Paranormal Events and the Media

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The term "paranormal" refers to a wide range of alleged phenomena that appear to defy explanation using scientific understandings of natural law. The term is commonly used to refer to such diverse things as extrasensory perception (ESP), haunted houses, ghosts, devils, angels, spirits, reincarnation, telekinesis, unidentified flying objects (UFOs), space alien abductions, astrology, palm reading, astral projection, the Loch Ness monster, and communicating with the dead.

Public opinion polls and studies by academic researchers indicate that belief in paranormal phenomena is common. In a 1991 national survey of more than one thousand adults, George Gallup and Frank Newport reported that paranormal beliefs were "widespread," with nearly 50 percent of the respondents reporting belief in ESP and almost 30 percent reporting belief in haunted houses. Of some surprise to scholars, studies reveal that paranormal beliefs are not significantly lower among college students, even at institutions that are noted for science and engineering. For example, in a 1994 study of students from Purdue University, Glenn Sparks, Trish Hansen, and Rani Shah found that a variety of different paranormal beliefs were endorsed by many of the respondents. These beliefs included the existence of ghosts (70%), accurate predictions of the future by reading palms (40%) or by relying on psychics (37%), personal ability to use ESP on occasion (44%), and astral projection (30%). The traditional line of research on paranormal beliefs extends back to the late 1960s and focuses on (1) the extent to which various populations express belief in some paranormal phenomenon, (2) the extent to which belief in one paranormal phenomenon corresponds with belief in other paranormal phenomena (i.e., the structure of paranormal beliefs), and (3) the extent to which belief in the paranormal varies according to individual differences in personality or according to membership in some demographic category.

In the 1970s, a group of scholars (including some who conducted basic research on paranormal beliefs) became increasingly concerned about what appeared to them to be a rising tide of paranormal claims that were, for the most part, not challenged by any systematic line of study. Their concern resulted in the formation of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), an organization that is devoted to rational, scientific inquiry into various paranormal claims. CSICOP began to publish a journal, The Skeptical Inquirer, in the mid-1970s.

One issue that has been regularly featured in The Skeptical Inquirer since its inception is the role that mass media play in encouraging people to believe in various paranormal claims. Typical of the rhetoric that is found in the pages of this journal is the following comment made by Paul Kurtz (1985), chairman of CSICOP and a philosophy professor: "We thought it incredible that so many films, TV and radio programs, news stories, and books were presenting these paranormal claims as gospel truth, even maintaining that they had been proven by science, and that there was little or no public awareness of the fact that when these claims were subjected to careful scientific appraisal they were shown to be either unverified or false" (p. 357).

Even though no scientific content analyses exist to document the presence of paranormal themes in the media, Kurtz's observation about the prevalence of paranormal depictions is not controversial among scholars. Such depictions of one form or another have turned up in books, radio programs, movies, and television shows for almost as long as these media have existed. On Halloween night in 1938, Orson Welles triggered a sensational episode of panic among the radio-listening audience with his War of the Worlds broadcast. The radio drama, which aired as part of CBS's Mercury Theatre on the Air, featured realistic, onthe-spot "news" reports that told of an invasion of space aliens from Mars. Follow-up research conducted by Hadley Cantril at Princeton University in 1940 documented the fact that many listeners did experience feelings of helplessness and panic as a result of the broadcast.

Until the late 1970s, few studies other than Cantril's study examined fright responses to media depictions, and almost no research existed on how depictions of paranormal themes might influence audience beliefs. In 1981, Joanne Cantor launched a series of studies on children's fright reactions to mass media (see Cantor, 1998). As a result of these studies that were funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, a number of researchers began to work systematically with frightening movies and television programs. Much of the content in this genre was paranormal. For example, The Exorcist, a 1973 film that triggered several extreme reactions among audience members (including the need for hospitalization), featured the paranormal depiction of demonic possession. Similarly, Poltergeist, a 1982 film that reportedly induced long-term sleep disturbances in many children, featured numerous ghosts and spirits who disrupted the daily routine of a suburban family by haunting their house in frightening ways. Although research on children's media-induced fears shows that the tendency to be frightened by fantasy creatures declines with age, in her 1998 book summarizing the available fright research, Cantor concluded that alien and supernatural phenomena were among the most potent fear-inducers for adolescents. The early studies examined these films for their emotional effect on viewers, but it was only a matter of time before the potential effect of paranormal themes on the beliefs of viewers would also come under scrutiny.

Several factors converged in the 1980s to increase the prevalence of paranormal themes in the media. With the proliferation of cable channels, new networks searched for programming formulas that would compete for a share of viewers that was large enough to make a profit. Industry programmers discovered that so-called reality television was relatively cheap to produce and could attract reasonable audience sizes. Consequently, stories about haunted houses, UFO sightings, police psychics, demonic possessions, angelic visitations, and the like began to proliferate. The success of some of these programs inspired the networks to explore paranormal themes in their prime-time lineups and led Hollywood to invest in more movies that revolved around paranormal plots.

