Paranormal is a general term (coined ca. 1915–1920) that designates experiences that lie outside “the range of normal experience or scientific explanation” or that indicates phenomena that are understood to be outside of science’s current ability to explain or measure. Paranormal phenomena are distinct from certain hypothetical entities, such as dark matter and dark energy, insofar as paranormal phenomena are inconsistent with the world as already understood through empirical observation coupled with scientific methodology.
Stories relating to paranormal phenomena are found in popular culture, folklore, and the recollections of individual subjects. In contrast, the scientific community, as referenced in statements made by organizations such as the United States National Science Foundation, maintains that scientific evidence does not support a variety of beliefs that have been characterized as paranormal.
“Paranormal” has been in the English language 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. 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.’
A ghost is a manifestation of the spirit or soul of a person. 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 demon, 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. 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. 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 scientists to provide normal explanations for ghost sightings. Although the evidence for ghosts is largely anecdotal, the belief in ghosts throughout history has remained widespread and persistent.
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).
One survey of the beliefs of the general United States population regarding paranormal topics was conducted by the Gallup Organization in 2005. The survey found that 73 percent of those polled believed in at least one of the ten paranormal items presented in the survey. The ten items included in the survey were: extrasensory perception (41% held this belief), 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%). These items were selected as they “require the belief that humans have more than the ‘normal’ five senses.” Only one percent of respondents believed in all ten items.
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.
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. They found fairly consistent results.
Other surveys by different organizations at different times have found very similar results. A 2001 Gallup Poll found that the general public embraced the following: 54% of people believed in psychic/spiritual healing, 42% believed in haunted houses, 41% believed in satanic possession, 36% in telepathy, 25% in reincarnation, and 15% in channeling. 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.
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.
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.”
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 James Randi Educational Foundation offers a prize of a million dollars to a person who can prove that they have supernatural or paranormal abilities under appropriate test conditions. No famous psychic has gone through with taking the challenge.