Ghosts, Spirits, & Demons

By: Savannah Brand

I. Ghosts & Spirits

“Behind every man now alive stands 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.”
- Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

A. History

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By Gi45678910 via Wikimedia Commons

Although stories about ghosts roaming the planet and wreaking havoc in the homes of families have been

The story told by Pliny was originally a hearsay tale and was approximately a century old when he transcribed it. The story describes a house in Athens that was haunted by a fettered man that would rattle chains all night, bringing with him disease and death to the guests of the home. Then one day a philosopher named Athenodorus, un-intimidated by the reputation preceding the house, bought the house. He repeatedly attempted to ignore the beckoning ghost, but one evening he followed the ghost to the garden where it promptly vanished. The next day, Athenodorus asked some local officials to dig at the site where the apparition had disappeared, and they found a human skeleton in rusty chains. The haunting of the house halted immediately following a proper burial of the skeleton. It was assumed that the burial satisfied the ghost, which is why the torment of the living ceased (Nickell, 2006).

Several hundred decades later, in 856 A.D., the first poltergeist (a spirit that creates physical disturbances such as throwing objects around and making loud noises) was reported at a farmhouse near the Rhine River in Germany. The spirit purportedly would throw stones at the family and create fires that would destroy much of their crops. When priests and other holy men came to the farmhouse, they were also pelted with stones (“Historical Ghost Stories”, n.d.).

Although there have been many accounts, over the last few decades, of ghosts and spirits roaming the Earth, there are a few famous ghosts that have been repeatedly been “sighted”. These ghosts are those of the Virgin Mary, Anne Boleyn, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln. The Virgin Mary has reportedly been seen in various places throughout the world, including Egypt, Fatima, and China. Anne Boleyn was the mother of Queen Elizabeth I and second wife of King Henry VIII. After being accused of witchcraft, incest, adultery, and treason, she was executed in 1536 at the Tower of London. Individuals have reported seeing her ghost at the tower as well as her childhood home in Kent, England and other various locations. Benjamin Franklin’s ghost has been spotted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania near the library of the American Philosophical Society since the late 19th century. Abraham Lincoln has been spotted very frequently at the White House in Washington, D.C. as well as at his former law offices and the Springfield capitol building in Illinois.

Spiritualism, which is considered to be the belief that one is or can be in contact with the spiritual realm, dates back as far as the Witch of Endor from the Old Testament. According to the Old Testament, the Witch of Endor conjured up the spirit of Samuel after much begging by King Saul (1 Sam. 28:7-20). King Saul was terrified about an impending battle and sought assistance from the spirit of Samuel, although Samuel refused to give him any advice.

Modern spiritualism began in 1848 in New York with two young children, Katie and Maggie Fox, began telling people that they were able to communicate with the spirit of a peddler who was murdered, providing evidence of such communication by requesting that the spirit perform “rappings”. Soon after, the girls were able to conjure more deceased individuals and were able to ask the spirits questions in the form of rappings performed by the spirits, once for no and two for yes. It was not until four decades later that the girls admitted to faking the “spirit rappings”, although skeptics were able to determine that these “rappings” were faked prior to the confessions of the girls. However, by this time, the older sister of the girls began a spiritualism movement that had quickly spread across not only the United States, but other countries as well (Nickell, 2008).

As a result of the interest in spiritualism and ghosts, ghost hunting, as we know it now, was inspired. Multiple organizations were created as a result of this interest. The very first organization to begin hunting down ghosts was a ghost society formed in 1851 at Cambridge University. Following the formation of that organization, multiple other organizations were formed: London’s Ghost Club in 1862, the Society for Psychical Research in 1882, and the American Society for Psychical Research in 1885. Scientists and spiritualists alike joined these organizations in the hopes of proving the existence of spirits and forming a coalition between science and religion.

Technology was not used for the purposes of paranormal study until Harry Price of England married a wealthy heiress, and as a result was able to spend the necessary money in order to research psychical activity. He made use of devices such as a remote-control motion picture camera, a camera with infrared filter and film, and an instrument used to detect electric signaling (“movement of any object in any part of the house”). Although Price investigated several reports of hauntings with his ghost hunting technology, he was never able to fully prove the existence of ghosts (Nickell, 2008).

