Released in September, the Baylor Religion Survey is a comprehensive look at the religious beliefs of more than 1,700 Americans. Among its many findings were significant percentages of Americans who said they believe in haunted places (37 percent), had consulted a psychic or fortune teller (12.5 percent), or think it is possible to communicate with the dead (20 percent).
The Baylor researchers professed surprise at the results they uncovered, but Jim McReynolds, a psychology professor at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, said he is not surprised by modern America's fascination with the supernatural.
McReynolds, who also teaches cultural anthropology, said that a culture under stress often turns to the paranormal to explain things, blaming a devil or praising an angel to help it make sense of itself.
That helps explain to McReynolds why 75 percent of Americans have some level of belief in some form of parapsychology - telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, witches, ghosts, angels, reincarnation or other phenomenon, according to a 2005 Gallup poll.
"There's lots of scary things in the world right now, and we really can't explain them all," he said. Social ills such as addictions, divorce rates, health scares, unemployment and economic uncertainty, not to mention war and terrorism around the world, contribute to inner conflicts.
"We live in a time of paradox and polarization," McReynolds said. "That leaves people confused, so they explain it as 'something else is at work.'"
That so many Americans, 52 percent, believe in the power of dreams to foretell the future also is reflected in popular culture, he said. Forty-three percent of Americans say they had a dream that later came true.
That explains the popularity of the story of Scrooge in "The Christmas Carol," he said. "Dickens was able to tap into that."
Paranormal researcher Chad Lewis is the co-author of "South Dakota Road Guide to Haunted Locations." His book tells the stories of more than 50 haunted sites in the state, including the Mountain View Cemetery in Keystone, where the ghosts of deceased Mount Rushmore workers are said to rise up in the form of semi-transparent beings dressed in clothing from another era. Apparently, they pay their respects on dark nights during the lighting ceremony at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Another of the book's listings is the YMCA in Lead, where both staff and visitors report seeing the swimming pool water move as though someone is in it.
"We've liked these kind of stories since the beginning of time. We've always been curious about the supernatural questions," Lewis said.
But today, human nature's love of ghost stories is enhanced by popular culture.
"It's media-driven," he said, noting television shows that feature ghost hunters, mediums and no end of supernatural phenomenon.
"You can't turn on the TV without seeing one of these things," Lewis said. "The media has made it more acceptable to talk about these things now."
Lewis is a former psychology student who got interested in UFO research 13 years ago. He has never personally experienced the paranormal, but he has no doubt that other people have.
"Yes, I do," he said when asked if he believes in ghosts. "I believe there's something there. I don't know what that something is, but they are seeing something, they are not hallucinating."
For most people, seeing is believing. For others, it seems, believing is seeing.
Lewis hopes science can some day develop a way to prove, or disprove, the paranormal.
"Unfortunately, these things cannot be measured in a laboratory," he said.
Scientists, of course, say that ghosts that walk around cemeteries or swim through water aren't conducive to a Newtonian view of the world.
"That's the duality of people," McReynolds said. "We live in an objective world, but we also live in a really subjective world."
And that's partly why Halloween, with its costume parties and little goblins knocking at the door for candy, is such a psychologically healthy holiday, in McReynolds' view.
"It's a safe way to imitate what scares us, a validation for our fears in a safe, community setting," he said of pretend monsters that help kids, and adults, confront their inner fears. "Halloween can help make those things safe."
Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8410 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Ghosts or superstitions - Study says more believe in the paranormal
By Mary Garrigan, Journal Staff Writer