There's a cognitive dissonance happening within the paranormal community that's becoming more noticeable lately. Where history is presented as a logical reinforcement of paranormal activity within a location, the most significant portion of that history is often omitted. The most stark examples I see of this are in all format of media, TV of course, but also YouTube videos, TikToks, Instagram Reels, live Facebook streams and every other place media can land. They tend to be locations like historic homes, mansions and sometimes public or municipal buildings that were either in existence before 1900, or are considered antebellum for where they're located. The history is often told of the family or individual that owned and lived in the home or had the structure built, and why they may be haunting the place now. They may even have died tragic deaths from disease, war, violence or otherwise. The paranormal at large already has a penchant for placing the blame of unexplained activity on distinctly tragic circumstances of the formerly living, and if those tragic tales befell the people directly tied to the place, it's even more convenient of a story to uphold or explain an alleged haunting.
It's almost like there are two perceptions of the paranormal. There's the truly wide and unknown Other that seems inconsequential or unrelated in any way to human race or ethnicity, religion or nationality. It may exclude humanity altogether and just exist of its own natural order within the universe, with or without us witnessing it, and we're just attributing it all to some basis of human consciousness and the formerly living. Then there's the mainstream paranormal that dominates the culture and ideology behind ghosts, history and hauntings. I'm not sure I need to call it anything else than what I have, but I can define it basically as the mainstreamed and trope-heavy idea that untimely death, tragic life circumstances, negative emotions and human-wrought horrors create paranormal activity. Those who felt pain in life are somehow left incorporeal and with the ability to interact with the living in the spaces where that pain occurred. The mainstream paranormal, which most people in the community of those who derive pleasure, curiosity, entertainment and intrigue from, has a troubling cognitive dissonance going on.
With a predominantly white community and the same whiteness reflected back to us in our audiences and those interacting with our content, we are in the place of power to determine who's history matters enough to be retold through a ghost story and to create the narratives of haunted locations. When we tell the stories of haunted places, we often omit the largest injustice and tragic circumstances associated with it - the physical destruction and dehumanization of thousands of African American people who created and maintained these places, living their entire lives enslaved. These are largely people forgotten in death by not only unrecorded histories, unmarked or built-over burial grounds, but their very noticeable absence in ghost stories. The random Victorian homeowner may have suffered a horrendous end by say, accidental poisoning, but how many other unnamed and forgotten people were also directly associated with that property in the span of its existence? Why do only the ghosts of the rich, powerful and white come back to haunt the living and cause unexplained activity?
I think it's because within the mainstream paranormal, we are not a community that is inclusive to begin with, and we are in no way ready to break apart the safety of white ghosts and white ghost stories. Without paranormal legends and tales that include very real and verified history, we act to protect ourselves from facing the most horrific circumstances of American history. The cognitive dissonance is in how we attribute tragedy to paranormal activity, yet stay noticeably quiet on the the history of colonization and slavery and its aftermath within the paranormal.
Black people are often relegated to particular safe spaces in the mainstream paranormal as well; spirits still trapped in the places they were enslaved in life centuries ago need help in some way to move on or "cross over", benign Black spirits come to check on former homes the places they worked, posing no threat to the (predominantly white investigators and ghost-loving) living. These stereotypes make it sound like the dogma of the paranormal is working to reenforce a white-washing and power-holding through spirituality: ghosts of the formerly enslaved and any who suffered must therefore still remain enslaved in the afterlife. White savior complex even works its way into the paranormal in this way as investigators take it upon themselves and their alleged abilities to "move spirits on" or "cross them over", which is entirely subjective and ultimately self-gratifying.
Framing the paranormal in a wider historical context that includes the culturally normative interactions people had during the time a location has existed could help to encompass a realistic understanding of that history, and how it's viewed through the lens of the paranormal. Ghost hunters going no deeper into their work than asking ghosts for parlor tricks and interactions with blinking devices is not about to cease any time soon, but historical context and giving a wider available space to the unknown by not tying tragedy to the unexplained might help expand what we can learn about it, and how it seemingly works around us and with us.
Is it possible to apply some sort of 'critical historical theory' to the paranormal, where we look at the biggest picture possible of the verified humanity and history that played a part in an allegedly haunted location? With this critical look at historical context, we might understand these places fully and at the same time investigate in a way that separates damaging human experiences of the past with unexplained activity. Let the unexplained be just that - unexplained, instead of supplying it with human intention. In that way, the environment and the history are present but both not always necessary. The environment one is investigating doesn't require a human historical context, and the spaces where there is that history, it's learned and understood but the paranormal activity doesn't necessarily require that formerly living humanity to occur/happen/manifest/be witnessed.
Don't get me wrong, there are going to be numerous cases where historical context and the activity seem undeniably linked, but I think we still need to recognize that the link is determined by us, and in that sense we have to hold ourselves accountable for the possibility of being wrong about that. While I don't quite know how this form of investigating might look right now, I think it comes back to a pestering thought I keep wrestling with. What if the paranormal isn't comprised of or caused by deceased people's spirits? What if human tragedy doesn't equate unexplained manifestations echoing through time and space in our physical environment at all? This method could incorporate that umbrella of possibility in the cause of paranormal activity, and still keep the historical context of the spaces we attempt to experience the paranormal present in what we do. That might make us just better investigators, actually. Better people approaching what we do with empathy that isn't founded on special ability, but real human understanding. It might make us stop going to particularly problematic locations to investigate for the paranormal.
Acknowledging verified, known history and holding the most disturbing facts and realities of haunted locations in America present, accountable and included in our work could be a place to begin. Progressing in some way toward a paranormal inquiry that isn't based on humanity's suffering is something I've thought could be far closer to whatever "truth" exists out there to be found. Our own ideologies and biases appear in our investigations and in the histories we research, how we view the places we consider haunted and the ghosts we believe haunt them. We're likely reinforcing long-established power dynamics when we tell ghost stories of white people and white suffering and omitting the rest of the history and people who existed in these exact places and times. Lacking a critical look at the context of the stories we are retelling can be damaging and problematic for the paranormal community, and the places we love to be intrigued by, share, film and create with are more than safe ghost stories. Cognitive dissonance between the historic realities of these locations and the way the paranormal exists in a white-washed form is becoming more apparent and seemingly more easy with so many methods to share ghost stories with each other. How we do so might have the power to alter course in the paranormal for the better, or at the very least, for an inclusive and accurate perspective without having to ground the unexplained to human suffering.
Thanks for reading,