Archive for March, 2011

What is Help?

Posted in Commentary, Investigations, Religion with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2011 by S. P.

At the United Paranormal International website (, a member recently posed an excellent question: most paranormal groups claim to offer clients “help,” but what really is this “help?” The question goes to the heart of paranormal research and is one I’ve been contemplating for some time. What “help” can paranormal groups really offer to clients? I’m sure many will not like my answer: not much.

Groups’ claims of assistance, while generally well-intended, often go far beyond factual reality. Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying paranormal groups are pointless. Instead, I think we need to be clear on our limitations. We need to recognize what we truly can and cannot accomplish. I believe the only legitimate “help” falls into the categories of so-called “debunking” and support.

I personally dislike the term “debunking” since it seems to have a negative connotation. Instead I prefer the wordier (but I believe more accurate) “seeking natural explanations for suspected ‘paranormal’ activity.” I think this is one of the most important “helps” a group can provide clients. A legitimate paranormal group should be well-versed in indentifying “normal” things which can mimic the “paranormal,” for example high EMF, faulty plumbing, poor or aging construction and so forth. An important function of a legitimate group involves educating a client on these types of things which at first glance appear “mysterious,” but actually have perfectly natural causes.

The other area of “help” involves support. It’s in this area of “support” where many groups over-sell their ability to “help.” We are dealing with the unknown. The very best we can accomplish is verifying a reported activity has no apparent explanation. However, simply because we don’t find an immediate explanation, doesn’t mean it’s automatically “paranormal.” The best we can do is verify for the client that something without an apparent “natural” explanation is happening. We can reassure the client that he or she isn’t imagining the activity. I believe this is a great service in itself since many times people feel better simply knowing it’s not “all in their head.”

We cannot prove the existence of the paranormal. It bothers me when a certain television program constantly tells people their site is “haunted” (the same show took a much more realistic and cautious approach in its early seasons by claiming only that “unexplained” activity was present). We can document anomalies which point to the possibility of something unexplained happening, however, as mortals, we cannot “prove” existence of the spirit world.

Similarly, we cannot legitimately claim to “cleanse” locations. First, any sort of “cleansing” is a belief-system based activity and not fact. As a belief-system based activity, its success or failure has much more to do with the belief-system of the affected person than with the belief-system of any particular group. Second, if we assume entities in need of “cleansing” are spiritual beings, as mortals in the material world, we are sadly deluding ourselves if we believe we have any sort of power over these entities.

One area of support I rarely see mentioned involves referring people to professional medical assistance. There are numerous medical and psychological conditions which can mimic the paranormal. The Catholic Church refuses to even consider exorcism until a person undergoes a full medical evaluation to eliminate that possibility first. Yet, some groups apparently believe they can handle such things on their own. No amount of “investigation” or “cleansing” will help if there’s an untreated medical condition as the underlying cause. We do no “help” by playing into people’s delusions. Most of us are not medical professionals and we have absolutely no business playing doctor or psychologist, but I believe we do have an obligation to seek this help for those we believe need it.

So there you have it. What help can paranormal groups legitimately offer? They can help clients discover “normal” explanations for apparent “paranormal” activity. They can also offer clients support when activity is discovered with no apparent “normal” explanation. “Cleansings,” “proving” hauntings, even identifying specific “ghosts” I believe all go beyond our legitimate capabilities – at least at the present time.


Poe Toaster No-show Again

Posted in History, Locations, News with tags , , , , on March 16, 2011 by S. P.

For the second year in a row, the mysterious “Poe Toaster” failed to appear at Edgar Allan Poe’s gravesite on January 19th. It seems a long-running tradition may have ended.

Every year for 60 years, an anonymous man visited Poe’s Baltimore grave on the anniversary of the writer’s birth, leaving roses and a bottle of cognac. For years, speculation ran rampant on the identity of the “Poe Toaster” and the motivation for his yearly vigil.

Some, including Jeff Jerome, the curator of the Poe House and Museum, suspected the original Poe Toaster had passed the baton to another man, perhaps his son, several years ago.

The tradition abruptly ended when the Toaster failed to show last year, the 201st anniversary of Poe’s birth. Many, including Mr. Jerome, hoped this was a one-off happenstance and expected the Toaster to return this year. The failure of the Toaster to appear two years in a row is fueling speculation that the original Toaster is no more. As Mr. Jerome says, “I think we can safely say it’s not car trouble, and he’s not sick. This doesn’t look good.”

Not surprisingly, given last year’s non-appearance, several pretenders showed up this year, including one who arrived in a stretch limo, two who appeared to be women and an older man. However, none gave the secret signal known only to Jerome and none arranged the flowers in the traditional pattern of the real Poe Toaster.

It looks like a decades’ long tradition has come to a close.

For more on the Poe Toaster, please see last year’s post.

Hollywood, US Bishops Spotlight “The Rite”

Posted in Commentary, History, News, Religion with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2011 by S. P.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Zenit recently ran a two-part interview with Fr. Gary Thomas, the official exorcist of San Jose, California. It provides interesting insight into the life of a real exorcist and real exorcism. The movie, “The Rite,” is based on the book “The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist,” by Matt Baglio – which in turn is based on Fr. Thomas’ experiences as an exorcist.

Part one of the interview is here and part two is here.

Note to Directors and Writers: Gore does not Equal Horror

Posted in Commentary, History, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2011 by S. P.

Nosferatu (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

What happened to the horror genera? While a growing trend for the last few decades, it’s now apparently firmly entrenched in the minds of directors and writers (and, unfortunately, many fans) that horror automatically means gratuitous violence and gore.

However, this is a sophomoric and lazy “cheap thrills” approach. “Slasher” films and books have nothing to do with the reality of ghosts and the paranormal. Instead, they rely on shock produced by violence and gore to elicit a reaction.

Starting roughly in the 1960s, the horror genera became less about the story and more about the violence and gore. With the violence and gore taking center stage, as audiences became accustomed to a certain level of violence and gore, the level kept increasing in order to still produce a “shock” reaction. We see the results in today’s “horror” films which attempt to outdo each other in body counts and means to inflict horrific death. Is this really a good situation?

What happened to the good old fashioned scary movie or book in which the horror was largely psychological? Remember the classic Universal movie monsters? Restricted from showing over-the-top violence and gore, the writers were forced to focus on the story. They didn’t have the lazy option of merely showing someone being sawed to pieces to illicit fear. Nosferatu didn’t even have sound, yet remains a deeply disturbing and scary depiction of vampirism.

One of the best horror films ever was the 1963 version of The Haunting.  Amazingly, there’s no crazed, paranormal psychopathic killer on the loose, slashing apart half-naked teens. Instead we’re treated to a highly realistic depiction of ghostly activity. Yes, one character dies at the end, crashing her car after being driven mad by the ghost. Yet we’re never sure if the ghost actually existed or existed only in the troubled young woman’s mind. This film is the stuff of psychological horror – real horror. For what greater horror is there than to be completely uncertain of the reality of one’s own mind?

Is it possible to leave the violence and gore behind to instead focus on the story? We certainly know it’s been done in the past.

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