Surveys show that more than two thirds of Americans accept the existence of ghosts, visitors from outer space, astrology and other paranormal phenomena. While the more sophisticated might think of these people as crazy, social scientists take a different view.
A horse-drawn carriage takes tourists through the streets of historic Jefferson, Texas as the sun begins to set. Many tourists come here to take part in ghosts walks in which guides tell the stories about various buildings and houses thought to be haunted.
A visitor from the nearby city of Shreveport, Louisiana named Jamie says ghosts could provide evidence of an afterlife she believes in. “I have always believed that there is something after, I do not know if we are stuck here on earth or if there is something more, but I do know there is something," she said.
Some people might regard belief in ghosts as loony. But it is not, according to psychologist Brian Cronk at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, Missouri. “This is not abnormal in any way, shape or form," he said.
Cronk, who has guided students doing research on people who profess belief in the paranormal, says humans are driven to seek answers to profound questions. “One of the things the human brain does that, as far as we know, other animals do not do, is we are always trying to predict the future and explain why the past has happened and that leads us to always trying to come up with reasons for things," he said.
Another researcher taking a scientific look at paranormal belief is Sociology Professor Carson Mencken, at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He and his colleagues have found that those who believe in these phenomena are usually ordinary, solid citizens. “They hold normal jobs, they have families, they pay bills. They are otherwise upstanding people who have what we consider to be a deviant or odd hobby," he said.
Mencken and two colleagues at Baylor published a book last year called “Paranormal America” that examines data about people with various paranormal beliefs.
They found, for example, that men tend to believe in space aliens more than women do, but that women are more inclined to believe in fortune telling and spiritual encounters.
They found that those who dropped out of high school are more likely to believe in ghosts and psychics, but they also found that people with higher education levels were involved in other paranormal pursuits.
Mencken says those drawn to the paranormal are sometimes seeking discovery, such as evidence that UFOs or ghosts exist, but he says many others simply seek enlightenment. “They are looking for some revelation, a deeper understanding about how the universe works, about what happens to you after you die," he said.
Religion provides the answer to those questions for many people. Among churchgoers, Mencken says liberal, mainstream religions are more likely to tolerate members with paranormal beliefs than are Protestant evangelicals and others with a stricter interpretation of the Bible.
“They are likely to see the paranormal as one of two things, one is yes, it exists, but it is part of an evil plot by Satan or, you know, it is heresy," said Mencken.
Mencken says today, belief in the paranormal is fed by the many movies and television programs about ghosts and UFOs. “Look at how many paranormal shows there are. There are paranormal reality shows. There are television networks devoted only to the paranormal now, so it has become an interesting part of our culture," he said.
Mencken says the United States has drawn on other nations and cultures for much of its paranormal beliefs and that immigrants from Latin America, Asia and elsewhere are contributing their ghosts and spirits to the mix.