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Creators of the Paranormal

A handful of twentieth-century figures “created” the modern concept of the paranormal and its leading topics, transporting fantasy, myth, or speculation into a kind of believable “reality.” Most proved to be a chimera.

Much of what is called “the paranormal” today has intrigued mankind since the most ancient times. The term refers to those things that are supposedly beyond the normal range of science and human experience—ghosts, strange lights in the sky, psychic phenomena, and the like. It includes the supernatural but also things such as monsters that—if they exist—might be quite natural.

With the advent of modern spiritualism in 1848, launched by the Fox Sisters’ hoaxed messages from the ghost of a murdered peddler (Nickell 2004, 31–32), the paranormal began to proliferate and to attract advocacy groups such as the British Society for Psychical Research. Founded in London in 1882, it was concerned with alleged psychic phenomena and the supposed survival of consciousness following bodily death (Guiley 2000, 304).

The paranormal grew increasingly throughout the twentieth century with various “new” (either substantially new or newly refocused-on) topics being expanded by individual gurus and groups of enthusiasts, and many cross-correspondences developing (say, between UFOs and Bigfoot). This article is a discussion of the “creation” of the paranormal by a series of major figures, each of whom took a concept—some fantasy, myth, or speculation—and transformed it into “reality” (Keel 2001b). (I have, of course, excluded a long list of topics—from astrology to zombies—whose origins are ancient.)

CHARLES FORT: PROPHET OF THE UNEXPLAINED

In the early twentieth century, Charles Fort (1874– 1932) began the work that led one biographer to call him the “Prophet of the Unexplained” (Knight 1970). Having come into an inheritance that permitted him to engage in armchair endeavors, Fort spent his last twenty-six years scouring old periodicals for reports of alleged occurrences that science was supposedly unable to explain: UFOs (before there was such a term), archaeological oddities, mystery creatures, ghosts, rains of fish, and other anomalies—what would come to be called “fortean phenomena.” Fort was not himself an investigator, and his anecdotal evidence left much to be desired (Nickell 2004, 335–337).

Nevertheless, Fort was a major innovator. In an excellent biography of him, Jim Steinmeyer (2008, xv) states, “What Fort invented was our modern view of the paranormal.” Others had pointed out strange occurrences and asked why they happened, but Charles Fort championed their significance and accused science of being too conventional to care. Many of today’s paranormal claims can be traced to Fort’s writings.

HARRY PRICE: THE ORIGINAL GHOST HUNTER

Supposed communication with spirits of the dead is at least as old as the Biblical “Witch of Endor” who, at the behest of King Saul, allegedly conjured up the ghost of Samuel (I Samuel 28). From the first century ce came a prototypical chain-rattling ghost at a house in Athens investigated by one Athenodorus who allegedly observed the specter and laid it to rest (Nickell 2012a, 17–18). This is an early example of what folklorists call a “legend trip”: a visit to a site to test a legend there (Brunvand 1996, 437–440). As spiritualism developed in the mid-nineteenth century, photography was soon adopted to make “spirit photos”—first faked by William Mumler in Boston in 1862 (Nickell 2012a, 298–300).

The instigator of today’s ghost-hunting craze was England’s Harry Price (1881–1948), who was among the first to use “modern technology” to detect spirits of the dead and for that purpose famously had a “ghost-hunting” kit (see Price 1936, photo facing p. 32). He employed such devices as a camera with infrared filter and film (for photographing in the dark), “an electronic signaling instrument” (for detecting an object’s movement from anywhere in a house), and “a sensitive transmitting thermograph” (to measure temperature variations). Along with a notebook, flashlight, and other utility items, he included a flask of brandy in case anyone fainted (Price 1940, 107).

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