paranormal research is more than running around in the dark with flashlights and night vision cameras. It’s more than séances and Ouija boards; it’s more than going into a building where someone died or was murdered and jumping every time the wind blows a door shut. And it’s certainly more than the cheap thrills provided by corny television shows. Paranormal research is an examination into the unknown elements of our world. It is an attempt to restructure, even break down the walls of the box we live in, to make sense out of the mysteries that not only haunt our nightmares, but our physical world. Like any other field of study, it is the pursuit of answers and knowledge.
As an academic discipline paranormal research is still in its infancy, but as it grows and develops so will our ability to create disciplined procedures of researching, analyzing, and qualifying such phenomenon. Right now it is a field with more theories than proofs, and admittedly, many of its principles fly in the face of conventional wisdom.
But life’s conventions have a peculiar way of being redefined.
And the only possible way to do this is to ask questions and seek answers—which by itself is the noblest human pursuit.