Regardless of our childhoods, we all grew up hearing ghost stories in one way or another. Fantastical fantasy films, religious antidotes, fairytale fables — they all delve into the world of the paranormal or psychic, and inadvertently ended up playing a major role in the development of our beliefs.
I have a deep and unshakeable love for all things in the horror genre. My sister watches Ghost Adventures everyday and will swear up and down that our house is haunted. My mom watches almost exclusively science fiction movies and will be the first to tell you that aliens are out there.
Now, I don’t believe in ghosts. Not exactly what you want to hear from someone writing on the paranormal, is it? But it’s the effect these stories have on us and our environment that amazes me about the ghoulish topic.
So, what exactly is the world of the paranormal? As we enter the Halloween season, and the cumulative excitement for all things that go bump in the night grows, I find myself asking why exactly these ghost stories mean so much to us as a society.
What defines the Paranormal?
When you hear the word paranormal the first thing that usually comes to mind is an old, creaky house on a haunted hill with sheet-like spirits fluttering about the broken windows. But the paranormal is much more and is commonly defined as an experience or phenomenon that is unexplainable by science.
While this definition includes anomalies such as hauntings and ghostly activity, Loyd Auerbach, parapsychologist, paranormal investigator and professor at Atlantic University, notes that the paranormal refers to all inexplicable phenomena “that are on the side of the normal.”
“We don’t call them supernatural because they are still natural, and actually in many respects they are normal based on the number of people who’ve had these experiences. And of course normal is dependent on what we as a society decide is normal.”
Auerbach says that the word paranormal could even be used interchangeably with psychic, as a ghostly experience is a psychic experience, where the ghost “is not physically manifesting itself.”
Parapsychology, a field that has been around since the 19th century, is the science that studies psychic experiences and abilities. Auerbach notes that in this line of work they study things such as extrasensory perception (ESP), psychokinesis, the idea of apparitions, ghost hauntings, poltergeist phenomena, and even cases of reincarnation and near death experiences.
James Alcock, professor emeritus in the department of psychology, however argues that many misinterpreted cases of the paranormal come from misinterpreted personal experiences.
“Much of the information processing in our brains is at a nonconscious level, and sometimes the results of such processing, when they enter consciousness, appear to people to be inexplicable except in terms of ESP or precognition or ghosts,” he says.
Parapsychology studies all of these occurrences with seemingly psychic elements and can be carried out both in the laboratory or through field work, widely seen with paranormal investigation.
Into the Trenches: The Process of Paranormal Investigation
The Ontario Paranormal Society is a non-profit organization that investigates areas in the GTA facing supposedly paranormal behaviour. According to Glenn Laycock, director of York Region’s chapter of the Ontario Paranormal Society, they stick to residential areas, rather than going to well-known haunted locations to ‘ghost hunt,’ in order to help people and provide them with reassurance in their situation.
“We try to find hard evidence that there’s something going on. We go into a house and if there’s something going on we try to totally disprove everything. And it’s the things that you can’t disprove that make you go ‘Okay, well now that’s interesting.’”
Auerbach explains that with his field work in parapsychology, they encounter all elements of paranormal phenomena in investigations. “We respond to calls from people who are experiencing something they consider paranormal, or some sort of phenomenon that seems to be what we classify as ‘ghostly’ — which means they might be seeing a figure, they might be experiencing sounds, they might be experiencing unusual smells or they might even have physical objects moving around.”
For Auerbach, the process of investigation first involves a process of elimination, where they try to go in and find explanations not just for the overall case, but for the individual experiences people are having.
“What we do notice is that especially when people are calling in some degree of fear or anxiety, they will mislabel other things in their home or their building as paranormal, because they never noticed them before.”
According to Laycock, once the investigation is complete, the process of analyzing information after the investigation could take weeks, considering the amount of audio and video recordings collected from their equipment, such as PVR systems, infrared cameras, and portable pulse spectrum cameras.
“We’ll have what we call a reveal — we sit down with them and show them what we found. We’ll play the video and audio and then we give them a copy of everything,” says Laycock. He says that solutions for paranormal occurrences can include smudgings or leaning on one’s faith, but a majority of the time the phenomenon can be remedied by taking ownership of one’s home.
“People feel silly doing this, but you go into your house and say ‘This is my home, and you’re not allowed to be here: You need to leave.’ That usually fixes it.”
Hell House LLC? Haunted Attractions and the Reality of Cinematic Ghost Hunting
Now Toronto is no stranger to the exploration of the paranormal — especially come October. And with reportedly almost 50 per cent of the nation believing in ghosts, there’s a huge market for paranormal experiences, both in person and through a screen.
From the purely theatrical and fictional Halloween Haunt at Canada’s Wonderland and Legends of Horror at Casa Loma to the true paranormal stories found in the Ghosts of Black Creek Pioneer Village provided by Haunted Walk Toronto, every fall brings the flood of the paranormal back into the city.
The Haunted Walk has been a staple in Toronto, Kingston, and Ottawa for 25 years, and Jim Dean, creative director of the program says they love to share “secrets that are hidden in plain sight,” and that a “truly great ghost story rarely just falls in your lap.
“For each story on our tours, countless hours of work are done at the archives, libraries and through interviewing people who have had difficult-to-explain experiences,” says Dean.
Tour guide talking to the crowd at Black Creek Pioneer Village, (Courtesy of Haunted Walk Inc.)
But as for all the ghost hunting shows, how much does Zak Bagans get right?
As entertaining as good ol’ Ghost Adventures is, the answer is a rather unanimous ‘not a lot.’ According to Laycock, once these shows go Hollywood they tend to lose their touch with the reality of paranormal investigation.
