There are a number of different ways to quantify belief among Americans in so-called paranormal phenomena. One way is to ask a selection of people representative of the population if they believe in ghosts. In a 2019 Ipsos poll, 46% of respondents said they did.
Another is to ask what they fear. This year, according to the Chapman University Survey of American Fears, about 9% of 1,035 adults surveyed said they feared ghosts, and the same amount said they feared zombies; many more people said they were afraid of government corruption, the coronavirus or widespread civil unrest.
The last time Gallup surveyed people about ghosts, in 2005, 32% of respondents said they believed in “ghosts or that spirits of dead people can come back in certain places and situations.” When Gallup asked the same question in 1990, the result was 25%.
Such beliefs have pervaded U.S. culture and media for centuries. But some researchers are now studying whether their rise may be tied, in part, to the rise over the past few decades of Americans claiming no religious preference.
“People are looking to other things or nontraditional things to answer life’s big questions that don’t necessarily include religion,” said Thomas Mowen, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University.
For a continuing study on religion and paranormal belief, for example, Mowen said he was finding that “atheists tend to report higher belief in the paranormal than religious folk.”
‘This supernatural interest’
Last year, the share of Americans who belong to religious congregations fell below 50% for the first time in more than 80 years, according to a Gallup poll released in March. And the percentage of people claiming no religion nearly tripled from 1978 to 2018, according to the General Social Survey.
Still, even as religious frameworks for thinking about the meaning of life and death have become less popular in the United States, the big existential questions inevitably remain.
The General Social Survey found that as religious affiliation declined over four decades, belief in the afterlife remained relatively steady: In 1978, about 70% of those surveyed believed in the afterlife, and about 74% reported the same in 2018.
As Joseph Baker, co-author of the book “American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems,” put it: “People are outside of organized religions, but they still have this supernatural interest.”
Paranormal television, film and media of all sorts also play a significant role in the perpetuation of belief in the supernatural. Sharon Hill, author of the 2017 book “Scientifical Americans: The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers,” sees the rise of nonfiction paranormal television shows like Syfy’s “Ghost Hunters” — which averaged about 3 million viewers per episode at its peak — as particularly influential in the culture.
“Ghost Hunters,” which premiered in 2004 and originally ran for 11 seasons, portrayed the search for paranormal activity as a discipline. “They had gadgets, they talked in jargon, it sounded professional,” Hill said. “It was convincing to the person at home that this was a serious thing going on in the world.”
And then, Hill said, “because of the rise of the interest in the paranormal, it was really, really easy for these tabloids to pick up cheap stories of people saying that they have demons in their house or they’ve seen a ghost or they got something creepy on their video cam.”
The internet allowed for people across the globe to connect with each other over paranormal interests, Hill added. Reddit became a popular forum to discuss unexplainable mysteries, such as an eerie experience at a rest stop or claims of a demonic run-in at a hospital unit. The site added a new element to these stories by making them interactive, with readers going back and forth in the comments, joining and adding to the narrative themselves.
Some paranormal investigation groups in the United States say they have received more requests than usual during the pandemic.
Don Collins, a director at Fringe Paranormal, a group in Toledo, Ohio, that investigates claims of unexplained happenings, said his team has been contacted for residential investigations or information on a weekly basis this year, as opposed to the typical one or two requests per month they got before the pandemic.
“I think part of it is that since a lot of people are at home due to COVID, if there is something paranormal going on, they’re actually home to notice it,” Collins said.
“People try to explain things happening through paranormal means when they can’t find an explanation for things that are going on,” he continued. “Negative things are happening around them, they may tend to attribute it to paranormal activity.”
Baker put it another way. “Religion and supernatural belief tend to go up in times of what we would call existential crisis or more existential perils,” he said.
“The increased suffering and death” caused by the pandemic means that people are “more likely to have experiences with death recently,” he said. “That may bring up these sorts of issues of wondering about spirits of loved ones.”
Believing in the supernatural can even be a source of solace. Emily Midorikawa, a biographer of Victorian-era women, provided a historical parallel. “There was certainly a real spike in people who sought the services of mediums, sought comfort in spiritualism about the time of the American Civil War,” she said.
Then as now, the paranormal was fodder for connection. In the Victorian era, seances were gathering places where social structures were less rigid, Midorikawa said.
“It wasn’t unusual, for instance, to have a female medium leading a seance, talking to groups of men and women,” she said. “There was an appeal to women who just went to seances as participants, perhaps it was a chance to get out and mix with people in that setting that was a little bit unusual — and one where perhaps there was a little bit more freedom.”
Today, believing in some form of the paranormal may represent freedom in another way, perhaps as an avenue to conceptualize other possibilities. After all, there are plenty of everyday mysteries we simply accept as part of modern life.
“A belief in the paranormal maybe doesn’t seem as much of a stretch,” Midorikawa said, “when we think about all the things we’re interacting with all the time that might as well be a kind of magic for all the understanding we have of them.”
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