Always on the Margins: Paranormal Investigators and the Politics of Culture
Written By: Kirsten A. Thorne, PhD
If you are a paranormal investigator, then you are used to existing on the outside. You are a liminal being wandering in and out of a hidden world. You are in between every conventional space; whether you like it or not, you're the ghost in your community.
"Liminal" comes from the Latin 'limen,' or 'threshold'. It refers to individuals, groups or societies that find themselves thrown out of standard frames of reference and identity into a no-man's land or transitional space where no institution, social hierarchy or category of understanding or reference fixes one's place in the world. Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liminality#In_rituals) has a very useful chart that explains this concept, which I will shortly link to the paranormal:
|Epoch (or life-span duration)||
Paranormal investigators, mediums, and researchers into the field of survival of consciousness are occupying a liminal space by virtue not only of their object of study, but of the interplay between investigator and the other worlds they enter at will. One must occupy these liminal spaces in order to understand them; in other words, the subject of your research turns you into an object of it, as well.
As researchers into what cannot be objectively quantified, we are at the margins of science. We are truly at the margins of academia, since only psychology opens up any doors for such work, but only as a satellite discipline. We don't receive big grants for our work, we are forced to conduct research in isolation from other disciplines, we are rarely recognized for our results and most of all, we are excluded by both popular culture (who seeks to turn us into vapid 'ghost hunters' with bags of tricks) and by institutions of higher learning (who scoff at our methodology and our very existence).
Materialism precludes us from occupying a socially acceptable space. Anything that cannot be replicated in a laboratory setting under strict protocols does not exist in any meaningful way. We are tossed out of church for our 'unholy' quest to comprehend what only God is privy to. No university, no church, no cultural institution or even Hollywood network will legitimize us as serious seekers of the truth. The very subject of our passion is considered out of bounds for the inquisitive individual. Without the blessing of Church or University, we are alone. As the above chart states, we are 'groups that live at the edge of normal structures, often perceived as both dangerous and holy'. Ah, but I fear we have not even attained that status; we are so often ridiculed and ignored.
Perhaps it is this very liminal space that we occupy that allows for more creative interplay between the investigator and her object of study. Just as some mediums enter a 'trance state' before a guide allows them access to the spirits of the deceased, the investigator can find herself temporarily between states of consciousness, neither in one world nor the other. Part of the difficulty here is in understanding the nature of the 'next' or 'other' world; it has no geography, no identifying characteristics, no signifiers that anchor it in our reality. The meeting ground between our physical world and the space the spirits 'occupy' or inhabit is our own mind and emotions. This is why establishing contact with disembodied consciousnesses requires the participation of the investigator. There is no way to objectively study a soul or spirit without moving into a psychological space that allows such contact.
The difference between the contemporary paranormal investigator (a fairly recent category of self understanding) and the medium, shaman, witch, channeler or healer is our desire to be recognized by mainstream culture and academic institutions. Communication with the dead has been happening since the dawn of mankind, but it has always been a secret, underground activity that thrived on codes and rituals outside the boundaries of Church and State. The witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts and the Spanish Inquisition are but two examples of institutional and cultural retaliation directed at anyone who sought knowledge outside accepted and proscribed community practices. The violent reaction of the past and the ridicule of the present have much to do with the paranormal investigator's willingness to occupy a liminal state of consciousness in order to facilitate spirit communication, which effectively negates the idea that in order to study any phenomenon, we must observe it from a neutral, objective position of separateness and authority.