In the late 1970’s and with the popularity of the movie Ghostbusters in 1984, ghost hunting became more popular with the general public. Average people, without any background in science, were forming groups of ghost hunters and partaking in excursions in search of ghosts with the use of modern gadgetry. The types of technology used for the detection of ghostly activity are photographs, electromagnetic field meters, audiotape recorders, and heat sensors. There have been several purposes for which photography is used in detecting ghosts: seeing the ghosts appear themselves in the photographs, orbs, and the existence of ectoplasm.

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By William Mumler (1863-1933) (National Media Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photographs of the spirits of the deceased began in 1862, after the creation of glass-plate negatives, with a Boston engraver by the name of William Mumler. Mumler claimed to produce “spirit” photos, in which individuals could sit for a photograph and a ghost would appear in the printed photo. These glass-plate negatives could create double exposures of the photographs, essentially reprinting a “ghosting” effect of the previous photograph taken onto the current photograph. Once this was discovered, it was noted that the “ghosts” that appeared in many of the photographs were, in fact, living Bostonians who had posed for Mumler previously. Photographs are also used in order to detect the energy of spirits, or flashes of light called orbs. Often, these flashes of light are merely a result of the flash being located too close to the lens of the camera, or of the flash reflecting from surfaces that are shiny, from particles of dust, or droplets of water that are close to the lens. Ectoplasm, a substance that extrudes from a spirit or the body of a medium, has been photographed and determined as means of detecting spirits and paranormal activity. Originally, it was photographed as coming out of the bodies of mediums like umbilical cords but has been revealed as being faked with gelatin, soap, strips of gauze, etc. Currently, many ghost hunters feel that the presence of ectoplasm is the explanation for different effects, such as misting, that show up in photographs. Again, as with the explanation of orbs, these photographic effects could be due to any number of things, such as dust, insects, hair, jewelry, etc (Nickell, 2008).

Electromagnetic field (EMF) meters are also used by ghost hunters to “determine” the presence of spirits, by reading the amount of electromagnetic activity in any given location. EMF meters happen to be incredibly sensitive to actual sources of energy (faulty electric wiring, solar activity, radio waves, and even the human body) and thus can be inaccurate sources of determining ghostly activity. Often, ghost hunters will walk around the “haunted” area with the EMF meter, which also provides for inaccurate readings, as the movement of the body creates real energy.

Audiotape recording is also a technology used for the perceived detection of ghosts. Ghost hunters refer to this as Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP). Thomas Edison posited that it might one day be possible to create a technology that would allow for communication with spirits of the dead. Although such a device has not yet been created, current ghost hunters use tape recorders to hear what the spirits are saying to them. During the taping, the spirits are unable to be heard, but are only heard upon playback. Many skeptics argue that the “spirit” voices are either from radio, two-way radio transmissions, or even that they are imagined. Humans have a tendency to perceive random sounds and images as recognizable patterns, such as syllables in the English language.

Heat sensors are also employed as means to determine whether or not the presence of a deceased individual is present in a particular location. Many ghost hunters believe that a building is haunted if there are “cold spots” present, and they also believe that those particular spots are where a ghost is residing at that moment in time. Scientific evidence has not equated ghosts with a temperature change, or even with a temperature at all.

As a result of the development of this new ghost hunting gadgetry, there became a resurgence of interest in the paranormal within the last 20 years or so. Today, it is very likely that you can turn your television on at any point in the day and find a show about the paranormal to watch. Some of these shows (Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, Paranormal State, Most Haunted USA, and Ghost Hunters Academy to name a few) tend to focus on searching for ghosts and ghostly activity. There are also a multitude of psychic mediums, which are allegedly in contact with the deceased, portrayed on television. These individuals are either shown in a realistic fashion (as in performing “readings” for audiences, for example) or in a fictional setting (as in the television shows, Ghost Whisperer and Medium, which is portrayed in a fictional setting but is stated to be based on a true story of a real medium).

