The only thing to fear is how little we actually know.
There are scientific theories that paranormal events are products of the human mind, and ghosts only exist because we believe in them. A few years ago, a group of science students and college friends set out to prove this by creating a supernatural entity… with their minds. They attempted to recreate an experiment from the 1970s where they stare at a drawing of a dead man and try to summon his spirit.
So they got the drawing and stared and stared. And stared some more. They concentrated very hard on bringing this spirit forward. The experiment was a success—an unfortunate success.
What I’ve just described is the plot of a movie called The Apparition. Its tagline: “Once you believe it’s real, you die.” Critics widely panned the movie, which tanked at the box office when it came out in 2012. But I enjoyed it—particularly how the apparition’s abilities to manipulate objects in truly metaphysical ways was portrayed.
The Apparition ends by suddenly cutting to black. Nothing is resolved, and the audience is never told whether the spirit these researchers has summoned is real or not—or how the movie’s characters came to die, or even if they did. But I thought it absolutely nailed many of the subtle conditions that often occur during paranormal experiences; in other words, it ends the only way a movie about the paranormal should.
Understanding the paranormal, in a sense, is to reckon with the idea that we will never fully grasp it. We are forced to accept that there is an infinite well of knowledge about the world we don’t possess. We are especially uncomfortable when asked to engage with realms of human experience that don’t fit within the accorded norms. This part of the human story is roundly mocked in academic circles and dismissed quickly by cynics—despite the rumored existence of these types of phenomena being at the heart of the human experience for all of recorded history.
In his book The Trickster and the Paranormal, parapsychologist George P. Hansen explains quite thoroughly (564 pages!) why these types of ideas—spirits of the dead, UFOs, clairvoyance, psychokinesis—hold such a strange place in our culture, and why they’re often marginalized or relegated to the sidelines. Thinking deeply about them—accepting that they could be real—is problematic for science, which cannot fully offer tangible proof. Th