I Want To Believe: Will The X-Files Reboot Turn People Into Believers?

TV box

There have been lots of X-Files-related posts across my social media accounts recently as the relaunch fast approaches (with Greg and Dana of Planet Weird accounting for at least 70% of the Mulder and Scully stuff appearing on my Facebook feed.) Mixed in with these have been concerns from my more sceptically-inclined friends about what the return of Mulder and Scully will mean for the paranormal belief and susceptibility of the general public.

When talking about people who believe in paranormal ideas skeptics (myself included) will often be quick to point out that the media can have an influence upon which ideas we humans perceive to be realistic and possible. However many people will not be able to provide any reference for this claim – it is often parroted as a way to dismiss paranormal beliefs or to warn of the danger of paranormal television shows.

What we do know is that watching a television show isn’t likely to turn you from a non-believer to a believer. It’s all rather more complicated than that.

Glenn Sparks et al. conducted several experiments with groups of students who were surveyed about their paranormal beliefs and then exposed to certain forms of paranormal media. After watching shows about paranormal subjects presented in different manners they were surveyed about their beliefs again to see if there were shifts in their attitudes.

In one study the researchers had one group watch a program without any introductory disclaimer and another group with a disclaimer that mimicked those used on paranormal television shows. Another two groups watched the program with different disclaimers – one which said the program was only for entertainment and was fictitious and the second asserted that the depicted events violated the known laws of nature and that nothing like them had ever occurred.

The post-viewing survey found that the groups who saw the disclaimers tended to express more doubt in the existence of paranormal phenomena but the group who saw no disclaimer tended to express more confidence in the existence of these phenomena.

They also studied what happened when people with high or low mental imagery watched UFO-related television shows. One of which was shown as it had been broadcast, and the second which was edited to remove all special effects and alien imagery originally added by the producers.

‘One major finding that emerged from the study was that viewers who watched either of the two segments of the UFO reports increased their UFO beliefs significantly when compared to the control group. Like the results in the first study, this finding supports the notion that media depictions of the paranormal do indeed affect viewers’ beliefs.’ – Sparks

Other experiments were conducted about how a scientific authority can play a significant role in whether people consuming paranormal-related media are more likely to accept paranormal ideas presented as being valid or not. You can read an overview of the studies here. 

The important thing to consider here though is that The X-Files does not present itself as a factual programme as shows like Unsolved Mysteries, Beyond Reality, Strange But True and others. It’s a fictional show that fits into various different genres – paranormal, horror, science-fiction. The X-Files takes common paranormal themes and often adds another layer of weirdness to them.

The shift in attitudes that Sparks et al. noted also relied upon a pre-existing belief in paranormal ideas. There was no indication that watching these shows in their original format or an edited format could convert somebody from non-believer to believer.

In 2003 Christopher H. Whittle conducted a study that explored how people learn scientific information from television programming. Using an online questionnaire he asked viewers of ER and The X-Files to agree or disagree with a series of questions based upon the science (or pseudoscience) presented in the two shows.

He discovered that entertainment television viewers can learn facts and concepts from the shows that they watch, but he also discovered that there was no significant difference in the level of pseudoscientific or paranormal belief between viewers of ER and The X-Files.

The weird thing about this was the fact that Whittle wasn’t asking ‘do you believe in astral projection?’ but in fact questions that focussed on ideas created by the writers of The X-Files in their episodes, such as ‘Do you believe during astral projection a person could commit a murder?”

demon fetal harvest

‘ER viewers were just as likely to acknowledge belief in that paraparanormal (a concept beyond the traditional paranormal) belief as were viewers of The X-Files!’ Whittle wrote in Skeptical Inquirer in 2004. ‘The media may provide fodder for pseudoscientific beliefs and create new monsters and demons for us to believe in, but each individual’s culture is responsible for laying the groundwork for pseudoscientific and paranormal belief to take root.’

So sure, The X-FIles might make UFOs seem a bit cooler than ghosts for a bit (depending on what the focus of the series will be, that is) and many of us will rekindle old crushes, but it’s probably not going to make people believe in things they weren’t likely to believe in before.

Besides, Dana Scully is a kick-ass skeptic investigator who knows what’s up. We’re in pretty safe hands.

scully

What’s The Deal With Self-Styled Exorcists?

cross

Ghost Hunters claiming to clear spirits from a property is nothing new and yet many people who offer this nonsense service brand themselves as exorcists and they seem to be as popular as ever. So, what’s the deal?

A survey conducted in 2012 found that 57% of Americans believe in demonic possession. A survey in 2013 showed that 18% of Brits did too. In October 2013 the Pope commended exorcist priests for their fight against “the Devil’s works” and said that the Church needed to help “those possessed by evil.” The Catholic church responded by training more priests to perform exorcisms with a conference last year seeing at least 160 priests in attendance.

It seems that the “cool” new Pope that many people (atheists included) praise for being a more modern version of his predecessors is actually a bit obsessed with the fictional devil. When this man is praised by atheists it makes my skin itch, but that’s another blog post for another day.

