This is Part One of a Three part series
Part Two: Science and Skepticism in the Paranormal
Part Three: Merging Science and Faith in the Paranormal
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, once claimed that spiritual beliefs and paranormal experiences were mere illusions. By lacking any sort of scientific explanation, Freud believed that messages from the dead, or the apparitions themselves, were nothing more than a hiccup of the brain.
On the other hand, William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, believed that spirituality should be included as a “healthy component of psychological functioning.” I.e., believing in mysterious occurrences led to a more fulfilling and well-rounded life.
For many people around the world, their spirituality and faith directly coincide with their belief in the paranormal. Mediums deliver messages from the dead to the living; tarot readers connect with their innate spirituality to conduct readings for those who seek them; and others who practice Voodoo or Hoodoo wrangle the spirits and own them in order to work in a perfect balance.
For them, and hoards of other people who classify themselves as being “spiritual,” there remains the deep, ingrained perspective that the dead walk among us and are able to communicate just as effectively as the living do.
What, exactly, does it mean to have a spiritual outlook on the paranormal world?
What does it mean to be spiritual? And does it have anything to do with religion?
In a way: yes. In a way: not at all.
Angels & Demons, an online company that might as well be an encyclopedia on all things spiritual and paranormal, argues that “spirituality is a much confused, misaligned word for those who try to make it synonymous with being religious.” Although God can play a factor into one’s thinking, spirituality is being aware of Spirit or a higher energy that not only exists within the parameters of the world but also within you. From Spirit, you can then seek health, happiness, and love.
“True spirituality,” the author claims, “is knowing the truth of who we are and our connectedness with everyone and everything.” You are not just one person, but a soul and burst of energy connected to the Universe at large.
So what exactly does this mean?
Perhaps the easiest way to put it is that while a person who is religious may define themselves as also being spiritual, someone who is spiritual does not have to be religious.
Gretchen Upshaw, the General Manager of Ghost City Tours, provided a more personal touch on this outlook. She’d been raised Christian, baptized Baptist, but found herself dipping her toes into a variety of different religions over the course of her life. She visited Temples with her Jewish friends and even taught Vacation Bible School at a Lutheran church with her friends. To make things even more interesting, Upshaw also completed a Masters of Arts in Religious Studies.
But if you ask her whether she finds herself religious? The truth is that she doesn’t, not any longer. “It was in those years and through my studies in my 40s that I realized it was OK that I didn’t consider myself a Christian,” she explained to me. “Ironic that I would have that revelation while attending a Catholic university, but I felt supported in my doubts and was told by one of my professors that those that doubt their faith are sometimes the ones that discover much more.”
For Upshaw, her spirituality is more about aligning herself with her instincts, and about going back to the stamp of the Divine. Nevertheless, Upshaw fully believes in the paranormal.
Spirituality, at its core foundation, is about looking into oneself for strength and courage. For some, it is about opening themselves up to the Universe and receiving the message of Spirit (or high energy). For others, spirituality is nothing more than reconnecting with their own self and allowing that beauty to manifest into reality.
When he was a young boy growing up in Alabama, Michael Bill, a tour guide for Ghost City in New Orleans, was baptized Catholic. He was an altar boy and attended Church regularly. But at the age of fourteen-or-so, he found himself on the receiving end of mean-spirited bullying. Seeking some sort of higher power—a way to protect himself against those who would do him ham—he turned to Voodoo. Or, rather, Hoodoo.
He found a pharmacy nearby when he was about sixteen, which happened to sell Southern Hoodoo items in the back of the shop. “I probably spent a fortune,” he said with a burst of laughter. “I pretty much bought my way in.” He’d bought things for protection, for reversal, and even when he didn’t need a particular item, he bought it anyway just to learn the spell attached to the object. Over time, Michael Bill was inducted into the Fellowship of Isis (not, of course, the terrorist group) and his understanding of Hoodoo and, later, Voodoo grew from then on. Today, Michael Bill is a Prince within the Voodoo religion and is still an active Catholic.
In explaining the Voodoo religion to me, Michael Bill was quick to point out that communication with spirits is everything. A practitioner can pray to the Loas (the spirits of Haitian Vodou and Louisiana Voodoo), but also to your ancestors who have since moved on. There is no disconnect from the living and the dead, but they are, in fact, all one and the same. To open up the portal into the spirit world, one must pray to or ask Legba, the Loa of the Gates.
Voodoo practitioners can catch lost spirits, wrangle them in and bring them to another location so as to protect them or help them to later cross over. On the other hand, if another practitioner knows that a spirit that is attached to you, they can then use the spirit against you. And even when discussing the Dead—literally the cemeteries—Michael Bill informed me that in the Voodoo religion, the practitioner owns the spirits of the graveyard.
