Lately, I've been thinking that nostalgia may be a major driver of why people are into the paranormal. The act of hunting ghosts and interacting with the unknown is an opportunity to connect with a reality that exists beyond a computer or smartphone screen.
In the past, crises like war and disease have encouraged people to seek out the paranormal and try to find ways to speak with the dead. Just as the United States Civil War, World War I, and the Spanish flu kicked off an interest in spiritualism, I think that COVID may have had an impact on people's interest with connecting with the dead. But I'm inclined to say that isn't all that's at work here.
When "real life" occurs on the computer
I probably don't need to explain that IRL is a popular abbreviation for "in real life," referring to things that happen outside of the digital world, away from the computer. However, these days, even though we're still saying it, the term is beginning to feel a little bit outdated.
The term "meatspace"—a term coined in the 1990s, the opposite of "cyberspace"—is more accurate than IRL these days. After all, if what we do online isn't part of real life, then what is?
As a millennial in my mid-thirties, I'm part of the last generation that remembers the world before the proliferation of the internet. At the risk of sounding ancient, I recall a time before everyone had a PC at home—much less a smartphone. That world felt a bit squishier than it does now; the answers to everything weren't at your fingertips and you didn't feel pressure to always be performing for social media and creating "content."
"Reality"—what happened IRL—was the primary reality that people experienced.
The internet was fun, and I was definitely enamored of the online world even in the 1990s. I remember my love of Neopets and, later, in middle school, talking to my friends on AIM or Xanga. Those interactions felt real, mostly, though there was a hint of confessional surreality in online written communication back then. I always felt a bit more able to be honest or direct when typing something out, because I could imagine that there wasn't someone on the other end. (Interestingly, that has since reversed—I now tend to be more reserved and careful in written communication, where I know a computer will remember what I said forever, versus in person or on the phone, where I know I'm dealing with the memory and humanity of a fellow person.)
Despite online interactions with friends and classmates, even when I was in high school, "real" socializing happened in person. I would talk to friends on instant messenger, but with only a few exceptions, most of the people I considered my friends were people I also hung out with at school and on weekends, not just online. Meatspace felt like the real version of the world.
That feeling has faded somewhat for me. Ever since graduating from college—and in particular since moving out of a shared apartment with friends from college and into a space that's just with my wife and me—more and more of my socializing happens online. I constantly talk to people through text messages, DMs, or social media.
As life got busy and geographic distance separated me from friends, asynchronous digital methods became the way that I kept in touch with people. That written communication was supplemented with in-person hangouts, not the other way around.
COVID made all of that kick into overdrive, of course, since we were literally forbidden from hanging out with people in meatspace, and had to confine our socializing to the digital sphere. We were safe and socially distanced, but also adrift in an increasingly digital world.
None of what I'm saying is groundbreaking, of course. If you're my age or older, and I asked you for a description of how your social life has changed over the last 20 years, you might say something similar. I'm not sharing any real insight here; I'm just narrating what has happened.
But when I lay it all out on the page, I find it increasingly unsettling.
Don't get me wrong. I love that I'm able to talk to my friends asynchronously via text and DM. In years past, that sort of communication was typically relegated to email or written notes and letters, but now you can be texting someone throughout the day, slowly building a conversation over a matter of hours. I love that I'm able to see what's going on in people's lives and comment directly on that using social media, which allows me to be closer to some people than I might have been otherwise. We've been given a whole new world of ways to connect to each other and to reality, and if these platforms weren't ruled by the profit motive and corporate monopolies, then I would consider them miraculous, perhaps. (Though I suppose that's a whole different topic for another day.)
Unfortunately, as it is, these platforms are designed to make us feel addicted and lonely. Research has shown that angry users are more engaged users. People also buy more when they are upset, something that is highly beneficial to the advertisers who are the real customers of social media websites.
So where does this leave us? We're isolated, atomized, and lonely. For many people, human interaction comes mostly through digital means, with meatspace interactions as a nice little addendum to that.
The more our lives end up online, the less real they might feel. A life lived behind a screen begins to feel speculative, something that can be deleted with a keystroke. The everyday world becomes disorienting and alienating.
But what does this have to do with the paranormal?
When ghosts are more solid than reality
I mentioned the wars and diseases that have prompted prior societal fascinations with spiritualism and the paranormal. While I think that the death and destruction that has come with COVID is certainly in line with that, I think that's something else is going on when the average person decides to dip their toe into the paranormal these days.
In this digital world, we are looking for something real and human. There's a certain amount of irony to looking at ghost hunting as a way to engage with real, human activities, but I think there's something there.
Think about it. A stereotypical ghost hunt involves a group of friends getting together and going to a physical location. People hang out and talk and engage in something tied to a specific location, and likely to its history. Even when it's aided by gadgets, any effort to connect with the psychical isn't usually happening through a computer. It's happening in meatspace.
Also, when thinking about legend tripping and the spread of urban legends, there is a strong element of in-person word of mouth. Think about people sitting around a campfire swapping stories—or teenagers at a sleepover eating microwaved s'mores and telling each other the scariest urban legends they can think of.
Of course, plenty of urban legends have become codified online, something that I explore in depth in my Goatman's Bridge podcast series. But even when they're spread digitally, a local urban legend still has a sense of place embedded in it. Maybe it's centered around a creepy road or bridge, or a particularly dark tunnel, or strange neck of the woods, but there is usually a specific place to fear.
So many stories of hauntings are tied to the history of a particular location. This is the hospital where people suffered from a particular disease. This is where an old jail was. These are some deep, dark woods that you could imagine a child going missing in. This is a lonely road with very few street lights, and if you drive through alone in the middle of the night, you can practically feel the ghosts pressing in on you.
With urban legends, the darkness of the woods isn't just any gloom. Something watches you from those specific shadows. There's something there, something tied to the history of a place and to the people who lived there. In that way, looking for a ghost or hunting down an urban legend is intrinsically tied to a sort of reality, or at least a sort of physicality. You're not interacting with the paranormal through a computer or a smartphone. You're out in the world, interacting with other people, probably.
You're looking for something that will appear in front of you or reach out and touch you. You're hoping for a breath on your neck or scratch on your back, so you can turn to your friends and say, look, something strange happened, something touched me.
That can't happen online. Online actions have real-world consequences and can metaphorically touch you in meatspace, but when you're online, the world is flattened behind a screen. Whether someone considers themself a serious paranormal investigator or they're just a teenager doing some legend tripping, they're hoping that you'll see something in the real world, in meatspace.
People often want to share their findings online, of course. But really what they're looking for is that experience of being in the moment and opening themselves up to the experience of a particular place and a particular time—and that's not quite something that can happen online.
Anyway, this is a topic that I've been thinking about for a while. I'm curious about the ways in which nostalgia, loneliness, and technology make people want to investigate the paranormal and perhaps even take comfort in the paranormal. So watch this space for more about that.