Magazine Feature / People

Professor’s book sheds light on fascination with paranormal

Halloween 2009 is expected to be a $4.75 billion retail event in the United States, and 18-to-24-year-olds spend the most money on the holiday. Why is Halloween such a popular American celebration, even in a down economy?

Many young adults just want an excuse to dress up and party. But there is more to it than that, says Lynn Schofield Clark, associate professor of communication at the University of Denver. There also is greater interest in the paranormal and the supernatural.

“A lot of times, it’s more fun to ponder what might be true than to remain mired in the realities of everyday life,” says Clark, author of From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural, (Oxford University Press, 2005).

According to recent Gallup polls, belief in aliens is up, as is belief in ghosts and in paranormal activity. Clark points out that there are now seven reality programs on television about ghost hunting.

“At its heart, this interest in the paranormal and supernatural is about coming to terms with the fact that we have less control over things than we thought we did,” Clark says. “And with the fact that maybe we know less than we thought we did, too.

“Stories about the supernatural and paranormal occur right at the intersection of faith and science. They’re titillating, because they ask us to consider questions such as, ‘How do we know what is real?’ and ‘How do we know that what we think is real is actually real?’”

These are questions that science and religion have sought to answer through the ages.

“But today, many in Western society don’t really trust that science or religion can answer these questions adequately for us,” Clark says. “Younger people in particular are being raised in a cultural milieu that calls into question all claims to authority and knowledge all the time. Attempting to have experiences with the supernatural and paranormal lets young people experiment with both today’s taken-for-granted skepticism and with the possibility that something that’s thought of as unreal actually might be real.”

Clark finds it interesting that in many of today’s ghost hunter television programs and tourist excursions, young people are encouraged to use scientific instruments to track what we used to think of as the spiritual realm.

“It’s fun, but it’s also significant that it’s happening at a time when there’s a loss of faith in the abilities of religion or science to tell us what is real. There’s a decline in the clout of traditional religious and scientific institutions. And there’s a rise in our own sense that we should question what we think we know as real, too.”

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