B. Why do people believe?

The development of paranormal beliefs began long ago, before written accounts of ghostly and spiritual hauntings. So why do people still believe in such imaginary stories? There are several reasons for why someone might believe in the paranormal, despite the major scientific proof disputing the existence of such entities. Many of these reasons are logical or psychological problems in thinking although a couple of these reasons have their roots in simple human emotions.

1. Argumentum Ad Ignorantium.

The name for this logical fallacy is Latin and literally means “argument from ignorance”. This claim states that because something has not been proven or because there is a lack of knowledge about the evidence (or lack thereof), it must be true (or vice versa). Because many people feel that there is no way to prove that ghosts do not exist, they state that they must exist. As stated by Carl Sagan in The Demon-Haunted World, this fallacy can be criticized as the “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Scientific language does not make a science.

According to Michael Shermer (2002), the definition of science is “A set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.” It is defined this way to prevent us from tricking ourselves and to keep our errors in thought to a minimum. Often, individuals who are searching for paranormal activity will attempt to use scientific terms to corroborate their beliefs on the “spiritual” occurrences. Terms such as “energy fields” or “frequencies” are used to explain the “science” behind ghostly occurrences, but these terms have not been operationally defined. Without operational definitions of these terms, we cannot know exactly the parameters for such activity. They may believe that using devices such as the EMF reader and temperature gauge provide scientific evidence for the existence of the paranormal, but there can be misunderstandings in how the equipment actually works or what types of non-paranormal activity can explain these occurrences.

According to David Hume, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” To prove that ghosts do, in fact, exist you would need to scientifically examine all of the evidence in order to rule out all natural explanations for what appears to be ghost activity. You must be able to prove that there are no other explanations, which would be the extraordinary evidence that Hume spoke of. Without this evidence, the argument holds no weight and the bold statements are still not true.

2. Reliance on eyewitness testimony and anecdotes.

As humans, we are programmed to learn from other individuals, so that we do not have to spend the time learning ourselves. It is quicker and ensures a more immediate survival rate. This is why we tell each other of what we have learned and observed. However, this can create problems in logical thinking, as we also have a tendency to believe stories without merit. For example, for many years in our criminal system, all that was needed to put a person in jail for a particular crime was the testimony of an eyewitness to the crime. Loftus (19--) determined that eyewitness testimony is unreliable and should not be used as the sole source of evidence. We can apply these same findings to stories of ghostly apparitions and hauntings. Human memory is unreliable and thus we should not believe everything that we hear from other individuals regarding the paranormal without some sound evidence. A child who exclaims that he saw Santa Claus would be dismissed as seeing what he wanted to see or even seeing a fake (a man dressed in a Santa Claus outfit). Why would we not treat ghost stories the same way?

3. Seeing patterns where there are none.

Humans learn from birth how to automatically “infer structure models of their environment from the statistical patterns they experience” (Meltzoff, 2009). This means that we are programmed to see statistical patterns and those patterns are what we are looking for all of the time. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, as a survival technique (e.g., you’d rather see the human face than the lion face coming toward you). However, this allows us to see things that are not necessarily patterns, as patterns that we recognize. This tendency is called Pareidolia. This happens all of the time. For example, we see the man in the moon, faces on Mars, and Jesus on toast. In the 1960’s and 1970’s there was a major following of individuals who felt that it you listened to particular songs backwards, you could hear messages that the songwriters had intentionally placed within the song. These people were just looking for patterns within the backwards song to prove their point (which was usually that the artist was Satanic).

4. Indoctrination by Authority.

Almost from birth, children are taught about their culture’s religious/paranormal/fantastical beliefs and the practices that the culture holds (Whittle, 2004, CSIPCOP). Because children glean from experience statistical patterns, these children are more apt to believe the fantastical and magical stories that they are told, because everything that they do seems magical (e.g., the child learns that if he screams, the mother will come to him). This creates a sense of order and control over one’s environment, as will be discussed later. So, when adults tell children that the Easter bunny exists, the children are more likely to believe what the authority is telling them. As children grow, they are informed that the Easter bunny does not actually exist, but that other magical entities do (e.g., God, ghosts, angels). What else do these children have to believe, except what their adult figures tell them? Then as these children become adults, they still believe in these magical entities, as they were not informed by authority figures that the entities do not exist.

