Peter Underwood once suggested that 98% of the reports of hauntings were likely to have rational explanations, but that he was most interested in the 2% that could be genuine (Underwood, 1983). This is a sentiment that ghost investigators often repeat, sometimes with variation. 99% is explainable, or maybe it’s 80%? Those who say such things often then add that it’s the smaller number that interests them the most, that 1% that could be paranormal in origin… but are they missing the bigger picture? I think they could be for a number of reasons.
Firstly, there is no way of knowing for sure what percentage of reported paranormal phenomena has a natural explanation and which doesn’t. There is no quantitive data that would support such a claim in either direction and so those who make such statements are doing so from an anecdotal position, which is fine. As long as nobody thinks otherwise.
Secondly, Karen Stollznow recently released a book titled Would You Believe it? in which she catalogues written accounts from skeptics and rationalists of the strange experiences they have no explanation for. I contributed the story of the weird things I witnessed when I was working in a bakery shop as a teenager. I still have no explanation for the things that happened (and they were very strange and very scary,) so would they fit into Underwood’s 2%? Well, no. They wouldn’t, and this is where the idea of being able to split reported phenomena into two categories- explainable and unexplainable -really starts to fall apart.
Those things witnessed by people that seem not to have an explanation do not automatically qualify as evidence of a paranormal cause. The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) would call such phenomena Xenonormal which means ‘foreign normal’. Something that likely has a natural explanation which just hasn’t been discovered yet (Townsend, 2009.) For example, when I investigated the ghost of Clevedon Pier I didn’t know what the natural explanation for the ghost photograph was until I literally bumped into the man mistaken for a ghost (who was even wearing the same coat as he was in the ghost photo), so up until my discovery of him that case could have been classed as xenonormal. If I hadn’t discovered the cause, the photo wouldn’t then become evidence for something paranormal simply because no cause was discovered. It would have just remained unsolved.
If investigators are not careful they could make leaps of logic by assuming that because they couldn’t figure out what caused a reported oddity it means there isn’t a rational cause and therefore the oddity is paranormal. There is no supporting evidence for this claim other than “I couldn’t find another cause,” and this is pretty irrational. I hate to break the news to you, but none of us has the vast knowledge of everything in our heads. That’s why it is so useful to work with other investigators and to ask for their help and opinions, because their knowledge may overlap yours and vice versa!
Not only this but by claiming that it is only the 2% of unsolved cases that interests them, investigators are revealing their tunnel vision. Every single case of phenomena they work with should interest them whether it has been solved or not. Each report we work with as investigators tells us so much about how humans interpret the world around them and this not only helps when we work on future cases but can also help us learn more about the societies and cultures we live and work in. I find the cases I solve to be just as interesting as those I don’t, and I can’t imagine how that couldn’t be possible for any investigator using a proper investigative methodology.
I love a good mystery as much as the next person, but as an investigator, I realise that I must be careful not to let people think that because I can’t find an explanation for something it means it’s likely something paranormal or sinister. It sometimes sounds as though I’m pussyfooting when I explain this, but I want to make sure people understand this because so many people who present themselves as experts are happy to throw interesting statistics around which, in reality, can be quite misleading.
Townsend, M. (2009) Xenonormal, ASSAP [Online]. Available at http://www.assap.ac.uk/newsite/articles/Xenonormal.html (Accessed 9th February 2017)
Underwood, P. (1983) No Common Task: The Autobiography of a Ghost-Hunter, George G.Harrap & Co Ltd, London
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