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Paranormal is an umbrella term used to describe unusual phenomena or experiences that lack an obvious scientific explanation.1 In parapsychology, it is used to describe the potentially psychic phenomena of telepathy, extra-sensory perception, psychokinesis, ghosts, and hauntings. The term is also applied to UFOs, some creatures that fall under the scope of cryptozoology, purported phenomena surrounding the Bermuda Triangle, and other non-psychical subjects.2 Stories relating to paranormal phenomena are widespread in popular culture and folklore, but some organisations such as the United States National Science Foundation have stated that mainstream science does not support paranormal beliefs.3

Paranormal research

Approaching paranormal phenomena from a research perspective is often difficult because even when the phenomena are seen as real they may be difficult to explain using existing rules or theory. By definition, paranormal phenomena exist outside of conventional norms. Skeptics contend that they don't exist at all. Despite this challenge, studies on the paranormal are periodically conducted by researchers from various disciplines. Some researchers study just the beliefs in paranormal phenomena regardless of whether the phenomena actually exist.

This section deals with various approaches to the paranormal including those scientific, pseudoscientific, and unscientific. Skeptics feel that supposed scientific approaches are actually pseudoscientific for several reasons which are explored below.4

Anecdotal approach

An anecdotal approach to the paranormal involves the collection of anecdotal evidence consisting of informal accounts. Anecdotal evidence, lacking the rigor of empirical evidence, is not amenable to scientific investigation. The anecdotal approach is not a scientific approach to the paranormal because it leaves verification dependent on the credibility of the party presenting the evidence. It is also subject to such logical fallacies as cognitive bias, inductive reasoning, lack of falsifiability, and other fallacies that may prevent the anecdote from having meaningful information to impart. Nevertheless, it is a common approach to paranormal phenomena.

Charles Fort (1874 – 1932) is perhaps the best known collector of paranormal anecdotes. Fort is said to have compiled as many as 40,000 notes on unexplained phenomena, though there were no doubt many more than these. These notes came from what he called "the orthodox conventionality of Science", which were odd events originally reported in magazines and newspapers such as The Times and scientific journals such as Scientific American, Nature and Science. From this research Fort wrote seven books, though only four survive.

Reported events that he collected include teleportation (a term Fort is generally credited with coining); poltergeist events, falls of frogs, fishes, inorganic materials of an amazing range; crop circles; unaccountable noises and explosions; spontaneous fires; levitation; ball lightning (a term explicitly used by Fort); unidentified flying objects; mysterious appearances and disappearances; giant wheels of light in the oceans; and animals found outside their normal ranges (see phantom cat). He offered many reports of OOPArts, abbreviation for "out of place" artifacts: strange items found in unlikely locations. He also is perhaps the first person to explain strange human appearances and disappearances by the hypothesis of alien abduction, and was an early proponent of the extraterrestrial hypothesis.

Fort is considered by many as the father of modern paranormalism, which is the study of paranormal phenomena.

The magazine Fortean Times continues Charles Forte's approach, regularly reporting anecdotal accounts of anomalous phenomena.

Experimental approach

Participant of a Ganzfeld Experiment which proponents say may show evidence of telepathy
Participant of a Ganzfeld Experiment which proponents say may show evidence of telepathy

Experimental investigation of the paranormal is largely conducted in the multidisciplinary field of parapsychology. Although parapsychology has its roots in earlier research, it began using the experimental approach in the 1930s under the direction of J. B. Rhine (1895 – 1980).5 Rhine popularized the now famous methodology of using card-guessing and dice-rolling experiments in a laboratory in the hopes of finding a statistical validation of extra-sensory perception.5

In 1957, the Parapsychological Association was formed as the preeminent society for parapsychologists. In 1969, they became affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That affiliation, along with a general openness to psychic and occult phenomena in the 1970s, led to a decade of increased parapsychological research.5 During this time, other notable organizations were also formed, including the Academy of Parapsychology and Medicine (1970), the Institute of Parascience (1971), the Academy of Religion and Psychical Research, the Institute for Noetic Sciences (1973), and the International Kirlian Research Association (1975). Each of these groups performed experiments on paranormal subjects to varying degrees. Parapsychological work was also conducted at the Stanford Research Institute during this time.5

