Today we talked about our new book, Phenomena: Harnessing Your Psychic Powers, with author Whitley Strieber for his popular podcast Dreamland. It will go up later this month. During the course of the discussion, Whitley pointed out that “story” is the most powerful means of communication that we humans have. He’s right of course, and since Whitley, Rob, and I are also novelists, we get that. But it’s particularly pertinent to stories that involve people’s individual experiences with the paranormal.
Sixty years ago, back in the days of Ozzie & Harriet, the paranormal didn’t play much of a role in popular culture. Typically, it was relegated to obscure magazines and journals or to TV shows like Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959 to 1964) or to sci-fi movies like The Village of the Damned (1960). You didn’t talk about this paranormal stuff in public.
Fast forward: In October 2017, Chapman University conducted a survey of “American fears” that included a battery of items on paranormal beliefs. These ranged from a belief in Bigfoot to psychic powers and haunted houses, ancient civilizations like Atlantis, to visits by aliens. The results show just how dramatically beliefs about the paranormal have changed: 55 percent believe that advanced civilizations like Atlantis existed; 52 percent believe places can be haunted by spirits; more than a third believe aliens visited Earth in the ancient past; more than a quarter believe aliens have visited the planet in modern times; and a quarter believe objects can be moved with the mind. The study concluded that 75 percent of Americans believe in some facet of the paranormal.
What’s astonishing about this statistic is how it compares to a study conducted by Baylor University twelve years earlier, which concluded that just 15 percent of Americans believed in the paranormal. What accounts for the increase? How were the studies conducted? Did the phrasing of the questions account for some of the differences in the statistics? Even when taking such qualifiers into account, the Chapman study shows a dramatic increase in interest in the paranormal.
Ironically, this boost in curiosity about such mysterious matters might be related to technology—specifically, social media. Numerous websites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram interest groups that focus on psychic phenomena have had a tremendous impact. It also could be the result of a proliferation of books, movies, and TV shows (stories!) about different facets of the paranormal. Then there are workshops, and seminars, an entire cottage industry that has grown up in the last 20 years and revolves around the human curiosity about and need for expanded awareness.
So here are a couple of stories from the book that illustrate the kinds of paranormal experiences people have had – and how fear of ridicule
When artist Renie Wiley was a young girl growing up in South Florida, she used to have visions about future events and thought that everyone had such abilities. Then one day in grade school she had a vision and blurted out what she was seeing. She told the teacher that her car was going to get a flat tire. The next day at her lunch break, the teacher walked out to her car and discovered a flat tire, just as Renie had predicted. She accused the girl of deflating her tire, sent her to the principal’s office, her parents were called in. Renie was suspended from school for several days and it was a long time before she ever again revealed any of her visions.
Renie quietly nurtured her ability over the years, grew into it, accepted it, and eventually worked with South Florida police departments in finding missing children.
Part of the resistance to anomalous phenomena is the result of religious beliefs as well as the posture of mainstream science that largely dismisses the paranormal as nonsense believed by ignorant and gullible people. Even though the weirdness factor isn’t as pervasive in this century as it was decades ago, it still prevents some people from talking openly about their experiences.
When Leiny Krumm was a child growing up in Colombia, she woke one night to see her recently deceased grandmother standing at the foot of her bed. She wasn’t afraid, just startled, and sat up and started talking with her. It happened frequently in her childhood and Leiny’s mistake was telling her parents, strict Catholics, that her abuelita had been visiting her. They hired a priest to perform an exorcism on their home, with special attention on Leiny’s bedroom and on Leiny herself.
Today, she’s a mother of two in her early-forties and still sees spirits and hears voices. The voices are most prevalent when she meditates and offer guidance and advice. Her grandmother’s visits aren’t as frequent as they were when she was a kid, but Leiny still sees her occasionally and is comforted by her presence. “It’s just part of who I am,” she says. “I’ve accepted it, even if my parents haven’t.” This isn’t something Leiny readily reveals about herself. She knows other people might not believe her experiences are real or might view them in a negative way.
Renie’s teacher may have considered her outburst inappropriate, but how did that warrant the principal’s office and suspension? Did the teacher perhaps believe that no one can see the future? Was that the real issue? Leiny’s Catholic parents believed her experiences indicated something evil had entered their daughter’s life and felt it was their duty to call in a priest to help them deal with it.
Fear is a powerful inhibitor.