In countless of religions around the world, the fine line between the living and the dead is very fine, indeed. In parts of Asia, for example, the spiritual belief exists that ghosts are people who have passed away, and yet have refused to be reincarnated because of unfinished business on the earthly plane. It is thought that those ghosts who refuse to cross over can reap their revenge on the people who wronged them during life. In the Hindu religion, scriptures speak of ghosts being sinners in life, and who are subsequently trapped on Earth to wander around in the darkness for all of eternity.
In the Christian denomination, however, the story changes ever so slightly. C Michael Patton, the founder, and president of House Ministries and a creator of a Theology program, has discussed the actuality of ghosts haunting the earthly plane. Although the Christian worldview allows for the idea of disembodied spirits, Patton argues that this does not mean that those same spirits actually “haunt” or communicate with the living.
While a person’s spirit enters an intermediate state after death, it’s possible for demons to roam the Earth, impersonating those who have died, even including pets. But near-death experiences may prove otherwise. Out-of-body experiences happen too frequently to ignore, Patton has said. Instead, it must be considered that some “paranormal activity can be legitimately attributed to disembodied human spirits (ghosts).”
And then, celebrations such as Day of the Dead bridge spirits and the living once again.
Almost every single culture includes something about ghosts within their beliefs. While some might argue that ghosts are just a figment of the imagination, others truly feel as though spirits are the souls of their deceased loves ones who have chosen to visit the living.
It seems that quite frequently, those who keep to a more skeptical lens of the paranormal refer to the undead (not vampires, y’all) as ghosts, spirits, specters, or poltergeists. The terms are grouped together in an almost synonymous verbiage mashup that does little to distinguish the various entities. (I know that I’m at fault for this, too, and often exchange ‘ghosts’ and ‘spirits’ on an every-other sentence basis).
But for believers in the paranormal who classify themselves as spiritualists, many choose to distinguish between the terms. Michael Bill, for one, has chosen to use the term “spirit” because it indicates that it is the living essence of a person.
Paranormal investigators might call them an “intelligent ghost,” as they react and continue to live on the earthly plane even though they have not retained their physical body. Spirits or “intelligent ghosts” are generally those caught on EVP sessions or other voice recorders.
The spiritual belief, regardless of faith, denomination, or religion, reinforces the idea that death is nothing but a curtain drawn back, or a stepping stone into the next experience. And it is perhaps this take on the paranormal world that makes the most difference: that spiritualists tend to believe that the life of the body is the end of the road for the soul, but only one rung in the very tall ladder.
For those energies that remain unresponsive on the earthly plane, they are sometimes called “unintelligent ghosts.” These residual energies continue to repeat the same motions day after day, but lack the ability to communicate or react to the physical world around them.
Turn on your TV and you’re bound to run into a ghost-hunting TV show. Shows like Ghost Adventures and Ghost Hunters have been put aside for a new group of paranormal shows: psychic or medium programs.
In Psychic Detectives, once a police case runs cold, the “psychic detectives” are brought in to try and solve the crime. The Dead Files is another big hit, in which a retired Homicide Detective and a psychic band together to rid haunted homes of the ghosts which haunt them.
But perhaps no other show can come close to the overall success of Long Island Medium. (I’ll admit, I watched the first season like an addict). Although her abilities have since been called into question, Theresa Caputo was already largely successful as a medium before the show even aired in 2011. According to her website, her booking list was already at two years in advance before even the first episode went up on TV.
In the show, Caputo goes about her daily life, receiving messages from the dead for their loved ones. Some of the people Caputo gives readings to are her clients while yet others are people she stops on the streets because “Spirit” won’t leave her alone.
In fact, that is probably her most frequently used phrase on the show: “Spirit does what it wants.”
How does Spirit do what it wants, though, and what does that even mean? For Theresa Caputo, her messages from Spirit are given in code, a mixture of symbols and sights that she has practiced for over thirty years on how to best decode and translate them.
For Caputo, it’s not a matter of if spirits exist, it’s a matter of how to interpret their messages.
Doreen Virtue, a self-proclaimed “folk psychology motivational speaker,” is the founder of Angel Therapy. Angel Therapy is a “non-denominational spiritual healing method that involves working with a person’s guardian angels and archangels, to heal and harmonize every aspect of life.” Virtue (which is her real surname by the way) has grown so popular that she doesn’t even have time to take private clients anymore, and directs all of her focus on writing books and creating oracle cards. After receiving three different university degrees in Counseling Therapy, she worked as a psychotherapist for years before shifting her focus to her business.