With the increase in parapsychological investigation, there came an increase in opposition to both the findings of parapsychologists and the granting of any formal recognition of the field. Criticisms of the field were focused in the founding of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (1976), now called the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and its periodical, Skeptical Inquirer.5

Experimental research into the paranormal continues today, though it has waned considerably since the 1970s.6 One such experiment is called the Ganzfeld Experiment. The purpose of the Ganzfeld Experiment, like other parapsychological experiments, is to test for statistical anomalies that might suggest the existence of psi, a process indicating psychic phenomena.7 In the Ganzfeld Experiment, a subject (receiver) is asked to access through psychic means some target. The target is typically a picture or video clip selected randomly from a large pool, which is then viewed in a remote location by another subject (sender). Ganzfeld experiments use audio and visual sensory deprivation to remove any kind of external stimulus that may interfere with the testing or corrupt the test by providing cues to correct targets. A 'hit' refers to a correctly identified target. The expected hit ratio of such a trial is 1 in 4, or 25%.7 Deviations from this expected ratio might be seen as evidence for psi, although such conclusions are often disputed.8 To date there have been no experimental results that have gained wide acceptance in the scientific community as valid evidence of paranormal phenomena. 6

Participant-observer approach

While parapsychologists look for quantitative evidence of the paranormal in laboratories, a great number of people immerse themselves in qualitative research through participant-observer approaches to the paranormal. Participant-observer methodologies have overlaps with other essentially qualitative approaches as well, including phenomenological research that seeks largely to describe subjects as they are experienced, rather than to explain them.9

Participant-observation suggests that by immersing oneself in the subject being studied, a researcher is presumed to gain understanding of the subject. In paranormal research, a participant-observer study might consist of a researcher visiting a place where alleged paranormal activity is said to occur and recording observations while there. Participation levels may vary. In studying a supposedly haunted location, for example, the researcher may conduct a séance or participate in other activities said to cause paranormal activity.

Criticisms of participant-observation as a data-gathering technique are similar to criticisms of other approaches to the paranormal, but also include an increased threat to the objectivity of the researcher, unsystematic gathering of data, reliance on subjective measurement, and possible observer effects (observation may distort the observed behavior).10 Specific data gathering methods, such as recording EMF readings at haunted locations have their own criticisms beyond those attributed to the participant-observation approach itself.

The participant-observer approach to the paranormal has gained increased visibility and popularity through reality-based television shows like [Ghost Hunters], and the formation of independent ghost hunting groups which advocate immersive research at alleged paranormal locations. One popular website for ghost hunting enthusiasts lists over 300 of these organizations throughout the United States and the United Kingdom.11

Debunking approach

The debunking approach is a response to claims of paranormal phenomena, and consists of finding a "normal" explanation instead of a paranormal one to account for the claims. The basis for this approach is Occam's razor, which suggests that the simplest solution is the best one.12 Since standard scientific models generally predict what can be expected in the natural world, the debunking approach presumes that what appears to be paranormal is necessarily a misinterpretation of natural phenomena, rather than an actual anomalous phenomenon. In contrast to the skeptical position, which requires claims to be proven, the debunking approach actively seeks to disprove the claims.

The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is an organization that aims to publicize the skeptical approach. It carries out investigations aimed at debunking paranormal reports, and publishes its results in its journal the [Skeptical Inquirer.

Former stage magician, James Randi, is a well-known debunker of paranormal claims13 and a prominent member of CSICOP. As a skeptic with a background in illusion, Randi feels that the simplest explanation for those claiming paranormal abilities is trickery, illustrated by demonstrating that the spoon bending abilities of psychic Uri Geller can easily be duplicated by trained magicians.14 He is also the founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation and its famous One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge offering the prize to anyone who can demonstrate evidence of any paranormal, supernatural or occult power or event, under test conditions agreed to by both parties.

