Giving context to the paranormal

Giving context to the paranormal
Pat Lohmann
New Mexico Daily Lobo

If you've seen ghosts, apparitions or UFOs, Ph.D. candidate Bill Dewan wants to know about it.

Dewan is surveying UNM students about their experiences with the paranormal in an attempt to understand the cultural context behind such experiences.

"Different people conceptualize the supernatural or the abnormal or the paranormal differently - individually, culturally, historically," he said. "I'm just trying to determine how people conceptualize these things, and - for those that believe they've had paranormal experiences - how they make sense of them and what kind of meanings they derive from those experiences."

Dewan said it can be difficult to label a paranormal experience, because supernatural occurrences are subject to interpretation.

"For a lot of people, most experiences are hard to quantify," he said. "A good example is asking someone if they had a paranormal experience, and they reply, 'I felt like I was one with God,' and while I'm not saying that that experience is not real, it's hard for me to … judge it along paranormal and supernatural terms."

Freshman Samantha Tarter took Dewan's voluntary survey during her Philosophy 101 course and said it could aid in understanding things that are out of this world.

"I do not believe in aliens," she said. "I do believe in spirits and angels, but I'm sure I have a different belief than most. The survey was interesting and could be a good start for further investigation toward the supernatural world."

Freshman Charlie Ebbers said he is skeptical about paranormal activity.

"I thought it was a little bit weird. I thought it was kind of a random thing, out of the blue," Ebbers said. "I've seen the show on TV where they believe in ghosts, but I've never really believed any of it. I've never felt a presence or anything like that."

Dewan performed a preliminary study at the University of North Carolina, where he found that some 20 percent of those surveyed had had at least one paranormal experience. Also, he found that those who said they came into contact with UFOs were more likely to say they had had other paranormal experiences.

"There could be a number of explanations for that," Dewan said. "If you're a skeptic, you conclude that these people are highly suggestible. They're more prone to flights of fancy or having supernatural interpretations in general for things that occur around them. If you're at the opposite end of the spectrum, you could possibly argue that, perhaps, these people are more in tune with this type of thing and therefore more prone if they have an open mind."

Dewan is teaching a class this summer at UNM West called UFOs in America, which draws upon the history of UFO conspiracy theories and the reasoning behind them.

"I think most students go in with the assumption or the interest that I'm going to sit there and say UFOs are real or UFOs are a load of bull, and the hardest part for me is to get them beyond those questions," Dewan said. "I think it's much more important for us to focus on, especially from a folklorist's perspective … why these beliefs arise, why they're maintained, and why they're disseminated."

Dewan says it's not fair to dismiss those who claim they have been exposed to the supernatural.

"If you look at skepticism, especially psychologists talking about abductions and stuff like that, they … lump them into psychological disorders and abnormal belief systems," Dewan said. "It tends to marginalize people, and I think that's kind of unfair. The academics really have to do a better job of actually talking to people and listening to people, because there is an experiential aspect to these beliefs that we shouldn't ignore."
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