Language and the paranormal
Language is an unfairly neglected aspect of paranormal research. Surprisingly, it can be crucial to the way paranormal research is carried out.
Take the word 'ghost', for instance. A dictionary definition would say something like 'an apparition of a person no longer living'. Some dictionaries might add 'spirit' to the definition. And what about 'haunting'? This would typically be defined as 'disturbances or activity attributed to a ghost' (see above!).
While these definitions are commonly accepted, they are not at all useful in paranormal research. The problem is that they do not accord with witness reports. A typical 'haunting' report involves odd sounds, sights and smells from unknown causes. Sightings of actual apparitions are much rarer than general 'haunting' activity. There is often no direct evidence to connect these reported disturbances with 'ghosts' at all!
And yet, if you told someone you were investigating a haunting, many people would immediately think of ghosts and even 'spirits'. This is because of the language used which, in turn, is dictated by ancient cultural traditions and beliefs.
What is more, the reaction you get from people who have never done any paranormal research tends to follow certain stereotypical routes. People who believe in spirits will typically either be envious or appalled that you are dealing with such a subject. People who don't believe in spirits will regard you either as someone wasting your time or simply gullible.
Unfortunately, we are stuck with words like ghost and haunting even though they include an unwarranted baggage in their definitions. Serious researchers must be careful when they use such words as their audience may read far more into them than is meant. It is better to develop a neutral vocabulary based on what has actually been witnessed (right).
For an attempt at a better definition of haunting,
When words are used loosely or inappropriately it can raise expectations falsely. A typical example is where doors are reported to be mysteriously opening by themselves in a haunted house. The use of the word 'haunted' here immediately gives the impression that a ghost is opening the door. It also raises the image of a terrified witness watching a door handle being slowly turned followed by the door swinging open dramatically to reveal - nothing! It's pure Hollywood! The truth is usually somewhat different. Someone might find a door open having been sure they closed it. It could just be a memory lapse.
Words reveal beliefs
There is no doubt that some paranormal researchers have specific beliefs concerning their chosen subject. Words like 'spirit' are often used interchangeably with ghost or apparition without obvious justification. It can be instructive to listen to the words fellow investigators use. It can reveal whether they are approaching the subject from a particular angle.
Words break down barriers
Most paranormal researchers spend much of their time investigating cases which turn out to have mundane causes. Until recently there was no word to describe what they were spending so much time on. Now that we have the word xenonormal. It makes us see paranormal research in a new way. The word allows us to see studying the xenonormal as a new way of getting to the paranormal. If we can understand the xenonormal, and strip it away, we will be left with the paranormal finally exposed. It also legitimises the idea of studying the xenonormal as an subject in its own right - a fascinating study of human encounters with the unknown.
When reporting paranormal cases it is useful to stick to simple descriptions of phenomena witnessed, rather than use 'charged' vocabulary like ghost.
So if someone sees what they believe to be a ghost in their house, you could report it as a 'possible human figure'. If this seems a bit vague, consider the possibilities. It could be:
- a real person
- a dummy
- an object resembling a person
- a ghost
- a hallucination
Until you have investigated the sighting, you would be most unwise to label it as a ghost with all the connotations that brings.
Another verbal trap to avoid is over-interpreting what a witness has seen. The witness may do this but there is no excuse for experienced researchers to follow suit. For instance, if someone sees a circular patch of light moving around a darkened room, what words can be used to describe it? Some valid words would be:
- size (apparent!)
Some invalid words would be:
- density / weight (it's a light - how do know it has density?)
- luminous (how do know it's a light source?)
- distance (how do know where it is in space?)
- spherical (how do you know it's 3-dimensional)
- energy / plasma (see 'energy' left!)
If you use inappropriate words, you will get spurious information that says more about your assumptions (or those of the witness) than about the phenomenon itself.
It may be possible to deduce extra information from the basic facts (science is good at this!) but the original facts must be accurate, complete and free from contaminating speculation.
If you approach the paranormal with a set of fixed beliefs already in place, you might miss vital facts. If you start off by thinking a floating light is a plasma, you might not even investigate whether it could be a reflection.
Words can trap your thoughts into following particular paths. You may'find' what you expected to but it might not be reality.
Another much abused word to ponder.
The word 'energy' is one of the most abused in the English language, particularly in the field of the paranormal. It is used widely, freely and often inaccurately. It has a precise meaning in science though it is little used by scientists. That's because, to talk about energy in a useful way, you need to say what form it is in.
To see how the word is abused in the paranormal context, consider the following example. It has frequently been speculated that ghosts use energy to manifest, hence producing cold spots.
First of all, the connection between 'cold spots' and ghosts is tenuous. It is highly likely that every building has its cold spots but that they're only noticed in the case of haunted houses.
Secondly, the speculation makes obvious assumptions about the nature of ghosts. This probably arises from the common definition of the word (see right) which has the concept of spirits implicit within it. If you remove the assumption that ghosts are 'spirits', do they need to 'manifest' at all?
This brings us, finally, to energy. Energy is an abstract concept - it must always come in a specific form in the real world. Some common forms of energy are:
In the case of the cold spot, our speculation assumes that heat is removed from the environment. However, heat energy is the least useful around. It is a profoundly inefficient energy source compared to the others.
The word 'energy' is used far too loosely in this, and similar, paranormal speculations. This detracts from any possible merit the idea may have. There are many other words that are similarly abused in our field. If we stopped misusing such words, more useful, testable ideas could emerge.