Bone of Contention: Phantasmal Fancy

May 7, 2012

What’s with all the anti-spooky programs aimed at exposing paranormal occurrences?  It sounds like the makings of a very tragic “airplane food”-esque joke but that particular vein of thought lead me to ponder.  With the mortifying rise of reality television, is it safe to say these programs have gotten more dramatic in the past ten years or so?  An anonymous blogger by the alias “Nerdia” lists off a detailed outline of the things that bug her about Ghost Hunters International after it made the switch over from her beloved Ghost Hunters.  One such criticism especially got the gears turning:

A sudden Christian element (prayers, rosaries) has infiltrated the show and this destroys much of the credibility from the original Ghost Hunters. In fact, there’s a constant assumption of evil. We miss the “ghosts are people too” ethos of the first show. To assume you’re always dealing with eeevil clouds your judgment. (Nerdia)

So, is it dramatized bullshit; for lack of more poignant terminology?  This is something I’ve personally seen deteriorate in the quality of these paranormal “investigation” programs.  They bide all their time putting together a showy setup and are more often inclined to flee upon the slightest of bumps.  Don’t get me started on the infamous “Run, Dude, Run!” quip; courtesy of Brian’s character on GHI.  This also throws an even bigger wrench of ideas into the mix.  Does religion play a role in one’s ability to believe in the otherwise unexplainable?

Data shown in Alan Orenstein’s work Religion and Paranormal Belief probes at this potential relationship in the probability of believing more in one or the other.  A 1995 study “Project Canada” gives us concrete numbers as to how the scale tips.  Subjects were asked whether they believe in life after death.  Is this a religious or paranormal belief?  It correlates with a question about extrasensory perception but has much stronger relationships with believing in heaven and in God.  Another inquiry asks whether it is possible to communicate with the dead.  This is more strongly related to paranormal than to that of religion.  To decide which beliefs are paranormal, their content with other concepts were taken into account, picking those items that have the lowest relationships with “conventional religious beliefs” (Orenstein).  This term becomes one which is coined in this section most noticeably.  In all, they find results stating that routine church attendance is related to a reduced acceptance of the paranormal.  Something this study doesn’t take into account is how a personal experience with the otherwise unexplained can quickly bring into question prior convictions.

Strange things are said to have gone down in an old laboratory located on the corner of Smith Kline and French St. in Philadelphia.  The year is 1954 and a janitor pushes his floor-buffer from one side of the hall to the other.  Unbeknownst to him, shifting into Phase 3 will be a fatal decision on his part.  When plugging it in, an improper connection is made while he’s hooking everything up and the machine becomes electrified.  You can imagine the results.  Since then, the building has been revamped as was the standard cleaning mechanism standard.  However, an apparition of the janitor is said to routinely roam his floor when 1am comes around.  Items are allegedly moved around atop of desks and locked doors somehow drift open.  Only janitorial positions are allowed access to these rooms’ keys overnight and the culprit is certainly up for debate.  An IBEW Local 98 electrical supervisor by the name of Frank Dooley publicly claims to have seen this same janitor nearly 10 years after his machine’s malfunction.  Mr. Dooley is my grandfather and I was made aware of this information from my mom during periods of research fluctuation.

For the purpose of lengthening my familiarity with the subject, I performed a few casual interviews with personal acquaintances.  It would begin with an offhand “What do you think of spirits or manifestations?” and depending on their to that answers; “Why?”.  In some cases it became something of a ghost story session to which I am never opposed.  The first such anecdote is recounted directly from my roommate.  She began with an instance at her house in New Hampshire wherein she often crashed in the basement.  There was this unadulterated feeling of terror whenever she had to get up and go to the bathroom and was desperate to keep the television on at all times.  It just gave her bad vibes, made her uncomfortable and irrationally sad.  One particular night she awoke to something cold touching the back of her head and neck, perhaps only to run its fingers through her hair; but in her fear she felt as if it was holding her down.  This nullified any potential logical reason and she simply put her head down and spoke to God.

What my roommate attributes the issue to is a mother belonging to the neighborhood kids uphill that took her own life in their basement fifteen years ago.  They often hung around her pad for days at a time throwing down on her Playstation or goofing off in a wooded area connecting the two homes.  Upon inquiry of her belief of the paranormal, my roommate certainly obliged.  She transcends the barrier between that of religious and paranormal beliefs; as she practices messianic Judaism in her not-so-spare time.  With this affirmation came an admittance to the acknowledgment of demons.  It brought me back to the concept of jumping to the conclusion of that which we can’t explain as something evil; how it could cloud an individual’s better judgment.  However, I don’t think that stigma applies to her.  While her mother was alone in the vicinity she often saw strange things in the early morning hours such as a female figure that she pegged as her daughter—-until she spoke out to it and found that nobody was there.

