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Социология религии. Социолого-религиоведческий портал

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Sociology of Religion, Volume 76, Issue 4, 1 December 2015, Pages 389–412,https://doi.org/10.1093/socrel/srv031
30 July 2015


The recent proliferation of ghost hunting television shows reflects the broad public interest in what participants refer to as “paranormal investigation.” Currently, over 3,000 paranormal investigation teams exist in the United States, and more exist worldwide. Paranormal investigators use a wide variety of investigative methods in their attempts to find evidence of ghosts and, therefore, life after death. Based on three years of participant observation and 32 interviews with paranormal investigators, this article argues that paranormal investigation functions as a spiritual practice for participants. Investigators' motives, methods, and the meanings they attribute to investigating are all imbued with spiritual significance. For some investigators the practice helps validate existing religious beliefs, while for others it prompts a spiritual transformation. Many participants rely upon conventional religious or New Age beliefs to interpret experiences during investigations, but even those who primarily rely upon science and technology find the practice spiritually meaningful.

For the past 40 years, confidence in organized religion has been declining in the United States. In 1975, 68% of Americans reported having a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in “the church or organized religion,” but by 2012 this percentage had slipped to 44% of those polled (Saad 2012). Likewise, church attendance has declined in the United States since the 1960s (Stark 2008). This is not to say that Americans are abandoning faith. Though a recent study indicates that self-identified atheists in the United States nearly doubled (from 1.6 to 3.1%) between 2007 and 2014 (Pew Research Center 2015), this percentage is consistent with 70 years of data showing that only 2–4% of Americans identify as atheist (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2012; Stark 2008). People in the United States are not necessarily losing faith but rather diversifying their engagement with what they perceive to be supernatural or divine. Modern religiosity in Western nations is characterized by such pluralism, as more and more religions compete with one another on the “spiritual marketplace” (Roof 1999; Swatos and Christiano 1999).

At the root of this phenomenon is a shift toward individualized modes of belief and practice. Wuthnow (1998) identified this as a transition from dwelling to seeking. In seeking forms of spirituality, individuals are empowered to define their own unique belief systems and relationships to what they believe to be sacred. This general process has taken many forms. In one trend Davie (1994)referred to as “believing without belonging,” many people are disengaging from religious institutions while retaining personal religious beliefs. A related trend is the rise of religious “nones,” people who report no religious affiliation. Nones increased from only 7% in 1972 to nearly 23% of the United States population by 2014 (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2012; Pew Research Center 2015). According to Pew Research Center (2015), movement away from religion to identification as religiously unaffiliated is the most common trend in religious switching in the United States. This population is two times more likely than the general public (37% versus 18%) to identify as “spiritual but not religious” (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life 2012), which Fuller (2001:4) describes as “concerned with spiritual issues but [choosing] to pursue them outside the context of formal religious organization.” A third trend is what can broadly be called the New Age movement. Among other beliefs, New Age practitioners assert that the spiritual can be directly experienced through an eclectic assortment of Western religious beliefs, Eastern philosophy, and elements of neo-pagan and Native American spiritualities (Bruce 2002; Heelas and Woodhead 2005; Partridge 1999).

Each of these is a manifestation of a spiritual “quest culture,” in which spirituality has been freed from the boundaries of doctrines and institutions (Roof 1999). In this article, I argue that paranormal investigating (aka “ghost hunting”) is part of this quest for authentic spiritual experiences. Much like the spiritualists of the latter half of the nineteenth century, who attempted to communicate with the departed through “spirit rapping,” séances, and Ouija boards, contemporary paranormal investigators are driven by a desire to confirm, for themselves and others, the existence of life beyond death (Moore 1977; Weisberg 2004). The spiritual overtones of this practice have been documented by Baker and Bader (2014), who report that paranormal investigations are infused with religious and magical beliefs. Likewise, Draper and Baker (2011) conclude that reported beliefs in ghosts, extraterrestrials, Bigfoot, and psychic phenomena strongly predict belief in guardian angels. The spiritual significance of paranormal beliefs is not restricted to ghosts and hauntings. As Denzler (2001) and Partridge (2003) show, beliefs in UFOs and extraterrestrials are often infused with spirituality.

In light of its historical similarity to the spiritualist movement and recent research revealing the spiritual nature of many paranormal beliefs, I propose that paranormal investigating can be considered a spiritual practice. Wuthnow (2003:309) defines spiritual practice as “those activities in which individuals engage in order to become more aware of their spirituality or to enrich and grown their spiritual lives.” In this context, spirituality refers to “a state of being related to a divine, supernatural, or transcendent order of reality or, alternatively, as a sense or awareness of a suprareality that goes beyond life as ordinarily experienced” (Wuthnow 2003:307). Paranormal investigators are motivated by a desire to make contact with a reality beyond the physical world, which investigators usually call “the afterlife,” “the spirit realm,” or simply “the other side.”1 Using technological tools, their own senses, and even reported mediumistic abilities, paranormal investigators attempt to communicate with what they variously call “ghosts,” “spirits,” “entities,” or “disembodied consciousness.”2 Paranormal teams usually include a combination of members who identify as scientific (reliant upon technology to monitor the environment) and sensitive (reliant upon extrasensory perceptions, such as seeing, hearing, or otherwise sensing the presence of spirits). This mixture of mediumistic and ostensibly scientific methods of investigation also echoes the spiritualist movement (Moore 1977; Weisberg 2004). Much like their predecessors a century and a half ago, contemporary paranormal investigators differ in their techniques but are motivated by a shared desire to capture evidence of life after death.



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