Cultural Upbringing and the Paranormal

The human brain strives to assign rational justifications for unusual phenomena.

With the widespread proliferation of paranormal events, and with more and more people changing their views on the paranormal, it can be difficult for an investigator to know what is what when it comes to differing cultural beliefs in the paranormal without a lot of time intensive research on the topic.

For instance, the attitudes surrounding suicide can differ greatly among cultures and religions.  Researchers have known for decades that suicide rates are higher among societies that emphasize the importance of the individual and lower societies that emphasize the importance of collectives such as the family unit. A nation’s rank of individuation compared to familial participation is a potent predictor of its suicide rate. There’s a third influence as well: the culture of honor. An honor culture is a society or social group that emphasizes the importance of an individual’s reputation or “honor.” In honor cultures, people are especially polite and avoid offending others. They also strive to establish and maintain a reputation for punishing those who besmirch their honor. Historically, rates of suicidal behaviors, and beliefs and attitudes toward suicidal behaviors, have varied widely across cultures.  The same is true of the paranormal.

Paranormal beliefs, religious beliefs, and personality are directly related in establishing a good baseline in approaching an investigation. How could the clients’ beliefs and concepts affect the way these individuals perceive potential paranormal experiences?

Many cultures believe that the destination of our mortal soul is directly influenced by the life we lead in the here and now. In this case, a person who has committed suicide might reside in hell as defined by their religion.  If the client perceives that this spirit has returned, it might be interpreted as a demonic haunting, or a vengeful spirit, which raises the fear factor considerably. Knowing this in advance can greatly aid in guiding a client to seeing it differently, or in a more positive light. They want to be reassured in nearly every instance without being condescended to or told that they are imagining things.

An investigator might first set out to show cause, or to validate the client’s claim that he or she heard “strange noises.” Once that has been established, then a dialogue about the client’s beliefs can offer insight that the investigator can use moving forward. In each case, the client experienced or witnessed a real, objective phenomenon of some sort, subsequently verified by investigators. They didn’t imagine it, but simply misinterpreted an unfamiliar event.

The human brain strives to assign rational justifications for unusual phenomena. In this way, we often find that clients embellish what they experienced, saying that the event or events far exceeded available evidence. Possessing a working knowledge of their religious and cultural beliefs go a long way toward being able to better identify the reality of the situation. Modern media also plays a role in impacting the beliefs of many. People with no active interest in anomalous phenomena nevertheless seem to have a surprisingly detailed knowledge of the subject. Thus, even someone with no active interest in the paranormal would find it difficult to miss all this coverage. They probably absorb this material unconsciously, just as many of us know about celebrities despite having never seen or heard them.

Perhaps one of the most important questions an investigator should pose involves the client’s belief of what a ghost actually is.

If a client expresses that they have no belief in souls or the afterlife, it is equally as important as the belief in a religion or cultural tradition. Every piece of information gathered helps form a picture of sorts for each investigation. Some questions to consider are: What are the client(s) perception of the soul? Do they consider the soul to be an intelligent continuation of the living being, or just a form of energy?

Does the client believe that our behavior in this lifetime could affect what happens to our souls when we pass on? Ask them to describe what they think happens to us after death regarding whether we have been “good” or “bad”. What is the client’s view of “heaven” or an afterlife reward, and “hell” or an afterlife punishment?

Of course, one of the most important questions an investigator should pose involves the client’s belief of what a ghost actually is, in their opinion. Religious and cultural belief systems play a tremendous role in forming this opinion and their entire belief system. Investigators can also glean from these questions whether the client feels the paranormal events are caused by an evil presence or a portent of bad luck. Do they see it as a way that their deceased loved ones stay close to family?

The idea of ‘ghosts as spirits’ goes back to antiquity. Seeing someone who ‘shouldn’t be there’ probably gave rise to the idea of ghosts readily (and quite reasonably) in centuries past. Once the idea took hold, it remained central to many cultures where it continues to be propagated. Most serious researchers know from experience that there is little, if any, evidence to connect real-life hauntings with ‘spirits’ but that message never seems to reach the general population. It has to compete with media as a continuous bombardment, continuously reinforcing the cultural cliches of ‘spirits.’ The idea that weird noises in your house could be the unquiet dead is a compelling one. The idea that it could simply be mice in the walls just can’t compete with more dramatic fare.

Useful dialogue about the paranormal should start by stripping away the assumptions implanted in most people’s minds by their cultural upbringing, family stories, and media nonsense. Forget about the Hollywood vision of ‘spirits’ dragging chains in a graveyard at midnight in a thunderstorm and think about what is really causing weird footstep-like sounds in an empty house on a wet Thursday afternoon. In short, it’s up to investigators to re-educate their clients, to break the widespread stereotypes of what “paranormal” truly is.

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