Paranormal America

Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture, 2nd Ed.

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Christopher D. Bader, F. Carson Mencken, Joseph O. Baker
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , April
     2017.
     304 pages.
     $28.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781479815289.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Millions of Americans believe that ghosts haunt the nation’s houses, that Bigfoot stalks its woods, and that alien spacecraft hover above its skies. Scholarship has long paid scant attention to these “paranormal” facets of contemporary society, a situation that is fortunately beginning to change. One of the trailblazing volumes exploring this burgeoning field was Paranormal America, first published by New York University Press in 2011, and now released in a second, slightly expanded edition. Its authors—Christopher D. Bader, Joseph O. Baker, and F. Carson Mencken—are all sociologists of religion. Their focus is not, therefore, on the historical development of paranormal belief, nor on any attempt to prove or debunk the existence of paranormal phenomena. Rather, they are interested in examining those who report paranormal beliefs and experiences; as they put it, “Who are these people anyway?” (8).

The authors acknowledge that it is “remarkably difficult” to define the “paranormal,” rightly characterising it as “a cultural category that can shift across time and place” (28). As they note, many of those whom they regard as engaging in “paranormal” activities actually reject that characterisation; many Bigfoot hunters, for instance, see themselves as far closer to zoologists than to those claiming to be psychics or alien abductees. Nevertheless, in drawing upon the ideas of Charles Fort —the famed American investigator of the anomalous and the unexplained—the sociologists note that all those phenomena typically encompassed under the category of “paranormal” in American society are those that are rejected by both mainstream religion and the scientific establishment. In this, the paranormal resides in a somewhat culturally marginalized limbo, one displaying a level of popularity but little accompanying social respectability.

Bader, Baker, and Mencken also discuss the possibility of using the term “New Age”—but understandably reject this—regarding the “paranormal” as something older, and perhaps broader, than “New Age.” Nevertheless, it would have been profitable for them to have explored this avenue in greater depth given that the New Age milieu is typically seen as a part of the broader phenomenon of “esotericism,” a term that is conspicuously absent from the authors’ discussion. Closely linked to longstanding Western schools of thought—such as Kabbalah, Theosophy, and ceremonial magic—“esotericism” has been the subject of much debate over the past few years, but scholars of the subject generally recognize it as a category encompassing those Western phenomena excluded by both mainstream religion and science. As Wouter Hanegraaff describes it in his Esotericism and the Academy (Cambridge University Press, 2012), the esoteric constitutes Western society’s “rejected knowledge.” In this it closely parallels the definition of “paranormal” employed in Paranormal America. This omission may reflect the fact that the academic study of esotericism is centred largely in Europe and has yet to make serious inroads in North America. Alternately, it may be that scholarship on esotericism, which has primarily been historical in its focus, has yet to penetrate the sociology of religion. Nevertheless, closer attention to the relationship between the “esoteric” and the “paranormal”—are they even different at all?—should prove fruitful for both fields of research.

This book works its way through a series of ethnographic vignettes based on Bader’s experiences with various “paranormal”-oriented groups, mostly located in Texas. These include an encounter with three psychics at a Holistic Health and Spiritual Fair; a ghost hunt on university premises; the meetings of an alien abductee support group; and a trek through the woods with a group of committed Bigfoot hunters. These accounts lack the “thick description” adopted by most anthropological ethnographers, but nevertheless add color to the work and make for an enjoyable read.

These accounts intersperse with wider discussions of quantitative data collected from the Baylor Religion Surveys conducted in 2005, 2014, and 2015 and the Chapman University Survey of American Fears, conducted in 2014 and 2015. They reveal that 52% of those surveyed believe in at least one of six “paranormal” subjects—alien visitations, UFOs, Bigfoot, mediumship, telekinesis, and hauntings—although only 2% believe in all six. Those most likely to adopt such beliefs display “moderate levels of religiosity” (234), while those least likely to hold them are either atheists or members of exclusivist religious ideologies such as Evangelical Protestantism. Men are more inclined to adopt “discovery”-based beliefs in UFOs and Bigfoot, while women are more inclined to endorse “enlightenment”-based ideas about astrology and ghosts (233). While paranormal subjects attract interest from across the class spectrum, those who are economically marginalized, with lower levels of income and formal education, appear to gravitate towards certain paranormal beliefs, particularly in the power of fortunetellers and astrology, and the existence of hauntings and Bigfoot.

Bader, Baker, and Mencken stress the existence of a distinction between “paranormal generalists” who believe in a wide range of paranormal ideas, and “paranormal particularists” who may select just one or two such beliefs (164). At the same time, they also highlight a difference between “casual believers” and those who devote themselves fully to a particular paranormal-oriented subculture (137). In highlighting this diversity, the sociological trio argue that while there are certainly patterns among paranormal believers, there is no valid stereotype that rings true for all. A conservative male Bigfoot hunter is not the same as a liberal female psychic, while a casual believer in alien abduction is not the same as someone who regularly attends an abductee supporters group. This variety leaves much ground for further research to explore in depth.

Clearly devised with a broader readership in mind, Paranormal America is—by academic standards—accessibly written and affordably priced, and will hopefully gain a wide readership. Within the academy, it will be of particular interest to scholars focusing on the paranormal, esotericism, and the blurred boundaries between the religious and non-religious in Western society. It will also prove ideal for undergraduates making their first tentative investigations into these areas. In taking a broad-brush approach to the subject, this volume leaves much room for further, deeper research into the various sub-cultures discussed in the book, both in the United States and elsewhere.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ethan Doyle White is a Ph.D. student at University College London.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher Bader is professor of sociology at Chapman University and affiliated with the Institute for Religion, Economics and Culture (IRES).

Joseph O. Baker is associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at East Tennessee State University and a senior research associate for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

F. Carson Mencken is professor and department chair of sociology at Baylor University.

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