Chapter 4: Convincing Discourses
From The Exorcist to Paranormal Activity, there’s no denying that the success of these films was largely fueled by the crave of the audiences to be terrified by phantoms and ghouls alike. Hollywood understands that the supernatural sells, but do they know why? In contrast to other mythical creatures like dragons and vampires, phantoms are viewed upon much more seriously by most people. Whether it’s for religious reasons or from paranoia, millions of people consider the possibility of phantoms existing. It is for this reason alone that shows like Ghost Adventures, which investigates sites famous for their history and witness accounts of supernatural occurrences, are viewed and binged the same as other hit shows. But isn’t there some good old-fashioned science to put this phantom scare to rest? Well, that depends what kind of “science” you’re looking at.
Credible science that is monitored and backed by the scientific community doesn’t really have any material evidence that suggests phantoms exist. But to pseudoscientists that simply means there’s no evidence that suggests phantoms don’t exist. On Ghost Adventures, the evidence the crew finds are not revered highly by certified scientists nor is it adequate to suggest the existence of phantoms. So if it’s considered pseudoscience by the community then how is it that viewers of these ghost hunting shows genuinely believe the evidence presented? This can be attributed to how paranormal investigators, or simply ghost hunters, gather and present their evidence so convincingly as if it was the real deal. Both televised and private ghost hunters share this approach to ghost hunting. It could be viewed as a method of keeping up the ruse, but that isn’t the case for some ghost hunters. This way that ghost hunters approach the supernatural is very much akin to the principles and standards credible scientists employ. Other pseudoscientific communities like the flat earthers would rather discredit factual scientists than adopting their standards, so why would ghost hunters have this kind of approach.
To understand why ghost hunters use this kind of approach means understanding the “identity” of the ghost hunter. But what do I mean by “identity”? Do I refer to the cultural and national identity of the ghost hunters? Something like that. In order to comprehend this idea requires, as random as it may sound, a more in-depth understanding of what literacy is. “What is Literacy” by James Gee explores how people define themselves through these “identities” they have formed, or rather “discourses” as Gee prefers. These “discourses” can range from, in Gee’s words, having a nationality, your gender, career and even your hobby (Gee 18). A “discourse” isn’t limited to the genetics nor the cultural identity of a person, it’s broader than that. Gee defines “discourse” as way of utilizing language and values that society is able to identify and distinguish (Gee 18). Gee also makes a distinction between a primary “discourse” and a secondary one. He states the distinction between the two as the primary being the one that acknowledges and operates with familiar people at a personal level and the secondary treating everyone, familiar or not, at an informal yet socially appropriate way (Gee 22). It is through this definition that ghost hunting is classified as a secondary discourse. So what is the ghost hunter’s discourse composed of? And could such a discourse be utilized for a different purpose? Well firstly, their discourse involves both some components of pseudosciences and regular sciences.
Of these components for their discourse is the array of technology and equipment used to capture evidence of phantoms. In “Contemporary ghost hunting and the relationship between proof and experience” by Lynne S. McNeill, overviews the vast amount of equipment used by ghost hunters while interviewing a few crews. McNeill states how these crews rely heavily on technology to capture these specters, tools like night vision cameras and electromagnetic field meters are a common sight for these ghost hunters (McNeill 97). These tools aren’t inherently illegitimate to credible scientists either, but ghost hunters do use these tools in a manner to detect anomalies they could coincide with evidence of ghosts. It is also worthy to note that while there are tools that could be considered as pseudoscientific, like dowsing rods, many of these ghost hunters, according to McNeill, bring along this equipment familiar to scientists in order to bring some degree of professionalism and credibility to their findings (McNeill 98). Ghost hunters take some principle ideas from the scientific discourse which is the importance of the equipment used for finding empirical evidence, to some extent.
McNeill also refers to the nature and approaches the ghost hunters he interviewed have that is more in relation with how scientists operate. McNeill suggests that ghost hunters really aren’t attempting to fabricate a ruse as he brings up the situation on the commodification of ghosts. He brings up how the hunters he is interviewing genuinely believes they are giving plausibility that phantoms could exist with the various investigations they have conducted (McNeill 99). While the stigma of ghost hunting shows may hold some merit, it would be largely misleading to invoke that same view on all hunters. The way ghost hunters approach their investigations and findings also acknowledges their close following with the scientific discourse. McNeill emphasizes how the hunters follow closely to the procedures and terminology which are developed from an adherence to science (McNeill 100). The level of professionalism ghost hunters have for their evidence is much akin to a scientist conducting an experiment. Unfortunately, this is where the line is drawn between the similarities towards credible scientific practices as ghost hunters employ techniques, for gathering evidence, not just from more credible resources but from pseudoscientific ones as well (McNeill 103). While the case may vary for some ghost hunters, there are still many that would consider psychic readings as valid testimonies to the evidence of ghosts (McNeill 103). It may have sound like ghost hunters were simply scientists trying to prove the plausibility that ghosts can exists, but their discourse still involves some pseudoscientific values to coincide with their evidence.