5. Equipment constructs results.

As discussed earlier in the chapter, there are multiple devices used to measure the existence of ghosts or paranormal activity (or so people believe). How devices are marketed to the public also plays a major role in how the devices are used and how people will theorize the findings. For example, Edmund Scientific has recently begun marketing an ‘EMF Ghost Meter’, which is essentially just a normal, everyday EMF (electromagnetic field) reader that will detect low frequency EMFs such as microwave or radio waves. Because this reader is called a ‘EMF Ghost Meter’, more individuals are apt to believe that it actually measures the existence of ghosts within a particular area. There are probably people walking around with these devices right now ‘determining’ whether ghosts are present or not in their homes and making assumptions based on the results provided by this device.

6. Representativeness.

Because we are inclined to focus on the significant points within our lives and ignore the points that are non-significant, we do the same with everyday occurrences. Psychic mediums rely on this logical inadequacy, as when they are doing ‘cold’ readings, they are searching for a ‘hit’ for a person within their audience. The psychic may make many misses (sometimes hundreds) before getting a hit on a person in the audience. For example, Shermer (2002) had an experience with a ‘professional’ medium in which the medium had more than one hundred misses and only about a dozen hits within several hours of videotaping. These ‘hits’ were seen as successes from the audience, but were less often than chance.

7. Need for control, certainty, and simplicity.

Whittle, 2004 CSICOP- Humans have the need to feel in control of their lives, their destinies, and their worlds. This is how we make sense of the world and the events that occur. Using the example from earlier, if a child learns that when he screams his mother comes to comfort him, he feels that he has control over his environment and has made an association between screaming and his mother comforting him (certainty). It is these same superstitions that occur with the belief in the mystical. For example, one Sunday I decide to go to church and then immediately after I win the lottery. I might associate going to church (doing a good thing) with winning the lottery (receiving something good from God). This association allows me control over my environment, certainty that good things will happen to me if I go to church, and simplicity in my thought process about church and doing good.

8. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when we observe something happening that we anticipated to happen. Essentially, because we expect something to occur, it actually occurs. We also seek out information or stimuli that confirm our expectations (confirmatory bias) in order for the self-fulfilling prophecy to be fulfilled. Wiseman (2003) stated that “even subtle psychological and physiological changes occurring in a context that might suggest paranormal events (e.g., occurring to a person who believes in ghosts, occurring in a location with a haunted reputation) may lead to that person making a ‘paranormal’ attribution to what they might otherwise interpret as an ambiguous stimuli.” In his study, individuals were sent into allegedly ‘haunted’ sites and were asked to report the number of paranormal stimuli that they observed. The areas of the ‘haunted’ site that were reported as having more paranormal activity were positively correlated with the level of light outside of the haunted vault and the height of the vault itself. This was determined to be the result of individuals expecting to experience the paranormal in places that appear more ominous.

9. Problem-solving inadequacies.

As I mentioned above, we often will create hypotheses and then seek out evidence confirming our biases, not disproving them. We want to be told, “Yes, you are correct” and not, “No, you are wrong” even if it means that we have eliminated one possibility. If I believe in ghosts (or want to believe in ghosts), I will seek out evidence that confirms my beliefs. If I hear scratching noises in my home, I may automatically attribute the noises to ghosts, without examining the source of the noises (which may, in fact, turn out to be mice).

10. Effort inadequacies.

Fiske & Taylor (1991) coined the term “cognitive miser” to describe how people do not like to take up time and effort thinking critically if they do not have to. We naturally seek out the easiest and best (in our opinion) answer to describe our world, simply because we do not have the effort or time to spend investigating everything that we observe and hear. For example, if, while writing this chapter, the door in my bedroom begins to seemingly open slowly on it’s own and there are no open windows in my home, I might just think that it was a ghost, because I do not have the time or effort to examine the other possibilities (and because I already might believe in ghosts).