In the 1990s, Sparks and his associates began studying the effect of media depictions of the paranormal on the beliefs of viewers. In a 1994 study, Sparks, Hansen, and Shah randomly assigned college students to view a television program about astral projection with one of four possible introductions: one that emphasized that the depicted events had been real, one in which the events were labeled fictitious, one with a stronger disclaimer that emphasized that the depicted events were impossible from a scientific standpoint, and one with no introduction. The introductory messages significantly affected the subsequent beliefs of the students. Relative to the beliefs that they had expressed several weeks earlier, students assigned to the fiction or impossible conditions reduced their beliefs in astral projection and related paranormal phenomena. Students who heard no introductory message increased their beliefs in paranormal phenomena. Students in the reality condition failed to increase their beliefs in the paranormal. Sparks and his colleagues speculated that introductory messages that emphasize the reality of the depiction may cause viewers to become more suspicious about the veracity of the events that are being depicted. This study demonstrated that the way in which paranormal phenomena are depicted in the media can trigger changes in what people believe about the existence of those phenomena.

In a 1995 study by Sparks, Cheri Sparks, and Kirsten Gray, college students who possessed either high or low ability to experience vivid mental images were randomly assigned to view one of two versions of a television program that featured documentary-style reporting of UFO sightings. One version of the program contained depictions of UFOs and space aliens that were created by special effects as part of the original network broadcast of the program. The second version of the program was edited to remove all of these UFO depictions that were created by the network. Students with a high ability to experience vivid mental images increased their belief in UFOs after viewing the version that contained no UFO or alien images. In contrast, students with a low ability to experience vivid mental images increased their belief in UFOs when they viewed the unedited version of the broadcast that contained the special effects. Sparks and his colleagues concluded that the decision to include various UFO images in a documentary-style report can definitely have an effect on the subsequent beliefs of viewers, but this effect may depend on viewer characteristics.

In a 1997 experiment by Sparks and Marianne Pellechia, college students were randomly assigned to read one of four versions of a magazine article about alien abductions. Two of the stories affirmed the reality of alien abductions; the remaining two stories tended to disconfirm their reality. For both the affirming and disconfirming stories, one of the versions featured the testimony of a scientist while the other version simply presented the opinions of the magazine writer. After reading the articles, beliefs in UFOs and alien abductions were highest among the students who read the affirming story that featured the testimony of a scientist. Beliefs were lowest among the students who read either the affirming or discon-firming story that presented only the opinions of the magazine writer. Students who read the disconfirming story that featured a scientist did not express the lowest level of belief in UFOs. Sparks and Pellechia speculated that merely mentioning a scientist in the context of a story about UFOs and alien abductions may tend to bring credibility to the phenomenon and make it more believable. Once again, variation in the way paranormal content was depicted produced a difference in post-exposure beliefs.

In a 1998 experiment by Sparks, Pellechia, and Chris Irvine, college students were randomly assigned to watch one of two different segments about UFOs. The segments were originally broadcast as part of a network news documentary. One segment featured video experts who testified that a video recording of an alleged UFO showed more than a conventional jet aircraft. The other segment featured unchallenged testimony from an alleged eyewitness to a UFO crash. Students who viewed the unchallenged testimony increased their belief in UFOs; those who viewed the video experts decreased their belief in UFOs.

In addition to these experiments, Sparks, Leigh Nelson, and Rose Campbell conducted in 1997 a random-sample survey from a midwestern city to investigate the relationship between media exposure and paranormal beliefs. Exposure to programs that regularly depict the paranormal was positively correlated with paranormal beliefs. Sparks and his colleagues discussed the possibility that prior beliefs lead to selective exposure to these programs, but they concluded that overall, the pattern of evidence from the survey and the experiments supports the idea that media depictions of the paranormal exert a causal force on the paranormal beliefs of viewers. Given the frequent depictions of paranormal phenomena in the media, there is every reason to believe that researchers will continue to investigate their effect.

See also:Fear and the Media; Welles, Orson.


Cantor, Joanne. (1998). "Mommy I'm Scared." How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do To Protect Them. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace.

Cantril, Hadley. (1940). The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gallup, George, and Newport, Frank. (1991). "Belief in Paranormal Phenomena among Adult Americans." The Skeptical Inquirer 15:137-146.

Kurtz, Paul. (1985). "The Responsibilities of the Media and Paranormal Claims." The Skeptical Inquirer 9:357-362.

Sparks, Glenn G.; Hansen, Trish; and Shah, Rani. (1994). "Do Televised Depictions of Paranormal Events Influence Viewers' Paranormal Beliefs?" The Skeptical Inquirer 18:386-395.

Sparks, Glenn G.; Nelson, C. Leigh; and Campbell, Rose. (1997). "The Relationship between Exposure to Televised Messages about Paranormal Phenomena and Paranormal Beliefs." Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 41:345-359.

Sparks, Glenn G., and Pellechia, Marianne. (1997). "The Effect of News Stories about UFOs on Readers' UFO Beliefs: The Role of Confirming or Disconfirming Testimony from a Scientist." Communication Reports 10:165-172.

Sparks, Glenn G.; Pellechia, Marianne; and Irvine, Chris. (1998). "Does Television News about UFOs Affect Viewers' UFO Beliefs?: An Experimental Investigation." Communication Quarterly 46(3): 284-294.

Sparks, Glenn G.; Sparks, Cheri; and Gray, Kirsten. (1995). "Media Impact on Fright Reactions and Belief in UFOs: The Potential Role of Mental Imagery." Communication Research 22(1):3-23.

Glenn G. Sparks