I’ve had the recent pleasure of meeting my roommate’s mother and speaking to her about her own take on the subject.  It happened to her on only four occasions.  Whatever it might have been sometimes manifested as a light coming down the steps which promptly headed down to the basement.  She describes it as something of a smoky haze.  The proceeding bit makes it obvious how very formidable this woman is; because she was firm with the spirit.  “I don’t care where you live.  Don’t touch my kids or you leave”.  On the surface, such an advance appears unrealistically bold.  This show of brashness generally comes off as being false.  But she wasn’t showing off in any way shape or form, I could tell that much immediately.  She didn’t even seem so much moved by having seen what she had.  To me, this is actually the most sincere.  It doesn’t steal precedence over her life and while it’s no big secret; she feels comfortable sharing the story.  Upon further discussion of how she’s able to explain occurrences of paranormal activity; she suggested a new theory that both required a little extra research on my end and also jolted a recollection of a personal instance to which it pertains.

So I rendezvoused with the work of Pitkänen.  He speaks of electronic voices (EVP) and how it lends to the discussion of paranormal experiences.  It’s only a special case of the claimed “beyond the grave” communications and is indentified as signals resembling voices heard directly from radio receivers or phone calls from the dead.  Images appearing in computer screens are reported as well  (Pitkänen 51).  This piques my interest greatly because of a story I was exposed to at a young age concerning my great uncle.  I had to give my grandmother a call and verify logistics and she willingly related what happened to her.  Not long after Uncle Artie fell off a ladder while installing a new window, my grandma received a slightly disconcerting voicemail on her houseline.  In it, a voice that she recognized as my great Uncle Artie’s; someone said: “I’ll be seeing you”.  Now, she tells me that she has the answering machine somewhere in her home (though it might take ages for us to dig it out) and not unlike my roommate’s story: I believe her.  I wouldn’t call myself a gullible individual.  Yet, when a person tells me that something happened to them that cannot be explained and are convicted about it; who am I to accuse them of spinning an elaborate web of lies?  Why go out of their way?  Much of what this entire subject is about is basing facts off of one’s ability to believe.

The likelihood of spiritual apparitions is a concept constantly bounced around in popular media; both written and visual. However, the reality of this subject edges into the mass’s peripheral when the time comes to authenticate.  The general consensus is that only people afflicted with an illness of the brain would believe in such garbage.  This is simplistic at best.  It’s a method of handling this otherwise uncomfortable question without having to put very much effort into it.  Easy, right?  There’s no research, no deep-thinking, they’re missing out on that framework that leads it from being casual inquiry to actual foundation for understanding. It’s the basic and obvious answer that you’d hear from asking anyone you may pass on the street.  There’s no actual thought or consideration backing such an answer up.  However, this doesn’t make it wholly incorrect.

Another article I came across in my research is a jointly composed piece by Matthew Sharps and five other credited specialists.  In a nutshell it revolves around the point of connection seen in individuals claiming belief in ghosts, unidentified flying objects, extrasensory perception, astrology, and other similar cryptids with different strains of mental illness.  Examples of those associated are attention deficit disorder, dissociation, and depression.  They perform an experiment with this theory and those whom they feel fit the key.  This proves to be an interesting perspective on the matter due to the strictly scientific input as to why some believe while others do not.  For such illnesses to be a factor in a person’s ability to see things at a different plane of being seems plausible. Those diagnosed with schizophrenia, for example; are thought to experience extreme hallucinations. It becomes a completely different question of ethics when determining if what they’re seeing is real or fantasy.  Sharps’ and his colleagues’ findings are essential to the common speculation that those afflicted with these forms of batshittia would lean towards paranormal belief and could credit or discredit that theory.