11. Failures are rationalized.

Science is grounded in not only positive findings and correlations, but also the negative findings. When scientists fail to prove a hypothesis, they know that either the hypothesis was actually false or that there is something else explaining the subject. People who study or believe in the paranormal have a tendency to rationalize failures and give reasons (a.k.a. “excuses”) for why the paranormal did not occur under specific circumstances. For example, assume that my sister tells me that she has a ghost living in her home that turns off the television for her when she’s done watching TV. I immediately ask her to prove this to me (since I do not believe it and she knows it), and the ‘ghost’ fails to turn off the TV when I am at her house. She might rationalize this failure by saying, “Well, the ghost knows that you do not believe in him so he won’t waste his time proving it to you. You’ll just look for other reasons to explain it, anyway.” This is often used with psychic mediums and pseudo-scientists.

12. Grief and the all knowing deceased.

It doesn’t take scientific research to know that when a loved one dies, family and friends of that loved one long to see or speak with that person again. It is simply an aspect of grief and it is a basic human emotion. Many people believe in the existence of ghosts or spirits as a way to keep loved ones, who have passed away, alive in different sense. It is difficult for people to believe that a person can be gone forever, and thus they choose to believe in the existence of spirits.
Belief in spirits, ghosts, and gods allow humans to feel as if they do not have to make major decisions on their own (Dennett, 2006). What choice would a particular loved one choose? Which choice would that same loved one want ME to choose? These questions are sometimes the way decision-making occurs in individuals who have lost someone that they loved. Also, by making a particular choice (after using such thoughts processes), there is the relief of burden of having to choose option A over option B (or vice versa).

II. Demons

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By Nikolaj Abraham Abildgaard (1743 - 1809) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A. History

The history behind the paranormal entities, demons, begins in a different way that we, in the 21st century, might have imagined. “Demon” is the Greek word for “knowledge”, indicating that man initially felt that demons, as creatures, held great knowledge. Demons were also not originally considered to be evil beings, but were actually thought to be forces of good or were ambiguous depending on the specific demon. Plato gave high reverence to demons stating,

We do not appoint oxen to be the lords of oxen, or goats of goats, but we ourselves are a superior race and rule over them. In like manner God, in his love of mankind, placed over us the demons, who are a superior race, and they with great ease and pleasure to themselves, and no less to us, taking care of us and giving us peace and reverence and order and justice never failing, made the tribes of men happy and united. (Sagan, 1996, p. 115)

Plato also considered the keeper of sexual passions, Eros, to be a demon. One of Plato’s students, Aristotle, thought that demons lived in the upper air of the Earth after originally coming from the moon, and also held the belief that demons scripted the dreams of humans (Sagan, 116-133).

Then, as Christianity began to take off, the Church Fathers wanted to separate the Church from the “pagan” belief systems. They determined that pagans worshipped demons, and that demons were actually wicked. In the Bible, St. Paul refers to demons, which live in high places, as being wicked:

"For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, again powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." (Ephesians 6:14, King James Version)

St. Augustine was also one of the first to express that the felt that demons were malign. He felt that they were the tricksters of humans; that they could assume any form that they chose and that they professed to carry messages from God, but actually intended to cause harm to the humans. Demons would come down from their home in the skies, according to Augustine, to have sexual intercourse with human women. The demons that would perform these acts were referred to as incubi and succubi, when they had sexual intercourse with men. These demons that would have sexual intercourse with men would appear to the men in the form of women in order to accomplish this goal. Augustine also believed that as a result of the sexual acts between incubi and succubi, women were impregnated and gave birth to witches (Sagan, 116-133).