“Pope Francis talks about the Devil all the time and that has certainly raised awareness about exorcisms,” Father Cesare Truqui  told The Telegraph, “but all Latin Americans have this sensibility – for them, the existence of the Devil is part of their faith.”

Traditionally people associated ill luck with demonic entities, and as the media modernises and we see news reports from all around the world 24/7 it is easy to see why people may turn to the more traditional aspects of their religion and believe in the work of the devil when they did not before. The world seems like such a darker place when you are constantly bombarded with news of terrorism, war, humanitarian crises, poverty and natural disasters.

Suddenly the darkness that was thousands of miles away is in your living room, invading your house. You can’t quite escape it.

The risk is, of course, that exorcisms often replace what should be a trip to see a health professional, and this is alarming given the number of people being killed or grievously harmed while being exorcised because friends or family members believe they are possessed.

People who are thought to be possessed are usually displaying symptoms of underlying mental or physical health conditions, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes you could have a lifestyle that is not approved of by relatives and they’ll consider this sin to be the result of evil in your life.

This is why I find it concerning that ghost hunters present themselves as people who conduct exorcisms when ridding homes of a ghost. This is probably done because it makes you sound important and mysterious –  an appeal to authority, if you will. Yet to do this adds a sinister layer to a haunting that could actually make the situation worse because of the negative connotation that the use of the word ‘exorcism’ drums up. Suddenly your traditional ghost is something much more scary because a ghost hunter is stroking their ego. It’s all quite vulgar really.

 

The Worst Ghosts of 2015

hampton court

It has been an entire year since I correctly predicted that Slenderman would be seen in the UK in my ‘Worst Ghosts of 2014’ round up. In that year I created a feature on this blog called The Weakly Ghost Bulletin which morphed into The Spooktator Podcast which examines ghost related headlines on a monthly basis. It’s been busy…

…so, without further ado here are the 5 Worst Ghosts of 2015!

#5 The Ohio Ghost that was literally crap

figure outside Ohio mall

In May, Examiner reported that a woman called Tonya Nester was taking photos of the closed down Randall Park Mall in Ohio and a friend noticed something odd in one of the photos that was quickly concluded to be a ghost.

‘What exactly is the angelic figure in the photo?’ asked Examiner reporter John Albrecht. Well, John, bird crap is what it is.

The photo was taken through a car window, dirt tracks left from rain visible, and the white smudge being called a ghost or angelic is bird poo.

#4 That Samurai Ghost that photobombed a little girl

Samurai-Ghost (2)

In April some people lost their composure over a photo that it is claimed shows a pair of ghostly legs behind a little girl who was on holiday with her family. Taken on a smart phone, the childs father claimed nobody was standing behind her at the time the photo was taken. This, it turns out, is not true.

japan policeDon Cake worked out that it was a guard standing a slight distance away from the child and emailed the Fortean Times (FT332, p. 76) to tell them that the beach in the photograph is a short distance from the Summer palace of the Emperor of Japan, which is well guarded by officers who wear the uniform (pictured), which resembles the legs of the so-called ghost. If you look carefully you can even see part of the light blue shirt beneath the childs left elbow.

 

#3 The grey lady of Hampton Court that was actually… not

hampton court

Many people claimed that this photo taken by 12-year-old Holly Hampsheir in February shows the ghost of Dame Sybil Penn (aka the gray lady of Hampton Court) and that the apparition is wearing period clothing which is interesting because it totally isn’t.

It is, in fact, a panoramic photo that went wrong and what we’re seeing are the distorted features of a fleshy (an alive human.) This is explained by Mick West in more detail here, where he also replicated the photo. West said ‘it’s just the result of taking a panoramic photo in low light on the iPhone. Panoramic photos are done by holding the camera up, and panning from left to right. The camera takes lots of photos and then stitches them together … but because it takes a while to take all the images, if something moves while you are taking the panorama, then it will get distorted.’

#2 That eight-foot-tall Ghost 

Although this photo technically dates back to pre-Christmas 2014 it wasn’t until 2015 that it came to the attention of the media which is why it has been included here. It was taken by teacher Debbie Monteforte and a family friend said “The family insists there was no one standing behind them and there was no place to hang a coat. Even if there was someone standing there, they would have to be 8ft tall to appear like that. It’s beyond spooky.”

However, in Weakly Ghost Bulletin #4 I explained how a quick look around on Google Image Search revealed another photograph taken in the same area of the pub that showed that perhaps a person standing in that position wouldn’t have been 8-foot-tall after all.

Kings Arms Ghost Comparison

#1  Slenderman. Obviously.

It feels right that we finish with the story I opened with. I am awarding the #1 spot on this list to two people: Lee Brickley and Christine Hamlett.

In January 2015 Brickley (who has previously made the #1 spot on this list) generated bizarre headlines by claiming that Slenderman had been seen by many people in the Cannock Chase area. He also made the observation that throughout history people have reported seeing tall creatures and spirits which led him to declare that Slenderman wasn’t created online.

What a genius.

