It was dinnertime at my family’s house. The topic had turned to one of my investigations, and my stomach was already in knots. I knew that we were entering dangerous territory. Whenever this subject comes up, I feel one of two things: fear that I will be ridiculed (but in the nicest possible way) or defensive (because someone will brush off what I am saying as ‘unscientific’ or ‘impossible to prove’). The worst outcome is polite interest for a few moments, followed by a change of subject. In that case, I know that I have been treated as the eccentric who needs to have her silly beliefs validated every now and then.
You can imagine my surprise when a relative of mine told me that he had seen a ghost in his house, on the stairs leading up to the third floor. At first, I was sure he was joking; but he was dead serious and very detailed in his description of her. He told me the story, and it was interesting. I decided to ask him questions and take him seriously, and for quite a few minutes he answered me and speculated as to the cause of the haunting. And then he smiled and tilted his head, and I knew: once again, I had been the victim of a joke. No big deal, right? I shouldn’t be so sensitive. He does this to everybody. No harm, no foul.
There was, however, harm. Every time someone laughs at me, condescends to hear a story or two and then quickly changes the subject, engages in debate with the intention of demonstrating to the world that I am gullible and ‘unscientific’, or simply behaves as if I were someone slightly ‘off’ or a tad weird, there is harm. The damage consists of the intention to degrade a person’s experience of reality. If I were to tell certain people that I sensed danger as I walked down a particular street and so decided to switch my route, no one would question my grasp of reality. I would be praised for making a wise decision and avoiding possible trouble by following my gut instinct. If, however, I tell certain people that I walked into a particular room and felt the strong presence of a spirit, I would be ridiculed—in the nicest possible way. Or, I would be politely rebuffed as a harmless eccentric. In the first case, following my gut instinct reaffirms my solid grasp of reality, even though there is no direct evidence that a particular, dangerous individual was following me. In the second case, I am judged for having the exact, same experience but in a different context. After all, I cannot ‘see’ the person I sense in the room, but I know that someone is there, and I adjust my behavior accordingly.
Part of the problem is our vocabulary. Paranormal investigators have a language, and that language is often mocked by the dominant culture. It is not scientific language; it is not religious language; it is not academic language: it is a linguistic ‘no-man’s land’ where no discipline or area of study can claim it. It belongs, perhaps, to the language of renegade Spiritualists from decades past, or to the more recent New Age lexicon so derided by pretty much everyone. Our language, therefore, has a kind of hippy taint to it, or the vague whiff of fraud associated with nutty mediums and psychics. There isn’t much we can do about that association besides change our use of language to a reasonable degree.
“Ghost,” “spirit,” “discarnate entity,” “specter” and the like all make us look like we’ve wandered into the marginal territory of psience. Even naming our teams is problematic. It takes hours, days, and weeks even, of thought and debate to find a name that is respectable. The “Paranormal Housewives” is a silly name, admittedly, but one that I am terribly fond of, because the ladies on the team are quite serious. The name belies who we actually are, and the contrast embraces the stereotypes while simultaneously fighting them. So, if we are to find a better way, what would that look like?
If we stopped using the old terminology, we would simply say something like this:
“I feel someone in the room.”
“I think there is a woman here with us.”
“I am picking up the presence of a man in his early 40s, beard, glasses, very thin.”
“I believe, based on the data we have collected, that there are several people either living in or visiting your house.”
If we avoid the words ‘spirit’ or ‘ghost’, we restore people to their former status. Yes, I realize that I have stated before that we don’t know who or what we are dealing with in many—if not most—investigations, and sometimes a ‘person’ is something else entirely, something not human; however, I wonder if our results would be more specific and informative if we treated the ‘presences’ as fully formed people? If they do turn out to be fragments of a consciousness or the energy of a residual haunting without intelligence, or God forbid, something nasty from the underworld, at least we will not have run the risk of speaking to a person as if he were something DIFFERENT from us, something “other” that shares nothing with our human, physical condition.
Often our results have an intimate relationship with what we seek. If we seek full human beings that we happen to not be able to see, perhaps we will find more actual people willing to communicate with us. It’s certainly worth a try. I think that that the PHW are particularly good at treating people well and with respect. Our attitude towards all the people in a house—both visible and invisible to us—is probably the reason that we have so much solid evidence for the so-called ‘paranormal’ (another term that has outlived its usefulness).
I can’t stop anyone from displaying a bad attitude towards me because I seek to know people who have changed their ontological status from material bodies to something else (and no, I don’t pretend to know what that ‘something else’ feels like, but I doubt that it changes your level of humanity and probably increases it). We will always run across those who believe in a cop’s ‘sixth sense’ but thinks that a person who has contact with someone without a material body is a nut job. I don’t do this to defend it to the critics or try to convince someone who has a vested interest in defending their world view. It’s scary to work on the margins of reality; it’s so much easier to stomp your foot on the ground and declare that if you can’t use your five senses to perceive it, then it ain’t there. No how. No way.
Until the haters have their own, mind-boggling experience, they will keep it up. Or, they will simply refuse to believe that what they have experienced could possibly be the portal to a much larger truth; how very unscientific of them.
–Kirsten A. Thorne, PhD/PHW