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By User Gerald Farinas on en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As time went on, demons were considered more malign and magical. Eventually, they were able to walk through walls and terrorize individuals as they pleased, usually through demonic possession. In the times when people were being burned at the stake for accusations of witchcraft, it was believed that witches could cause innocent victims to be possessed by demons. Often, these ‘possessed’ individuals (who were usually faking the possession) would point out the ‘witch’ that cursed them and the accused would be executed. The Catholic Church performed exorcisms all throughout the Middle Ages, and in fact, exorcism of demons was mentioned in the New Testament:

"And having called his twelve disciples together, he gave them power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all manner of diseases, and all manner of infirmities." (Matthew 10:1 & 8, King James Version)

In 1973, there was a resurgence of the fear of and interest in demonic possession due to the release of the movie, The Exorcist. In this movie, a young girl becomes possessed by a demon and the demon tortures her, along with her family and priest, in the process. The demon is exorcised after much bloodshed and many gory effects, and all is well with the family again. The movie was actually based off of a real story that was published in a newspaper about a boy who was possessed by a demon (Nickell, 2001). The movie greatly exaggerated the real story, as the boy did not projectile vomit or any of the other gory scenes portrayed by the movie. The boy began acting out towards his parents, becoming aggressive and unruly. Objects were thrown around the house by the ‘demon’, there were scratch marks on the boy, and at one point a dresser was moved in front of the boy’s bedroom door so that nobody else could get inside. It was described by Nickell (2001), that the boy was most likely not possessed, but just an emotionally disturbed teenager. Neighbors described him as being a menace, playing tricks on people frequently. It was also determined that most of the ‘demonic’ activity could be attributed to the actions of the boy (e.g., pushing the dresser in front of the door himself or throwing objects when nobody was looking at him).

Other movies (such as The Amityville Horror in 1979) came out shortly after that helped perpetuate the fear of demonic possession by stating that they were based on true stories. These movies, along with recently released movies about possession, are popular in today’s culture. Many people even believe that these stories are true, simply because the movies are represented as being based on true stories. Of course, all of the ‘activity’ that occurred in these “true” stories can really be explained by hoax, natural causes, or exaggerations of actual events (Nickell, 2009). Individuals who are ‘possessed’ tend to play the part of the possessed, talking in low voices, spitting, spouting vulgarities, and thrashing about. This can simply be explained by the power of suggestion. People will act the way that they are expected to act (Self-fulfilling prophecy), especially children or teenagers who are still discovering their selves, their ability to control their surroundings, and who need an outlet for energy. Possession can also be explained by mental illness, which was misunderstood until the last century or so, and many people with mental illnesses (such as Tourette’s Syndrome) were killed or injured as a result of attempted exorcisms. And instances of foreign languages being spoken, previously unknown to the human who is ‘possessed’, can be attributed to exposure to the language at some point prior in their lifetime. Short phrases or sentences of a foreign language can be recalled decades after hearing it originally, without the individual really being aware that they have ever heard it (Sagan, 131).

There are many churches today that believe that demons exist in the form of alien abductions (Sagan, 128-130). They believe that demons come to Earth in the form of aliens so that they can change the way that man thinks and believes, and also are preparing for the appearance of the Antichrist. Hal Lindsey, a Christian fundamentalist wrote:

"I have become thoroughly convinced that UFOs are real…They are operated by alien beings of great intelligence and power…I believe these beings are not only extraterrestrial but supernatural in origin. To be blunt, I think they are demons…part of a Satanic plot." (Sagan, 129)

Many of these conclusions are drawn from verses in the bible, in which Jesus states that there will be “great signs from Heaven” (Luke, 21:11-12), which are referring to the time in which the verse was written, not the 21st century. Many other individuals, who believe that there is a connection between UFOs and demons, are indoctrinated by authority, specifically their pastors or people that they hold in high regard about religious matters.

B. Why do people believe?

The belief in demons and demonic possession have been around for thousands of centuries, although they have differed greatly in terms of definition and behavior of these supernatural beings. Many of the same logical and psychological fallacies are enacted with demons and ghosts, as both topics fall within the realm of the paranormal. You can look at other aspects of paranormal or fantastical thinking (such as UFO’s) in the same manner as I have done in this chapter. For the sake of not repeating myself, I will generally describe how these fallacies apply to the belief in demons.