He’s wrong, of course. The fictional creature called Slenderman is an internet creation that probably takes inspiration from real-like folklore. I wrote about this in more detail in a blog post called The Evolution of Ghosts and Monsters in which I point out that ‘many in the Cannock Chase area reported that they saw the so-called Slenderman entity while experiencing sleep paralysis, but if they lived in a different part of the world they might perhaps report that they saw a Grey- an alien considered synonymous with E.T. encounters -rather than a spirit or monster.’

It didn’t stop there though. Enter Christine Hamlett…

Hamlett, a self-proclaimed spirit medium, claimed to have caught Slenderman on camera.

Alleged photo of Slenderman
Alleged photo of Slenderman

This is quite amusing because Hamlett also claimed to have caught a Black Eyed Child on camera when Brickley made the headlines in October 2014 with claims that Black Eyed Kids were prowling in Cannock Chase (you can read more about that on my blog here)

not slenderman
Alleged photo of Black Eyed Child ghost…
More recently Hamlett made headlines with claims that she caught the ghost of one of the Pendle Witches on camera, but her claims were shown to be historically inaccurate. You can read my breakdown of the Pendle Witch claims here.

So there we have what I consider to be the 5 Worst Ghosts of 2015 – a whole range of bizarre claims that, encouragingly, were investigated and explained by rational researchers.

You can check out previous years Worst Ghosts showcases here, and throughout 2016 I will examine ghost related headlines on a monthly basis on The Spooktator podcast. Be sure to subscribe on Soundcloud or iTunes!

 

Paranormal Podcasts

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You can go on youtube and find some evidence of ghosts…

Within three minutes of clicking play these terrible, terrible words are spoken and I should switch off. I should walk away. I’ve got a million things to do. I’ve been investigating weird stuff for over a decade. I’m hardened to such statements, I have no time for nonsense… and yet I sit and continue to listen because I think I might be addicted to The Parapod. Gozer help me.

Barry Dodds is a believer, Ray Peacock is a non-believer and their discussions about the paranormal are fascinating.

I discovered the podcast after recently launching The Spooktator, a podcast-version of the Weakly Ghost Bulletin I used to produce on this blog. Someone pointed out that I might like the show and I was skeptical and yet here I am frantically listening my way through the first ten episodes. The only time I can listen to podcasts is on my 30 minute commute to work so I have to listen in halves but it’s worth the effort. You can listen to them on Soundcloud or iTunes and you should!

While on the subject of podcasts I feel I must introduce you to the world of The Spooktator where myself, Paul Gannon, Ash Pryce, Alistair Coleman and Mike Gage discuss the previous months ghost stories that made the news. We broadcast live on youtube and then edit the show down to an audio podcast. We’ve just been added to iTunes and Soundcloud so do subscribe and check out Episode 1 in which we examine October 2015 (and discuss that ominous Most Haunted Live from 30 East Drive.)

Also worth a mention – I was recently a guest on Inkredulous which will be published soon – keep an eye on the Merseyside Skeptics Society podcast page here.

Thoughts on Most Haunted Live Halloween 2015

yvette

During the Most Haunted Live broadcast on Halloween night 2015 Karl Beattie was allegedly dragged up some stairs by an unseen entity which strangled him. This was caught on camera and some people have noticed that there seems to be a rope around his waist. In response to the accusations of trickery that this rope indicates both Karl Beattie and his wife Yvette Fielding say that the rope is actually just a camera cable.

Skeptics doubt it, fans and believers think it’s true…

…but who actually gives a shit?

Seriously. Who gives a flying fuck? Running around declaring Most Haunted to be fake… well done, clever clogs! Of course it’s not to be trusted… it’s television!

I watched the entire show last night while trying to play along with a drinking game and it was shoddy, over-dramatic, hilarious, entertaining… but it was nowhere near as entertaining as watching people react to the show on Facebook and Twitter. Some people were annoyed that “true ghost hunters” were being shown in a bad light. Other people were annoyed that such nonsense should be allowed to be broadcast…

…and yes, the Satanic chants were a bit over the fucking top and ethically questionable – but just as questionable as the ethics of any of your bog standard ghost hunting groups across the country. Sure, there was no scientific credibility to any of the claims being made on the show but, again, the same can be said of 99% of the people who call themselves paranormal researchers. Yet the mistake people are making when they moan about Most Haunted is to treat the show as comparable with real-life paranormal research.

Most Haunted is a television show that courts controversy – it wants to be loved and hated in equal parts and it succeeds – it always has. It plays up to expectations, it ticks boxes, it gets the viewing figures. It does its job.

Amateur paranormal researchers on the other hand want to be respected as researchers when they’re not deserving of respect, and what they do on their ghost hunts is hugely unethical, completely unscientific… and they don’t even have the excuse of being producers of an entertainment TV show to hide behind! If you’re a ghost hunter who feels that Most Haunted is to blame for making paranormal researchers look back I suggest you have a hard look in the mirror because you’re doing a good enough job of that yourselves. Get a fucking grip.

I’ll be talking about this and more on the first ever episode of The Spooktator vodcast/podcast coming to you live from Youtube on Wednesday. I’ll be joined by Paul Gannon, Alistair Coleman and Mike Gage – details can be found here.