Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunters, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunters, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture

Article excerpt

Christopher D. Bader, F. Carson Mencken and Joseph O. Baker. Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunters, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2010. 264 pp. $20.00. ISBN: 978-0-8147-9135-6

Drawing on data from the Baylor Religion Survey project, Paranormal America investigates various cultures of paranormal belief and the demographics of believers. Avoiding debates over evidentiality, the authors provide a study that is scholarly and readable, open to a wide audience of readers. They supplement survey data with a number of ethnographic-styled studies of specific subcultures, including spending the night in a purportedly haunted cafe with medium and psychic in tow, and camping with a group of Bigfoot hunters. For the scholar, the survey material and the discussion thereof are most interesting, whereas the latter stories of encounters with members of the various subcultures will interest the casual reader much more keenly.

Paranormal America is an important book not only for its impressive organization of data, but it brings a light to bear upon topics that have been largely ignored, if not outright mocked, by the academy. The authors illustrate, however, that while the various beliefs discussed are considered to be fringe elements, belief in them is actually widespread, and in fact quite normal. One of the authors' main findings--that it is in fact not deviant in any way to believe in the paranormal given that 68% of Americans expressed a belief in at least one area of phenomena--may surprise many readers unfamiliar with this field of inquiry. Hopefully, this book will illustrate, if nothing else, that there is a wide range of belief and experience among the mainstream population that requires academic attention.

One of Paranormal America's key aims is to derive a clearer understanding of the demographics of believers in the "paranormal." Throughout the book, though, the authors struggle with their findings, as it appears that no solution can be applied across the board: "Perhaps our most important finding is that we can not use simplistic, broad-brushed explanations to understand the paranormal" (75). It is not necessarily "the paranormal" that is difficult to understand, however. Following the public (mis)understanding of the term paranormal, the authors have chosen to lump together a wide array of very different beliefs. Items surveyed include Bigfoot, Atlantis, UFOs, ghosts, psychics, Nostradamus, and astrology, among others.

The authors struggle with a definition for just what constitutes "paranormal," and ultimately justify such a broad array of beliefs in that these all might appear together in an average bookstore. They suggest (p. 24 and passim) that those beliefs and experiences which fall outside of both scientific and religious acceptance constitute the paranormal, thereby eliminating traditional religious beliefs such as angels or faith healing. …

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