An alternative to debunking is found in the field of anomalistics. Anomalistics differs from debunking in that debunking works on the premise that something is either a misidentified instance of something known to science, or that it is a hoax, while anomalistics works on the premise that something may be either of the above, or something that can be rationalized using an as yet unexplored avenue of science. 151617

Survey approach

While the validity of the existence of paranormal phenomena is controversial and debated passionately by both proponents of the paranormal and by skeptics, surveys are useful in determining the beliefs of people in regards to paranormal phenomena. These opinions, while not constituting scientific evidence for or against, may give an indication of the mindset of a certain portion of the population (at least among those who answered the polls).

Belief polls

One such survey of the beliefs of the general United States population regarding paranormal topics was conducted by the Gallup Organization in 2005.18 The survey found that 73 percent of those polled believed in at least one of the ten paranormal items presented in the survey.

Items included in the survey were as follows (the percentage of respondents who indicated that they believed in the phenomenon is in parenthesis): Extrasensory perception (41%), haunted houses (37%), ghosts (32%), telepathy (31%), clairvoyance (26%), astrology (25%), communication with the dead (21%), witches (21%), reincarnation (20%), and channeling spiritual entities (9%).

Only one percent of those surveyed believed in all ten items.

The items selected for the survey were chosen because they "require the belief that humans have more than the 'normal' five senses." The poll was a follow-up a 2001 Gallup Poll that found similar results.

Another survey conducted in 2006 by researchers from Australia's Monash University sought to determine what types of phenomena people claim to have experienced and the effects these experiences have had on their lives. The study was conducted as an online survey with over 2,000 respondents from around the world participating. The results revealed that around 70% of the respondents believe to have had an unexplained paranormal event that changed their life, mostly in a positive way. About 70% also claimed to have seen, heard, or been touched by an animal or person that they knew was not there; 80% have reported having a premonition, and almost 50% stated they recalled a previous life.19

Polls were conducted by Bryan Farha at Oklahoma City University and Gary Steward of the University of Central Oklahoma in 2006, and compared to the results of a Gallup poll in 2001.20 They found fairly consistent results.

Other surveys by different organizations at different times have found very similar results. A survey by Jeffrey S. Levin, associate professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Norfolk found that over 2/3 of the U.S. population reported having at least one mystical experience.2120

A 1996 Gallup poll estimated that 71% of the people in the United States believed that the government was covering up information about UFOs. A 2002 Roper poll conducted for the Sci Fi channel reported that 56% thought UFOs were real craft and 48% that aliens had visited the Earth.20

A 2001 National Science Foundation survey found that 9 percent of people polled thought astrology was very scientific, and 31 percent thought it was somewhat scientific. About 32% of Americans surveyed stated that some numbers were lucky, while 46% of Europeans agreed with that claim. About 60% of all people polled believed in some form of Extra-sensory perception and 30% thought that "some of the unidentified flying objects that have been reported are really space vehicles from other civilizations."22

Paranormal subjects

This section explores the notable paranormal beliefs that appear in popular culture.


For believers, ghosts are generally seen to be the spirit or soul of a deceased person.23 Alternative theories expand on that idea and include belief in the ghosts of deceased animals. Sometimes the term "ghost" is used synonymously with any spirit or demon24, however in popular usage the term typically refers to a deceased person.

The belief in ghosts as souls of the departed is closely tied to the concept of animism, an ancient belief which attributed souls to everything in nature.5 As the nineteenth-century anthropologist James Frazer explained in his classic work, The Golden Bough, souls were seen as the creature within that animated the body. Although the human soul was sometimes symbolically or literally depicted in ancient cultures as a bird or other animal, it was widely held that the soul was an exact reproduction of the body in every feature, even down to clothing the person wore. This is depicted in artwork from various ancient cultures, including such works as the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which shows deceased people in the afterlife appearing much as they did before death, including the style of dress.

