Written by Jordan Meyer
In many ways, the culture of 21st-century America echoes that of the Renaissance. New and amazing scientific advancements are being made every day, and logic and reason are valued very highly. Liberal educations provide students with a well-rounded base of knowledge ranging from anthropology to zoology, and more than half of the national adult population has obtained at least some college education (U.S. Census Bureau). Why then does the supernatural still play such a prominent role in entertainment?
Peter Buse and Andrew Stott must have foreseen the rise of reality television and its paranormal subgenre when they wrote that “Chances are, ghosts will make another comeback” (1). Shows such as Ghost Hunters tackle many local mysteries and hauntings while millions of people tune in. However, it seems that this belief in the supernatural recurrence of the dearly not-so-departed is rooted in much more than a simple fascination with a new form of prime-time entertainment.
The modern ghost hunter is shown using high-tech equipment to measure even the slightest change in the environment while searching. At least some semblance of the scientific method is employed while a team explores old houses and cemeteries, searching everywhere for verifiable signs of the supernatural. This intensive methodology stands in stark contrast to the oral folktales of old, as modern-day science is used to explore what many would consider legends of old.
Although many academic scholars in the realm of haunting have referred to the anachronistic qualities of ghosts and specters, it seems an almost hyperbolic extension of these qualities when old stories passed down from one generation to the next are examined through the lens of modern empirical study. The values of a society driven by scientific fact have been applied to what was previously written off as myth and “old wives’ tales.” Rather than being a step backwards for an educated society, however, this shift in the study of the supernatural is merely a reflection of the shift in society’s values.
Whereas the unexplainable was once deemed to be a product of the Other from beyond the grave, pseudo-scientists attempt to take things one step further and ask how it is possible for those who have passed away to interact with us. In an approach emblematic of our post-Enlightenment society, people have stopped merely explaining strange occurrences as supernatural and have begun to question how the supernatural itself works. This rekindled interest in ghosts reflects a belief in a scientific explanation for everything rather than a belief in ghosts themselves. Indeed, viewers of reality television may often take the “findings” of ghost hunters to heart without even realizing it. In their subconscious, they might believe what they are seeing, even if they are outwardly expressing denial and writing these “experts” off as entertainment.
This belief in the power of science can also be seen in the culture of modern science fiction. Often, ghosts and apparitions in these works are eventually revealed to be the act of an alien race with advanced technology, as seen in science fiction shows such as Doctor Who or Torchwood. The unexplainable is explained away as science. In other words, this is one of the many ways in which our society appears to reflect a belief that we simply don’t have the proper technology to understand these hauntings. This technology is seen as something that science could potentially achieve someday and, in a way, helps create at least part of the drive that keeps us innovating. In this sense, the scientific has taken the place of the supernatural when it comes to even the most unexplainable events – so extensively that even the souls of the departed are believed to be subject to the laws of science!
Buse, Peter, and Andrew Stott. “Introduction: A Future for Haunting.” Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, and History. Ed. Peter Buse and Andrew Stott. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. 1-20. Print.
U.S. Census Bureau. “Table 1. Educational Attainment of the Population 18 Years of Age and Over, by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 2011.” 2011. Microsoft Excel file. <http://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/education/data/cps/2011/Table1-01.xls >