Not unlike the first experiment, subjects were asked to rate key terms on a numbered scale.  These included: “I think UFO’s exist and at least some are alien spacecraft”, “I think the Loch Ness Monster exists”, “I think Bigfoot exists”, “I think some people can foretell the future by mystical or spiritual means”, “I think astrology and horoscopes are useful and often correct” (Sharps 584).  Such inquisitions were mixed in with placebos so that those involved wouldn’t be hip to their motives.  There had to be thorough surety with those nonclinical university students who partook.  They began with measuring up depression using the standard Beck Depression Inventory-II as a resource in individuals recruited for the study.  Based on their responses, it showed as the only psychological tendency that had a significant relationship with belief in ghosts.  From their table, thoughts on telepathy and astrology were not altered with depression, dissociation, or ADHD.

As was predicted over the course of the article, belief in UFOs and aliens did stir a strong reaction with those three psychological characteristics; mostly depression and hyperactivity.  Their paranormal data correlates with a prediction made earlier on: “Depressed individuals might be more likely to believe in ghosts, for example, because ghosts provide evidence for an afterlife in which present stress would be eliminated” (583).  Suffice it to say their experiment was a success in many regards.  Sharps is quick to disclaim that this won’t always be the case—but that much goes without saying.  This leads me to think on all the ways in which these vulnerable souls are financially exploited all the time.  Are mediums, “psychics”, or even those who claim to exorcise demons ethical in their practices?  Can it be beneficial at all to satiate potentially psychosomatic issues?

It’s been going on since humankind was sentient enough to realize that these things may be among us.  To contemplate it at a higher level.  So long as those who allow these possibilities to creep into their daily routines; those who will exploit them for their weakness have lapped from the same waterhole.  Or, to pinpoint that shoddy metaphor; it’s the same coin pouch that they dip into.  As is the case with any era, spiritualism snags at the corners of many fads.  It was especially popular in the mid-eighteenth century.  After the Lincolns lost their son Willie on February 20, 1862, it’s said that Mary Todd turned to the work of less conventional means to console her.  Over the course of this paranormal fancy wherein she simply wished to reach her deceased children, the former First Lady organized multiple séances and “sittings” right in the White House (“Mary”).  Now, imagine that.  How much would you say a medium could make off a session with the President of the United States’ wife?  A pretty penny indeed.  The average psychic today makes anywhere from $10 to $120 per service; but that’s at low-end carnival stands or boardwalk entertainment.  In present times this isn’t the most successful pocket-lining manipulation technique out there.

As far as tradition and thrill-seeking goes, usually during the pumpkin-carving season; we busy ourselves with what’s considered as spooky entertainment.  The Eastern State Penitentiary is currently previewing two new attractions for their Terror Behind the Walls tours.  Each one of these six are located in different cellblocks around the vicinity.  The admittance fee can range from $20 to $30 depending on what time the customer wants to rock.  Among these are “Night Watch”; “The Experiment (IN 3D)”; “Break Out!” and more (“Eastern”).  The website also features a section on all the different ways in which the Eastern State Penitentiary has been shown on television.  This is a very cool section because it also includes episode-by-episode guides for each program.  Let’s take it a step further and focus on the quality of their equipment as a potential mark of verification.

Modern technology has proven time and time again to turn up with questionable results.  However, this scientific equipment is thought to serve their purpose and therefore should be factored into evaluating the televised programming side of investigation.  The Travel Channel runs a show titled Ghost Adventures and did an episode on the Eastern State Penitentiary; affectionately titled “one of the most haunted places in the word”.  The team generally utilizes a digital audio recorder for unexplained sounds they may encounter.  With the assistance of a temperature-sensitive infrared digital camcorder (complete with moon phase-capability), they produced 300 stills.  Of these they identified one as having paranormal potential.  It’s comprised of a sort of haze the same as my roommate’s mother described coming from a threshold across the hall.  I examined this photo using a search engine; and I can tell you that it wasn’t convincing.  It causes me to further question the quality of these “investigations” and how they balance their drama-ratio.

On top of those technologies they also use a night vision digicam, and a “ghost meter”.  Actually an EMF meter, this puppy measures electromagnetic waves between zero to five mili-gauss.  These measurements are on an EGS scale as a unit of a magnetic field B otherwise known as “magnetic flux density” or “magnetic induction”.  The name is derived from the German physicist and mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss (“GhostStop”).  So, what does this all mean?  I’m not trying to bore you with the details.  Only prove that there is a science to this otherwise completely metaphysical study.  And that these shows; though at times ridiculous, mean business at least with some of the equipment they’re toting around.  Some of this stuff, as advertised on the online catalogue Ghost Shop — Ghost Hunting Equipment, you’d have to sell an arm or leg to afford.