One thing he notes as not a healthy investigative practice is the taunting of potential spirits when entering these locations, even saying to “never go into a place and challenge.
“I like sticking with what I’m doing because you’re helping people. And if there is such a thing as a trapped or tormented spirit, do I really want to be the guy that goes in these places and pokes them with a stick?” he questions.
A staple of found footage horror and ghost hunting shows is filming in close to total darkness. But with human’s terrible perception in the dark, this tactic is usually used solely for optics. Producers and performers know that more darkness means more ability to scare an audience, to where darkness becomes a ‘television device,’ according to Auerbach.
He claims that another inaccuracy lies within how these stylized programs use the correct technology incorrectly.
“Most of them use the technology and assume any sort of anomaly on the readings is a ghost or something paranormal. We use most of those things to determine what’s going on in the environment, hopefully at the same time somebody is having an experience, but at the very least in the places people are having the experience.”
Experts Weigh in on the Pull Towards the Paranormal
So why do we love these stories that send a chill down our spine?
Dean says that these stories can act as a way to connect the past to the present while asking us a fundamental question of human nature: what happens after we die?
This question sits at the core of haunting stories that have been passed down for years. Auerbach even jokes that “we’ve probably been telling ghost stories around the campfire since we’ve had fire.” Paranormal anomalies sit at the core of many religions, societies, and cultures, even if they don’t always take the place of a haunted home or a lingering spirit.
“Cultural beliefs and religion are at the root of a lot of the fear and acceptance,” Auerbach continues.
Alcock notes that the belief in the paranormal can even provide reassurance in some cases. “For example,” he says, “if ghosts were real, that would mean that we survive death, which is a comfort to many people.”
Christopher French, professor emeritus in the department of psychology at Goldsmiths University of London, also mentions the comfort of the connection between life and death, going on to say that “ghost stories may be taken as an indication of the continuity between ourselves and ancestors and the world they lived in.”
“People are fascinated by the paranormal for many reasons. For some, the paranormal offers excitement, an escape from mundane everyday reality. For others, it fits in with a worldview that rejects the idea that science can explain everything,” says French.
Professor Paul Kingsbury in the department of geography at Simon Fraser University explains the big picture questions surrounding the paranormal are not the only factor that draws people into psychic stories, but also because “many people have had direct and extraordinary experiences and encounters with entities and objects that defy scientific explanations and natural laws.”
“Ghost stories, like any extraordinary and alluring narratives, incite our desire and prompt us to look at landscapes and places in an awry manner, that is, they make all established meanings suspect,” says Kingsbury.
The love of the paranormal in this case looks to be based on two main factors: the comfort over the thwarting of death and the lure into the world of the unknown.
‘I Want to Believe:’ A Healthy Dose of Skepticism
Paranormal skepticism, meaning having doubts of the beliefs in the world of the parapsychological, is not uncommon by any means. And to me, regardless of the phenomena (paranormal, religious, psychological, or otherwise) a bit of skepticism can always do a little good in terms of grounding oneself in reality.
Alcock says that personal beliefs fall to each person, but urges people to open themselves to a critical evaluation of the phenomena. “Belief by itself, and indeed experience by itself, can be a very poor guide to reality.”
“Society advances only when people subject their beliefs to careful scrutiny, and that involves much more than doing a Google search,” he continues.
While Dean pushes that on the topic of the legitimacy of ghosts, one should try to have an open mind, the reasonings someone has behind believing — or not believing — can often reveal themselves to be quite clear.
“You have either had a personal experience of some sort, you have been met with staggering evidence, or you have an intuitive sense that there is ‘something more’ going on. At The Haunted Walk, we run into all three of these quite frequently,” they say.
“Many ghost researchers believe that hauntings represent an energy-derived manifestation of a formerly living person, but sometimes also animals and strange creatures,” explains Kingsbury. “To this end, they would suggest there is a good chance that historical buildings and busy places in Toronto including university campuses could be good locations for hauntings.”
To this end, could York be haunted? Are we actually under a paranormal curse that inflicts us with a strike every so often? It seems as though I’m not the only one to question this, as the Legend of the Glendon Ghost is still very much alive and well, with supposed sightings popping up now and again around Glendon Manor.
“I think sometimes a little skepticism is kind of healthy, but you should also be open to the idea of it,” says Laycock. “You’ll find that children tend to experience things more than adults because they haven’t had their entire life with someone going ‘there’s no such thing as that.’”
The world of the paranormal is ultimately so luring and exciting because of its ability to provide unending possibilities. Childhood wonderment comes back at the thought of the unknown, especially when we have to accept that the power of this phenomena is, more often than not, out of our hands.
I think Laycock puts it best when he says it is this very unknown that draws people in.
“Is it real? Is it not real? It’s never been proven — it’s never been disproven. It’s just the mystery of it. People still ask me if ghosts really exist, and I still tell people after all these years that I don’t know. I’ll let you know when I figure it out,” he concludes.
The beauty (and possibly the frustration) that comes with the paranormal is in its very definition: it is scientifically inexplicable.
Like many other moral possibilities in our lives, we can chalk it up to an ever-growing question that occasionally peaks its way into the way we live our lives. There really is something spectacular in imagining a world or force beyond us that can tap into realms only thought of in our wildest, and most terrifying dreams. I think if you’re not a full believer, it’s still worth a shot to open yourself up to a new way of thinking, even if just for entertainment.
And in the end, who knows? Maybe there really is something just behind your shoulder reading this too.