A widespread belief concerning ghosts is that they are composed of a misty, airy, or subtle material. Anthropologists speculate that this may also stem from early beliefs that ghosts were the person within the person, most noticeable in ancient cultures as a person's breath, which upon exhaling in colder climates appears visibly as a white mist.5 This belief may have also fostered the metaphorical meaning of "breath" in certain languages, such as the Latin spiritus and the Greek pneuma, which by analogy became extended to mean the soul. In the Bible, God is depicted as animating Adam with a breath.

Numerous theories have been proposed by skeptics to provide non-paranormal explanations for ghost sightings.5 Although the evidence for ghosts is largely anecdotal, the belief in ghosts throughout history has remained widespread and persistent.


The possibility of extraterrestrial life is not, by itself, a paranormal subject. Many scientists are actively engaged in the search for unicellular life within the solar system, carrying out studies on the surface of Mars and examining meteors that have fallen to Earth.25 Projects such as SETI are conducting an astronomical search for radio activity that would show evidence of intelligent life outside the solar system.26 Scientific theories of how life developed on Earth allow for the possibility that life developed on other planets as well. The paranormal aspect of extraterrestrial life centers largely around the belief in unidentified flying objects and the phenomena said to be associated with them.

Early in the history of UFO culture, believers divided themselves into two camps. The first held a rather conservative view of the phenomena, interpreting it as unexplained occurrences that merited serious study. They began calling themselves "ufologists" in the 1950s and felt that logical analysis of sighting reports would validate the notion of extraterrestrial visitation.5

The second camp consisted of individuals who coupled ideas of extraterrestrial visitation with beliefs from existing quasi-religious movements. These individuals typically were enthusiasts of occultism and the paranormal. Many had backgrounds as active Theosophists], Spiritualists, or were followers of other esoteric doctrines. In contemporary times, many of these beliefs have coalesced into New Age spiritual movements.5

Both secular and spiritual believers describe UFOs as having abilities beyond what is considered possible according to aerodynamics and the laws of physics. The transitory events surrounding many UFO sightings, like many paranormal phenomena, limits the opportunity for repeat testing required by the scientific method. Acceptance of UFO theories by the larger scientific community is further hindered by the many possible hoaxes associated with UFO culture.

Paranormal challenges

In 1922, Scientific American offered two US $2,500 offers: (1) for the first authentic spirit photograph made under test conditions, and (2) for the first psychic to produce a "visible psychic manifestation." Harry Houdini was a member of the investigating committee. The first medium to be tested was George Valiantine, who claimed that in his presence spirits would speak through a trumpet that floated around a darkened room. For the test, Valiantine was placed in a room, the lights were extinguished, but unbeknownst to him his chair had been rigged to light a signal in an adjoining room if he ever left his seat. Because the light signals were tripped during his performance, Valiantine did not collect the award. The last to be examined by Scientific American was Mina Crandon in 1924.

Since then, many individuals and groups have offered similar monetary awards for proof of the paranormal in an observed setting. These prizes have a combined value of over $2.4 million dollars.


The word “paranormal” has been in the English since at least 1920. It consists of two parts: para and normal. In most definitions of the word paranormal, it is described as anything that is beyond or contrary to what is deemed scientifically possible.27 The definition implies that the scientific explanation of the world around us is the 'normal' part of the word and 'para' makes up the above, beyond, beside, contrary, or against part of the meaning.

Para has a Greek and Latin origin. Its most common meaning (the Greek usage) is 'similar to' or 'near to', as in paragraph. In Latin, para means 'above,' against,' 'counter,' 'outside,' or 'beyond'. For example, parapluie in French means 'counter-rain' - an umbrella. It can be construed, then, that the term paranormal is derived from the Latin use of the prefix 'para', meaning 'against, counter, outside or beyond the norm.'

See also

Paranormal: Cryptozoology, Forteana, Ghosts, Haunted locations, Occult, Paranormal explanations for UFOs, Parapsychology, Psychics, Supernatural, UFOs, USO

Authors: Charles Fort, Arthur C Clark, J. B. Rhine, Carl Sagan

Skepticism: Debunking, Ghost Hunters, Hoaxes, James Randi, Prizes offered for paranormal proof

Science: Anomaly, Scientific method


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