While they might use a level of scientific integrity in order to validate their evidence, that isn’t the sole reason they adopt a combination of both a false and factually scientific approach. Sarah J. Lauro and Catherine Paul’s “’Make Me Believe!’: Ghost-hunting technology and the postmodern fantastic” explores much more on the reason as to why ghost hunters, especially televised ones, rely on much more questionable explanations. The duo explains how the uncanniness works by introducing elements that are grounded enough to be seen realistically, which is how TV ghost hunters invoke the realistic and uncanny nature to their findings (Lauro and Paul 224). In retrospect, ghost hunters outside of television may not realize they are adding a feeling of uncanniness to their investigations but doing so is a core in their discourse. Back to Gee, he defines another term, “acquisition”, which is subconsciously taking something that correlates with the discourse (Gee 20). It is through acquisition that these hunters gain this skill, but it doesn’t explain why they do. This is since ghosts aren’t something that could be proven by scientists, since they are belong to a concept, according to Lauro and Paul, that is outside of empirical evidence (Lauro and Paul 224). Ghost hunters inherently acquire adopting uncredible sources like psychic readings because the idea of ghosts is already a pseudoscientific idea.
These pseudoscientific concepts merge with the professional and scientific stance ghost hunters take to validate their narratives. A device called the SPIRICOM, which produces sounds and radio signals, is an example of the merger between the two components that make up the ghost hunter’s discourse. The device is claimed to be able to speak with the dead by translating the voice of the deceased into radio waves, Lauro and Paul note that examples like these combine the supernatural with science (Lauro and Paul 227). The amount of evidence some ghost hunters claim as being valid is always seen as being dismissible, noted by Lauro and Paul, not all ghost hunters have the same look to their evidence since even the hosts of Ghost Hunters believe a majority of the evidence they have is debunkable (Lauro and Paul 229). Returning to Gee’s article, he claims that a discourse can be ideological which means they can have various perceptions and values relative to the discourse (Gee 19). For ghost hunters, their ideology would be the discussion around whether their evidence is good enough, but that largely hangs on their dependence to the supernatural.
While it can be summed up that ghost hunters use this mixture between the two, supernatural and natural, to allow some extent that ghosts exist, there is a quality to such a discourse that can help students understand how scientists speak and conduct. “Reasoning, Science, and The Ghost Hunt” by W. John Koolage and Timothy Hansel look to see if the literacy found in ghost hunting can be utilized as a way to help students understand and engage with the practices scientists do (Koolage and Hansel 202). For students, the activity of ghost hunting can be seen as a fun activity, due to the array of pop culture that surrounds it like films and shows, that could also potentially involve the students learning and acquiring scientific discourses (Koolage and Hansel 203). Let’s be honest, most students don’t look like they’re having a great time at chemistry labs. Koolage and Hansel implemented ghost hunting with their course in order to make a more accessible connection for their students, they would go to two sites and investigate the area (Koolage and Hansel 206). Most of the time there was nothing happening, but some strange things have occurred, but it was the critical thinking that Koolage and Hansel were looking for in the students to develop, not the ghosts (Koolage and Hansel 206). To their surprise the students did just that with the “evidence”, they analyzed every possibility of the cause of the occurrence and narrowed it down to the reflection of light, in the end debunking it (Koolage and Hansel 208).
Ghost hunting may not be apart of real science, but they do act like it’s one. In a way, ghost hunting is a way of introducing amateurs into the world of how science is examined, conducted, and finalized. It can even be utilized as a mock trial for students to acquire some skills that are found in science discourses as Koolage and Hansen have done. But there are many sides to ghost hunting and thus various ideologies that reflect pseudosciences. In conclusion, the approach ghost hunters have towards their craft is a mixture of both the natural and supernatural, either to persuade people or to validate their claims , but its natural aspect could help students develop skills for a science discourse.
Gee, James Paul. “What is Literacy?” Journal of Education, Vol. 171, No. 1, 1989, pp. 18-25.
McNeill, Lynne S. “Contemporary ghost hunting and the relationship between proof and experience.” Contemporary Legend n.s. 9, 2006, pp. 96-110.
Lauro, Sarah Juliet and Catherine Paul. “’Make Me Believe!’: Ghost-hunting technology and the postmodern fantastic.” Horror Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2013, pp. 221-239.
Koolage, John W. and Timothy Hansel. “Reasoning, Science, and The Ghost Hunt.” Teaching Philosophy 40:2, 2017, pp. 201-229.