Image Credit: PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek / Shutterstock
The paranormal is a popular and enduring theme in the media, stretching from Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula to the newest installment of Paranormal Activity, which opened last week. Television shows cover the spectrum from fiction, like the CW’s Beauty and the Beast, or CBS’s Ghost Whisperer; to quasi-factual shows like SyFy’s Ghost Hunters, which has spawned copycat shows on networks from Biography to Animal Planet.
Paul Brewer, professor of communication at the University of Delaware, was intrigued by the omnipresence of paranormal entertainment. Brewer wondered what makes viewers believe or not believe what they see on the screen.
Brewer studied the influence of media messages about paranormal investigators on how people perceive the credibility of the investigators.
Brewer asked participants in his experiment to read one of four versions of the same newspaper article. After reading it, the participants filled out a survey.
“It wasn’t just any story about paranormal investigators that made people believe in ghosts and haunted houses,” Brewer said, “it was a story about how they were scientific.”
In one version of the article, a paranormal investigator’s “scientific” approach to his work, including his instruments, were described. Brewer describes these instruments as “trappings of science.”
One instrument specifically mentioned is an electromagnetic field detector (EMF), used to locate sources of electricity. Participants who read this article were more likely to call the investigators scientific and credible. They also reported a belief in the paranormal. These findings could trouble paranormal skeptics, Brewer said.
“They might look at this and say, well, all it takes is to sprinkle some acronyms in there and wave around cool looking things that beep and suddenly people believe in ghosts and haunted houses.”
Another version of the article was identical in almost every way, until the end. An added paragraph quoted a professor debunking the investigators’ expertise. The group that read this article was swayed by the opposing viewpoint and rated the investigators’ credibility far below the “scientific” group.
“What the media can do, the media can take away,” Brewer said.
The findings of this study were published in Science Communication (scx.sagepub.com)