For Theresa Caputo and Doreen Virtue, they might refer use the term “Spirit” or “Angels,” but the concept is relatively the same: the paranormal world is active and ingrained within our popular culture for those who believe.
Gretchen Upshaw was around four or five-years-old when her imaginary friend first appeared. To Upshaw, however, he was real. They played all day, and talked just as often. On one occurrence, she recalled clambering into her family’s station wagon when her father slammed the door shut—right on her friend’s hands. “I screamed and cried,” Upshaw reflected, “as if I was the one feeling the pain.”
Upshaw was so inclined to treat her friend like he was the same as everyone else, that when she and her family went out to dinner, she demanded that her parents order her friend some food too.
Then, when she was about six-years-old, he simply disappeared. Upshaw suspected that she’d never see him again, but one afternoon when she was in her late twenties, she glanced up and saw him. He stood next to her bed, glancing down at her—a full body apparition. Much later, she would describe the man standing at her bed to her mother. But when she sketched the details of his face, her mother’s face turned pale, and she launched herself up from her chair. When Upshaw’s mother returned to the room, she thrust a photograph at Upshaw.
In the photograph, Upshaw’s mother sat on the knee of her legendary “imaginary friend.” But the man in the photo?
He was Upshaw’s great-grandfather who had passed away a year before she was born.
Since then, Upshaw’s great-grandfather has come and gone from her life, but always seem to appear when she needs his support the most.
Michael Bill was giving our Killers and Thrillers Tour a few months back when it happened.
He was on the north side of the French Quarter, bringing his group toward the haunted Jimani Bar, when he felt a dark force. Vividly he recalled seeing a spirit standing by the garbage cans along Iberville Street.
As a Voodoo practitioner and a medium himself, Michael Bill was accustomed to seeing spirits, even while giving tours. Normally he’d simply glance at the spirit, roll his shoulders and look away. After all, it was nothing he hadn’t seen before. But not this time.
“I shouldn’t have looked back,” he murmured quietly. “I looked back and I shouldn’t have. It had bulging eyes and this thin, drawn face.” The spirit was not one of the men who died in the mass fire above the Jimani at the Upstairs Lounge in 1972. Instead, Michael Bill felt as though it was much older. “I felt it might have been some sort of Wendigo. I felt like it was as old as the Native Americans who were once here . . . I wouldn’t be surprised if even the Native Americans were scared of him.”
Based on the legend of the Algonquian peoples along the Atlantic Coast of the United States, a Wendigo was a human who succumbed to the desire to eat human flesh. Only, after doing so it became this sort of half-beast that could transform into either human or monster at will.
Could the spirit Michael Bill witnessed have been something as dark as that?
After Michael Bill saw the apparition, a dark weight settled over him and he was unable to shake the sensation off. Tears whispered down his cheeks, and later, Michael Bill couldn’t help but wonder if the guests on his tour thought his reaction had been to the story of the Jimani and the fire that had consumed the building and thirty-two lives.
“I looked back, later, to see if the spirit had followed me, but I didn’t see it. Who knew where it had gone, but later that night I got physically ill.” Michael Bill paused in the retelling of his story. “I should have turned around and called it out, but I had sixteen people on the tour and didn’t want them to think I was a nut-ball.”
(I imagine that most people would have thought it was just part of the tour and gone along).
When asked if he thought the spirit had been out to hurt him, Michael Bill only shook his head. “No, I don’t think that was part of his agenda. I think he was there to watch.”
Who the spirit was, we will never know, but it’s safe to say that it’s appearance left a mark on Michael Bill, and whenever he wanders down in the direction of the north side of the French Quarter, he still recalls that dark force.
It’s enough to make anyone glance over their shoulder in fright.
Although “spirituality” can often be a term confused or misinterpreted, it’s fair to say that spirituality, Spirit or religion are all just another way to look and believe in the paranormal. There is no wrong or right way to look at “faith” in the ghost world, and perhaps the main point of it all is the unquestioning faith that something exists after death.
Is it Heaven? A sort of reincarnation? Do our energies combine with the Universe itself and simply continue into another dimension?
Although it’s difficult to argue one way or another without dipping into specific cultural or spiritual beliefs, what can be theorized is this: for those who choose to believe in the paranormal, it is often because they have accepted that we aren’t alone.
We may not understand why spirits remain on the earthly plane, but we accept, simply, that they do. And until a time comes when the spirit or energy transcends to a different plane or space, it is not the world of just the living, but also the world of the essences of people whose physical bodies have already left.