1. Arguing from ignorance.

The basic assumption is that we cannot disprove the existence of demons, so they must exist. Also, if you have little to no knowledge about mental illness and how it was treated prior to even a century ago, you might not think that the two could be related.

2. Reliance on eyewitness testimony and anecdotes.

Many individuals know someone who knows someone that witnessed an exorcism, a demonic possession, or a demon. Based on these eyewitness accounts, we tend to believe that demonic possession has really occurred or that someone has witnessed a real demon in action. The reliance on such anecdotes does not take into account exaggerations told by the storyteller, mental illness of the observer or the one who was ‘possessed’, or misunderstandings of the situation.

3. Previously having fantastical beliefs/thoughts (Whittle, 2004, CSICOP).

Again, if you have been taught that demons do exist and believe this, then you will most likely believe in demonic possession or attribute nightmares/bad occurrences/etc to the work of demons.

4. Need for control, certainty, and simplicity.

We want to feel that there are reasons for why people behave the way that they do. If you are struggling with an addiction, you may feel that you are not in control of yourself, and thus, may make the assumption that you are possessed by a demon that is causing you to destroy your own life. And sometimes, we do not know exactly why we behave the way that we do and want to find someone or something (such as demons) to blame our behavior on. We also want to be able to explain the horrible behavior of other individuals, especially those who are close to us or that we see as innocent.

Nickell (2001) in describing the teenager that the move, The Exorcist, was based on was really just an emotionally disturbed teenager. He was aggressive towards this parents, threw items across the room, made scratched upon himself, and refused to go to school. Because the parents did not know what was wrong with him and how to fix the problem, after visiting a series of preachers and priests, came across one who felt that the boy was possessed and performed an exorcism upon him. The parents did not want to think that their child was emotionally disturbed, and at the time were unaware of the mental disorders that we now know of, and easily came to the conclusion that he was possessed based on the affirmation of the priest.

5. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

By expecting that we will see a demon, or demonic possession within a person, we change our behavior so that will we observe what we expect to observe. Looking back at the example of the boy from the story of The Exorcist, the parents and priest acted in a way that they believed that the child was possessed. By behaving this way, they were perpetuating the terrible behavior of the boy. He knew that they would associate whatever action he performed with the demon that he was ‘possessed’ with and thus felt that he had free reign in his actions. If the parents had not believed that he was possessed, his actions may have been different (although probably still terrible, as he was disturbed).

6. Problem-solving inadequacies.

If I believe that demons exist and I have an addiction to heroin (I do not really), I may be prone to believe that a demon is in control of my addiction to heroin because I think that the demon wants to destroy my life. In reality, my addiction is physical and I could attend rehabilitation programs to help control the addiction. But because I feel that a demon controls me, I do not do anything as I feel that I have no control over my actions.

7. Effort inadequacies.

We are naturally cognitive misers who do not want to expend energy on thinking critically about things that we do not feel that we need to think critically about. Instead of looking into behavioral or physical reasons for why the boy in The Exorcist story was acting out in such a way, they felt that demonic possession was the best explanation, as it did not require critical thinking.

8. Burden of proof.

This fallacy goes along with the argument from ignorance fallacy. Often the individuals, who are stating that the demons, ghosts, etc. do not provide proof, but ask that the skeptical person(s) provide the evidence against the paranormal entity. The burden of proof does not fall on the skeptical individual, but the individual who is making the claims.

9. Failures are rationalized.

Often the failure to expel the ‘demon’ out from possessing an individual or the failure to expose a ‘demon’ that is present at a given time is rationalized as a lack of belief on the part of the individual touting claims of possession or the presence of the entity. Because someone was not Christian enough or did not believe enough in the power of God, the ‘demon’ was not expelled from the body of the person it was possessing. Or perhaps the ‘demon’ that is terrorizing a family will not appear to anyone else, as other people are skeptical of its presence, and the demon wants to make the family look crazy.