The great and terrible Ghost Hunters International rears its ugly head again and this time strikes close to home.  Unbeknownst to me, my dad recalls the team coming out to film an episode at a graveyard off Bethlehem Pike in Flourtown, Pennsylvania.  He knows this due to him doing intermittent maintenance work on the side for this guy Jim’s equipment at the same cemetery.  Their main focus was directed toward proving or disproving the existence of the “Tuxedo Man” who’s been accredited for leaving dead-end footprints in the otherwise settled snowfall.  Interestingly enough, Zion Church and preschool programs are run right off the side of this apparent anomaly.  On their webpage they have this snippet of information advertised; doubtlessly making a pass at the historically-savvy’s fancy:  “In addition to having Boy Scout Troop 320 with us we have an historic cemetery. Victims of the Titanic, a brother to the Sundance Kid and General Sheetz as well as many Civil War vets are buried in Union Cemetery”  (Zion).  The Ghost Hunters team seemed to overlook a detail my dad was able to relay personally to me; concerning Jim’s assistant and her daughter.  She allegedly came home from a session at the church’s preschool humming a tune her folks deemed as foreign.  Upon questioning the origin she related being taught it by a particular boy.  The only issue was, no boy by the name given attended the class with her.  So Linda (her mother) became curious and sought out local consultation.  They found out through an elderly neighbor that the song her daughter was humming was that of an old civil war ditty.

The point of getting into these personal tales and scientific explanations behind the hearsay that is phantasmal existence isn’t to be extra spooky.  I’m not even really trying to prove or disprove anything because as it’s been established: That’s unrealistic.  You either believe or you don’t.  Some choose to exploit the weakness of others and gain financially by evoking forces we have no way of fully comprehending.  This is your hometown, on TV; it’s in your favorite novels and turns up as an off-kilter topic in casual conversation.  There hasn’t been concrete evidence for or against ghosts and apparitions and what has been found generally clashes with other theories.  For example; can spirits react to living stimuli?  An example of this would be how my roommate’s mom became firm with the haunt in their New Hampshire home.  Did the spook actually recoil?  They haven’t seen any mist or figures since then.

If these things have little physical substance at all or can be pegged as a molecular echo; wouldn’t that mean they simply go about their business without reacting to us at all?  That wouldn’t necessarily explain whatever touched my roommate, or my Uncle Artie chatting it up with my grandmother after he’d fallen off his latter.  So I think this is a question of one’s ability to believe.  It’s speculated as an inverse to believing in God or having Faith; but I’ve found that to not necessarily be the case.  Actually, I would say they’re related very closely.  Neither have been proven, but still some choose to buy into it.  Through those who’ve spoken to me about their own take on the matter and also the stories I’ve grown up being exposed to:  My vote is for it.  Does that mean I’m going to call up an exorcist next time something outrageous seems to be nestled in my kitty’s meows?  No freaking way!  In the words of James Boswell:

It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it. (Boswell 296)


Boswell, James, C. P. Chadsey, and Gordon Ross. The Life of Samuel Johnson. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and, 1946. Print.

“Eastern State Penitentiary.” Web. 05 May 2012. <;.

“GhostStop” Ghost Hunting Equipment Gear. Web. 05 May 2012. <;.

“Mary Todd Lincoln.” EHistory Archive. Web. 07 May 2012. <;.

Nerdia. “Why Ghost Hunters International Sucks.” Review. Web log post. Apeculture. Blogspot, 03 Mar. 2008. Web. <  international-sucks.html>.

Orenstein, Alan. “Religion and Paranormal Belief” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41.2 (2002): 301-11. Print.

Pitkänen, M. “Quantum Model of Paranormal Phenomena.” Editorial. Department of Physical Sciences, High Energy Physics Division, 1 Feb. 2006. Web.

Sharps, Matthew, Elaine Newborg, Stephanie Arsdall, Jordan DeRuiter, Bill Hayward, and Brianna Alcantar. “Cognition and Belief in Paranormal Phenomena: Gestalt/Feature – Intensive Processing Theory and Tendencies Toward ADHD, Depression, and Dissociation.” Current Psychology 29.4 (2010): 320-27. Print.

Wiseman, Richard, Emma Greening, and Matthew Smith. “Belief in the Paranormal and Suggestion in the Séance Room.” British Journal of Psychology 94.3 (2003): 285-97. Print.

“ZION CHURCH AND PRESCHOOL.” Zionflourtown. Web. 06 May 2012. <;.


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