Charlton McIlwain (2005), in his book When Death Goes Pop, noted his belief that neither education nor religion adequately addresses the uncomfortable issues surrounding death and the afterlife. More often, he pointed out, popular media fills that need to “find some modicum of satisfaction, some way of deriving meaning about our own lives by exploring the possibility that we do live after we die and that in either life or death we can or will be able to reconnect with the dead”(p.195). Many in the 19th century turned to popular mass media to learn about science because of reforms in scientific practices (Broks, 1996). And, while some blame the entertainment industry’s presentation of these and other paranormal topics as being responsible for an increase in pseudoscientific beliefs (Williams, 2003), there is another school of thought that recognizes the need people have for including contributions from a wider array of participants to what is studied. There was a need in the 19th century, and continues to be one, for people to find links between science and spirituality.
Harvard professor William James, often referred to as the father of American psychology, was one of the most prominent scientists to seemingly personify that link. He was the founder, for example, of the American Society for Psychical Research in New York, and he conducted many studies in an effort to find evidence of the possibility of communication with the dead (Blum, 2007). In response to harsh criticism of his work studying spiritualism, he addressed the Philosophical Clubs of Yale and Brown in 1896 with his talk, The Will to Believe, in which, to put it simply, he said that in order to obtain evidence for spiritual belief, there needs to be a basic belief, not verified with sufficient evidence, in the existence of a God or assumptions of the existence of phenomena not (yet) proven. In effect he was saying that any scientist working to prove a hypothesis must also believe that hypothesis to be probable. The same, then, could be true for finding evidence of what is not known in the spiritual realm.
The basis of all scientific knowledge, Polanyi and Prosch (1975) point out, is “not by way of detachment but rather involvement, which relies on personal creativity and imagination, much the same as the humanities, the arts, moral judgments and religion do” (Dobry, 2011). Acquiring knowledge and applying it, they explain, requires the guidance from having purpose or giving attention to something. When we experience something, make an observation, or understand what is happening in ways that we deem to be plausible–especially in connection to our personal objectives or needs and our personal experience–it is more valuable or meaningful to us and has an effect on what we believe to be true.
In many ways, part of the spiritual struggle facing many of us may be our belief in the legitimacy of scientific rigor and evidence clashing with the blind faith that traditional religion expects from devotees. However, without science exploring possible evidence of what happens after we die, and a possible lack of conviction through blind faith to a religious teaching, many look for some form of plausible evidence—often from personal experiences of their own or of others—and popular media offers an abundance of such stories.
Wendy Martin, a researcher who writes about television, spirituality and the supernatural, looked at how people use television to negotiate spiritual concepts. She suggested that television programs can open people up to discussion about transcendence by providing a platform that allows viewers to examine various spiritual themes and issues (Martin, 2008). “Plausibility was also a strong finding reported by Martin. One respondent who watched television shows that were not fiction-based saw those reports as evidence that validated his own beliefs in the supernatural” (Dobry, 2011). Others, Martin found, reported that paranormal television programs validated their beliefs because “these same ideas have been around through the ages and are still told on television” (Dobry, 2011).
Walter J. Ong (1982) suggests that electronic technology is a form of “secondary orality” In that it can foster community as the spoken word is heard and understood, but this version reaches an enormously larger group than ever. “[K]knowledge and discourse come out of human experience and…the elemental way to process human experience verbally is to give an account of it more or less as it really comes into being and exists….Developing a story line is a way of dealing with this” (Ong, 1982, p. 140). When we receive a visual or verbal account of that story while watching television, it contributes to our knowledge and the conversation and ideas about that narrative.
Individual viewers may be internally negotiating the content they see on paranormal reality television programs to determine whether they satisfy the viewer’s needs or disappoint them. But these kinds of programs seemingly serve as beacons for groups wanting to discuss concepts and ideas presented in the programs. And, it is through these programs that they can find forums where ideas can be exchanged with like-minded, or perhaps oppositional, people. Stevenson (2002) points out that if there is a need for viewers to find meaning beyond what the media is putting out, the online discussions associated with the programs are the most valuable attraction, since contributors can create their own content that relates best to their needs. Part of the interest in sharing and reading about personal experiences posted online may be that viewers wait to accept what the shows present as true or real until other sources can corroborate those facts through personal experience.
Though these discussions may involve trusting the “testimony” of perfect strangers, as Adler (2002) explains, participants may not fully believe what is said until they receive further corroboration from other sources coming together to support it, or sources that bring additional personal experiences confirming or refuting the truth of what’s been said. “It is not evidence, or experimentation, or proof, or observation, but trustworthiness on which our knowledge ultimately, and insecurely, rests” (Adler, 2002, p. 136).
Adler, J.E. (2002). Beliefs Own Ethics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Blum, D. (2006). Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life AfterDeath, Penguin Group (USA).
Broks, P. (1996). Media Science Before the Great War. Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Macmillan.
Dobry, D. (2011). How Do Fan/Viewers Use Paranormal Reality Television and Associated Media to Interpret Death and the Afterlife? [Doctoral dissertation, Teachers College, Columbia University.] ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2011. https://www.proquest.com/openview/1373a7f3118f60d4eff9ec1cb15a0311/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750
Martin, W. K. (2008, July 18). Spirituality and the Supernatural on Television. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/guestvoices/2008/07/spirituality_and_the_supernatu.html.
McIlwain, C. D. (2005). When Death Goes Pop. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.
Ong. W.J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen.
Polanyi, M. and Prosch, H. (1975). Meaning. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Stevenson, N. (2002). Understanding Media Cultures: Social Theory and Mass Communication. London, Thousand Oaks, CA., New Delhi: Sage.
Williams, M.E. (2003). Opposing Viewpoints: Paranormal PhenomenaI. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press.