That is the crux of the problem for paranormal researchers. We are not neutral, nor do we pretend that what we study is somehow separate from who we are. We have splintered ourselves into sub-categories depending on where we stand concerning the issue of epistemology (the study of knowing, or how one knows). There are those of us who continue to beat our heads against the wall of Science, compiling endless mounds of data and 'evidence' in the vain hope that it will earn us the respect of an academic discipline, even if only Sociology or Anthropology (I say this tongue in cheek, of course). There are others who dive in head-first into mediumship and accept their marginal position in society with resignation, if not indifference. A good trance medium or 'sensitive' (a popular role in the paranormal crowd) can provide the best, most evidential information on an investigation, rendering our complex technology obsolete; however, she will not expect any institution to recognize the validity of her work. Most of us, however, fall into yet another liminal space: we are neither scientists nor mediums, but average, curious individuals who rely on common sense and the truth of their direct experience in order to answer long-held questions that no church, mosque or temple has adequately addressed.
Faith is no longer sufficient for large numbers of us; we have set out on our own journey towards the Truth, and that involves our willingness to wander the borders of consciousness so that the so-called 'dead' can speak. Paranormal investigators have not found the answers to the mystery of life and death within the confines of contemporary institutions; although we are not burned at the stake for seeking direct access to alternate dimensions of reality, we do lose jobs, friends and the respect of some family members. We place ourselves in a gray area where the reaction is either derision or criticism; we either have too much faith in ourselves or not enough in God. No one will have us, so we form groups and sub-groups and discover our own community; in doing so, we align ourselves with all marginalized groups in contemporary society, whether we know it or not. It would behoove us to forge broader alliances; it's time to stop demanding that the University open its doors, or for the media to respect us.
I continue the work of chasing after ghosts because the ghost is a potent metaphor for the unknown, an entity that enters and leaves our world leaving only the most subtle of traces. A spirit forces us to confront what is real and what is a product of our own psychology. A ghost pushes us into alternate ways of knowing; if we're strong and creative, without fear of ridicule or banishment from our cultural institutions, you will find amazing, awe-inspiring clues as to the nature of existence. Let me close with a personal example of these broader considerations.
A relative of mine spent a few years at a state hospital. She was always very guarded when the subject came up in conversation; in fact, she often flatly refused to discuss any details of her time there. When she passed away, I was consumed with finding out more information about the hospital and her experiences there. I conducted research in the Archives, interviewed anyone who knew anything, and finally convinced my team to investigate the wing where she once was housed. The EVP session we conducted started out in typical fashion, with many of the usual probing questions; we were surrounded by digital audio recorders, iPhones set to their 'paranormal' apps, EMF detectors, laser grids, digital cameras, heat detectors, trigger objects, and so on.
The data that could be recorded was interesting, but not astounding. As often happens in very active sites, something started to change in the atmosphere. The hallways and doorways darkened quickly, and there was a certain tension and anxiety that started building around us, almost like an emotion that had become physical. This is the 'liminal' moment in an investigation: we start moving over a threshold, away from a reality that makes sense into a world with no signposts. As I huddled near my equipment, I closed my eyes and asked a question: please, tell me what happened here, tell me what happened to you . . . I was instantly flooded with images and overwhelming emotion. I saw what she endured, and it was monstrous, beyond anything I had imagined. I felt her terror, her confusion, and most of all, her overwhelming sadness at her confinement, her loss of freedom. I knew then what it meant to be a mental patient, how it felt to be punctured, mistreated, ignored and violated. For the first time in years of investigations, I lost my self control and cried, for her and for everyone who had been locked up there.
Nothing I could have measured objectively, nothing I could have quantified, would have taught me what I learned that day. We have data from that investigation that document alterations in temperature and EMF activity, in addition to two fascinating EVP; however, what I knew from direct experience happened in a semi-trance state where I had temporarily been allowed to glimpse the past and receive, via mental transmission, answers to my questions. It was a life-altering experience that changed forever how I understand time and the perceived limitations of death. No one will acknowledge on a cultural or institutional level the validity of what I experienced, nor will my college knock down my office door with offers of grant money so I can document the nature of consciousness. Only my close family and friends will understand how, for me, there is no death of experience and no limit to perception.
If you are engaged in this ongoing research of the soul, you are the ghost that you seek to contact. Somehow, in some way, this has to be enough. For now.
Read more: soulbank.org