Why do we want to believe in the supernatural?
Posted: Jun 24, 2016
A Vermont man came home from a party late one night to his old house. The house had been built during the American Revolution. It was rickety. The floorboards creaked and moaned under his feet. He walked a few feet into the pitch-black living room when all the lights came on at once. He wasn't near any switch. There were no motion or audio sensors.
This man was not afraid. Why? Because his wife was behind him. She flicked on the lights.
Why did you not think of that? Do you believe that there can be true ghost stories and haunted houses?
Part of the reason has to do with the employment of some literary sleight of hand. Look at the language: "Old", "rickety", "creaked", "moaned", "pitch-black". These words evoke the proper imagery and setting for a scary anecdote. Haunted house stories use them all the time. Plus, there's the added bonus of a Vermont setting. New England's history of ghostly
phenomenon is well-documented, from the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne and H.P. Lovecraft to local tales of the supernatural —anyone travelling through New England is bound to come across a brochure offering tours of the areas haunted regions.
However, there is a fundamental logic to the story that the reader doesn't dare entertain. Again, why?
Because the power in true ghost stories lies in the fact that we secretly want them to be true.
The great science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once described science fiction as something that could possibly be happen, though you hope it won’t. Fantasy literature, on the other hand, was about something that isn’t true, though you wish it was.
Chilling stories of poltergeists wreckinghavoc in a child's nursery may be the last thing we would want to come true, but there is a reason why they continue to enthrall us. In short, creepy chills are fun. Relating them in narrative form is a way of distancing ourselves from them. But these stories also have their roots in a tradition as old as storytelling itself: the human fear of death and the unknown. Crystallizing these fears into a specific narrative helps us to confront them. There is arguably, then, a desire to obliterate the logic of the probable in favor of the supernatural. Why else would the average reader not stop to question whether that man was alone? In that story, he is their surrogate, and therefore he was alone in that scary place. The average reader needs him to be alone, otherwise there is no fear to confront.
The same can be said for all the unexplained phenomenon stories that flood the internet and popular culture. These were perhaps best represented on the TV show, The X-Files, which took many of its storylines from popular supernatural and urban legends. Detective Fox Mulder, the show's wily supernatural investigator, said it for all of us when he uttered in deadpan monotone, "I want to believe."
Therein lies a dilemma for skeptics. They too want to believe like the rest of us, but they lack the willing suspension of disbelief that is essential for a proper confrontation with fear.
Imagination is a key component in confronting our specific fear of the unknown. How it could be otherwise? The unknown requires that we imagine. There are different ways of employing imagination in this regard. The skeptic employs it
. The relating of supernatural stories, be they true or made up of whole cloth, is the oldest, and therefore the most durable means of dealing with the fate that awaits us all. Death, after all, is part of the human experience.
And it's there even when the lights come back on.
Author of True Ghost Stories and Hauntings: Chilling Stories of Poltergeists, Unexplained Phenomenon, and Haunted Houses
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