ABC-CLIO's interview with Darryl V. Caterine, author of Haunted Ground: Journeys through a Paranormal America
Q: What prompted you to write Haunted Ground?
A: There were at least four reasons why I wanted to write a book on the paranormal in America. The first reason simply has to do with the fact that there are relatively few scholarly books on the subject. There are many good studies of specific movements, such as Spiritualism, but not so many on the "paranormal" as a whole.
I have also been studying and writing about similar phenomena in the Latin American and Latino context for years. People tend to forget that Catholicism south of the U.S. border and in the Caribbean is full of miraculous, supernatural, or paranormal activity. Interest in such phenomena has to do with the fact that Christianity in these cultures has been changed by its encounter with African and Native American beliefs and practices. There is still today a strong belief in many Latino communities in the intercession of the saints to perform miracles in everyday life. Veneration of, and even communication with, the ancestors is also prevalent in some communities, while healing practices derived from Native American and medieval Spanish societies thrive in others. So it was really just a small step to go from the study of Latino Catholicism, particularly as it is practiced outside of the institutional church, and interest in the paranormal in the U.S.
One of the reasons I became attracted to the study of religion in the first place had to do with the radically different worldviews that religious cultures preserve and celebrate. Unfortunately, in the United States context there has been a trend in the mainstream churches for the last few centuries to make religion look more "respectable" in modern eyes, which often entails ridding it of "superstitious" beliefs and practices—like a belief in the active participation of the supernatural or other-than-human in this world. So in order to get to these beliefs in a North American society like the U.S., I had to study something a little outside of the orbit of this mainstream religious universe. Interest in the paranormal seemed like an obvious choice.
Finally, I wanted to write a book that moved the whole discussion of the paranormal from the margins to the center of American religion. As I discuss in my book, the kinds of questions that the paranormal raises get right into the thick of what it means to be a modern person. The significant issue is not simply that 75 percent of Americans "believe in" the paranormal. The significant issue is that this widespread interest means that people are thinking critically about the maps of reality that mainstream religion, science, mass media and academe are giving them -- and finding that none of these "maps" are completely accurate or meaningful.
Q: You chose 3 "groups" to study: Ufologists, spiritualists, and dowsers—what points of commonality did you discover? How are they "religious"?
A: The big commonality between Ufologists, Spiritualists, and dowsers was a fascination they shared with the nature of Nature. At first this might sound a little abstract, so let's make another, quick comparison with the Latino Catholic example. In Latino cultures, when something out of the ordinary happens—let's say, a highly improbable recovery from a terminal illness—people find a place for it in a supernatural or other-worldly understanding of the world. It was the intercession of the Virgin of Guadalupe, or the grace of an African orisha, or the activity of a saint. But in the communities that I studied, the supernatural is usually not the place where people put extraordinary experience. Instead, they assume it has something to do with the nature of "Nature"—shorthand for the physical cosmos that scientists study, and also shorthand for the imagined universe in which modern people dwell. Extraordinary experiences happen to turn our commonsense notions of Nature upside down. Most scientists won't go near them, so we're left with explanations of the physical world that either deny or downplay these events. Mainstream religions do not make them a focal point of theological speculation so there's very little help there. And in our cultural mythology, we tend to forget that our love affair with Nature covers over the fact that the nation wouldn't be here if our ancestors hadn't destroyed or displaced millions of Native American peoples. The nature of Nature in the American paranormal universe is both topsy-turvy relative to scientific and religious models, and also deeply haunted by the perennial Native American ghosts.
Now these movements can be thought of as being religious in at least two important ways. First, one way of thinking about religion is as a way of relating to, and partially explaining, those people, places, and events that instill awe in us. Rudolf Otto spoke of religion as a response to the seductive and terrifying mystery. Certainly the phenomena of the paranormal fall into this category. Ghosts, UFOs, and psychic phenomena (which is one way of thinking about how dowsing works) either frighten or fascinate us, or maybe do a little of both. The many ways that Americans have thought about these phenomena are responses to mystery, and are therefore "religious" in this first sense of the term.
The other way that these movements are religious lies in the kinds of questions they ask about reality. Some scholars define "religion" as an exploration of what is ultimately meaningful or real— whether or not it includes the supernatural. Our culture's interest in the paranormal are certainly religious in this second sense of the term. Spiritualists want to know if there is some way of empirically knowing if consciousness survives the experience of death. Ufologists want to know if we are alone in the universe—or if this is the only universe that exists. Dowsers want to know if we are connected with each other and with the earth in ways that neither modern religion nor science have yet articulated. These are questions about ultimate matters; their answers shed light on our purpose here on earth, and what priorities our society should be setting for itself. These are just a few of the religious types of questions that interest in the paranormal raises.
Q: What was the highlight of your research?
A: I would have to say that the highlight of my research was the permission I felt in the various gatherings to ask questions outside of the conventional academic boxes. There was a way in which the research unleashed my creativity, not only to ask questions about religion and spirituality, but to think of my place in the world as a modern American. And as I write about in my book, these places are designed to inspire just this kind of experience. They are truly carnivals in the classic sense of the term: not merely places of entertainment or distraction, but places that encourage visitors to turn their commonplace notions of reality upside-down and inside-out. In this sense, paranormal gatherings are to the modern American nation what medieval European carnivals were to the Roman Catholic Church. Scholars in my field talk quite a bit about "liminality" or "anti-structural" places. If you really want to have a liminal experience, spend some time immersed in Lily Dale, or the Roswell UFO Festival, or the dowsing convention.
Q: In the course of your research, what discovery surprised you the most?
A: My major breakthrough, which did come as a surprised and freed me up to write the book, was that people who spend their lives immersed in the paranormal are very closely related to professional academics. In other words, my surprise was that they and I were basically doing the same thing: trying to figure out where we are, and what we are, as modern people—and then spinning out different kinds of narratives to make sense out of potential chaos.
Q: How did your research change your outlook on religion or spirituality?
A: Taking seriously some of the paranormal data, as well as the kinds of questions they raise, gave me an appreciation of how antiquated our religious maps of the world are. I don't intend this remark to be hostile; in fact, I am nostalgic for the days when religion perhaps could address all of our most burning questions of meaning. But we seem to be living in an era—and here I mean a long span of time that began hundreds of years ago—where we have to be content to live with a relatively high degree of cosmological incoherence. At one point in my book I refer to "spiritual homelessness." It would be nice to say that everything in heaven and on earth has a place in our philosophy or religion, but that does not seem to be the case, especially when you start looking into how much we do not know.
Q: What's next for you?
A: My next academic book will continue some of the issues raised in Haunted Ground, but in a more theoretical key. I'd like to trace the eclipse of the "supernatural" in modern western religion and the rise of the "paranormal" that came, for many people, to replace it. This story begins, I believe, with the cultural debate over the exorcisms of the German Catholic priest Johann Joseph Gassner, and the healing practices of Franz Anton Mesmer. They were both doing very similar types of work, but Mesmer "naturalized the supernatural," carving out an in-between space between science and religion. This odd quasi-scientific and quasi-religious way of looking at the world is the paranormal. As I hope I've shown in this last book, the ghost of Mesmer is still alive and well and haunting us today.
Check out this MSNBC piece on our fascination with the paranormal, featuring Darryl Caterine.