III. The Purpose Behind It All

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By The Schutter Family's Gallery on Picasa Web Albums via Wikimedia Commons

“I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.”- Baruch Spinoza

Although these beliefs in the paranormal may seem as if they are worthless and worthy of ridicule at times, there are reasons for why humans believe in such things. According to Dennett (2006), the presence of language allows humans a quality specific to humans- creativity. This creativity allows us to make music, art, and mythology, along with demons, ghosts, and spirits. It also allows us to make assumptions and beliefs about our purpose (as humans) in the world and why we exist. According to Darwin (1886):

…the belief in unseen or spiritual agencies…seems to be almost universal…nor is it difficult to comprehend how it arose. As soon as the important faculties of the imagination, wonder, and curiosity, together with some power of reasoning, had become partially developed, man would naturally have craved to understand what was passing around him, and have vaguely speculated on his own existence. (p. 65)

Skinner demonstrated the existence of superstition in pigeons in 1948, by examining the behavior of pigeons immediately before being fed (at regular intervals), when they were hungry. One of the pigeons became conditioned to turn counter-clockwise two or three times in a row before the food arrived and two began moving in a pendulum fashion, moving their heads and bodies from left to right in a swinging motion. This is much like the superstition in humans. Superstition can be summed up, simply, as the control over and explanation of our environment. Much in the same fashion as superstition, many individuals are conditioned to believe in the existence of supernatural beings as a way to explain their environment.

As discussed in the section of ghosts and spirits, individuals who have suffered from the loss of a loved one tend to believe in ghosts, spirits, and angels. If our loved ones can come visit us again in the form of a ghost, then they are not really gone, which is something that we all want to believe in. It is a basic human emotion- the desire and need to be in the presence of our deceased loved ones again because we miss them terribly. Death is a difficult concept to accept, although it is forced upon us. Everyone will die at some point, which means that they are no longer in existence. They are forever gone. Grief is a foundation for the belief in the paranormal. Also, if our loved ones still exist in the spiritual form, we feel that they may be able to send us signs or signals about what actions we should take and what choices we should make. The burden of choice is removed from us if we know what our deceased loved ones would do in the same situation.

And this brings us to the issue of morality in relationship to these supernatural beliefs. As children, we are told fantastical stories of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella that are doused in moral dilemmas. The stories end with a morally good conclusion, teaching children the proper ways to behave and about what is right and what is wrong (Dennett, 2006, pg 123-125). This perpetuates a fascination with supernatural entities in our cultures, as we are told almost from day one that supernatural entities do, in fact, exist. Development in the belief of the paranormal begins with the general paranormal beliefs of the culture that you live in and moves towards the individualistic characteristics of paranormal belief.
Figure 1: A model of general paranormal belief, as created by Whittle (2004).

As you can see from the figure above, the culture schemas and general paranormal belief of the culture affect the need for control, order, and meaning in the individual. Meaning, if you live in an environment that is purely fundamentalist Christian, your beliefs will be created by the environment and culture that you live in- so you will probably also be a fundamentalist Christian unless you are exposed to other cultures and change your mind.
Figure 2.: Cultural and biological origins model of paranormal beliefs and experiences in the individual, as created by Whittle (2004).

And as you can see from this figure that focuses in on how the cultural beliefs affect the beliefs in the paranormal in the individual, there are many factors that go into the beliefs. You need encouragement of childhood fantasy beliefs and religious beliefs (which sometimes cross over with each other) and you need a lack of a concept of chance and indoctrination by authority, along with several other factors. Not all of these factors are required to create supernatural beliefs, but at least a couple are required. The more of these factors that you have, the more likely it is that you will have belief in the supernatural, and the more difficult it will be to change or remove these beliefs.

Paranormal belief is not a requirement in cultures, but many cultures do have some sort of belief system that helps to explain the world and our existence. Stories of the supernatural are told to children in order to teach them morality and the difference between reality and fantasy, but often the difference is confused and children have difficulty distinguishing between the two. Adults even have difficulty distinguishing between the two, as authority figures told them when they were children that certain supernatural beliefs were, in fact, reality. Although these beliefs can be detrimental to the mental health of individuals, there are some purposes and reasons for why they still exist.


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